The Leopold and Loeb Files: An Intimate Look at One of America's Most Infamous Crimes

The Leopold and Loeb Files: An Intimate Look at One of America's Most Infamous Crimes

by Nina Barrett


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In 1924, University of Chicago students Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb were young, rich, and looking for a thrill. The crime that came next—the brutal, cold-blood murder of 14-year-old Bobby Franks—would come to captivate the country and unfold into what many dubbed the crime of the century. As the decades passed, the mythology surrounding the unlikely killers continued to capture the interest of new generations, spawning numerous books, fictionalizations, and dramatizations.

In The Leopold and Loeb Files, author Nina Barrett returns to the primary sources—confessions, interrogation transcripts, psychological reports, and more—the kind of rare, pre-computer court documents that were usually destroyed as a matter of course. Until now, these documents have not been part of the murder’s central narrative. This first-of-its-kind approach allows readers to view the case through a keyhole and look past all of the stories that have been spun in the last 90 years to focus on the heart of the crime.

Carefully curated and steeped in historical context from Barrett, this book allows the surviving Leopold and Loeb documents, most of which are in the form of either transcripts or narrative, to function as both artifact and literature, recounting the moves of the murder and sentencing hearing as well as addressing the questions that continue to fascinate—issues of morality, sanity, sexuality, religious assimilation, parental grief and responsibility, remorse, and the use of the death penalty.

This comprehensive, ephemera-driven history allows the reader to act as a fly on the wall and speaks powerfully to the unsolved mysteries of this distinct crime, in which the guilt of the perpetrators is unambiguous but almost everything else is open to interpretation.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781572842403
Publisher: Agate
Publication date: 07/17/2018
Pages: 304
Sales rank: 570,341
Product dimensions: 7.60(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.10(d)

About the Author

Nina Barrett , a graduate of both Yale University and the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University, is the author of three books and numerous articles, essays, and reviews. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, the Chicago Tribune, and The Nation, among other places. In 2009, she curated an exhibition for Northwestern called The Murder That Wouldn’t Die, which inspired The Leopold and Loeb Files. Barrett is also the founder and owner of Bookends & Beginnings, an independent bookstore in Evanston, Illinois.

Table of Contents


Part I: The Ransom Note

Part II: Confessions and Other Statements of Leopold and Loeb

Part III: The Hulbert-Bowman Reports

Part IV: The Court Transcript

Part V: The Gertz Papers: Leopold’s Later Years



About the Author



Like archaeologists, who spend the bulk of their time sifting through sand and dirt for fragments of artifacts they hope will help reconstruct history, archivists perform a lot of manual and, on the whole, rather routine labor. They empty home attics and institutional basements of boxes of old folders, notebooks, and correspondence, most of which would bore a general audience to tears unless mined some day by an inspired researcher who can spin documentary evidence into a compelling story. But every once in a while, just as an archaeologist happens upon the remains of a lost city or the unidentified tomb of a pharaoh, an archivist makes a sensational find: the documentary evidence for a famous story that has already entered the realm of myth.

In June of 1988, Kevin Leonard, then assistant university archivist at Northwestern University Library, made such a discovery. He’d been sent down from Evanston to the Law School on the university’s Chicago campus to pick up the school’s administrative records from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. They were stored in a vault in the Law School’s basement, in walls of boxes that Leonard and a colleague spent all day lugging out to a van and shuttling back to Evanston every time the van filled up. It was dirty, physically demanding work, and toward the end of the day Leonard was tired and starting to worry about getting the last load packed up and making it back to Evanston in time to return the van. By then, sorting the boxes he wanted from those with no foreseeable archival value, he had cleared a path to the back wall of the vault—also a path backwards in time, to where the vault’s earliest deposits had been placed. There in a back corner on the floor was a brown paper bag, its top rolled closed. Leonard wasn’t sure he wanted to open it; he was in a hurry now, and he also suffers from arachnophobia, the morbid fear of spiders, and he could just imagine what might be crawling around in there after the many years the bag must have been lying on the basement floor. But then his archival instinct got the better of him—surely no one had looked inside the bag in decades—and he stooped down, unrolled the top, and gingerly reached inside.

The first item he pulled out was a neatly typed note on a yellowed sheet of paper that read like something from a piece of early twentieth century detective fiction. “Dear Sir,” it began. “As you no doubt know by this time your son has been kidnapped. Allow us to assure you that he is at present well and safe.” The words did not immediately ring a bell with Leonard, but the next item he pulled from the bag caused an instant shock of comprehension. It was the note’s envelope, also yellowed, marked special delivery, and hand-addressed in block letters to MR. JACOB FRANKS, 5052 ELLIS AVE, CITY. It was postmarked May 21, 1924.

Born in Chicago and well steeped in its lore, Leonard knew exactly who Mr. Jacob Franks was, and knew as well that by the time Franks’s trembling hands had opened this very envelope on the morning of May 22, his son Robert was already dead, and what was to become the most famous murder case in Chicago—and possibly American—history had already been set in motion. The brutal and senseless murder of 14-year-old Bobby Franks; the hunt for his killers; their identification as two wealthy, privileged, brilliant University of Chicago law students named Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb; and the subsequent legal drama in which celebrity attorney Clarence Darrow stepped in to rescue the killers from the gallows—all of this had been an international news sensation in that summer of 1924.

Quickly dubbed the “Crime of the Century,” the case has indeed continued to haunt the American psyche throughout subsequent decades, even as other sensational murders have competed for its dubious tagline. Since that summer’s orgy of newspaper coverage, the story has been revived again and again in book, film, and theatrical narratives and interpretations, including Alfred Hitchcock’s 1948 psychological thriller Rope; Meyer Levin’s best-selling 1956 novel Compulsion (also made into a play and a film); Stephen Dolginoff’s dark 2003 musical Thrill Me; and nonfiction accounts like Hal Higdon’s Leopold and Loeb: The Crime of the Century (1975, 1999) and Simon Baatz’s For the Thrill of It (2008).

From the moment of their remarkable and remarkably detailed twin confessions in police custody ten days after the murder, the guilt of Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb has never been in question. In that sense, the crime was only very briefly a mystery. Yet its persistent fascination lies in its essentially inscrutable nature, which both demands yet somehow ultimately evades all attempts at satisfactory explanation. With each retelling the story has become even more—rather than less—mythological. As historian Paula S. Fass has written, “Because the case and the protagonists were rapidly engulfed in the evolving public discourse and the stories were vivid, the public portrayals overwhelmed the identity of the individual characters. When Leopold eventually wrote his own memoirs he had difficulty distinguishing the fact from the fiction of his own identity, so completely had he and the story in which he had participated been enveloped and defined in the public spaces of the culture.”

This makes Leonard’s discovery in the basement of the Law School even more extraordinary. For the ransom note—a chilling and creepy artifact of the case, but not an especially illuminating one—was not the only contents of the paper bag. Also inside were three bulkier and even more astounding documents. There was a black cardboard binder enclosing a 517-page document labeled Confessions and Other Statements of Leopold and Loeb. This proved to be an original carbon copy of the transcript of the statements made by the killers in police custody beginning the night before they actually confessed. It begins with the interrogation period during which they were still trying to outwit their questioners and documents the steps by which they were cornered into telling the truth. Then, in addition to the actual confessions, it covers a session in which each of their confessions was read aloud before the other, giving the other a chance to address their discrepancies; and much of the subsequent day on which detectives took Leopold and Loeb, along with a convoy of enthralled newspaper reporters, on a bizarre field trip to several of the key locations mentioned in their accounts to confirm the details of their stories.

Heavily leaked to reporters almost instantaneously, these statements formed the basis for the characterizations of Leopold and Loeb that sprang to life in the papers and have endured ever since, especially Leopold’s cold intellectual brilliance, his supposed mastery of 15 languages, his interest in pornographic literature, and the implication of a sexual relationship between him and Loeb. And they preserve verbatim each boy’s first-person account of the murder of Bobby Franks, including the only major point on which they vehemently contradicted one another: who had physically committed the murder.

The other two documents Leonard found in the bag were twin bound copies of the reports submitted by the team of psychiatrists summoned by Clarence Darrow to assess the sanity of the boys. Darrow was hoping for one of two outcomes that might help his case: either evidence that might support an insanity defense, or evidence of some mental disease or medical abnormality that might mitigate the sentencing. Therefore these reports contain a wealth of information about the killers’ physical health and history as well as the results of exhaustive inquiries into their psychological and especially their fantasy lives. They also contain details about the murder not included in the confessions, and intimate portraits of the boys’ families, education, and upbringing.

Later connecting the contents of this mysterious bag with the contents of a box he had found nearby in the vault, Kevin Leonard realized that all these materials had been in the possession of Harold Hulbert, a member of the team of psychiatrists hired by Darrow. The box contained materials related to another murder case in which Hulbert had been a consulting psychiatrist, as well as correspondence from Hulbert stating his intention to bequeath the evidence from several of his most interesting cases to Northwestern.

Now cataloged in the Archives, the papers complement another remarkable collection of materials related to Leopold and Loeb that had also been bequeathed to Northwestern and are housed in the library’s McCormick Library of Special Collections. These are the papers of Elmer Gertz, the Chicago attorney who secured Nathan Leopold’s eventual parole in 1958, despite his “life plus 99 years” sentence. Gertz had acquired a wealth of documents relating to the original crime—including, most spectacularly, a 4411-page transcript of the court case in which Darrow faced off against State’s Attorney Robert Crowe to try to persuade Judge John Caverly that Leopold and Loeb should not receive the death penalty. In addition to preserving a raw portrait of the rhetorically brilliant Darrow at work, the transcript includes the testimony of nearly a hundred witnesses, and constitutes a record of one of the earliest court cases in which psychiatric evidence was extensively used to influence sentencing.

Gertz’s papers also contain revealing drafts of Leopold’s statements made during various parole appeals, assessing his role in the murder from an adult perspective, and scores of fan letters sent to Leopold in prison following the publication of his memoir, Life Plus 99 Years. The voluminous Gertz-Leopold correspondence, which grew more intimate as the years went by, also provides a revealing glimpse of Leopold’s post-prison years, which he spent as privately as he could manage in Puerto Rico—sometimes seeming to struggle with his newfound fame as America’s most rehabilitated criminal.

In the spring of 2009, I curated an exhibit called “The Murder that Wouldn’t Die: Leopold & Loeb in Artifact, Fact, and Fiction” at Northwestern University Library. Items from both the Hulbert and Gertz collections were displayed—including the ransom note, the Confessions, the psychiatric reports, and the court transcripts—along with books, DVDs, CDs, theatrical programs and posters, and other memorabilia relating to works based on the case.

The response to the exhibit was immediate and extraordinary: instant confirmation that this murder really hasn’t ever died, either in the local or national consciousness. There was television, radio, newspaper, and magazine coverage, including a Harper’s magazine excerpt from the Confessions in which both Leopold and Loeb are confronted by a psychiatrist about whether they understood that the murder was morally wrong. Two theatrical companies that happened to be in the rehearsal stages for Leopold-and-Loeb-related productions brought their cast and crew to do background research. (One of the productions was of Rope, the other of Never the Sinner, the debut work by Academy Award-winning screenwriter John Logan, which was based on research he did in the Gertz collection as a Northwestern undergraduate.)

But the most remarkable response came from people still claiming—more than eight decades later—some personal connection to the case. There was a visitor in his 90s who told me he’d been a classmate of Bobby Franks at the Harvard School, and still remembered seeing both Leopold and Loeb around the neighborhood in the week between the murder and their arrests; several contacts by people claiming to own artifacts from the Loeb mansion, which had stood vacant but still furnished for many years before being demolished; and, toward the end of the exhibit’s run, several descendants from one of the families, who came hoping there might be something in one of these documents that finally made sense of what their infamous ancestor had done.

But an exhibit can only display the documents as artifacts, not as texts. This book invites the reader inside their pages. It can be read as an introduction to the case, but my hope is also that readers who have encountered the story in its many other forms might gain additional perspective by seeing it unfold in the words of the original participants—and through the eyes of the world that was watching.

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