Babe and Dickie on Trial (Part 3 of 3)

Continued from Part 2

William White was particularly effective in his testimony since he essentially provided the judge (and the reporters covering the trial) with a jargon-free introduction to Freudian theory.   A gifted lecturer, Dr. White had ample experience with presenting psychoanalytic ideas to a skeptical public and explained many of the concepts in his testimony in a story-like manner that went over well in the courtroom.   In discussing Richard Loeb's fantasy life, for example, White described his longstanding criminal fantasies and that he "wanted to commit a crime that would be perfect, that would be thoroughly and completely planned in all details, that would baffle the police, that would be an object of great concern in the immediate community, that would leave no clues, that would an intellectual feat to accomplish."    He also described Loeb as "going in the direction of a split personality" because of the inner confliict  between his intelligence and his "infantile emotional make-up."

The testimony about Nathan Leopold focused on the abnormal relationship he had as a child with a governess identified only as "Sweetie".   Not only did "Sweetie" dominate him completely, even more than his own parents, but Leopold had his first sexual experience with her before he was ten years old.     According to White's testimony, Leopold was completely dominated by Richard Loeb and he suggested that Leopold would never have committed any crime without Loeb's criminal fantasies to spur him on.  At the same time, Loeb might never have acted on his own fantasies without Leopold's help.   As far as White was concerned, it was the mutually reinforcing relationship between the two of them that made them commit murder

Still, William White made two unfortunate comments in his testimony that were used against him.   At one point, he described Richard Loeb as "a little child talking to his Teddy bear."   He also used two childhood pictures of Loeb dressed as a cowboy and a policeman, complete with toy gun, to suggest that the pictures show Loeb's longstanding antisocial tendencies.    White's testimony was openly mocked by the prosecutor, Richard Crowe, and in newspaper editorials across the country.     They openly suggested that White had been fooled by a "fabric of lies" told by Loeb and Leopold.     The fact that White was being paid $250 a day for his testimony (a huge sum in those days) raised suggestions that he was little more than a "hired gun" whose testimony had been paid for by the Loeb and Leopold families. 

Even with the open skepticism about White's testimony however, the public was still fascinated with the "new psychology" being presented by White and the other psychoanalysts.   Despite merciless cross-examination, which often made White and his colleagues look foolish,  the image of the defendants being mentally unbalanced still swayed public opinion.    The lurid details of the testimony, some of which was declared to be "too scandalous" for women and had to be whispered in the courtroom,  suggested that Loeb and Leopold were guilty of "perversion"  (a.k.a., homosexual acts) which helped shape their antisocial fantasies.    One psychiatrist even focused on the physical abnormalities he found in the defendants.   Nathan Leopold, for example, had a "diseased" thyroid gland and  problems with his adrenal glands (among other things) and concluded that his sex  glands were "overfunctioning".

The final defense expert, Dr. Bernard Glueck, gave even more explosive testimony.   Along with suggesting that Loeb had a "split personality", he also reported that Loeb admitted to the actual killing with a chisel blow to the head.  As for Leopold, Glueck described him as having a paranoid obsession with Dickie Loeb and fantasizing about being his slave.   Friends and family members gave testimony essentially supporting many of the conclusions raised by the psychoanalysts (and were promptly accused by the prosecution of lying to protect the defendants). 

When Clarence Darrow and the other defense attorneys rested their case on August 12,  the alienist testimony was enough to generate the reasonable doubt that Darrow had intended.  Though newspaper editorials were still scathing, there was already considerable support for the psychoanalytic argument in the public mind.   Because of the riveting testimony reported in newspapers, Freudian psychoanalysis had truly arrived in the United States.  

While the prosecution experts attempted to shake the psychoanalytic testimony, none of them were psychoanalysts and Darrow challenged the very legal definition of insanity in his cross-examination.   By the time the prosecution rested its case on August 19, the battle of the alienists was over.   The closing statement that Clarence Darrow made is still considered one of the great classics in legal history.   Not only did Darrow weigh in with his own personal opposition to the death penalty, but his conviction that the crime committed by his clients was shaped by their abnormal upbringing and their own diseased fantasies.   It was a powerful speech that mesmerized the courtroom and left many people in tears.   His closing statement was reprinted in courtrooms across the country and cemented Darrow's reputation as a gifted lawyer and social crusader.

As for the prosecutor, his closing argument was succinct and sarcastic at times, especially concerning the expert witnesses whom he described as the "Three Wise Men from the East."    He heaped ridicule on William White and the other psychoanalysts and also suggested that Loeb and Leopold "deserved the same mercy as coiled snakes waiting to strike."  After that, the fate of the two defendants was left up to Judge Caverley.

On September 10, 1924,  Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb were sentenced to life imprisonment for murder with an additional 99 years each for the kidnapping of Bobby Franks.   In explaining his reasoning for not handing down the death penalty, Judge Caverley stated that:  "In choosing imprisonment instead of death the court is moved chiefly by the consideration of the age of the defendants, boys of 18 and 19 years."   He also acknowledged the role that the alienist evidence played in the sentencing but concluded that "it is beyond the province of this court, as it is beyond the capacity of human science in its present state of development, to predicate ultimate responsibility for human acts."

Not surprisingly,  numerous newspaper editorials trumpted their own opinion of Judge Caverley's controversial decision.   The fact that other defendants as young as Loeb and Leopold would continue to get the death penalty across the United States was conveniently overlooked.   The main issue for most newspapers was whether the New Psychology (as it was often called) should be used in the courtroom to mitigate sentences.  

As for Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb, they were both sentenced to Joliet Prison and managed to continue their relationship and even taught classes together in prison.     Richard Loeb was attacked and killed by a fellow prisoner on January 28, 1936.    His assailant claimed that Loeb had tried to sexually assault him and the prison officials ruled in his favour despite the obvious inconsistencies in his story.    Nathan Leopold was eventually paroled in 1958 and wrote a book on his experiences, Life Plus 99 Years.     He later moved to Puerto Rico and married a widowed florist.    Leopold also wrote a well-known book on Puerto Rican birdlife and managed to stay out of the public eye for the most part before dying in 1971.

Along with the impact the Loeb and Leopold trial had on the history of law, it also had a powerful impact on popular culture including inspiring several movies and plays.   One of these, Compulsion, which came out in 1959, was unsuccessfully challenged by Nathan Leopold who accused the movie's producers of trying to exploit his life story.    Other films, including Alfred Hitchcock's 1948 film, Rope, are still considered movie classics. 

But the greatest impact of the Loeb and Leopold case on popular culture is likely the role that it played introducing Freudian psychoanalysis to mainstream society.  Newspaper coverage of the Crime of the Century and the court case did more to popularize Freud's ideas than another case before or since.   While most people today are unaware of the Loeb and Leopold trial except through movies such as Rope and Compulsion, the graphic news coverage that made Freudian terms into household words has been largely forgotten except for history buffs.   

Still, because of what happened in that fateful summer of 1924, psychiatric and psychological testimony in the courtroom would never be the same again.






Related Stories

  • Babe and Dickie on Trial (Part 2 of 3)
  • Babe and Dickie on Trial (Part 1 of 3)
  • The Babies of Broadmoor


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