Leopold and Loeb

Leopold and Loeb (lōb) [key], notorious American murderers defended by Clarence Darrow in 1924. The gregarious, dominating Richard A. Loeb (1905–1936) and the shy, submissive Nathan F. Leopold, Jr. (1904–1971) were wealthy young Chicagoans and boyhood friends who had formed a sexual relationship and begun to commit petty crimes together. Loeb, convinced of their brilliance and obsessed with committing the perfect crime, was the main architect of the kidnapping and murder. On May 21, 1924, they abducted a 14-year-old neighbor, Bobby Franks, while on his way home from school, murdered him, and hid his body in a railroad drainage culvert in rural Indiana. Returning to Chicago, the two sent Franks' mother a note demanding a $10,000 ransom, but Franks' body was soon discovered, and prescription eyeglasses found nearby were traced to Leopold. Arrested, both confessed.

Leopold and Loeb pled guilty on Darrow's advice, and the trial, held before Judge John R. Caverly, focused solely on their punishment. Much of the defense hinged on the testimony of psychiatrists, who spoke of the defendants' immaturity, obsessions, and other problems. In a lengthy, emotional, and eloquent summation, Darrow argued for their lives, citing their upbringing, youth, and other factors but most of all condemning the death penalty itself. Caverly sentenced Leopold and Loeb to imprisonment—life for murder, 99 years for kidnapping. Loeb was murdered by a fellow prison inmate, but Leopold was paroled in 1958, moved to Puerto Rico, married, taught, and wrote a book on ornithology.

The sensational murder and subsequent trial transfixed the public's imagination and were widely called "the crime and the trial of the century." The events came to wide attention again in the second half of the 20th cent. with the publication of a fictionalized version, Meyer Levin's best-selling novel Compulsion (1956), and the popular film that followed in 1959.

See Leopold's Life plus 99 Years (1958); M. McKernan, The Amazing Crime and Trial of Leopold and Loeb (1924); H. Higdon, The Crime of the Century (1975); S. Baatz, For the Thrill of It (2008).

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

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