top of page

The Crime that Captured the World

Updated: Sep 15, 2020

Bookends & Beginnings owner and author Nina Barrett explores her latest book, The Leopold and Loeb Files in the LSCF’s First Virtual Levy Lecture

Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb. From the Charles Deering McCormick Library of Special Collections Northwestern University Libraries

More than 200 viewers logged in on April 14 to the Levy Center’s first virtual Levy Lecture featuring author and bookseller Nina Barrett, who discussed her most recent book, “The Leopold and Loeb Files: An Intimate Look at One of America's Most Infamous Crime.” Sponsored by the Levy Senior Center Foundation, LSCF board member Wendi Kromash hosted the session and moderated the questions, which were submitted via the chat function on Zoom.

Barrett, a graduate of the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern, is the author of several books, a professional chef and a two-time winner of a James Beard Award in the category of Radio Show/Audio Webcast. She and her husband also own “Bookends & Beginnings” in downtown Evanston.

The first part of her talk was a previously recorded presentation Barrett did for the National Archives’ McGowan Theater Book Lecture Series on the same subject. In her lecture, Barrett revisited the 1924 historic kidnapping and murder of affluent Hyde Park teenager Bobby Franks (below) by two classmates from the same neighborhood, Richard Leopold and Nathan Loeb. At the time, the event was often labeled the “Crime of the Century,” and over the years was depicted and chronicled in numerous books, plays and in the movies.

The Crime

The sequence of events on May 21, 1924 started with the Leopold and Loeb picking up Franks on his way home with the intent to kidnap and murder him, followed with a ransom note and a full confession 10 days later. Both were sentenced to life in prison + 99 years. Loeb was murdered in prison in 1936. Leopold was paroled in 1958 and died in 1971.

Curious elements contributed to the mystique, including the question of why the kidnappers would send a ransom note after the murder had already been committed. The ransom note was articulate, formal and produced on a typewriter with two defective keys. Most disturbingly, the boys expressed no remorse for the killing in their confessions and were without a motive or rationale for targeting Franks, other than to say “We took the most likely looking subject that came our way.” Finally, despite documentation submitted by psychiatrists that later revealed the defendants were legally and criminally insane, their attorney Clarence Darrow avoided a jury trial by forgoing an insanity plea, opting instead to blame the boys’ affluent upbringings, stating, “The boys were the victims of the extreme wealth of their families.”

The Archive

The incredible discovery of rarely kept documents in the NU archives led to an exhibit curated by Barrett for the Northwestern University Library that then became the basis for her book.

“This book is about these documents,” Barrett said. “At the time there was no archive for the court and it was common practice to toss out court documents after the conclusion of a trial. But, because of the notoriety of this particular case, many people took the documents for themselves and kept them.”

Barrett explained that it was Northwestern University Archivist Kevin Leonard who in the 1980s stumbled upon what were probably the most significant documents of the case while transporting boxes of files from Northwestern’s law school to the university library.

“Kevin was doing his last run and had worked his way to the back of the room to the oldest documents in storage, and he sees this paper bag on the floor,” Barrett recounted. Despite his hesitancy to reach into an old dirty bag, his archivist curiosity got the best of him, she further explained.

“So he sticks his hand in the bag is this yellow note that read, ‘Dear sir, you probably know by now, your son has been kidnapped.’ Then, he pulls out an envelope with the handwritten address and the name Jacob Franks and Kevin, who was born and raised in Chicago, knew immediately he was looking at the original ransom note from 1924 that had been mailed to Bobby’s parents.”

Barrett added that the bag also had psychiatrist reports and 500-page transcript of the police interrogation and confession. “It would have all been lost if he didn’t happen upon that bag,” she said.

Spread from The Leopold and Loeb Files showing the ransom note sent to the Franks family. Ransom notes from the Northwestern University Archives

Left: Forensic typewriter sample from the ransom note. Right: Leopold's glasses found at the scene.

New Evidence

In final part of her talk and in the question and answer session, Barrett delved deeper into defense attorney Darrow’s surprising guilty plea and decision not to submit Leopold and Loeb’s psychological evaluations.

In fact, Barrett recounted, it was during her fact checking for the book that she came upon a new addition to the NU archive, a document that had been in the possession of a private dealer for 90 years.

“And there was a new document!” Barrett said. “It was authored by the same psychiatrist but the shocking difference was that in this report they did in fact diagnose them as clinically and legally insane.”

This was now confirmation after 90 years that proved that Darrow suppressed the psychiatrist’s findings, opting instead to forgo the insanity plea. Barrett added, “There are still wonderful discoveries to be made in archives!”

As for motive, a viewer asked via Zoom, “Was money even a factor?” It wasn’t. “They had rich dads and their own cars, which was rare in 1924,” Barrett said. “They are famous for saying they did it of the thrill of it. They went to all this trouble to do this big awful practical joke.”

Barrett concluded her session with discussion about the fate of the three sets of parents and said that they are buried in Rosehill Cemetery in Chicago, “fairly close together as their houses were in the neighborhood.” Leopold donated his body to science after his death in Puerto Rico. Richard Loeb was cremated after his death in 1936. Barrett also said that while she has encountered some descendants of the Loebs at her talks, she has not met any of the Franks family.


Get 10% Off the Book Through April 20th

Here’s how to get a special Levy Center Member Discount:

Take advantage of this special, limited-time offer and support a wonderful local business! The discount and free delivery (within Evanston) is good through April 20, 2020 and only applies to The Leopold and Loeb Files.

1. Go to the Bookends & Beginnings website by clicking here  and putting Leopold and Loeb Files into the Search box at the top of the homepage. Add it to your cart, and continue to Checkout.

2.  At the very bottom of the Checkout page is a box labeled Coupon Discount. Enter LLEVENT to receive 10% off of the book.

3. Enter a second code, FREESHIP, in the same box to get free home delivery to Evanston residents. Be sure to do this before filling out the rest of the page.

4. Order Comments are located above the coupon box. Please note any specific instructions about where to leave the package (on a porch, in a mailbox etc.) and also any helpful directions if your location is difficult to find.

That's it! Once your order is processed, you can expect delivery within 2 business days.  


bottom of page