Crimes of the Century: Leopold and Loeb

Compulsion, a novel written in 1956, details the true story of a murder that gripped the nation back in the Roaring Twenties—1924 to be exact. “The Crime of the Century,” screamed the headlines. The murder, committed by two sons of multimillionaire families, captivated America in a case that shocked the public. 

The young men—nineteen-year-old Nathan Leopold and eighteen-year-old Richard Loeb—kidnapped and murdered a fourteen-year-old boy named Robert “Bobby” Franks whose family also lived in the rarefied atmosphere of wealth. Why did these teens kill Robert? For two reasons: simply to prove that they could, and because they decided that it would be fun to “break the commandant, Thou Shalt Not Kill.” 

The crime was meticulously planned for a year by Loeb, a true-crime-detective buff, and Leopold, who was obsessed with Friedrich Nietzsche’s theory of an Übermensch who was not limited by laws or morality. Both young men had superior IQs. 

The day of the murder, Leopold rented a car. He and Loeb stocked the trunk with a chisel, ropes, and hydrochloric acid. Driving to a nearby boys’ prep school, they scanned the students walking the campus there for a few hours, looking for the perfect victim. That's when they saw Bobby Franks. Knowing that Bobby played tennis, Loeb lured young Franks into the car by asking him about a new racket he planned to purchase. 

Sadly, that was the last time Bobby was seen alive. The next morning, his body was discovered naked in an isolated field by a man on his way to work. His face and genitals had been burned with hydrochloric acid.

Ransom letter sent to Bobby Frank’s father.

Immediately after the murder, the young men sent a note to Frank’s father, typed on Leopold’s portable typewriter, asking for a ransom of ten-thousand dollars. Follow-up calls were also made demanding ransom. Both the note and calls were purportedly from a “George Johnson.” The calls only stopped when the body was found.

The two made so many mistakes in covering up the crime that, in the years since the murder, psychology classes often discuss whether Loeb and Leopold wanted to get caught. They did not wash away the blood from the car where the murder took place. The rental car was parked near Leopold’s house where it was observed by his family’s chauffeur. Leopold lost his glasses near where Bobby Franks was found.

When confronted by police, both men admitted to the murder. They stated that the “thrill of the kill” and the desire to commit the perfect crime was what drove them to kill Bobby Franks.

Leopold and Loeb were sentenced to Stateville Penitentiary. Leopold spent 33 years in prison and, upon his release, moved to Puerto Rico to live his remaining years away from publicity. Loeb was stabbed to death while in the shower at Stateville.

“The killing was an experiment,” Leopold chillingly and without emotion told his lawyer, Clarence Darrow, during the trial. “It is just as easy to justify such a death as it is to justify an entomologist killing a beetle on a pin.”

Thus was the crime of the century explained away by one of the killers.

See alsoThe 1830 True Murder Behind Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart”


Kristen Houghton’s new novel, Unrepentant: Pray for Us Sinners, book 3 in her best-selling series A Cate Harlow Private Investigation, is available at all book venues.

She is the author of nine top-selling novels and is hard at work on a new series that features a paranormal investigator with distinct powers of her own. Houghton is also the author of two non-fiction books and numerous short stories which appear in popular horror anthologies.

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