Leopold and Loeb - "The Crime of the Century"

People V. Nathan F. Leopold, Jr., and Richard Loeb
Criminal Court #33623 and 33624

On May 21, 1924, the fourteen-year-old son of a wealthy industrialist, named Bobby Franks, was kidnapped, bludgeoned to death, and left dead in a marsh on the far south side of Chicago.  A pair of eyeglasses dropped at the crime scene led police to two University of Chicago students, Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb.  Although their privileged upbringing and brilliant academic records seemed to belie their involvement, they soon confessed they had planned this "perfect" crime for a thrill and as an intellectual exercise.  The two were charged with kidnapping and murder June 6, 1924, States Attorney Robert E. Crowe was certain he had a "hanging case."

The sensational trial might indeed have ended with their executions, but the defendants' families hired the best defense they could find, attorney Clarence Darrow.  Darrow had been a lifelong crusader against the death penalty and accepted the case partly for use as a public forum.   Because the highly educated defendants might offer an insanity plea, professionals from the relative new field of psychiatry were sought to give evidence for both sides.  Many new Freudian concepts appeared in the daily press and entered the popular discourse at this time.  However, under Darrow's guidance the defendants pled guilty to both counts, and the focus of the trial shifted toward the sentencing.  Should the defendants be executed or given life terms in prison?

The trial took place in the full glare of worldwide publicity.  The defendants traveled under heavy guard.  The judge spoke to them sternly of their rights.  During his three-day summation, Darrow spoke eloquently  for life sentences.  Despite the enormous public outcry for the death penalty, on September 10th, Judge Caverly handed down his verdict and ordered life imprisonment for both defendants.

Richard Loeb was himself murdered by fellow prisoners in 1936.  Nathan Leopold appealed for parole in 1955, represented by attorney Elmer Gertz, and left prison in 1958.  In 1956, novelist Meyer Levin recreated this story for the best-selling book Compulsion, which was soon made into a movie by producer Darryl F. Zanuck.  Leopold promptly sued them both (along with nearly fifty other defendants) for over $1 million in damages.  This Circuit Court case #59C14087 is available for viewing in the Archives.  Its voluminous file contains the appellate case transcript (19C1896); there also are photocopies of related trial materials (correspondence and psychiatric evaluations) from the Hulbert Papers at Northwestern University Archives,  www.library.nwu.edu/archives.

The case file for People v. Leopold and Loeb  (Circuit Court #33623 and 33624) may be viewed in the Archives.  The file contains the indictments, subpoenas (grand jury and witness), judge's warnings to the defendants, various capias and appearances, and the prison mittimus.  The Archives also holds a photocopy of the 11-volume file transcript of People v. Leopold and Loeb, #33623 and 33624), generously provided by Northwestern University Library's Special Collections.

Many other manuscript collections provide material about this case, including:  The Nathan F. Leopold Collection at the University of Chicago Regenstein Library Department of Special Collections . The Clarence Darrow Collection at the Newberry Library and the Nathan F. Leopold Correspondence at the Chicago History Museum.

So much has been written and continues to be written about this case.  For example:

Gertz, Elmer.  A Handful of Clients   (Chicago:  Follett, 1965).

Leopold, Nathan F.  Life Plus 99 Years  (New York:  Doubleday,   1958).

Weinberg, Arthur and Lila.  Clarence Darrow:  A Sentimental Rebel  (New York:  G.P. Putnam, 1980).