Simon Baatz explores the role psychiatry played in the legendary 1924 Leopold and Loeb case, in For the Thrill of It.
You first became interested in the case after watching Hitchcock's Rope. What grabbed your attention?
When I discovered that [the film] was based on a real case, I looked back to see what else had been written, and it turned out that very little had. What convinced me to write my own was that no one had written about the psychiatry, and my background is the history of science. Clarence Darrow was convinced of the axiom that everything we do is scientifically predetermined.
The book took you six years to finish. What was your research process?
Northwestern University has the trial transcripts and psychiatric reports, which are amazingly useful because they give an intimate picture of Leopold and Loeb. Northwestern also has the interrogation transcripts from interviews that State's Attorney Crowe did with the boys. This was an extraordinary discovery because I can't imagine that they exist for many other crimes.
What role, if any, did religion play in the case?
People give the fact that Leopold, Loeb and Bobby Franks were Jewish a much greater importance than I think it deserves. Even though it was an anti-Semitic time, it was different from the Leo Frank case in 1913. [Leo] Frank was a Jewish superintendent of an Atlanta pencil factory who was accused of raping and strangling a teenage girl. A gang broke into the prison and lynched him. The fact that he was Jewish was central to that case, along with the anti-Semitism of the South. There was very little of that with the Leopold and Loeb trial.
Were you swayed by Crowe's argument that, since the boys had pleaded guilty, Clarence Darrow's defense in the sentencing hearing was self-contradictory on the question of the boys' responsibility?
The defense was trying to have it both ways. Darrow wanted to say, yes, Leopold and Loeb bear responsibility, but they're mentally ill. The problem was that if the defense was ever forced into saying no, these boys don't have responsibility for the crime because they're mentally ill, that would lead to [an] insanity [defense]. You can't argue insanity unless you're before a jury, and the defense knew that they'd never get the verdict they wanted from a jury. What was so interesting to me was that the defense psychiatrists were Freudians and the state psychiatrists were neurologists. They were looking at the problem from two completely different perspectives, and they were equally valid and justified in coming to the conclusions that they reached.