1924 Leopold and Loeb Case: Murder Mania Returns

tags: Bruce Chadwick, theater, plays, culture, Leopold and Loeb



8-12-13

Bruce Chadwick lectures on history and film at Rutgers University in New Jersey. He also teaches writing at New Jersey City University. He holds his PhD from Rutgers and was a former editor for the New York Daily News. Mr. Chadwick can be reached at bchadwick@njcu.edu.


Credit: Wiki Commons.

Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb, two brilliant Chicago college students, have lived in infamy as the brutal slayers of 14 year old Bobby Franks in 1924, a student whom they kidnapped and murdered just to prove that they could commit the perfect crime.

The pair planned the murder for seven months. They were certain they could get away with it because they believed they were “supermen” and were smarter than everyone else. They abducted Franks after school. He was beaten to death and dumped in a culvert near a Chicago area lake. Then the kidnappers sent a letter to his millionaire father demanding ransom. They did not know that the body had already been found; no ransom was paid.

Their brilliant plan continued to unravel. Police found a pair of unusual eyeglasses near the crime scene, one of only three pair sold in Chicago in recent years. They discovered that one of the suspects owned them. Police interrogators then turned the heat up on the pair and their carefully concocted alibi stories came apart. Their ‘perfect crime’ turned out to be the most badly planned and executed kidnapping and murder of the era.

The press and public was transfixed by the case for several reasons: 1) a child had been slain, 2) the killers were well-dressed, rich young men who lived in the best section of town, 3) it was yet another kidnapping in a decade in which kidnappings were frequent, 4) it involved a world famous attorney, defense lawyer Clarence Darrow. The highlight of the case, that made it historic, was the twelve hour long plea for leniency from Darrow.

The story was memorialized forever in the stark 1959 film Compulsion, starring Orson Welles as Darrow. There have been more than two dozen books written about the killers and the trial. Now the American stage is abuzz with plays about Leopold and Loeb. Thrill Me: the Leopold and Loeb Story, by Stephen Dolginoff, was staged in May at Cleveland’s Liminis Theater. Break None of His Bones, by Joanne de Simone, was produced last week at the Midtown International Theater Festival in New York. Dickie & Babe was staged in 2008 and repeated several times.

This autumn, John Logan’s Never the Sinner, which was first produced in New York more than ten years ago, and was revived there last spring, will be staged this fall at the Alley Theater in Houston.

What is it about the historic 1924 murder than still holds such an interest for the public nearly 100 years later?

Now, like then, someone is always trying to commit the perfect crime. Now, like then, forensics experts solved cases. Now, like then, we are fascinated with trials (Casey Anthony, Jodie Arias, and George Zimmerman). Now, like then, we love to watch highly skilled lawyers at work. Now, like then, we want to see rich people who commit crimes get caught.

The public is not just interested in Leopold and Loeb. Historic murders, real and imagined, are popular coast to coast. The return of the Fringe Festival in New York, the nation’s largest fringe event, will feature several murder stories set in 1963. The festival also plays host to Death to McCootie, a 1940s murder tale, and Old Familiar Places. Murder Ballad, set in a 1900s bar, just ended a run at two separate Off Broadway theaters. The Shakespeare Theater of New Jersey produced Playboy of the Western World, about a 1907 era slaying case. Murder for Two, about the slaying of a famed novelist, was off Broadway during the end of the summer.

Several theaters, including Shakespeare and Company in the Berkshires, in Massachusetts, staged Richard II last summer. The Drilling Company of New York, that presents plays in a lower Manhattan parking lot each summer, is having fun staging Richard III, chortling that since the bones of the real, homicidal King Richard III were recently discovered in a British parking lot, their New York parking lot is the perfect place for a performance of the drama.

It is not just theater in New York that has caught murder history mania. Across the nation whodunits, most set in the past, are blooming. The Charleston (S.C.) Stage will present Sherlock Holmes, set in the 1880s. The Alley Theater, in Houston, produced Sherlock Holmes and the Suicide Club and Agatha Christie’s The Hollow (1920s) in the summer. The Arizona Theater Company, in Tucson, will produce The Mountaintop, about the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968.

Up ahead in New York, on Broadway, we have A Time to Kill, a staged version of John Grisham’s bestselling murder novel, Shakespeare’s murder plays Macbeth and Richard III, and Machinal, a 1928 murder story about a woman who kills her husband. Off Broadway there will be Three Penny Opera, the tale of 1931’s insidious killer Mack the Knife, and A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder. The spoof, Murdered by the Mob, with a 1960s look, continues in New York, as does The Perfect Crime and the Lombardi Case, the outdoor interactive 1970s murder story. The New York Metropolitan opera is bringing back its new version of Rigoletto, in which the story is set amid mafia wars in Las Vegas in the 1960s.

On television, murder tales are more than holding their own. Over the last five years, murder dramas such as NCIS. NCIS: Los Angeles, Criminal Minds, Person of Interest Law and Order, CSI, Bones and the historic Sherlock Homes brought up to date in Elementary, constituted about 30 per cent of the top twenty shows.

Why?

The reason is as simple as it is complex. You would think that we see more murder movies, television shows and plays because there is more murder in the country. That must drive it, right? Wrong. There is less murder, far less. According to FBI statistics, the murder rate has dropped an impressive 40% over the last thirty or so years (overall crime is down 33%). So the increase in murder in entertainment does not make sense. However, two thirds of the American people, a recent poll showed, believe that crime and murder rate is up. That’s why we see more murder stories.

And why do people believe that erroneous statistic? The media. The American media has pounced on murder stories since the 1720s. It builds readership. Look at the last year – the Newtown, Connecticut massacre, the George Zimmerman trial, the Jodie Arias trial, the James Holmes theater massacre case in Colorado, the NFL’s Aaron Hernandez murder case and the Boston Marathon bombings. The overkill of crime stories in the media led everyone to believe that the crime had skyrocketed. The entertainment furnace then feeds the public murder stories. The public loves them. Murder has become a part of the national landscape.

It will never change, either.


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