Tuesday, June 22, 2010
In the mind of an accused child killer
“Any public display of my remorse would almost surely be interpreted as a play for sympathy. I’ve seen so many men go to the Parole Board; I’ve written so many petitions for clemency for other fellows. And they are so vociferously sorry. It is right, of course, that they should be sorry; a penitentiary is, by its very name, a place where one should become and remain penitent. But somehow I have never quite been able to convince myself that loudness of protestation is any very good indication of sincerity. For myself, I determined that my penitence should take the form of deeds, not words.” – Nathan Leopold, ‘Life Plus 99 Years’
Throughout his years spent in prison, Nathan Leopold admitted that he sometimes imagined writing a letter to the Franks family, explaining his deep regret and remorse at the loss of their child. Nathan never accomplished this, explaining that his words might only exacerbate the pain the family felt. He felt that since Bobby’s death, a letter from Nathan Leopold would only bring up the agonizing past. Perhaps the composure of such a carefully worded letter was not something Nathan felt he could undertake. How to put in plain words what could never be undone? And more so, Nathan had never admitted to killing Bobby, only claiming his involvement in the crime. Nathan, however, never did contact the Franks family and maybe that was for the best in the end.
After eight years working in the school, Nathan decided to transfer to the X-ray department as a technician for the simple reason that he wanted a change. Nathan had been holed up in cells for the better part of his sentence, either working on the school with Dick, or exhausting himself reading textbooks on statistical analysis and languages. It was time for him to stretch his legs, as it were, and move to another area of the prison. By May 1941, Nathan was sent to the X-ray office where he learned how stomach fluoroscopy’s worked, how to develop films, and how to do basic chest X-rays. Only two months later, Nathan transferred to the “bug cells” where he was, for all intensive purposes, a night nurse. This gave Nathan ample time to move around as much as he wished, study his books without being behind thick bars, and most of all, to keep company all the men that were sick. Nathan felt a real sense of worth being able to help his fellow inmates. It gave him another shot at making friends, something it seemed he strived for his entire life. Nathan’s many attempts at attaining friends was much like trying to capture an evasive butterfly in his hands. Every time he thought he had caught the insect, he opened his palms to find his hands empty over and over again.
World War two erupted in the forties, and Nathan was aching to become part of it. Knowing he would be in prison for at least another thirteen years, he could do nothing but hope that there was some kind of effort that could be made on his behalf. He gave blood to the American Cross as often as possible, but that wasn’t enough for him. In September 1944, he volunteered to be infected with malaria in an attempt to find a cure for the disease that was rapidly killing soldiers overseas. Along with Nathan, 487 other inmates volunteered as well. Nathan was put in the position of testing all the volunteers before the malaria virus was injected. He was happy to learn of all the interesting techniques used by the doctors, such as the dissecting of malaria infested mosquitoes, and the probability of finding a cure. But Nathan was unsatisfied at being at the back of the line, insisting that he himself be used as a test subject. The Captain of the ward would not allow Nathan to be bitten, at least not until he was absolutely needed. Nathan explains that his work in the laboratory was too important for him to become sick while working.
After five months working on the project, and seven requests to be injected with the virus, the Captain finally relented and Nathan was allowed to participate in the study. Nathan’s job was to be injected on each thigh with malaria, and then have the skin and tissue removed (about the size of a silver dollar) and grafted onto two other patients whose skin and tissue had also been removed for insertion. The purpose of the procedure was to find out if the parasite carrying the malaria virus would attack the other men as well as Nathan.
On July 2, 1945, twelve days after the initial injection, Nathan’s temperature shot up to 105 degrees and continued for five days. After viewing other patients during their bouts with the illness, Nathan learned not to eat anything for six days because of the violent nausea malaria causes. He suffered a splitting headache that often left him in tears, but he claims that he remained brave that he would conquer his ailment with the help of several drugs given to him by the doctors. This was the least he could do for all the men who gave their lives during the war. Nathan’s insistence on being given malaria shows that he was indeed a good man…. But one cannot help but wonder if this was an early attempt at gaining favoritism for the parole he would be up for in 1948. The cure for malaria was discovered shortly after Nathan’s test group did not relapse after taking the correct combinations of drugs.
In Nathan’s autobiography, he says, “Every bit of the enormous amount of publicity I had received over a period of twenty years had been bad: the one thing I was known for was being a kidnapper and murderer. That I was alright, but I was more than that. I was a human being too, and a human being who was truly repentant for what he had done. Only that never got into the newspapers.”
In 1946, Nathan had another chance at proving to the public that he was a changed man. The New York Eye Bank was interested in donors from the prisoners at Stateville. Nathan succeeded in signing up 397 convicts for the project after explaining that they would only be donors if they died while in prison. When the prisoners were formally signing their contracts to the Eye Bank, Nathan was approached by the warden. A considerable amount of publicity had arrived to view the action, and Nathan Leopold was wanted for interviews and pictures. For twenty-two years, Nathan had avoided media hype, for it only brought bad tidings to his already debased name. This time, however, he felt it might help his name. Perhaps people would see him as human again if they could see what he was willing to do in the event of his death. Nathan granted all the pictures and interviews that afternoon, hoping this would be remembered by the time his parole hearing came.
Three years later, at the end of April 1949, Nathan Leopold was sent to Springfield for his parole hearing. This was by far the largest and most publicized hearing Nathan underwent. He prepared with a dozen men and women willing to speak on behalf of his rehabilitation in prison. Numerous letters of recommendation were read to the board in addition to Nathan’s plea that he was no longer a wild and immature boy of nineteen. At the age of forty-four, he had spent over half his life in the confines of prison and was ready to live in the outside world. Nathan never mentioned one word about remorse for the death of Bobby Franks. Five months later, Nathan heard a radio broadcast that his parole was denied and he would be eligible for another hearing in 1953.
Nathan decided to fill the next four and a half years with studying statistics on parole-prediction of past inmates. By preparing his analysis twelve years earlier, many of the inmates he had studied had now been paroled and Nathan chiefly wanted to find out how many of them had been able to succeed in the free world without returning to prison. As a formal work assignment Nathan went back to X-ray assisting. Now, with time on his hands, Nathan petitioned the warden to order a television set for the X-ray room. In 1950, Nathan was awarded a ten-inch Crosley television, where he learned what the world outside looked like. He remarks on seeing the new cars people were driving, what people were wearing, and what new houses looked like. The first talkie film Nathan had ever seen was in 1929, and by 1950, things had changed in the world entirely.
In 1953, Nathan had his second parole hearing, this time a smaller event with an even quicker interview. Nathan, again, stated no remorse for his crime. After nearly two weeks, Nathan was given the news that he was not only denied parole, but his case would not be continued until 1965. That meant another twelve years Nathan would have to serve in prison without the consideration of good behavior. To add insult to injury, Nathan’s beloved older brother, Mike, died of a heart attack that same year.
In Nathan’s autobiography, he mourns the death of Mike, “The load of guilt I carry already is all I can handle; I am afraid to add to it by probing too deeply into this…. With him gone, less than all of me was left.”
After finishing his autobiography in 1954, Nathan met with Meyer Levin, a man that would prove to be a thorn in his side until his death. Levin, who went to school with Nathan at the University of Chicago, felt that the story of Leopold and Loeb had been misunderstood and Levin wanted to write a book to help the public understand what really took place. Nathan was revolted by the idea of his story being told by a third party, who knew nothing of the true events. He instead offered Levin an opportunity to help collaborate with him on his newly finished autobiography. Nathan felt that someone with a literary background might be able to turn his work into something worth reading. Nathan was careful not to make haste of his decision and quickly contacted Levin to tell him he would not be working with him after all. Levin was insistent, however, and pestered the Leopold family for information on Nathan’s childhood, court transcripts, and any other pertinent facts they could provide. Nathan’s attorney sent a letter to Levin to desist his actions, for Nathan and his family would not allow a word published about the case without consent.
On the 35th anniversary of Nathan’s mother’s death, the book, Compulsion, by Meyer Levin was published. Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb were now characters named Judd Steiner and Artie Straus. The book itself, Nathan explains is 40% fact and 60% fiction. Levin took painstaking measures to assure the details of the case were completely accurate, but the characters were absolutely unbelievable to Nathan. Each person in the book is a person Nathan cannot recall, for they are so far different from the real life people involved in the case. The character of Judd Steiner, which was supposed to be Nathan Leopold, was far from truthful. According to Nathan, “Mr. Levin accuses Judd Steiner of felonies I never dreamed of committing. He puts into Judd’s mouth and very brain words and thoughts that were never in mine. Some make me blush; some make me want to weep. My God, what I did is horrible enough and the load of guilt I bear on my conscience is already heavy enough without this additional source of turmoil.”
After Compulsion came out, Nathan’s crime was under the spotlight again. Life magazine asked for a brief interview and some photographs, which Nathan agreed to only under the condition that every word he spoke would appear in the magazine as direct quotes. Upon seeing the issue, Nathan was delighted that the reporters had kept their word. The pictures were anything but attractive, but Nathan saw this as an advantage, stating, “The pictures showed me as I really am- a fat, balding, middle-aged man with nothing distinguished about him. Perhaps they would help to overcome the impression created by some newspapers. For they show me for what I truly am- a very commonplace, ordinary little guy.”
Meyer Levin, intent on seeing Nathan out of prison, wrote a column in The Coronet entitled “Leopold Should Be Freed!” He strongly believed that Compulsion was written as a vehicle to help Nathan get paroled. He further felt that he in no way tried to paint a negative picture of Nathan in his book and thought that the people who read it would share his opinion that Nathan should be paroled.
In 1957, Nathan applied with the parole board for the fourth time and this time was granted a rehearing in 1958 and was finally paroled. To avoid publicity, he moved to Puerto Rico, earning his masters degree in social medicine at the University of Puerto Rico and became an X-ray technician for the Church of The Brethren. He continued to teach, this time mathematics to students at the University. In 1961, he married widower Trudi Feldman and began his life at fifty-four after thirty-three years in prison. One year after his release, news of the film Compulsion was hitting newspapers. Nathan promptly contacted his attorney and filed a 1.4 million dollar suit against Meyer Levin for defamation of character. Nathan fought the case until 1970, when it was ruled Nathan was in fact a public figure and could not be entitled to privacy under the law. The years between the nasty court battle Nathan spent with his wife travelling and enjoying the sights and sounds of freedom. Nathan even wrote a book about his favorite subject, and titled it, “Birds Of Puerto Rico.”
While in prison, Nathan suffered two heart attacks, developed chronic kidney disease, and became diabetic. In his last years, Nathan was desperate to be seen as human, and wanted nothing more than to be left alone by the media. Nathan was the last surviving person involved in the Leopold and Loeb case, Darrow, Crowe and Loeb long since gone. Nathan kept a framed photograph of Richard Loeb on his bedside mantle and confided in a friend that he was still madly in love with Dick, even though he considered him to be the one person to ruin his entire life. Next to the photo of Dick, was another of Clarence Darrow, the man Nathan claims to have saved his life. In 1971, Nathan suffered another heart attack attributed to his diabetes and died with his wife by his side. His eyes were successfully transplanted to a blind woman and his body was given to medical science. Nathan was not given a formal funeral, but his good deeds were detailed in his obituary posted in newspapers across the nation. The newspapers did, however rehash the crime of 1924 and Leopold went to his death still accused of child murder.
The crime of Leopold and Loeb is remembered by few to this day, but to those who do remember the case, it is important to understand that media and publicity made the case one of the ugliest and most sinister crimes of the early twentieth century. Perhaps if the newspapers had not discussed the events with such sensational headlines and embellished tones, the two teens may have led a different life. Loeb, for instance, might have survived prison. Leopold might have been paroled earlier and began a family. Nathan Leopold forever wanted to be known as a human being, and that was the only thing he asked for in the years following his imprisonment. Far from perfect, he did learn to be a selfless and helpful rehabilitated man who wanted nothing more than to escape his own name, which brought disgust to the majority of the nation. Nathan Leopold was remembered by his remaining friends as a passionate bird watcher, a devoted follower of the Jewish Church, a talented teacher, a respected master of nearly 30 languages, and a simple man who just wanted to be loved.