Author Nina Barrett discussed her new book, The Leopold and Loeb Files: An Intimate Look at One of America’s Most Infamous Crimes, at the Seminary Co-Op Bookstore on Thursday.
The book is a collection of documents about the infamous 1924 killing committed by two University of Chicago students. In 1924, Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb, both sons of wealthy Chicago families, kidnapped and murdered 14-year-old Bobby Franks. Within 10 days, authorities had identified the killers, thanks in part to a pair of Leopold’s eyeglasses that were found near the body.
Clarence Darrow, a legendary attorney, represented Leopold and Loeb at trial. Since they had already confessed to the crime, the only chance for a not-guilty verdict would have been on the grounds of criminal insanity. Darrow chose to enter a guilty plea and argued for leniency in sentencing on the grounds that the two young men were mentally unsound, without invoking the legal definition of insanity.
Since the crime was solved so quickly, Barrett told the crowd, “it has never really been a murder mystery in a traditional sense.” Instead, the public fascination with Leopold and Loeb that has persisted for nearly a century has centered around the question of the pair’s motivations. Leopold famously considered himself a Nietzschean superman, and the two thought they were above the law. “I think [the crime] raises very primal questions about morality, sanity, justice, remorse, and rehabilitation that writers and artists find irresistible,” she said, “and they want to explore them and embellish them.”
“But I feel like when you encounter the original documents,” Barrett continued, “what you find is that this story really doesn’t need any embellishing at all.”
The murder of Franks has inspired multiple books and films, and even a global off-Broadway musical.
“What I was trying to do in The Leopold and Loeb Files,” Barrett said, “was let this collection of documents tell the story in such a way that you would feel that you were peeking through the keyhole of history directly into the rooms where a lot of this was unfolding.”
Barrett’s involvement with the Leopold and Loeb case began in 2009, when she curated an exhibit at the Northwestern University library that showcased many of the documents that eventually became part of her book.
One of Barrett’s most notable discoveries occurred during the final stages of her research. While going through the psychiatric reports that formed the backbone of Darrow’s case, she said, “Lo and behold, right next to them, there was a new document.” It turned out to be a report that Darrow had previously kept from the public. In it, Darrow’s team of psychiatrists had said definitively that Leopold and Loeb were clinically and legally insane.
Barrett said that in her book she tried to include documents emphasizing the “Shakespearean drama” of how the Franks, Leopold, and Loeb families were affected in the aftermath of the murder, departing from the traditional narrative that places the sole focus on the killers and their relationship.
“These were three unbelievably successful, socially prominent families,” she said, “and they were all destroyed by this.”
Concluding the event, Barrett quipped, “I hope I’ve cheered you up.”