I HAVE BEFORE ME photostats of the front pages of a couple of newspapers, The New York Times and The New York Herald Tribune for Aug. 8, l924. The story that engages my attention concerns the Loeb-Leopold murder case, then in court.
In the Herald Tribune it is headlined this way: "Girl Friend Swears Loeb Was Childish. Lorraine Nathan, 18, and 4 Boy Chums Corroborate Alienists on Condition of Minds of Murderers." The Times headline tells more: "State Accuses Girl of Lying for Loeb; Four Chums Testify. Crowe Cries 'Perjury' as Former Sweetheart Declares Youth 'Irrational and Infantile.' " On the inside page where the story continues, one of the papers carries a photograph of the girl, of whom it says, "She made a pretty though somewhat nervous picture on the stand."
The girl is wearing one of those daffy headache bands of the period, and she looks very young to me. She is my mother.
I never discussed her role as a defense witness in the Loeb-Leopold case with my mother. She died when I was 12, and it was only years later that my brother and I, growing up in another city, even heard of the famed Chicago murder (someone had made a movie about it) and then heard, from a family friend, to our astonishment, that our mother had had some part in the court proceedings. But the tight wall of shame that surrounded the whole affair, from murder to sentencing, remained so strong among those associated with it -- no matter how tangentially -- that even then we were unable to get answers to the questions we put to our elder relatives. "Why bring all that up now?" came the stock response. "Why do you want to talk about it? . . . I don't really remember . . . It was so long ago." Eventually we went to the microfilm section of a library and dug the story out of old newspapers.
The uproar over the Hinckley case has caused me to retrieve those photostats from a drawer, inspect them again and consider again some of the aspects of that earlier case which, in slightly different form, we are arguing about now.
True, the two rich Chicago boys -- Nathan Leopold Jr., 19, and Richard Loeb, 18 -- who plotted and carried out the murder of young Bobby Franks in a spirit of coldblooded intellectual play, pleaded guilty to the crime, at the recommendation of their lawyer, Clarence Darrow. So there was nothing precisely comparable to the Hinckley lawyers' effort to persuade a jury that a defendant was not guilty by reason of insanity. And in fact there wasn't even a jury, once the guilty plea had been entered. It was for the sentencing Judge, John R. Caverly, and in the hope of getting the death penalty mitigated in favor of life imprisonment, that Darrow organized his psychiatric pitch. This pitch was that despite the obviously rational calculation and control that had gone into the perpetration of the crime, the "boys," as Darrow called his clients, though not "insane," weren't quite right in the mind at the time they committed it. Rather, they had been driven to their act by an accumulation of psychological and emotional deformities not of their own making.
My mother, who described herself on the stand as "just a schoolday friend" of Loeb, was one of the witnesses Darrow called to help establish this point. Darrow, in his wisdom, declined to call her younger sister, my beloved Aunt Rolly -- then described as "Miss Rosalind" -- notwithstanding, as we learn from the papers, that Miss Rosalind stood ready with a medical finding that Loeb was "plain cuckoo." Her sister's diagnosis, it is explained by my mother in the news account, was based on the fact that Loeb had "stuck his thumb into all the chocolates on a plate passed to him at a dance at the Nathan home as he sought a soft-centered candy."
My mother, who testified along with four other young friends of the defendants, used rather more clincial-sounding language, for which she was to be reprimanded by the judge. But in swearing to the recently aberrant behavior of the the two killers, she and the other school friends were far from being Darrow's heavy guns. They followed, they did not lead -- and they followed the doctors.
The Loeb-Leopold court proceedings turned into a miniconvention of psychiatrists (or alienists, as those who testified in court were still called). It was a landmark event in American legal history. The prosecution came in with a group of highly respected specialists in nervous disorders.
Darrow countered with a distinguished group of the newfangled Freudians, including one who was president of the American Psychiatric Association and superintendent of St. Elizabeth's Hospital. (Two Chicago newspapers, nothing loathe to get into the act, invited Sigmund Freud to do an analysis of the murderers for them. Freud sent his regrets.)
There were soon complaints, as there were to be in the Hinckley case almost 60 years later, that the wealthy families of these young men were, in effect, "buying" them out of the consequences of their crime with an ability to pay for expert testimony and counsel. There was unprecedented courtroom discussion of overbearing governesses, childhood sexual fantasies, glandular disorders. And there was despair then, as now, that respected experts could argue such utterly different versions of the psychiatric case.
I can't tell from the news accounts whether my mother actually perjured herself as the prosecutor, Robert Crowe, charged. He pointed out that her testimony that Loeb's conduct had changed and that in the past year he had seemed newly "infantile" and "irrational" directly contradicted earlier sworn statements she had made in the prosecutor's office that Loeb was "manly" and "sane." There was a quarrel among lawyers over that, some maneuvering, aacountercharge that in that earlier session an assistant state's attorney had tried to influence her testimony and that parts of her testimony had been deleted and so forth.
I don't know what to make of any of that; the court evidently didn't pursue it. And I can't know how closely her own genuine perception of Loeb's conditon paralleled that of the three leading psychoanalysts the defense had already called. She certainly used all their terminology, and it has an odd, forced, unaccustomed ring to it in the news account. The prosecutor responded, in a savage cross examination, by addressing her sarcastically as "doctor."
It must have been terrifying. That's the part that interests me. But I have very little to guide me in understanding how she felt, or even why she was there. She was not, incidentally, the "sweetheart" of the moment or the one who was written about in the semi-fictional accounts. She was a friend who had known him long, once been a girl friend and now remained close.
I do know now from family that she insisted on testifying when asked, very much against the will and judgment of her parents. They wanted to avoid any connection with the terrible scandal and forsaw what it would be like -- not just on the stand, but after. My mother gained an unwanted celebrity. Along with others who followed the trial's revelations, she learned of a breathtakingly brutal, degenerate side to her friend. She was to suffer something that sounds today like a nervous breakdown when the case was completed and to be packed off "to forget" at a kind of junior college/finishing school in the East.
I try to imagine the horror, the impact the murder itself must have had on her, a very young kind of 18-year-old, strictly brought up, "sheltered" (as they used to say), fond of this boy, thinking she knew him well. He had wantonly murdered an innocent child. She was not much beyond being an innocent child herself -- the scrapbook memorabilia of hers that I have from the general period, none of it mentioning this, is the buoyant, silly, enthusiastic stuff of schoolgirls.
The news accounts give me some clue to the ambivalence and anguish of her feelings. They tell me that throughout the time she was on the stand Loeb never took his eyes off her -- and that she never looked back at him. "Loeb craned his neck for a look at his former sweetheart," the Times says of her testimony. "She avoided his glance until she left the stand at the noon recess, with Mr. Crowe's cry of perjury ringing in her ears. Then she rushed past Leopold and Loeb, hesitated, turned and impulsively placed both hands on Loeb's arm." She said something to him. A bailiff pulled him away.
To me this moment has it all -- innocence and experience, revulsion and compassion, incredulity and understanding. We were in the babyhood of our experience with this particular kind of analysis of criminal behavior. I go back to the case of the poked-in chocolates. In a way, as usual in our family, Aunt Rolly was out there ahead of the curve. For her the chocolate-squashing represented a lapse in decorum so grave as to constitute, on its face, evidence of insanity. In fact, the presiding judge was to make a comparable observation: "had they (Loeb and Leopold) been normal, they would not have committed this crime." Although his eventual decision to forego the death penalty was not, he claimed, based on the psychiatric case, but on the youth of the defendants, Judge Caverly here gave expression to a sentiment -- crime equals derangement -- that, whatever its merit in some instances, has been overextended, debased and reduced to absurdity in our own age.
And surely the same may also be said of another aspect of the case and one which was novel: the introduction of all this lore about the defendants' upbringing and state of mind, not as evidence of insanity or of an inability to know right from wrong, but rather as evidence of a diminished responsibility for their actions, which in turn was said to argue for a sentence of diminished severity.
Since those early days, it seems to me, this search for determining causes, this assumption of "no fault" behavior has been carried to a mad place too. Increasingly, even mindlessly, we have overlaid all our actions with a vaguely psychological, exculpatory, morally confusing wash. Nowadays there is not even "temptation." We call temptation "pressure," the implication being that the crime or lapse is hardly the fault of the one who succumbs; it is the fault of the temptation itself, the fault of the "pressure."
And we have so vastly expanded the application of this doctrine since Darrow's day that the act of corruption or cynicism has yet to be invented that does not somehow get mitigated by it. I sometimes think we may even be tending, in our judgments of public venality, toward a new verdict of "not greedy by reason of insanity."
The woman who was my mother was pretty old-fashioned and rigorous. Reflecting on what I know of her -- remember and have been told -- I think she would in fact have been shocked by where that pioneering legal case helped to bring us. But that is speculation, and I am interested in the girl. I look at the news photo of the young face, the earnest eyes, the damned-fool headband. What did she believe? That Loeb was evil? That he was mad? How much did she buy of the view apparently held by those close to each of the murderers, that the other boy had been the true culprit and had corrupted her friend? How hurt, how betrayed, how shocked was she? Did she finally decide that she must do what she could to save his life? Was that the moral and emotional nub of the matter for her, an unwillingness not to help save him, an inability to refuse to testify? Was she repelled by him? Moved by his plight? Both? Did it add up to some dim faith in the psychiatric theory before the court, to a need to believe that thissold and treasured "schoolday friend" had been in some way possessed -- and thus not fully responsible for his barbarous act?
You will see I am myself working toward a theory of what motivated her. I sense in hes gir decision to testify -- I want to sense in it -- an element of humility, compassion. Never mind the overreaching and the intellectual arrogance of some of those who claim power these days to explain every human act of love and grace, not just of depredation, as nothing more than the automatic working of some psychological law they understand. Surely, we can step back from the excesses without abandoning what is of value here. For there is humility, not arrogance, in yielding to the possibility and accepting the thought that others are driven by devils we cannot see and might not ourselves resist.
I like to think that some largeness of spirit and understanding is what motivated the nervous girl they ridiculed as "doctor" on the stand, that, painful as it was, she was acting instinctively, intuitively in the spirit we need to retain today -- no matter where our much- needed discussion and revision of the criminal law may take us.