CHICAGO, IL — After seven months of conceiving and planning “the perfect crime,” University of Chicago students Nathan Leopold, 18, and Richard Loeb, 17, lured 14-year-old Bobby Franks, Loeb’s second cousin, into a rented car on May 21, 1924.
While Leopold drove, Loeb reached up from the backseat and smashed Franks in the skull repeatedly with a chisel. The boy died gurgling shortly thereafter.
The murder arose from Leopold and Loeb’s obsession with philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche’s concept of the “superman” — an individual of supreme intellect and extraordinary abilities beyond the unwashed masses surrounding him.Nathan Leopold, a brilliant scholar and gifted athlete, believed himself to be just such a superman. In short order, he convinced Loeb that he, too, shared the same elevated status.
Leopold even wrote at the time:
“A superman is, on account of certain superior qualities inherent in him, exempted from the ordinary laws which govern men. He is not liable for anything he may do.”
Numerous observers have mused on what role the boys’ shared “otherness” played in their drawing this conclusion, as well. Both Leopold and Loeb came from prominent, wealthy families, both were Jewish, and — most dangerously, given the time and place in which they lived — they were homosexual lovers.
Emboldened by their “superman” identities, the pair embarked on a petty-crime spree that soon escalated up to the coldly calculated slaying of Bobby Franks.
An intense police investigation matched a pair of eyeglasses found near Bobby’s remains to Leopold. Under interrogation, Loeb cracked first, saying Leopold did it. In turn, Leopold said Loeb did it. The death penalty was very much on the table when the two youths went before a jury.
In what was deemed “The Trial of the Century,” larger-than-life defense attorney and capital punishment opponent Clarence Darrow represented the accused. He claimed the boys were insane, and used their homosexuality as evidence.Darrow’s closing argument consisted of a 12-hour speech, thought by many to be the greatest of his legendary career, in which he argued against the state killing criminals. It worked. Leopold and Loeb each got a life sentence for the murder, plus 99 years for the kidnapping.
In 1936, Loeb got slashed to death by his cellmate, James E. Day.
Leopold lived far longer. He reinvented himself as a model prisoner, teaching high school and college courses to his fellow inmates and volunteering for experimental malaria treatments. After 33 years, Leopold was paroled in 1958. He moved to Puerto Rico, married a woman, and worked as a medical technician. He died at age 66 in 1971.
The case has fascinated the public from the moment it broke. Leopold and Loeb remain fixtures in gay culture, as well as objects of endless examination and debate. Here are five examples of the killer duo in popular culture.
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Cast: John Dall, Farley Granger, James Stewart
Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope is adapted from a popular 1929 British play of the same name that substitutes the names Brandon and Granillo for Leopold and Loeb, and switches the setting to London.
Hitchcock moved the action again to 1940s Manhattan and called the killers Shaw and Morgan. The Master of Suspense also performed an artistic experiment with Rope: it appears to happen in real time and through one continuous, uninterrupted take. [New York Times]
Director: Richard Fleischer
Cast: Dean Stockwell, Bradford Dillman, Orson Welles
Compulsion is a dynamic big-screen adaptation of an eponymous best-seller by Meyer Levin based closely on the Leopold and Loeb Case. Levin was a classmate of the killers at the University of Chicago. Leopold sued him for defamation and lost.
It is a perfectly cast film, directed with crackling energy by Richard Fleischer (10 Rillington Place). Dean Stockwell stands in for Leopold as “Steiner”; Bradford Dillman plays Loeb as “Strauss.” In the Clarence Darrow part as “Jonathan Wilk,” Orson Welles delivers one of his career-best bravura performance, particularly during his hugely moving closing argument. [TCM]
Director: Tom Kalin
Cast: Craig Chester, Daniel Schlachet, Ron Vawter
As part of the early ’90s “new queer cinema” movement that launched filmmakers such as Gus Van Sant and Gregg Araki, Tom Kalin’s Swoon is a confrontational, blackly comic take on the Leopold and Loeb case from a defiantly gay perspective.
Like the killers themselves, Swoon offers no sympathy to Bobby Franks or his loved ones, and instead focuses on the unjust oppression of homosexuality that it contends in no small part motivated the murder. [Roger Ebert]
THRILL ME: THE LEOPOLD AND LOEB STORY (2003)
Creator: Stephen Dolginoff
Featuring a book, music, and lyrics by out-and-proud New York theater mainstay Stephen Dolginoff, Thrill Me recounts the Leopold and Loeb saga as, of all things, a song-and-dance extravaganza.
The show debuted as a small production in 2003 and moved to Off Broadway in 2005. It has since been performed all over the world in more than 100 productions in 16 countries and 10 different languages. [Dramatists]
BEHIND MANSION WALLS: “THE PERFECT CRIME” on Investigation Discovery (2011)
Behind Mansion Walls is an acclaimed Investigation Discovery documentary series that delves deep into true crimes committed by the very rich. New York Times journalist Christopher Mason acts as host.
The show’s second episode, “The Perfect Crime,” examines Leopold and Loeb’s killing of Bobby Franks, along with its ongoing cultural aftermath, through the use of vintage photos, expert interviews, and dramatic recreations. The resulting take on this continually provocative tragedy proves to be shocking, educational, and moving. [Investigation Discovery]
Main photo: Nathan Leopold (left) and Richard Loeb [WikiMedia Commons]