Leopold and Loeb: The Uses of Adversity

Leopold and Loeb: The Uses of Adversity

Leopold and Loeb: The Uses of Adversity

The memoir of Nathan Leopold, one of the twentieth century’s most notorious murderers.


Everett CollectionRichard Loeb, Nathan Leopold await Court’s decision on Writ of Habeus Corpus, IL, 1924.

The memoir of Nathan Leopold, one of the twentieth century’s most notorious murderers.

It is not wise, in fact it is thoroughly unprofessional, to predict that any book will become a classic. But Nathan Leopold’s history of his thirty-three years in prison is a classic almost by definition. It, so seldom happens that a man equipped by education and temperament to write reflectively of his life finds himself spending that life behind bars that a book of this nature becomes a permanent addition to human experience. You do not get one of them in a generation. The most recent book of this quality that comes to mind is Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon, and even that is in a different category–Koestler was not a criminal and he was confined, not in a, penitentiary, but in a house of terror. If you want to know what a twentieth century prison is “like”–that is, what it would be like to you if you were put away in one–you really have no choice but to read Leopold’s book.

Obviously, it is a strange, unnatural world, but the peculiarities may not be exactly what one would expect. In the first place, prison is perhaps the best place in the world for getting a lot of work done. If Leoopold had not killed, he would undoubtedly have become a successful lawyer, married and raised a family, probably associated himself with the social and political activities of his community. He has done none of these things: as substitutes he has put together a library of 16,000 volumes, operated a school offering the full high school curriculum plus the first two years of college, trained himself as a statistician and carried out original and important work in the prediction of parole behavior, become an expert x-ray, diagnostician and a registered laboratory technician, kept the books on prison disbursements running to several million dollars a year. He has learned twelve languages, he is conversant with advanced mathematics, he has studied philosophy, psychology and hieroglyphics, he can read and teach Braille. He can, of course, cane a chair (what old convict cannot?) and he has written a long, vivid, entirely fascinating, autobiography. It is apparent that Leopold’s mind and will are out of the ordinary, but he cites example after example of ordinary prisoners who master disciplines that would be quite outside their grasp in the open world. There is time unlimited in prison.

Then too, prison is a tolerant, friendly society. It does not offer a normal life, but there are circumstances–and Leopold’s was one of them– when it offers the only possible life. At the time of his conviction, he was regarded by the world outside as a monster, an object of fear and disgust; if he had been let into the streets he would have been hounded, perhaps stoned, to death. In the penitentiary he was a green hand, and strangers came forward to teach him the prison argot, to show him the use of a tinder box (matches were forbidden), to warn him against small infractions that would earn him the attention of the guards. From the point of view of prison society, Leopold had committed the right sort of crime. Men who break the law by their wits–embezzlers, for example–are shunned by the convict population as tricky and untrustworthy. Deeds of violence they accept as normal, and the fact that Leopold’s crime is one of the most inexplicable in the history of the American law did not trouble the inmates. Murder they understood and they accepted him.

And just beneath this tolerant, almost warm, atmosphere lies incalculable violence. Leopold saw escaping acquaintances die under machine gun fire, he watched men he lodged with kick a guard until his face was gone, he chatted with a friend who carried, blood-dripping shears in his hand. The guards by habit adopted an attitude of patronizing authority, rather like the air of an indifferent teacher toward his charges; but they did not hesitate to chain Leopold to the bars of a punishment pen for twelve hours a day, days on end, because he had tried to cook an illicit meal in his cell. When Leopold’s father died, Deputy Warden Cvek called him aside and said: “Did you hear anything about your old man?” Leopold said no, and Cvek went on: “Well, I hear he kicked the bucket. I ain’t sure, though. If I hear for sure, I’ll let you know.” Leopold remarks that this was rather brutal, but on the whole he liked Cvek as a strict but fair jailer. Prison, in brief, is an animal world–easy-going, undemanding, conservative, gregariously friendly and on occasion matter-of-factly lethal. It changed a good deal over the thirty years that Leopold lived in it–changes of detail and sometimes of substance that shifted the emphasis from penitentiary toward reformatory–but the atmosphere remains to this day that of the African house at a zoo–tolerant but wary keepers, good-natured, necessarily indolent inmates, endless monotony on the surface and violence ever waiting for a spark.

What sort of man, then, is Leopold who has survived, you might honestly say flourished, in this environment? Above everything else, he has an extraordinary gift for objectivity. In a way it was his fatal gift: it was partly this ability to stand back and observe himself in a frame which allowed him to go along with the murder Dick Loeb was so keen about. But this faculty is the greatest possible boon to him, and to us, when he undertakes his life history. Twenty-five years after the event, Leopold can set down, as precisely as though he had recorded it on film, the things that happened to him, and the way he felt about them, during his first forty-eight hours in Joliet. He had committed a crime that horrified him, he had spent agonized months fighting for his life (which he wasn’t at all sure he wanted), he had now been locked into a fortress for the rest of that life and he had absolutely no idea what to expect next. But he did not go numb as most of us would have done–he was interested. Interested in the rule that convicts must walk on a path a little to one side of and lower than the one used by the guards, interested in the technique of locking and unlocking the cells, noting that the uniform of the jailers looked like that of a railroad conductor, wondering whether it served a purpose to issue clothing in sizes too large for the wearer. He recalls that it was his first breakfast that proved he had entered a foreign land. In the world from which Leopold came, no one ate meat balls and creamed potatoes for breakfast.

Leopold says, and it is probably true, that today he is an entirely different being from the youth whom Darrow saved from the gallows. Except that the power of externalizing his experiences has never left him. He can “see” himself talking to the parole board, he can sort out the various motives that made him insist on being used in the World War II malaria experiments, he can report, with pain but complete objectivity, the circumstances surrounding the publication of Meyer Levin’s Compulsion. His attitude toward Levin, whose project he resisted from the start, is not merely fair, it is emotionally precise. Therefore, when Leopold says that from the moment of the murder he was terribly sorry for the pain he had caused his family, that for another ten years he felt no remorse for the deed he had done and that since then he has lived with remorse as his constant companion, you can accept this as exactly the case. And when he describes how he felt and what he did when a mad prisoner pressed a knife to his side, you know, for perhaps the first time in your life, how you might respond to a moment of such grotesque peril. Leopold has the gift for communication to a degree rare even among writers much more highly skilled in the art of words.

But Leopold’s objectivity is not complete-he has left areas for the reader’s own insight and speculation. Thus he still–despite a knowledge of psychiatry far beyond the average–has no explanation for the murder of Bobby Franks. The best he can offer on this point (not at all in an effort to evade the guilt) is that Dick Loeb was such a swell fellow you just had to help him get what he wanted. And Leopold himself rather shakes his head over this motive.

HIS whole attitude toward Loeb is at a level far below his usual awareness. He protests indignantly that there was nothing abnormal in their relationship, and one accepts that as probably true in terms of overt acts. But Leopold’s whole attitude is abnormal–he adored Loeb and has never ceased to adore him. True enough, as he grew older he could see that Loeb was a split personality, an amoral charmer as well as a generous teacher and an intellectual perfectionist, but he loved him for his faults as for his virtues. And he says that everyone loved him, though the personality he describes so vividly is not what the world calls lovable.

There are other clues in the book to the crime that Leopold looks back upon with puzzled horror. He says he had as fine a family as ever a man was blessed with, and it is true in a way. His father, his brother, the aunt who stood in the place of his dead mother, never showed him anything but love and the most generous support. He was one of them, to be helped and cherished in every way within their power, and so he remained all the days of their lives. Young Leopold worshiped his father, he worshiped his older brother, Mike, he worshiped his aunt and his girl friend, in fact he worshiped just abut everyone around him. And in the family he was called “Babe.” He had an extraordinary mind and an extraordinary ego (witness its resilience in the last thirty years) and he was the adored baby of an indulgent family. He says at one point, remembering World War I, “I had three older brothers in it; the dog and I stayed home.” I don’t know why Leopold helped to kill Bobby Franks, but it doesn’t seem to me incredible that he did so.

It is because the crime has been called incredible that Leopold stayed so long in prison. He blames the reluctance of parole boards to set him free on the publicity that has always dogged him. And he accepts that notoriety also as his fault–he quotes a friendly doctor who once pointed out to him, when he was beefing about the press, that he and Loeb had set out to startle the world and brilliantly succeeded. But publicity was an effect of mystery–if a generally acceptable explanation for the murder had ever been forthcoming the interest would have died. Who cares today about the Judd-Snyder case? The parole officials were understahdably hesitant. Leopold’s record was good, brilliantly good; responsible citizens vied with one another to testify for him. He would never, they said, commit a crime again. But how could they be sure, when no one of them could say why he had committed a crime in the first place? In truth, it is a wonder that he was ever released. I do not mean to imply that I think he should not have been.

Leopold asks now for privacy to complete his life in work of obscure usefulness. He deserves the privacy, but I doubt that be will get it. He is far too interesting a man. People will want to know how he uses his remarkable intelligence in the outside world. They will wonder how he is adjusting to freedom (of course, the job he has taken approximates, in isolation and restiction, the prison life he has left), how his personality changes, what conclusions he finally reaches. I would like myself to know whether, as the years pass, he gets over a kind of humility that sits poorly on him. His book is full of small references to his own insignificance, to the surprising “kindness” and “generosity” of others, to his amazement that work of his should be seriously received. I don’t believe that Leopold is really a humble man–a contrite and grateful man, very probably–but not humble. When he writes about his work he shows obvious and perfectly proper pride in it; he knows that it is good. But when he is thrown with, other people in common projects, he begins to bow and scrape. It is the mark, I suppose, of a wise, old jailbird to treat everyone in authority with exaggerated deference and to be lavish in the expression of thanks. Leopold came through his prison years with, a personality better balanced than you could have thought possible: in fact, he made his strong, resourceful, basically serene personally in prison. This flaw, this whiff of hypocritical servility, makes the rest of him the more credible. But he is a man who sets a great value on integrity, and I wonder if he will now strike a just balance between proper gratitude toward others and due respect for himself.

By all the traditions of justice, Loeb and Leopold should have hanged in 1924. There was just nothing to offer in extenuation of their crime and Darrow offered nothing. He said that they were young, and that saved them. If they had been a year older–twenty and no longer teenage boys–they would, I think, certainly have died. If anyone should ever die for a crime, they should have–and yet it is obvious now that it was better for them to live. Leopold became probably the most valuable inmate ever known to the prisons of Illinois and even Loeb’s contribution as a teacher was a great advantage to his fellows and thus indirectly to society. They should have died if anyone ever should–and yet it would have been a sore loss. This comes, I think, to saying that no man should ever die by the hand of the law.

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