By Peter J. Spalding
When Clarence Darrow introduced himself to Nathan Leopold, Jr., and Richard Loeb, they weren't the least bit impressed.
Both boys were on trial for their lives, and all the Chicago papers had called for them to be hanged. Leopold and Loeb needed the best lawyer they could find, but the one who stood before them was a frumpy old man.
"My first impression was horror," Leopold later wrote. "For on the other side of the bars stood one of the least prepossessing, one of the least impressive-looking human beings I have ever seen. The day was warm, and Mr. Darrow was wearing a light seer-sucker jacket. Nothing wrong with that, surely. Only this one looked as if he had slept in it. His shirt was wrinkled, too, and he must have had eggs for breakfast that morning. I could see vestiges. Or perhaps he hadn't changed shirts since the day before. His tie was askew.... He looked for all the world like an innocent hayseed, a bumpkin who might have difficulty finding his way around the city. Could this be the renowned Darrow (for I had heard much of his reputation in the last twenty-four hours)?"
Actually, Darrow had been building his reputation for decades. His résumé was practically a history of late-19th-century Chicago, and he had a knack for taking on unpopular causes. Among other things, he had helped secure pardons for three accused Haymarket bombers. He had represented assassin Eugene Prendergast after the shooting of Mayor Carter Harrison. He had also defended labor leader Eugene Debs against charges stemming from the Pullman Strike.
Darrow had also gotten his share of hard knocks. The low point had come in Los Angeles in 1911. Darrow had represented two labor organizers accused of bombing the anti-union Los Angeles Times, which had left 21 people dead. Union leaders were convinced the suspects had been framed, and they saw Darrow as their savior. But before the case got to trial, Darrow realized that his clients had in fact done it. He knew he had no chance of winning, so he convinced the defendants to plead guilty, which the labor movement saw as a betrayal. On top of that, one of Darrow's assistants was caught trying to bribe a juror, which nearly got Darrow disbarred. By the time it was over, organized labor had lost all credibility in L.A., and Darrow had agreed to stop practicing law in California.
Leopold and Loeb would be his biggest case to date. He'd need to defend an indefensible killing; he'd need to confront overwhelming evidence; and he'd need to win over a furious public. And he'd need to do it all in the glare of the national spotlight.
"I felt that I would get a fair fee if I went into the case, but money never influenced my stand one way or another," Darrow wrote in his autobiography. "I knew of no good reason for refusing, but I was sixty-seven years old, and very weary.... I went in, to do what I could for sanity and humanity against the wave of hatred and malice that, as ever, was masquerading under its usual nom de plume: 'Justice.'"
Darrow quickly ruled out one angle of attack. An insanity defense was the most obvious way to go, but Darrow knew it wouldn't work. His clients were so smart and articulate that they wouldn't come across as lunatics in the usual sense.
"I'm not insane, and I'm not going to be made to appear insane," Leopold told the Chicago Herald and Examiner. "I'm sane-- as sane as you are."
Darrow decided to try an untested idea. No matter what his clients said, the fact remained that their actions made no sense. They had killed a teenaged kid in cold blood, and as their attorney, Darrow had to offer some kind of explanation. So he hired a panel of psychologists.
The prosecution had already hired the best analysts in Chicago, but they hadn't shed any light on what had happened. These doctors had followed the conventional wisdom of the time, which was based on 19th-century thinking. They assumed that a patient's mental health was driven by his physical health, and physically speaking, the boys' medical history was routine. Leopold had a calcified pineal gland, but that was thought to be a vestigial organ, and his condition was common in adults anyway. Loeb's voice had changed later than most, and he'd been in a car accident at the age of 15. None of that could explain-- much less justify-- what they'd done.
Darrow took a completely different tack. He had no use for traditional psychologists; he went for the avant-garde instead. He cast a nationwide net, bringing in the most distinguished physicians from New York, Washington, and Boston. Darrow hired endocrinologists-- who had just started to theorize that chemical imbalances could affect behavior-- and he sought out believers in the ideas of Sigmund Freud. All of these theories were very new, and many Americans actively dismissed them. But Darrow knew they would be key to his case.
The boys seemed to treat it all as a joke. Loeb hardly cooperated, and Leopold openly challenged his doctors. "I suppose the function of all this is to prolong my life as something worthwhile," Leopold said in one session. "I can’t quite correlate that with my philosophy, but... my folks have decided on all this. Of course I am desperately trying to co-operate with them. As for me, I think this medical ‘Psychiatric’ stuff is all horseshit. Now, I don’t know what it’s all about, you’ve not let me in on it, but if you insist on a lumbar puncture you must have good reasons, which you think out-weigh the discomfort for me."
But as the doctors dug deeper, they found that the boys were a psychologist's catnip. Every piece of the story seemed to play into Freud's theories.
Leopold, for example, had developed a serious hangup over his mother's death. Her doctors had told her to stop having kids after her third son, but she'd gotten pregnant with Leopold-- her fourth-- and her body had never recovered. She was an invalid from there on out, until she died of nephritis when Leopold was 15. Leopold blamed himself, saying "my presence is the reason for her absence." He hadn't had a healthy relationship with a woman since.
Loeb's mother, like most society ladies, had had nannies take care of her kids. Because of that, Loeb's real mother figure was his governess Emily Struthers. She was the one who'd pushed him so hard in school, to the point where he'd gotten into college at age 13. That had come at the expense of a normal childhood, since he'd rarely made real friends or played with other kids. "I always obeyed her to the minute-- second," Loeb said. "Her word was law. To myself I would think certain things were not as they should be. I would brood some. To get by her I formed the habit of lying.... When she left I sort of broke loose."
Both boys also had active fantasy lives, and they incorporated each other into their dreams. Loeb imagined himself to be a famous "master criminal." Leopold's fantasies revolved around a "king and a slave." Sometimes he saw himself in the role of the king, but usually Loeb was the king with Leopold as the slave.
The boys' obsessions-- especially with each other-- seemed to know no bounds. Even years later, Leopold seemed downright smitten with Loeb. "Everybody went for the guy," he wrote in his autobiography, "and rightly so. There wasn't a sunnier, pleasanter, more likable fellow in the world. Why, I thought more of Dick than of all the rest of my friends put together. His charm was magnetic-- maybe mesmeric is the better word. He could charm anybody he had a mind to.... But then there was that other side to him. In the crime, for instance, he didn't have a single scruple of any kind. He wasn't immoral; he was just plain amoral-- unmoral, that is. Right and wrong didn't exist. He'd do anything-- anything. And it was all a game to him."
That was what ultimately caused the boys' downfall. As Leopold and Loeb drew closer, their "games" turned into crimes. They set fires and went on joyrides with stolen cars. They outwitted the police every time, so they assumed they were invincible.
It all came to a head on November 11, 1923, when they burglarized a Zeta Beta Tau fraternity house. Loeb had pledged ZBT as an undergrad, but they had only reluctantly let him in because of rumors that he and Leopold were homosexual. The burglary seemed to be Loeb's revenge. But on the drive home, the boys got into a bitter argument; Leopold thought the crime was sloppy and juvenile, while Loeb felt betrayed at his friend's lack of support. Their relationship threatened to fall apart until they worked out a "compact."
Under their agreement, they would keep their relationship going while they planned the perfect crime. And that, in turn, would become the plot to kill Bobby Franks.
Those revelations turned the case upside down. They didn't justify the murder, by any means, but they did reveal the boys' state of mind. And as the details became public, Leopold and Loeb started to garner sympathy. Fewer and fewer papers called for them to be hanged. A few flappers even showed up at the courthouse, wanting to meet the boys.
Darrow didn't intend to get Leopold and Loeb off the hook altogether. But he did want to save them from the gallows, so he convinced them to plead guilty and waive their right to a jury trial. The papers kept on calling the case "the trial of the century," but technically it was now just a sentencing hearing. The only question was whether the boys would end up with life in prison, or death.
In court, Darrow reigned supreme. He hardly bothered to dispute the prosecution's witnesses, because the basic case facts weren't in dispute. But he did parade his doctors through the witness stand, and he spent plenty of time laying out his own views on the subject.
Darrow had always opposed the death penalty, and now he was able to broadcast his views on a national stage. He took three days to deliver his closing statement, and his words were so eloquent that death-penalty opponents still use them to this day:
Here were two boys with good intellect, one eighteen and one nineteen. They had all the prospects that life could hold out for any of the young... [they were] boys who never knew what it was to want a dollar; boys who could reach any position that was given to boys of that kind to reach; boys of distinguished and honorable families, families of wealth and position, with all the world before them. And they gave it all up for nothing, for nothing! They took a little companion of one of them, on a crowded street, and killed him, for nothing, and sacrificed everything that could be of value in human life upon the crazy scheme of a couple of immature lads....
But when you are pitying the father and the mother of poor Bobby Franks, what about the fathers and mothers of these two unfortunate boys, and what about the unfortunate boys themselves, and what about all the fathers and all the mothers and all the boys and all the girls who tread a dangerous maze in darkness from birth to death? Do you think you can cure the hatreds and the maladjustments of the world by hanging them? You simply show your ignorance and your hate when you say it. You may here and there cure hatred with love and understanding, but you can only add fuel to the flames by cruelty and hate....
I know that every step in the progress of humanity has been met and opposed by prosecutors, and many times by courts. I know that when poaching and petty larceny was punishable by death in England, juries refused to convict. They were too humane to obey the law; and judges refused to sentence.... If these two boys die on the scaffold, which I can never bring myself to imagine, if they do die on the scaffold, the details of this will be spread over the world. Every newspaper in the United States will carry a full account. Every newspaper of Chicago will be filled with the gruesome details. It will enter every home and every family. Will it make men better or make men worse?...
I know the future is with me and what I stand for here; not merely for the lives of these two unfortunate lads, but for all boys and girls; all of the young, and as far as possible, for all of the old. I am pleading that we overcome cruelty with kindness and hatred with love. I know the future is on my side. Your Honor stands between the past and the future. You may hang these boys; you may hang them by the neck until they are dead. But in doing it you will turn your face toward the past.
In the end, Judge John Caverly wasn't swayed by the psychologists' findings, Darrow's closing statements, or any of the other evidence presented. Darrow had certainly won in the court of public opinion. But the only thing Judge Caverly considered was that there was no precedent for the State of Illinois hanging a youth. He said he had no choice but to sentence the boys to life plus ninety-nine years in prison.
For Loeb, it was indeed a life sentence. He would spend the next eleven years in jail, until he was stabbed by a fellow inmate. Leopold was incarcerated in the same prison, and he rushed to the infirmary as soon as he heard the news. Loeb died on January 26, 1936, with Leopold at his side.
There was no denying the irony in Loeb's death. His killer claimed to be fending off his sexual advances, but his story didn't hold up under scrutiny, and his true motive was never clear. That meant that Richard Loeb, who had committed the ultimate senseless crime, had now been killed in a senseless crime himself. And as before, his story made all the front pages; in Chicago it even upstaged the death of Britain's King George V, which had happened the same week.
Leopold did survive his incarceration. In 1949 Governor Adlai Stevenson commuted his sentence, and in 1958 Leopold was granted parole. By that point he was expressing remorse for his crime, although many people doubted his sincerity. He moved to Puerto Rico to escape the publicity, got married, and tried to build some semblance of a normal life. He kept mostly to himself until died on August 29, 1971.
Today, nearly 90 years after the murder, the case has mostly faded from popular culture. It has been chronicled in a few books-- most notably Hal Higdon's Crime of the Century-- but it has never appeared in the movies, aside from some heavily fictionalized films such as Alfred Hitchcock's Rope. The more famous cases today include the Charles Manson murders and the O.J. Simpson trial, which were as sensational in their era as the Leopold and Loeb case was in its own.
The scene of the crime is most notable now for its Secret Service presence, since President Obama's Chicago home lies just around the corner. Bobby Franks's home is in danger of demolition, but for now it still stands at the corner of Ellis Avenue and Hyde Park Boulevard. The homes of the Leopold and Loeb families are both gone, but certain pieces-- such as the Loebs' tennis courts-- are still there. Wolf Lake, where the killers hid Bobby's body, has been preserved as part of William Powers State Recreational Area.
More importantly, the impact of the case has never faded away. Today almost every serious crime involves psychological evaluations. Freudian psychology has become the conventional wisdom-- in no small part because of Leopold and Loeb-- and chemical imbalances are common knowledge.
A few things will never change. The killing of Bobby Franks is still as inexplicable as ever, and it probably always will be. And the drama, the weirdness, and the horror of the case will never fade away.
Peter J. Spalding likes to write. He has recently completed a screenplay based on the facts of the Leopold & Loeb case and is also the author of 1871: A Novel of the Great Fire, two stage plays and five additional screenplays. In addition, Spalding maintains a popular blog, "Finding the Write Words." A former Chicagoan, Spalding now resides in California.
The Leopold and Loeb Trial (Clarence Darrow Collection)
Illinois v. Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb (Famous American Trials)