It wasn’t America’s worst murder, even at the time. The June 1912 massacre of six members of the Moore family and their two houseguests, all of them bludgeoned to death as they slept in Villisca, Iowa, was arguably worse. That case was never solved, though a recent book, The Man from the Train (2017), names a plausible suspect. And worse than that was in 1893, when the physician and amateur hotelier H. H. Holmes built a jerry-rigged murder castle in Chicago in which he killed and cremated potentially dozens of women—a case that inspired that staple of used-book sales, The Devil in the White City (2003). Or maybe the worst was in 1892, when Lizzie Borden, from Falls River, Massachusetts, was tried and acquitted of killing her father and stepmother with an axe. In 1924, the murder of the fourteen-year-old Robert “Bobby” Franks should have seemed mild by comparison.
What was most shocking about Franks’s murder, of course, was who killed him: two young University of Chicago students named Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb. Both came from wealthy families. Leopold’s father was a prominent businessman; Loeb’s was an attorney and vice president of Sears, Roebuck. The families’ combined fortunes would now total more than a hundred fifty million dollars, adjusted for inflation. From today’s vantage, the boys seem like prototypes for a figure that has since become cliché: the intellectual, nihilistic, remorseless killer who has a hailstone where his heart should be—sociopaths, in other words, real-world precursors of Patrick Bateman from American Psycho or Hannibal Lecter from The Silence of the Lambs. When asked to identify the “original nucleus” of the idea to kill Bobby Franks, Leopold mentioned the “pure love of excitement, or the imaginary love of thrills, doing something different.”
The thrill in this case was kidnapping Bobby Franks as he walked home from a neighborhood baseball game on the evening of May 21, 1924. It was easy enough to do. Loeb was Franks’s second cousin, after all, and lived in a mansion near the Franks family on Chicago’s South Side. There was no reason for Franks not to get into the car with Leopold and Loeb. Shortly after, though, the boy was dead, struck in the head with a chisel, a rag crammed in his mouth. Leopold and Loeb dumped the body in a field in northern Indiana, dousing it with acid before they stuffed it headfirst into a culvert. They sent what the police considered an unusually literate ransom note to Franks’s parents, but by then, there was no hope of a happy ending. The body was discovered the next morning along with a distinctive pair of horn-rimmed eyeglasses that had been dropped nearby. The glasses—one of only three such pairs in the Chicagoland area—and the typewritten ransom note, which analysts traced to a late-model Underwood with a defective lowercase t and f, eventually led investigators to Leopold and Loeb.
The case has gnawed at America’s psyche for nearly a century. It was the inspiration for Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope (1948) and Meyer Levin’s best-selling novel Compulsion (1956). More recently, its DNA resurfaced in the films Swoon (1992) and Funny Games (1997) and in the Off-Broadway musical Thrill Me: The Leopold and Loeb Story (2005). The killers have even been appropriated as exemplars of revisionist queer history. It’s one thing to read the canned narrative of the crime and another to see it coalesce in real time via police records, psychiatric reports, and court transcripts. A new book, The Leopold and Loeb Files, by Nina Barrett, returns to these original archival documents (which had languished in the basement of Northwestern University’s law school until 1988) to resurrect the killers’ voices. Barrett’s book includes scans of primary source materials along with clippings from contemporary newspapers that editorialize—and often sensationalize—the story. The effect is something like a séance scripted by David Simon. It’s fascinating to read the transcripts of Leopold and Loeb as they talk in looping confabulations, backtrack, contradict each other, and double down. Their voices on the page thrum with the smugness of youth:
Q: When was the first you felt [remorse]?
Loeb: I felt sorry about the thing, about the killing of the boy—oh, well, that very night. But then the excitement, the accounts in the paper, the fact that we had gotten away with it and that they did not suspect us, that it was given so much publicity and all that sort of thing, naturally went to the question of not feeling as much remorse as otherwise I think I would have.
Q: You wouldn’t take ten thousand dollars out of my pocket, if I had it?
Leopold: It depends on whether I thought I could get away with it.
Are there any revelations in these documents? Like any enduring crime, there’s a mystery at the heart of the Leopold and Loeb case: Why did two young, well-educated boys from wealthy families kill for no apparent reason? They didn’t need money. It wasn’t a crime of passion or of vengeance. Yet it wasn’t random either. The killers meticulously premeditated and planned their act, though other victims, including Loeb’s younger brother, had been considered. Newspaper reporters at the time attributed the murder to “the jazz life,” a generational rot that gave young men an appetite for gin, heavy petting, and, regrettably, homicide. As the Chicago Daily News noted at the time, elite schools and tony neighborhoods weren’t immune from boys whose “conduct, like their thinking, is independent of conventions and taboos. They scorn the judgment of other students, glorying in their superior wealth, their sharper wits, their greater capacity for forbidden pleasures.”
Aside from “dementia jazzmania,” as the Chicago Daily Journal called it, other explanations were put forth. Perhaps the boys suffered from an erosion of Jewish values. “Hundreds of thousands of rich Jews who don’t know what to do with their money, and who let their children grow up without any feeling of Jewish responsibilities” were to blame, according to a “Jewish spokesman” quoted in the Chicago Daily Tribune. Then there were the phrenologists and psychologists who volunteered physiological readings of the boys: Leopold’s “beefy lips” suggested “gross” desires; Loeb’s narrow lips suggested he lacked “will power.” Karl Bowman and Harold Hulbert, the psychiatrists the defense hired to gauge Leopold and Loeb’s sanity, provided the tabloids with fodder when they determined that Leopold’s childhood governess, an Alsatian woman nicknamed Sweetie, sexually abused Leopold and his brother. Maybe she was to blame. Or maybe the boys’ homoerotic experiments with each other reflected deeper perversions.
The most risible explanation came from Clarence Darrow, the killers’ own attorney. On the third day of his closing arguments, Darrow asked the judge to consider that “wealth has its misfortunes.” Leopold and Loeb, in his view, were victims of affluence. Given every advantage and opportunity, the boys suffered a kind of agoraphobic reaction to their own privilege. Darrow’s argument is an early iteration of the so-called affluenza defense made famous in the case of the twenty-year-old Ethan Couch, who mowed down four people along a Texas road in 2013. As ludicrous as Darrow’s defense was then—and still is—it underscores the distinguishing feature in the Leopold and Loeb case and in many other criminal cases that have since transfixed the country: class.
When asked why the Leopold and Loeb story continues to resonate, Barrett tells me, “We have to remember that mass newspapers and the still-new medium of radio were broadcasting the details of this story to millions of people who believed wholeheartedly in this version of the pursuit of happiness and were frankly horrified to watch a story unfold in which, clearly, you could have everything the American Dream told you you wanted to attain—but it would turn out there could be a worm in that apple so toxic it could destroy three ‘perfect’ families, which it did. And to this day, we don’t really understand the nature of the worm.”
That worm captivated millions in America and abroad who followed the daily news reports coming out of Chicago. And that worm is why the case of JonBenét Ramsey became a blockbuster headline. Ditto the case of O. J. Simpson (although celebrity and race played outsize roles there). The history of American crime is the history of class and race, which are inseparable. In the American imagination, either murder itself is abetted by economic conditions or the reporting and prosecution of the murder expose the blind spots in our supposedly meritocratic capitalism. On a superficial level, the mystery of Leopold and Loeb is what drove them to kill Bobby Franks at all, but the more fraught, subcutaneous question is why they rejected the luxuries of their pampered lives in exchange for a sordid thrill. Theirs is a riches-to-rags story. Most of us would kill to know the kind of wealth they took for granted; Leopold and Loeb killed to divest themselves of it, to feel something visceral and real, however briefly. Leopold allegedly told one of his arresting officers that the motive was “adventure” and that “murder … is not a crime. My crime was in getting caught.”
I’m reminded of something the teenage spree killer Charles Starkweather wrote to his parents after he and his girlfriend killed eleven people during an interstate joyride between December 1957 and January 1958: “All we wanted to do was get out of town.” Who, as a teenager in America, hasn’t shared that urge to run away, or to blow up something, or to take revenge on the bullies and beautiful ones who made you feel like an outsider? It’s a sentiment that recurred at Columbine, and in the long generation of mass shootings that followed. It is, as we know by now, a predominantly white male sentiment. But it’s also a predominantly white male boredom that doesn’t appreciate its own privilege. Traitors to their class, and to the very contract of the American Dream, these men and boys pursue an ego trip that exploits their own cultural dominance. “He was always normal,” a former neighbor told the New York Times about the Las Vegas shooter Stephen Paddock—a milquetoast endorsement that has described everyone from Ted Bundy to Dylann Roof to, decades earlier, Leopold and Loeb.
Violence is the natural American idiom, as D.H. Lawrence discovered years ago: “The American soul is hard, isolate, stoic, and a killer,” he wrote. And true crime is the country’s quintessential genre. But boredom, too, is one of America’s prevailing moods. The Second Industrial Revolution and the rise of mass media after the turn of the century intensified a hunger for novelty, and a desire to be entertained, that eventually ran aground on narcissism. The results were toxic. Hulbert recounted a conversation he had with Loeb during the latter’s psychiatric evaluation:
We spoke of the possibility of terminating his life by hanging and he said in a most matter of fact way, “Well, it’s too bad a fellow won’t be able to read about it in the newspapers.” We talked about what would happen if, after having spent a lifetime in prison, he should come out. He wanted to know whether at that time he could get a complete file of the newspapers of this period.
Perhaps the reason why the Leopold and Loeb case remains intriguing is because it subverts our expectations about the psychological and moral health that money is presumed to vouchsafe. In the America of 1924, as in the America of 2018, very rich people are not often publicly associated with gruesome murders. A rich person, who has everything to lose, is imagined to dabble in cleaner, white-collar crimes, if they’re criminals at all; poor people, who have nothing to lose, are imagined to be guilty of anything. As Barrett tells me, some “mysteries transcend class and money, but very much speak to universal fantasies about what class and money can do to insulate anyone from tragedy.” For the Franks family, wealth wasn’t a guarantor of security or happiness. For the Leopold and Loeb families, it wasn’t a guarantor of respectability. For the killers themselves, wealth apparently couldn’t buy whatever illicit high they imagined on the other end of that chisel. It’s possible that Leopold and Loeb didn’t even enjoy the murder, beyond the breezy satisfaction that they’d actually carried it off.
In the end, this is probably the case’s evergreen legacy. Had Leopold and Loeb been two poor black men, it’s unlikely we’d know their names today—and certainly unlikely they’d be the subjects of books and films. They would have been sentenced to death and hanged. Robert Crowe, the prosecuting attorney, suggested as much during his closing argument:
Take away their money, and what happens? The same thing that has happened to all the other men who have been tried in this building, who had no money. […] Clarence Darrow once said that a poor man on trial here was disposed of in fifteen minutes, but if he was rich and committed the same crime and he got a good lawyer, his trial would last twenty-one days. Well, they got three lawyers and it has lasted just a little bit longer…
And yet, thanks to Darrow’s oratory, both boys were sentenced to life in prison, plus ninety-nine years. (Loeb was killed by a fellow inmate in 1936. Leopold was paroled in 1958 and moved to Puerto Rico, where he died in 1971.) As capitalism reveals itself to be ever more dysfunctional, the Leopold and Loeb case re-emerges as a parable of both the limits and miracles of wealth. The irony is that even as the killers rejected any God or moral code, their birthright was a class system that already presumed their innocence—and their salvation. As ridiculous as the Affluenza Defense is as a legal argument, it does crystallize at least one truth that has remained central to our national mythology: money is a sickness in America, and it kills.
Jeremy Lybarger is the features editor at the Poetry Foundation. He lives in Chicago.