Media and Leopold & Loeb


WGN Radio

Clarence Darrow debating on WGN Radio



"Making and Remaking an Event"
Paula Fass (1993)

From the instant it broke on public awareness in 1924, the Leopold and Loeb case was enveloped by the mass media. In fact, journalists gathered critical evidence that helped crack the case. And two newsmen on the Chicago Daily News, James Mulro and Alvin Goldstein, eventually shared some of the reward money as well as the Pulitzer Prize for helping to connect Nathan Leopold, Jr., and Richard Loeb to the abduction and murder of Bobby Franks. As they pursued leads, rumors, and suspicions, journalists not only helped solve the crime, but gathered materials for stories that became the basis for public knowledge of the presumed event....

I began to study this case while writing about child kidnapping, and I gradually became convinced that the tangled mystery at its heart – why two rich, gifted boys would commit a murder embedded in the form of a ransom kidnapping – had a Dostoevskian quality that made it at once compelling and unsolvable. Leopold and Loeb may have been aware that they were playing at the boundary of human consciousness where analytic intentionality blended with irrational passion, and Loeb was infatuated with detective fiction, which often illuminates that borderland. That we would probably never know exactly what happened or why was not, however, the significant issue. For a historian the important question was not what happened and why. Rather, since the case has been repeatedly reframed, the question was how the story has been presented over time and what issues it propelled into public awareness.

The themes explored in the repeated re-imaginings of the case were ones important to twentieth-century culture: childhood, sexuality, the nonrational self, and psychology as a way to understand these. And the implicit questions went deep – to the source of evil in modern life. It is my argument that in using those themes to explain a heinous crime, first the newspapers, through which the case initially exploded into the public arena, and then other cultural agencies participated in a public discourse that offered Americans the new terms normality and abnormality to understand transgressive behavior. Indeed, the judicial hearing that determined Leopold and Loeb’s fate was guided, not by legal questions of responsibility, but by a psychiatrically driven defense that popularized those terms....

Publicity and Portrayal

From its first appearance in print, the story of Bobby Franks’s kidnapping was unusual. On May 23, 1924, the day the newspapers reported that Bobby had been kidnapped, they also contained a detailed description of his dead body. The simultaneous public knowledge of the kidnapping and the murder set this story apart from earlier kidnapping stories, in which parents' willingness to accede to ransom demands might forestall harm to the abducted child. As the Franks story developed, sensational detail by sensational detail, the papers invested it with meaning and significance by linking it to widespread concerns about childhood and youth. When it finally left the front pages months later, the newspapers, which had started by sensationalizing an unusual kidnapping, had succeeded in normalizing a truly sensational case.

On the evening of May 21 the phone rang in the Hyde Park home of Jacob Franks, a wealthy Chicago businessman of Jewish origin who had embraced the Christian Science faith. The caller informed Flora Funds, Jacob’s wife, that their youngest child and second son, Robert, aged fourteen, had been kidnapped but was alive and safe. Further information was promised for the next day. The next morning the Franks family received a carefully cast and neatly typed note that requested ten thousand dollars in ransom and enjoined Franks not to contact the police and to await further phone calls and instructions. Thus far the sequence of events and the ransom demand were very like those in other kidnappings, which, since the late nineteenth century, had become a staple of American life and police business.

By the time the note was delivered, the naked body of an unidentified boy had been found under several feet of water in a culvert in a little-trafficked part of Chicago known as the Hegewisch swamp. This news was part of the normal police blotter of a metropolitan newspaper. The Chicago Daily News had meanwhile received an anonymous tip about the kidnapping of a wealthy boy. The coincidence led the News to assign one of its reporters, Alvin Goldstein, to probe a possible connection. At the importuning of this reporter, Jacob Franks sent his brother-in-law to look at the body, even though the description of the child and the fact that he was found with a pair of eyeglasses suggested that the corpse was not Bobby’s. Shortly after Franks received his next call from the kidnappers, which directed him to a pharmacy to await further instructions about the delivery of the ransom money that he had already gathered from his bank, the brother-in-law identified Bobby's body at the funeral home where it had been taken. The newspaper had brought the two pieces of information together, ruining a self-consciously ingenious kidnap plot, saving Jacob Franks ten thousand dollars, and ending the last hope of his son's safe return.

The newspapers would continue to play a strategic role in the unfolding story, providing their readers with continuous good copy of a sensational kidnap-murder and the prosecuting attorney with material assistance. When the pieces of the case came together, Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb separately confessed to the crime they had jointly planned and committed. From the beginning the press participated in the creation of the Leopold and Loeb story, since its role in resolving the mystery of Bobby’s murder made Leopold and Loeb public property.

The basic outlines of Leopold and Loeb’s story is well and widely known, having been told and retold. Leopold – the brilliant and precocious son of one of America's most illustrious German Jewish families (a Chicago reporter wrote that "Nathan Leopold, Jr., is related to every branch of a little royalty of wealth which Chicago has long recognized”), a graduate at eighteen of the University of Chicago, qualified at nineteen to enter Harvard Law School, a published ornithographer who could speak eleven languages and was an amateur student of classic pornography – would eventually write his prison-based memoirs, Life plus 99 Years. His partner was not so lucky. Not as brilliant, but equally precocious, Richard Loeb was the son of the vice-president of Sears, Roebuck and Company. The Loebs were even more prominent in German Jewish circles than the Leopolds, and Richard inhabited lavish homes in both Hyde Park and Charlevoix, Michigan. Handsome, debonair, and very collegiate in the 1920s manner, Loeb was extremely attractive to women, who flocked to his trial and reportedly showered him with letters when he went to jail. Having graduated at seventeen from the University of Michigan, he was the youngest graduate of the school. Loeb was distantly related to Bobby Franks and like him had attended the exclusive Harvard School in Chicago, from which he and Leopold had followed Bobby and abducted him. Loeb would die in prison, the victim of a slashing attack by a fellow inmate. All three families lived within walking distance of each other in the exclusive Hyde Park section of Chicago, within eyeshot of the University of Chicago, which both Leopold and Loeb attended at the time of the murder. Smart, accomplished, very rich, these boys of good family had committed, everyone agreed, “the crime of the century,” an almost “perfect crime,” baffling, fascinating, dangerous, and inscrutable.

The discovery of Bobby Franks's identity presented the newspapers with a deep mystery, the motive for his death. Individual reporters (sometimes egged on by Loeb) became involved in solving the crime. When Leopold was called in to identify the eyeglasses, which had been traced to him as one of three possible owners, Goldstein and Mulroy tried to link the kidnap note (the only other distinct piece of evidence) to Leopold. When they tracked down his prelaw group study notes, whose imprint and characters matched that of the kidnap note, these provided key evidence that allowed the police to keep Leopold in custody and to bring Loeb in for questioning, since Loeb figured in Leopold’s alibi for the day of the murder. When all parts of the case came together and the two began their long and detailed confessions, the press went to town. Newspapers published the confessions, interviewed the families and friends, and speculated about the nature of the “million-dollar defense” to be mounted by Clarence Darrow and his expensive psychiatric witnesses. They covered the criminal proceedings in minute detail, especially the testimony of the alienists and the extraordinary dosing play of Darrow, which became a classic of the genre.

But coverage was only part of the press's job. Maintaining an almost constant presence on the front page, discussions of the crime and the case were mounted in a frenzy of competitive sensationalism. As one journalist noted in a book published in 1924, on the eve of the Leopold and Loeb explosion, “The problem of sensationalism resolves itself largely into a question of balance.” Contemporary journals like the British New Statesman and American newspaper columnists observed and often criticized the extraordinary excesses of publicity about the case. The sensationalism occurred, in part, because Leopold and Loeb were unlikely killers but also because rumors about the mutilation of the body and the body as the site of perverse practices started almost immediately after the discovery of the unclothed child, well before Leopold and Loeb were suspects. As early as May 24, Chief of Detectives Michael Hughes tried to squelch these rumors by noting that “after a hard day’s work on the Franks mystery, I am convinced... that it was a plain case of kidnapping for ransom – not a case of a victim of perverts." The coroner’s report found no evidence of sexual abuse, but these allegations lingered throughout the life of the case, and the judge had to continually remind the prosecutor that the rumors had been disproved. The rumors were subsequently inflamed by psychiatric reports and wide-ranging interviews that suggested boyish compacts and alluded to perversions (a code word for homosexuality) between Leopold and Loeb.

The sexual undercurrents in a case of murder by two rich kids with no social. responsibilities might seem tailor-made for sensationalism. But at a time when sex seemed suddenly everywhere, especially among the young, and religion still berated modernism in the daily press, the case of Leopold and Loeb was not simply a sexual curiosity, interesting only because of strange practices among strange boys. Despite Leopold’s and Loeb’s wealth, brilliance, and alien religion, the newspapers insisted on manufacturing a story whose power lay in the explosive linkage of the two boys to others of their time and generation. Indeed, in its first significant incarnation, the Leopold and Loeb case became a cautionary story about the dangers of modern youth.

This did not happen at once. On the contrary, the initial portrayal of the killers, especially of Leopold, set them apart and represented them as larger than life. As one man on the street interviewed by the Chicago Herald and Examiner noted the day after they confessed, “I can’t conceive of normal persons committing such a revolting deed.” As soon as Leopold stepped before the public eye, the press began to fashion a portrait of a Nietzsche-obsessed scientist who had destroyed his feelings in the interest of experimentation and cold ratiocination. Since there was no obvious motive and Bobby’s identity was entirely incidental to the plot that Leopold and Loeb had concocted as a test and consummation of their friendship, making sense of the crime was no easy task. In many ways, therefore, the portrayal of Leopold became a substitute for a motive.

Leopold’s accomplishments, his brilliance, his precocity, his aloofness – all made him into a kind of strange bird. As the Chicago Daily Tribune noted in one of many similar observations: “Nathan is having an 'experience’ that seems to bring him no ‘regret,’ no worry, no alarm. A marvelous opportunity to study his own reactions. And with a sense of detachment he watches – as a scientist might – his own curious lack of emotion.” He was the “psychic adventurer de luxe,” who, some speculated, might have left his glasses behind on purpose as a goad and an experiment to test the degree of his superiority to others. “The most brilliant boy of his age I've ever known,” the prosecutor, Robert Crowe, reportedly called him.

Certainly Leopold’s extensive interests (only some of them scientific) and his awkward identification of himself and his friend with Nietzschean supermen gave some grounds to this portrayal, but the picture of him as the “mastermind" who had lured the naive Loeb into a horrible experiment on human life was extreme. "Is Loeb the Faun, Leopold the Svengali?” the Chicago Herald and Examiner asked on the front page. At the time of his confession, Leopold was quoted as saying that he “did it as easily as he would stick a pin through the back of a beetle.” And the Chicago Daily Tribune commented that this was “an excellent analysis of his mental make-up.” The papers were full of pictures of the two, often dissected by lines and arrows, which pretended to physiological analysis. Leopold, with his dark, brooding Semitic looks, large nose, hooded eyes, and sensual lips, was especially vulnerable as the case became “the most cold-blooded and motiveless crime that has ever found mention in the pages of records of history.” Loeb, the all-American boy and fraternity man, far less intellectual and more popular, who asked for his mother after his confession (and whose mother was not Jewish by birth), was initially let off the hook as "a suggestible type.”

The limning of Leopold as a monster with no conscience or emotions flew in the face of other statements in the same papers – that Leopold wished he could jump off a bridge, that he hoped his family would disown him, or, in courtroom psychiatric testimony, that he had become hysterical at the time of the crime. Initially, however, Leopold’s sense of shame and humiliation had no part to play in the portrait of the cold-blooded fiend being constructed out of the science, philosophy, and learning (with whiffs of the Jew) that constituted Leopold’s earliest newspaper persona. Initially, as a Chicago paper summarized it, the case was an exotic flower of evil.

The diabolical spirit evinced in the planned kidnapping and murder; the wealth and prominence of the families whose sons are involved; the high mental attainments of the youths, the suggestions of perversions; the strange quirks indicated in the confession that the child was slain for a ransom, for experience, for the satisfaction of a desire for deep plotting; combined to set the case in a class by itself.

The clear titillation this strange cocktail could provide put the newspapers in a bind. If Leopold was an alien fiend, and the case simply a quirk, it was difficult to justify its continuing prominence in the daily press. To make the case significant it had to become a reflection on modern life, an interpretation to which the papers were already committed before the identities of the killers were known, when poor Bobby’s death had been used to illustrate “the Danger to the Children of Chicago.” Indeed, as in all previous kidnappings, the Franks family was initially the focus of attention, as the press probed and pushed to get the most mileage from a mother in a state of collapse, pining for the son she fantasized would soon return, and a noble father (despite his pawnbroker roots) prepared to sacrifice his wealth and himself to do justice to his son. The use of the Franks family for sympathy and reader identification disappeared, as the newspapers refocused from the dead child to the live children. For the case was a sensation in part because, at nineteen and eighteen, Leopold and Loeb were children themselves, not much older than their victim. Soon Leopold and Loeb were appropriated to a Fitzgeraldesque type of youth, suffering from ennui, over-education, or overindulgence, and especially from intellectual precocity. Thus, Billy Sunday blamed the murder on “precocious brains, salacious books, infidel minds.”

Modern childhood remained the central theme, but as the newspapers attempted to understand the motiveless crime and its relation to the dangers of modern childh ood, they turned readers’ attention from children as victims to children as potential perpetrators of crime and immorality. Thus, according to the popular writer Elinor Glyn, the lesson of the case was to “awaken parents to the frightful responsibility of what thoughts they allow the subconscious minds of their children to absorb before they are twelve years old.” A criminologist drew a generalizable lesson from the case: “There is a great responsibility to raise a baby to manhood. A child is like a clinging vine and dings to its environment.” But it was Ben B. Lindsey, the Progressive juvenile judge from Denver and a well-known youth advocate in the 1920s, who most fully suggested the breadth of the case’s significance:

Let no parent flatter himself that the Leopold-Loeb case has no lesson for him. Let us all clearly understand that the crime was the fault of the modern misdirection of youth.... It was more than the story of a murder. It was the story of modem youth, of modem parents, of modern economic and social conditions, and of modem education.

The transition from senseless crime to moral lesson was made in two ways. First, the newspapers deflated the scientific imperturbability and distance that had set the case and especially Leopold apart from the multitudes. As the case evolved, and especially during the hearing, newspapers gave readers ample opportunity to reflect upon the often-conflicting views espoused by different spokesmen for the new science of psychiatry. The representation of psychiatry in the popular press reduced “science” from Olympian heights of objectivity to the awkward fumbling of vaudevillian figures. The press thus tamed the cold scientific monster of science (Leopold’s first incarnation) into a clumsy, uncertain object of ridicule. Leopold, whom the defense psychiatrists insisted on calling by his nickname “Babe,” lost his Svengali characteristics, becoming instead exposed, humbled, an object of demeaning testing and probing. The newspapers learned to control Leopold and the threat he posed by subjecting him to the science of psychiatry, without entirely accepting the new authority of psychiatry itself.

Second, the newspapers democratized Leopold and Loeb in ways that the two, Leopold especially, probably despised. They published the IQ puzzlers and tests to which Leopold was subjected and challenged readers to do them in the record time of Leopold, "the: genius.” IQ testing in the twenties was both an extremely popular new scientific instrument and a normalizing enterprise that reduced intellectual differences to variant notches on a single scale. This set readers on a continuum with Leopold and encouraged personal comparisons. They asked readers to vote in polls on many subjects, including whether the trial should be broadcast on the radio, something many readers supported because it would result in more democratic access to the trial. They showed “the boys" in prison garb, happily adapted to prison routine. The papers tried every angle on this everyman theme, including a column by Winifred Black that asked each woman reader to consider how she would feel "If Your Son Were [the] Slayer?” “You who sit there at your breakfast table, so comfortable, so much at peace with all the world, this morning.... Would you stand for justice and for right, no matter if by taking such a stand you had to walk to the very foot of the gallows with your own son?” This process encouraged readers, if not to identify with the slayers, at least to be on a level with them; it thereby made Leopold and Loeb’s ideas less alien and their crime less bizarre. It also made these extremely unusual children more "normal.” As Maureen McKeman, a reporter for the Herald and Examiner, concluded:

The attitude of the boys throughout the trial amazed everyone who watched them. Every day newspapers carried pictures of them smiling in the courtroom. When the crowd laughed, they laughed.... bur those who watched them closely came to see... two frightened, foolish boys, who found themselves in a terrific mess with the eyes of the world upon them.

In taming their monstrosity, the papers’ portrayal of two “foolish boys” renegotiated the terms of the crime from the satanic to the domestic. The monsters who inhabited an alien world of learning, culture, and wealth, who had committed an incomprehensible crime, became just two boys, Babe and Dickie, who had tested certain limits of human behavior (sex and murder), but whose punishment lay within the realm of comprehensible retribution. In the process, the newspapers helped introduce Americans to the new psychology and to new concepts of the normal and the abnormal.

The Personal as Public

By the time the judicial phase of the Leopold and Loeb case began in Judge John E. Caverly's courtroom on July 21, 1924 (the hearing was not broadcast on the radio), the issues of psychology and childhood identified with it had already been aired in the press. But the story was still erratic and sensational. In preparation for the hearings, the defense team began to provide the elements of a story of childhood written in the new language of modern psychology. Expert psychiatric testimony had been used long before: the 1920s in court cases, most importantly in the famous trial of Charles Guiteau, President James A. Garfield’s assassin in 1881. It had also played a part in the successful defense of Harry Thaw, Stanford White’s killer, in 1906. Indeed, by the time of the Leopold and Loeb case, one of the prosecution’s alienists, W. I. Krohn, would earn Clarence Darrow's withering contempt as “a witness, a tester” because he had abandoned all other professional duties to devote himself to giving expert court testimony. Psychiatric testimony was used throughout the twenties in new and probing ways. But the Leopold and Loeb case, because of its prominence, Darrow’s innovative defense, and the role of the newspapers in promoting it as a pivotal modern event, gave the role of expert psychiatric testimony new visibility in popular culture.

After Nathan Leopold had been held for more than a day on the evidence of his eyeglasses at the scene of the crime and the apparent similarity between the type-written ransom note and his law group study notes, the Leopold family chauffeur provided the coup de grace by undermining an essential part of his alibi. Loeb, who had been separately questioned for a shorter period, broke down and confessed, triggering Leopold's very similar description of the crime and his role. Their confessions contained essentially the same detailed descriptions. These were almost immediately corroborated as the police, with Leopold and Loeb's active cooperation, retraced the killers’ steps, linking clue after clue and assembling the prosecution’s elaborate evidence. All the pieces of the puzzle, which Leopold and Loeb prided themselves on constructing, fit together and provided irrefutable evidence of their shared guilt. The confessions differed only in some minor details (later straightened out) and one essential fact – each accused the other of administering the fateful blow.

Thus when, very belatedly, the boys were allowed to contact their parents to arrange for an attorney, Nathan and Richard not only had openly confessed but also had helped the police to amass the materials for what prosecutor Robert Crowe assumed would be an airtight case, which he repeatedly called “a hanging case.” The pair's active participation in constructing their own scaffold confronted their attorneys with serious strategic problems. Since all three families were rich and very well connected in various circles, including legal ones (two of the defense attorneys, Benjamin Bachrach and Walter Bachrach, were Richard’s cousins), no one was entirely surprised when Darrow was called in to lead the defense team in what soon was described in the press as the “million-dollar defense.” It was generally assumed by the prosecutor, the press, and others that Darrow’s team would enlist medical specialists to assist in proving the two confessed slayers insane. Anticipating that the "crime of the century" would lead to the "battle of the alienists,” the papers began to prepare the public with long and even learned discussions of the insanity defense and its history.

After careful consideration, Darrow and the Bachrachs decided that their chances for an outright acquittal of the two extremely lucid and well educated defendants was slim. Instead, and to the great surprise of most participants, they pleaded the pair guilty (rather than not guilty by reason of insanity) and introduced expert testimony to mitigate the sentencing of the defendants. In this way, the defense avoided a jury trial and the specific legal requirements of an insanity defense, which in addition often incurred much popular hostility. The sentences were left to the mercies of a judge, in a state in which juveniles had only rarely been executed. As a result of the strategy, the issue in the case became not insanity, with its specific legal definitions, but mental abnormality, a much more flexible and fungible concept, and one open to modem winds of interpretation...  It was thus the defense’s contention that while Leopold and Loeb knew what they were doing and certainly that it was wrong (the key to guilt in cases of insanity), their emotions were so disordered that they should not suffer the extreme sentence of death. As Walter Bachrach made clear to the court in defending the introduction of psychiatric evidence:

We raise no issue as to the legal sanity of these defendants and make no contentions that by reason of the fact that they are suffering from a diseased mental condition, there should be any division or lessening of the responsibility to answer for the crime, the commission of which they have confessed. We do assert that they are suffering and were suffering at the time of the commission of the crime charged from a diseased mental condition, but we do not concern ourselves with the question of whether such mental disease would constitute in the present case a defense to the charge of murder.

Crowe tried repeatedly to trip the defense into an insanity plea. But the defense team maintained that abnormality, according to a new psychological vision in which normal and abnormal were continuous and in which unconscious processes, rather than knowing intent, were paramount, differed from insanity. Darrow’s defense, which was fully consistent with his own extremely dark and deterministic view of human behavior, used psychology in a maneuver that was new to the courts.

The maneuver allowed for maximum attention in the press to the new psychiatric theories and stimulated the newspapers to ask ministers, professors, and doctors for their views on the legal, medical, and moral issues involved. The defense strategy laid the groundwork for the media’s active role in translating and interpreting the case for the public, and because so many issues in the case were related to the new psychology, the press became an active source of cultural news and information.

"Fifty Alienists to Fight for Slayers,” announced the Chicago Herald and Examiner headline for June 14 in a typical burst of exaggeration. In fact, Darrow’s experts were a much smaller team: First among the three star witnesses – invariably called “the Three Wise Men from the East” by the prosecutor and often by the press – was William Alanson White, chief of staff at St. Elizabeth’s Hospital in Washington and professor of nervous and mental diseases at Georgetown University. As the head of St. Elizabeth’s, White was one of the most important figures in American psychiatry. An early and very influential American interpreter of Sigmund Freud's ideas, he did much to bring European psychoanalytic theory into an American framework. The second star was William Healy, an expert on juvenile psychopathology and a pioneer in expert court testimony. Healy had been director of the psychopathic clinic in Chicago and was at the time of the trial the director of the Judge Baker Foundation in Boston, an organization devoted to issues of juvenile crime and justice. Healy had written extensively about the causes of juvenile crime. Dr. Bernard Glueck, the third witness, was former director of Sing Sing prison in New York, a member of the staff at the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Columbia University and the New York School of Social Research, the translator of several European works on psychoses, and an expert on the relationship between law and psychiatry who had in 1916 published Studies in Forensic Psychiatry. Less well known nationally was Ralph C. Hamill, a local and well-regarded neuropsychiatrist who helped prepare the written psychiatric evaluation on which the defense case was based.

The defense team had also enlisted the aid of two physicians who were not psychiatrists, Harold S. Hulbert and Karl M. Bowman. They examined Leopold and Loeb for fourteen days, probing and measuring their body functions, mentality, intelligence, their family histories and fantasies, as well as the then-popular matter of the function of their endocrine glands to appraise the physical and mental basis for their behavior. The result of their investigation was the notorious eighty-thousand-word Hulbert-Bowman report on Leopold and Loeb, which provided the basic text of the defense case, but not before its contents were stolen or leaked to the press and served up, alongside eggs and toast, as breakfast food for American newspaper consumers.

The Hulbert-Bowman report thus became famous even before it became evidence. The most intimate facts of Loeb’s and Leopold’s lives, their fixations, and their “master-slave” relationship became a staple of Chicago diet as "perversions” were anchored in childhood fantasies and intellectual precocity absorbed into compensations for fears of physical inferiority. The report forced an entire revision of the assumed relationship between Leopold and Loeb; Loeb was now the "master” criminal and Leopold his willing slave and subordinate. This seemed initially to be the shocker: “Loeb is the king. It is he who has been the master-mind throughout. He is almost without emotions.... He has always been fond of crime stories.” But any reader who went beyond the attention-grabbing summations would be presented with two very troubled boys. Much of this report, except for "the unprintable [sexual] matter,” appeared in all the major Chicago newspapers, as well as in the book published very shortly after the trial by Maureen McKernan, who had been a reporter for the Chicago Herald and Examiner.

The Hulbert-Bowman report did not explain away the death of the Franks child, but it substituted the troubled bodies and childhoods of the killers for the magic loss of Bobby and the remainder of his childhood. One could hardly read Hulbert and Bowman’s reports and not be affected by the fragile loneliness of Leopold’s childhood, scarred by feelings of physical inferiority, the sexual abuse of a governess, and the loss of his mother when he was fourteen." 'The patient states that there have been two experiences in his life which have completely altered his philosophy of life. His mother’s death is one of these.... if his mother, who was such a good and exceptional person had to suffer so much in the world and that if God took her away from this world, then that God is a cruel and senseless God.” In McKernan’s very early account of Leopold’s life, based on this report, the theme of the lonely, betrayed child rings clear: “A queer reserved chap, living to himself among his books, substituting his studies for the normal active interests of boys his own age.” Similarly, it was difficult to deny the evil committed against a vulnerable Dickie Loeb by a well-meaning but pretentious and outrageously strict governess who took him over, denied him play time, and pushed him into extreme academic over-achievement. The defense doctors, psychiatrists, and lawyers were very careful to avoid blaming the boys’ families (specifically absolving them of genetic taint), and the governesses were clearly convenient substitutes for the parents. This defense stratagem appears to have succeeded: in letters and interviews ordinary citizens were divided on the question of parental guilt and responsibility and not strongly inclined to blame the parents. Nonetheless, whether parents or parent substitutes were at fault, the childhood of each boy had been distorted. As the psychiatric testimony continued, the warped childhoods of the two killers were embedded in the public awareness of the case. The prosecution derided White’s image of Dickie nightly speaking his dreams and fantasies to his teddy bear, but the mental picture of the lonely child with his teddy lingered in the newspapers and throughout the hearing.

Leopold and Loch were not entirely tamed by the Hulbert-Bowman report or the psychiatric testimony, especially as the boys’ sexual compact as master and slave became more firmly limned. But in the minds of readers who were willing to be informed and not just inflamed, the image of the bold, self-sufficient, criminal master-minds had been deeply shaken. The exposure of their privacy in the press was profoundly humiliating. The endless testing itself must have aggravated the humiliation, as the boys’ every bodily and mental function became part of their “defense,” the subject of news and publicity. The newest scientific work was enlisted on their behalf. As the Chicago Herald and Examiner observed: “Physiology, psychology, biology, chemistry and a half dozen other sciences have been utilized in the research work.” But this use of science also brought down their imperiousness and autonomy, as day after day the newspapers showed the pair hooked up to machines and discussed their test results. “Questions are hurled at them—staccato, urgent questions. They answer. More questions.... Then come the examinations – the hopping, the skipping, the jumping. First the one under examination stands on one foot, then on the other. Searching, prying fingers go over him. He winces and grins." In one particularly humiliating pair of photos, Leopold is shown first in his pre-confession days, examining the bird that he had discovered, and then, birdlike, with a tube in his mouth, subjected to tests as an alienist used “all the resources of science to find evidences of some form of insanity." Leopold once railed against the testing: "Loeb and I are being trained like fleas to jump through hoops just to entertain the curious." As Leopold's and Loeb's genius and precocity were tested and demeaned, the fierceness of the crime was defused.

In exposing Leopold and Loeb to prying scientific instruments and the prying public, the endless testing and the psychiatric evidence both democratized them and made them more controllable. The new psychology transformed them from arrogant Nietzschean criminals (the early representation of Leopold) into vulnerable boys (Loeb and his teddy bear) and linked them to the ordinary boys of America....

As the psychiatrists persisted in describing the pair as Dickie and Babe, Crowe became understandably irate at the testimony's tendency to make them into ordinary boys. And at one point, Crowe, who wanted to make them “normal” and therefore responsible for their actions but monstrous, burst out in his cross-examination of William Healy, "You don’t get in your courts many college graduates whose fathers are millionaires."" He thus suggested that Healy’s experience with ordinary juvenile delinquents did not cover this case. Of course Healy’s very presence on the defense team suggested that the case was being the deprived. The Leopold and Loeb case thus problematized childhood (and not, as previous concerns about juvenile delinquency had, only the children of the poor) and made it the site of significant preventive knowledge. The case had attached categories of normality and abnormality to definitions of childhood, and the association was more significant than the often slippery distinctions that were made between them. At a time when child-rearing advice was avidly sought by parents and increasingly dispensed by a variety of experts, the Leopold and Loeb case stimulated psychological explorations of childhood development and experience.

The verbal pushing and shoving in court as the prosecutor vied to show that these pampered "fiends" (Crowe never gave up suggesting that Bobby had been mutilated) were perfectly sane and normal and the defense team tried to make them just kids, very human but mentally abnormal, made the concepts of normal and abnormal, in all their rich confusion, daily staples of newspaper copy. In the written psychiatric report, the defense team emphasized the killers' “abnormal mental life. This has made a situation so unique that it probably will never repeat itself. There is justification for stressing the uniqueness of this case if for no other reason than that it has created wide-spread panic among parents of young people.” The psychiatric report implied that the newspaper coverage had succeeded in alarming parents, but the report left unclear whether parents panicked because their children might be victims or, as became increasingly likely in view of the lessons offered by Leopold and Loeb, perpetrators of horrible crimes.

While Leopold and Loeb did not hang, that victory did not necessarily validate the defense claim that the case was unique or that it should be decided on the basis of new visions of psychological abnormality (Caverly based his ruling on their age) or on the alienists’ conclusions. Indeed, subsequent cases in the decade in which young men were accused of heinous crimes against children, like those of William Hickman and Harrison Noel, may have suffered from the connection with Leopold and Loeb. Rather, the press presented and the public heard the alienists’ views in tandem with Crowe's challenges. In the end what ruled the day was, as Mr. Dooley put it, the perception that "th’ throupe if thrained alyenists at ivry murdher thrile is always a riot. This is prob’bly th’highest price vowdyville act on th’ big cirket." Science took it in the knees in the public press, while the Leopold and Loeb case familiarized Americans with a wide range of terms, concepts, and values drawn from psychiatry. Nevertheless, psychiatrists had defused the crime, not because it was unique, but because they lodged its causes in the childhoods of the young men who had killed, not for an intentional "thrill” as first reported, but for deeply psychological reasons. They had made psychology a form of explanation far more comprehensible (and far less disturbing) than the initial Nietzschean portrait that the papers had exploited. If Leopold and Loeb were not quite like any other two boys, they were declawed, and their crime became a moral lesson that Americans could ponder as they put their own children into their cradles and cribs at night.

The Crime Grows Up

The orgy of publicity surrounding the crime, confessions, trial, Judge Caverly's sentencing, and Leopold and Loeb’s imprisonment would have made the case notable even if Leopold and Loeb had thereafter disappeared from the public record, tightly shut up from freedom and from view at Joliet and Stateville prisons. As the New Statesman told its English readers, "No crime that the modern world knows of can be set beside the killing of the boy Robert Franks by Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb.... The affair has dominated the American newspapers for four months in a fashion that no short description could make real to English readers.” After their confession, “there began the exploitation of Leopold and Loeb on a scale and with a recklessness going beyond anything hitherto known." That exploitation, as we have seen, both tamed the criminals and gave the public cause for concern about the inclinations and rearing of “normal” children. The case also had effects in professional circles. S. Sheldon Glueck, an expert on forensic psychiatry and juvenile delinquency, noted in 1925, “In Illinois and throughout America, the much journalized and discussed Leopold-Loch hearing is even now bearing fruit in the shape of numerous articles, on different angles of the problem of mental disorder and the criminal law, published in scientific periodicals and professional journals.”

But the two convicts did not disappear. Similar crimes later in the decade inevitably brought newspaper recollections and comparisons, and sometimes other criminals suggested that they had imitated the famous pair. Such crimes, the way the killers had been represented to the public, and Leopold and Loeb’s experiences in prison kept the case alive.

Despite the reputation of the 1920s as an era of sexual revolt, the sexuality in the Leopold and Loeb case was not fully explored then. Instead, the public discussion of sexuality was marginalized or short circuited and largely restricted to rumor and innuendo. Perhaps this was because the story that became central in the press was about childhood, and because the boys’ story was normalized at a time when heterosexuality dominated public discussions of youthful misbehavior. Indeed the newspapers frequently emphasized Richard Loeb’s special attraction for women and his many girl friends In 1924 the public was largely guarded from specific knowledge about the details of Leopold and Loeb's homosexual relationship. The newspapers did not print the sexual sections of the psychiatric reports; McKernan's important collection excised what she called "the unprintable matter.” Even professional journals such as the Journal of the American Institute of Criminal Law and Criminology excluded “the murderers’ sexual history” when it printed large excerpts and case summaries. Judge Caverly had asked the attorneys to approach the bench when these matters were discussed in court. He ordered women, even female reporters, out of the courtroom. That the two had been sexual partners of some kind was nevertheless commonly assumed to be part of their “folie a deux,” if not indeed at the root of their crime. Even though the press eschewed vivid or graphic descriptions, the rumors, innuendos, and use of such terms as perversions and fiend fed popular imaginings.

It was this cloud of sex stuff that erupted when Richard Loeb was brutally and horribly murdered in the Illinois Penitentiary at Stateville in 1936. Loeb had been literally “slashed to ribbons" in the shower by James Day, a fellow inmate. 'The killing of Loeb rivaled in brutality the killing of the Franks boy,” the New York Times announced in its front-page coverage. It seemed that twelve years after his own heinous act, Loeb had gotten his and, appropriately, as a result of a sexual goad. Day immediately played on the sexual in his own story and defense. Day often changed the details of his story, but he stood by the accusation of sexual assault. In the Chicago Tribune he was quoted as saying, “I can’t talk about Loeb or why I dislike him while there's a lady present,” but he must have assumed that ladies did not read the Los Aegeks Times, for in an interview for that paper, he contended that “ever since I have been a prisoner here... Loeb has been hounding me with improper advances.” Since both Loeb and Day were undressed at the time of the murder, the accusation seemed plausible.

In his memoir, Leopold claimed that Loeb would not have instigated a sexual rendezvous with Day. State's Attorney William R. McCabe, called in to investigate the case, believed Loeb had been set up as a result of “a plot among fellow convicts.... I disbelieve Day’s story almost in its entirety.... What he says of Loeb’s morality is directly opposed to all that was known of Loeb.” Rather than being interpreted as a sexual story, “the slaying of Loeb was regarded by many public office as the crowning episode in the people accepted the story that Loeb did make homosexual advances as true because they wanted it to be true. They considered the Franks murder an act of perversion – which was never proved – so it seemed hearing that Loeb die while attempting another perverted act."

It is significant that what was remembered about Loch’s death had nothing to do with inequalities in prison or lack of discipline and enforcement of rules. Loeb’s death was remembered by journalists and the public as a tale of sexual perversion, not of state corruption, Beginning in the 1930s, especially with the publicity surrounding Loeb’s death, the sexual materials that had been largely inhibited in the original case spilled forth in explicit public representations. Less than a week after Loeb’s death, Time magazine, for example, described the event in its “Crime” department by remembering Leopold and Loeb as “two perverted Chicago youths” who had “violated” Bobby Francs before they killed him. “Prison," Time declared, had “only exaggerated Loeb’s unnatural appetites.”

Subsequently, Loeb’s horrible end became the subject of even more titillating imaginings. One had an especially pungent twist. In The Madhouse on Madison Street, his memoirs as a newspaperman, George Murray described “Dickie Loeb” as “in love, desperately and insanely. He lusted for the body of the Negro boy he coveted and he was driven mad by jealousy when he saw the boy so much as talk to another prisoner.” He quotes the “Negro boy” as saying, “White boy, keep your hands to yourself. Quit writing me love letters. I need a woman bad but I sure don’t need the kind of satisfaction you keep offering.” Murray finishes his recollection by quoting the story lead from fellow journalist Edwin A. Lahey of the Chicago Daily News: “Richard Loeb, who graduated with honors from college at the age of fifteen and who was a master of the English language, today ended his sentence with a proposition.” Murray not only misrepresented Day as black (his pictures in the newspapers clearly showed a white man) but also misquoted from a colleague who in his clever haste had loaded his news copy with double entendres. Murray thereby made Loeb even more precocious than he was (he graduated at seventeen). The full engagement with Leopold and Loeb’s homosexuality occurred in the 1980s and 1990s, when the pair became part of the self-conscious history of homoerotic love. But the sexuality implicit in the story would not wait that long.  

After the 1930s, with Leopold older and in prison and Loeb dead, the case was no longer about childhood. Sexuality and psychology began to dominate the public memories and representations.

(Source: Paula S. Fass, "Making and Remaking an Event: The Leopold and Loeb Case in American Culture."  The Journal of American History 80, No. 3 (December 1993), 919-951.)