Friday, September 4, 2015

That sentence seems a little excessive.

As long time readers will note, it's a rarity for non-fiction to show up on here, and when it does, it's usually due to tracking down something else I was researching. Such is the case with Nathan Leopold's Life Plus 99 Years, which I actually put in a request for back in June after seeing a local production of the musical Thrill Me.

Since Leopold refuses to discuss the whys on how it is he ended up serving Life Plus 99 Years, here's a quick recap. Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb lived in Chicago. Much like others, the pair became obsessed with Nietzsche's idea of the Ubermench, and being fairly brilliant, pulled off the perfect murder. Well, sort of. Robert Banks' body was found before they could really demand the ransom for the kidnapping, and Leopold managed to drop his glasses at the place they dropped the body. Given he had one of 3 pairs in Chicago at the time...

Given that it came out that Leopold and Loeb were lovers, that they thought they were Ubermenchen, and that no one ever really found a motive for the murder (and it happened in 1924), it caused quite the sensation. "Crime of the Century!" the papers screamed.

Clarence Darrow, he of the Scopes Monkey Trials, wound up defending the pair. Darrow's summation managed to spare the boys (who were not even 20 yet) a long ride down a short rope. Instead, they got sentenced to Life plus 99 years.

Leopold picks up his narrative at the end of the trial and moving in to the ancient penitentiary in Joliet, IL. Policy in that era meant keeping them at first in separate wings of the prison, and later keeping one in Joliet and the other at Stateville. (This too eventually changed, as both wound up at Stateville in the same cell block.) Loeb got shanked in 1936, leaving Leopold with several lonely years in prison without his friend.

Not that he was bored. We hear in Leopold's narrative about his various jobs in the prison; running the correspondence school, X-Ray technician, cobbler, secretary.... we hear about the old punishment in The Hole, which used to involve chaining the prisoner to the cell door for long periods of time. We also spend much of the last part of the book with Leopold helping with research to find malaria treatment and cures, with the US Army testing stuff on prisoners to help solve the malaria problems in the Pacific campaign against the Japanese in 1945.

It's actually an interesting read, although Leopold isn't exactly what would constitute a "normal" criminal. (If you want that, I suggest Edward Bunker's Animal Factory [which, while fiction, Bunker was a prisoner much of his life] or Jimmy Lerner's You Got Nothing Coming [which centers around Lerner's manslaughter conviction and stay in the Nevada penal system]). Leopold was brilliant (he spoke something like 17 languages and did all kinds of correspondence work in prison), and he helped research much of the parole recommendation testing.

That all being said, there are a few downsides here, some of which actually add to those doing research on semi-related topics. The chief issue I ran in to a few times was that language has drifted quite a bit since 1957. Or heck, since 1924 when Leopold went in. This leads to a few occasions of trying to use contextual clues to figure out what the heck he's going on about. Another major issue I had was reading Erle Stanley Gardner's introduction, which is a rather stunning example of how far things have come in a rather short time. (I get the impression Gardner was liberal for his time. However, it's a bit odd reading someone making commentary about how Kinsey's sex research proves that Leopold and Loeb were just fooling around and probably would have grown up heterosexual had they not murdered Banks. Also, Gardner's rant about children disobeying parents rebelling is pretty much one of those issues that our ancestors complained about and our great grandchildren will complain about.) Given that Leopold was writing much of this with eventual parole board hearings in mind, he comes off rather saint-like in places, and some of the earlier chapters of the book feature him longingly talking about some woman he had a few really platonically boring dates with. (Mind you, it's not that hard to find the longing and loving of his buddy Richard in the places where Richard is there. But again, given the time period, a man loving another man probably would not have helped him get his parole in 1958.)

I spent much of the book wondering how it would read in the modern age. I'm sure had any of this happened in our modern age, the book would be filled with salacious details of the murder and his relationship with Dick. Modern psychologists would chime in about Loeb being a sociopath. We's here about modern illnesses rather than hearing about how one man's syphilis went far enough to drive him to insanity while he was on parole. By the look of his Wikipedia entry though, Leopold did as he set out to do on parole, which was move to Puerto Rico to work and teach in relative obscurity.

Worth the experience of reading.