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The Leopold and Loeb Case: In Leopold's Words
Digital History ID 1074

Author:   Nathan Leopold
Date:1958

Annotation: It was the first "Crime of the Century." It took place in 1924. Two teenagers with every social advantage kidnapped and killed and mutilated a 14-year old neighbor.

Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb came from highly privileged Chicago families. At 19, Leopold was already a University of Chicago graduate and spoke 14 languages. 18-year-old Richard was the youngest graduate in the history of the University of Michigan. Leopold would describe the two as evil geniuses who were above ordinary standards of morality.

Theirs was a thrill killing, which included various sexual perversions with their victim's body. They even mutilated the boy's genitals with acid. And yet they were not executed. Their defender, the attorney Clarence Darrow, introduced the psychiatric defense into the legal system. He claimed that the youths had been sexually abused by their governess and scarred by feelings of physical inferiority. He maintained that Leopold had been traumatized by his mother's death and that Loeb had been pushed into extreme academic overachievement. In addition, Leopold and Loeb had indulged in extreme sexual fantasies.

Before the 1920s, the dominant view of violent juveniles emphasized deficiency and deprivation. Juvenile killers were generally thought of as subnormal in intelligence. The conventional view is that delinquents had been neglected by their families and deprived of education. But the Leopold and Loeb case challenged that view. The case was interpreted to mean that any parent could have raised these two youthful murderers. Said a prominent judge:

Let no parent flatter himself that the Leopold-Loeb case has no lesson for him....It is more than the story of a murder. It is the story of modern youth, of modern parents, of modern economic and social conditions, and of modern education.

Rather than blaming the young men's parents, the judge and the press accepted Clarence Darrow's argument that society, schools, and violent social conditions were largely to blame for the crime. Darrow also succeeded in putting the morality of the death penalty on trial. He acknowledged his clients' guilt and admonished the audience to hate the sin but not the sinner. He succeeded in persuading the judge to give the two murderers life sentences.


Document: My motive, so far as I can be said to have had one, was to please Dick. Just that--incredible as it sounds. I thought so much of the guy that I was willing to do anything--even commit murder--if he wanted it bad enough. And he wanted to do this--very badly indeed. For the commission of the crime itself, I had no enthusiasm. Instead, I had a feeling of deep repugnance. (Leopold, Life Plus Ninety-Nine Years)

It was just an experiment. It is as easy for us to justify as an entomologist in impaling a beetle on a pin. (Chicago Tribune, 1924)

"Well," I said to myself, "it's over. There's no turning back now. How on earth could I ever have got involved in this thing? It was horrible--more horrible even than I figured it was going to be. But that's behind me now. Somehow I never believed that it would happen--that we'd actually go through with it. But it's done. And now, at least, there aren't any decisions to make. I'll be able to put all my thought on not making any slips--on staying one jump ahead of the police. But that's nonsense! Nobody's ever going to suspect me. I wish it weren't over with--that there were still time to change my mind. But what's the use of wishing things that are impossible? The thing I've got to do now is be careful to do all the ordinary, normal things just as I've always done them. I'll stop at a drugstore and call Connie to confirm our date for tomorrow night." (Leopold, Life Plus Ninety-Nine Years)

On Richard Loeb: You just couldn't figure the fellow out. Those quick alternations of mood, those sudden changes of mind. But then that was nothing compared to the real, fundamental contradiction in his character. Everybody went for the guy--and rightly so. There wasn't a sunnier, pleasanter, more likable fellow in the world. Why, I thought more of Dick than of all the rest of my friends put together. His charm was magnetic--maybe mesmeric is the better word. He could charm anybody he had a mind to. Lots of people who thought the world of him would be surprised to know his real thoughts about them. He looked down on nearly everybody. But they never knew it. And he was at home with everybody. College presidents or hobos, it was all the same to Dick. He fitted in with everybody, became instantly a charter member of any group. He blended with his environment as some moths and butterflies do. And all this he did so effortlessly. He seemed to have the inborn knack of making friends, of winning everyone's affection. I'd try deliberately to copy his mannerisms, to be consciously charming. I couldn't come close. More often than not I'd just alienate people, more so than if I hadn't made a conscious effort. But Dick didn't have to try. He just seemed able to push an imaginary button and turn on the charm. And he could be generous to a fault. But then there was that other side to him. In the crime, for instance, he didn't have a single scruple of any kind. He wasn't immoral; he was just plan amoral--unmoral, that is. Right and wrong didn't exist. He'd do anything--anything. And it was all a game to him. He reminded me of an eight-year-old all wrapped up in a game of cops and robbers. Dick, with his brilliant mind, with his sophistication! (Leopold, Life Plus Ninety-Nine Years)

On Clarence Darrow: I grew to know Clarence Darrow well in those three emotion-laden months. I sat beside him daily in that sweltering courtroom charged with the heat of summer, charged perhaps even more with the heat of men's passions. I was privileged to see him in action in what were perhaps the most trying hours of his long and illustrious career. Yet how can I hope to describe his many-faceted character? Mr. Darrow was sixty-seven--what the world calls an old man. But he did not give the impression of age. Rather, there was about his craggy face, his unruly iron-gray hair, and his loose-jointed, shambling figure a certain air of timelessness. You simply did not think of his age. Instead you knew from his deeply lined face that he had lived--richly and deeply. Mr. Darrow was many things--philosopher, humanitarian, lawyer, defender of the rights of the underdog--so many things that it is hard to decide which aspect of his character made the deepest impression. To me, at least, Mr. Darrow's fundamental characteristic was his deep-seated, all-embracing kindliness. You couldn't look at the man without being struck almost instantly by this keynote of his character. Clarence Darrow was far from being sure that life, under the happiest circumstances, is worth living; he knew sorrow and trouble intimately; his instantaneous reaction toward people--especially people in trouble--was the welling forth of that tremendous, instinctive kindliness and sympathy. It was so genuine, so immediate, so unforced. And it embraced the whole world. Or, at least, nearly the whole world. The only things Mr. Darrow hated were what he considered cruelty, narrow-mindedness, or obstinate stupidity. Against these he fought with every weapon he could lay a hand to. And unfortunate was the individual who, in Mr. Darrow's opinion, stood for any of those qualities. His merciless scorn, his blistering sarcasm, his rapier-like thrusts of irony must have made many an opponent squirm.... He was a deep and original thinker. Although he was widely read and possessed of an amazing store of the world's knowledge, the most striking characteristic of his thought was its originality. In many fields he was a generation ahead of his times. He hated superficiality; he refused to conform for conformity's sake. One result was that he often espoused unpopular causes. It may be said of him that he was one of the best-hated as well as one of the best-loved men of his day. Clarence Darrow came to visit me a few months before his death. Physically, he had grown feeble; the mark of death was on his face. But age and illness had not dimmed that piercing inner light. His wisdom, his kindliness, his understanding love of his fellow man shone out from under the wrappings of his flesh as brilliantly on this last day I saw him as it had on the first. (Leopold, Life Plus Ninety-Nine Years)

The Sentence: Actually, neither Dick nor I reacted very strongly. There was some slight feeling of relief, but relief from the tension of uncertainty rather than from any particular dread of the extreme penalty. As to sober thought of the future, there was none. I had no conception of what prison would be like, nor did I make any effort to think about it. (Leopold, Life Plus Ninety-Nine Years)

It had been my own personal preference at the outset to make no attempt to avoid the extreme penalty. I had desired to plead not guilty and, by refraining from offering any defense whatsoever, positively to court execution. My reasons for this view were twofold: first, I believed, and evidently Judge Caverly agreed, that speedy execution of the death penalty would be much easier for us defendants than the slow, day-by-day torture of spending the rest of our lives in prison. Second, I felt that the pain to our families and the humiliation and shame they must suffer would, in the long run, be less if we were hanged than if we were sentenced to life imprisonment. The shock and the grief were enormous in either event, but I hoped that with Dick and me removed from the scene the wound might begin slowly to heal and the memory to become gradually less vivid and painful. So long as we were alive and in prison I feared that we should be a festering sore, that we should be subjected to periodic bursts of publicity in the newspapers, and that the anguish we had caused our families would never be allowed to abate. I might say that in the thirty-three years that have elapsed I have found no reason to change my mind. (Leopold, Life Plus Ninety-Nine Years)

Looking back from the vantage point of today, I cannot understand how my mind worked then. For I can recall no feeling then of remorse. Remorse did not come until later, much later. It did not begin to develop until I had been in prison for several years; it did not reach its full flood for perhaps ten years. Since then, for the past quarter century, remorse has been my constant companion. It is never out of my mind. Sometimes it overwhelms me completely, to the extent that I cannot think of anything else. (Leopold, Life Plus Ninety-Nine Years)

"I've spent 32 years here. Is that sufficient punishment for what I did? I don't know the answer to that because I don't know how to measure punishment. I know that I have lost those near and dear to me while I was here. My father, my aunt who was a second mother to me, my brother. I know that I have forfeited any chance of amounting to anything. I've forfeited every chance for happiness. I've forfeited a chance for a family. Whether this is sufficient, I don't know. (Leopold, Life Plus Ninety-Nine Years)

The impact of Compulsion on my mental state was terrific. It made me physically sick--I mean that literally. More than once I had to lay the book down and wait for the nausea to subside. Emotionally, it caused me terrific shame and induced what I guess the doctors would call a mild melancholia. I felt as I suppose a man would feel if he were exposed stark-naked under a strong spotlight before a large audience. I kept to myself as much as possible. Every stranger I eyed with the unspoken question in my mind: Wonder if he's read it. I hope--I know--that I am in no sense today the same person as that horrible, vicious, conceited, "super-smart"--and pathetically stupid--Judd Steiner in the book. There's only one trouble. I share a memory with the monster; a memory, that is, covering those things that actually did happen. I have been taken firmly by the arms and forced to live through, step by step, in horrible, graphic detail, the worst three years of my life. It has been a traumatic experience. But then, undergoing major surgery without benefit of an anesthetic might be expected to be painful. I can only hope that, like the surgery, this experience, too, may involve some therapy. (Leopold, Life Plus Ninety-Nine Years)

Source: Nathan Loeb, Life Plus Ninety-Nine Years (Garden City, N. Y.: Doubleday, 1958).

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