Gender, Respectability, and Crime: Reflecting on The Leopold and Loeb Files

Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb

Nestled on page 112 of The Leopold and Loeb Files, Nina Barrett features an excerpt from noted social reformer Judge Ben B. Lindsey of the Juvenile Court of Denver who declared that the Leopold and Loeb crime was symptomatic of a “modern mentality and modern freedom of youth, with the misunderstandings between parenthood and childhood…the indifference to the rights of others in the stealing of automobiles, in joyrides, jazz parties, petting parties, freedom in sex relations and the mania of speed on every turn.”

Although Lindsey’s comments were perhaps unduly alarmist, he does hit upon how the Leopold and Loeb case struck a nerve in the historical moment of 1924. The trial became a way to explore fears about modern life in the Progressive Era, including anxieties about:

  • the limits and risks of science and rationality
  • the meaning of intellectual, urban masculinity
  • the effects of improper femininity and maternity
  • sexuality as action, orientation, and identity
  • the questionable security promised by wealth and respectability
  • the proper social and psychological development of children
  • the role of nature versus nurture

I want to dig into just one example of how this plays out in the case; specifically, how gender anxieties shaped the defense’s approach.

Clarence Darrow

Before Leopold and Loeb, Clarence Darrow defended women on trial for killing their partners, including Louise Van Keuren in 1914, Josephine Polk in 1918, and Emma Simpson in 1919. Rather than dispute if the women killed their spouses, Darrow consistently used an already-frequent cultural refrain that women should not be culpable for killing their partners. He referenced their frail mental state caused by abuse or distress, a condition frequently confirmed by women on the stand. In rousing oratory, Darrow often emphasized the paternalistic role of the jury and/or judge to protect women from a jail sentence.

For example, in Darrow’s final plea to the all-male jury deciding the fate of Emma Simpson, he explicitly admonished them on their responsibilities as men. He reminded jurors that “more consideration should be shown for a woman than a man” and that “you’ve been asked to treat a man and a woman the same—but you can’t. No manly man can.”[1] He also emphasized the seven years of marital troubles that contributed to Emma Simpson’s distress.

“You’ve been asked to treat a man and a woman the same—but you can’t. No manly man can.” – Clarence Darrow, 1919

This approach resonates with the defense’s approach as documented in The Leopold and Loeb Files. Defense attorney Walter Bachrach specifically stated: “Your Honor sits here very much in the position of a father whose child or children have committed some wrong.” Darrow elaborates on the theme: “I know that one of two things happened to this boy; that this terrible crime was inherent in his organism, and came from some ancestor, or that it came through his education and his training after he was born.” The defense deliberately frames Leopold and Loeb as children in need of protection, the victims of biological and social circumstances despite their wealth.

The Leopold and Loeb Files valuably allows the reader to dig into the documented words of historical people and see the messy, contested processes by which narratives about the murder were dizzily constructed and reconstructed. Yet, the Leopold and Loeb case did not take place in a vacuum. The language used by the press, the rousing oratory of lawyers, even Leopold and Loeb’s statements and confessions, were modeled after existing discourse at the same time as they were contributing to evolving understandings of gender, sexuality, and class.

The phenomenon of fascination with “true crime” ebbs and flows. Both in the early twentieth century and today, rapidly expanding forms of media dwelled on seemingly unexpected acts of violence by otherwise “respectable” white people in contrast to daily human violence rooted in poverty, racism, and misogyny. As a culture we ought to ask ourselves: who is humanized and who isn’t in our stories of violence? Who is deemed culpable for crime and who isn’t? Why are affluent students who harm others like Leopold and Loeb—or, for example, Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh—considered impressionable youth in need of protection, with futures on the line? Meanwhile, in our own time, 14-year old Bresha Meadows was incarcerated for killing her abusive father; the New York Times reported that Michael Brown was “no angel”; and after an off-duty police officer shot Botham Shem Jean in his own apartment the press deemed it important to announce that marijuana was found in his apartment. Who we humanize and who we hold culpable for crime reveals the dark realities of white supremacy and misogyny in our culture. We ought to consider what it looks like to apply that power of language to find humanity even in crime—perhaps even questioning what justice can look like outside of our historical and current system that values some lives over others.

Adapted from comments given at panel on The Leopold and Loeb Files at Loyola University Chicago in September 2018.

[1] “Mrs. Simpson Found Insane: Faces Asylum,” Chicago Daily Tribune, September 26, 1919.