Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods


Psychopaths Ltd.

The year was 1924. The place was Chicago. Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb-both 19, brilliant, educated, and wealthy-were close friends. They had a sexual relationship, although Loeb appeared to cooperate only as a means of controlling Leopold.

Leopold & Loeb awaiting court (CORBIS)
Leopold & Loeb awaiting court

According to Professor Douglas Linder of the University of Missouri, Leopold read the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche and believed that superior men (such as himself and Loeb) have no moral boundaries. Leopold persuaded Loeb that they should prove their superiority by performing the perfect crime. They started with petty crimes, says Hal Higdon, author of The Crime of the Century: The Leopold and Loeb Case, but wanted more attention, so they began to plot a murder.

On May 21, they went out to select their victim, trolling the area around the exclusive boy's school that Leopold had once attended, grab a boy, and make his parents pay a ransom. To them it mattered little whom they grabbed. It had only to be someone whose disappearance would generate publicity.

As they watched from the car, fourteen-year-old Bobby Franks walked toward them. They offered him a ride and he climbed in. Within a block, one of them hit him with a chisel, then smothered him by shoving a rag into his mouth. Afterward they drove some distance away so they could strip him and pour acid on his face and genitals to prevent people from identifying him. Then they ate dinner in the car while they waited for darkness. Finally they tossed the mutilated body naked in 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.

Yet their perfect crime soon unraveled. The body was found, and near it were a pair of glasses that were linked to Leopold. Also, Loeb couldn't keep his mouth shut, and his incessant theorizing about the crimes alerted police. When he was taken in for questioning, he spilled the beans. Then Leopold added his own version, and each accused the other.

As they coldly provided details, it turned out that the murder had been committed to entertain them. They'd been bored. "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.

With the persuasive help of attorney Clarence Darrow, they avoided the chair and got life in prison, where Loeb eventually died. After 33 years, Leopold was paroled and he lived out the rest of his life in Puerto Rico.

Yet their example did not to dissuade others from killing for a thrill, and several more male teams perpetrated their own similar crimes.



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