How can two seemingly normal teenage boys murder a child with no clear motive? What prompted such nauseating cold-bloodedness in two brilliant University of Chicago students? Simon Baatz, an associate professor of history at John Jay College in New York, tackles such questions in the new crime history For the Thrill of It: Leopold and Loeb and the Murder That Shocked Chicago. The book explores the crime and trial of Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb in a compelling, albeit disturbing, way. Leopold and Loeb are extreme examples of egotism and entitlement run rampant, and their case begs the question whether a crime is all the more heinous if it’s committed as an academic exercise. I asked Mr. Baatz to shed some light on the boys’ fascinating relationship and their U of C connection.
Madelyn Freed: In the book, you detail the psychology of the two boys. Spend a minute on your interpretations of their psyches.
Simon Baatz: What Darrow, the attorney for the defense, said is that each boy had a fantasy—Leopold had a fantasy of being a slave to a king, and Richard Loeb had a fantasy of being a perfect criminal. This had become something of an obsession with him. And with Richard, he needed someone who would applaud what he was doing, who would actually give him reinforcement that he was in fact a perfect criminal. And so both their fantasies interlocked with each other.
MF: Another theme about their characters was this sense of academic entitlement. Do you think part of the crime was that entitlement, and how do you think it relates to the character of the University?
SB: Well, I think the fact that they did the crime is related to their intellectual arrogance. Certainly Nathan thought of himself as this Nietzschean who was above morality, who had a super intellect, who was a genius and didn’t have to worry about normal laws at all. So when Richard proposes the idea of carrying out the perfect crime, it fits in quite well with Nathan. In that sense his intellectual arrogance did reinforce the idea of carrying out this crime. And when it was discovered that Nathan and Richard had studied at the University, people asked what is it that they’re being taught at the University of Chicago, what are the professors doing to them to warp the minds of these young boys. In fact, the following quarter in the fall all the incoming freshman had to take a mental test to test their intelligence and make sure they were okay to come to the University.
MF: Do you think this was a crime specific to the University or could it have happened transplanted in a different place?
SB: It could have happened anywhere. I think the only thing perhaps you can say about it was that both boys were both wealthy and that the University of Chicago was the place where wealthy Chicagoans sent their sons. So this probably wouldn’t have been the same had they gone to DePaul, perhaps. I don’t think this would have happened at DePaul University. You wouldn’t have had the same intellectual arrogance, the same wealth, that combination.
MF: The relationship between the two boys is a complicated one. You talk about the homosexual relationship between the two. Can you comment on that? Does that extend from the fantasies they had or was it love?
SB: No, it clearly was not mutual love. Nathan Leopold was in love with Richard, but those feelings were not reciprocated and that’s very clear. Richard was tolerant of Nathan, toward the end was getting a little tired of him. They did make this contract where Richard agreed to have sex with Nathan a certain number of times if Nathan would accompany him on his criminal acts. And this is very clear by the way. There’s no ambiguity—it’s in the records; it’s in the transcripts of the psychiatric interviews.
MF: The scene of the murder is very brutally described in the book. What was the choice you made to make it so abjectly…horrible?
SB: It wasn’t my choice! That’s the way it happened! It did literally happen that Bobby was standing by the car door and he slips in the front seat, and Richard is sitting on the rear and he has the club with him and he does hit him four times and because Bobby doesn’t die because of those blows, then he is asphyxiated. It is a very shocking, brutal, murder. Even now it goes beyond comprehension that two teenagers kill in such a cold way a 14-year-old who’s actually the cousin of Richard Loeb. And they do it for no reason—he just happens to be passing on the street.
MF: What happened at the end of the story?
SB: Both of them got life, life for the killing, and 99 years for the kidnapping, and both ended up eventually in Statesville Prison. Richard Loeb was bribing guards inside the prison, was putting pressure on other prisoners to have sex with him and in 1936, he was stabbed 56 times by another prisoner and died of his wounds. Nathan Leopold was paroled in 1958 and died in 1971. He moved to Puerto Rico, got married, and lived a very uneventful life.