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  • The Queer Histories of a Crime:Representations and Narratives of Leopold and Loeb
  • David S. Churchill (bio)

"'This,' I said, 'is the court-room where Nathan Leopold, nineteen years old, and Richard Loeb, eighteen years old, the sons of wealthy south side parents and both university students, were tried and sentenced to life imprisonment for the brutal murder of little Bobby Franks, fourteen years old, son of another wealthy south sider, in 1924. The crime and subsequent trial in this room goes down in history as Chicago's most sensational murder.'"1 For John Drury, escorting his friend Anne Morely on a seven-day tour of Chicago, the criminal court was one of the must-sees on their journey through the city. What made the courthouse a place for sightseeing was not the architecture of the building or the detail of the interior design but the popular memories of the crimes prosecuted within its walls and their centrality to the urban spectatorship of Chicago.2 The courthouse was the set of things past, part of the historical theater of Chicago's everyday life. In drawing on popular recollections of the murder case and connecting it to the physical space of the court proceedings, Drury and Morely were able to collapse the distinction between participant and observer, between textual narrative and historical actor. For the two tourists, Leopold and Loeb became bits of Chicago to be consumed like the exhibits at the Art Institute, lunch at Marshall Field's Grill, or jazz at Bert Kelly's Stable.

The narrative of the murder has its own history, a genealogy in which the discourses of anti-Semitism, anti-intellectualism, homosexuality, and class privilege play out in distinctive ways, shifting with time and conforming to [End Page 287] emergent cultural landscapes. This article is about historical narratives, the process of interpretation and contestation, as they relate to the discourses of sexual modernity and, more specifically, the sexuality of the two perpetrators, Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb.3 I argue that the narratives and stories around the murder and murderers were politically and culturally inflected vehicles that need to be understood and read within specific contexts, whether at the time of the murder in the 1920s or in the decades that followed, especially the 1930s and 1950s, when the crime and the perpetrators received renewed attention.

The shifting narratives of "Leopold and Loeb" illustrate the contentious place of sex in modern understandings of American society as it became increasingly reliant on professional and expert assessments of behavior, intent, and orientation. More than simply the imposition of regulatory structures and taxonomies, however, sexual modernity has also encompassed the negotiation of sexual and gender identities matched to community formation, or what anthropologist Gayle Rubin has termed "sexual ethnogenesis."4 The dynamic of sexual modernity is formed in the spaces between these regulatory epistemological functions of sexuality and the structures of feeling made and defended by sexual subjects themselves.5

In focusing on the issue of sexuality I concentrate on only one, though very important, category of analysis through which the lives and actions of Leopold and Loeb can be scrutinized. The work of other scholars, including art historian Paul B. Franklin's insightful analysis of the operation of anti-Semitism in Franks's murder, has argued that the case represents the "collapse of homophobia into anti-Semitism and vice versa."6 Deviant sexuality came to be matched to Jewishness-even to an affluent, highly assimilated American Jewry. Building on the work of literary scholar Sander Gilman, Franklin's argument parallels historical anthropologist Matti Bunzl's insightful assertion that Jews and queers have played similar roles as abject [End Page 288] others in the process of modern state formation, in which a national community seeks to reproduce itself as ethnically homogeneous, healthy, and moral.7 This analysis is productive for understanding the case within the context of the rampant nativism and anti-Semitism of the 1920s, but what is less clear is how central Jewishness was to the operation of narratives of perversion and sexual pathology of the 1930s and the postwar decades. I would argue that narratives of the murder and murderers work as case studies with...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1535-3605
Print ISSN
1043-4070
Pages
pp. 287-324
Launched on MUSE
2009-04-30
Open Access
No
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