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A few days ago I was rummaging through some old papers when I came across a term paper I wrote when I was a junior in high school sixty years ago. Though I did not know it at the time, the teacher was a gay man and his comments on the paper may have been influenced by this factor which I did not appreciate at the time. The paper was on the Leopold and Loeb Case—Its Impact on Society. I must say I did a good job and reading through my old report gave me some memories of my schooling at Deerfield Academy in the late 1950’S. It’s an interesting term paper so I am presenting it to you with a few changes from the original.

          The heinous kidnaping and murder of Robert Franks by Richard Loeb and Nathan Leopold Jr., in Chicago, Illinois, on May 21, 1924, aroused world-wide concern, at first because of the contrast between the social status of the murderers and the callous cruelty of the deed, but afterwards because of the psychiatric testimony offered by the defense at the hearing and trial for a mitigated sentence. The notoriety given the case by innumerable newspapers and magazines, the social prominence and wealth of the three families involved, and the question of life-imprisonment as opposed to capital punishment also aroused active public reaction.

          The chief defense lawyer, Clarence Darrow, entered a plea of guilty to the court. This eliminated the necessity of a jury and placed the fate of the two boys at the discretion of the presiding judge, John R. Caverly. After a one month hearing, the boys were sentenced to life imprisonment for murder and ninety-nine years for kidnapping, with the explicit suggestion of the judge that neither Leopold nor Loeb be given opportunity for parole. He felt that he had meted out a just sentence for the boys and had also done his job as a protector of the public’s safety. Immediately, there was an almost universal reaction to Judge Caverly’s decision. An analysis of this reaction as surveyed in newspapers, books and periodicals, from the time of the trial to date, was the intent of this paper. This involved discussion of the influence of wealth, psychiatry and the anti-intellectualism, as well as other factors, in the molding of public opinion, such as the immediate reactions to Judge Caverly and Clarence Darrow.

          Considering crimes which have occurred recently and those of eighty-five years ago, it may be noted that the individuals involved are usually products of deprived home lives and communities. However, in contrast with this, Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb were nurtured in two of the finest homes of a wealthy Chicago community and this accounts partially for the widespread notoriety given the case.

          G.K. Chesterton commented that this was “one of the exceedingly few attempts ever made in the modern world to punish a millionaire

For anything.” The public demanded that this differentiation between criminals according to wealth be eliminated. In this context, almost immediately after the sentencing, protests showered into the Illinois Supreme Court in connection with the two murder cases for which two young men of very poor families were sentenced to hang. Taking a stand in their defense, The Detroit Free Press blamed their fates on the fact that “they were never able to save enough to hire a high-priced, emotional lawyer who makes a specialty of cheating the gallows.” There is no twenty-first birthday distinction made in Illinois law as to murderous intent or responsibility, but the public demanded that if such distinction be drawn in favor of some minors, it ought to be drawn in favor of all.  “…the law must be impartial and dispassionate, even-handed and constant, beyond fear or favor—one justice for high, low, rich and poor, without variation or shadow of turning.”

          The Leopold-Loeb Case was looked upon by many people as proof that wealth can find a way to evade the death penalty from crime. However, Judge Caverly, commenting in the New York Times, denied charges that affluence had anything to do with his decision.

          A primary concern of the public was that the same influence and affluence which had saved Leopold and Loeb from the gallows would later gain them parole. In general, the public felt that money had ruined the boys, money had gotten them the verdict, and that money would eventually obtain them paroles. Millionaires’ sons do not stay in prison long! However, in our egalitarian tradition, wealth does not command public sympathy on trial.

          The Leopold-Loeb hearing has been dubbed “The Psychiatrists’ Day in Court”. For the first time in the history of American jurisprudence opportunity was presented to determine the mental conditions of persons accused of crimes according to the dictates of scientific modern psychiatry without arbitrary or unscientific limitations imposed by archaic rules of law.

          Leopold and Loeb gave no explanation for their crime other than the mere thrill experienced in doing something different. They even agreed that they would commit the crime again if they could feel sure of recovering their “first, fine, careful rapture.” Answers had to be found for this inexplicable deed.

          Psychoanalysis was in the early phase of development and recognition on the American scene at that time. Society was not prepared to accept  this new language, the jargon of psychiatry, as trial evidence. Even Judge Caverly affirms that he was not moved in his decision by submission of evidence involving psychological defects in the boys. It would take a psychiatrist to understand how the boys could compare a crime so brutal as this with “impaling a beetle.” It was very little more than this to Nathan Leopold who was impassive to feeling; he trained himself to have no emotions. To him this was the test of the superior intellect.

          Clarence Darrow had based a great deal of his defense on the abnormality of the two boys, appealing to the sentiment of the court. For the first time in a court, he attempted to show that although his clients were not mentally insane, they were not normal. He emphasized that they were lacking in maturity and judgement, although intellectually they were giants. But the public could not weigh psychological evidence as they would tangible or visible evidence. All they knew was that two wealthy boys had brutally murdered another wealthy boy; the apparent motive or impetus for the most part never affected them. The minority who tried to understand Leopold and Loeb recognized that Darrow’s arguments had some validity. A writer, Blumgart from Chicago pointed out the situation at hand very clearly,

          Suppose we imprison these boys for life or even hang them. We shall have disposed of them, but how much further are we toward an understanding of them or their kind? Have we not for centuries been acting like the Queen of Hearts in Alice in Wonderland, whenever anything displeases us shouting, “Off with their heads”? And isn’t it about time we answered, “Nonsense” as Alice did, very loudly and decidedly”.


A Britisher, drawing contrasts between the methods of his courts and ours, was disgusted by the Leopold-Loeb Hearing. He stated that if a man is sane, he is to be tried without reference to sanity. If he is insane he is not to be tried but put in a mental institution. He also impressed upon Americans that half-sanity was insanity. To him, Leopold and Loeb were insane. How could any man in a sane mind commit such a premeditated crime merely for the thrill involved?

          Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb assert that they slew Robert Franks to study their own reactions. They assumed they were intellectual supermen, now bound by morals and laws which are supposed to be adhered to by society.  If insanity is the inability to recognize legal responsibility, then certainly Leopold and Loeb were not insane and deserved to be tried. They realized that the acts they were committing were in opposition to the law. However, if insanity implied derangement, then the question arises whether the two boys were r were not mentally deranged. This problem was the task which faced the psychiatrists in the case. The validity of the evidence submitted by the psychiatrists was widely questioned; articles by Salmon, “Psychiatrists’ Day in Court”, and Wilson, “Common Sense and Criminal Law” imply: How may we be sure of the psychiatrists’ decisions? The answer, to this day, bedevils the court in interpretation of psychiatric evidence.

          For many years certain doctors have been attempting to link mental illness with congenital physical defects. Such was the basis f the Hickson-Olson theory which appeared a few months before the Leopold-Loeb Case came into public eye. After the confession of the two boys, eminent theorists examined them and reported that they had found noteworthy physical defects which were responsible for the boys’ derangement.  They pointed out that these deformities were incurable and that Leopold and Loeb should be confined under such conditions that they would never again be free to endanger the pubic. Although there exist many advocates of this theory today, it has not been substantiated and has never been used in court for defense evidence!

          Occasionally in today’s court of law, when there would appear to be no apparent defense, the psychiatrist is used by the defense attorney.       

          One of the most salient points under discussion at the time of the hearing was the American standard if education. Were the scholastic institutions fostering criminals or had the episode of Leopold and Loeb been a freak of education? I a speech delivered to the student body of his university, President Hopkins of Dartmouth remarked that “Education without the influence of the spirit of religion is incomplete education.”

          Intellectually, Leopold was labelled as a genius and both boys had been the youngest graduates from their respective universities, Leopold graduating from the University of Chicago with several honors at nineteen and Loeb graduating from the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor at eighteen. Several doctors felt that these two intellectually precocious boys were “science crazy”. They were infatuated with the idea of research and murdered the Franks boy to satisfy their own intellectual curiosities.

          In sentencing the boys Judge Caverly was moved by the ages of the defendants. However, although Leopold and Loeb were younger than many f the men in years, they were “the peers of many men twice their age in mental power, in cunning and in command of their wills and emotions.

          On general principle (with a few notable exceptions) we associate crime with ignorance. Is the fact that such intelligence was directed toward crime indicative of flaws in our system of education? This is a difficult question for anyone to answer. The thinking man should be able to analyze what he is doing, to step back and, with good perspective, balance “good” with “evil” to find that the scale tips to the positive.

          The Leopold-Loeb Hearing led to a re-examination of our educational system. In the case of a superfine higher education, if such a tragedy could befall two wealthy Chicago families, it could happen to any American family. There was a growing concern about the nature and direction of our education, anticipating the same concern today with the present wave if juvenile delinquency.

          Because of the intellectual attainment of these two boys, in the face of this crime, anti-intellectualism was greatly spurred. In the absence of oral restraints it is evident that intelligence can breed crime as well as ignorance.

          The taboo in discussion of homosexuality keeps this aspect of the case from being too well documented. It is generally accepted that a pervading, subtle reaction of the public towards the case rested on the prejudice against homosexuality. Nathan Leopold admitted having had homosexual relationships with Richard Loeb in return for acting as a sort of slave to is companion whom he judged to be a superior being. In the light f the Kinsey Report it is quite possible that many of the persons who reacted strongly to Leopold and Loeb, “condemning

Them as perverted monsters of an alien emotional world”, were reflecting their own repressed homosexual tendencies.

          Another subtle element in the genera reaction to the trial, which was impossible to document and measure, was the influence of Anti-Semitism. Suffice it to say that this was a trial of wealthy, intellectual Jewish boys, and latent Anti-Semitism could have easily

been aroused as a result.

          Clarence Darrow was a man of extraordinary talent in the field of human relations. His verbose, flowery, tear-jerking phrases all appealed to the hearts and minds of many of those who listened to him. His mannerisms were forceful, his speeches were powerfully effective, and his results were triumphant. He retained an almost unique record of having lost only one major criminal case in his entire career. The decision in the Leopold-Loeb case was a personal victory for him.

          The public reacted in two distinct ways to Clarence Darrow. Many felt that he was an overpaid sentimentalist who had an uncanny talent of cheating the gallows. They felt that Darrow over-exaggerated and overemphasized points which were of little importance. “Clarence Darrow’s final argument was in effect, that they were spoiled children who should not be too severely punished.” Those who recognized his genius thought that it was unfair to have this godsend and others nit to have hm. If one man would mean the difference between life and death for an individual, then something was wrong with the court system.

          The other reaction of the public towards him was that of great admiration. Here, they thought, was a man who had tremendous insight into human nature and above all placed the preservation of human life above all else. The following is his final plea for the lives of

the two boys.

          Your honor stands between the past and the future. You may hang these boys; you may hang these boys by the neck until they are dead. But in doing it you will turn your face toward the past. In doing it you are making it harder for every other boy who, in ignorance ad darkness, must grope his way through the mazes only childhood knows. In doing it you will make it harder for unborn children. You may save them and make it easier for every other child that sometime may stand where these boys stand. You will make it easier for every human being with an aspiration and a vision and a hope and a fate.

          I am pleading for the future; I am pleading for a time when hatred and cruelty will not control the hearts of men, when we can learn by reason and judgement and understanding and faith that all life is worth saving, and that mercy is the highest attribute of man. If I should not succeed in saving these boys’ lives ad do nothing for the progress of law, I should feel sad indeed. If I can succeed, my greatest reward and my greatest hope will be that I have done something for the tens f thousands of other boys, for the countless unfortunates who must tread the same road in blind childhood that these poor boys have trod; that I have done something to help human understanding, to temper justice with mercy, to overcome hate with love.


          Of all those associated with the hearing, Judge John R. Caverly was the focus of the highest praise and severest criticism. By his decision to save the boys’ lives, he set a significant precedent which to date has kept minors (under twenty-one) from being executed in the state of Illinois.

          Judge Caverly’s job was a difficult one for it required him to set aside his prejudices and the act in accordance with the dictates of his own conscience. It was pointed out by an Illinois priest that society puts too great a responsibility on an individual who must pass a death sentence. A well-known newspaper believed that, in his hesitance to pass sentence upon Leopold and Loeb he had helped to contribute much to the notoriety and sensationalism involved in the case and that he marred the administration of justice. Was the long drawn out hearing warranted? Evidently not, because even the judhe in his final sentencing speech, admitted indirectly that no valuable facts had been developed. The following is part f the judge’s speech, indicting is reasons for the final decision.

          It would have been the path of least resistance to impose the extreme penalty of the law. In choosing imprisonment instead of death, the court is moved chiefly by the consideration of the age of the defendants, boys of 18 and 19 years.

          It is not for the court to say that he will not in any case enforce capital punishment as an alternative, but the court believes that it is within its province to decline to impose the sentence of death on persons who are not of full age.


          It was felt by many that the double sentence of life plus ninety-nine years and the admonition against parole was satisfactory justice for both society and the defendants. However, some felt that the decision had been an outrage and wondered whether justice had been blind”!

          Whether Judge Caverly’s decision guaranteed safety to society can only be proved by Nathan Leopold who was eventually paroled and lived out his life in Puerto Rico. (Richard Loeb died in prison in 1936.)

          For a complete discussion of the responses in the Leopold-Loeb case, it is imperative to discuss the pubic feeling concerning capital punishment. However, because it has not been resolved in our national conscience, a complete discussion is not within the scope of this paper.

          There are two questions which arise in connection with capital punishment: first- the relative value f punishment by death against life imprisonment; second-the broad question of human responsibility and legal punishment. The aim of law and judgement is the safety of society. It is the deliberate judgement of the community that a man may commit a crime so monstrous that he is no longer worthy to live. If it is felt that society can only be fully protected by the elimination of an evil, then perhaps it is well to inflict capital punishment. But in the Leopold-Loeb case it was not for society to decide, only for one man, Judge Caverly. He chose to preserve their lives. Editorials appeared in several newspapers in response to the sentence. Many accepted Judge Caverly’s decision only because they felt that the two boys would never be paroled. Time has proven otherwise!

          In conclusion, having noted the response if the public to the hearing, it may be observed that in judging the two boys, individual prejudice on the part of the judge and society entered into the decision. “What the public wanted was an outlet for its outraged feelings,” “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” But whatever Leopold and Loeb deserved, it was not for the mob to decide their fate. Just as demonstrated in the motion picture “Twelve Angry Men,” so-called impartial judgement, whether by judge a jury or society has a large measure of built-in prejudice and conditioning. On a positive side, the Leopold-Loeb case made a plea for the consideration of minors in court of law as special persons. It also pointed out the role that psychiatry might play in a court of law. In summing up what Darrow said, “It is easy to destroy yet so much more difficult to understand.”