Simon Baatz’s account of the grotesque murder committed by Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb is an incredible read. Rarely does a professional historian from the Ivy League make the move towards publishing a piece for the popular audience. Writing in a style of the “true crime” genre Baatz is able to capture a realism through a true-to-life narrative style that is gripping and magnificently informative at the same time.
Leopold and Loeb have gone down in history as a pair of America’s most infamous murders of the 20th century. Knowing that, they would probably be proud to see that people nearly 90 years later are still talking about the level of heinousness they achieved through their actions. Leopold and Loeb mercilessly and arbitrarily kidnapped and murdered a 14 year-old school boy, who incidentally ended up being a relative to Richard Loeb. The two highly educated University of Chicago graduates set out to plan the perfect crime: a ransom of $10,000 and the murder of the bartering chip… all for the sheer thrill of it according to their own words.
Leopold and Loeb were a pair of isolated homosexual lovers who suffered abuse by their female caretakers during vital developmental years. Leopold was sexually seduced and Loeb was pushed beyond the academic breaking point to create two nihilistic individuals that had nothing but contempt for civilized society. Leopold thought of himself as Nietzsche’s “Superman” who was above the law and owed no one any life-affirming obligation. His fantasies included a vision of himself as a noble warrior-slave who at one time rescued his king from certain peril, yet remained in his service after being awarded any blessing he so desired. Richard Loeb fancied himself as a master criminal mind who believed he was incapable of being caught. The homosexual attraction between the two plus the bizarre psychologies resulted in a lawless duet of crime and destruction that ultimately ended the life of an innocent boy.
Luckily, the criminal masters, both sons of the wealthy Chicago elite, were caught by a blundering cover-up of the murder. Nathan Leopold had accidentally dropped his glasses while stashing the body in a drainpipe, and the forensic deductions of the Chicago detectives traced them back to him and put the two boys on the hot seat. Confessions rolled sweetly off the tongue, though with no remorse whatsoever, and the police were given an exquisitely detailed tour of the route the two young men took on their murderous joyride. Any defense attorney would have scoffed at the idea of pleading not guilty. There was simply no way to cast reasonable doubt on the mountain of evidence that the prosecutor had secured. Even the murder weapon was traceable to their hands.
Enter Clarence Darrow, the most regarded defense attorney in the nation. Darrow at first considered taking on the herculean challenge of defending the boy’s innocence, but soon realized such a task was futile. Instead, he would plead guilty and do anything in his power to save the boys from the gallows.
Darrow believed that capital punishment was a product of the Dark Ages and railed against the practice as barbaric state-sponsored revenge. His philosophy of crime was tied to his crude scientism that believed that all human acts were determined by outside biological forces. The idea that people could be held responsible for their actions was preposterous to Darrow.
In the boy’s defense he summoned some of the leading psychiatric experts of the day to prove that the low heart beat and glandular irregularities of the boys explained the apparently motiveless crime. Leopold and Loeb could not be defended as insane–or not knowing right from wrong–nor could they be seen as victims of poverty or acting upon low IQs or insufficient education. They were wealthy, intelligent, and highly competent persons. Nevertheless Darrow attempted to make the case that they were both mentally ill, emotionally childlik, biologically disadvantaged, and disposed towards violence in light of their twisted symbiotic relationship that fulfilled the violent needs of the other.
The prosecutor, Robert Crowe, thought Darrow to be a “mendacious windbag” (Baatz’s words) and fully believed that Leopold and Loeb were made from the stuff of evil, freely choosing to do the most dastardly deed imaginable. Nothing less than the death penalty itself would suffice for punishment of such a consciously deliberate murderer.
The judge, John Caverly, a liberal justice who rarely sentenced the death penalty, decided to give Leopold and Loeb life sentences instead of a trip to the gallows, and many saw his decision as a vindication of Darrow and his radical theory of criminology. Darrow’s long, meandering, and at times incomprehensible closing argument is often given credit for persuading a reluctant judge to do the better thing and show mercy. But in reality, the speech was wasn’t very good and only comes down to us in the form of an edited and abridged pamphlet that is far more eloquent than anything found in the trial transcripts. Judge Caverly simply found the idea of hanging an eighteen year-old and and nineteen year-old repugnant. He thought Darrow’s use of science to be spurious and contradictory. It could have gone either way as the prosecutors had argued, and that the whole analysis was mostly speculative. Caverly simply saw little precedent for hanging people under the age of 21.
Nevertheless, the impact of the trial was immense. A true cultural shift resulted in the view of violent murders being evil menaces who rationally acted from their free will to confused victims of mental illness. The question of how one can be held responsible for acting upon impulses that are out of one’s control is perennial in theories of crime and punishment. Still the theories of criminology by both the defense and the prosecution were naive. No one today believes that biological determinism absolves one of criminal responsibility, nor does anyone believe that simply evil is one’s single motive in committing a crime apart from conditioned factors such as mental illness or a broken upbringing.
Yet, Leopold and Loeb have gone down as infamous killers whose lawyer made the death penalty look “cruel and unusual” as our Constitution declares. However, their story isn’t as complicated as their defense attorneys made it out to be, and it would not have been any loss to society if they had been hanged. Our understanding of crime was forever changed by two of the most privileged and violent human beings to live in Chicago during the 1920s. Much of the arguments we make and encounter today originated in their courtroom 85 years ago.
Hence, Simon Baatz is to be commended for his meticulous research and lively writing style in that he has brought to life a a truly distressing episode in American legal history which has become more of the stuff of myth than reality. Trial transcripts and first hand reports always tell a more interesting story than newspaper editorials and revering lawyers who embellish the details to suit their interests.