Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Deviating a bit from all things British today to discuss the book For the Thrill of it: Leopold, Loeb, and the Murder that Shocked Chicago by Simon Baatz. The book chronicles the infamous 1924 murder of 14 year old Bobby Franks by older teenagers Richard "Dickie" Loeb and Nathan "Babe" Leopold. I was familiar with the case and had read a great deal about it, so I was interested to see if this book would add anything new to the story.

The book goes into great detail about the murderers, their lawyers and various aspects of the trial. Leopold and Loeb were two affluent, bored teenagers who had always been presented as being geniuses. The author of this book points out that Loeb, especially, was not academically gifted but was pushed unmercifully by an overbearing governess. He graduated from both high school and college while still very young, but at the expense of developing social relationships with his peers. Similarly, Leopold thought himself intellectually superior to his fellow human beings, but this was mainly his way to cope with being a social outcast. He continually claimed to be able to speak many languages, but the author points out that no one ever actually tested this claim.

The two teenagers developed a friendship and began acting out their most secret fantasies: Leopold's was to become a willing slave (to Loeb) and Loeb's was to become a master criminal. In order to continue their physical relationship, Loeb coerced Leopold into becoming his accomplice in a number of petty crimes. Eventually, they worked out a plan to commit the "perfect crime", which would include kidnapping, the collection of a ransom, and the murder of the victim. Since they believed they were so intellectually superior to everyone, especially the police, they did not expect to ever get caught. Incredibly, despite planning their crime for many months, the body of their victim was discovered within a day, and they were unable to collect the ransom. Adding to their downfall was the fact that Loeb could not shut up. He gave "tips" to journalists and generally inserted himself into the investigation.

Not surprisingly, they were caught and eventually Loeb confessed. The families begged famed lawyer Clarence Darrow to save the boys from hanging. There was a great deal of information included about the trial, experts on mental illness, and the lawyers who argued both sides of the case. The two defendants had pleaded guilty from the start, in an effort to request leniency from the judge. It worked, and after a three day rambling summation from Darrow, the judge sentenced the two killers to life in prison, rather than hanging.

An interesting fact that came out in the information about the trial was that Loeb had supposedly confessed to 4 other serious crimes, called "A, B, C, and D", but never identified or explained. It was also pointed out that Loeb was depositing money in the range of $500 - $1500 in a bank account every month for a year before the murder. The source of this money was never accounted for. So even though this book presents an exhaustive account of the crime and its aftermath, there are still unanswered questions.

Something strange which struck me was that even with all the planning of the crime, the murderers did not select a victim. Instead, they just cruised past the local school at the time students would be walking home. Their plan was just to kidnap the first boy they saw walking alone. They nearly had to abandon their plans when all of the children stayed in groups. Unfortunately, Bobby Franks did eventually come by alone. Even though he was related to Richard Loeb, they carried out their plan of kidnap and murder.

Leopold insisted throughout the questioning that he felt no remorse for the crime, as he was not subject to the same laws as common men. He also said that any crime or act was permissible, because the pleasure such activities gave him outweighed any negative effects on society. Surely statements like that greatly endeared him to the public!

The one thing I was most interested to find out in the book was how the author dealt with the death of Richard Loeb. In 1936, at the age of 30, Loeb was murdered in prison by a fellow inmate. The author, while providing copious citations throughout the book, tells the story of the murder on one page without any footnotes. He seems to follow the same line as most other sources have taken: that Loeb made unwanted advances toward another inmate, who killed him in self-defense. However, trutv's Crime Library gives another version of the events. Loeb continued to receive a monthly allowance from his family while in prison, and according to this source, he was generous in sharing this money with other inmates. James Day, Loeb's killer, felt that he wasn't getting his fair share of the money Loeb was doling out. I was hoping the author might explore this aspect of Loeb's death more fully. As the Internet source points out, Loeb was unarmed, his throat was cut from behind, and his body showed nearly 60 wounds. Um, overkill much? Additionally, after his initial arrest, Loeb claimed to be totally uninterested in sex, according to the author of the book. Of course, he could have undergone changes in prison, but it never seemed right that such extreme violence would be necessary in a case of self-defense.

New word: nugatory: of no value, worthless

Final Verdict for For the Thrill of it: Three Gherkins, for being a very detailed look at one of the "crimes of the century"


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I'm a librarian who is interested in all things British. I try to visit London as often as possible, and am always planning my next trip. I lived in Sweden for a few years with my Swedish husband, so the occasional Swedish reference may occur . . .

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