Obit of the Day (Historical): Nathan Leopold (1971)
On May 21, 1924 14-year-old Bobby Franks was lured into a car by his cousin Nathan Leopold and Nathan’s friend Richard Loeb. Leopold and Loeb would then beat young Bobby in the back of the car before killing him by stuffing a rag down his throat and asphyxiating him. They threw the teenager’s body into a culvert not far from their homes in the Kenwood neighborhood of Chicago.
Bobby Franks was the son of one of Chicago’s wealthiest residents and his disappearance sprung the police into action. It took ten days to track down 19-year-old Nathan and 18-year-old Richard who then confessed to murdering Bobby.
It shocked the city - and later the nation. Both Leopold and Loeb were brilliant students at the University of Chicago from well-to-do families. The pair violated all notions of who murderers were. Even more appalling was the boys’ confessed motive: for the thrill of it.
The trial of Leopold and Loeb was dubbed “The Trial of the Century.” Reporters filled the courtroom as people across the country tried to understand why two men with all the advantages society could offer would commit such a depraved act.
Clarence Darrow, famed for his defense of John T. Scopes in the evolution trial of 1921, was hired by the families of the killers. He chose a unique defense strategy. He recognized that Leopold and Loeb had, in fact, committed the crime. The confessions and evidence left no doubt. Mr. Darrow, a vehement opponent of the death penalty*, had his clients plead guilty and asked only for a sentencing hearing arguing that the pair should not be executed.
On August 24, 1924 Darrow gave his closing statement. It lasted 12 hours and reminded the judge of the age of the criminals (in 1924 anyone under 21 was still considered a minor), as well as other environmental and societal circumstances that should prevent them from being executed.
Judge John Caverly found for the defense and the young men were sentenced to life in prison.
Richard Loeb’s sentence was cut short when he was murdered by another inmate in 1936. The inmate claimed that Loeb, rumored to be gay, tried to sexually assault him. The evidence showed that Loeb was stabbed over 50 times and had his throat cut from behind…leaving his killer’s motive in doubt. Richard Loeb was 30 years old.
Nathan Leopold, who many consider the mastermind of the pair, used the sudden death of his partner as an opportunity to save his reputation. He wrote an autobiography Life Plus 99 Years which pinned much of the planning and motivation for killing Franks on Richard Loeb.
In 1957, Nathan Leopold was paroled and he moved to Puerto Rico where he married and lived out the rest of his life. Nathan Leopold died on August 29, 1971 at the age of 66.
Sources: University of Missouri-Kansas City’s incredible “Famous American Trials” website, Smithsonian Magazine, and Wikipedia
(Image of Nathan Leopold, left, and Richard Loeb, right, during their trial, August 1924 is courtesy of Smithsonian Magazine and copyright Underwood & Underwood/Corbis)
* Darrow became anti-death penalty in 1894 after Patrick Prendergast was sentenced to death for the murder of Chicago mayor Carter H. Harrison in October 1893. Darrow recognized that Prendergast suffered from a mental deficiency of some sort, likely schizophrenia, and defended him on the grounds of legal insanity. He lost the case and Prendergast was executed. Of the 50-plus death penalty cases Darrow took on in his career, this was the only one he lost.