In a wealthy Chicago neighborhood in 1924, 19-year-old Nathan Leopold and 18-year-old Richard Loeb randomly murdered 14-year-old Bobbie Franks to show they could execute the perfect crime.
In “Murder Among Friends” (Anne Schwartz Books 2022), award-winning non-fiction author Candace Fleming recounts each author’s family life as well as that of the victim in Kenwood, saving the details of the crime to weave in the description of the arrest and the trial during which the famous Clarence Darrow was the defendant’s lawyer.
Nathan Leopold, a brilliant and misfit academic, earned a bachelor’s degree from the University of Chicago at age 17 and was preparing to study law at Harvard University when he committed the crime.
He considered himself a superman, superior to others, and therefore was not limited by rules or laws. Called “Baby” by his family and close friends, he shot and stuffed songbirds all over town as a hobby.
Nathan, a gay man living at a time when homosexuality was illegal, was in love with Richard.
Richard, also a good student, was a handsome ladies’ man who also graduated early from the University of Michigan.
As a hobby, he “followed” random people around town, reveling in his secret world. He considered himself a master criminal and convinced Nathan to commit murder with him in exchange for sexual favors. Richard needed attention.
Their complex and supposedly hermetic murder plan involved a ransom, although neither young man needed the money. But first, they had to find a victim.
Bobby, from a wealthy family, neighbor of the Leopolds and first cousin of Loeb, was walking home from school. The teens abducted him from their car, killed him, then sent a ransom demand to the Franks family.
The murderers, who were apprehended early on, felt neither anxiety nor remorse.
Richard, who wanted credit and attention for his plan, finally confessed. The sentence would almost certainly be suspended.
Lawyer Clarence Darrow, who often defended pro bono cases, was hired by the Leopold and Loeb families.
Darrow had unlimited funds to hire psychiatrists at a time when practitioners were still called alienists. Psychiatry was a new science developed by Freud Jung and others.
At the time of the trial, a criminal could be saved by an insanity plea, but the two teenage criminals were deemed sane.
What the brilliant Darrow wanted was revolutionary – to show that the boys were mentally challenged, but not crazy.
Nine pages of primary sources cite the boys’ examiners’ psychiatric records.
Here we learn more about how Nathan was raised by a lovable but abusive nanny rather than his family. Loeb was neglected by his ultra-wealthy parents.
A jury would surely convict these arrogant boys. Better to convince a judge than a group of 12. So Darrow asked the boys to change their plea from not guilty to guilty to avoid a jury trial.
As gruesome as the story is, I found this meticulously researched and well-written crossover (for adult readers) to be a valuable insight into legal history and a page-turner.
Check it out.
Patricia Hruby Powell is the author of the award-winning titles “Josephine”, “Loving vs Virginia” and “Struttin’ With Some Barbecue”, among others. She teaches community classes at Parkland College. Learn more at talesforallages.com.