Baatz (History/John Jay Coll.) reviews the notorious 1924 murder case and its ramifications in law, psychiatry and the media.
University of Chicago graduate students Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb, both from prominent Chicago families, fed off each other’s fantasies and dreamed of committing the perfect crime for the “pure love of excitement.” On May 21, 1924, they rented a car and drove to Leopold’s alma mater, the Harvard School on Ellis Avenue, where they picked up Loeb’s 14-year-old cousin, Bobby Franks. They bludgeoned and suffocated him, then ditched the body before typing out a ransom note for his parents. The boy’s body was discovered before the ransom could be paid, however, and within ten days his killers were in custody, and Cook County state’s attorney Robert Crowe had elicited their confessions. If Crowe was to win a hanging verdict for Leopold and Loeb, still in their teens, he had to convince a jury that the murder was a rational act for which they were legally accountable. But Clarence Darrow, Loeb’s attorney and leader of the defense team, cleverly engineered the reversal of both pleas from not guilty to guilty. This paved the way for saving the defendants’ lives by avoiding a trial by jury, throwing them on the mercy of the judge and pleading for a lesser sentence because of their youth. Baatz lucidly lays out the complicated courtroom maneuvers and also provides a fascinating, skillful analysis of two different legal philosophies. “The first great cause of crime is poverty,” averred humanitarian Darrow, though the Leopold-Loeb murder belied this belief.
A solid true-crime thriller that’s also a masterly analysis of postwar shifts in society’s ideas about crime and personality.