Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Men and Supermen: The Nietzsche Syndrome

Not So Perfect

Bobby Franks
Bobby Franks

The boy got willingly into their car, and within a block, one of the perpetrators hit him with a chisel, then smothered him by shoving a rag into his mouth. Afterward, Leopold and Loeb drove some distance away so they could strip him and pour acid on his face and genitals to prevent people from identifying him. As if to prove their status as beings set apart from moral concerns of society, they then ate dinner with the body in the car as they waited for darkness. Finally, they tossed the mutilated corpse into a culvert where Leopold often went birding, and then returned home to place a call and write a ransom note for $10,000 to the victim's parents.

However, the perfect crime is generally never as perfect as it seems. The body was found the next day and quickly identified as the missing Bobby Franks. Nearby, in some grass, investigators found a pair of glasses that had been dropped. They knew it could be a clue, so they followed up. These were no ordinary spectacles. They had a set of unique hinges that were easily traced to Nathan Leopold.

Eyeglasses
Eyeglasses

The police arrested Leopold and took him in for hours of questioning. The explanation was simple, he maintained. He'd been in that area birding. While he was being questioned, suspicion fell on Loeb as well, because the two were friends, and he was brought in, too. Yet neither broke and there was insufficient evidence to charge them with anything. They were free to go. Leopold remained calm and quiet, and his Nietzschean role of superiority over others dictated, but Loeb shot off his mouth to friends and reporters, offering theories about the crime and even suggesting that if he were a killer, Bobby Franks was the perfect victim. That brought attention back to the two men, and because the ransom note appeared to have been written by an educated person, investigators found samples of Leopold's typing. They matched.

Under interrogation again, one of them was caught in a lie, which precipitated confessions and accusations from each that the other had committed the murder. In other words, rather than being superior human beings, they quickly melted down and became petty, frightened, and immature. As they provided details, the murder was revealed as a means of entertainment for two bored intellectuals. "It was just an experiment," Leopold said. "It is as easy to justify as an entomologist in impaling a beetle on a pin." They simply wanted to test their ability to plan and carry out a crime without being caught. Neither expressed remorse or thought that what they had done was reprehensible.

At trial, various alienists were brought in to "explain" their degenerate behavior, but the judge was unimpressed. Yet he was also reluctant to sentence such young men to die, so after famed attorney Clarence Darrow gave a moving speech, he gave them life imprisonment. Loeb was fatally stabbed later in prison, but Leopold was paroled after 33 years, living out the rest of his years in Puerto Rico. It's likely that he stopped reading Nietzsche.

These two are not alone in being inspired by the idea that superior beings are beyond the moral reach of mass society, but the idea did not actually originate with Nietzsche, as many imagine. He merely articulated something already in the air during the century in which he lived.

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