A case that shocked a nation

November 17, 2010

Leopold and Loeb thought they committed the "perfect crime." Joe Allen reviews a new book on this terrible case.

CLARENCE DARROW is considered by many to be the greatest lawyer in U.S. history. He made his reputation by defending unpopular clients in desperate circumstances--clients who were vilified by the press, hounded by the mob and persecuted by the government. Radical labor leaders like "Big Bill" Haywood literally owed their lives to Darrow.

Darrow's career faced near extinction in 1911 following the trial of the McNamara brothers for the bombing of the viciously anti-union Los Angeles Times building. He switched their pleas to guilty, and soon afterward, he was indicted for attempting to bribe a juror during their trial.

Darrow was found not guilty of the bribery charge and returned to Chicago. But he was broke and a pariah to the labor movement. Darrow rebuilt his reputation as a lawyer of national prominence in the 1920s with high-profile criminal cases, including the infamous case of Leopold and Loeb.

Simon Baatz's For the Thrill of It: Leopold, Loeb and the Murder That Shocked Chicago is the most up-to-date retelling of the story that most people would recognize as the basis for Alfred Hitchcock's film Rope and the film Compulsion starring Orson Welles.

Richard Loeb and Nathan Leopold
Richard Loeb and Nathan Leopold

Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb were the scions of two very wealthy and prominent Jewish families living in the Hyde Park section of Chicago. Though they were raised in great comfort, they weren't cared for emotionally. Their parents were remote, and the boys were raised by governesses who pushed them hard to succeed academically. Loeb claimed that his governess began a sexual relationship with him as a young teen.

The boys were extremely intelligent and entered the University of Chicago in their middle teens--Loeb at the age of 14, and Leopold at 15. In their world of high comfort, there was an inner emotional desert that both of them filled with disturbing fantasies.

Leopold, the more socially awkward of the two, became obsessed with Friedrich Nietzsche's reactionary philosophy, convinced that he was a "superman" above the law and conventional morality. Loeb, who had movie-star good looks, fantasized about being a "master criminal" and, more eerily, a powerful slave that served a king.

They became lovers and began a petty crime spree to fulfill their fantasies. But they became bored and wanted to do something more thrilling. So they devised a plan to carrying out the "perfect crime."

They planned to kidnap a young boy and kill him. They decided that they would demand a ransom from the boy's family, but never return him or tell his parents were the body was hidden. Leopold and Loeb thought that then they would sit back and laugh, watching the city and police department grope around but never solve the case.

THE "PERFECT crime" turned out to be a bungled affair from the very beginning. They kidnapped Bobby Franks, a 14-year-old cousin of Loeb's who just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Loeb beat him to death with a chisel in the front seat of their rented car, leaving blood everywhere.

Then Leopold dropped his easily identifiable glasses in the dark near the drainpipe where they hid Franks' body. They tried to disfigure Franks' body by pouring acid on his face, hands and genitals, hoping to make identification impossible--it didn't.

The police eventually traced the glasses back to Leopold and brought him in for questioning. Soon afterward, they brought Loeb in, and, after a short period of pretending they didn't do it, the two confessed and merrily boasted to the police what they had done and why they did it.

Cook County State's Attorney Robert Crowe, a ruthless and highly skilled prosecutor, believed that he had a "hanging case" that would catapult him into the mayor's office. Crowe held Leopold and Loeb in custody for three days, without access to their parents or legal counsel, in violation of the law.

It soon became clear that neither Leopold nor Loeb were deranged. They had no trouble telling right from wrong--one of the state's most important criteria for determining insanity, which is a legal, not a medical term.

Leopold and Loeb's families were horrified by the turn of events and turned to the only lawyer that they thought could save their boys from the gallows--Clarence Darrow. He hated capital punishment and prisons. He initially pleaded them not guilty and brought in a battery of leading psychiatrists to examine them.

The prosecution also brought in its own eminent psychiatrists. Predictably, these eminent men came to opposite conclusions about Leopold and Loeb's mental health. Darrow realized right away he had a serious problem on his hands.

Leopold and Loeb had given the prosecution everything that they needed to hang them, and did interviews with the press, which left the lasting impression on the public that there was nothing likable or redeeming about them.

Darrow shocked the prosecution and everyone else by changing the plea to guilty on the opening day of the trial. He hoped to present the defense's psychiatric findings to the judge in order to mitigate their punishment. He wanted to avoid bringing the question of their sanity before a jury. Crowe vehemently protested, but then presented his own experts.

Darrow's maneuver was brilliant but largely depended on the acquiescence of the trial judge, John Caverly, a liberal by Cook County standards. After weeks of testimony and long closing arguments by Darrow and Crowe, Caverly seemingly ignored all of the psychiatric findings and sentenced them to life in prison, largely based on their youth--Leopold was 18 and Loeb was 19.

Prison life brought out the differences in their personalities. Loeb's narcissistic personality remained unchanged. He used his family money to buy privileges from corrupt guards. Twelve years after he was sent to prison, a fellow prisoner, James Day, murdered Loeb after Loeb allegedly propositioned him for sex. Day got off by arguing that Loeb was a homosexual, and therefore it was okay for him to slash him 56 times with a razor.

Leopold eventually settled into prison life and slowly morphed into a better person. He volunteered his services for various prisoner education and health research programs. He was released after three decades in prison.

Simon Baatz, a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City, writes extremely well, and his book is a page-turner filled with vivid characters passionately arguing the issues surrounding the trial. However, I did think that there was something missing in the book.

I kept hoping that Baatz's would take the surviving examinations of Leopold and Loeb and turn them over to modern psychiatrists for a possible answer to their probable mental illness or not. Also, for a case where psychiatry played, on one hand an important role, Baatz doesn't give us a sense of the impact of the case on the future use of psychiatry in the criminal justice system.

Aside from these minor criticisms, Baatz's For the Thrill of It will remain the most important book on the infamous case that shocked mid-1920s America for many years to come.

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