This short piece was written as a programme note for a local production of Patrick Hamilton’s Rope, which I assistant directed and in which I was supposed to play Rupert Cadell. Unfortunately, lockdown entered effect in show week, which meant that we never got a chance to stage the production we’d worked so hard on. While we are planning to bring it out later, I thought I might as well salvage this one small token from the wreckage. It’s a quick write-up of the case that inspired the play.
The Leopold and Loeb Case
When you meet someone who’s familiar with Rope, they are likely to tell you one of two things: that Hitchcock filmed it in the 1940s and/or that it’s based on a true case. One theatre friend recently asked me: ‘Did you know it’s based on the Lerner and Loewe murder case?’
Fans of musical theatre be calmed: the composers behind My Fair Lady were not involved in any mysterious killings that we know of. The case in question is in fact the Leopold and Loeb case, in Chicago.
In 1920, two teenage men, Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb, became very close. They shared youthful ambition, good looks, and intimidatingly high levels of intelligence: Leopold spoke 15 languages, while Loeb had finished school years ahead of his peers. The men – particularly the dominant Leopold – were fascinated by the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzche, whose concept of the übermenschen (super-man) would go on to inspire the Nazis to commit striking atrocities.
They believed that their superior intelligence allowed them to live beyond the moral laws of civilised society. This led them down a dark path, as they began a spree of petty thefts and vandalism. And, as the world does not work fairly, they got away with it. Emboldened, for the sheer thrill of it, in 1923, they decided to see if they could commit the perfect murder.
The 19 year-old Leopold and the 18 year-old Loeb spent seven months planning their crime. They decided the perfect victim would be a younger adolescent boy. The plan was to stage a kidnapping gone wrong, and they typed a ransom note in advance on a stolen typewriter. They purchased a chisel and staked out a local boys’ school to select the perfect victim.
The pair settled on Bobby Franks, the 14-year-old son of a businessman from Chicago. Franks happened in fact to be a relative of Loeb – but the supermen were of course above normal human empathy and this only meant they had better access to knowledge to help them kill.
The pair abducted the child on 21st May 1924. It started with an apparent act of kindness: they offered him a lift home from school. He declined, but somehow they coaxed him into the car, where they killed him on the spot. That night, the body was concealed in culvert along the North Lake of Pennsylvania, Franks’ face disfigured with hydrochloric acid.
When Leopold and Loeb returned to Chicago, their home town was abuzz with the news that Bobby Franks was missing. The two men sprang into action: not helping the community, of course, but mailing the ransom note and then retiring for an evening of card games.
When the family received the ransom note, they found they didn’t know how to pay it. Leopold telephoned them, disguising his voice with explicit intricate
instructions. Then things unravelled. The rules were so convoluted that the family couldn’t remember what to do. And before Leopold had a chance to call them back, Bobby Franks’ body was discovered.
Still, the men didn’t need money. They just wanted to see if they could get away with murder. They’d burnt the typewriter and burnt the victim’s clothes. They’d got away with murder. They carried on their normal daily routines.
And that might have been that. But they got cocky. Leopold enjoyed the drama of the case. He inserted himself into police investigations and taunted reporters, with statements along the lines of: ‘If I were to murder anybody, it would be Bobby Franks.’
… Which didn’t look good when his eyeglasses were found next to the body. Things moved quickly then. The men were brought in for questioning. Their alibi was exposed as fake. They eventually confessed. Leopold even enjoyed talking about it. He said he felt disappointed that he didn’t feel transcendent after killing: he felt the same as ever.
At the trial, the self-confessed murderers were represented by legendary defense attorney Clarence Darrow, who used the crime’s high profile as a platform to launch his arguments against the death penalty. He said:
‘This terrible crime was inherent in his organism, and it came from some ancestor … Is any blame attached because somebody took Nietzsche’s philosophy seriously and fashioned his life upon it? … It is hardly fair to hang a 19-year-old boy for the philosophy that was taught him at the university.’
The killers were not hanged. But Loeb died in 1936 when a fellow prisoner murdered him. Leopold charmed his way through prison life until his death from a heart attack in 1971.