Home » history

Getting Off

By (June 1, 2008) No Comment

For the Thrill of It:
Leopold, Loeb & The Murder that Shocked Chicago

By Simon Baatz
Harpercollins, 2008

It’s important to remember, in all that we’ll discuss, that Bobby Franks never got to be twenty. He never got to be forty. He never got to vote for Nixon and maybe regret it. He never got to send sons to Vietnam. He never got to have patio cook-outs, or be scandalized by Jacqueline Suzanne, or see a man walk on the moon. You didn’t read his obituary in 1998, noting over your morning coffee the curious incident of how he survived a bizarre 1924 kidnapping in Chicago and recounted the incident to a swelling number of grandchildren throughout his reasonably fulfilled life.

None of those things happened – nor the infinity of alternate things that could have happened in their place – because Bobby Franks died in 1924 before he was even fifteen years old. And it wasn’t leukemia or a runaway truck that killed him – he died because he had the top of his head was pried open with a chisel, and when he cried out, he had a rag stuffed down his throat. And these things weren’t done by some interrupted robber in the heat of the moment; they were coldly planned and carefully enacted by two other boys, wealthy Chicago teenagers who did those things to Bobby Franks because they wanted to see what it felt like to kill somebody, and they wanted to brag to each other about getting away with it.

We’ll have three unsavory men to deal with before we’re done, and one misguided great one. Two of the unsavory ones are in the center ring: 18-year-old Richard Loeb and 19-year-old Nathan Leopold, both intelligent, both privileged, both well-spoken. The third is Friedrich Nietzsche, whose pseudo-philosophical codswollop had, by 1924, been afflicting the learned and seducing the gullible for three-quarters of a century, despite the fact that he was self-evidently insane for the whole of his publishing career. Nietzsche codified psychopathy by positing that some men, by virtue of their will and strength, stand above all human laws, and Leopold loved the idea, and Loeb loved Leopold, and that’s the paste holding them all together.

The great man was Clarence Darrow, the greatest American trial lawyer since Daniel Webster and one of the greatest advocates of all time. Clarence Darrow of Scopes “monkey trial” fame, whose fortunes had risen and fallen with the same volatile precipity over the decades, despite the anthologizability of his celebrated closing arguments … Clarence Darrow the celebrity, the “Great Defender” whose championing of society’s downtrodden – workers, minorities, the poor – had made him a name on the public stage.
Darrow’s practice was based in Chicago in 1924, and he was awakened in the middle of the night by the worried fathers of Leopold and Loeb, who pleaded with the great man to save their boys’ lives, because they’d both confessed to the killing of little Bobby Franks and stood to die for it. The men had ample money to serve their sons’ interests, but the mob wanted blood, and to protect young Leopold and Loeb from something like that, they needed the great defender, and they were pretty sure they’d get him, because Clarence Darrow had made a career of opposing the death penalty.

He called it cruel and vindictive, base and illegal. He said it lowered society to the answering of its most primitive urges. He said – in any forum that would let him say it – that crime has causes, that it’s more akin to a disease than an abrogation of God’s law. Clarence Darrow for his entire career pitted his hard-won erudition, formidable intellect, and enormous powers of persuasion always against what he perceived as savagery, all savagery, and his own age and all succeeding ages are right to praise him for it. In two or three centuries, when the final tally of America’s greatest is tolled, a list of any ten names will feature Darrow’s, and deservedly so.
I believe Darrow was wrong about the death penalty, but even so I give the man the credit he deserves: what he believed, he believed like a landslide. That belief rings out from his closing arguments in this very case:

We have raised the age of hanging. We have raised it by the humanity of courts, by the understanding of courts, by the progress in science which at last is reaching the law; and in ninety men hanged in Illinois from its beginning, not one single person under twenty-three was ever hanged upon a plea of guilty-not one. If your Honor should do this, you would violate every precedent that has been set in Illinois for almost a century….

Your Honor, if in this court a boy of eighteen and a boy of nineteen should be hanged on a plea of guilty, in violation of every precedent of the past, in violation of the policy of the law to take care of the young, in violation of all the progress that has been made and of the humanity that has been shown in the case of the young; in violation of the law that places boys in reformatories instead of prisons,–if your Honor in violation of all that and in the face of all the past should stand here in Chicago alone to hang a boy on a plea of guilty, then we are turning our faces backward toward the barbarism which once possessed the world. If your Honor can hang a boy eighteen, some other judge can hang him at seventeen, or sixteen, or fourteen. Some day, if there is any such thing as progress in the world, if there is any spirit of humanity that is working in the hearts of men, some day men would look back upon this as a barbarous age which deliberately set itself in the way of progress, humanity and sympathy, and committed an unforgivable act.

The purest testament his weird rhetorical power could have is the ability of his arguments to arrest the reader, any reader, at any time. Two seconds’ typing online will find you transcripts of virtually every word Darrow ever said in public, especially the great closing arguments – go and read them, and you’ll see. Darrow lives in them, and it’s that Darrow the parents of Leopold and Loeb desperately wanted to hire.

The fathers’ desperation is understandable. Their boys had confessed everything. Here’s the crime they talked about:

On 21 May, 1924, Leopold and Loeb (Baatz, in his thorough but melodramatic book, insists on calling them ‘Richard’ and ‘Nathan’ – an iniquitous chummy habit that halfway exonerates the two little creatures in every sentence; a historian should know better … it’s like constantly referring to Adolf Hitler as ‘Alfie’ in your biography and still hoping to claim impartiality), after careful and prolonged planning, decided to pick a victim at random off the street and kill him. They first chose another boy, then settled on Franks, who was coincidentally a cousin of Loeb’s. They pulled up their rented automobile to the curb where they saw him and enticed him inside on the pretext of talking about a new tennis racket. Once they had him in the car and the car was moving, Loeb pulled Bobby Franks into the back seat and repeatedly hacked at his skull with a chisel bought for that purpose. But the boy didn’t die fast enough – he squawked and needed to be gagged, which Loeb did with an improvised rag until the sobbing boy became still. Once this was done, the two kept driving. They stopped at a restaurant to have sandwiches and soda drinks while the body in the car rapidly cooled under its blanket draping. They laughed and chatted and Loeb flirted with the waitress, while Bobby Franks’ blood soaked into the car’s floorboards and the body stopped twitching.

They then drove to Wolf Lake, where they took the body from the car, poured acid on its face and genitals in an attempt to disguise the victim’s identity, then lugged the body to a drainage gulley where they thought nobody would ever look, and dumped it.

They’d taken meticulous care with their details, but they made mistakes. It turns out that when they were moving the little body to the deserted culvert where they would leave it, Leopold dropped his glasses, distinctive glasses whose client-list for Chicago was exactly three people long. When somebody saw Bobby Franks’ naked legs sticking out of a culvert, the glasses were found nearby, Leopold was questioned, and a quick, tight net was drawn around Leopold and Loeb (the celebrated case demonstrates the proficiency of the Chicago P.D. like nothing else could, but that fact of course gets drowned out in the subsequent furor). Leopold’s excuse for what his glasses were doing at the scene where the body was discovered was that they must have fallen out of his pocket while he was bird-watching in the area. He told the police that on the day of the murder he’d been driving around in Loeb’s car with him, picking up girls.

Things unraveled quickly. In demonstration after demonstration, Leopold couldn’t get his glasses to fall out of his pocket; the typewriter in Loeb’s law school study ground was found to match the note Mr. Franks received (in one of the case’s many bizarre little details, the two killers sent their ransom note after they’d already killed their victim); and the Loeb family driver assured the police that the Loeb car had been parked and idle all during the day of the murder. Leopold and Loeb were arrested and almost immediately did something very few arrested potential murderers do: they confessed, at length, in detail, almost boringly.

Certainly nauseatingly. We have page after page of their descriptions of what they did, page after page of careful accounting – what was felt at every moment, what was planned at every moment, what they each thought at every moment, all of it written in tones of campy melodrama and overweening self-absorption. There’s every indication that they colluded beforehand to get their stories straight, and they were both accomplished liars, so we’ll never be sure about some of the most intimate details of the crime. Was Bobby Franks sexually molested before he was killed, for instance? State’s attorney Robert Crowe raised the possibility before the judge, but Leopold and Loeb are silent on the subject. Likewise the actual killing itself – did Loeb do it alone while Leopold drove, or did they both do it equally, as they planned?

What we know for certain is that Bobby Franks died a miserable death, and that Leopold and Loeb expressed no believable remorse for causing that death. Baatz sums up for the prosecution:

The state’s psychiatrists had had ample opportunity to evaluate the two prisoners. All three psychiatrists agreed that neither Nathan nor Richard had shown even the slightest sign of mental illness. Quite the opposite: throughout the interview, the boys had been self-possessed, coherent, rational, and lucid. There was no evidence of insanity.

Darrow’s initial decisions on the case were typically brilliant. He knew that even he would likely fail to acquit the boys in front of a jury of twelve men, which he’d face if he entered their plea as “not guilty” – so he changed that plea to “guilty” and the whole mess was transferred to what technically amounted to a hearing. Judge Caverly would preside and make his decision once defense and prosecution had finished their cases. Darrow also decided to make this “trial of the century” (the 20th century’s first and not, alas, its last) a battle of expert psychologists – called “alienists” in 1924 – and he called in one expert after another to give testimony with one aim in mind: to mitigate culpability. His goal was to mitigate enough of it so that his clients wouldn’t be hanged.

The prosecution appeared to have the much easier job: they had signed, witnessed confessions, and they had two suspects who sat day by day laughing and joking with the press. Baatz makes very clear the legal machinery putting this contest in motion:

Some critics wondered why – because Leopold and Loeb had readily confessed – it had been necessary for the Criminal Court to hear any evidence on the murder. But, according to the criminal code of Illinois, Caverly explained, it was the obligation of the court to listen to testimony both in mitigation and in aggravation if either the defense or the prosecution so requested. Commentators in the daily newspapers had frequently made the comparisons with the speedy administration of criminal justice in Britain, but such comparisons were beside the point. Since a defendant could not be legally executed in Illinois before the tenth day of the term of the Supreme Court after judgment, there could have been no executions in Illinois, whatever the circumstances of the case, before October.

Simon Baatz has worked for six years unearthing every detail of the proceedings – court reports, newspaper accounts, witness recollections, and a host of other sources – but this has not produced the tunnel vision that might be expected. His obvious intention is to step back from the dramatic events and personalities he’s writing about and let them do all the talking. His book is full of direct quotations taken from a variety of official transcripts, and as a result the pages read like the very best crime fiction. This kind of editorial restraint is rare in cases like that of Leopold and Loeb, and for good reason: they don’t deserve it. And even when on occasion Baatz slips in an opinion, the reader is grateful for it – he’s the expert, after all, so any of his thoughts on the case are of interest, as here on the all-important question of whether or not the killers were insane:

And, of course, there was no doubt that both Nathan and Richard were mentally ill. Nathan was a paranoiac. He displayed all the symptoms of someone suffering from a paranoid psychosis: delusions of grandeur, self-satisfied superiority, disregard of others, and exaggerated self-importance. Nathan, in letters to Richard Loeb and in comments to classmates at the University of Chicago, had repeatedly represented himself as a superman who had no need either to behave according to the law or to conform to social convention. His philosophy was an individualistic hedonism that held others in contempt; whatever gave him pleasure or satisfaction determined his daily course of action.

Readers of quotes like that will perhaps be thinking, as I am, of three or four dozen acquaintances (and, possibly, on some days, the person in the mirror) who walk around every day fitting that description and yet somehow manage to avoid murdering little boys and pouring hydrochloric acid on their genitals. Likewise one of Darrow’s desperate gambits during the hearing, attributing Loeb’s behavior to an “adrenal insufficiency,” a condition also endured by, among many others, President John F. Kennedy, who also had no dead boys in his curriculum vitae. For a month, expert battled expert before a packed courtroom and a rapt, conscientious judge. The defendants took notes like college students while their fates were contested. Girls crowded the gallery to swoon over Loeb’s good looks.

Reading Baatz’s compelling, definitive book brings it all back to life, and makes one thing startlingly clear: the outcome was never really in doubt. When Darrow dreamt up his brilliant move to eliminate a jury trial, he won his case. Twelve men in a box, he’d always maintained, could sometimes find it easy to hide behind numbers and anonymity and pass judgement. He’d convinced many juries in his long career, but public opinion was against him here, and he knew it; some of his jurors would have kids, all of them would know kids Bobby Franks’ age. That process of identification is proof against all the rhetoric in the world. But one man, even a judge? One man, against the force of nature Clarence Darrow could be in a courtroom?

Darrow’s closing lasted for twelve hours. At its end, many people in the court were crying, including Judge Caverly. The judge said he would have a decision in ten days, but he probably arrived at that decision before he left the courtroom. “The Great Defender” had hammered away for a whole day – in terms both conversational and eloquent – on the virtues of mercy, of compassion, of sympathy. He had enlisted his listeners as soldiers of light in a constant struggle with the darkness of ages past.

  And it worked. Caverly sentenced Leopold and Loeb to life in prison. Loeb died there, killed by another inmate. Leopold was released in 1958 (he’d been a model inmate) and emigrated to Puerto Rico, where he lived a peaceful life as a teacher and wrote a book called The Birds of Puerto Rico. Perhaps he had cook-outs, or was scandalized by Jacqueline Suzanne, or saw a man walk on the moon. He died peacefully in 1971, forty-seven years after he took the chance of such an ending from Bobby Franks. One man at least saw some kind of justice in that, but Darrow died in 1938 and so isn’t here to enlighten me as to what it could possibly have been.

Steve Donoghue worked as a city prosecutor in Chicago in the 1920s and 1930s and was furiously gathering evidence against the Chicago Outfit when Al Capone was imprisoned on charges of tax evasion. His white whale imprisoned, Donoghue lost his lust for the work and turned to writing; today he hosts the literary blog Stevereads

Leave a comment!

Add your comment below, or trackback from your own site. You can also Comments Feed via RSS.

Be nice. Keep it clean. Stay on topic. No spam.

You can use these tags:
<a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>

This is a Gravatar-enabled weblog. To get your own globally-recognized-avatar, please register at Gravatar.