New Book Offers Fresh Insights into Storied Case
Here’s what we know: a young male was (inconclusively) sexually assaulted and murdered. Two of the men suspected were involved in a gay relationship with a master and slave subtext. The slave enjoyed serving the master and protecting him from his enemies, and saving his life. The slave’s view of himself was as a powerful slave, not a weak one, where the servitude was by his own acquiescence, yet could be dissolved at any moment. This allows the slave to be both dominant and submissive (topping from the bottom, anyone?); it allowed the slave to give power and authority to the master, yet also provided the slave with potency and virility.
Sound familiar? Of course it does, especially as a reader of this web site, but it’s not who you might think it is. Actually it’s Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb, the famous masterminds behind the “thrill kill” murder which is described in Simon Baatz’s new “For the Thrill of It: Leopold, Loeb and the Murder that Shocked Jazz Age Chicago.”
The murder captured the nation’s imagination and fury, as it became the first murder of the 20th century to be dubbed “the Crime of the Century.” The parallels between these cases concerning the dominant and submissive aspects are chilling, no doubt, and the similarities don’t end there.
Simon Baatz articulates the how the relationship between Loeb and Leopold developed:
“Nathan also has a vivid fantasy life. He imagined himself as a slave, handsome, intelligent, and strong, the strongest man in the world, who had earned the gratitude of the king by saving his life. The king had offered Nathan his freedom, but Nathan preferred to remain in servitude, protecting the king and saving him from his enemies. When the king chose a slave to fight on his behalf, Nathan was always his choice, and in his battles Nathan was the victor, effortlessly vanquishing hundreds of fighters determined to kill him.”
“The stronger [Leopold’s] feeling for Richard Loeb, the more Richard appropriated the role of the king in Nathan’s fantasy. Richard, as the king, might issue any command, for any reason, at any time, and Nathan would have no choice but to obey.”
He completes his description of the relationship:
“Each imagined life — Richard’s ideal of the master criminal and Nathan’s self-portrait as the powerful slave — fulfilled the other. Richard, in his imagination, was capable of committing the most intricate and complex crimes, but he needed an audience to applaud his ingenuity; what better, more appreciative onlooker could he choose than his subservient companion, Nathan Leopold? And Nathan secured gratification in imagining himself the slave to an appreciative king: could anyone other than Richard Loeb fill such a role?”
How exactly to each boy’s pathology interact with the other. Baatz writes,
“It was a peculiarly bizarre confluence of two personalities, each of which satisfied the needs of the other. Nathan would never on his own initiative have murdered Bobby Franks. Nathan had confessed feeling a degree of pleasure from planning the murder and in undressing the boy — to have someone in his power, he had admitted, was sexually arousing — but there was no indication that without Richard’s suggestion, he would have committed murder. As for Richard — his suggestion would never have been carried into effect without the encouragement provided by Nathan’s participation.”
While Nathan’s Leopold’s personality as the submissive in a master/slave relationship is reminiscent of Joe Price, so is his egocentric behavior. Arnold Maremont, a student at the University of Chicago, where Nathan was attending school said(emphasis added):
Nathan was very egocentric. Practically all the time I was with him, in ordinary social conversation, he attempted by any sort of ruse to possible to monopolize the conversation. It didn’t make any difference what was being said or what was being talked about, he always attempted to get the conversation revolving around him so he could do most of the talking… he thought his mentality was a great deal superior to the ordinary person.
One of the most interesting similarities was the language used by the lawyers involved in the both of these cases. Just as AUSA Patrick Martin described this case as “weird, strange” at the most recent status hearing, so did the lawyers in Loeb and Leopold case when they said, “Of course, this case has attracted very unusual attention on account of the weird, strange and terrible nature of the homicide.”
The defendants from Swann Street and Leopold and Loeb certainly hired the best attorneys of their day. Leopold and Loeb hired Clarence Darrow, who was the most famous criminal defense attorney in the country. He would go onto to try the Scopes’s monkey trial after this case.
While the similarities are numerous, so are the differences. While the Swann Street trio has been smart enough to lay low, especially in terms of talking to press, Leopold and Loeb weren’t so shrewd. Nathan Leopold who cultivated an image of superiority far in advance of his 19 years, yet he didn’t anticipate that there would be blowback in the press. “I’ve been pictured in the public mind as the Svengali, the man with the hypnotic eye, the master mind and the brains,” Nathan complained to the Chicago Evening Post. “I’ve been described as the devil incarnate. But, Dicky Loeb, on the other hand, seems to have won the sympathy of the public.”
Just as Richard Loeb seems to “won the sympathy” of many in Chicago,so now Victor Zaborsky seems to have won the sympathy of many of the readers of this site. Doug recently questioned this assumption in his post, Hail to the Victor. The Loeb and Leopold case shows how off base the public can be about the true identities of those at the center.
Second, both Leopold and Loeb confessed to the crime just 10 days after the murder after their lies caught up with them. And this was before there were finger prints analysis and certainly there was no DNA. Darrow had the men plead guilty, which avoided a jury trial. This meant the entire trial was about whether the two young men would be sentenced to death or life in prison.
The defense hired the best scientists of their day, and argued a new theory about the endocrine gland, and its possible cause in aberrant behavior as a mitigating circumstance. While this was the most forward thinking argument of the time, it was the really the testimony of the psychiatrists that was the most compelling. Psychiatry as a field of medicine was in its infancy.
The battle between the two sides laid out the differing positions of the role that psychiatry played in behavior. For the defense, the childhood’s of Leopold and Loeb contributed to their pathology. Loeb was raised by an overly strict governess who caused him to retreat into criminal fantasies. Leopold had attracted taunts and his classmates teased him endlessly. And his governess was having an affair with his older brother, and had become sexually intimate with Nathan as a twelve-year-old. For the prosecution, none of this mattered, for their psychiatrists testified that they both knew right from wrong, and therefore were not insane.
In the end, none of the prosecution’s or defense’s arguments mattered in Judge John Caverly’s decision. He chose life in prison over death based on the young boys age. Leopold was 19 at the time of the murder, Loeb was 18. It was seen as a clear victory for the defense.
Simon Baatz’s fresh insights paint a complex portrait of an intense relationship at the center of this 1920’s murder that is as compelling and riveting as the relationship found on Swann Street in August of 2006.
-posted by David