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Monday, May 20, 2024

A Century Since The Crime Of The Century

Leopold and Loeb

May 21 marks one hundred years since Chicago teenagers Nathan Leopold (1904-71) and Richard Loeb (1905-36) murdered 14-year-old Bobby Franks as part of their plan to execute a "perfect crime". The two randomly chose Franks and picked him up a few blocks from his home. Following his death, the boys dumped the body near Wolf Lake in Hammond, Indiana, 25 miles south of Chicago. But it wasn't a perfect crime. Police found a pair of eyeglasses near Franks's body with a unique hinge purchased by only three customers in Chicago, one of whom was Leopold. Things escalated quickly, and their confessions were announced ten days later.

The trial of Leopold and Loeb at Chicago's Cook County Criminal Court became a media spectacle and the third to be labeled "the trial of the century." The families hired the renowned criminal defense attorney Clarence Darrow to lead the defense team.

Susanna Cassisa at the Crime Reads blog picks it up from there:

The nation watched as the courtroom drama unfolded. A litany of explanations for the crime covered front pages of newspapers across the country, spinning into a web of competing and often contradictory narratives and laying bare the cultural anxieties that plagued Americans in 1924. It was a lack of parental supervision, some claimed, as more and more women left the home and entered the workforce. Or perhaps it was the extravagant wealth of both the Leopold and Loeb families, or alcohol, or “overeducation.”


The lines between truth and legend in the Leopold and Loeb case were blurred from the very start. In the days following the confession, the press latched onto one quote that ostensibly addressed the motive. “It was just an experiment,” the June 2 edition of the Chicago Tribune quoted Leopold as stating, “It is as easy for us to justify that experiment as it is to justify an entomologist in impaling a beetle on a pin.” This was damning evidence of the two cold-blooded killers’ callousness.


Reporters were eager to portray Leopold and Loeb as self-aware, evil thrill-killers who didn’t just fail to comprehend the value of human life, but actively rejected that value. It’s a tempting portrait; Leopold was, by all accounts, a smug and haughty teenager. But this narrative is so seductive in part because it is so reductive.


Scholar Mark Seltzer has described the true crime genre as “crime fact that looks like crime fiction.” As such, Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood (1966) is often credited as the first modern true crime text. The book purports to depict, as its subtitle suggests, “a true account of a multiple murder and its consequences.” Capote himself claimed that he had invented a new literary genre—the nonfiction novel, “a narrative form that employed all the techniques of fictional art but was nevertheless immaculately factual.”


Later that year in a piece for Esquire, Phillip K. Tompkins noted numerous inaccuracies in In Cold Blood, including significant discrepancies between dialogue and transcript records and a concluding scene that was entirely fabricated. Capote had molded the real people he wrote about into literary characters, grafting the true story of murder onto the prescriptive narrative structure of detective novels.


Capote tends to get a lot of credit for shaping the modern true-crime genre, but the case of Leopold and Loeb has made considerable contributions to the genre as well—and not just in the form of the many pop culture depictions of the case, from Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope (1948) to the twenty-first century musical rendition, Thrill Me: The Leopold and Loeb Story (2003). Beyond this preponderance of portrayals of the case, representations of Leopold and Loeb also helped to popularize the generic convention of adopting fictional techniques to tell a true story—or at least, one that purports to be.


A century after their crime, the story of Nathan Leopold’s and Richard Loeb’s crime has assumed the status of American folklore. The story, with its larger than life characters and salacious details, has many of the features that make for compelling true crime narratives, in part because our understanding of violent crime is so often heavily mediated through crime fiction. The many representations of Leopold and Loeb demonstrate the pitfalls of narrativizing violent crime in ways that mirror fiction; flattening real people into a cast of familiar character archetypes collapses the complex realities of violent crime in favor of a digestible narrative.

And a century after their crime, I'm reminded of the story the late Alfred Myers shared with us he heard from Bellairs about Leopold and Loeb.

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