Richard Loeb is a little “outside my time period,” but I have made a concerted effort to research him this summer because I am fascinated by him. It all began because I decided to watch old Alfred Hitchcock movies, and I viewed Rope. Rope, from 1948, is based on a play which is based on the Leopold and Loeb murders. As soon as I found out, courtesy of Wikipedia, that one of the Leopold and Loeb murderers was named Richard, I knew I had to find out more.
Although Loeb is usually mentioned in the same breath as Nathan Leopold, Jr (his partner in crime), this website is dedicated to Dicks, not Nathans (sorry, Leopold). To that end, this entry will focus more on Richard, but Nathan will be in here, too.
The basics are that Richard and Nathan, two very smart Jewish boys from wealthy Chicago families, kidnapped and murdered a fourteen-year-old boy named Bobby Franks. They were 18 and 19, respectively, when the murder took place in late May 1924, but both had already graduated from undergrad. In fact, Richard was (and still is, I believe) the youngest graduate in the history of the University of Michigan. Although Richard graduated very young (at 17, going on 18), he was not an Einstein. From what I have read, Nathan was incredibly smart; Richard, while smart, had been pushed by his governess to achieve academically, even though he wasn’t necessarily ready to graduate high school shortly after turning 14.
As to why the boys murdered Bobby, that has something to do with their personalities and their odd relationship. Richard was extremely into crime stories (I can sympathize, as I love me some Law & Order) and liked to commit crimes (with which I do not sympathize). He had broken windows and set fire to buildings before. Richard had fantasies of himself as a master criminal, but what fun is being a master criminal if nobody appreciates it? That was where Nathan came in.
Nathan Leopold was not as much into crime, but was extremely close to Richard. Rumors have circulated that Leopold and Loeb were lovers, and I certainly think they had a sexual relationship. It seems Leopold was more into sex than Loeb, so while Richard got adulation and a willing criminal participant, Nathan received a sex partner. In this way, both boys were both dominant and submissive (Richard was dominant in criminal activity but submissive sexually, while Nathan was submissive in crime and dominant sexually). It sounds like a fascinating and rather fraught relationship. In addition, both seemed to have some self-esteem problems/inferiority complexes, and their relationship allowed them to be with someone superior (the other guy), while also be the superior one at times.
Rope makes much of the Nietzschean superman philosophy of the killers. While I think this was a part of it, I’m not sure this was necessarily the reason why. Furthermore, I think Nathan was more into Nietzsche than Richard was. Richard wanted to commit a perfect crime to show he was a master criminal (and wanted Nathan to participate so he would have something on him); Nathan wanted to please Richard (no doubt among other reasons). Nathan seemed to be more knowledgeable about Nietzsche, and, from what I’ve read, he seemed to use that philosophy to rationalize what they had done. After all, Richard confessed first, and had almost backed out of asking for the ransom. Richard very much wanted to plan a crime and was rather bold about it before the deed was done, but Nathan also helped plan and seemed better able to deal with whatever feelings the murder caused. As portrayed in fictionalized accounts, Richard was the bigger asshole before the murder, but Nathan was the bigger asshole afterwards (when he started going all Nietzschean superman on everybody’s ass).
The Leopold and Loeb families hired Clarence Darrow as the boys’ defense attorney. Due to the rather overwhelming amount of evidence and public opinion (both of which were against the two), Darrow had Richard and Nathan plead guilty. Instead of a trial before a jury, there was a hearing before a judge, in which Darrow argued that his clients should not be executed (by hanging). After nearly a month of testimony, including that from various psychiatrists and psychologists (called alienists back then); the judge imposed a sentence of life in prison for the murder and ninety-nine years for the kidnapping.
The two were initially taken to the state prison at Joliet, but Leopold was moved to Stateville shortly thereafter. Richard remained at Joliet until he was also transferred to Stateville in the early 1930s. Once the two were back in the same prison, they started a correspondence school and were able to spend time together. Although life wasn’t exactly all sunshine and rainbows, the two were permitted a certain amount of freedom. Both had plenty of money (from their families) and could buy cigarettes, candy, and other treats for themselves and their friends. When their purchasing power was curtailed by a new warden, it would cause trouble for Richard.
Richard had been in the habit of buying cigarettes and treats for his cell mate and friends. When new restrictions limited what Richard could buy, he could no longer afford to buy things for other inmates. James Day, another prison who had been a cell mate of Richard’s, did not take kindly to this. He argued some with Richard, although nobody thought much of it at the time.
Around noon on January 28, 1936, James Day attacked Richard with a straight razor in the shower. Day claimed that Richard had made sexual advances and he was defending himself. However, Day was unharmed while Richard had fifty-six cuts, including several deep ones on his throat that had clearly been made from behind. In addition, Day was known to be a sexual predator towards other inmates while Richard was not. Although Richard was rushed to the prison hospital, he died a few hours later. He had simply lost two much blood. Nathan Leopold was permitted to see Richard before he died, although Richard was unconscious. Richard Loeb was thirty years old when he died.
Part of the reason Day might have suggested Richard tried to coerce him into sex is because Richard and Nathan had been labeled perverts during and after the trial (when bits about their sexual relationship were revealed). Although the prison officials wanted Day convicted of murder and executed for Loeb’s death, Day was acquitted by portraying his act as one of self defense. Leopold and Loeb’s reputations as perverts surely helped to acquit Day, as did the lack of testimony from fellow inmates about Day’s predation; they were no doubt afraid of retribution should Day not be convicted.
In the long run, Nathan Leopold probably benefitted the most from Richard’s death. In the 1950s, when Leopold was up for parole, he (and his supporters) could paint Richard as the main culprit in the crime. To this day, it is unclear whether Richard or Nathan struck the blow that killed Bobby Franks. While there was witness testimony to support the idea that Leopold had struck the blow, it was inconclusive. People seemed to form opinions based on who they preferred. During the trial, the press (and the public, especially young women) seemed to prefer Richard, who was much more handsome and personable than Nathan. The alienists, however, preferred the more intellectual Nathan, and their reports and testimony suggested Richard had done the actual killing. Leopold was fascinated by psychoanalysis, while Richard occasionally fell asleep during sessions. The defense alienists spent more time talking about Nathan, who came off looking like an evil genius (mastermind as some newspapers called him), while Richard looked more like a dumb lug, the muscle. With Richard dead, though, Nathan could portray his friend as the muscle and the instigator and planner of the crime and claim he was just carried along by it. After all, no one could contradict his story. We probably shouldn’t judge Nathan too harshly for this because Richard probably would have done the same thing if their positions had been reversed. However, this has possibly made Nathan look much less guilty, which is not necessarily true. While Richard wanted to commit a perfect crime, Nathan seemed to think it was okay for them to do so because they were supermen and laws didn’t apply to them. Both had motives based on their intellectual interests, both planned the kidnapping and murder, both kidnapped Bobby, both had a hand in the murder (even if only one did the killing, the other certainly didn’t try to stop him), both disposed of the body, and both tried to collect the ransom the next day. Quite simply, both were guilty. It was probably necessary for Nathan to downplay his guilt in order to receive parole (which he eventually did), but that does not mean Leopold was less culpable.
Books written on the pair generally concede that Richard struck the fatal blow, but we’ll never know for sure. Whether he did or not, Richard seems to be a bundle of contradictions. He loved to commit crimes, yet he was extremely personable and socially polished. Nathan Leopold, in his autobiography, talks about how much everybody in prison liked Richard, claiming he was one of very few people who convicts and guards liked equally. Richard was able to effortlessly get along with everybody, both outside of prison and inside it. During his eleven years in prison, Richard was never sent to the Hole (solitary confinement), while Leopold went several times (and some of those times were before Richard’s death). Either Richard was able to behave himself in prison or his charm allowed him to smooth over any difficulties (perhaps a combination of both).
In a twisted sort of way, perhaps Richard got what he wanted out of life after all. During the trial, he admitted he had fantasies of being a criminal in jail, admired and looked up to by the other prisoners and adored by young women. Although he dreamed this was because of his criminal prowess, Richard essentially achieved his dream. He was famous for committing such a heinous and random crime, but beyond that he was a celebrity criminal, fawned over by silly young women. Even in prison people liked him, perhaps more for his sociable personality than for his criminal skill, but he was still a bit of a jailhouse celebrity. In a weird, unfortunate way, his dreams came true.
For more on Richard Loeb, check out these sources I used:
Baatz, Simon. For the Thrill of It: Leopold, Loeb, and the Murder that Shocked Chicago.
New York: Harper Collins, 2008.
Higdon, Hal. Leopold and Loeb: The Crime of the Century. Urbana: University of Illinois
Leopold, Nathan, Jr. Life Plus 99 Years. Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Company, Inc,