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social sciences

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Leopold, Nathan F. (1904-1971), and Richard A. Loeb (1905-1936)  
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Although it is well made, the film suffers from its cold war-era homophobia, particularly in its preoccupation with effeminacy and "degeneracy." The characters based on Leopold and Loeb are basically caricatures: the Leopold character that of a weak-willed pansy, the Loeb character that of a manipulative Svengali. While the film only hints at the details of the sexual relationship between the two men, it explores to some degree their emotional dependence and sadomasochistic dynamic. It seems to view the murder itself as sufficiently explained by the "perversion" of the characters.

The two works that explore the homosexual relationship of Leopold and Loeb in greatest detail and with the most accuracy are Tom Kalin's Swoon and Stephen Dolginoff's Thrill Me.

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Kalin's stylish low-budget but beautiful and poetic black-and-white film focuses on the homosexuality of the murderers, but also equally on the pervasive homophobia of the time, including particularly that of the alienists.

Opening with quotations from Leopold von Masoch, for whom "masochism" is named, the film depicts the Leopold-Loeb relationship as deeply sadomasochistic. But it also humanizes the characters and finds in Leopold's obsessive love of Loeb great beauty. Despite some howling anachronisms, it makes an effort to present the events of the crime accurately, even painstakingly recreating some iconic images of the trial.

Perhaps the most unlikely adaptation of the Leopold and Loeb story is Stephen Dolginoff's musical Thrill Me. Originally staged in 2003, it had an off-Broadway run in 2005, and has since been produced across the country in regional theaters and also abroad.

A two-character "chamber opera," Thrill Me is set in 1958 in Joliet Prison, where Leopold is appearing before the parole board trying to explain his crime more truthfully than before in the hopes that he might finally be released. In songs reminiscent of Kurt Weill and Stephen Sondheim, Dolginoff economically and insightfully delves into the complex relationship between the lovers.

Perhaps most brilliantly, Dolginoff presents the Leopold character as equally devious and manipulative as the Loeb character. Perhaps most refreshingly, he eschews psychologizing and moralizing, simply allowing the lovers to speak for themselves.


The case of Leopold and Loeb has had a large influence on American popular culture, including especially the association of homosexuality with crime. Although the murder of Bobby Franks was not motivated by lust and did not involve sexual molestation of any kind, nevertheless the presumption remained for many years that he was killed in order somehow to satisfy the degenerate impulses of his bored, rich, "perverted" murderers. Even today, Leopold and Loeb are considered the exemplars of "thrill killers."

The reputation of Leopold and Loeb as thrill killers is due to the apparent motivelessness of their crime. They certainly did not murder for money or out of hatred or passion, the usual motives from murder. Hence, it is easy to describe their crime as a "thrill killing." But part of their designation as thrill killers stems from the mystery and cultural secrecy attached to homosexuality itself. Precisely because homosexual acts were themselves criminalized and thought to be unspeakable, it was easy to conflate one crime with another.

Only as homosexuality has become more accepted in contemporary society has it become possible to recognize the complexity and the humanity of Leopold and Loeb without in any way minimizing the horror of their crime.

Claude J. Summers

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Baatz, Simon. For the Thrill of It: Leopold, Loeb and the Murder that Shocked Chicago. New York: HarperCollins, 2008.

Bardsley, Marian. "Leopold and Loeb." trutv Crime Library (2007):

Genzlinger, Neil. "The Sweet Seduction of Murder." The New York Times (June 1, 2005):

Higdon, Hal. Crime of the Century: The Leopold & Loeb Case. New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1975.

Levin, Meyer. Compulsion. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1956.

Linder, Douglas. "Famous American Trials: Illinois v. Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb." (1997):

Leopold, Nathan F., Jr. Life Plus 99 Years. New York: Doubleday, 1958.

McKernan, Maureen. The Amazing Crime and Trial of Leopold and Loeb. New York: New American Library, 1957.

Rackliffe, Marianne. (2000-2005):


    Citation Information
    Author: Summers, Claude J.  
    Entry Title: Leopold, Nathan F. , and Richard A. Loeb  
    General Editor: Claude J. Summers  
    Publication Name: glbtq: An Encyclopedia of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual,
Transgender, and Queer Culture
    Publication Date: 2009  
    Date Last Updated September 23, 2009  
    Web Address  
    Publisher glbtq, Inc.
1130 West Adams
Chicago, IL   60607
    Today's Date  
    Encyclopedia Copyright: © 2002-2006, glbtq, Inc.  
    Entry Copyright © 2009 glbtq, Inc.  


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