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For the Thrill of It

For the Thrill of It

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by Simon Baatz

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It was a crime that shocked the nation: the brutal murder in Chicago in 1924 of a child by two wealthy college students who killed solely for the thrill of the experience. Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb were intellectuals—too smart, they believed, for the police to catch them. When they were apprehended, state's attorney Robert Crowe was certain that no


It was a crime that shocked the nation: the brutal murder in Chicago in 1924 of a child by two wealthy college students who killed solely for the thrill of the experience. Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb were intellectuals—too smart, they believed, for the police to catch them. When they were apprehended, state's attorney Robert Crowe was certain that no defense could save the ruthless killers from the gallows. But the families of the confessed murderers hired Clarence Darrow, entrusting the lives of their sons to the most famous lawyer in America in what would be one of the most sensational criminal trials in the history of American justice.

Set against the backdrop of the 1920s—a time of prosperity, self-indulgence, and hedonistic excess in a lawless city on the brink of anarchy—For the Thrill of It draws the reader into a world of speakeasies and flappers, of gangsters and gin parties, with a spellbinding narrative of Jazz Age murder and mystery.

Editorial Reviews

Jonathan Yardley
Baatz…has written a narrative history that aims, he says, "to recapture the drama of the events that it describes" but also to deal with the "complex issues that give the subject its significance." By and large he has succeeded. The book is overly long; presented with voluminous court documents, journalistic accounts and other raw material, Baatz sometimes quotes to excess. But For the Thrill of It is meticulous and thorough, and it puts the case in historical perspective as a clash between two conflicting views of criminals and crime
—The Washington Post
John Steele Gordon
Mr. Baatz, a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in Manhattan, has done meticulous research, and he writes extremely well. As a result he brings to vivid life the major characters. Not just the two murderers, but also the judges and lawyers. (The Leopold and Loeb families, hoping to save their sons at least from the gallows, hired no less a lawyer than Clarence Darrow to defend them.) He also gives us a picture of the crime-ridden, bootleg-liquor-fueled Jazz Age city of Chicago and its spectacularly corrupt political culture.
—The New York Times
Publishers Weekly

In 1924, Nathan Leopold, 19, and Richard Loeb, 18, both intellectually precocious scions of wealthy Jewish Chicago families, kidnapped and brutally murdered 14-year-old Bobby Franks in an attempt to commit the "perfect" crime. Historian Baatz, of the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, replays the crime (on which Meyer Levina's 1956 novel Compulsion was based) from the killersa' point of view, detailing their intense, often sexual, relationship that culminated in the murder. But they left a crucial piece of evidence and eventually confessed to the murder. Clarence Darrow cleverly had the boys plead guilty to avoid a trial, and the legendary defense attorney went head to head with Statea's Attorney Robert Crowe in a sentencing hearing before Judge John Caverly. Both sides trotted out psychiatrists to testify whether Leopold and Loeb were mentally ill. Darrowa's gamble paid off in life sentences. Loeb was murdered in prison in 1936; Leopold was eventually paroled in 1958. Baatz gives an acute portrait of the two murderers bound together in a web of fantasy, but his heavy reliance on novelistic techniques ("there!-he had done it") and meandering pacing prevent this from being as convincing as his exhaustive research deserves. B&w photos. (Aug.)

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Library Journal

Baatz (history, John Jay Coll. of Criminal Justice, CUNY) breaks his fascinating narrative into two distinct Law and Order-type sections. He starts with the kidnapping and murder of 14-year-old Bobby Franks, abducted while walking home from an afterschool baseball game. While it might be easy to dismiss the murderers-Nathan "Babe" Leopold Jr. and Richard "Dickie" Loeb-as bored rich kids, Baatz shows that there was much more to this story. They were precocious overachievers, already pursuing graduate studies before their 19th birthdays, and lovers whose relationship had a strange synergy: there was Loeb's obsession with committing the perfect crime and Leopold's fantasies of being a valued and valiant king's slave. Baatz details the trial, drawing on troves of material, including extensive newspaper coverage and court transcripts. Politically ambitious prosecutor Robert Crowe argued for the "gallows," while famed anti-death penalty defense attorney Clarence Darrow made the case for mitigation. Baatz includes an appendix with information about books, plays, and movies inspired by the case. Best for academic and legal collections, as it may be a bit dry for popular true-crime collections. Recommended as such.
—Karen Sandlin Silverman

Kirkus Reviews
Baatz (History/John Jay Coll.) reviews the notorious 1924 murder case and its ramifications in law, psychiatry and the media. University of Chicago graduate students Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb, both from prominent Chicago families, fed off each other's fantasies and dreamed of committing the perfect crime for the "pure love of excitement." On May 21, 1924, they rented a car and drove to Leopold's alma mater, the Harvard School on Ellis Avenue, where they picked up Loeb's 14-year-old cousin, Bobby Franks. They bludgeoned and suffocated him, then ditched the body before typing out a ransom note for his parents. The boy's body was discovered before the ransom could be paid, however, and within ten days his killers were in custody, and Cook County state's attorney Robert Crowe had elicited their confessions. If Crowe was to win a hanging verdict for Leopold and Loeb, still in their teens, he had to convince a jury that the murder was a rational act for which they were legally accountable. But Clarence Darrow, Loeb's attorney and leader of the defense team, cleverly engineered the reversal of both pleas from not guilty to guilty. This paved the way for saving the defendants' lives by avoiding a trial by jury, throwing them on the mercy of the judge and pleading for a lesser sentence because of their youth. Baatz lucidly lays out the complicated courtroom maneuvers and also provides a fascinating, skillful analysis of two different legal philosophies. "The first great cause of crime is poverty," averred humanitarian Darrow, though the Leopold-Loeb murder belied this belief. A solid true-crime thriller that's also a masterly analysis of postwar shifts in society's ideas about crime andpersonality. Agent: Emily Forland/Wendy Weil Agency

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For the Thrill of It Leopold, Loeb, And The Murder That Shocked Chicago

By Simon Baatz HarperCollins
Copyright © 2008
Simon Baatz
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-06-078100-2


Wednesday, 21 May 1924-Thursday, 29 May 1924

This cruel and vicious murder ... this gruesome crime ... this atrocious murder ... the most cruel, cowardly, dastardly murder ever committed in the annals of American jurisprudence. Robert Crowe, state's attorney of Cook Country, 23 July 1924

Everybody knows that this was a most unfortunate homicide. That it is the cruelest, the worst, the most atrocious ever committed in the United States is pure imagination without a vestige of truth.... A death in any situation is horrible, but when it comes to the question of murder it is doubly horrible. But there are degrees ... of atrocity, and as I say, instead of this being one of the worst ... it is perhaps one of the least painful. Clarence Darrow defense attorney, 23 July 1924

Flora Franks glanced at the clock. Already past six o'clock and still no sign of Bobby!. The cook had prepared dinner and the maids were waiting patiently for the family to move to the dining room. Normally she could rely on her eldest sons, Jack, sixteen years old, to keep an eye on his youngerbrother, but Jack lay upstairs in bed, ill with chicken pox; he had not been to school all week. Her daughter, Josephine, seventeen years old, tried to calm Flora's fears-Bobby always played baseball after school; perhaps he had gone to a friend's home for supper after the game.

Jacob Franks agreed with his daughter. Admittedly it was not like Bobby to be late for dinner; but nothing serious had happened to the boy. It was only three blocks from the Harvard School to their house and Bobby was now fourteen years old, old enough to know no to talk to strangers. The boy had probably fallen in with a classmate after the game and had forgotten the time. Still, he was annoyed that his son should be so thoughtless and forgetful, annoyed with Bobby for causing his mother to worry.

Jacob Franks was proud of his four children: Josephine had been accepted at Wellesley College for the fall, and Jack, a junior at the Harvard School, was planning to attend Dartmouth College. Jacob Jr. was the youngest child, still a student in grade school, but already showing signs of academic promise. Bobby, the darling of the family, was a bit of a scamp who got into his share of scrapes at school, but he was, nevertheless, his mother's favorite. She loved his assertiveness, his independent spirit, his ambition; he had already announced to the family that he too would go to Dartmouth and then would study for the law. No doubt he would keep his promise: the principal of the Harvard School, Charles Pence, had reported that Bobby was a precocious child. Only a freshman at the school, he was a member of the class debating team. He was a popular boy at school, a keen tennis player and an avid golfer; he had joined with some other boys in establishing a reading group, and only a few days earlier, he had won a debate on capital punishment, arguing for a link between criminality and mental illness-"most criminals have diseased minds"-and protesting against the right of the state "to take a man, weak and mentally depraved, and coldly deprive him of this life."

For Flora and Jacob Franks, their four children were the capstone of their lives. As a young boy, Jacob Franks had lost his own father. His mother had run a clothing store and then a pawnshop in Chicago, and in 1884 Jacob had set up in business for himself, opening a pawnshop on Clark Street south of Madison Street. It was a good location and an auspicious time-gambling was then unregulated in the city and there were at least a dozen gaming houses within a block of Jacob Frank's pawnshop.

Jacob soon built up a loyal clientele-the gamblers could rely on Jacob to lend them as much as ninety percent of the value of the diamonds, watches, and rings that they pawned-and once their luck turned, they could easily redeem their property. Michael (Hinky Dink) Kenna, Democratic alderman of the First Ward and one of the most powerful politicians in Chicago, remembered Jacob Franks as an honest businessman who earned the loyalty of his customers: "He ran the business strictly on the square and he had the respect of every man who ever made a loan.... He knew who he was dealing with, and for that reason would take a chance."


Their criminal activities were the outgrowth of an unique coming-together of two peculiarly maladjusted adolescents, each of who, brought into relationship a long-standing background of abnormal life. Psychiatrists' Report for the Defense (Joint Summary) [July 1924]

[Nathan] was very egocentric. Practically all the time I was with him, in ordinary social conversation, he attempted by any sort of ruse possible to monopolize the conversation. It didn't make any difference what was being said or what was being talked about, he always attempted to get the conversation revolving around him so he could do most of the talking.... He thought his mentality was a great deal superior to the ordinary person. Arnold Maremount, student at the University of Chicago, 7 August 1924

[Richard smoked very much, constantly.... We were in the habit of seeing him drunk a good deal.... We would be sitting in the house playing a game of bridge and Dick would walk in and one or two of us would say he is drunk again and one or two of us would say no he is not. Half of the time it would work out he was drunk. Theodore Schimberg, student at the University of Chicago, 8 August 1924

Nathan Leopold was just fifteen years old; but already he felt that he was passing into adulthood, gratefully slipping out of his adolescence, gladly discarding his high school years. That month-October 1920-he was to begin his freshman year at the University of Chicago.

The university had been in existence less than three decades, but to Nathan it seemed to have been around forever. He had grown up in its shadow-the Leopold house was just then blocks from the campus. He had often walked past the imposing, monumental Gothic buildings, constructed of gray Bedford limestone, that stretched south from 57th Street to the Midway. There was much to admire about the campus: Mitchell Tower-reminiscent of the tower of Magdalen College, oxford-with its august presence on 57th Street signaling the approach to the university; Cobb Gate, linking the anatomy and zoology building, the fantastic gargoyles on its inclines representing the upward progress of the classes; the student dormitories with their red-tiled roofs, ornamented doorways, and heavyset bay windows; and Harper Library, a massive, brooding building looking out over the green fields that stretched south of the Midway.

The architects had constructed the campus in the late Gothic style. It might have seemed anachronistic to build in Chicago-the most modern of American cities-a university that resembled the medieval colleges of Oxford and Cambridge, but there was a pleasing regularity about the campus. Everything was in proportion; nothing was too large or too small; and the Gothic style allowed for an astonishing diversity of embellishment and ornamentation. Innumerable gargoyles studded every building, peering down on the students making their way to class; crockets and finials-elaborate decorations shaped in the form of foliage-ran hither and thither over the building, stretching across the tops of doorways and around the arches of bay windows; and the generous use of stained and leaded glass in the windows provided an essential ingredient to the riot of medievalism that constituted the University of Chicago.

Already-even before his matriculation-the university dazzled Nathan Leopold with its promises of future achievement: academic triumphs in the classroom, acclaim from the professors, scholastic awards and honors. His mother-his gentle, loving, affectionate mother, Florence-had extracted a promise from him, willingly given, that he would make Phi Beta Kappa before graduation. Nathan intended to keep his promise-and perhaps, also, he hoped, he would attain what had almost always eluded him in high school: companionship and friends.

For Nathan Leopold-fifteen years old, five feet three inches tall, weighing 110 pounds, with a sallow complexion, gray eyes, thick black hair, and a curiously asymmetrical face that gave him an evasive appearance-had always been a lonely and unhappy child.


Excerpted from For the Thrill of It by Simon Baatz
Copyright © 2008 by Simon Baatz. Excerpted by permission.
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Meet the Author

Simon Baatzholds a joint appointment as associate professor of history at John Jay College of Criminal Justice and at the Graduate Center, City University of New York.

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