Psychiatrists would testify that, on their own, each would have been harmless. But as Simon Baatz reminds us in "For the Thrill of It," his thorough but frustrating new account of the case, together Leopold and Loeb were a toxic pair, feeding into each other's darkest fantasies: Loeb's to be a master criminal, Leopold's to be a Nietzschean superman above common morality.
John Jay College of Criminal Justice, is at his best in describing this "peculiarly bizarre confluence of two personalities," which resulted in a vicious quid pro quo: Loeb agreed to have sex with Leopold in exchange for the latter's complicity in criminal activities.
The question of the young men's mental states was at the core of the sentencing hearing held after Loeb's defense attorney, the great Clarence Darrow, suspecting they had no chance with insanity pleas before a jury, had them plead guilty. The insanity issue is also at the core of Baatz's narrative, which highlights the battle in forensic psychiatry that played out in the courtroom of Judge John Caverly.Darrow called in three prominent psychiatrists—William Alanson White, William Healy and Bernard Glueck—who shared an agenda not unlike Darrow's: "to extend and expand the influence of psychiatry within the courtroom in a way that would challenge the authority of the legal profession," replacing judgment with diagnosis and punishment with treatment.
Perhaps it is Baatz's background in the history of medicine that leads him to dwell too long on the defense experts' examinations of Leopold and Loeb—the X-rays, metabolimeters and plethysmographs—seeking physiological causes of the boys' apparent mental defects. The psychiatrists conducted penetrating examinations of their mental and emotional states.
But it was to no avail. Caverly sentenced Leopold and Loeb to life plus 99 years solely on the basis of their youth, disregarding the psychiatric testimony. Dramatically, as well as legally, Caverly's opinion is an anticlimax; after Baatz's prolix account, readers are left wondering what all the fuss over psychiatry was about.
But Baatz's narrative goes off the rails much earlier. His style, which he calls "literary," relies on fictional techniques: People's thoughts are expressed in distractingly melodramatic exclamations ("Already past six o'clock and still no sign of Bobby!"), and we find factually dubious moments such as when Darrow's wife, Ruby, "lifted herself on her elbow" in bed to look at her husband and "thought he was still an adorable man." This lack of an objective narrative voice also prevents Baatz from acknowledging incongruities: He notes, for instance, that blood splashed on Nathan's pants during the murder, yet on the next page he is going into the Dew Drop Inn apparently without changing his clothes.
Even so, this story never fails to astonish: With Bobby's warm corpse still in the car, the killers stopped for hot dogs and root beer, and the Leopold and Loeb families left their sons in an interrogation by States' Atty. Robert Crowe for nearly two days without benefit of counsel.
But the essential mystery of the case was expressed by Healy. An expert in juvenile criminality who'd seen a few difficult cases, the psychiatrist said, "There seems to have been so little normal motivation, the matter was so long planned, so unfeelingly carried out, that it represents nothing that I have ever seen or heard of before."
For the Thrill of It: Leopold, Loeb, and the Murder That Shocked Chicago
By Simon Baatz
Harper, 541 pages, $27.95