Leopold and Loeb – The Real-Life Case Behind “Rope”

The original “Thrill Killers” Leopold and Loeb were part of the “Crime of the Century” killing of Bobby Franks; the real-life inspiration for half a dozen books, movies, and plays, including Bygone’s next show, Rope. Here’s a quick rundown of the crime and notorious killers.

The Crime of the Century
Nathan Leopold und Richard Loeb

The murder was labeled the “crime of the century” by the press because it was so unusual, so unprecedented for its time; two young men, from well-to-do families planned and orchestrated the murder of an innocent young teen, purely for the thrill of it. These were not gang members, were not foreigners or minorities; they were wealthy, good looking and brilliant, and the public just could not reconcile the concept of these two young men being ruthless murderers.

It was Chicago 1924 when Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb decided to kill; there was no clear motive, although theories range from that of a sex-for-murder agreement to seeing the entire incident as a game. They had planned the majority of the crime for over six months, but it wasn’t until the day of the murder that the two selected the victim; 14 year old Bobby Franks. While he was chosen at random, Bobby was familiar to the boys whose family’s new each other; still, he was simply in the wrong place at the wrong time.

The murder was fast and brutal; after luring Bobby into their car, one of the men attacked him from behind, delivering a fatal blow to the head. In an attempt to mislead police, they stripped the body naked and covered it in acid, hoping to disfigure the corpse that they left abandoned in a wooded area not far away. Despite months of careful planning, a relatively simple mistake lead to their capture; Leopold dropped his glasses at the crime scene, and as they were made with a particularly unusual style of hinge they were quickly traced back to the young man. In the brief time before their arrest, Leopold and Loeb had attempted to demand a ransom from Franks’ parents, but this too was done messily. For two young men certain of their brilliance and ability to commit the “perfect crime”, they made quite a few amateur mistakes.

Nathan Leopold

Nathan Leopold

Nathan Leopold – Born November 19, 1904


With a reported IQ of 210 , Nathan Leopold was an undisputed genius. Interested in ornithology, he was already making his name known in the field and had a bright future ahead of him. Unfortunately a combination of his love for Loeb and his dark interest in things like Friedrich Nietzsche‘s concept of supermen or the Übermenschen lead him down a twisted path to murder. He believed that “legal obligations did not apply to those who approached ‘the superman‘” and to him both he and his lover, Richard Loeb, fell into that category.

“Loeb’s friendship was necessary to me– terribly necessary”

When quested about his motive for the crime, the youth replied; “to the extent that I had one, was to please Dick”. In the case of Nathan Leopold, nothing was too horrid a task if it would please his beloved Richard.

Richard Loeb

Richard Loeb

Richard Loeb – Born June 11, 1905


While still exceptionally bright, Richard Loeb was not as intelligent as Nathan Leopold. Despite being the University of Michigan’s youngest graduate at the age of 17, he was often described with unflattering terms; “lazy”, unmotivated”, and “obsessed with crime”. All points suggest that he was the mastermind in the crime, and that he took advantage of Leopold’s love for him, manipulating the young man to act in a way he would never have done on his own. Loeb had committed numerous crimes in his youth, but none that involved injuring another human being; until the day he murder the innocent Bobby Franks.

Quotes from the psychiatrists (the called alienists) at the trial paint a picture of the man;

“It was Richard Loeb who was the ‘mastermind’. Nathan Leopold, the intellectual prodigy, was his virtual slave”

“Leopold is a victim of autoism, a type which centers and defies the ego. Loeb is a case of non-emotional psychosis.”

“They are a supreme case of ‘folie a deux’, or insanity of two. Leopold might have escaped all trouble had it not been for Loeb. Loeb would certainly have reached nearly the same end at which he is now”.

Clarence Darrow


The case quickly became less about the trial itself, and more about the defense attorney, Clarence Darrow, and his fight against the death penalty. For more information of the trial’s specifics, check out the Darrow Collection.





Inspired Works


A play inspired by the crime, Thrill Me

Various works have been inspired by the shocking true story of the Leopold and Loeb murder; Patrick Hamilton wrote Rope which was in turn adapted for a Hitchcock film of the same name, and which we are basing our production off of. There is also Thrill Me, a a musical more directly related to the case.


Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope, based off the play by Patrick Hamilton

While the case was tragic and horrific, it goes to show that mankind has a fascination with the darkest parts of a human’s mind. To see our take on this concept, check out Rope at the Gibson House Museum this November.

Want to help produce the show? Check out our FWYC campaign to make a donation.