The Leopold and Loeb case: pulling off the perfect crime

Posted by

May 22, 1924. In Chicago the news begins to spread: Robert Franks, the thirteen-year-old son of billionaire Jacob Franks, is missing. That same day the father receives a strange and disturbing letter:

“This is Mr. Johnson. Of course you know by this time that your boy has been kidnapped. We have him and you need not worry; he is safe. But don’t try to trace this call or to find me. We must have money. We will let you know tomorrow what we want. We are kidnappers and we mean business. If you refuse us what we want, or try to report us to the police, we will kill the boy. Goodbye.”

In the letter there are some indications: do not notify the authorities, prepare 10,000 dollars, put them in a tightly closed container and stay home after one in the afternoon. The letter is signed under a pseudonym, George Johnson.

Before Jacob can save the ransom amount, terrible news arrives. Robert’s body was found in Pennysilvania, near the railway and the Calumet River. The young man was hit several times in the head with a blunt object and acid was thrown on his face. A terrifying and cruel crime that leaves the entire population upset and throws the family into despair.

Investigators initiate investigations, initially focusing on the school environment. They inspect the position of the various teachers but nothing significant emerges. Through the analysis of the crime scene, a crucial clue is obtained: on the spot there are in fact a pair of eyeglasses that did not belong to the victim. The object had a particular frame and a subsequent search leads to discover that only three copies have been sold in all of Chicago. Eventually the field will be further narrowed and will bring with a good dose of certainty to the owner of those glasses: Nathan Leopold Jr, a 19-year-old student son of a wealthy family in the area.

Initially, the boy denies any involvement in the affair, the interrogations continue and Richard Loeb, 18, a friend of Nathan’s, also from a middle-class family, is also involved in the investigation. Two very smart guys. They used to spend a lot of time together and had a particular relationship. Leopold felt a physical attraction towards Loeb and the latter used this factor to convince his friend to follow him in every initiative. Inspectors are beginning to suspect that they have planned something shady together.

After a series of long and stringent interviews Nathan and Richard decide to free themselves and confess to the murder of Robert Franks.

The perfect crime

The confession leads to the discovery of the crazy plan that the duo had organized:

“We had planned since last fall—some time in November, I think—to kidnap some rich boy, kill him and get money from his father for ransom. We planned all the details weeks ahead and thought we had everything airtight against discovery. We had several boys in mind. We didn’t know which one we would kidnap when we started out. The Franks boy just happened along and we got him.”

“We planned to pour hydrochloric acid on his face so his features would be unrecognizable. We bought a chisel at a store on the Grove near 43d street and wrapped it in tape. We planned to hit him over the head and stuff a gag in his mouth. If we couldn’t kill him that way we were going to use ether.”

“It was easier than we thought. He was weak. When he started to resist we hit him on the head and stuffed the gag into his mouth. We didn’t need to use the ether. He must have been dead within five minutes after we started—while we were still going on 50th street.”

“We drove around with him in the car for nearly four hours until it got heavy dusk. Then we began undressing him in the car; took off everything but the underwear and stockings before we got to the culvert. We took those off there. We missed one of his stockings in the dark, but we didn’t discover that until we were burning the clothes in Dick’s basement. We weren’t worried much about that, anyway. The blanket that we had wrapped around him was burned on the lake shore at 73d street. It was full of blood and we didn’t want to bring that back with us.”

“It was the kind of a thing there would be a thrill in and we wanted some easy money. We made a few mistakes. I should have picked up my glasses. I didn’t know I dropped them. We thought we had the whole thing airtight, but it wasn’t. That’s all.”

Leopold and Loeb had put in place a diabolical plan, sacrificing a young life in the hope of being able to raise money, believing that they would not be discovered.

The sentence

In September 1924 the verdict was issued against those responsible for the murder: life imprisonment for both. They were locked up in the Joilet Prison. Which already caused a great stir, because the two managed to avoid the death penalty despite having confessed to the murder, thanks to the skill of their lawyer who accumulated one mitigating factor after another, to the point of convincing the jury that the two did not deserved death.

On January 28, 1936, Richard Loeb was attacked by his cellmate, James Day, who hit him several times with a razor until he was killed. Day reported defending himself from an attempted sexual assault by Loeb. Subsequent investigations confirmed James’s version and acquitted him in self-defense.

In 1958 Nathan Leopold was paroled. He went to live in Puerto Rico, where he earned a master’s degree from the university and ended up working as a social services investigator for the Department of Health. In 1961 he married.

On 29 August 1971, at the age of 66, he died of a heart attack.

The case of Leopold and Loeb shocked public opinion for its brutality and inspired many works, starting with the tetaral show Rope of 1929, from which Alfred Hitchcock drew inspiration for the 1948 film with the same title. In 1956 the novel Compulsion by Meyer Levin was released and three years later the story was adapted for the big screen by Richard Fleischer. In 2002 Murder by Numbers was released, directed by Barbet Schroeder, inspired by the story and starring Sandra Bullock, Michael Pitt and Ryan Gosling.