Jonathan Yardley on 'For the Thrill of It: Leopold, Loeb, and the Murder That Shocked Chicago'

By Jonathan Yardley
Sunday, August 24, 2008


Leopold, Loeb and the Murder That Shocked Chicago

By Simon Baatz

Harper. 541 pp. $27.95

Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb were sons of Chicago's Jewish aristocracy, youths -- Leopold was 19 and Loeb 18 -- who had been denied little in life and who gave every evidence of having brilliant futures. They were intelligent and had already graduated from first-class colleges. Yet on May 21, 1924, they did something appalling: They kidnapped a 14-year-old student named Bobby Franks, murdered him, dumped his body in a drainage ditch at Wolf Lake, several miles southeast of Chicago, and then tried to extract $10,000 in ransom from his parents.

Why did they do it? Less than two weeks later, after confessing to the crime, Leopold spoke to the state's attorney for Cook County and three psychiatrists. He said:

"I am sure, as sure as I can be of anything, that is, as sure as you can read any other man's state of mind, the thing that prompted Dick to want to do this thing and prompted me to want to do this thing was a sort of pure love of excitement, or the imaginary love of thrills, doing something different; possibly . . . the satisfaction and the ego of putting something over. . . . The money consideration only came in afterwards, and never was important. The getting of the money was a part of our objective, as was also the commission of the crime; but that was not the exact motive."

The scheme was Loeb's. As a boy his "real passion . . . was for crime stories and detective mysteries," and as he grew older that passion only intensified. After he and Leopold carried out a petty robbery as a test of their criminal skills, he proposed that "they should commit a perfect crime, a crime so intricate and complicated that planning and calculating its flawless execution would be a challenge. . . . They should kidnap a child, he proposed, and to increase the intricacy of the crime, they should demand a ransom from the child's parents. The money was important, not for its own sake, but to magnify the complexity of the crime. . . . It was to be a brilliant crime, he mused, one that would shock Chicago with its daring. They would obtain the ransom, dispose of the body, and leave no clues behind; the police would never catch them."

It didn't quite work out that way. Three days after his murder, Bobby Franks's body was discovered by "a recent immigrant from Poland who worked as a pump man for the American Maize Company," and a week later Leopold and Loeb were taken into custody; they had left plenty of clues. The crime, the arrests of the privileged youths and the subsequent trial aroused the nation's attention much as did another famous case of the 1920s, the trial of the anarchists Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti for the killings of a paymaster and a guard during a payroll robbery in Massachusetts. The Leopold and Loeb case had no political overtones, as the Sacco and Vanzetti case had, and -- somewhat surprisingly, given prevailing attitudes of the time -- anti-Semitism does not seem to have been a significant contributor to public outrage over it, but it caught popular attention much as the O.J. Simpson case did seven decades later.

Zillions of words have been written about Sacco and Vanzetti, not to mention O.J. Simpson, yet as Simon Baatz points out in For the Thrill of It, "although the Leopold-Loeb case was one of the most infamous murders of the twentieth century, historians have largely ignored it." It has been the subject of novels (most notably Compulsion, by Meyer Levin) and the basis for movies (most notably Alfred Hitchcock's "Rope"). But when, several years ago, Baatz learned about the case for the first time, "no one had yet written a book that considered the episode in its complexity and intricacy." Hal Higdon published The Crime of the Century: The Leopold and Loeb Case in 1975, but it is little more than pop history.

Baatz -- formerly of George Mason University, now associate professor of history at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York -- has written a narrative history that aims, he says, "to recapture the drama of the events that it describes" but also to deal with the "complex issues that give the subject its significance." By and large he has succeeded. The book is overly long; presented with voluminous court documents, journalistic accounts and other raw material, Baatz sometimes quotes to excess. But For the Thrill of It is meticulous and thorough, and it puts the case in historical perspective as a clash between two conflicting views of criminals and crime, one espoused by Robert Crowe, the state's attorney, and the other by Clarence Darrow, who represented Nathan Leopold and was the most famous American lawyer of his day, perhaps indeed of any day.

"Criminals," Crowe believed, "were fully responsible for their actions and should be treated accordingly -- it was foolishness to absolve them of blame for their misdeeds." By contrast, Darrow was a "determinist" who believed that "the criminal did not freely choose wrongdoing; rather, factors outside his or her conscious control acted to determine criminal behavior. There was no such thing as individual responsibility. Imprisonment was futile and even counterproductive; it served no purpose either as a deterrent or as a punishment." Baatz continues:

"The trial of Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb would be a contest between two charismatic individuals -- Darrow, who had built his reputation by defending unpopular causes; and Crowe, the most competent and energetic state's attorney in a generation. And there would be a second contest, a contest between opposing philosophies of crime and punishment. Which one would triumph?"

As it happens, neither side won a clear victory. Darrow and the lawyers for Richard Loeb decided before the trial began that it would be hopeless to plead not guilty by reason of insanity because "neither Nathan nor Richard was legally insane." So the not-guilty plea was withdrawn. The youths pled guilty. Their only hope was to be spared the gallows. To that end Darrow told the court, "The statute provides that evidence may be offered in mitigation of the punishment and we shall ask at such time as the court may direct that we may be permitted to offer evidence as to the mental condition of these young men, to show the degree of responsibility they had and also to offer evidence as to the youth of these defendants and the fact of a plea of guilty as further mitigation of the penalties in this case." Darrow, Baatz writes, "needed only to persuade the judge that they were mentally ill -- a medical condition, not at all equivalent or comparable to insanity -- to obtain a reduction in their sentence. And Darrow needed only one reduction -- from death by hanging to life in prison -- to win his case."

The irony is that though Darrow won in the immediate sense -- the youths were sentenced to life in prison -- he failed to win the broader legal and philosophical argument. That one was left unresolved. The judge reached his decision because "the court is moved chiefly by the consideration of the age of the defendants." Darrow and his associates had presented a formidable amount of evidence about the defendants' upbringing, psychological makeup and relationship with each other, including homosexual activities. Yet in the end, none of it amounted to anything. Darrow didn't keep Leopold and Loeb away from the gallows; a slightly soft-hearted judge did, and in doing so he said: "Life imprisonment may not, at the moment, strike the public imagination as forcibly as would death by hanging but to the offenders, particularly of the type they are, the prolonged suffering of years of confinement may well be the severer form of retribution and expiation."

Loeb lasted only until January 1936, when he was brutally stabbed and slashed to death by an inmate to whom he had made repeated sexual overtures. Leopold made it all the way to February 1958, when he was paroled. He moved to Puerto Rico, married, and, after he won his release from parole five years later, traveled frequently and visited old friends in Chicago. He died in August 1971. ยท

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