Tuesday, June 22, 2010
In the mind of an accused child killer
“But this was Stateville. The sun was still shining outside and you could get a look at it. You could open your windows and get a lungful of fresh air, unpolluted air…. Probably, I would have fretted at the slough-up had I been at Stateville right along, but coming from much worse conditions as I did, it suited me fine.” – Nathan Leopold, ‘Life Plus 99 Years’
In Nathan Leopold’s autobiography, he describes an incident occurring in February 1931 which outlined a particularly ugly prison riot that not only took place at Joliet Prison, but spread to Stateville Prison as well. Three men planned on scaling the wall of the barbershop to escape. The flaw was that one of the men “squawked”. With the Warden out sick, the Deputies took it upon themselves to teach the escaping convicts a lesson. They armed themselves and set up a machine gun pointing straight at the top of the barbershop. When the three convicts began their climb, the Deputies shot them multiple times, including the man who had given them the information on the escape. With tensions running high in the prison, the start of the riot began with five small fires in different parts of the wards. At dinner, the prisoners lost it and began rioting in the dining room, moving to the Deputy’s office. The officers tried to herd what they called “tough guys” into special buses that would transfer them to Stateville Prison. Nathan Leopold, for once, could be proud of his notoriety, for he was labeled a “tough guy” and was sent to the new prison. Unfortunately, Stateville Prison was now undergoing their own riot and upon the buses arrival, the driver turned back around and decided Joliet Prison was the safer alternative. Nathan was heartbroken. He was also surprised to learn that the Stateville riot was said to have started on the cue of when Nathan Leopold arrived at the gates.
On March 31, 1931, Nathan Leopold was allowed to transfer back to Stateville Prison for good. Time spent at Stateville did well for Nathan, for he began work on what would be one of his biggest projects: the prison library. The warden allowed Nathan to rebuild the library in his own fashion. This afforded Nathan the time and space he adored to delve into one of his major interests. Nathan relished this job, although complained that there really wasn’t a decent system of cataloguing books and maintaining them. He decided to implement the Dewy Decimal System and spent nearly four years putting it together with over sixteen thousand volumes of books. Nathan was not only in charge of the library, but also the ordering of each book that came into Stateville Prison.
Another enormous joy that came into Nathan’s life was the time he was allowed to spend with Dick Loeb. Housed in nearby cells, the two were able to communicate frequently and work with each other either in the library, or in the greenhouse, where Dick worked. The whole prison seemed in high spirits, according to Nathan, who was happy enough with his books and Dick Loeb several cells away. Outdoor activities were encouraged and many of the inmates were now allowed to sunbathe and play handball. Some of the inmates enjoyed gardening, and those summers, everything seemed to grow bountifully and beautifully.
Nathan and Dick’s finest accomplishment came to fruition in 1932. Dick wanted to make the prison school system better. At that time, school ended at eighth grade in prison, and Dick knew that with their combined IQ of 360, Nathan and he could design a high school correspondence curriculum. With Dick’s smooth salesmanship to the warden, assuring him it would cost the state not one penny, Nathan and Dick began teaching classes from their cells, their pupils learning from their own cells. Four basic courses and several languages were offered, which would later grow to 108 courses over the years. The Stateville Prison Correspondence School was recognized as an actual institution and graduates were unquestionably admitted into their selected colleges once paroled.
Dick taught English, history, and basic geometry. His main center of attention was English and he dedicated nearly all his time and focus on this subject. He was adamant that each convict should know how to compose a full sentence and also be able to name what an infinitive was and where to place an adjective. Though the curriculum was aimed at elementary school pupils, many inmates took Dick’s course before entering into high school English. Dick wrote and was able to publish a 211 page book on English Grammar, which he worked on and revised endlessly until his death a year later. In Nathan’s autobiography, he praised Dick’s attention and devotion to the English Grammar book, stating that nothing gave more pleasure to Dick than educating his fellow inmates. Nathan pledged that he would finish Dick’s book but was unable to do so while occupied in the library, correcting school papers, and later, working with the malaria vaccine.
The school was erected in a tiny cell with which held only one desk and two typewriters for Dick and Nathan. This is where they spent all their free time composing new courses and typing assignments for their students. After three years, they were given a real space in the Administration Office. Here they worked on another special project involving statistical research on convicts who could be rehabilitated, paroled, and stay out of prison for the duration of their lives. With a certain number of inmates, in prison for various reasons and various years, Nathan and Dick were able to study the probability of whether a percentage of them could succeed in the outside world without returning to prison. Their findings were presented to authorities in sociology who applauded them for their accuracy and hard work. Statistical research was a favorite topic for Nathan, for it gave him time to spend getting to know other prisoners during each testing. Nathan lived in and was elated in his world of numbers, graphs, and reports. Though Dick was less interested in the project and preferred to work on his English Grammar book, the two took on the job as a team, as they did with every project they began. Interestingly, Dick and Nathan never recorded whether or not they themselves would be probable candidates for parole. Perhaps they assumed they would be serving their full life sentences, or perhaps they took themselves out of the equation entirely to make the research fair.
Nathan and Dick, now in their early thirties, were as close as they had been twelve years before, perhaps even closer. They spent their work assignments together, their outdoor activities together, and made a pact to spend at least twenty minutes after breakfast talking and joking in one or the others cells. Nathan and Dick had no secrets from each other, and shared everything from personal problems they had to school related issues. In all the years Nathan Leopold spent in prison, the most sparkling and notable times he claims were when he was in close vicinity to Dick Loeb. Even the tone of the book changes remarkably when Nathan talks of the four years he was working with Dick. His life seems to suddenly have purpose, and he maniacally began several different projects that filled him with enjoyment and usefulness, while just several years before he had planned his own suicide at Joliet Prison. A lifetime in prison seemed a perfect way for Nathan to collect all the information he could about everything he found somewhat interesting. Parole was a far away thought for Nathan, at least while he had Dick by his side. A third party, possibly a cellmate or close friend, claimed to have viewed personal letters Nathan and Dick wrote to each other. He insisted that the two had continued their homosexual relationship in prison as if their adolescent romance had never ended. Nathan never confirmed nor denied this rumor.
In all Nathan’s contentment, he was taken aback by a fellow prisoner who met him in the prison yard with a knife and demanded a large portion of money. Nathan tried explaining that he had no money to his name, only five dollars a week for the commissary, but that was not enough for the con with the knife. Fortunately, for Nathan, his work at making friends in prison paid off. Dick and several other inmates acted as a personal entourage for Nathan for the next few days and were able to talk the con out of harming Nathan. For perhaps one of the first times Nathan finally felt the real camaraderie that a group of friends could provide for him in a spot of trouble. Without Dick, Nathan may have been the victim of a violent stabbing, which could have cost him his life.
On January 28, 1936, Nathan and Dick spent the morning having breakfast in Dick’s cell working on class assignments and idly chatting. They were interrupted once by Jimmie Day, a passing inmate who remarked that he would be seeing Dick around noon. The comment was forgotten by the two, and they continued their work. Dick’s last remark to Nathan that morning was that nothing exciting ever seemed to happen in prison. He then got his towel and clean clothes and made his way to the showers.
About twenty minutes later, Nathan was rushed from his cell to the infirmary, on the way passing by Dick’s cell which was being stripped hastily by two Lieutenants. Nathan was hysterical, already realizing something terrible must have happened to Dick. Unable to bypass the guards at the infirmary, Nathan pleaded with the Catholic minister to let him through on the grounds that he had to see Dick immediately. The minister allowed Nathan inside before he could kick the gate in. There, in the infirmary, Nathan found a badly razor slashed Dick on an operating table, an ether mask obscuring his mouth. Fifty-eight razor wounds covered Dick’s body and four slashes nearly severed his head from his body. Nathan remarks that Dick must have had a tremendously bad fight, for there were even gashes on the tips of Dick’s fingers, suggesting he was trying to defend himself from the straight razor.
Without a thought, Nathan offered to have his blood tested for a transfusion, but donors had already been cross matched and pints were set aside for Dick. The faster the sutures were being made, the more the cuts bled, so the doctors ordered a transfusion, which only made Dick bleed more. By the time Dick was breathing in shallow breaths and turning white, Nathan was told to get the priest for final rites. Nathan felt this was a massive waste of time, for Dick had lived half his life as a Jew, and the other portion, an agnostic. At a quarter to three, Dick’s brother and family doctor entered the infirmary. The family doctor had delivered both Dick and Nathan and was a close friend of the Loeb’s. He held Dick’s head in his hands, whispered something under his breath and tearfully let Dick go. At seven minutes to three, Dick was gone, and so was a large portion of Nathan. He unfolded the blanket covering and sat by Dick’s cooling corpse for nearly an hour.
In the following pages of Nathan’s autobiography, he goes on to say what a delightful and amazing person Dick had been. Dick had been the undying sunshine in Nathan’s dark world, providing Nathan with the love and support he had longed for his entire life. Dick was a sincerely devoted friend of all he came into contact with, a lovable socialite in the prison yard, and an exceptionally intelligent teacher of the Correspondence School. Determined, witty, and easily liked, Dick was one of the most popular inmates at Stateville Prison. Nathan does not confuse the reader with only the good traits Dick possessed, for Nathan had come to realize the things in Dick that were not all they seemed. As an adolescent, Nathan was “bedazzled” at all of Dick’s undeniably charismatic traits, but in the twelve years since his incarceration, Nathan was no longer in love with Dick’s many personality changes. Dick had seemed to possess no sense of morality, and Nathan makes it clear that Dick never once seemed remorseful for the death of Bobby Franks. Nathan also blames the idea, planning, and the ultimate murder of Bobby Franks on Dick. Such stubbornness was known in Nathan since the hearing in 1924, where he claimed over and over what trivial details of the case were prevalent, and what the stenographer should be typing. Whoever the killer was of Bobby Franks, both went to their deaths without admitting fault.
In Nathan’s autobiography, he says of Dick, “Some people who have my welfare at heart tell me that I should not write as I do of Dick, that it hurts me, that it indicates that I am still influenced by what was amoral and mad in his character. To them and others, I can only say that if the thirty-three years since the commission of the crime have not convinced everyone that I am not incapable of any similar act, then nobody’s conduct means anything. The simple truth is that we cherish even when we don’t emulate.”
After Dick’s death, Nathan was sent to the psychiatric unit (“bug cells”) at Stateville for six months. He was told this was not an act of punishment, rather a way to keep him away from other prisoners with a desire to hurt him as well. The warden reasoned with Nathan that word was thick with the other prisoners that Nathan was to be the next slain. Nathan bitterly describes this experience as punishment indeed, for he was sharing the “bug cells” with Dick’s killer, Jimmie Day.
At the request of Nathan and Loeb’s family, it was decided to have no one testify against Jimmie Day. Dick Loeb was dead, and nothing would bring him back, so the outcome of the case would mean nothing to anyone but Jimmie Day. The newspapers delighted in hearing the story of Dick’s death, making up their own stories to sate the public. One newspaper claimed Dick had tried to sexually assault a Negro inmate in the shower and was slashed to death for his insinuations. Another newspaper claimed Dick was the one wielding the razor and had attacked Jimmie Day first, demanding sexual gratification. The coroner’s report showed that Dick’s wounds were all from self defense and his throat had been slashed from behind. Jimmie Day had not a cut or scratch on his body. Day had a long record of fighting with other prisoners and was said to have had a heated argument over Dick’s allowance money two weeks before the killing. Jimmie Day also suffered from acute hysteria, which could have been the reason he attacked Dick in the showers. Day was acquitted of the murder, and Loeb went to his death with the public assumption that he was not only a child killer, but also a sexual deviant.
In 1937, Nathan resumed teaching and putting together courses for the Correspondence School. He decided to have all the courses typed instead of mimeographed, and set to work on making the school a memorial for Dick. The school emblem showing on the cover of the course book read Ratione autem liberamur, meaning “by reason, however, we are set free.” The initials of the Latin words spelled out Dick’s initials: Richard Albert Loeb and this was no accident according to Nathan. The picture on the cover is of a man hunched over a desk, pen in hand with a book open before him. That too, was a picture of Dick.
In the years after Dick’s death, Nathan was deeply unhappy. He kept up with the School Correspondence, but was now to be celled alone and was guarded by a keeper at all times. This made it hard for him to make friends, for he brought “heat” wherever he went. He was often disliked by other prisoners merely because he had been involved with Dick Loeb. Although Dick was widely liked by the vast majority of inmates, no one wanted to be near Nathan, who was thought to be the cause of trouble wherever he went. Nathan was generally considered to be snobbish and above the rest of prison society. Nothing could deter from this fact, and Nathan learned to keep to himself with the exception of a few close companions occupied with the School Correspondence.