Delenda Est Carthago

Why not delve into a twisted mind? Thoughts on the world, history, politics, entertainment, comics, and why all shall call me master!

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Location: Mesa, Arizona, United States

I plan on being the supreme dictator of the country, if not the world. Therefore, you might want to stay on my good side. Just a hint: ABBA rules!

7.7.09

What I've been reading

For the Thrill of It: Leopold, Loeb, and the Murder That Shocked Jazz Age Chicago by Simon Baatz. 2008, Harper Perennial, 541 pages.

Most of us, I would presume, have heard of Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb, at least in conjunction with the films made of their exploits, from Alfred Hitchcock's Rope (with Jimmy Stewart) to Richard Fleischer's Compulsion (with Orson Welles and E. G. Marshall and, weirdly enough, Gavin McLeod) or even to Tom Kalin's Swoon, which is the only movie of the three I've seen (although I'd like to see the others). The story of Leopold and Loeb is so very weird that it fascinates us, even 85 years later. It's one of those crimes that continues to defy explanation, which is probably why it remains interesting to study.

Baatz writes in his book that no one prior to this has written a book on the case, which seems odd. But here this one is, and in the best tradition of popular history, it's a well researched and erudite yet gripping read, mainly because of the subject matter. Baatz gets a bit turgid when dealing with the courtroom scenes, but when he writes about Leopold and Loeb's relationship and the days leading up to and following the murder, the book races along in an almost fictional style. Similarly, once Leopold and Loeb actually go to jail, Baatz does a good job writing about their lives (in Loeb's case, a short one). The trial section isn't bad, but it does drag a bit due to all the back-and-forth legal maneuverings of the two sides.

Leopold and Loeb are a fascinating pair, of course, because it's doubtful either one of them would have pulled off such a horrible crime (murdering a 15-year-old boy for no motive) without the other. Leopold was a shy, extremely intelligent young man who fell in love with Loeb and had an active fantasy life wherein he was the slave of a great king who came to depend on the slave and always offered him his freedom, which the slave refused. Loeb, meanwhile, who was more outgoing and less intelligent than Leopold, dreamed of being the perfect criminal. The two boys complemented each other, as Loeb kept Leopold on the hook by promising sex if he (Leopold) would help in his (Loeb's) crimes - the two worked their way up to murder over the course of a few years - while Leopold allowed Loeb to call the shots while making himself indispensable to Loeb, in much the same way his fantasy slave becomes indispensable to the king. Both boys were from rich families, and both boys had odd relationships with their nannies when they were young - Leopold's seduced him when he was twelve, while Loeb's pushed him to graduate early from high school and enter college before he was ready - it becomes obvious early on that both boys were cauldrons of psychoses that came bubbling out when they met each other and enabled each other's desires.

Baatz goes over the crime in great detail (most of which was provided by Loeb and Leopold themselves) and the trial in even greater detail. Clarence Darrow was the lead attorney (technically he was Loeb's lawyer), which of course sensationalized the case even more, and Robert Crowe, the DA, had his eye on future political office and a reputation as someone who always got the death penalty, even in cases where the defendant pleaded guilty by reason of insanity. The actual trial wasn't even really a trial - Darrow pleaded guilty to avoid a jury trial, but then persuaded the judge to hear arguments by both sides on the degree of mental illness suffered by the boys - not insanity, Darrow argued, but a different kind of mental illness. This allowed him to avoid the jury and essentially place the burden on the judge to determine the sentence, and if he found that Leopold and Loeb suffered from any kind of mental illness, they wouldn't receive the death penalty. Crowe thought the defense was a perversion of justice, but the judge allowed it, and that's what the trial became. By "winning," Darrow got the boys life sentences. Loeb was killed in prison, but Leopold was eventually paroled.

Baatz also does a good job placing the crime in the context of 1920s America. It's interesting reading the contrasting attitudes displayed by the police and members of the press about, say, the boys' sex acts. On the one hand, there's the expected talk about "perversion" and mental deficiencies, but there's also a kind of casual understanding that these things go on and that's just the way life is. Baatz subtly makes the point that, this being the Twenties, boys just experimented with these sorts of things. We also get the usual denunciations of the decadent lifestyles of the young from pulpits across the country, as preachers raged against the anti-religious attitude sweeping the nation (it never ends, does it?). Baatz points out how at least one minister preached a sermon explaining how the death penalty is completely congruent with Christian values. There's a lot of this kind of social context in the book, as the case captured the imagination of the entire country.

For the Thrill of It is an interesting book about a dazzling time in American history and its dark underbelly. Leopold and Loeb were, it seemed, paragons of what American youth could be - they were both intelligent, good-looking, rich, and had bright futures. They didn't have great family lives, it became clear, but neither were they from broken homes. Underneath it all, of course, were dark currents just waiting to be released, and the most interesting part of the book is, as I mentioned, that neither could have done this without the other. The one place the book fails is at conclusively stating why Leopold and Loeb killed a boy. This failure isn't Baatz's, though. Leopold and Loeb themselves could never really provide a conclusive answer to that question. No wonder the crime continues to vex us even today!

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