Revisiting the Crime of the Century

'The Leopold and Loeb Files' explores the dark side of the American dream.

What prompted the teenaged sons of two wealthy, respected Chicago families to kidnap and kill a fourteen-year-old neighbor in cold blood on a spring afternoon in 1924? “A sort of pure love of excitement,” Nathan Leopold told his interrogators in a chilling explanation of an inexplicable crime, “the imaginary love of thrills, doing something different.” The murder of Bobby Franks by Leopold and his friend Richard Loeb was dubbed the Crime of the Century – an overused title, but one that fits this infamous Jazz Age tale of murder, wealth and privilege. I interviewed author and Evanston bookseller Nina Barrett, who revisits the case in The Leopold and Loeb Files: An Intimate Look at One of America’s Most Infamous Crimes. It’s a thoroughly researched and lavishly illustrated chronicle that offers new insights into a murder and court battle that transfixed and fascinated Chicagoans – and still does.


Dean Jobb

What drew you to the Leopold and Loeb case?

Nina Barrett

Knowing how many secondary narratives of the case were out there – in the form of plays, films, and books, both fiction and nonfiction – I found it fascinating to discover that an entire narrative of the case still existed that was told through the words of the original participants: Leopold, Loeb, Clarence Darrow, the judge, the prosecutors, and a whole cast of supporting characters. Reading the transcripts of the interrogations, the confessions, and the court proceedings was like peeping through the keyhole of the rooms where the whole story was unfolding, and that was an experience I wanted to reproduce for others through this book.

Dean Jobb

Tell us about the chance discovery of a cache of documents related to the case.

Nina Barrett

It’s really just chance that any of these documents survived at all, because in 1924 there was no court archive to preserve them and they would routinely have just been discarded. But because the case was so famous in its own time, it looks like many of the documents found their way into private hands and then resurfaced over the years. For instance, in 1988 a Northwestern University archivist named Kevin Leonard was going through boxes of administrative records in the basement of the Law School when he found a paper bag just lying on the floor, and when he unrolled the top of the bag and reached inside, he pulled out a note and an envelope that sent chills up his spine: he recognized them as being the original ransom note in the Leopold and Loeb case. The same bag contained – amazingly – a full transcript of the interrogations and confessions as well as the official psychiatric reports on both Leopold and Loeb commissioned by Clarence Darrow. Apparently they’d been in the personal possession of one of the defense psychiatrists, who had meant to leave them to Northwestern – though how they ended up in a paper bag on the floor, probably for many years, no one knows.

Dean Jobb

What new insights did you discover?

Nina Barrett

I did find some new evidence, including another set of psychiatric reports that appears to be the set Darrow commissioned when he was thinking he’d use an insanity defense. They diagnose Leopold and Loeb as clinically and legally insane, but he suppressed them when he decided to pursue a different legal strategy requiring them not to be thought insane. These reports, too, had disappeared into private hands and only resurfaced last summer, when I was doing my last fact-checking on the book. Their existence doesn’t fundamentally change our understanding of the story, but I think it does give us a glimpse of Darrow’s willingness to manipulate his own evidence in order to get the outcome he was after.

But I don’t know that “new insight” was what I was after in producing this book. I sometimes think of what I did as being akin to art restorers who take a famous old painting, scrape off the layers of grime, and show us what it must have looked like when it was new and fresh. I thought it was fascinating that the story had been told and retold so many times and in so many different ways, but I wanted to strip away all the interpreting and romanticizing and expose what I saw as a naked family tragedy of Shakespearian dimensions, which didn’t require any literary embellishment.

Dean Jobb

What challenges did you face in researching this book?

Nina Barrett

Well, I did read through approximately 10,000 pages of documents related to the case, and thousands more pages of correspondence between Nathan Leopold and his second attorney, Elmer Gertz, who helped him win his parole many years later, and then stayed friendly with him for the rest of his life. That was all pretty enjoyable and certainly fascinating. The main challenge turned out to be reading my way through as many of the contemporary newspapers I could find. I think we’re starting to share an assumption – even among serious academics – that all the important information and research material out there has been digitized, and that isn’t true. Lots of the old newspapers – if they were preserved at all – are now only available on poor-quality microfilm, which is literally a headache to scroll through day after day. In the course of whining about the process to others, I heard from several serious scholars who told me they just avoid any projects likely to involve microfilm research because it’s so laborious and unpleasant. And that just makes me worry that, in a world where we seem to be drowning in digital words and information, a lot of important historical sources may simply be disappearing from view because no one wants to deal with them.

Dean Jobb

What does the case reveal about life in Chicago in the 1920s?

Nina Barrett

I think one of the reasons this case became so iconic is that it came to represent the Roaring Twenties, in the same way F. Scott Fitzgerald’s fiction, and possibly Cole Porter’s music did. In the contemporary newspapers, reporters diagnose Leopold and Loeb as suffering from “Jazzmania,” a disorder they characterize as having to do with gin, fast women and cars. In the details of the case you certainly see, on the one hand, the dawn of this era of kids emboldened by their college educations to reject their parents’ more conservative morals – yet you also see the last gasps of a kind of Victorian pampering that will disappear once there are no longer chauffeurs, governesses, cooks and other servants living in intimate daily contact with their employers.

Dean Jobb

Why do Leopold and Loeb still fascinate us?

Nina Barrett

There are a lot of questions raised by this case that never have been – and maybe never can be – sufficiently answered. The central one, I think, is one of motive. I think that when murder occurs, our first question is always about motive. Was the killer a terrorist? If it was a school shooting, was the shooter bullied? If there was a romantic relationship, was the murder motivated by jealousy? In a way, we can put those stories to bed when we feel there was a plausible explanation for what happened. But there’s nothing like that in this case. Despite having the confessions and psychiatric analysis and all that courtroom testimony that was meant to find a rational explanation for what Leopold and Loeb did, there is no good satisfying explanation, and that makes it hard to put the story to rest once and for all.

I also think this case raises basic questions about the American Dream – something we’re still talking about in the news every day. All three of the families involved in this case had immigrated from Germany with no money, and established self-made fortunes in America. They built mansions in an expensive, exclusive neighborhood, they became socially prominent, they were sending their children to the finest schools in order to launch them into the American elite. And then looked what happened. It turned out that money and mansions and fancy college degrees couldn’t buy happiness. They couldn’t insulate you from having a tragedy of immense proportions unfold under everyone’s noses. Because apparently, behind the facades of people who seem to be just like you and me – or maybe even better than you and me – there can lurk dark and evil forces that most of us are just not capable of understanding. To the extent that it may actually have been the life of privilege that facilitated Leopold and Loeb committing this crime, the whole story becomes a parable of the Dark Side of the American Dream.

Dean Jobb

Do you have a new project in the works?

Nina Barrett

My latest literary work of art is Bookends & Beginnings, the independent bookstore I started more than four years ago in Evanston, Illinois. As anyone who owns an indie store knows, it’s always a work-in-progress, and a very demanding one. But it keeps you at the heart of the American literary conversation in a really grass-roots, vital, exciting way, and at the moment, I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else.


The Leopold and Loeb Files: An Intimate Look at One of America’s Most Infamous Crimes
By Nina Barrett
Agate Midway
Published July 17, 2018

Nina Barrett, a graduate of both Yale University and the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University, is the author of three books and numerous articles, essays, and reviews. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, the Chicago Tribune and The Nation, among other places. In 2009, she curated an exhibition for Northwestern called The Murder That Wouldn’t Die, which inspired The Leopold and Loeb Files. Barrett is the founder and owner of Bookends & Beginnings, an independent bookstore in Evanston, Illinois.

Dean Jobb is the author of Empire of Deception (Algonquin Books), the stranger-than-fiction story of 1920s Chicago swindler Leo Koretz, who perfected the ponzi scheme. It was the Chicago Writers Association’s nonfiction Book of the Year for 2015. His next book recreates the Victorian-era crimes of Dr. Thomas Neill Cream, who murdered at least ten people in Chicago, London and Canada. Dean teaches in the MFA in creative nonfiction program at the University of King’s College in Halifax, Nova Scotia and writes a monthly column on true crime for Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine.


About Dean Jobb

Dean Jobb is the true crime columnist for Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine and the author of Empire of Deception, the true story of a master swindler who scammed the elite of 1920s Chicago (Algonquin Books). His next book, coming in June 2021, recreates the Victorian-era crimes of Dr. Thomas Neill Cream, who murdered as many as ten people in Chicago, London and Canada. Dean teaches in the MFA in Creative Nonfiction program at the University of King’s College in Halifax, Nova Scotia. Website: Twitter: @DeanJobb

1 comment on “Revisiting the Crime of the Century

  1. This is a very interesting case. Human, particularly males, are very strange creatures.


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