Nathan Leopold was born in 1904 in Chicago, Illinois, to a wealthy Jewish family. He was a child prodigy who had already completed an undergraduate degree at the University of Chicago, was a member of Phi Beta Kappa and planned on going to Harvard Law School. Richard Loeb was born in 1905 to Anna and Albert Loeb. His father was a wealthy lawyer and retired vice president of Sears, Roebuck & Company. Albert Loeb was Jewish and Anna Loeb was Catholic. Loeb skipped several grades in school and became the University of Michigan's youngest graduate at age 17. However he was lazy and spent most of his time reading detective novels. The two young men lived in the affluent Kenwood neighborhood on Chicago's South Side, only two blocks apart. They got to know one another well at the University of Chicago where they discovered a mutual interest in crime. Leopold, 19 by then, was fascinated by Friedrich Nietzsche's concept of Supermen and interested Loeb, 18, in the idea. Leopold wrote to Loeb, "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.” Thus, because they believed they were superior to everyone else and immune from the consequences of their acts, they began committing crimes. They started with petty crime by stealing property from a frat house and then escalated to arson. However, no one noticed them. They decided that they would kidnap and murder a boy as their perfect crime. This was Bobby Franks, 14, who went to the same prep school Loeb had attended, was Loeb’s second cousin, lived across the street from Loeb and played tennis at the Loeb mansion.
It took them seven months to plan everything from the method of abduction to disposal of the body. They included a ransom demand with complex delivery instructions. They hoped to confuse everyone. They used a typewriter they had stolen at the frat house for the note and got a chisel to use as the murder weapon. On May 21, 1924 they were ready with a car that Leopold rented under a fake name. They got Franks to climb into the car by pulling up to him as he walked home from school and Loeb’s wanting to discuss a tennis racket. They killed him at once with the chisel. They drove to a body dump spot 25 miles south. They removed and discarded the body’s clothes, then concealed it in a culvert along the railroad tracks. They used hydrochloric acid on the body to prevent identification. By the time they got back to Chicago, everyone knew that Franks was missing. Leopold called Franks's mother as "George Johnson", and told her that Franks had been kidnapped and his ransom instructions would follow. They mailed their ransom note, burned their clothes, and cleaned the rented car. Then they played cards as if it were any other night. Leopold called the next morning with his first set of ransom payment instructions. But the plan fell apart almost at once. The Franks family member forgot the address of the store where he was supposed to get his next set of instructions and then someone else found the boy's body. Leopold and Loeb busied themselves destroying evidence, both the stolen typewriter and a robe used to move the body. They took up their usual lives sure that they had just committed the perfect crime as supermen. Chicago police launched their investigation and rewards were offered. Loeb kept quiet and did his daily routine. Leopold spoke to everyone and gave theories to anyone who would listen. He even told one detective, "If I were to murder anybody, it would be just such a cocky little son of a bitch as Bobby Franks.”
Police found a pair of eyeglasses near Bobby’s body. They had an unusual hinge purchased by only three customers in Chicago, one being Leopold. When questioned, Leopold said his glasses might have dropped out of his pocket during a bird-watching trip. The destroyed typewriter was next discovered. Both Leopold and Loeb were brought in for formal questioning on May 29. They said they had picked up two women that night, Edna and May, using Leopold's car, then dropped them off sometime later without learning their last names. Leopold's chauffeur, however, told police that he was repairing Leopold's car that night and his wife confirmed the car was parked in the garage. Although for a long time Leopold & Loeb’s sexual preference was not mentioned, in modern times it was revealed that the two were lovers and that Leopold had been helplessly in love with the far icier Loeb. Loeb confessed first, saying that Leopold planned everything and had killed Franks in the back seat of the car while Loeb drove. Leopold's confession followed but he insisted he was the driver, and Loeb the murderer. Their confessions otherwise fit everything in the case. No one ever knew for sure who was the actual killer. They admitted they were trying to be Nietzsche's Supermen and to thus commit the perfect crime.
The trial of Leopold and Loeb, labelled "The Trial of the Century” (until O.J.), took place at Chicago's Courthouse Place. The media covered it non stop. Clarence Darrow was hired to defend the two and there was no more formidable criminal defense lawyer in the country. He was also a staunch opponent of capital punishment. Darrow rejected entering a plea of innocent by reason of insanity, certain a jury trial would end in conviction and the death penalty. Instead, he entered a plea of guilty, hoping to convince Cook County Circuit Court Judge John R. Caverly to impose sentences of life imprisonment. Darrow's spoke for twelve hours during the the sentencing hearing. It was his finest speech, focusing on the inhuman methods and punishments of the American justice system but he also made it personal about the boys’ families. Darrow admitted to the judge that his clients were guilty of murdering Bobby Franks. However, he asked the judge to consider three mitigating factors in determining their punishment: their age, their guilty plea and their mental condition. The judge was persuaded by Darrow’s pleas, saying their young age was the determining factor, and on September 1924 he sentenced both men to life imprisonment for the murder, and an additional 99 years for the kidnapping. Albert Henry Loeb died of a heart attack on October 28, 1924, two months after his son Richard was sentenced to life plus ninety-nine years on September 10, 1924. Leopold and Loeb were at Statesville prison together and both taught classes in the prison school. Loeb was targeted for his good looks and subsequently killed at age 30 by a fellow prisoner with whom he refused to have sexual relations, James Day.
As an historical note, the psychiatrists too had had their day in court. Both the defense and the state had put on psychiatric witnesses plus the press was having a field day with it as well. Phrenology was somewhat in vogue and various phrenologists tried to interpret Leopold’s and Loeb’s propensities from the shapes of their heads to the delight of the public. In the end, the judge ignored all of the psychiatric testimony since the prosecution and defense experts contradicted one another in every particular. Psychiatry was even divided as a field in 1924. The prosecution had used the neurological end of psychiatry which looked for evidence of organic disease. The defense had used the psychoanalytic end with the Freudian interpretations of trauma in one’s childhood. Psychiatry was very primitive at this time and had a long way to go in establishing itself.
The first film made about the case, Compulsion, alluded to their sexual relationship but did not outright expose it. It was made in 1959 when films could only allude to gay sex. The second film, Swoon, made in 1992, went for their gay sexual attraction above all other factors. Meyer Levin, the author of the novel Compulsion, knew both Leopold and Loeb because they lived in the same neighborhood and went to the same schools. He asked Leopold to cooperate with his novel. Leopold wouldn’t because he said the subject made him ill. When the novel was published and the movie made, Leopold sued both Meyer and Zanuck, the movie producer, for invasion of privacy. However, the courts ruled that Leopold had become a public figure and hence his privacy could not be invaded. Leopold won parole in 1958 after being a model prisoner. His only statement to the media was, ”All I want, if I am so lucky as to ever see freedom again, is to try to become a humble little person.” He moved to Puerto Rico, studied social work and wrote a monograph on the birds of the island. He married a widow in 1961. He visited Chicago in the sixties and saw his old friends. His parents and brothers had not survived him so he put flowers on their graves in the cemetery. In 1971, at age 66, he died in Puerto Rico of a heart attack.