May 062013

Baatz, Simon. For the Thrill of It: Leopold, Loeb, and the Murder that Shocked Chicago. HarperCollins, 2008 Amazon

I wish there were more case studies to examine in this field. It’s rare to find a documented sadomasochistic relationship in the pre-modern era; I shudder to think how easily the Munby-Cullwick papers could have been lost. Sometimes one must make do with what one can find. In this case, there’s the case of Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb who probably would have been remembered as eccentrics if they hadn’t kidnapped and murdered a teenage boy, basically just to prove they could.

After their capture for the murder, the two men were thoroughly examined by physicians, neurologists and psychiatrists, who couldn’t agree on a diagnosis. Eventually they were found competent to stand trial. Their examinations and testimonies revealed both had vivid fantasy lives.

Richard, the dominant of the pair,  imagined himself as a Fantomas-like master criminal (though until the murder plot, he and Nathan engaged in petty arson, vandalism and theft) who could commit daring escapades and evade the authorities with ease, becoming famous in the process. His fantasy extended to what would happen if he was captured, showing a narcissistic and masochistic side.

And such was his notoriety that if he were to be caught and placed in prison, he would attract a crowd of spectators who would simultaneously admire and pity him. The prison guards had whipped and beaten him, he imagined, and as he stood in his cell, bruised and blood, dressed in old, ragged clothes, a group of onlookers, mostly young girls, regarded him through the prison bars with a mixture of fascination, awe, pity, and admiration. “I was abused, but it was a very pleasant though,” Richard said; “the punishment inflicted on me in jail was pleasant; I enjoyed being looked at through the bars, because I was a famous criminal.”


This bears a striking resemblance to one of Lovelace’s fantasies in Clarissa. The rake fancies himself omnipotent, but even if captured, he is still beloved by the crowd, and the courtroom is filled with teary-eyed women.

Nathan, the submissive, had his own complex fantasy life:

He imagined himself as a slave, handsome, intelligent, and strong, the strongest man in the world, who had earned the gratitude of the king by saving his life. The kind had offered Nathan his freedom, but Nathan preferred to remain in servitude, protecting the king and saving him from his enemies. When the king chose a slave to fight on his behalf, Nathan was always his choice, and in his battles Nathan was the victor, effortlessly vanquishing hundreds of fighters determined to kill him.


The fantasy had an enduring central narrative– a powerful slave serving a grateful king– but varied in its details. In one version, the king had first discovered Nathan as a young boy, beaten and abused by slave drivers; he had rescued the boy from neglect and poverty and had made him a member of the royal household. In time Nathan himself had come to possess slaves, despite his own condition of servitude– he marked his slaves by branding a crown on the inner calf of each slave’s leg.

The stronger his feelings for Richard Loeb, the more Richard appropriated the role of the king in Nathan’s fantasy. Richard, as the king, might issue any command, for any reason, at any time, and Nathan would have no choice but to obey. But Nathan had reserved for himself the role of a strong, good-looking, powerful slave whose servitude was more apparent than real, dependent on his own acquiescence, and liable to be dissolved at any moment. It was a curiously contradictory fantasy, one that allowed Nathan to be both submissive and dominant; it gave over authority and power to the king while providing Nathan himself with potency and virility.


Nathan had a sadistic side too. When he and Richard were planning the kidnapping and murder, he talked about:

One of his [Nathan’s] most vivid fantasies, he explained, had always been the image of a gang of German soldiers stripping the clothes off an attractive French girl and raping her while she was tied with ropes to a kitchen table. Sometimes in his fantasy, Nathan was the commanding officer who stood to one side and watched as his men raped the girl; on other occasions he would participate in the rape. If they were to kidnap and kill a child, therefore, they should abduct a young girl; it would give him enormous pleasure, he told Richard, if he could rape her before they killed her.


Richard, far more invested in the crime as an intellectual exercise than as a violent act, put his foot down. The kidnapping and murder of 14-year-old Bobby Franks involved no sexual violation.

If Leopold and Loeb weren’t killers because of their homosexuality, were they killers because of their kinky fantasies? I think the two men killed as a result of their complex power games, but more generally their sociopathy and lack of empathy. In Nathan’s case, his slave fantasy let him experience a highly liminal state of omnipotence without responsibility.

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