The Original Natural Born Killers – Issue 17: Big Bangs

In May of 1924, the city of Chicago was shocked by a brutal murder. Two precocious University of Chicago graduate students, Richard Leopold, 18, and Nathan Loeb, 19, lured, abducted, and murdered Loeb’s 14-year-old cousin Bobby Franks by clubbing and asphyxiation. The duo fancied themselves as master criminals beyond the law—they planned to play a ransom game with the victim’s family, savor the newspaper reportage, and get away with murder. But the body was discovered before the ransom could be collected, and because Leopold lost his rare fashionable glasses at the crime scene, the police traced the two young men in no time.

The Leopold and Loeb case, thoroughly analyzed by the criminology professor and historian Simon Baatz in his recent book For the Thrill of It, was unique in the annals of 1920s violence. The widespread eugenic thinking of the time was that crimes were committed by individuals of low hereditary intelligence. Reformers, on the other hand, saw gangsters as the products of environmental factors like working class poverty and urban tenements. In either case, criminals killed over money, territory, and credibility, their actions a rational business of meeting the demand for illegal goods and services. There was…
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