In 1924, the murder of fourteen year-old Bobby Franks caught the attention of the nation. Bobby was lured into a car by his seventeen year-old second cousin, Richard Loeb. Loeb and his friend, Nathan Leopold killed Bobby and dumped his body in a culvert on the Indiana border. It did not take the police long to discover the identities of the killers who readily confessed. What shocked Chicago and the rest of the country was the reason that Bobby needed to be killed.
Nathan Leopold, Richard Loeb, and Robert Franks were the golden children of very wealthy parents. Nathan was very likely a genius. Richard was not as academically gifted, but like Nathan, he graduated from high school when he was very young. Both entered the University of Chicago when their peers would have been high school sophomores. In that they were so much younger than their classmates, they became best friends and each fed off the other’s warped view of their places in the world.
Richard craved danger, not physical danger for himself, but the rush he got when he stole a car or vandalized shop windows. Nathan went along with Richard’s plans without any undue attacks of conscience. He had fallen in love with Richard and would do whatever Richard wanted rather than risk losing his friendship.
Both boys had highly developed fantasy lives. Richard believed that he had the intelligence and nerve to be a master criminal. In his mind, other criminals would be in awe of his ingenuity and cleverness. Not a detective in the world could catch him but, if he did get caught, he would be so admired for his resourcefulness that people would come to the prison to watch him in admiration.
Nathan’s fantasy played perfectly off Richard’s. Nathan imagined himself as a slave, the strongest man in the world, who saved the life of the king and was rewarded constantly by the king who admired him so much. Nathan maintained this fantasy from childhood through adolescence. It was easy for Richard to be the brilliantly clever king who depended on his slave to do his bidding.
Nathan became obsessed with the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche because he knew himself to be superman. He believed that because of his intelligence he should not be constrained by the moral codes of ordinary people. Even murder was within the realm of possibility for the superman as long as it gave him pleasure. Richard had no objection to murder. He had been thinking for years about how to commit the perfect crime. The plan would include kidnapping a child and holding him for ransom. Since the victim would likely see him, murder would be part of the plan so that Richard would not have to be concerned about being identified.
The boys argued about the victim. Nathan thought they should kidnap a girl and he wanted to rape her before killing her. That Nathan was a homosexual didn’t change his vision of how the crime should proceed. But Richard decided the victim should be a boy and he should come from the Harvard School, the exclusive prep school where he and Nathan had met.
The decided that they would commit their crime on May 21, 1924. Nathan was nineteen, Richard eighteen, and they knew that they were going to kill a boy on that day. They had rehearsed their plan carefully and they were certain that they had devised such a perfect plan that they would never be caught. They sat in a car where they could watch the doors of the Harvard School for a couple of hours before dismissal. The plan was perfect; they just hadn’t picked their victim yet. They discussed possible candidates. They had decided that they were going to demand a $10,000.00 ransom so the victim had to be rich. Armand Deutsch, eleven years old, was high on their list. He was the grandson of the president of Sears, Roebuck. Richard had second thoughts about Armand. Richard’s father was vice-president of Sears, Roebuck. If they killed Armand and were found out, Richard’s father would be embarrassed so they needed another victim. Because Richard thought embarrassment was a greater sin than murder, Armand Deutsch did not lose his life.
After dismissing various candidates for murder throughout the afternoon, they feared that they would have to wait for another day. And then Richard spotted Bobby Franks, 14, his second cousin. There would be no difficulty getting Bobby into the car. The means of his death had been planned to the finest detail so it took no time before Bobby Franks was dead.
A few days after the murder, Nathan told the police, “The thing that prompted Dick to want to do this thing and prompted me to want to do this thing was a sort of pure loveof excitement, or the imaginary love of thrills, doing something different….The money consideration only came in afterwards, and never was important….The money was a part of our objective,as was also the commission of the crime; but that was not the exact motive, but that came afterwards.” Nathan never expressed any regret for the murder. Neither did Richard. “I can’t understand,” Nathan complained…, “why the papers are saying this was such an atrocious murder.”
FOR THE THRILL OF IT is a fascinating book because all the conversations quoted in the book were taken from transcripts or interviews. It Nathan and Richard had not found each other, neither would likely have committed a murder on his own. But together, they were a perfect storm of absolute amorality and narcissism. The idea for the murder may have originated with Richard but Nathan didn’t require any convincing. They were equally convinced that their superiority to all other beings made whatever they did to please themselves reasonable and rational. After his arrest, when speaking to a detective, Nathan explained. “A thirst for knowledge,” he explained to Sullivan, providing a helpful analogy to the murder of Bobby Franks, “is highly commendable, no matter what extreme pain or injury it may inflict upon others. A 6-year-old-boy is justified in pulling the wings from a fly, if by so doing he learns that without wings the fly is helpless.”
Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb confessed to their crime. Their parents hired Clarence Darrow who worked to spare them the death penalty by pointing out that both were under 21 years old. They entered a plea of guilty and were sentenced to life in prison with an added 99 years for the kidnapping. In 1936, Richard Loeb was killed in prison. In 1958, Nathan Leopold was released from prison on parole. He moved to Puerto Rico and died in 1966.
The courtroom information and the discussions among psychiatrists as to their mental state and their youth introduced the idea that they may have been born with some kind of genetic flaw that led them to murder. That discussion is still going on.
This book is an engrossing read. It again raises the question of being born bad and therefore not being responsible for bad actions versus a considered decision to do whatever is pleasing without consideration of the consequences to the victim.