Charles Petzold

Reading “For the Thrill of It”

January 2, 2009
Roscoe, N.Y.

I think I first became aware of the Leopold & Loeb case from seeing the 1959 movie Compulsion on TV when I was a kid. Based on a 1956 novel by Meyer Levin, the movie stars Dean Stockwell as the brilliant but deeply disturbed "Judd Steiner," Bradford Dillman as the charming but deeply disturbed "Artie Straus," and Orson Welles as the world-famous "atheist" attorney "Jonathan Wilk." (The movie still holds up quite well. It's much more historically accurate than you might assume, and it's great fun seeing how the filmmakers get away with suggesting the nature of the relationship between "Judd" and "Artie" without being explicit about it.)

About 10 years ago I attempted to supplement my knowledge of this fascinating case. Aided by the new (but now pretty much defunct) online used-book search engine Bibliofind, I found one book containing trial transcripts (albeit somewhat censored) and what was apparently the only existing book-length study, Hal Higdon's The Crime of the Century: The Leopold and Loeb Case from 1975. Oddly enough, no-one else thought the case interesting enough for another history.

Enter historian Simon Baatz, who first became aware of Leopold & Loeb after seeing Alfred Hitchcock's 1948 film Rope in a Brighton repertory cinema. Rope was an Americanized adaptation of a 1929 play by Patrick Hamilton, certainly inspired by Leopold & Loeb, but retaining only the psychology of the killers while completely re-imagining the rest.

(If you want to schedule a "Leopold & Loeb Film Trilogy" night for yourself and some dear friends, you'll definitely want to supplement Compulsion and Rope with Swoon, a 1992 indie film by Tom Kalin that is quite historically accurate except for a few minor points, such as the fact that Leopold and Loeb did not possess touch-tone phones. Total viewing time of the three movies is under 4½ hours.)

Simon Baatz's researches into the case culminated in his book For the Thrill of It: Leopold, Loeb, and the Murder that Shocked Chicago (Harper, 2008). This is an extremely well-documented history but also a great read — combining a police procedural, a courtroom drama, and a social history of beliefs about crime and biological determinism circa 1924.

The basic facts are these:

In May 1924 in Chicago, Nathan "Babe" Leopold (age 19) and Richard "Dickie" Loeb (age 20) lured Bobby Franks (age 14) into a rented car, almost immediately killed him, and hid his body in a pipe in a drainage culvert. Leopold and Loeb then contacted Franks' parents and demanded a ransom of $10,000 for the return of their child. However, the body of Bobby Franks was discovered the next day, and through some excellent police work, Leopold and Loeb were identified as the kidnappers and killers. As the police mounted a case against them, they confessed.

If Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb were poor boys trying to scrape out a meager living on the harsh streets of Chicago, the potential $10,000 ransom would have been perceived as the sole motive for the crime, and everybody would have understood. But Leopold and Loeb both came from very wealthy and well-known families. Nathan Leopold's grandfather had built up "the largest shipping line plying the Great Lakes" (p. 30). The family owned five cars — "a Packard, two Lincolns, a Willys-Knight, and a Wills Saint Claire" (p. 127) — and a chauffeur to take care of them. Richard Loeb's father was vice president of Sears, Roebuck. Both young men had sufficient allowances and didn't seem to need the extra money.

If Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb were mentally deficient in some way and unaware of the gravity of their acts, everyone would have grieved over the killing of Bobby Franks, but there would have been sympathy for the killers themselves as well. Yet, Leopold and Loeb were both college students, and in particular Leopold seemed to be quite intelligent (although probably not as smart as he pretended to be). The two of them had planned this crime in meticulous detail for as long as six months prior to the actual act.

What was so disturbing about this murder — and what keeps it interesting after 80 years — is that Leopold and Loeb seemed to have done it for kicks, for the challenge of plotting and carrying out a crime, as a test of their skill in being undetected, for the pleasure in knowing that they were superior to everyone else. Here's Leopold's explanation:

They didn't seem to believe that the normal rules of behavior applyed to them. If you want a label, "psychopath" might do, but what Leopold and Loeb did derived as much from their unique symbiotic relationship as from their own individual pathologies.

After both Leopold and Loeb had confessed to the crime (the only difference in their accounts being that both accused the other of wielding the actual murder weapon) and the state psychologists judged them perfectly sane, there was just no way they were not going to pay for their crimes. In desperation, their parents hired another Chicago resident, and the most famous lawyer in America, Clarence Darrow, who already knew both families. They didn't expect Darrow to get their boys exonerated. By now, the only thing they could hope for was to save them from the noose.

Baatz's book is particularly strong in examining Clarence Darrow's conviction that human behavior is largely determined by forces other than free will. In Chapter 8, Baatz traces Darrow's evolving beliefs, from the idea that criminal activity is caused by social pressures (such as poverty) to a recognition that it can also be a result of biological forces within the body and mind. The people we call criminals are, in this sense, victims, and they deserve help rather than punishment. (Of course, this is a concept that really tends to curl the toes of some people — as much today as in 1924.)

In Chapters 11, 12, and 13, we discover how Darrow called in psychiatrists and experts in the emerging field of endocrinology to perform state-of-the-art tests on Leopold and Loeb to discover what glandular imbalance or mental defect could have caused the emotional immaturity of the two young men that prompted them to commit this act. These chapters are really the core of Baatz's book, and I found them fascinating for their insights into 1920's era neurobiology.

Contributing greatly to the drama and readability of For the Thrill of It is the extensive dialogue. As a careful historian, Simon Baatz has obtained all of this dialogue from public sources (p. xv), which include the transcripts of the police interrogations, the trial transcripts, and Chicago's six daily newspapers of the era. The narrative is extensively documented with hundreds of footnotes. Baatz sometimes indulges in supposition:

I never felt these passages were unwarrented, however, and only once did a piece of dialogue ring false for me (a passage on pages 144-145). It turned out to be taken from Irving Stone's 1941 book Clarence Darrow for the Defense: A Biography. I suspect Baatz wrestled with himself about including these snatches of dialogue, but I think he made the wrong decision. Whether Irving Stone wrote novelistic biographies or biographical novels, they should not be treated as reliable histories.

What I missed from Baatz's book are a broader sense of the era, and reactions to the case beyond the actual players. It was my impression that the case kicked up a lot of anti-Semitism directed at the wealthy Jewish families that had produced these two young men. But there is almost no discussion of that, and the popular reactions we do get are so tantalizing that we want more of the sort, like this little sermon from famous preacher Billy Sunday that the killing could be

And, as Baatz reminds us,

In the film Compulsion, the Klan burns the cross outside the home of lawyer "Jonathan Wilk."

(A year after the Leopold & Loeb case, Clarence Darrow travelled to the foothills of East Tennessee for the famous Scopes Trial. Darrow headed the team that defended high-school teacher John Scopes, who had defied a Tennessee law by teaching evolution in the classroom. The prosecution team recruited the famous evangelical, creationist, and three-time candidate for President, William Jennings Bryan. On this occasion the Klan lit up a cross in honor of Bryan, who the Klan regarded as a lifelong friend to their cause. When Bryan died soon after the trial, the Klan lit up another cross bearing the inscription "In memory of William Jennings Bryan, the greatest Klansman of our time, this cross is burned; he stood at Armageddon and battled for the Lord." It should be noted that Bryan wasn't actually a member of the Klan.)

Simon Baatz concludes his book with a brief survey of fictional renditions of Leopold & Loeb, including Compulsion, Rope, and Swoon. But this subject deserves a much more extensive analysis. The legacy of Leopold & Loeb lives on in an extremely common (and what is now an extremely tired) convention in novels, movies, and TV episodes: the brilliant but amoral serial killer, his elaborately complex murders, and his persistent cat-and-mouse provocations of the police. ("We're a lot alike, you and me.")

Perhaps the most successful fictional killers of this sort are Hannibal Lecter (who is a grown-up amalgam of the personalities of Leopold and Loeb) and the mastermind behind the crimes of Se7en. (Reading Leopold and Loeb's fantasies in For the Thrill of It made me think of the excessively rich fantasy life of the Vincent D'Onfrio character in The Cell.) There are even a few Leopold & Loeb-like teams of clever teens, as in Murder by Numbers and Funny Games, or somewhat older, as in the crap that James Patterson coughs up. One of the most recent atrocities of the "intellectually superior serial killer" genre was the ridiculous "Masterpiece" episode of Criminal Minds featuring a potentially career-ending performance by Jason Alexander.

Of course, Leopold and Loeb weren't exactly serial killers, but it's amazing how we tend to think of them in that way, for surely if they had escaped undetected after the killing of Bobby Franks, they would have gone on to kill others. Yes, Leopold and Loeb were serial killers, but just not very prolific ones.