Digital History

The Jazz Age: The American 1920s

Leopold and Loeb Previous Next
Digital History ID 3391



The murder was the first "Crime of the Century." In 1924, two teenagers with every social advantage kidnapped, killed, and mutilated a 14-year-old neighbor.

Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb came from highly privileged Chicago families. At age 19, Leopold was already a University of Chicago graduate and spoke 14 languages. Richard, just 18 years old, was the youngest graduate in the history of the University of Michigan. Leopold would describe the two as evil geniuses who were above ordinary standards of morality.

Theirs was a thrill killing, which included various sexual perversions with their victim's body; they even mutilated the boy's genitals with acid. Yet Leopold and Loeb were not executed. Their defender, attorney Clarence Darrow, introduced the psychiatric defense into the legal system. He claimed that the youths had been sexually abused by their governess and scarred by feelings of physical inferiority. He maintained that Leopold had been traumatized by his mother's death, and that Loeb had been pushed into extreme academic overachievement. In addition, Leopold and Loeb had indulged in extreme sexual fantasies.

Before the 1920s, the dominant view of violent juveniles emphasized deficiency and deprivation. Juvenile killers were generally thought of as subnormal in intelligence. The conventional view was that delinquents had been neglected by their families and deprived of education. But the Leopold and Loeb case challenged that view. The case was interpreted to mean that any parent could have raised these two youthful murderers. Said a prominent judge:

Let no parent flatter himself that the Leopold-Loeb case has no lesson for him....It is more than the story of a murder. It is the story of modern youth, of modern parents, of modern economic and social conditions, and of modern education.

Rather than blaming the young men's parents, the judge and the press accepted Clarence Darrow's argument that society, schools, and violent social conditions were largely to blame for the crime. Darrow also succeeded in putting the morality of the death penalty on trial. He acknowledged his clients' guilt and admonished the audience to hate the sin but not the sinner. He succeeded in persuading the judge to give the two murderers life sentences.

After the sentence Richard Loeb and Nathan Leopold were moved to the Joliet penitentiary. In 1936, Loeb was killed with a razor in a fight with another inmate who was later acquitted of the murder. Nathan Leopold managed to keep intellectually active in prison; he taught in the prison school, mastered 27 foreign languages, worked as an x-ray technician in the prison hospital, reorganized the prison library, and designed a new system of prison education. He was released from prison in 1958 after 34 years of confinement. He moved to Puerto Rico where he earned a master's degree, wrote a book on birds, taught mathematics, and worked in hospitals and church missions. He died of a heart attack at the age of 66 on August 30, 1971.

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