Our friend Lucianne credits Paul Mirengoff with the quote of the day from his post below: “The Washington Post inquires about the well-being of the Bush administration’s senior staff. This strikes me as a bit like Leopold and Loeb asking about the well-being of one’s child.”
Does anyone under age 50 know anything about Leopold and Loeb? As a teenager I studied their story with fascination because of their representation by Clarence Darrow, but was then drawn in by the boys’ precocity combined with their cold-blooded atrocity. Meyer Levin’s Compulsion is a fictionalized account of the story; Orson Welles plays Darrow in the film of the book, sonorously spouting the advanced liberal pieties. Attorney for the Damned: Clarence Darrow in the Courtroom includes a long excerpt of Darrow’s plea to the judge to spare the boys’ lives. Irving Stone’s Clarence Darrow for the Defense devotes one chapter to the case. Darrow himself devotes two chapters to the case in The Story of My Life.
The Leopold and Loeb case has had a long tail on stage and in film. Alfred Hitchcock’s film “Rope,” Tom Kalin’s film “Swoon,” and John Logan’s play “Never the Sinner” all take off from the Leopold and Loeb story.
After the success of Compulsion in 1956, Nathan Leopold published Life Plus 99 Years, an autobiographical book that unfortunately avoids discussion of the murder. Why else read anything that Leopold has to say than to try to understand why he and his friend did what they did? The only nonfiction book devoted to the story that I am aware of is Hal Higdon’s 1975 Crime of the Century: The Leopold and Loeb Case. If you want to know what happened, Higdon’s is the go-to book.
UPDATE: Ventura County Deputy District Attorney (and former submarine driver) Michael Lief is the co-editor of Ladies and Gentlemen of the Jury: Greatest Closing Arguments in Modern Law (available via the site linked to his name). He writes regarding Darrow’s closing argument on sentencing: “It is a great close, maybe the best anti-death penalty argument I’ve seen.” He also provides a few paragraphs from Darrow’s 12-hour closing argument:
I sometimes wonder if I am dreaming. If in the first quarter of the twentieth century there has come back into the hearts of men the hate and feeling and the lust for blood which possesses the primitive savage of barbarous lands…
I would say something about the death penalty that, for some mysterious reason, the state wants in this case. Why do they want it? To vindicate the law? Oh, no. The law can be vindicated without killing anyone else. It might shock the fine sensibilities of the state’s counsel that this boy was put into a culvert and left after he was dead, but, Your Honor, I can think of a scene that makes this pale into insignificance. I can think, and only think, Your Honor, of taking two boys, one eighteen and the other nineteen, irresponsible, weak, diseased, penning them in a cell, checking off the days and the hours and the minutes, until they will be taken out and hanged. Wouldn’t it be a glorious day for Chicago? Wouldn’t it be a glorious triumph for the state’s attorney? Wouldn’t it be a great triumph for justice in this land? Wouldn’t it be a glorious illustration of Christianity and kindness and charity?
Your Honor, if these boys hang, you must do it…It must be by your deliberate, cool, premeditated act, without a change to shift responsibility…[Y]ou know that I would have been untrue to my clients if I had not concluded to take this chance before this court, instead of submitting it to a poisoned jury in the city of Chicago. I did it knowing that it would be an unheard of thing for any court…to sentence these boys to death.
Now, I must say a word more and then I will leave this with you where I should have left it long ago. None of us are unmindful of the public; courts are not, and juries are not. We placed our fate in the hands of a trained court, thinking that he would be more mindful and considerate than a jury. I cannot say how people feel. I have stood here for three months as one might stand at the ocean trying to sweep back the tide. I hope the seas are subsiding and the wind is falling, and I believe they are, but I wish to make no false pretenses to this court. The easy thing and the popular thing to do is hang my clients. I know it. Men and women who do not think will applaud. The cruel and the thoughtless will approve. It will be easy today; but in Chicago, and reaching out over the length and breadth of the land, more and more fathers and mothers, the humane, the kind, and the hopeful, who are gaining an understanding and asking questions not only about these poor boys but about their own, these will join in no acclaim at the deaths of my clients.
I know your Honor stands between the future and the past. I know the future is with me, and what I stand for here; not merely for the lives of these two unfortunate lads, but for all boys and for all girls; for all of the young, and as far as possible, for all of the old. I am pleading for life, understanding, charity, kindness, and the infinite mercy that considers all. I am pleading that we overcome cruelty with kindness and hatred with love. I know the future is on my side. Your Honor stands between the past and the future. You may hang these boys; you may hang them by the neck until they are dead. But in doing it you will turn your face toward the past. In doing it you are making it harder for every other boy who in ignorance and darkness must grope his way through the mazes which only childhood knows…I am pleading for a time when hatred and cruelty will not control the hearts of men. When we can learn by judgement and understanding and faith that all life is worth saving, and that mercy is the highest attribute of man.
Mr. Lief adds: “By the way, there’s another close by Darrow in the book, one he delivered on his own behalf when he was tried for jury tampering, arising from the trial of the men charged with blowing up the L.A. Times building. Darrow’s two-day summation left many jurors — and the judge! — in tears. As a prosecutor, I’d hate to see that during one of my trials.”
In most accounts of the case, the homosexual relationship between Leopold and Loeb plays a significant role. Jim Taylor writes:
My mother covered the trial for Hearst’s Chicago American. Her byline was Mildred Keogh. I was attending the University of Illinois when Leopold was released. She was extremely annoyed that he was let out, because the only reason he escaped electrocution was that it was certain that he would never see the outside again. So much for life without parole.
His partner in crime was killed in prison in 1936 by another prisoner [James Day] who didn’t appreciate his romantic attention. According to my father, the headline on the story was, “English major ends sentence with a proposition.” I don’t know if that ever saw print, or if it was just irresistable to the newsroom folks.
Scott Lucado writes: “I have to wonder if many readers today would appreciate a pun like that, or even have a clue what it means to end a sentence with a preposition.”