Tuesday, June 22, 2010
In the mind of an accused child killer
“If I’m going to tell at all of those horrible events, I must try to recall how they appeared to me then. I must recapture for the moment the viewpoint of the insufferable creature I once was, a creature I hope I have long since ceased to be.”- Nathan Leopold, ‘Life Plus 99 Years’
Nathan Leopold’s autobiography “Life Plus 99 Years” was written in 1951 at the insistence of a rabbi who visited him in his cell shortly after one of Leopold’s parole requests was denied. Nathan begins the telling of his life story by explaining that the murder was an utter horror in which he will not recall. The ghosts of his past seem to still haunt him, and he is unwilling to describe the crime in any detail. Publishers for years would not touch Nathan’s book for this reason. It left out the “juicy” facts the public wanted to hear in Leopold’s own words. Nathan also shies away from talking about his childhood for fear that it may sully the reputations of his family and friends. The book is written quite eloquently considering it was merely a first draft when Leopold submitted it for publishing. “Life Plus 99 Years” beautifully portrays the life of a sad, bitter, and introverted boy becoming an accomplished and thoughtful middle-aged man in prison. This is the story of Nathan Leopold, not the “mastermind” of the Bobby Franks murder, not the shameless teen depicted in newspapers, but the human being that many never took the opportunity to get to know.
Nathan Leopold’s life in prison seemed to agree with him quite well. Nathan was an interesting fellow, in that he seemed to have strived for order, for someone to tell him what he needed to accomplish, what he needed to do with the many years left in his life. Nathan may have been a genius, but was completely immature and unworldly in nearly every other sense. He didn’t know how to make lasting friendships, had no knowledge of how to act in social situations, and certainly had never earned a penny in his life. Prison gave him a chance to learn all of these things while he continued to study a great many things he probably wouldn’t have had he been a free man.
Pause for a moment to think of Nathan Leopold’s life as a free man. He probably would have finished law school by his early twenties, and then what? The path Nathan could have taken in his life could have led anywhere, although by all accounts, it seems he wouldn’t have flourished as an adult as well as he did while in prison. If he had gotten away with the murder, who’s to say that he wouldn’t have connected with Richard Loeb again to resume their spree of crimes and sex? After getting away with the first murder, they may have decided to try and outdo themselves by committing a more heinous and terrible crime and then try again and again until they were soon labeled as serial killers.
For one thing, Nathan Leopold learned punishment in prison. Nathan had been an ornithologist before being jailed and he was unable to bid farewell to the birds he had loved for so many years. To keep himself occupied and to feel less alone, he kept a number of birds in his cell as pets. When he was caught with pigeons, he and his current cellmate were sent to “The Hole”. This was a place in which inmates were put in solitary confinement and handcuffed to their cell bars, incapable of sitting down for hours. Nathan spent two days in “The Hole” before familiar faces began to rap on the door leading to his cell. They were inmates Nathan worked with, and each asked if he would like to escape. When Nathan noticed blood on the hands of a fellow prisoner, he merely asked to be unhandcuffed from the bars so he could sit down. This would be Nathan’s first real taste of fear in prison. An escape had taken place and the Deputy of “The Hole” had been bludgeoned to death in his office. Each prisoner in “The Hole” had no idea when help would come and if they would be in trouble with the warden for the murderous convicts that had passed through “The Hole”. Nathan and the rest of the cons were released early due to the Deputy’s death and put back in their respective cells.
Nathan also learned how to make friends. Every convict that shared a cell with Nathan was lovingly remembered. Each one had a name, a place they came from, how old they might have been, and what they had done to enrich Nathan’s life. Every inmate Nathan worked with was also cherished, whether they once gave him a cigarette, taught him a bit of Polish, or helped him with his work one afternoon. Throughout his book, not one convict was labeled as difficult or hard to get along with.
Acclimating to Joliet Prison was hard on Nathan. He was separated from Richard Loeb by opposite wards, so they were never allowed to speak to each other except during Jewish holidays, which both boys attended regularly despite their atheism and agnostic beliefs. The cells were small, the jobs afforded not much lee way as far as moving up, and there was no plumbing. Nathan recalls in glowing words how his visits from his father and his aunt were the highlight of his months in prison. They brought him food, news from his family, and the love that he undoubtedly missed while serving a life sentence beginning at the age of 19.
Nathan categorizes each inmate as he saw them and learned of their crimes in prison. “Rape-o’s”, thieves, murderers, embezzlers, and good cons were all terms used in Joliet Prison in 1924. Inmates regularly read the newspapers and knew very well who Leopold and Loeb were. One would assume with such popular notoriety, that Nathan and Richard would be placed in a very negative light, pestered by other prisoners and possibly harmed. At the very least, either would be branded as child killers, and that was, and still is quite a taboo to this day. Nathan claims that none of the prisoners paid any heed to him for his crime done to such a small and innocent child. Nathan defines himself as a “violent criminal”, and thus was socially accepted by his peers.
Nathan’s cell was only eight by four foot, and during the time period of Saturday afternoons to Monday mornings, he was alone with nothing to do but pace in his cell and think. Nathan, for perhaps one of the first and only times, shows an inkling of regret towards the killing of Bobby Franks. He speaks more of his life being bitterly taken away rather than taking away the life of a young child. He explains that the crime was “unbelievably stupid”, but does not lament the passing of his victim. It is interesting to see Nathan’s psychopathic attempt at regret, how his mind tries to believe he is sorry, how he admits his involvement in the murder, but is truly unable to show real emotions toward his actions. One speculates how very sorry Nathan wants to be, but just isn’t. His nature in 1924, was one that allowed him to think only of himself and no one else, unless it was, of course, Richard Loeb.
Nathan read a great deal while in prison, asking his family to bring him large quantities of books, some fiction, and some on languages Nathan had yet to learn. With over ten languages under his belt, Nathan was popular with other inmates trying to learn English or other languages that might benefit them, such as French or Spanish. In exchange, Nathan would learn their native languages as best he could in confined work spaces or lunch tables. By 1957, Nathan had mastered 27 languages in all.
Because Nathan had completed high school and was by any standard, a clinical genius, he was sought after to become a teacher in the prison elementary school. Though more privileges were taken away than given, Nathan was happy to oblige his contemporaries by teaching them how to spell their names and learn the alphabet. Nathan wanted to teach his pupils French, but the warden would not allow it on the grounds that the inmates could learn to read and write a little, but nothing more. His reasoning was that the cons had not much to look forward to in their immediate future, much less learn a foreign language. Five weeks after Nathan’s teaching career began, he was taken off the job because the warden received a myriad of letters from concerned citizens that Nathan Leopold was unfit to teach because he was “immoral”.
In late 1924, merely months after Nathan entered Joliet Prison, he had a rather serious attack of appendicitis. He was transferred to Stateville Prison Hospital where his appendix was immediately removed. After spending his time convalescing, Nathan had a chance to view his new surroundings. He describes the new prison as an unimaginably brighter and larger prison that held more responsibilities and opportunities for the convicts, which was just what Nathan yearned for. Nathan spoke to his father, who at the time, was Nathan’s legal caretaker, and asked if he would petition the warden at Stateville to have him permanently transferred to the new prison.
In the Joliet Prison infirmary, Dick (Richard) Loeb was sick with the measles. Nathan recalls Dick being so ill in fact, that he was delirious during a fever and assaulted two officers. Nathan was frantic over his friend’s state, but couldn’t be more jubilant about leaving the old prison behind. He even planned to have Dick transferred as soon as he had recovered from his illness. This was a pipe dream, a psychiatrist told Nathan, for the warden would never allow the two boys housed in the same prison. The only reason they were both at Joliet was because they could be in different wards without ever passing a word to each other. The same would go for Stateville, and the warden at the time was dead set on separating the boys in different prisons. Nathan was told to paint a grey picture of Stateville for Dick, something in which Dick would not ache for. Nathan’s mind was already made up, though. He could not lie to Dick, and had never kept a single secret from him. He told Dick everything about the new prison and how much better it was, only leaving out several details such as the commissary and the large cells for the sake of Dick’s sanity at Joliet Prison.
At Stateville Prison, Nathan was thought to be a very rich boy indeed. His father was a millionaire and had paid handsomely for Clarence Darrow’s defense. Clarence Darrow was after all, a famous man and attaining him had come at a cost. Nathan claims that the only money he ever saw in his free life came from a weekly allowance from his father. Nathan doesn’t, however, concede to the amount of money his father gave him, which was said to be any amount Nathan wanted. The only money Nathan says he knew of was from his mother’s will and a private bank account that Nathan could not touch since he was still technically a minor. Nathan admits that the sum of money he had at the time of his incarceration was thirty-two thousand dollars, which he signed over to his father. Nathan was allotted five dollars a week to spend at the commissary, which went to cigarettes and toiletries. Nathan’s first year at Stateville Prison was spent trying to explain to the guards and his fellow inmates that he was not rich. They all wanted to play the stock market, and Nathan was sought after for stock tips. Nathan finally invented a tip to sate the growing number of people after him for money. Luckily for Nathan, the stock he chose was semi-lucrative for the other prisoners and guards.
At the age of twenty-one, Nathan began his first attempt at writing. He describes his prose as the dreadful ranting of a desperate convict fledgling from behind the bars of a prison he never thought he would escape from. The reader of his autobiography is treated with a short poem written about a little baby bird who found his way into Nathan’s bare cell. He takes care of the bird lovingly, feeding it, and cuddling its tiny furry body while he slept. Only until the bird slightly matures does Nathan find his little friend dead on the pillow of his bed. Although far from Keats or Yeats, Nathan could have done a lot worse in his morose poetry. The description of the love he felt for his bird might have been a direct analogy for the love Nathan longed to share with another human while alone and disheartened in his cell.
In Nathan’s autobiography, he details the rule and order for all prisoners at Joliet and Stateville of no “squawking”, which meant that everyone understood and abided by the law of the prison yard. If one person was found stealing cigarettes, no one knew how it came to be. If one person was found hiding whiskey in their cell, no one knew where it came from. Nathan found this rule extremely helpful in keeping himself out of trouble. In his book, he keeps everyone anonymous to each crime committed and often refused to tell his various wardens information on anybody or anything. So bound to this rule was Nathan, that he even incriminated himself about the pigeons in his cell to keep his cellmate out of trouble. When the escapees from “The Hole” were in court, Nathan was subpoenaed as one of the witnesses. He would only state his name and age and refused further questioning.
When Nathan was sent to “The Hole” for a trivial matter while working in the assistant warden’s office, he spent seven days handcuffed to a cell before being told that Dick Loeb would be transferring to Stateville Prison. This was bittersweet news, for it meant that Nathan would be sent back to Joliet Prison. After the transfer to the old prison, Nathan’s thoughts quickly turned to suicide. He planned to jump from one of the tall galleries which held the cells, and was sure he would be instantly killed. Before making the final decision, he met with his brother to tell him the plan, presumably to spare him from reading about it in the newspapers. His older brother, Mike, who had decided to care for Nathan since his father’s death in 1929, was able to talk Nathan out of it on the grounds that if suicide was what Nathan wanted, he should have done it after the death of Bobby Franks. Now that Nathan had vested plans on the Stateville Prison Library, he might as well wait until he could be transferred back to the new prison someday.
Nathan, disparaged, sulked back to his tiny cell. The next day, he was called to the Deputy’s office. Dick was supposed to be transferred to Stateville Prison in one week so he could have several chances to talk to Nathan, but the plan had changed. Dick was being sent to Stateville that very day, and the one thing the warden would allow was one final meeting of the two for a quick conversation. Nathan gave Dick some advice about Stateville, while Dick told Nathan of a good job he could get while he was stuck at Joliet. The two parted and it seemed they would forever be separated by each warden merely because of their names.
Later, the warden called Nathan to his office to have a discussion. He told Nathan that of course he and Dick could never be in the same prison together. The newspapers would have a frenzy! Nathan thought of all the things he had going for him at Joliet Prison, which was not much of anything. He took a breath, and told the warden that he was under the impression the warden was handling the prison, not the newspapers. Although angered by the remark Nathan had brazenly uttered, the warden decided to move Nathan back to Stateville Prison with Dick after a three to six month time period. In all probability, the warden intended to keep Leopold at Joliet for that time period solely because of his out of line remark to an authority figure. It made no difference to Nathan, who had made his point clear and would be seeing Dick Loeb as soon as he could. Nathan pained for his job back at Stateville Prison, missed the large cells and the indoor plumbing and the few friends he was able to make. More than anything, he wanted to see the familiar face of Dick again, who was still an idol in Nathan’s eyes.