Magazine article USA TODAY

Cinema's Favorite Crime of the Century: Leopold and Loeb's "Thrill" Killing of a Defenseless Teenager Still Horrifies and Fascinates Movie Audiences Today

Magazine article USA TODAY

Cinema's Favorite Crime of the Century: Leopold and Loeb's "Thrill" Killing of a Defenseless Teenager Still Horrifies and Fascinates Movie Audiences Today

Article excerpt

THROUGH THE YEARS, there have been many alleged "trials of the century," ranging from the 1931 Charles Lindbergh baby kidnapping (with the visceral revelation that the child accidentally was dropped and killed before the crime even was completed) to the 1995 O.J. Simpson murder case (forever synonymous with defense attorney Johnnie Cochran's rap-like refrain about a bloody glove: "If it does not fit, you must acquit"). Most of these trials have been rehashed artistically, with arguably the greatest single movie adaptation being Stanley Kramer's "Inherit the Wind" (1960, from the Jerome Lawrence-Robert Lee play about the Scopes "Monkey Trial" of 1925). The story chronicled the notorious evolution case, with Clarence Darrow (Spencer Tracy) defending a teacher's right to bring Charles Darwin's Theory of Evolution into the classroom.

The 1920s seemed an especially rich time for the trial of the century moniker to be tossed about. Besides the Monkey Trial, there was the (Ferdinando) Sacco and (Bartolomeo) Vanzetti case, in which two confessed Italian anarchists were arrested and convicted of committing murder during a New England payroll robbery in 1920. Paralleling the Communist Red Scare that gripped post-World War I America, liberals felt that the duo was convicted without conclusive evidence, essentially condemned for their beliefs and foreign background.

The guilty verdict became a cause celebre throughout the world, with appeals delaying heir eventual 1927 electrocution coming from a who's who of intellectuals, including scientist Albert Einstein, author H.G. Wells, humorist Robert Benchley, novelist John Dos Passos, and poet Edna St. Vincent Millay.

A third Jazz Age trial, and the one which most creatively has resonated with filmmakers throughout the years, is Nathan Leopold (1904-1971) and Richard Loeb's (1905-1936) self-described "thrill" kilting of 14-year-old Robert "Bobby" Franks on May 21, 1924. Leopold and Loeb were child prodigy lovers from wealthy Chicago families. At the time of the murder, they still were teenagers themselves, yet both already lad graduated from the University of Michigan, and Leopold was, ironically, a University of Chicago law student. Fittingly given their off-the-charts intelligence, Leopold and Loeb believed themselves Nietzschean Ubermensch supermen, after the teachings of German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900). That is, Nietzsche wrote that superior people neither were governed by mankind's normal laws, nor subject to guilt over anything they might do. Killing the boy was a chilling application of this philosopher's signature belief.


The murderers and their victim all lived in the tony Kenwood district on Chicago's South Side. Indeed, Franks was a neighbor and second cousin of Loeb, so it was easy to offer the unsuspecting boy a ride home from school on that May afternoon. While the two men had planned the crime for months, the child was selected randomly. Once lured into Leopold and Loeb's rented car, a sock was stuffed into Franks' mouth, and the schoolboy was dispatched by several chisel blows to the head. It never has been proven conclusively which of the two men sat in the car's backseat and administered the fatal attack--each later blamed the other for the actual murder.

After the killing, they stripped Franks of his clothes and poured acid on his remains to make identification more difficult. After hiding the body in a nature preserve, they sent a ransom note to the Franks family. This action was a pure diversionary tactic, since the duo had neither monetary needs, nor was that the purpose of their heinous act. However, the body was discovered before the $10,000 ransom was paid. Moreover, their "perfect crime" soon unraveled. Leopold left his eyeglasses near the body, and an unusual frame hinge mechanism allowed the police to trace them directly to the law student. Leopold, also a gifted ornithologist, explained that he had lost the glasses while bird watching in the aforementioned nature preserve. …

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