He was Jewish, young, handsome, rich, educated, and had a higher IQ than most people anywhere in the US. And yet, he failed, gave in to his obsession with Richard Loeb, his best friend and object of his admiration, and, together in 1924, they made legal history.
Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb lured Bobby Franks, a young kid in Chicago, into their car, stuffed a gag into his mouth, crashed a heavy chisel against his skull four times, and carried his naked, still-warm body into a culvert along the Pennsylvania Railroad tracks. They then held the head under water to make sure that he would no longer breathe, poured hydrochloric acid on his face to make an identification difficult, and wedged the body into a drain pipe, obscuring it with shrubbery and weeds.
After that, they went to a restaurant, sipped liquor, played cards at Leopold's home, and later, tried to bribe the victim's parents into paying a huge ransom for the return of their allegedly kidnapped fourteen year-old son—all for the thrill of committing “the perfect crime.”
This gruesome case inspired hundreds of writers and journalists in a media circus of unprecedented proportions that involved twelve dailies printing 18 editions about the trial. Since that time, lawyers, professors of jurisprudence, psychologists, playwrights, and now, a composer, have written articles, stories, books, plays, films, and even a musical.
Both Leopold and Loeb, sons of wealthy and powerful, well-connected Jewish families in Chicago, lived in a world of their own where they created their own rules based on an extraordinary sense of “superiority” that they had nurtured by reading and misinterpreting German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche.
They mixed their own erotic needs into this superman complex: Loeb as the cold, controlling bisexual sadist, and Leopold, the marionette who liked to be played in return for obtaining sexual favors from his idol, Loeb--at least according to many psychologists that were called in to testify at the “trial of the century” and definitely according to the first musical, “Thrill Me: The Leopold & Loeb Story.”
Now, with the opening of the first performance of “Thrill Me: The Leopold & Loeb Story” at the Media Theatre, there is renewed interest in the murder case here in Philadelphia. Jesse Cline, the Artistic Director, took great risks in bringing this intense and intimate production of “Thrill Me” to the area. He auditioned hundreds of some of the best actors in New York and Philadelphia and then gave the two roles to Joshua Rivedal as Loeb and David Standish as Leopold for their chilling performances where they are playing outside accepted morality and social norms.
During some of the most dramatic moments, the actors are in each other's face, or breathing down each other's neck with only a few inches between them--illustrating the co-dependence between Leopold and Loeb. In some scenes violence and passion mix when they kiss each other, and some members of the audience gasp.
Theatre professionals know that a case as complex as that of Leopold and Loeb has to be reduced to its essence to deliver the audience a sense of immediacy in this historical case. Stephen Dolginoff’s presentation of these historical events allows for a strong, intimate psychological portrait of two young men whose terrible judgment and murder was a product of their deeply-seated needs for perfection, erotic fulfillment and thrills.
One critic after another praised Dolginoff’s writing and music and said that the direction of Cline, which lead to the challenging performances of actors Rivedal and Standish, highlighted the power of the THRILL ME script. Similarly, Dolginoff’s beautiful yet haunting, staccato use of the piano as played by Christopher Ertelt, the experienced Music Director of the Media Theatre, contributed to this remarkable production.
“Thrill Me” was seen by quite a few people, including Irving “Butch” and Ann Grossman of Martins Run in Media, the first Jewish-focused retirement community in the United States, who were friends with Nathan Leopold during his later years in life and who shared some of their experiences and documents with the dashingly handsome, unusually talented, and yet modest Dolginoff before one of the talk-back sessions at the Media Theatre in which lawyers, psychologists, and dramatists interact with the audience after almost every show, an event that has brought up a wide range of responses and insights.
This is the first of all the “Thrill Me” productions in the world to place the audience on stage with the actors to create an intimate theatre-in-the-round experience, drawing a maximum of 125 audience members deep into the mind of self-invented and deeply delusional American “supermen.”
Dolginoff, whose musical has been nominated for many awards all over the US, gave the Media production one of the highest marks, calling it “a bold step” and thanking the Media Theatre for being willing to take risks in their intimate, erotic, and powerful interpretation of his musical, which allows the viewers a rare entry into the minds of two brilliant young men who were emotionally stunted, two young men who had it all and who wasted their lives. Well, almost.
The Leopold-Loeb case became one of the most talked about legal cases in US history with one of the most renowned lawyers of the time, Clarence Darrow, the lawyer who defended John T. Scopes's right to teach evolution in Tennessee, and who defended the “two young boys”--as he called the murderers--in spectacular ways. The Leopold and Loeb trial was discussed as much in its time as the O.J. Simpson trial in our time. To this day, lawyers, law professors, psychologists, and their students study this case.
Unlike Europe, where in a number of well-publicized cases a person's Jewish identity was manipulated to generalize and malign Jewish people as a whole, it seemed that the Leopold-Loeb case, showing two Jewish murderers, did not seem to generate a wave of anti-Semitic feelings. Instead, basically every newspaper in the United States discussed this case looking at the moral and/or psychological aspects of the crime and at the audacity with which Darrow defended the case and managed to convince the judge to keep the hangman and the rope away from Leopold and Loeb.
By arguing that both youths were mentally ill, Darrow's revolutionary legal contribution deemphasized the crime; instead, he highlighted the plight of the individuals, making heavy use of the evolving field of psychiatry. Darrow told the judge, “You may hang these boys. You may hang them by the neck until they are dead. But in doing it, you are turning your face to the past.”
He also pointed out that Leopold was left to the care of a governess who forcibly introduced him to sex when he was only fourteen years old. Similarly, a chauffeur had seduced Loeb at the same age. Darrow argued that while “the boys” had a supernormal intelligence, they were emotionally not past the age of seven, living in a world of fantasy.
The defense attorney then challenged the judge, asking, “Do you think you can cure the hatreds and the maladjustments of the world by hanging them? You simply show your ignorance and your hate when you say it. You may heal and cure hatred with love and understanding but you can only add fuel to the flames with cruelty and hating.”
At that moment, America's most famous lawyer broke down and wept.
Significantly, neither Nathan Leopold nor Richard Loeb showed any remorse during the widely publicized criminal trial. Only when Darrow described a scene of Loeb and Leopold sitting in their jail cells and counting down the days to their execution did they show a visceral reaction: Loeb trembled, and Leopold became so hysterical that he had to be removed from the courtroom.
The prosecuting attorney, Robert E. Crowe, called them “a pair of snakes.” Everyone in Chicago believed that they would be hanged. Instead, Darrow managed to convince the judge to give them “life plus 99 years,” a famous sentence which became the title of Leopold's autobiography in which he described his life in prison, where he learned to master 26 languages, maintained the prison library, conceived, created, and ran a correspondence school for inmates, and offered himself as a guinea pig for malaria research during WWII, an experience that weakened his system for the rest of his life.
In 1936, Loeb got stabbed to death in a prison shower during a fight resulting from what appeared to be a sordid affair, but Leopold was paroled in 1958 after 34 years in jail.
The world saw Leopold as a trim, attractive young man and media star when he entered jail; when he was released, decades later, the world saw a balding, flabby, old man, sick with Diabetes. Nevertheless, upon his release from jail, hundreds of women wrote in, offering to marry him.
Instead, heartsick and hopeless, believing he would never find happiness, Leopold moved to Puerto Rico, and began working as a lab technician in a missionary hospital for ten dollars a month. He joined the University of Puerto Rico in 1959 where he received a Master's Degree in social science, and eventually worked for the Puerto Rican health department. The convicted murderer was determined to spend the rest of his life trying to make up for his crimes by helping others--part of his parole conditions.
Wanting to overcome the stigma of the “trial of the century” and the shame of his parents having changed their family name because of him, Leopold worked at the Leprosy Research Station in Puerto Rico. He had written all over the world for a job, and everyone turned him down, except the Puerto Rico leprosorium.
Shortly after his arrival in Puerto Rico at a party at the Jewish Community Center of San Juan, Leopold met the wealthy widow of a Puerto Rican physician, the former Trudy Feldman of Baltimore and Philadelphia. When the two became engaged in 1961, Trudy was asked why she wanted to marry an old ex-convict, and she was quoted as saying that she thought “he needed a friend more than anybody I have ever known.” The newly minted Mrs. Leopold compared Leopold to her late husband, and said the two shared the same “love for humanity,” and that Leopold “was the most gentle person I've met in my life.”
Leopold was scared of the press and any sensationalism. When he and Trudy got married, it was supposed to be secret, but the press showed up all the same.
As a married couple, the Leopolds developed a friendship with the Grossmans, who lived in Puerto Rico at the time. Butch Grossman was the founding president of the Natural History Society of Puerto Rico; his wife was the first secretary, and Leopold the treasurer. It was when they founded the conservation society that the Grossmans really began to encounter Leopold and work with him regularly.
Leopold and Grossman went on bird watching trips and, Grossman said, “I had no idea that this brilliant man who spoke better Spanish upon his arrival than any of us, and who knew more birds than those of us who went bird watching all the time—I did not know that he was a murderer, and certainly not one of America's most infamous murderers, that he was half of the Leopold-Loeb case,” but soon after Leopold’s arrival, Butch Grossman found out that Leopold had killed someone.
On one of his bird watching trips with Leopold, Jack Hagner, the first VP of the Natural History Society of Puerto Rico, observed that Leopold could not climb a mountain even though he wanted to. Leopold then confessed that his system had been so badly weakened ever since he participated in the medical experiments in jail that he was incapacitated for the rest of his life.
According to the Grossmans, Leopold never engaged in small talk, had an extraordinarily large vocabulary, and was very well informed about everything. Butch Grossman said, “I accepted Nate as someone who wanted to help in the conservation of nature. Our meetings were business meetings, except once when Trudy went to Philly, we invited him to our home for dinner. As soon as we had finished, with Ann and myself looking forward to some good conversation, Leopold suddenly jumped up and said he had another engagement and left abruptly.”
“He had been in prison a long time, and I understand that, but I was put off a bit at the time,” Ann Grossman said, admitting that in spite of his intelligence, she thought there was a certain lack of social awareness and empathy. Leopold hardly ever showed any expressions of his feelings, no matter what the situation, the Grossmans added. “I wonder if he had emotions or if they were nascent and stifled,” Ann Grossman asked.
“There were no feelings involved, it was just a cut and dried relationship with him. I liked to work with Nate,” continued Butch Grossman, “However, when I raised the question about the soul in a hypothetical world in which all human organs and tissues had been replaced by artificial organs and tissues, Nate was silent. Perhaps this brilliant man had not encountered the question about his soul before. Maybe he wanted to think about it.” Leopold had murdered a fourteen year-old boy for the thrill of it, but may not have considered the fate of his soul—a true Faustian dilemma—hence his silence.
Ann Grossman pointed out that basically Leopold's entire life was spent in boxes, first as a rich, highly privileged kid in Chicago whose parents spent precious little time with him, then as a kind of prodigy with one of the highest recorded IQs who completed high school at the age of fifteen, then graduated summa cum laude from the University at the age of eighteen. “The man compartmentalized his life,” Ann Grossman said. “He boxed himself into different roles and went from box to box, including jail, even in his life after jail, in his work for society.”
When attending social functions, the infamous murderer from 1924 never introduced himself as “Nathan Leopold,” but only as “Nate Leopold.” “We knew enough about him that we can safely say he was not proud of what he had done as a young man, “ Grossman said. “Nobody seemed to talk about the crime. In fact, he was well received. People accepted him.” He paused. “They did not like Leopold, but they accepted him.” Yet, Grossman insisted, “He was a good human being and I was willing to bury the past.”
When asked about “Thrill Me,” the musical, Grossman said, “We saw more homosexuality in this play than in the man with whom we worked in Puerto Rico.”
In fact, Leopold sued one author for defamation, won the case, received a huge settlement, and traveled the world with his wife. The Grossmans still keep one of the cards they received from Japan, signed to the Grossmans with “Love, Trudi and Nate Leopold.”
Following a series of heart attacks, Leopold died of arteriosclerosis in Puerto Rico in 1971, having devoted a decade to the science of helping people overcome life-risking communicable diseases. He made the request that after his death, as a final part of his effort to atone for his murder, his eyes should be donated to the eye bank in Puerto Rico, and that his body should be given to the school of medicine.
In a letter Grossman sent to Trudy Leopold in 1975, he wrote, “We think of you and Nate sometimes and look back fondly on our days in Puerto Rico. I shall say a prayer for Nate when I go to our Temple on Friday nights.”
Over three decades later, the Grossmans are full of praise for “Thrill Me” at the Media Theatre and are recommending it to all their friends because of the quality of the production, the acting, the music, and the new light it sheds on their friend, Nathan Leopold.