Clarence Darrow was asleep on the night of Saturday, May 31, when the doorbell of his Chicago apartment started to buzz incessantly. His wife, Ruby, answered the door: a frustrated Jacob Loeb, Richard’s uncle, had come to see the famed trial attorney. Both the Leopold and Loeb families had been surprisingly cavalier about the position of their sons, apparently unable to understand just how much trouble Richard and Nathan were in.
There was, in 1924, the day state’s attorney Robert Crowe announced to the public that Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb had confessed to the murder of Bobby Franks, no Miranda law that defendants had to be warned about making statements or had a right to legal counsel while being questioned, and the pair spoke freely, confessing, helping to gather evidence that could be used against them, and unwittingly sealing their fates.
The Chicago Daily Tribune reported that Charles Adler, Albert Loeb’s former legal partner, was in discussions to act as defense counsel. In the end the two families hired Benjamin Bachrach, an attorney who in the past had defended murderers, arsonists, kidnappers, and gangsters as well as heavyweight champion boxer Jack Johnson when he was accused of violating the Mann Act in 1912.
They would also employ Benjamin’s brother and fellow attorney Walter Bachrach, who had a special interest in psychology and who, incidentally, had married Richard’s cousin. Nathan was typically dismissive: later, he unfairly derided the two brothers as having no qualifications except for the fact “that they belonged to the Standard Club with my father.”
But the families also wanted a legal powerhouse. And so, Jacob Loeb and several others had gone to the Midway Apartments in Chicago to plead with Clarence Darrow. Ruby didn’t want to admit them: “I found myself confronted by four men who seemed like masked desperadoes, clutching at their upturned collars.” But they forced their way in. “Mr. Darrow is asleep,” Ruby shouted as they barged through the door. “He isn’t well—he should not be disturbed.” Not to be put off, Loeb stormed into the bedroom, waking a startled Darrow, falling on his knees and pleading with him to take the case of the two young killers. “Save their lives,” he implored. “Get them a life sentence instead of a death sentence. That’s all we ask of you. Money’s no object. We’ll pay you anything you ask. Only for God’s sake, don’t let them be hung.
“The terrible deed had been committed,” Darrow recalled. “The two boys were in the shadow of the gallows; their confession had been made; their families were in the depths of despair, and they came to me to assist the lawyers already employed. My feelings were much upset; I wanted to lend a hand, and I wanted to stay out of the case. The act was a shocking and bizarre performance; the public and the press were almost solidly against them.”
But Darrow knew that taking on the defense of Leopold and Loeb would help cement his reputation as America’s most famous attorney, and that he could use the case to argue against a death penalty he believed to be barbaric. He also admitted, “I felt that I would get a fair fee if I went into the case,” an important consideration for a man who, despite his fame, constantly struggled with his own finances and was deeply in debt. And so he agreed to represent Nathan and Richard.
Darrow was sixty-seven, tired and suffering from a variety of health issues, including crippling rheumatism, fatigue, decaying teeth, and weak lungs after decades of smoking. Born in Ohio in 1857, he’d entered law in 1878 and made a name for himself in turn-of-the-century Chicago. Over the years he defended labor unions, socialist leader Eugene Debs, and a variety of killers and corrupt politicians.
His reputation had suffered after 1911, when he was accused of bribing jurors while defending the McNamara brothers in the bombing of the offices of the Los Angeles Times, in which twenty were killed. The first trial ended in a hung jury, and Darrow escaped a second go-round by agreeing to never again practice law in California. Although Darrow insisted that he was innocent, evidence suggests that he at least knew of the bribery and may well have been guilty of it himself.
Darrow was still a formidable figure, and his courtroom appearances remained legendary. He disguised his shrewd demeanor behind a folksy charm and rumpled exterior of wrinkled clothes frequently stained with the remnants of his last meal, throwing his courtroom opponents off balance with his surprise tactics and his oratorical flights of fancy. “The picture of Darrow drawling in front of a jury box was a notable scene,” recalled famed journalist Ben Hecht. “The great barrister artfully gotten up in baggy pants, frayed linen and string tie, and ‘playing dumb’ for a jury as if he were no lawyer at all but a cracker-barrel philosopher groping for a bit of human truth.” Convinced that the judicial system was rigged against the poor, he was as willing as Robert Crowe to bend the law and twist facts to win cases.
The famous lawyer had a most peculiar view of crime. Two years before Leopold and Loeb, Darrow published a book, Crime: Its Cause and Treatment, in which he had embraced a jumble of bizarre ideas. Insisting that genetics, and particularly endocrine glands, caused criminal behavior, he wrote that there was no such thing as free will: an individual who committed crimes was powerless to resist because the impulses of his “machine” had been predetermined. “Responsibility,” he declared, “is a gross error.” There could be no moral responsibility for crime, he argued; as such, there could be no punishment, merely treatment. Not surprisingly, Robert Crowe regarded Darrow with contempt, believing that his philosophy was extreme and dangerous, a threat to law and justice.
Darrow tried to visit Nathan and Richard on Sunday, June 1, but the two were away under police escort visiting various sites related to Bobby’s kidnapping and murder. The next morning, Darrow demanded that Crowe move them to the Cook County Jail and grant him access to his clients. Crowe refused, wanting his group of psychiatrists to finish their interviews. And so, on Monday morning, Darrow, together with Benjamin Bachrach, brought a writ of habeas corpus before Judge John Caverly, chief justice of the Criminal Court. This won the transfer and access to their clients.
“The day was warm,” Nathan later wrote of their first meeting, “and Darrow was wearing a light seersucker jacket. Nothing wrong with that, surely. Only this one looked as if he had slept in it. His shirt was wrinkled, too, and he must have had eggs for breakfast that morning. I could see the vestiges. Or perhaps he hadn’t changed shirts since the day before. His tie was askew… His unruly shock of lusterless, almost mousy hair kept falling over his right eye. Impatiently, he’d brush it back with his hand. He looked for all the world like an innocent hayseed, a bumpkin who might have difficulty finding his way around the city.”
Darrow, for his part, seemed impressed by the two young men. Richard, he later said, was “not only a kindly looking boy, but he was and is a kindly boy. He was never too busy to personally do a favor for anyone that he chanced to know.” As for Nathan, Darrow said that he possessed “the most brilliant intellect I have ever met in a boy.”
As soon as he had his clients alone, Darrow lost no time trying to counteract the damage they had already done. They were, he insisted, not to answer any further questions from the state’s attorney— nothing. “Mr. Darrow,” Richard said, “your slightest wish will be law to me.” After this, both Richard and Nathan obeyed: when asked even the most innocent of questions, they inevitably replied, “I refuse to answer on the advice of counsel.”
Word that the Leopold and Loeb families had hired Clarence Darrow opened the floodgates of criticism. Darrow had a reputation as a defender of the poor and had frequently blamed crime on poverty. Yet here he was, abandoning such beliefs to represent two wealthy murderers who had freely confessed. Worries that family money—Jewish money—would subvert justice prevailed.
It was widely rumored that the Leopold and Loeb families had promised Darrow $1 million to save their sons. “The general consensus,” declared the Chicago Herald and Examiner, “seems to be that it would be a battle of wealth versus the law.” “The fathers of these boys,” the Chicago Daily Tribune speculated, “have an estimated fortune of 15 million and we suppose it will be millions versus the death penalty.”
This speculation led the families to issue a joint statement:
In view of the many statements that large sums of money will be used in the defense of Nathan F. Leopold, Jr., and Richard A. Loeb, the families of the accused boys desire to say that they have lived in Chicago for more than fifty years, and the public can judge whether they have conducted themselves in their relations with the community in such a way as to earn a standing as truthful, decent, upright, law-abiding citizens, conscious of their duties and responsibilities to the community in which they live. They have not the slightest inclination nor intention to use their means to stage an unsightly legal battle with an elaborate array of counsel and an army of high-priced alienists in an attempt to defeat justice. Only such defense as that to which every human being is entitled will be provided for their sons. Assuming that the facts in this case are substantially as published, then the only proceeding they favor is a simple, solemn investigation under the law touching the mental responsibility of their accused sons. They emphatically state that no counsel for the accused boys will be retained other than those lawyers now representing them, with the possible, but not probable, retention of one additional local lawyer. There will be no large sums of money spent either for legal or medical talent. The fees to be paid to medical experts will be only such fees as are ordinary and usual for similar testimony. The lawyers representing the accused boys have agreed that the amount of their fees shall be determined by a committee composed of the officers of the Chicago Bar association. If the accused boys are found by a jury to be not mentally responsible, their families, in accordance with their conscious duty toward the community, agree that the public must be fully protected from any future menace by these boys. In no event will the families of the accused boys use money in any attempt to defeat justice.
In the end, the statement promised too much. Once the defense began, enormous sums indeed went to save the lives of Leopold and Loeb, including small fortunes to medical and psychiatric experts.
Excerpted from Nothing but the Night: Leopold & Loeb and the Truth Behind the Murder That Rocked 1920s America by Greg King and Penny Wilson. Copyright © 2022. Available from St. Martin’s Press, an imprint of Macmillan.
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