Powerful Slave, Master Criminal

New Book Offers Fresh Insights into Storied Case517qqh2ji8L._BO2,204,203,200_PIsitb-sticker-arrow-click,TopRight,35,-76_AA240_SH20_OU01_

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.”

Baatz continues:

“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

21 comments for “Powerful Slave, Master Criminal

  1. Mike
    10/23/2009 at 12:24 PM

    I guess it was inevitable that L & L would get hauled out. I just think the parallels between them and Swann St. are fairly superficial.

    It’s true that L & L were gay and involved in a “master-slave” affair, but everything I’ve read suggests that their personalities were very different from Swann. Loeb was topping from the top, not the bottom – though intellectually inferior to Leopold, he was dominant in every other category. One thing that aroused suspicion was his placing himself front and center of the murder investigation, talking about it to anyone who would listen until his arrest. The whole world was his audience, not just Leopold.

    L & L’s murder was premeditated, an intellectual puzzle, not a lust killing or a rape gone “wrong.” Given the chaos of the Swann crime scene it is hard for me to believe that Robert’s death was part of the original plan. So, what are the real similarities? Sociopathology? Homosexuality? L & L are a footnote in gay history because of the stigma they placed on gays in the eye of the mainstream. Do we really want to revive that?

    I’m uncomfortable with the allegations about Leopold’s governess. This was speculation from a time when homosexuality was seen as a pathological condition attributable to a childhood trauma – such as abuse by a female. Female-on-male sexual abuse is EXTREMELY rare, and Leopold’s “memories” of this were hazy at best. So far the WMRW editors have avoided crass sensationalism, and I hope this continues.

    My main source for the above is Meyer Levin’s nonfiction novel “Compulsion,” so it may be way off base. I welcome any corrections.

    • Clio
      10/23/2009 at 3:31 PM

      I echo Mike’s uneasiness about unearthing this case from the Roaring Twenties: it helped to usher in the era of compulsory heterosexuality, which lasted until the 1970s.

      Most readers will probably pray that Bernie follows Clarence Darrow’s lead in urging the trouple to plead guilty, as L and L did. An acquittal for the cover-up would be another crime! Although, having a very elderly Joe or Dylan fresh from jail and out on the streets in the 2040s does raise potential future security and aesthetic concerns.

      We can all hope that the members of the trouple may use their skills and educations in prison to good effect, as L and L did.

      On another footnote, I also see superficial glimpses of both Joe and Dylan in Harry K. Thaw, the violent, omnisexual sociopath in “the Girl in the Red Velvet Swing” scandal of 1906 in which Thaw shot architect Stanford White over Evelyn Nesbit, who, by my family lore, was supposed to be a distant relative of ours. That romantic notion turned out to be false, thanks to genealogical research! At any rate, Thaw escaped justice, pleading insanity and blaming the victim. Let’s hope that history does not repeat itself in that way here!

      • CDinDC
        10/23/2009 at 4:17 PM

        Clio says: “We can all hope that the members of the trouple may use their skills and educations in prison to good effect, as L and L did.”

        And which skills are your referring to? LOL

        • Clio
          10/23/2009 at 4:56 PM

          They could teach basic literacy, perhaps creative writing, based upon their skills at coming up with a fanciful story in less than thirty minutes.

          Due to their advancing age, however, their more intimate skills may be much less in demand.

  2. one more friend
    10/23/2009 at 4:43 PM

    Why does a premeditated murder all of a sudden sound so far fetched?

    If I’ve been reading this blog correctly for the last few months a lot of the comments have made that claim as being very possible.

    Nothing would surprise me. None of the pieces fit and this is as good a theory as many I’ve read. Just my 2 cents.

    • CDinDC
      10/23/2009 at 4:54 PM

      I agree OMF. Anything is possible. Unfortunately.

      Joe, Dylan or Victor could have percolated with hatred for Robert for years. Not everyone likes a good guy.

      “Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men?” Where’s The Shadow when you need him?

    • Bea
      10/23/2009 at 5:32 PM

      It’s certainly possible, though I think Joe would have been too smart to have this be his best shot at a perfect crime. It may have been premeditated that night after some serious drug use (impaired judgment) which is still 1st degree murder – one need not think it up days in advance. Not even hours in advance. So under those circumstances I agree it could have been.

      • Clio
        10/23/2009 at 7:31 PM

        They could have planned the assault/rape as a prank or sick joke in advance — hours or days/under the influence or stone-cold sober, but they certainly did not think through the consequences of their actions.

        The effects, of course, could not be choreographed, despite the enablers’ best efforts to this day. Not only is Robert dead in the most heinous way possible, but so are the trouple’s pre-August 2006 postures as the tribunes of the LGBT people of Virginia. Their careers, much more importantly to them, are dead, their parents and relatives are mortgaged to the hilt for Bernie & Co.’s sake, and their reputations may become ever dicier with this blog’s relentless analysis of court documents. They have been forced to live with Aunt Marcia (again); middle-aged men of a certain class just don’t do that.

        Thus, crime, however perfect, does not pay after all, except, of course, for our beloved defense attorneys and experts, perhaps!

        • Clio
          10/24/2009 at 11:15 AM

          Dylan as master criminal? No, he could only get a master’s degree … in children’s lit from a formerly all-women’s college. Does Dylan as trickster see himself as master criminal? Only with the help of his medicine cabinet and toy chest!

          Joe as slave (outside of sex play)? No. He is a slave only to his own ego. Joe as protective patron (outside the bedroom)? Yes, as he said that he knew Victor and Dylan better than his own mother (bio or step?), and they could not hurt a child, fly, or spider (on the light!)

  3. She did it
    10/23/2009 at 8:00 PM

    “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.”

    As a fabulous fan of this blog, I must call bullshit on the entire premise of this particular thread. Dylan Ward as “powerful”, “dominant”, “poten[t]”, “viril”, “complex”, “compelling”, “riveting” — sorry, not buying it.

    sometimes a turd is just a turd. that is my counter thesis to this post.

    still love the blog – and all those who keep it going. cheers all – TGIF.

    • David
      10/23/2009 at 8:37 PM


      I don’t think the powerful slave is referring to Dylan, but rather Joe Price. Just as Nathan Leopold saw himself as a slave who could still tell his Dom/Master what to do, so did Joe Price.


      • Clio
        10/23/2009 at 10:34 PM

        But, one of the critical differences between Leopold and Loeb on one hand and Price and Ward on the other is their ages at the time of the crime. So, unlike teen-aged Mr. Leopold, Counselor Price in his mid-30s probably understood the theater of master and slave, and he did not really see himself as slave to his ward (and footman, literally and figuratively) Dylan outside the playroom or dungeon. Even more so than L and L, then, these perps knew right from wrong, and they knew what they may have been doing was wrong. And, they probably did it anyway in that “sardine can” and, then, they probably pretended that they did not do it. Shameful!

        FOR called Joe “a sissy.” I think that’s a wonderful compliment myself (without any sarcasm!), but Joe from his military/East Texas background may not have liked that feminine persona assigned to him. So, the bedroom role as butch bottom may have made him feel more virile or powerful than he was even in the boardroom. But the dom role really must have been a stretch for petite Dylan; I can see him now flubbing his lines with barely repressed laughter (that is, when he was sober).

        Other differences: L and L confessed! They also gave interviews, which the Editors point out. Can you imagine Joe and Dylan going on Oprah? Horrors! Perhaps, it is best that Bernie has told them to stay quiet. And, L and L did not have a matronly Victor (and probably others) giving them cover. Sigh!

        • CDinDC
          10/24/2009 at 11:11 AM

          SDI, you brought an interesting thought….harkening back to the narcissistic “self-loathing” discussion, perhaps Joe’s participation in S&M was to make him “him feel more virile or powerful,” as you pointed out.

          I recently had a chat with an acquaintence that is a S&M (M only) enthusiast. He said that it makes him feel like a real man. He can take anything. He is quite proud of his ability to withstand.

          Joe seems to have a need to be bigger and better than everything around him. Maybe his participation in sexual escapades that require him to “withstand” not only punishes the inner “sissy” but makes it rise above and makes it stronger than those doling the punishment.

          And maybe Joe had a secret dislike for his smaller, physically weaker friend and felt a need to punish Robert.

          • Mike
            10/24/2009 at 11:57 AM

            Excellent post, CD. No one brought this stuff up before (that I remember), but it feels convincing.

            • CDinDC
              10/24/2009 at 1:21 PM

              Thanks Mike. In the past couple of hours I’ve been thinking about this…to expand a little, I wonder if Joe expected those around him to “be strong?”

              A narcissist not only expects great things of themself, but also want to associate themselves with people they deem worthy. Perhaps he had high expectations of Dylan and Victor, as well, and demanded they overcome what Joe may have thought their weaknesses.

              Dylan: “man up….don’t whine when I ask you to hurt me….I’ll love you for it.”

              Victor: “don’t whine because I want another sex partner……you’re still number one, baby.”

              Maybe that August night was another opportunity for Joe to demand strength from his “men.”

              • Clio
                10/24/2009 at 3:36 PM

                CD, that is quite plausible. Joe’s (and others’) internalized homophobia was really internalized effemiphobia — fear of the effeminate within.

                Then, in this scenario, Dylan the unlikely dom has to prove her often-disputed manhood by joining Joe in these high-stakes hijinks that end up in murder. She did it to prove that she was truly a he! Sadism, thus, made Dyl feel more in control and more virile than when he was fund-raising or writing.

                Then, Victor (wo)maned up to co-write the Plan D
                cover-up. A middle-aged Lord of the Flies, anyone?

                Accordingly, to prove their “toughness” of whatever gender, the members of the trouple may have solidified their emotional, if not sexual, bonds as a band of brothers fighting the System and its “inequities.” Bunking together at the McLean ranch house over the summer may have helped “this last stand” mentality. Thanks again, Aunt Marcia!

      • She did it
        10/24/2009 at 8:30 AM

        oops. i stand corrected. thought it was another post trying to romanticize the life of ms. ward into something its not (as lance, kimberlee and others have done previously).

        nevermind. i’ll leave the psycho-analysis of ms. price to others; my heart tells me to afix my stink eye to ms. ward; and ward alone. love, and good week end, to all.

  4. Perplexed
    10/24/2009 at 9:44 PM

    The real similarity I see is in personality – that’s about it. Difficult to take it further due to too many unknowns, difference in age, difference in the times, family makeup. I think it’s important to note that personality disorders do have a lot to do with environment and usually stem from either highly overbearing parenting, dysfunctional communication as in double bind messages from the parent(s), among other things….but there is a clear dysfunctionalism in the developmental process that produces these various personality disorders. So it would be interesting to be able to gain some history of these three, b/c it would explain a lot of what was going on inside of them to be able to predict the roles each took.

    • Clio
      10/24/2009 at 11:15 PM

      I agree, Plex. The members of our polyamorous family came from other more conventional families, whose histories are yet to be written. One does not have buy into the outdated, Freudian-lite psychiatry of the 1920s to appreciate the significance of childhood and adolescent experiences upon the components of the Triple Alliance. And, I think that the Price brothers’ experiences in Okinawa and Massachusetts may be especially key in answering the whys and in filling in the preconditions behind this tragedy.

      • Clio
        10/24/2009 at 11:55 PM

        I trust, though, that the defense will not be blaming the tampering on the trouple’s endocrine glands, as per Clarence Darrow, although their other glands may have been more central to the evening’s denouement.

  5. mark
    11/04/2016 at 9:26 PM

    Why must they gay community be treated like it was a National Geographic Theme Park.

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