The 13th Floor

Alfred Hitchcock’s ROPE was Based on Real Murderers Leopold and Loeb

In 1948, legendary director Alfred Hitchcock released his classic noir crime thriller ROPE, the story of two brilliant Harvard students who murder a former classmate. Performed as an act of intellectual curiosity, Brandon Shaw and Phillip Morgan strangle David Kentley to see if they can pull off the perfect crime. After hiding the body in their apartment, the pair host a dinner party attended by the victim’s father. In a blatant display of hubris, Shaw and Morgan direct the dinner conversation towards the “art of murder”, turning the evening into a game of “cat and mouse”. The film, an experiment in long takes and disturbing subject matter, was generally dismissed by critics, only receiving acclaim from fans decades later. The script was the work of Hume Cronyn and Arthur Laurents who adapted the 1929 Robert Hamilton play ROPE for the big screen. And playwright Robert Hamilton received his inspiration from an actual crime.

Nathan Freudenthal Leopold Jr. and Richard Albert Loeb were two wealthy University of Chicago students, who would forever be linked in history as “Leopold and Loeb.” Leopold was born November 19, 1904 in Chicago, Illinois. The son of a wealthy Jewish family who migrated from Germany before his birth, Leopold claimed to be a child prodigy who spoke his first word at the age of four months and had an IQ of 210. He graduated Phi Beta Kapa from the University of Chicago and had plans to attend Harvard Law School after spending a summer in Europe. Loeb was born June 11, 1905 in Chicago, just like Leopold. His father was a wealthy lawyer and the retired vice president of Sears, Roebuck & Company. He too was believed to have exceptional intelligence, having skipped several grades to become the youngest graduate at the University of Michigan at the age of 17. Although extremely intelligent for his age, he was described as unmotivated and obsessed with crime, spending most of his time reading detective novels.

The pair grew up in similar affluence on Chicago’s South Side, just two blocks from each other. However, they did not become friends until both young men attended the University of Chicago. It was there that they realized they both had an obsession with crime. Leopold was obsessed with Friedrich Nietzsche’s theory of the Ubermenschen (the superman), a man with superior intellect who is allowed to live above the laws of normal society. Leopold became convinced that he was such an Ubermenschen and eventually convinced Loeb that he was one as well. As such, the two began committing small crimes including theft and vandalism in an attempt to see what they could get away with. Leopold and Loeb eventually moved into more violent crimes including arson. However, when such acts failed to draw media attention, they decided to move into a more serious offense- murder.

It couldn’t be just an ordinary murder. For two men with a high level of self-perceived intelligence, it had to be the perfect murder. Nineteen-year-old Leopold and eighteen-year-old Loeb decided that they would kidnap and murder a young boy in their attempt to prove to themselves that they were supermen. They spent the next seven months planning their crime. They would kidnap their victim and demand a ransom in an attempt to obscure their true motive. It was also decided that the ransom note would be written on a stolen typewriter and that the murder weapon would be a chisel. Next, they would need a victim.

For months, they stalked the grounds of the Harvard School for Boys, a private Chicago school near their childhood homes. Leopold and Loeb settled on Robert “Bobby” Franks, a fourteen-year-old student from a wealthy Chicago family. It was a brazen choice given that Franks lived across the street from Loeb and that the two were second cousins.

On May 21, 1924, Leopold rented a car under the name Morton D. Ballard. Leopold and Loeb then pulled up alongside Franks, who was walking to school at  the time, and offered him a ride. The boy resisted at first, as he was only two blocks from school, but Loeb lured him into the vehicle under the pretense of getting the boys opinion on a tennis racket he had just purchased. Franks got into the front seat of the car. Leopold was driving, and Loeb sat in the backseat holding a chisel. Loeb struck Franks several times with the chisel before dragging him into the backseat where he died. Loeb stuffed the body on to the floorboards as Leopold drove away.

Leopold drove twenty-five miles south of Chicago to the Hammond, Indiana. There they removed Franks’ clothing and hid his body near a railroad track just north of Wolf Lake. To prevent the body from being identified, Leopold and Loeb poured acid on Franks’ face. They also poured acid on any distinctive features including a scar on his abdomen and on his genitals, trying to cover up the fact that he was circumcised. When Leopold and Loeb returned to Chicago, word had already gone out that the Franks was missing. It was now time to set the second phase of their plan in motion.

Leopold called Franks’ mother that evening and informed her that her son had been kidnapped and that a ransom note would soon be arriving. The killers burned their blood-stained clothes, cleaned their rental car, and spent the rest of the evening playing cards. The ransom note arrived the following morning and contained a series of complicated instructions, further complicated when Leopold called the Franks at home to add more directions. The kidnapping ruse did not last long, as Bobby Franks’ body was soon found by a man walking along the tracks. Leopold and Loeb immediately destroyed the stolen typewriter and any last bit of evidence they believed could have tied them to the crime.

Leopold and Loeb’s ransom note

As the police and the press investigated the crime, Loeb went back to his normal routine. Leopold on the other hand became completely brazen about the entire affair. He began speaking freely to the police and the press offering his own theories about the crime, at one point even saying to detectives, “if I were to murder anybody, it would be just such a cocky little son of a bitch as Bobby Franks.” What Leopold didn’t know was that the police had found a pair of glasses near Bobby’s body a pair of glasses so unique that only three people in the Chicago area owned them, Leopold was one of those people.

On May 29, Leopold and Loeb were brought in for questioning. Leopold claimed that his glasses were probably lost on bird-watching trip. Leopold also claimed that on the night of the murder he and Loeb had picked up two women in his car and taken them out for a night on the town. This story was quickly dispelled when Leopold’s chauffer said he was working on Leopold’s car that night, a claim the chauffer’s wife also corroborated. The police also located the partially destroyed typewriter used to write the ransom note.

Loeb confessed first, pinning the entire plan on Leopold, insisting he was the driver and that Leopold was seated in the back seat with the chisel. Leopold issued his confession a short time later claiming a conflicting version of the murder that placed him in the driver’s seat and Loeb in the back with the chisel. In the end, the court didn’t care who sat where. Both men’s confessions put them in the car where Bobby Franks was killed. In the end, both men confessed to the true motivation for killing Franks. As Leopold told his attorney, “The killing was an experiment. It is just as easy to justify such a death as it is to justify an entomologist killing a beetle on a pin.”

The trial was a media circus and labeled “The Trial of the Century.” Loeb hired legendary attorney Clarence Darrow at a cost of $1 million. Although the family hoped for a not guilty by reason of insanity, Darrow was convinced that a jury would find him guilty of capital murder and sentence Loeb to death. Darrow knew the best he could hope for was a guilty plea and that Loeb would only receive life imprisonment. During sentencing, he gave a 12-hour-long final plea to the court to spare the young man’s life. On September 10, 1924 Leopold and Loeb were sentenced to life plus 99 years for kidnapping and murder.

Loeb served his sentence at Illinois’s infamous Joliet Penitentiary before being killed in 1936 by his cellmate, James Day, who claimed Loeb made sexual advances towards him. Leopold was a model prisoner, continuing his studies as well as reorganizing the prison library and education system. He was also a regular volunteer at the prison hospital. In the early 1950s, he was approached by University of Chicago classmate Meyer Levin to work on a novel based on the Franks’ murder. Leopold turned down the opportunity, not wanting to fictionalize the murder, however, he did ask Levin to contribute to his memoirs, which Leopold was in the process of writing. Levin turned down this counter offer and released his book COMPULSION in 1956, despite Leopold’s objections.

Leopold’s autobiography LIFE PLUS 99 YEARS was released three years later in 1958. The book was criticized for not containing any details to the murder and for being an attempt to clear his own name. In it, he once again places Loeb, now dead, in the backseat of the car and also talks about his frequent attempts to get Loeb to confess to his “true” role in the crime. Leopold was paroled in March of 1958. After his release, he moved to Puerto Rico and taught mathematics at the University of Puerto Rico as well as publishing a book on ornithology. Leopold married in 1961 and died of a heart attack on August 30, 1971.

Leopold and Loeb were born into a privileged class that very few people will ever have the opportunity to be a part of. Their lives were filled with the very best of everything including the best educations money could buy. They were never humbled and never told that they were nothing less than the best deserving of everything. However, despite Leopold and Loeb’s belief that they were highly intelligent “supermen”, that they lived above the laws of common folk, and that they possessed a superiority over normal society, these two Ubermenschens could only managed to stay out of custody for eight days after killing Bobby Franks.