Day 542: Who Is Smart Enough To Pull Off The Perfect Murder?

originally published June 25, 2013

What constitutes the perfect murder?

Clearly getting away with it is probably the first priority. Evading suspicion entirely would be ideal, but so long as your story is straight and your delivery impeccable, you should be able to dance the steps necessary for your freedom. But you can’t commit an act of passion, nor can you deliver the fatal blow to anyone against whom you might have even the slightest motive. The perfect murder should be inscrutably plotted, meticulously choreographed and flawlessly covered up.

Just ask Leopold and Loeb, two friends and students who thought they had orchestrated the most impenetrable crime. Though I suppose if they had, we wouldn’t know who they were, would we?

Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb were two unusually intelligent, privileged kids from the right neighborhood in Chicago. They met in college where they were both en route to careers in law. Leopold and Loeb saw themselves as Übermensches, the Nietzschean ideals of humanity. They were fit, they were brilliant – Leopold allegedly possessed an IQ of 210, while Loeb could speak 27 languages fluently – and they happened to possess the societal advantage of having scads of money and being both white and male in America.

Rather than tap into their presumed greatness to elevate humankind to a new plateau of progressive enlightenment, Leopold and Loeb sought to subvert the lesser humans. They wanted to prove their mental dominance over their supposed peers, and for this they turned to crime – petty theft at first, but it didn’t take long for that to escalate.

Enter 14-year-old Robert “Bobby” Franks.

Bobby Franks meant nothing to Leopold and Loeb – that was the point. Franks was the son of Jacob Franks, a local millionaire. Bobby found himself at the gruesome end of seven months of planning. He was walking home from school on May 21, 1924, when a car pulled up beside him containing Richard Loeb (who was Bobby’s second cousin) and Nathan Leopold. They offered him a ride, and Bobby accepted.

Neither Leopold nor Loeb (who were 19 and 18 respectively at the time) ever revealed who drove the car and who was sitting with a waiting chisel in the back seat. The chisel did its work, and as the car headed south toward Indiana, Bobby Franks quietly bled to death in the passenger seat. The killers found a quiet spot near Wolf Lake in Hammond, Indiana, just south of Chicago. Franks’ body was stripped, and hydrochloric acid was dumped all over him in order to make identification that much more difficult.

With the deed done, Leopold and Loeb found themselves a hot dog stand and had a bite to eat. Murder really works up an appetite.

After moving the body to a well-hidden culvert near the Pennsylvania Railroad tracks, the boys returned to Chicago to execute the next phase of their plan. They burned their clothes, cleaned the car, and called up Franks’ mother to inform her that her son had been kidnapped. They typed up a quick ransom note, then settled in for the evening.

Here’s where the so-called perfect murder starts to fall apart. Before the Franks family could pay the ransom, Bobby’s body was discovered.  Apparently the ‘perfect murder’ didn’t include the ‘perfect hiding place’. Leopold and Loeb wasted no time destroying the typewriter upon which they had written the ransom note and burning the robe they had used to move the acid-soaked body.

Okay, so the perfect murder hadn’t netted them the ransom money they’d hoped for. Not a big deal – money was never the motivation for Leopold and Loeb. But how could they possibly be tied to the murder? They were each other’s alibi, and they both concocted a story about how they had picked up a couple of girls and hung out with them for the night. They never did learn the girls’ last names, so their identities remained a convenient mystery.

It might have worked. Except for one thing.

Detective Hugh Patrick Byrne stumbled across a pair of glasses near the spot where the body had been found. The glasses featured a very unusual hinge mechanism – so unusual in fact that only three people had purchased such a pair. One of those people was Nathan Leopold, the best friend of the murder victim’s second cousin.

Both young men were brought in for questioning, and their stories soon fell apart. Loeb confessed first, Leopold followed shortly thereafter. And though each placed the other in the back seat, wielding the fatal chisel, they were both equally charged with kidnapping and murder. As the trial approached, the media coverage reached the 1924 equivalent of OJ-crazy. Everyone expected a not guilty plea due to insanity. How could it be anything else? Why else would these intelligent boys who had brilliant futures in front of them commit such a horrible crime?

Richard Loeb’s family hired none other than Clarence Darrow, who at 67 was still one of the most respected attorneys in the country, to represent both boys.

Darrow advised the boys that a not guilty plea would probably result in a rendezvous with the electric chair for both of them. They plead guilty and were handed life in prison for murder, along with 99 years for kidnapping. I’m a little surprised by this, as the kidnapping was really only a staged affair; Bobby Franks was murdered after voluntarily hopping in a car with his cousin.

Robert Loeb lasted over eleven years in prison before he was attacked with a straight razor in the shower. James E. Day, another prisoner, claimed that Loeb had been trying to force himself sexually on Day, and that Day was simply defending himself. Not a lot of people bought that story (I get the impression that Day was kind of like the T-Bag of Statesville Penitentiary, to use lingo from the show Prison Break), but that was the story that leaked to the press.

Nathan Leopold served 33 years before being granted parole in 1958. He moved to Puerto Rico to escape the media, and lived there until a heart attack grabbed him in 1971.

I don’t believe in the ‘perfect murder’, especially in this age of DNA testing, advanced forensic science and CSI cops with mighty sunglasses. But I suppose the possibility does exist; a lot of murders remain unsolved. Nevertheless, Leopold and Loeb were not the criminal masterminds their egos believed them to be.

Their story has been adapted in fiction a number of times, but you’ll hardly do better than Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope, a film not only notable for its gripping story and psychological themes, but for the fact that it was shot so as to appear to be a single long take, start to finish. From what I can surmise, the guys in the movie did a much better job of almost getting away with the perfect murder.

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