It didn’t start as the trial of the century (the 20th century, that is) — there were other compelling ones before it. (Stanford White and Evelyn Nesbit, anyone?) And it didn’t hold that title for very long; that was in 1924. The century wasn’t even one quarter over; O.J. was way in the future.
But the question of why — why did these two extremely privileged, very smart (or at least in their own estimation) young men, Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb, kidnap and murder Bobby Franks? They had nothing to gain except the thrill of committing what they thought would be the perfect murder.
What was wrong with them?
Over the 95 or so years since the two men committed murder and soon were caught, tried, convicted, and imprisoned, their story has fascinated people. They’ve been the subject of novels, nonfiction works, movies, plays, and a great deal of scholarship.
On May 16, Dr. Paul Clemens, a longtime history professor at Rutgers, will talk about the case at the Kaplen JCC on the Palisades in Tenafly. (See box.)
Part of the reason that the story was so fascinating was that in in the summer of 1924, “not much else was happening,” Dr. Clemens said, but the appeal went far beyond the vacuum it filled. Part of it was the horror — how did these two guys who seemed to have everything go so wrong? — and part of it was the strength of the argument against capital punishment made by their very famous trial lawyer, Clarence Darrow.
Leopold and Loeb grew up in Kenwood, a very Jewish neighborhood on Chicago’s south side. Both were rich; Leopold was the son of German Jewish immigrants, and Loeb’s father had been a vice president of Sears Roebuck. Both did very well in school and had notched impressive lists of academic accomplishments; both went to the highly prestigious University of Chicago and graduated early.
And both seemed to be morally deficient.
“These two young men were under 21 when this starts,” Dr. Clemens said. “They are college graduates at this point, and they plan a perfect murder that will outwit everyone. They will get a handsome ransom for a kid whom they’ve already killed.
“What makes it so sensational is that they have picked him out at random,” he continued.
The plan hadn’t started that way. Leopold and Loeb had a list of characteristics their victim had to fit. Number one was that he had to be a boy. “Then they contemplated killing one of their siblings and blackmailing one of the family.” But no. Instead, “they decided to do it at random. The victim was just in the wrong place at the wrong time. He was a young man at the school that one of them had gone to. They knew each other.” Fourteen-year-old Bobby Franks was Loeb’s second cousin, and they’d had tennis lessons together. But he hadn’t been the pair’s first choice that day.
“The first person they tried to get into the car turned around and walked away, so they got the second one,” Dr. Clemens said. Because Bobby Franks knew Loeb, “they were able to get him in the car with them.”
After they lured him in, Leopold and Loeb killed Bobby — using a chisel, and then binding and gagging him until he suffocated. Then they defaced his body to slow down its identification, and they hid it in a railroad culvert. They sent his parents a ransom note, they cleaned the car, and in the following days “they actually spent some time supposedly ‘helping’ reporters figure out what had happened,” Dr. Clemens said. “One of them befriended one of the reporters.” But their plan didn’t work very well. “They did not collect a ransom. At almost every point in the story, they did something that a master criminal would not have done. Each mistake that they made helped the police eventually nail them and charge them.
“There were clearly guilty, and they both confessed.”
So what was wrong with them? “A lot of the trial was about that,” Dr. Clemens said. “The most important part of the history of the trial is that their parents decided to hire Clarence Darrow, who was a great opponent of the death penalty.” Darrow was a famous lawyer and great orator; he went straight from the Leopold and Loeb trial to the Scopes trial, where he debated the question of whether it was legal to teach evolution. That trial was memorialized for the public in the play “Inherit the Wind.” In Chicago in 1924, he headed a team of lawyers who represented both Leopold and Loeb, who were tried together.
“Darrow decided to plead them guilty, skip a jury trial, and throw them on the mercy of the court,” Dr. Clemens said. “The judge was fairly liberal, and the plea was to not have them executed. That in a way tricked the very tough prosecutor, Robert Crowe, who saw this as a hanging case. He was convinced that they would pay the ultimate penalty. They had confessed, they did it for ransom, they didn’t need the money.
“They were not insane according to the legal definition. They knew what they were doing was wrong, and they did it anyway.”
Perhaps two of the most famous films based on the case, both fictionalized retellings of the story, were Alfred Hitchcock’s “Rope,” in 1948, and “Compulsion,” in 1959, based on Meyer Levin’s 1956 novel. “Compulsion” starred Orson Welles as the Clarence Darrow-like attorney. “The character makes a very famous plea in that movie,” Dr. Clemens said. “It is an incredible scene. He sort of gets right what Darrow said.”
It might not have been necessary to have Darrow make that speech in real life, Dr. Clemens said. “He could have made a modest statement, and the judge could easily have said that these youths are going to get life imprisonment, not death, because that is what we do for the underage in Illinois. The judge does mention it when he gives the sentence. So it is possible that all the things that Darrow said might not have had any impact.
“He brought in a lot of extra witnesses. He was allowed to say that they were extremely emotionally underdeveloped. There were all sorts of stories about the governesses that they both had — they were both abused by their governesses, in different ways — and there were witnesses talking about glandular problems, and about their strange relationship with each other.
“Darrow used a lot of strategies,” Dr. Clemens said. “The basic thrust of what he wanted to create was a deterministic model for human development. He was saying that these kids” — these very rich kids, remember — “didn’t have a chance. Their biology and their environment meant that they couldn’t be held responsible for what they did.
“That argument wipes out all sense of responsibility. They shouldn’t get the death penalty because like all of us they did what they were conditioned to do.
“Darrow was saying that there is no such thing as free will.”
Crowe, the prosecutor, fought back with his own witnesses; they were well-credentialed but not quite as much so as the defense’s, Dr. Clemens said. Darrow brought in alienists, as psychologists were called at the time; Crowe fumbled as he cross-examined them. In the end, Darrow won. Both men were imprisoned for life; Richard Loeb was killed by another inmate at Joliet when he was 30; Nathan Leopold eventually was released from prison, got married, moved to Puerto Rico, and died of natural causes at 66.
So why did Dr. Clemens become so immersed in this case? On the surface, it’s not a logical move. He is a colonial historian, specializing in 17th and 18th century American history. But he minored in law, and took some law-school courses as he worked toward his doctorate at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. When he got to Rutgers in 1974, he met another historian, Dr. Warren Susman, who asked him “if I wanted to teach famous trials with him.”
Put together two historians, and what do you get? The rest is history.
They taught the course together; Dr. Susman died in 1985, and Dr. Clemens often still teaches the course, but even after all this time and attention so many people have devoted to Leopold and Loeb, he still can’t say exactly why they did what they did. So the fascination continues.
Who: Dr. Paul Clemens
What: Will talk about “Leopold and Loeb —
The Trial of the Century” at the JCC U
When: On Thursday, May 16, at 10:30 a.m.
Where: At the Kaplen JCC on the Palisades,
411 East Clinton Ave., Tenafly
What else: After Dr. Clemens’s talk and a lunch break, Columbia Law School’s Jess Velona will present “Great Speeches of the 1960’s — From Kennedy to King”
How much: The two sessions, which end at 2 p.m., JCC members $35; nonmembers $42.
For more information or to register: Call (201) 408-1454 or go to