Tuesday, March 8, 2016

Mount TBR #10

I read this book for the Mount TBR Reading Challenge hosted over at My Reader’s Block from January 1 – December 31, 2016. The challenge is to read books that you already own.

For the Thrill of It: Leopold, Loeb, and the Murder That Shocked Jazz Age Chicago – Simon Baatz

When I was around seven or eight years old (1963/64), the principal of my elementary school called an assembly to screen a documentary about child molesters. I will never forget that the movie ended with autopsy photos of a little girl who had been beaten to death. She was literally beaten to a pulp. Shown the reality and consequences of depravity, I was a basket case for two or three days. Quiet. Still. Thousand yard stare. My parents and relatives were livid that little kids had been shown such a thing. I have since learned that the early Sixties was a time of great fear of child molesters and that documentary was shown all over the country to warn little kids about strangers.

I was warned. I still don’t like people I don’t know.

Anyway, any sensible person would have thought that this distressing experience would have put me off crime stories. But the May, 1924 murder of fourteen-year-old Bobby Franks caught my attention in about 1970 when I was about fourteen years old myself. I suppose I was still working on the problem of “How could a human being do such an unspeakable thing to another human being,“ and other unanswerable questions. At that time the movie Compulsion caught my eye for Orson Welles’ performance as the lawyer who defends two teenage thrill killers.

As the author of For the Thrill of It says, it was strange that there were few popular histories written about the thrill killing committed by Leopold and Loeb, two students at the University of Chicago. Leopold was of average intelligence. Under the influence of the pop fiction genre of “the master criminal,” he fantasized about committing the perfect crime. Loeb had an above average intelligence, but he fantasized about being a gifted slave upon whom a king relied to do dirty work. Leopold was amazed that he found a confederate who would help him commit crimes in exchange occasional oral and intercrual sex. They moved from petty theft and vandalism to murder.

Their plan to kidnap and kill a child was coldly premeditated and unfeelingly carried out.  The Chicago police, at first, suspected the teachers at the elite school the victim had attended. Author Baatz reports the police beat numerous teachers to get confessions.  Reading about the actions taken by the criminal justice grinder of the time is almost as shocking as the original crime and the remorselessness of the two psychopaths.  The perps had a sneering sense of their own superiority to the rest of society, one that was echoed by the killers in the Columbine high school massacre many years later. One understands the determination of the police to catch them, while still feeling uneasy a bout the methods the police utilized.

LIke, to the cops - rights? Rights for these vicious killers? Though the perps were minors, the police questioned them with no lawyers present until the pair confessed and took the cops through all the steps they took to commit the murder. They were put on trial and defended by Clarence Darrow. He had read Altgeld’s tome Our Penal Machinery which argued that “criminal behavior... was less a consequence of free will and deliberation and more a matter of education, upbringing, and environment. The majority of criminals—the overwhelming majority, Altgeld stressed—had grown up in circumstances of dire poverty, in families where one or both parents were absent, and without the benefits of education, schooling, or discipline.” Darrow brought in experts to testify as to the psychiatric roots of the boys’ mental illness, basically that their intellectual development far outstripped their emotional development. During his closing arguments, Darrow spoke out against the barbarity of capital punishment.

But the expert testimony went for nothing. Leopold and Loevb were convicted. Because the judge took their youth into consideration, the sentence was life for the murder and 99 years for the kidnapping. Loeb was stabbed to death in prison in 1936; his killer got off after he claimed he was defending himself against rape. 

Baatz also gives a surprising account of the government-sponsored pentaquine trials during WWII. Leopold was one of 445 convicts who received preferred parole consideration because they “volunteered” to be infected with malaria and try out the drug pentaquine. Whether they were told the risks (death, heart attack, high fevers) we don’t know. We do know they signed a “consent form” that said “I assume all the risks of this experiment.” Strangely,  Leopold acted as research assistant for the study and volunteering to get malaria damaged his health in the short-term at least. Just as an aside: in our country, experimentation with prisoners, who were not really in a position to provide legally effective consent, went on for 30 years up to 1972.

In summary, I don’t usually read true crime books, but I would recommend this one to readers  who are interested in this infamous case. Baatz does a good job at describing the police, the newspapers, and general reaction of society at the time. Many people were concerned at the materialism and licentiousness of the Ballyhoo Era. Organization ranging from churches to the KKK used the case to deplore homosexuality, Jewish people, intellectuals, atheists, Catholics, and immigrants. The hobgoblins change, but haters always gonna hate, using the same basic terms.

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