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‘The trial of the century’ – Frank McNally on a notorious child murder of 100 years ago

Nathan Leopold jnr and Richard Loeb murdered a 14-year-old neighbour, Bobby Franks

It led to “the trial of the century”, or one of them, in the US. But it began, 100 years ago this week, with a random murder designed to be the perfect, unsolvable crime.

The perpetrators were two wealthy and highly intelligent Chicagoans who had fallen under the spell of philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche and considered themselves Übermenschen (“supermen”), above the rules that governed ordinary humans.

Child prodigies both, Nathan Leopold jnr and Richard Loeb had bonded and become lovers at the University of Chicago.

While there, they also dabbled in petty law-breaking, before graduating to the idea that they should kill somebody, for thrills and to prove a point.


On the afternoon of May 21st, 1924, they coaxed a 14-year-old neighbour, Bobby Franks, also from a wealthy family, into the passenger seat of their car.

One of the pair, probably Loeb, first knocked the boy unconscious from behind, then dragged him into the back seat and suffocated him while the other sat at the wheel.

After that, they drove the body to a quiet location in Indiana, Wolf Lake, and hid it in a culvert, first removing all clothes and disfiguring the boy’s features with hydrochloric acid.

They poured acid not just on his face but his genitals, because he had been circumcised, which was still unusual in the US then for someone who wasn’t Jewish and might have helped identify him.

Later, they contacted the Franks family seeking a ransom.

But this was just part of their plan to deflect investigators, while adding another layer of audacity to their crime.

Money was not a prime motivation – they had more than enough already – and anyway, the ransom plot was quickly abandoned when police found the body.

Leopold and Loeb acted nonchalant, meanwhile, joking with friends about the story. Asked by a reporter acquaintance to describe the 14-year-old, Loeb said: “If I were to murder anybody it would be just such a cocky little son of a bitch as Bobby Franks.”

But clever as they thought they were, the pair had made at least one stupid mistake. Police found a pair of glasses near the body, common in most respects except for an unusual hinge of which the opticians had sold only three in Chicago, one to Leopold.

The perfect crime unravelled in little more than a week. By the end of May, the two men had been arrested.

Both soon confessed, implicating each other as the main culprit.

Their prosecution was a career highlight for an Irish-American lawyer named Robert Emmet Crowe. As a judge, Crowe had several years earlier sentenced a Thomas Fitzgerald to death for child murder. Now he was state attorney for Cook County, Illinois.

In another sphere, vindicating his Christian names, he had also established himself as one of Chicago’s leading Irish republicans.

He was a regular feature in the “Kerry Chicago Notes” column of Tralee’s Liberator newspaper. Years later, after his retirement, the paper praised among other things the positive racial discrimination he had practiced in recruitment:

“He is worthy of the name he bears and has always been a consistent friend of Ireland ...]While in office he availed almost exclusively of Irish talent for his law enforcement work.”

But in the Leopold and Loeb trial, Crowe was up against a doughty opponent, Clarence Darrow - soon to be more famous for defending a Tennessee school-teacher in the “Scopes Monkey Trial” – and lost.

Darrow considered it inevitable that his clients would be convicted so persuaded them to plead guilty and fought instead only to avoid the death penalty.

His arguments encompassed everything from parental neglect and a young Leopold’s alleged sexual abuse by a governess to the brutalising effect on society of the first World War. The strategy worked. His clients got life imprisonment.

Leopold survived to win parole and spend later years pursuing an earlier interest in ornithology.

For his co-conspirator, however, prison proved to be a deferred death sentence.

In 1936, a fellow inmate slashed Loeb’s throat in response to a claimed sexual advance. There are grounds to suspect the advance had been the other way round. But the notoriety of Loeb’s crime and widespread homophobia meant there was little sympathy.

The combination of his erudition and the presumed circumstances of death led to a notorious joke, usually attributed to another Irish Chicagoan, the journalist Ed Lahey.

For decades afterwards, it was local newspaper legend that, reporting the prison murder for the Chicago Daily News, Lahey had quipped of how Loeb, despite being a master of English, “today ended a sentence with a proposition”.

But when the writer John Aloysius Farrell (a biographer of Darrow among others) went looking for the original some years ago, it was nowhere to be found.

He concluded that the phantom quotation may have been just an oral tradition among pressmen, repeated until it became history. Either that or, if the words really had made a brief appearance in print, they had been quickly “killed” between editions by the editors.