Saturday, July 28, 2018

No Reason: The Leopold and Loeb Files

Nathan Leopold, Richard Loeb, and Clarence Darrow, Chicago, 1924. (Chicago Daily News)


Immediately on opening The Leopold and Loeb Files: An Intimate Look at One of America’s Most Infamous Crimes (Agate/Midway; 296 pp.), you’re lured into a world as factual as documentary, as real as black and white, yet fundamentally mysterious. Illustrating the inside front panel and flyleaf, dominant at the center of several enlargements – a ransom note, a handwritten envelope, a comparison of typewriter strikes – is a photograph of Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb. 19 and 18 years old, respectively, they have just confessed to the kidnapping and murder of 14-year-old Bobby Franks, and they are sitting in an office. Between them is their lead defense attorney, Clarence Darrow; to the rear, two sheriff’s deputies keep watch. The handsome, heavy-lidded Loeb leans toward Darrow almost seductively, his languorous gaze aimed at the cigarette in Leopold’s hand. Darrow is the only one looking at the camera, and though his posture is nonchalant, his face shows uncertainty, perhaps even fear, in the face of what he has taken on. One deputy, fist on hip and tin star gleaming, stares straight ahead, all righteousness and rectitude; the other looks down at Leopold as if asking, for the thousandth time, what could be going on in the boy’s head. Finally there is Leopold himself, his large, inexpressive eyes foreshadowing every Kubrick psychopath, staring out at the world through whatever acid bath of ideas and desires – vengefulness, sexual excitement, intellectual intrigue – is uniquely, unfathomably his. The photograph is a Last Supper of true crime.

In May 1924, Leopold and Loeb – prodigiously brilliant university students, scions of wealthy Jewish families, and lovers – conceived a plan to kidnap a child from their social circle, extort ransom from the parents, and then murder the child. The victim who came along was Bobby Franks, youngest member of a family that lived, like the killers, in the affluent Kenwood section of Chicago. The boy, who also happened to be Loeb’s second cousin, was lured into a car, bludgeoned with a chisel, and suffocated; his body was found the next day in a culvert beneath a railroad overpass in a marshy area on the city outskirts. Little over a week later, Leopold and Loeb were apprehended, and, after a brief and unsuccessful stonewall, both confessed.

The accused were represented by world-famous attorney Clarence Darrow, who took the case largely as an opportunity to inveigh against capital punishment. Because an insanity plea would have entailed a jury trial and virtually guaranteed a death penalty, Darrow chose to plead his clients guilty – thus bypassing trial altogether in favor of a sentencing hearing before a judge who might be persuaded to spare the killers’ lives. After the month-long hearing, which was accompanied by media coverage of an unprecedented intensity (it was neither the first nor the last “trial of the century”), Judge John Caverly decided, solely on the basis of the killers’ age, not to condemn them to death. He instead sentenced Leopold and Loeb to life imprisonment on the murder charge, plus 99 years on the kidnapping charge. Richard Loeb died in Illinois’s Stateville prison in 1936, fatally slashed by a fellow prisoner who claimed, probably falsely, that Loeb had made sexual advances. Leopold, meanwhile, became a model prisoner. His heavily sanitized autobiography, Life Plus 99 Years (1955), written as his parole eligibility matured, was an effort to demonstrate his successful rehabilitation – and indeed, he was granted parole, after a few failed attempts, in 1958. He then moved to Puerto Rico, where he lived and worked until his death in 1971.

Interesting as the facts are, the case’s dramatic elements are what have made it a renewable resource in almost every fictive medium – page, stage, screen, even musical theater. The most commercially successful fictionalization remains Meyer Levin’s bestselling Compulsion (1956), a long, often tedious novel redeemed by meticulous detail and rigorous factuality, written by a former Chicago journalist and student acquaintance of the killers. The case was first represented on the screen by Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope (1948), an inferior film I’ve always enjoyed, and Richard Fleischer’s adaptation of Compulsion (1959), a superior film I’ve never enjoyed. I remember little of Todd Kalin’s homoerotic Swoon (1992), save that the acting was unworthy of the lush photography and period recreation. Onstage, in addition to Patrick Hamilton’s Rope (1929, basis of the Hitchcock film) and the 1957 Broadway play based on the Levin novel, there have been John Logan’s Never the Sinner (1988), a straight play, and Stephen Dolginoff’s Thrill Me: The Leopold & Loeb Story (2003), a musical. There are at least three book-length journalistic accounts of the case; it has also been plumbed and plundered by scholars of criminology, sociology, sexuality, psychology, the law, the media, and even Judaism. Clearly, there is much in the case that we can’t let go of – or that won’t let go of us.

John Dall and Farley Granger in Alfred Hitchcock's Rope (1948).


The Leopold and Loeb Files is based on material discovered, some thirty years ago, by a Northwestern University archivist in a paper bag that was squeezed against the back wall of a vault. The contents – all of original vintage, and unseen in raw form for many years – consisted mostly of two items: a bound volume labeled “Confessions and Other Statements of Leopold and Loeb,” containing exactly that; and the so-called Hulbert-Bowman Report, collecting the professional opinions of the forensic psychologists (or alienists, as they were then called) hired by the defense to examine the killers. In 2009, the Northwestern University Library used these materials to substantiate an exhibit called The Murder That Wouldn't Die; the exhibits curator, Nina Barrett, was retained to compile and write the present volume. (Full disclosure: in April, I participated in an event at the suburban Chicago bookstore which Barrett owns; it was through that contact that I learned of the upcoming publication of The Leopold and Loeb Files.)

The book, densely layered with text and imagery, facts and facsimiles, is like an artfully stylized case file. Long passages are reproduced directly from the “Confessions” and psychological report, with connective prose and overarching narrative provided by Barrett. Marginal columns track the local and national media’s coverage of the police investigation, the killers’ apprehension, and the sentencing; in lieu of footnotes, arrows point from the main text to side notes explaining referred-to names and events. The accretion of detail, the devotion to putting each knowable datum in place, is more impressive than in any previous book on the case. In fact it mirrors the obsessive precision evidenced in the statements of the killers themselves. E.g., Leopold was fascinated by the pornographic writings of Pietro Aretino, a fifteenth-century precursor of de Sade; interviewed about this, he goes into detail about the arcane significance in Aretino’s work of “a woman having a blue vein in her eye.” Elsewhere, Loeb, asked if Bobby Franks’s head had bled “very freely” after being hit with the chisel, responds, “I wouldn't say very freely, but quite freely” – the distinction between “very” and “quite” suggesting either a desperate evasion or a fine point of semantics, but curious in either case.

Through such minutiae, together with abundant illustration, The Leopold and Loeb Files makes good on its subtitle to bring us intimately close to the case, both its known vectors and its lacunae. In many cases, that intimacy is achieved through the arts and crafts of graphic design (kudos to Amanda Good), high-resolution printing, and restoration measures presumably both analog and digital. We see the ransom note sent to Bobby Franks’s father: printed in color, with torn edges and crease lines, the artifact has texture, grain, reality. In full-page reproduction, a lawman’s hand holds the eyeglasses that were a key piece of early evidence; though we’ve seen them before, the glasses have never appeared so tactile, so near that we could reach into the page and touch them. Many group photographs are, like the opening flyleaf shot, little masterpieces of circumstance, of expression and poise. One shows the killers, in custody, flanked by their fathers, two august gentlemen whose faces convey uncommon depths of despair. (Nathan Leopold Sr. and Jacob Loeb, two decent individuals, were spiritually and physically ruined by their sons’ crime; within five years, both were dead.) Another image centers on a telltale typewriter pulled from a lake; three men – including Robert Crowe, the State’s Attorney who fought desperately to have Leopold and Loeb executed – look down upon the machine with tremendous solemnity, even mournfulness, as if it, too, were a murder victim.

Another striking photo follows a subsection titled “Were Leopold and Loeb Insane?” As noted, Clarence Darrow, hoping at optimum to keep his clients off the gallows, chose not to mount an insanity defense; in line with this, the Hulbert-Bowman psychological report, written by the defense alienists and submitted to the court, stopped well short of declaring the killers insane. Yet in an earlier report, which came to light only in July 2017, the same doctors did reach a common finding of insanity. As Barrett points out, this “confirm[s] the extent to which Darrow was willing to manipulate the definition of legal insanity in the service of his clients – and how the hired alienists were willing to manipulate their own professional diagnoses to suit the terms of their employment.” Turn the page after reading this, and you see a photo spread of Darrow in the midst of the trial, seated at the defense table. The faces around him are blurry, but his is in sharp focus, and he is looking straight at us. His eyes, or so we fancy, look guilty – as if he has been caught at something. He has.

Dean Stockwell and Bradford Dillman in Compulsion (1959). (Photo: IMDB)


It’s not difficult to explain the persistence of Leopold and Loeb. Criminal history and popular culture became symbiotic long ago; but more than that, the specific case is a matrix where many vital lines intersect, and time has only multiplied its meanings. Among other things, it was the first high-profile murder case in which expert psychological evaluation played a significant role. This is as relevant to the history of psychology as it is to the history of crime, given that many of the clinical attitudes on display give off an unmistakably antique whiff. Those attitudes were solidly rooted in Freud, at a time when the Austrian visionary had achieved worldwide renown but was little understood in a general sense. The doctors expounded his notions, particularly of sexuality and psychopathology, before a transfixed courtroom and eager press corps, and “a case can be made,” as Barrett writes, that this is what “brought Freudian theory into mainstream consciousness.” Though there’s evidence of good faith and compassion in the expert testimony (particularly that of William A. White, whose New York psychoanalytic institute still exists), it’s tainted by what appears to be a direct conflict of interest. Barrett points out that the defense alienists “carefully absolved the families” who were paying for their services of any imputation of guilt – instead seeking for explanations in the bad influences exerted by the killers’ respective governesses. (Leopold's was described as “a definitely abnormal individual” whose nurturance “produced a profound and unwholesome effect”; Loeb’s as “a paranoid personality . . . devoid of the understanding necessary to deal properly with children.”)

The psychologists tried gamely to understand the cryptic and unconventional nature of the killers’ sexual relationship, another aspect that has kept the case in the modern consciousness. That relationship was based in reciprocal fantasy – Loeb’s of being a master criminal, Leopold’s of being his abject slave – as much as direct physical contact, with the two agreeing to service each other’s desires for the sake of their criminal enterprise. Many details of this “compact” (the favored courtroom euphemism) were known, at least vaguely, to the public at the time, thanks to the detailed questioning of the alienists and the leaking to the press of the Hulbert-Bowman Report. (Some believe it was Darrow who leaked it, hoping it would foster a public perception of his clients “not as sinister thrill-killers but as troubled children,” in Barrett’s words.) Ominous, even loathsome implications of gayness have always been present in the case’s dramatic versions. Alfred Hitchcock, surely well aware of certain details, cunningly cast two closeted gay actors, John Dall and Farley Granger, as his killers; less cunning were his sporadic but unmistakable exposures of homosexual subtext. (When Dall speaks of feeling “tremendously exhilarated” during the murder, his and Granger’s miming of orgasmic arousal is unsubtle to the point of camp.) Levin’s Compulsion was quite candid about the erotic aspect (and the novel’s 1957 paperback cover summarized the story by showing two male hands in a lovers’ clutch); the movie too, particularly in the performance of Dean Stockwell as the Leopold figure, signaled its reality clearly enough. Decades later, with the development of queer cinema and theory, the case was rediscovered as a rich, all but unexplored text: Kalin’s Swoon, Dolginoff’s Thrill Me, and Jordan Schildcrout’s Murder Most Queer (2014) interpret Leopold and Loeb as, at once, dangerous embodiments of gay physicality and convenient repositories of the dominant culture’s homophobic revulsion.

The case also featured the star power of America’s most famous attorney. Many have written about Clarence Darrow’s legendary performance; in addition to extolling his oratory, The Leopold and Loeb Files highlights his wiliness. He sought to humanize the killers by referring to them collectively as “these boys,” and individually by their nicknames, “Babe” (Leopold) and “Dickie” (Loeb). State’s Attorney Crowe, selectively forgetful of Chicago’s long and grisly homicidal history, called the Franks murder “the most cruel, cowardly, dastardly murder ever committed in the annals of American jurisprudence . . . Nowhere in the whole history of murder in Illinois is there a crime so cruel, so brutal, so vicious . . . No case compares with it for atrocity and depravity.” Throughout his arguments, and with great finesse, Darrow combated this bombast by suggesting, without ever minimizing the tragedy of the crime, that it was perhaps not the worst in the chronicles of the state, the country, or the cosmos.

Darrow rested the defense with a closing argument that lasted three days. The speech, printed and sold as a pamphlet soon after, still stands as a model of legal rhetoric, as well as a summa of the Darrow mystique. “Decades later,” Barrett writes, “his words still ring from the pages of the transcript, a voice unmistakably distinct from all the others: folksy, patient, earthy, but also at times bitingly sarcastic or soaringly eloquent.” As an ideological statement, the closing boils down to a jeremiad against the death penalty, which Darrow felt degraded and brutalized society by satiating mass bloodlust. “I am pleading for life, understanding, charity and kindness, and the infinite mercy that forgives all,” he intoned. “I am pleading that we overcome cruelty with kindness and hatred with love.” But underlying this extreme unction are many bold rhetorical moves. Scorning those who “talk glibly of justice,” Darrow asks, “Who knows what it is? . . . Does your Honor know? Is there any human machinery for finding it?” – an apparent existentialism which seems to call into question the entire judicial system, himself included. He pays lip service to what had been decried as the sheer senselessness of the crime, while also promoting his pet theory of cause and effect – that the criminal, like any man or woman, was in essence a mechanism, a thing of known parts and properties that could be broken by circumstances but also repaired with the tools of understanding and social engineering. “I know there are no accidents in nature,” Darrow says toward the end; “I know that effect follows cause.” Among the causes he adumbrated for the murder of Bobby Franks were moral fecklessness resulting from wealth and privilege (the earliest use, some claim, of the “affluenza” defense), and the teaching of Nietzsche’s “superman” theories in the university. Darrow spoke true to his beliefs for the most part, but the depths of the case, and of the killers, eluded his mechanistic rationalizations.

Leopold and Loeb as convicts, Illinois State Prison at Joliet.


There remain, inextricably woven with the facts of the case, a number of minor mysteries, and one major one. After killing Bobby Franks, Leopold and Loeb undressed his body up to the waist, left it in the rear seat of their car, and then occupied themselves until nightfall; at that point, they completed the undressing, poured acid on the body to prevent identification, and shoved it into the culvert. The killers said the partial undressing was simply to save them a bit of work later on – an excuse which the police and prosecutor, understandably, found unconvincing. From the start, State’s Attorney Crowe insisted that the stripping of the lower half meant the body had been abused, either ante- or post-mortem. He maintained this even in the face of an autopsy which showed no evidence of it; in fact, he made it the centerpiece of his closing argument. (This did him no favors with the judge, who explicitly rejected it in his decision.) Another mystery is who actually killed Bobby Franks. Leopold blamed Loeb, Loeb blamed Leopold; it was, Barrett notes, “the only major point on which they vehemently contradicted one another.” Many who are familiar with the case – from some of the original alienists to Hal Higdon, author of The Crime of the Century (1975; rev. ed. 1999), perhaps the definitive journalistic account – have reached what they consider the only plausible conclusion. But it remains a speculation.

The biggest mystery – the central question that has puzzled anyone who ever took an interest – is why Leopold and Loeb did it. Darrow called the crime “weird and uncanny and motiveless”; not even the killers claimed any particular insight. Upon confessing, Leopold mused that perhaps they’d been driven by “a sort of pure love of excitement, or the imaginary love of thrills, doing something different . . . the ego of putting something over.” That may have been part of it, but the adolescent hunger for kicks stops far short of the crime’s extremity. As for Darrow’s mechanistic conception of behavior, it’s as outdated today, just as much a clanking contraption of primitive idealisms, as the simplicities of the alienists. Yet we haven’t come much closer to understanding in the near-century since. Darrow’s casting about for causality in a motiveless void brings to mind the similar graspings that followed the Columbine massacre, where fragmentary inputs – bullying culture, gun culture, video-game culture, American culture in toto – were advanced as absolute or partial culprits. Meanwhile the enigma of motivation went unresolved, and commentators became the proverbial blind men who, in the metaphor of Gus Van Sant’s Columbine-inspired movie, mistook the parts of an elephant for an illusory whole.

The apparent impermeability of Leopold and Loeb as individuals – their elevated financial and intellectual status, their cold stares and unemotional recitations – continues to exert a morbid fascination. (Albeit one offset by the irony of two youths who, whether or not they saw themselves as Nietzschean √úbermenschen, certainly felt superior to nearly everyone around them, yet demonstrated their omnipotence with a foolishly complicated criminal scheme which they bungled at every stage.) “I never touched that body after the hydrochloric acid was poured on that body,” Richard Loeb told the police. “After the hydrochloric acid was poured on that body, you stepped into that culvert with your boots on, and you took hold of the feet and gave the body a push, and the body splashed in there, and it splashed on your pants, too, and you were worried about it.” These are hardly the most brutal words or ugliest images in The Leopold and Loeb Files. But if the heart of darkness has a rhythm, there it is. Rigorously objectifying the dead Bobby Franks as “that body,” Loeb (while affecting to describe Leopold’s actions) also hypothesizes himself as “you,” a para-fictional other: there is an utter absence of feeling, of emotional perception, even of personal connection to the acts as they were so recently committed, as they are now recalled and described. Without directly addressing anything beyond a few specific, limited movements, Loeb’s words characterize, in quite a chilling way, the void at the center of himself, and at the center of the case – the absence of motivation, of comprehensible passion, that still has us groping at elephant parts.

“There was just no reason,” Nathan Leopold wrote, many years later, in a letter to the Illinois Parole and Pardon Board. If an epitaph could be written for the case, some finality put to it, that might be it. Nina Barrett is quite right that the case’s “persistent fascination lies in its essentially inscrutable nature, which both demands and somehow ultimately evades all attempts at satisfactory explanation.” Like the direst fairy tales of childhood, the case takes us into the forest and abandons us there; yet we, like the child thrilling to its own fear, compulsively revisit this forest, and others like it, throughout our lives. We ask to be reminded of how much remains unanswerable and unknowable. The grim allure of the JFK assassination or the Zodiac killings is all in the unseen, the doubts never allayed, the identities never known – the shape on the grassy knoll, the face under the black hood. Leopold and Loeb is in some ways quite obviously different from those and other unsolved cases: we know who the killers were, how they were discovered, how they were punished, and even how they died. What we do not know is the “why” that would put the thing to rest. No amount of dramatization or rumination will summon up the why, or melt the ice of Loeb’s smile, or animate the emptiness in Leopold’s eyes. We return to this case, asking it to surrender its last answer, precisely because we know that there is no answer, there never was an answer.

– Devin McKinney is the author of Magic Circles: The Beatles in Dream and History (2003), The Man Who Saw a Ghost: The Life and Work of Henry Fonda (2012), and Jesusmania! The Bootleg Superstar of Gettysburg College(2016). Formerly a music columnist (The American Prospect), blogger (Hey Dullblog), and TV writer (The Food Network), he has appeared in numerous publications and contributes regularly to Critics at Large and the pop culture site HiLobrow. He is employed as an archivist at Gettysburg College in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, where he lives with his wife and their three cats. His website is

No comments:

Post a Comment