Pre-Modern Depravity

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We live in a blood soaked age. Crimes require dozens of victims, hundreds of victims, or an unusual victim like a child or a pregnant women. We also care about “story” crimes, that we can follow like a soap opera for weeks on end. We are jaded and desensitized when it comes to violent death. We feel as if we have seen it all before, at least vicariously.

That was not always the case. Consider the crime of Leopold and Lowe, which was practically polite by modern standards. A single victim…big deal. Not even worth a book deal, or movie rights. But in the 1920s, what they did made it seem as if there were no more rules, and mankind had hit bottom. How wrong they were. However, the reaction of society to such indifferent depravity can tell us a lot about our current attitude to violence.

The following book review is reposted from the Wall Street Journal.

Low Deeds and High IQ

By JOSEPH EPSTEIN

For the Thrill of It
By Simon Baatz
(Harper, 541 pages, $27.95)

Living in Chicago breeds a taste for crime that derives from one of the city’s richest traditions. In what other place, after all, is Valentine’s Day associated with a massacre? Every generation or so a maniac killer pops up within city limits: a college student who kills and dismembers a 6-year old girl; a free-lance wacko who murders eight Filipina nurses; a householder who slays boys and inters them in his bungalow’s basement. Such acts of hideous violence relieve the tedium of city officials regularly caught with their hands up to their elbows in the public till.

But no crime has ever come close to stirring public interest in Chicago as did the 1924 murder of a 14-year-old boy named Bobby Franks by two students at the University of Chicago. The killers were 18-year-old Richard Loeb and 19-year-old Nathan Leopold Jr. The cold-bloodedness of their crime riveted the city and the nation.

Like their victim, Leopold and Loeb were the sons of wealthy families. All three lived in mansions in the southside neighborhood known as Kenwood, where Barack Obama now has his house and Louis Farrakhan his.

Nathan Leopold Jr. was a brilliant boy whose interest in ornithology resulted in his publishing in professional journals on the subject while still an undergraduate. Richard Loeb was more conventionally intelligent but made up for his want of academic dazzle in wile, guile and malevolence. At the time of the murders, Leopold was attending the University of Chicago’s law school, and Loeb was taking graduate-school courses in history there. Both had graduated from college at an early age.

Under Loeb’s leadership, they had committed a number of minor crimes for, so to say, the sport of it. But on May 21, 1924, they executed a carefully pre-meditated, motiveless murder. Their victim was selected arbitrarily — Bobby Franks happened to be walking alone on the day chosen for the crime. They inveigled him into the front seat of a car they had rented. From the backseat, Loeb grasped the boy around the neck and began beating him over the head with a chisel. When this failed to knock him out, he jammed a rag down his throat, suffocating him.

They drove the dead Bobby Franks to a nearby preserve, and, after Leopold poured hydrochloric acid over the boy’s face and genitals (he had heard that a body could be identified by its genitals), they stuffed their victim into a drainage pipe. But for Leopold’s glasses falling out of his pocket and onto the ground, the decisive clue in the apprehension of the murderers, they would doubtless have brought the crime off successfully.

Neither killer showed any remorse after being captured and indicted for murder. Kidnapping had been involved; they had sent a ransom note to their victim’s family. But money wasn’t their true motive. Perfection was. Leopold and Loeb dreamed of committing the perfect crime, and they found philosophical backing for their desire in Nietzsche’s notion of the Übermensch. Leopold wrote to Loeb: "A superman . . . is, on account of certain superior qualities inherent in him, exempted from the ordinary laws which govern men. He is not liable for anything he may do."

Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb, with Clarence Darrow, their lawyer. Inspired by a Nietszchean idea of their own superiority, the two young men committed a motiveless murder.

Simon Baatz’s "For the Thrill of It" is likely to be the definitive work on this infamous crime and the dramatic trial of its perpetrators. It is impressive in its research, even-handed in its tone and immensely readable. Mr. Baatz carefully sets out the strange relationship between the killers: Dickie Loeb, in whom the idea for the murder originated, appears to have been an authentic fiend, with Nathan Leopold in homosexual thrall to him. Without falsely heightening the drama, Mr. Baatz keeps the reader entranced by a story whose central event — the murder itself — is well known, though its aftermath less so.

Since the evidence against the two killers was overwhelming, the trial was about whether they could be saved from the gallows. Clarence Darrow and his defense team set out to establish that his clients suffered from mental illness and not outright insanity. An insanity plea would have required a jury trial, something Darrow wanted to avoid. The legal definition of insanity holds that one can’t tell right from wrong, while someone who is mentally ill might know right from wrong but be compelled by his illness to commit a crime anyway. Darrow hoped that establishing mental illness in the defendants would mitigate the judgment against them.

Mr. Baatz is especially good on the expert witnesses at the trial. The defense called on endocrinologists — glands and hormones were thought to be all-explanatory in the 1920s — and a cadre of psychiatrists tried to show that the boys suffered from mental illness. The prosecution called on neurologists to prove that they didn’t. What emerges from Mr. Baatz’s account is the arrogance of medical science, and, in the case of the Freudian psychiatrists called upon, pseudo-science. The line of the Freudians was that human agency and evil intent didn’t exist. There was no need for a rigorous application of the law, they more than implied, only psychotherapy to undo the work of wretched family relations. No such thing as a bad boy, in other words, only boys who come from bad homes.

The prosecutor Robert Crowe, a man athrob with political ambition, called for blood. The snap of the gallows, he hoped, would hoist him to higher office. Darrow, a thorough Progressive, felt that heredity and environment not only explained but ultimately excused all deviant behavior. He also had a heartfelt hatred of capital punishment.

The judge, an honorable man named John Caverly, ended up ignoring the arguments of both sides. In his sentencing — broadcast over Chicago radio — he emphasized the heinousness of the crime but could not bring himself to send the killers to the gallows because of their age. He sentenced them to 99 years for kidnapping and a life term for murder, neglecting to mention that he intended to have the sentences served consecutively; serving them concurrently left open the possibility of parole.

Loeb never achieved parole; 12 years into his sentence, at age 31, he was slashed to death with a straight razor by a fellow prisoner defending himself against Loeb’s sexual advances. Leopold served 34 years before being paroled in 1958. He spent the remainder of his life working in a hospital in Puerto Rico and died of a heart attack in 1971 at the age of 65, believing that he had atoned for his part in the murder.

The crime may now be forgiven, but it is not forgotten, as Simon Baatz’s excellent book demonstrates. Although the names Leopold and Loeb can no longer be used to frighten young children, the calculated viciousness of their crime, so compellingly captured by Mr. Baatz, remains a major event in the annals of human depravity.

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3 Comments

  1. I’m surprised you left out the archetype Chicago killer, HH Holmes, so well chronicled in Devil in the White City.

  2. One of my favorite Hitchcock films is called Rope, and deals with this very pair. What so horrified the people of the time was not that the murder was committed, nor the mutilations to the body, per se–what truly terrified was the absolute randomness of it. Because they happened to see that particular young man, he was It. It was the stunning and new thought at the time–which is almost commonplace now, in this culture–that anyone could kill. At the time it was considered morally reprehensible and beyond the pale to have such worries over a neighbor, casual acquaintances, family members….

    Now? There’s even a saying. “But he seemed so quiet…”

  3. I adore Rope, as well.

    Leopold and Loeb also partly inspired Richard Wright’s Native Son …


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