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Tuesday, May 21, 2024

May 21, 2024: Criminal Duos: Leopold & Loeb

[100 years ago this week, the criminal duo who came to be known as Leopold & Loeb set their murderous plan in motion. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy L&L and four other criminal duos, leading up to a repeat Guest Post on the genre of true crime!]

On three broader issues to which the pair of “perfect criminals” can be connected (from the most straightforward to the most complex).

1)      The Death Penalty: Once Leopold & Loeb had been arrested for and confessed to the murder of 14 year-old Bobby Franks, the central remaining question was whether they would be sentenced to death (the famous trial was much more of a sentencing hearing, as both men had already pled guilty). It was directly to address that question that Loeb’s family retained Clarence Darrow, the nation’s most famous trial lawyer and an avowed opponent of the death penalty; Darrow’s twelve-hour summation on the subject is considered one of the most important speeches in American legal history. His speech convinced the judge to give the two young killers life in prison instead, and while that didn’t end up mattering for Loeb (who was murdered by a fellow inmate a dozen years later), it did for Leopold who was paroled in 1958 and lived the last 8 years of his life as a free man. This isn’t nearly enough space for me to get into all that I feel about the death penalty, but I’ll just note that to my mind 19 and 18 year olds are far too young for such absolute punishments.

2)      Sexuality: Not that the death penalty isn’t plenty complicated, but (when it comes to these figures and this crime) this subject is a great deal more thorny still. Not the basic fact, which is that Leopold & Loeb seem to have been in a sexual relationship with each other (although only for a few months before the murder). But the ways in which that fact became a sensationalized part of the story, not only for example by the press in the aftermath of Loeb’s murder in prison (when it was reported, with no evidence, that he had made sexual advances on the killer), but also by Darrow himself during the trial. Darrow brought in psychiatric experts to claim that the pair were abnormal, with their sexuality front and center in that defense. I wrote in this post about how the first edition of the DSM, published in 1952, classified homosexuality as a “sociopathic personality disturbance”; obviously those ideas went far beyond this one trial and case, but I can’t say that they helped the cause any.

3)      School Shootings: This subject definitely represents a far more tenuous connection than my first two, and I want to be clear that there are plenty of differences between L&L and school shooters. But I would also suggest that there are at least parallels between this criminal pair and (for example) the Columbine shooters Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold—a sense of superiority to all their peers, a willingness to take the lives of young people (something shared by all school shooters of course), and of course a sociopathic separation from the layers of community that bind most of us to one another. But fortunately for Leopold & Loeb’s peers, guns were both far less powerful and destructive and far more difficult to come by in the 1920s, and so they could senselessly take the life of only one young person in their act of mutual criminality.

Next duo tomorrow,


PS. What do you think? Other duos you’d highlight?

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