For the Thrill of It by Simon Baatz

For the Thrill of It: Leopold, Loeb, and the Murder That Shocked Chicago by Simon Baatz.

“The heart of the matter is that . . . all people are divisible into ‘ordinary’ and ‘extraordinary.’ The ordinary must live obediently and have no right to transgress the law—because, you see, they’re ordinary. The extraordinary, on the other hand, have the right to commit all kinds of crimes and to transgress the law in all kinds of ways, for the simple reason that they are extraordinary. That would seem to have been your argument, if I am not mistaken.” ~Fydor Dostoyevsky, Crime and Punishment, Part 3, Section 5.

Mr. Baatz begins his tale of the “murder that shocked Chicago” and the nation in 1924 with a longer excerpt from Dostoyevsky’s fictional crime novel because the quotation captures the attitude of at least one of the murderers, Nathan Leopold. The facts of the case are stark and indisputable: on Wednesday, May 21, 1924, nineteen year old Nathan Leopold, and his friend, eighteen year old Richard Loeb, kidnapped fourteen year old Bobby Franks, murdered him, and left his naked body in a drainage culvert. All three boys came from wealthy Jewish families living in Chicago’s exclusive Kenwood neighborhood. Leopold and Loeb both said, after their capture and in their confessions, that they knew Booby Franks only slightly and had nothing against him. They simply killed him “for the thrill” of planning and carrying out the master crime.

One of the questions I asked myself as I was reading this nonfiction account of such a horrific murder was “why?” Not only why did Leopold and Loeb kill Bobby Franks, but also why was I interested in reading about the sometimes sordid details. Why is Raskolnikov of Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment such a fascinating character? I think we can learn something from these stories, both true crime and fictional, some negative and cautionary lessons that are worth considering.

It has almost become a trite truism, but ideas have consequences. Nathan Leopold, in particular, saw himself as a Nietzschean superman, a man to whom the ordinary laws of moral behavior did not apply.

“It didn’t concern him, Nathan replied. He had no moral beliefs and religion meant nothing to him: he was an atheist. Whatever served an individual’s purpose—that was the best guide to conduct. In his case, well, he was an intellectual: his participation in the killing had been akin to the desire of the scientist to experiment. They had killed Bobby Franks as an experiment; Nathan had wanted to experience the sensation of murdering another human being. It was that simple.” Baatz, p.148.

Not only did the ideas that Nathan Leopold fed into his depraved mind have tragic consequences, the philosophy of his and Loeb’s lawyer, Clarence Darrow, was just as twisted and confused and consequential as Nietzche’s philosophy was. Darrow, the most famous defense lawyer in the United States, even in 1924 before the Scopes trial, held to a kind of deterministic philosophy that excused crimes, even the most premeditated and heinous, on the basis of the criminal’s inability to control his hormones and his psychological make-up. In other words, criminals were not to be blamed for their crimes because a person’s behavior is predetermined by psychology and by physical genetic make-up. In his summation, Darrow said:

“I know . . . that one of two things happened to this boy; that this terrible crime was inherent in his organism, and came from some ancestor, or that it came through his education and his training after he was born. I do not know what remote ancestors may have sent down the seed that corrupted him, and I do not know through how many ancestors it may have passed until it reached Dickie Loeb. All I know is, it is true, and there is not a biologist in the world who will not say I am right.” Baatz, p. 374.

Nature or nurture, either way, Loeb and Leopold were not responsible for the murder of Bobby Franks. They were compelled to the crime by their own physical and psychological make-up, and to punish them for a crime that they had no choice about committing would be both unjust and useless.

Hogwash. Both Nathan Leopold and Clarence Darrow have latched onto ideas that they believe in but refuse to carry to their logical conclusions. If Leopold’s interpretation of Nietzche is correct, then I can declare myself a superwoman, above all human law, and I can murder Leopold or Clarence Darrow or anyone else if I choose to do so. I certainly have the right to do so. And if Darrow is right, no one can hold me responsible for that action, and punishment is a ridiculous concept. As is mercy. I am totally at the mercy of my biological and psychological impulses, a machine that may work properly according to the workings of the majority of human machines in the world or a machine that may malfunction (according to most people’s standards) and do something criminal. Either way, I am not responsible.

These are the ideas that produced the murder of Bobby Franks, and a few years later, the rise of Naziism and the scourge of the modern eugenics movement.

I didn’t know before I read this book:

Clarence Darrow was successful in saving his clients form the death sentence that the prosecutor asked to be imposed. Richard Loeb and Nathan Leopold were sentenced to life imprisonment for murder and 99 years for the kidnapping of Bobby Franks. Richard Loeb died in prison, victim of a murderer himself. Nathan Leopold was released on parole in 1958. Leopold died of a heart attack in 1971.

The Alfred Hitchcock move Rope was based on a play by playwright Patrick Hamiliton that took the murder of Bobby Franks and the characters of Leopold and Loeb as its source. The play moved the action from Chicago to London. Hitchcock’s 1948 movie version starred Jimmy Stewart as a Nietzschean philosopher who is appalled when his ideas are made real by the murder committed by two former students of Cadell, the Jimmy Stewart character. Rope was one of Hitchcock’s least commercially successful films.

One thought on “For the Thrill of It by Simon Baatz

  1. Pingback: Sunday Salon: Books Read in October, 2011 | Semicolon Sunday Salon: Books Read in October, 2011 | Books we must have though we lack bread.

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