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Kidnapped: Child Abduction in America.

By Paula S. Fass (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997. xi plus 308pp.).

Daniel A. Cohen Florida International University

In 1977 Paula Fass published The Damned and the Beautiful, a social and intellectual history of the "modern" youth culture of the 1920s, particularly as it developed on America's then rapidly expanding college and university campuses. At the outset, Fass delineated the sharply polarized contemporary responses of "traditionalists," who saw the increasing secularism, hedonism, and faddish materialism of the young as evidence of moral collapse, and "progressives," who tended to welcome the youthful revolts against traditional religion and Victorian prudery as auguries of a new and better age. Fass herself adopted a middle view, though one deftly slanted toward the progressive outlook; she concluded that the youth culture of the 1920s represented not moral breakdown but rather pragmatic - and largely successful - adjustment to profoundly altered social realities. During the 1920s, she explained, "the tension between modern and traditional modes of thought and behavior, was finally played out, and the social changes that had been remaking America for decades finally congealed into a pattern which would shape life in the twentieth century."(1)

The Damned and the Beautiful was in many respects a remarkable first book: gracefully written, analytically sophisticated, confident in scholarly judgment. Its calm, gently ironic tone was all the more remarkable given the setting of youth rebellion and general social upheaval in which it must have been conceived and produced - at Columbia and Berkeley - during the early-to-mid 1970s. Since much of the comparable social-historical scholarship on the early republic was only then beginning to appear, Fass can certainly be forgiven for showing little awareness that many of the "modern" trends that she described as new to the early twentieth century - an increasingly youth-oriented culture; a widespread rejection of traditional religious beliefs; the rise of relatively egalitarian familial ideals of affectionate intimacy in place of older authoritarian models; the gradual adoption of effective contraceptive methods, leading to smaller middle-class families; the increasing viability of divorce as a last resort for abused, betrayed, or dissatisfied spouses; the rapid expansion of higher education for middle-class youth; and the emergence of a peer-regulated system of courtship that allowed for a measure of controlled sexual expression prior to marriage - had already begun to develop in the United States, particularly in the Northeast, during the 1780s through 1850s.(2)

Now Paula Fass has written a new book, Kidnapped: Child Abduction in America, whose subject may be more deeply rooted in the social and cultural transformations described in The Damned and the Beautiful than its author is willing to acknowledge. Exploring the history of various forms of child abduction - and their cultural representation - in the United States from 1874 to the present, it is a much less tidy book than her first, less assured, less cohesive, and ultimately less persuasive in some of its scholarly judgments. Fass's underlying premise is that "well-publicized child abductions often become a means for defining the critical social issues of a particular time." (p. 257) The basic organization of Kidnapped is chronological, with most chapters focusing primarily on one or two highly-publicized kidnapping cases of a particular decade, each illustrative of broader social or cultural patterns. That case-study method leads her to frame much of her historical analysis in decadal terms, an approach familiar from her first book. Thus the Loeb-Leopold child abduction and murder case of the 1920s not only introduced the "perverse possibilities" of "sexuality" as a motive for kidnapping, but also reflected the public's emerging fascination with the "interpretive power" of modern psychiatry. (pp. 58, 93) The kidnapping of Charles Lindbergh's baby son in 1932 became a symbol of the "malevolent social forces - political corruption, legal helplessness, and civic decay" that beset an American population of the 1930s victimized by "gangland crime" and "devastated by Depression." (pp. 107, 118) Two abduction cases of the 1950s exposed the public's widespread "support for local police," "trust in established institutions," "fears of a lurking dangerous sexuality," and "drive to understand human behavior in psychological terms." (pp. 157-59, 169) The new focus on "parental kidnapping" during the 1970s and 1980s not only reflected "a general concern for beleaguered family life and community breakdown" but (paradoxically) also served to "dethrone the conventional family and legitimize the family changes" of those decades as "healthful and therapeutic." (pp. 192, 195) Finally, popular responses to familial child abuse, parental kidnapping, stranger abduction, and sexual murder during the 1990s expose the public's cynical attitudes toward both state and family: "rotting and unreliable, families breed emotional distress and psychological disorder, while the laws and the courts are unavailable, ineffectual, and unjust." (p. 208)

Fass's new study has several significant strengths. The case-study method allows her to offer a series of vivid snapshots of American society in different decades, each focused on an interrelated cluster of cultural preoccupations or anxieties. Those vignettes are all riveting enough to hold the attention of even the most listless undergraduate, yet sophisticated enough to engage specialists in the field. And running through most of the decadal studies are two powerful and illuminating themes: the increasingly rapacious journalistic exploitation of violence against children (which Fass rightly sees as part of the "problem") and the increasing resort to psychotherapeutic approaches to sexual or violent crime (which she appears to regard as part of the "solution"). However, each of those strengths is offset by a corresponding weakness. First, the chronological case-study method sometimes tends to obscure broader empirical patterns in the complex social history of kidnapping. Second, Fass's discussion of the increasing commercial exploitation of violence against young women and children is marred by her failure to explore the roots of that pattern in journalistic crime coverage and popular crime literature of America's early republic. (instead, Fass focuses briefly on early Indian captivity narratives, an interesting but less important analogue.) Third, the credibility of her analysis of the rise of psychotherapeutic approaches to sexual or violent crime is undermined by her own psychotherapeutic outlook; the resulting lack of critical distance - in sharp contrast to the cool detachment of her first book-entangles Fass in some troubling analytical and moral judgments.

Social History of Kidnapping

The decadal organization of Fass's book sometimes deflects attention away from broader social-historical patterns. One difficulty is that the chronologically linear sequence of case studies tends to obscure the fact that the term "child abduction" actually conflates several different (if occasionally overlapping) types of crime - e.g., ransom kidnapping, parental kidnapping, and sexual abduction - each with its own distinct morphology and history. To her credit, Fass tries to counteract the problem by periodically interrupting her case studies with background information or analytical "flashbacks" to earlier chapters - strategies that work better in some instances than others. Fass's organization works best in her treatment of parental kidnapping - "the single most prevalent kind of abduction" (p. 173) - in part because her discussion of the phenomenon is largely concentrated in a single chapter. She ably traces the origins of parental abduction to nineteenth-century changes in family and child-custody laws, shows how its rising incidence during the twentieth-century coincided with burgeoning divorce rates and the democratization of access to automobiles and air travel (which facilitated long-distance abductions), and describes how parental kidnapping became an alarming symbol of familial and social disintegration during the 1970s and 1980s. (Chapter 5)

Fass's method works less well in delineating the social history of other types of child abduction. Ransom kidnapping, a form of extortion-for-profit often undertaken by criminal gangs, first emerged with the Charley Ross case in 1874 and reached epidemic proportions during the 1930s, when wealthy businessmen or their relatives were frequently targeted. Such kidnappings were largely suppressed during the mid-to-late 1930s by a wave of tough state and federal legislation, and by a massive police crackdown spearheaded by the newly-expanded FBI. Radical terrorist groups were largely responsible for a brief upsurge of ransom kidnappings during the late 1960s through mid-1970s, but that new flurry of abductions generally targeted adults and in any case proved shortlived. Though a careful reader might be able to reconstruct that chronology based on information provided in Fass's chapters on the Ross and Lindbergh cases (supplemented by one or two snippets later in the book), the fairly sharp pattern of emergence, proliferation, and suppression tends to be obscured by intervening discussions of other types of cases and issues. For the legal and social history of ransom kidnapping (both of children and adults), the most useful and comprehensive study remains Ernest Kahlar Alix's Ransom Kidnapping in America, 1874-1974, a cogent if narrowly-focused monograph in the tradition of historical sociology.(3)

Cultural Representations of Crime

Despite the limitations of Fass's book as a social history of kidnapping, its wide-ranging survey of the remarkable "cultural representations" of child abduction (and other forms of violence against children) provides a stimulating contrast to Alix's somewhat dry social-scientific focus on quantitative trends, social-sector opinion formation, and legislative or bureaucratic responses. In her first chapter, Fass describes how the story of Charley Ross's abduction in 1874 penetrated the American countryside "in many forms" and "to a truly amazing degree." The case was not only publicized through myriad newspaper reports and later through a widely circulated book written by Ross's father; it was also spread by "word of mouth," hundreds of thousands of paid "circulars," and even by "a traveling circus company in New England [that] displayed a wax replica of the Ross family." (pp. 47, 50, 98) Half a century later, during the 1920s, newspapers undertook "'the exploitation of Leopold and Loeb on a scale and with a recklessness going beyond anything hitherto known.'" (p. 58) And by the 1930s, the print media's massive coverage of the Lindbergh case was forced to compete with the new technologies of radio, movie newsreels, and even the infant medium of television. Despite those new rivals, key developments in the Lindbergh case caused New York City newspaper circulations to surge by as much as 40 percent. The dramatic trial of the alleged kidnapper became "a form of entertainment" both for newspaper readers and for the many spectators who flocked to the courthouse itself "an early instance," according to Fass, "of the modern fascination with real life experiences as better than fiction." (p. 126)

To the revulsion of some contemporary commentators, such as the editors of the Catholic World, the mass media of the 1930s had transformed "'Child Murder into Entertainment.'" (p. 127) And Fass appears to agree, describing coverage of the Lindbergh case as "a new milestone in the commercial exploitation of childhood." (p. 99) By the 1930s, thoughtful observers were beginning to believe that rampant crime coverage often made "heroes out of criminals" and "incited further crimes." According to one journalism survey of the period, "71 percent of penitentiary wardens, 67 percent of sociologists, and 52 percent of psychologists" had come to believe that crime stories should actually be excluded from the front pages of newspapers. (p. 128) Finally, in the closing chapters of her book, Fass argues that by the 1950s and increasingly thereafter the "commodification of childhood" in general - and the commercial exploitation of young kidnapping or murder victims in particular - became "much more explicitly sexual." Whether in prurient crime accounts or in "movies, advertisements, literature, and fashion," American popular culture of the "second half of the twentieth century" has regularly endowed "childhood innocence" with an erotic sensuality "ripe for exploitation." (pp. 259-452)

The main problem with Fass's account of the twentieth-century media's commercial exploitation of crime (as with her earlier discussion in The Damned and the Beautiful of the rise of a "modern" youth culture during the 1920s) is her evident lack of awareness that - aside from the strictly technological innovations - most of the patterns that she describes had already emerged a century or more earlier in America's young republic. Fass herself notes that disreputable periodicals of the late nineteenth century, such as the National Police Gazette, specialized in covering "gruesome and brutal" crimes, and sometimes published accounts of the sexual abuse, murder, or mutilation of young women and children. (p. 45) In fact, the pattern went back much further than that. As early as the 1790s, American newspaper editors and publishers of popular crime pamphlets and broadsides began focusing on sexual assaults and murders of teenage girls or young women. By the early 1800s, some of the trials of defendants accused of such crimes had become major spectator events, widely attended by respectable men and women. By the 1810s the tracts and periodicals of moral reformers often shocked - and titillated - contemporaries with accounts of teenagers, or even younger girls, lured or coerced into prostitution. With the emergence of the mass-circulation "penny press" in American cities during the 1830s and 1840s, newspapers regularly catered to prurient readers by devoting many of their tightly-packed columns to verbatim transcripts of trial testimony in salacious cases of divorce, adultery, rape, sexual murder, and even incest. Plebeian crime pamphlets of the day occasionally featured suggestive illustrations of young murdered women (especially prostitutes) splayed across their beds with breasts exposed; in one or two cases, such erotic engravings were even sold separately as mementos of particularly notorious sexual murders. By that same period, traveling wax museums frequently featured realistic exhibits of murderers and their victims - tableaus even more sensationalistic than the later wax display of the Ross family described by Fass. Not surprisingly, the notion that excessive and irresponsible journalistic attention to crime often served to glamorize criminals, and thereby inspire imitators, had already become a cliche by the 1830s. In short, the rampant commercial exploitation of crime, particularly crimes of sexual violence against young women and even children, was a well-established, if regularly deplored, staple of American popular culture several decades before the kidnapping of Charley Ross - and more than a century before the media excesses of the 1950s and thereafter.(4)

Therapeutic Sensibility

Even more disquieting than her neglect of relevant pre-Civil War developments are the interrelated analytical and moral stances that Fass takes toward a number of her twentieth-century subjects. The pattern is established early in the book with her treatment of the Loeb-Leopold case of the 1920s. On May 21, 1924, Richard Loeb (aged 18) and Nathan Leopold (aged 19), two precocious and extremely wealthy young graduates of elite universities, kidnapped a fourteen-year-old neighbor of Loeb's, smashed his skull with a chisel, poured acid on his genitals, shoved his naked corpse into a culvert, and demanded a ransom of $10,000 for the boy's safe return. Depending on whose version you believe, Loeb and Leopold had so acted either for the deluded "thrill" of committing the "perfect crime" or (as the prosecutor would gamely insist) because Loeb needed the ransom to pay off his gambling debts. The young murderers had the good fortune to be defended by the great progressive trial lawyer, Clarence Darrow, who, in the face of public outrage and his clients' own confessions, decided to plead the pair guilty and appeal directly to the judge to spare their lives on the ground of mental "abnormality" - a conveniently vague diagnosis that he set about establishing with the help of a team of eminent psychiatric and medical experts. In a flamboyant closing argument that went on for three days, Darrow assailed the prosecution's "dastardly homicidal attempt to kill these boys" and offered a sometimes maudlin psychotherapeutic recitation of the many hardships suffered by "poor little Dickie Loeb" and "Babe" Leopold (whom he included among "the victims" in the case), variously blaming their crime on Loeb's overly strict governess, his reading of detective stories, Leopold's childish embrace of Nietzschean philosophy, environmental determinism, the influence of heredity, the "grievous misfortune" of "excessive wealth," and the carnage of the First World War.(5)

Paula Fass appears to be deeply impressed by Darrow's psychotherapeutic arguments. Like Darrow, she repeatedly characterizes the defendants - despite their university degrees - as "the boys," "extraordinary boys," or "two very troubled boys." (pp. 59, 75-76, 78) While refraining from any harsh moral judgments against them, she is less forgiving of Loeb's hapless governess, concluding that it is "difficult not to condemn the evil committed against a vulnerable Dickie Loeb" by an "outrageously strict governess" who "denied him playtime, and pushed him into extreme academic overachievement." (p. 79) (Fass had already described young Loeb as "debonair, socially popular, an athlete and fraternity man, and very attractive to women.") (p. 60) Fass repeatedly characterizes Darrow's summation as "brilliant" and "extraordinary," while condemning the lead prosecutor for his "circus antics and populist treacle." (pp. 83, 84-86, 89) Despite having, in her first book, debunked the notion that college youth during the 1920s had been gravely traumatized by the First World War, Fass seems to be particularly taken with that portion of Darrow's argument, quoting it at some length.(6) (pp. 89-90) And although she praises Darrow for his "Biblical phrases and Lincolnesque cadences" (p. 87), the great advocate actually closed his argument not with holy scripture but with a stanza from the Rubiyat of Omar Kayyam, a romantic Persian meditation on "sensual pleasure as the sole aim of living" (one might have thought a peculiar choice under the circumstances): "So I be written in the Book of Love,/I do not care about that Book above./Erase my name or write it as you will,/So I be written in the Book of Love."(7)

Fass's preference for therapeutic approaches to child murderers and sexual predators is evident throughout the remainder of her book. For example, in her chapter on "Child Kidnapping in Contemporary America," Fass approvingly cites the "psychotherapeutic outlook and scientific aims" of social scientists of the 1950s who "strongly suggested that many young victims were complicit in their sexual molestation," advocated "family therapy" as the best treatment, and "refused to add fuel to the fire in a campaign against sex criminals." (pp. 224-25, 232) By contrast, she describes the later shift of child-abuse experts away from that "culpable victim model" in invidious terms: by the early 1980s, she writes, "the flames of liberal sexuality" had been "entirely extinguished"; one specialist in particular shed his "earlier evenhandedness for an ungloved fist"; child advocates were no longer "evenhanded or therapeutic" in their approach to the problem; rather, they single-mindedly sought to enforce "the newly shrill taboos against sex with children."(8) (pp. 229-32) Finally, in the book's afterword, Fass disapprovingly observes that "the desire to seek means of repression and vengence [sic] has followed each serious abduction like a shadow." (p. 267)

It should be noted that the psychotherapeutic approach to crime first gained a wide public audience during the 1920s as part of the much broader cultural and ideological transformations - emanating from college campuses and from the writings of progressive intellectuals - that Fass herself expertly delineated in The Damned and the Beautiful. Many commentators of the time actually recognized the relationship between Leopold and Loeb's crime and the emergence of the new social values and youth culture. "Traditionalists" like the evangelist Billy Sunday predictably decried "'the moral miasma of unbelief oozing from our higher institutions of learning,'" but even such "progressive" intellectuals as youth-advocate Ben Lindsey understood that the Loeb-Leopold case was inextricably related to "'joy rides, jazz parties, petting parties, freedom in sex relations and the mania for speed on very turn.'" (pp. 67-68, 92) "'Let us all clearly understand that the crime was the fruit of the modern misdirection of youth,'" Lindsey explained. "'It was the story of modern youth, of modern parents, of modern economic and social conditions, and of modern education.'" (p. 67) Had Fass taken such comments more seriously, not only as expressions of social anxiety during the 1920s but also as clues to the subsequent twentieth-century upsurge in child abduction, "thrill" murders, and sexual homicides, she might have written a very different book - one more critically engaged with the cultural transformations described in The Damned and the Beautiful.

The affluent backgrounds, selfish motives, and academic pedigrees of several of the kidnappers or child murderers profiled in Fass's new book (or in Alix's earlier study) are eerily suggestive of the collegiate world and "modern" values described in The Damned and the Beautiful. Leopold and Loeb had graduated from the University of Chicago and the University of Michigan, respectively, and were characterized at the time as "'jazzy juvenile delinquents whose backgrounds of wealth, overeducation, and indulgence'" had led to their crimes. (p. 64) Many subsequent kidnappers or child murderers fit very much in the same mold - and even used Leopold and Loeb as a model. For example, 20-year-old Harrison Noel had" 'an exceptionally brilliant mind,'" "came from a cultured and wealthy home," "had already spent a year at Harvard," and admitted studying the details of the Loeb-Leopold case before kidnapping and murdering a 6-year-old girl in 1926. (p. 73) Thomas H. Robinson, Jr., the 27-year-old son of a Nashville contractor, had graduated from college and briefly attended Vanderbilt Law School before kidnapping and abusing a young married woman in 1934. In 1946, William Heirens, a student at the University of Chicago (Nathan Leopold's alma mater), kidnapped a young girl from a second-floor bedroom, killed her, cut her body into pieces, and disposed of the remains in the Chicago sewer system. In 1953, Carl Austin Hall, having reportedly squandered a $200,000 inheritance, kidnapped the six-year-old son of a wealthy businessman, killed the boy, and then collected a record ransom of $600,000.(9) Finally, in 1955, Burton Abbott, a 27-year-old accounting student at Berkeley on the G.I. Bill, abducted and murdered a 13-year-old girl, and then hid her brassiere, along with other "trophies" of the crime, in his basement. According to Fass, Abbott was "a man ravaged by emotional disease (as in the case of Leopold and Loeb)"; according to the murderer's cellmate, Abbott had a "'mind with a set of values so weird and distorted that there is no such thing as good and evil.'" To the celebrity-minded Abbott, the inmate explained, the girl was simply "'an instrument in his creation of a famous criminal trial that would attract attention to himself.'" (pp. 156, 168)

Of course, the idea that "there is no such thing as good and evil" was not simply a "weird" concept unique to Burton Abbott's "diseased" mind; rather, it was a commonplace of the "cultural liberalism" that first flourished on college campuses and in public discourse during the 1920s. As Fass explained in The Damned and the Beautiful, "the behavior of the young" during the 1920s was increasingly "based on considerations of prudence and public opinion rather than on an inner sense of virtue." Thus one college newspaper editor noted, "'we have very few convictions about anything,'" while a University of Denver student opined that" 'there is no absolute right or wrong.' "Two psychologists of the period found that "college students were only half as likely as their parents to judge behavior on the basis of right and wrong" and concluded that "'the standard of right and wrong as a basis for conduct is rapidly dying.'" According to one student of the 1920s, "'the slogan of the present college generation'" is "'getting away with it.'"(10)

Such statements did not simply represent the sophomoric vaporings of undergraduates or academic psychologists, nor were they restricted to the collegiate ivory tower. In an address delivered to prisoners at the County Jail at about the time of his defense of Leopold and Loeb, the great liberal advocate Clarence Darrow (in what only a cynic might dismiss as an effort to "drum up" future business for himself) summarized his progressive moral philosophy as follows:

There is no such thing as a crime, as the word is generally understood. I do not believe that there is any sort of distinction between the real moral condition in and out of jail. One is just as good as the other.

The people here can no more help being here than the people outside can avoid being outside. I do not believe that people are in jail because they deserve to be. They are in jail simply because they cannot avoid it, on account of circumstances which are entirely beyond their control, and for which they are in no way responsible.

I suppose a great many people on the outside would say I was doing you harm, if they should hear what I have to say to you ... but it is worth while, now and then, to hear something different from what you ordinarily get from preachers and the like....

I believe that progress is purely a question of the pleasurable units that we get out of life. The pleasure-and-pain theory is the only correct theory of morality, and the only way of judging life.(11)

It is perhaps that same quintessentially "therapeutic" substitution of "pleasure-and-pain theory" for traditional conceptions of "good" and "evil" that leads Fass, over 70 years later, to express greater moral revulsion toward an "outrageously strict governess" than toward a pair of sadistic murderers.(12)


Throughout her new book, Paula Fass repeatedly links the crimes that she describes to the broader social conditions of modernity. At the outset she notes that "child kidnapping emerged at a specific historical moment because it was embedded in the instruments of modern society and culture." (p. 9) Later she explains that child abduction "had come to represent the problem of parents in a modern age." (p. 55) And in her chapter on parental kidnapping, Fass deftly links the phenomenon to the twentieth-century rise in divorce rates and comments that "no more vivid representation of the dilemmas of modernity could be imagined." (p. 211) Fass is assuredly right to link child abduction, and related crimes of sexual violence, to the culture of modernity. However, she fails to explain that the process of "modernization" swept the United States in at least two distinct waves - the first beginning in the late eighteenth century, the second, in the late nineteenth or early twentieth. The commercial exploitation of sexual violence that she condemns was actually an innovation of the first wave; the psychotherapeutic approach to crime that she implicitly endorses was (despite the "discovery of the asylum" in the early republic) largely a creation of the second.(13)

The first wave of "modernization" that transformed American society and culture in the early republic may have challenged traditional religious beliefs (e.g. Calvinism), but its moral impact was limited, even offset, both by a strong work ethic and by the evangelical moralism of the Second Great Awakening. Together those forces served as powerful bulwarks of social discipline and bourgeois repression - and that despite the increasingly rapacious exploitation of sexual crimes by the popular press. By contrast, the second wave of "modernization" that flourished on college campuses and throughout American society during the 1920s tended to replace the old producer ethic with hedonistic consumerism and the cult of celebrity, and to jettison the moral absolutes of evangelicalism with bland conformity, moral relativism, and amoral expediency. As the late Christopher Lasch succinctly put it in The Culture of Narcissism (published just one year after The Damned and the Beautiful), twentieth-century American society has, with its "therapeutic sensibility," replaced the icon of "Horatio Alger" with that of the "Happy Hooker." Though taking the figure of the prostitute as its exemplar, Lasch's bleak analysis more accurately suggests the ruthlessly amoral code of late-twentieth-century sexual predators, serial killers, and child murderers:

In the seventies, a harsher time, it appears that the prostitute, not the salesman, best exemplifies the qualities indispensable to success in American society.... She remains a loner, dependent on others only as a hawk depends on chickens. She exploits the ethic of pleasure that has replaced the ethic of achievement, but her career more than any other reminds us that contemporary hedonism, of which she is the supreme symbol, originates not in the pursuit of pleasure but in a war of all against all.... Activities ostensibly undertaken purely for enjoyment often have the real object of doing others in ... pleasure becomes life's only business - pleasure, however, that is indistinguishable from rape, murder, unbridled aggression. In a society that has reduced reason to mere calculation, reason can impose no limits on the pursuit of pleasure - on the immediate gratification of every desire no matter how perverse, insane, criminal, or merely immoral.(14)

In the end, Fass proves unwilling to probe the more troubling implications of her own evidence on the cultural transformations of the twentieth-century; rather, she falls back on the usual well-meaning prescriptions. She advocates "a broad drive toward child welfare and well-being"; insists that "the poor or those emotionally, educationally, or otherwise deprived need attention and social commitment"; lectures those whose concerns are only for "the small, the white, the pretty, and the pure"; and implicitly challenges her readers to address the dangers of "bad health, bad schools, unsafe streets, unsafe environments of all kinds." (pp. 6, 253, 262-63) The almost complete lack of fit between those prescriptions and her dramatic case studies is truly remarkable - unless, of course, the "bad schools" to which she refers are Chicago, Michigan, Harvard, and Berkeley. That many of the grisly social pathologies described in Paula Fass's new book might actually be rooted in the hedonistic, aggressively secular, highly sexualized, youth-oriented, psychotherapeutic "cultural liberalism" first incubated on college campuses during the 1920s - and confidently delineated twenty years ago in The Damned and the Beautiful - appears to be a possibility too painful for its author to seriously entertain.

Department of History University Park Miami, FL 33199


1. Paula S. Fass, The Damned and the Beautiful: American Youth in the 1920s (New York, 1977), esp. 3-52, quoted at 5.

2. In The Damned and the Beautiful, Fass discusses the emergence of a youth-oriented culture at 5-7, 126-29, and throughout; the rejection of traditional religious beliefs at 42-46 and 136-39; changing familial ideals at 53-118; the adoption of effective contraceptive methods and the trend toward smaller families at 59-71 and 77-78; the rise in divorce at 79-81; the expansion of higher education at 123-25; the emergence of a peer regulated system of courtship at 260-90. For comparable developments in the early republic, see, for example, on the increasingly youth-oriented culture, David Hackett Fischer, Growing Old in America, expanded ed. (New York, 1978), 77-112; on religious changes, Stephen A. Marini, Radical Sects of Revolutionary New England (Cambridge, MA, 1982); Nathan O. Hatch, The Democratization of American Christianity (New Haven, 1989); on changing familial ideals, Jay Fliegelman, Prodigals and Pilgrims: The American Revolution against Patriarchal Authority, 1750-1800 (Cambridge, 1982); on changes in family size, Maris A. Vinovskis, Fertility in Massachusetts from the Revolution to the Civil War (New York, 1981); Robert V. Wells, Revolutions in Americans' Lives: A Demographic Perspective on the History of Americans, Their Families, and Their Society (Westport, CT, 1982); on divorce, Lawrence M. Friedman, A History of American Law (New York, 1973), 181-84 and 436-37; on the expansion of higher education, David F. Allmendinger, Jr., Paupers and Scholars: The Transformation of Student Life in Nineteenth.Century New England (New York, 1975); on patterns of courtship, Ellen K. Rothman, Hands and Hearts: A History of Courtship in America (New York, 1984), 17-55; Karen Lystra, Searching the Heart: Women, Men, and Romantic Love in Nineteenth-Century America (New York, 1989).

3. The overview of ransom kidnapping presented in this paragraph is largely based on Ernest Kahlar Alix, Ransom Kidnapping in America, 1874-1974 (Carbondale, IL, 1978). Another flaw in Fass's handling of ransom kidnapping is her unaccountable failure to discuss the notorious extortion kidnappings of working-class immigrant children by Italian criminal gangs known collectively as the "Black Hand" during the first quarter of the twentieth century. A chapter on one or more of those cases would have provided a useful bridge between the Ross abduction of 1874 and the later ransom kidnapping of the 1920s and 1930s - and could have enriched the class and ethnic dimensions of Fass's analysis. For Alix's discussion of the "Black Hand" kidnappings of the early twentieth century, see Ransom Kidnapping, 26-43, passim.

4. On themes of sexuality and sexual violence in popular crime literature and journalistic coverage of crime between 1790 and 1860 see, for example, Daniel A. Cohen, "The Beautiful Female Murder Victim: Literary Genres and Courtship Practices in the Origins of a Cultural Motif, 1590-1850," Journal of Social History 31 (Winter 1997): 277-306; D.A. Cohen, Pillars of Salt, Monuments of Grace: New England Crime Literature and the Origins of American Popular Culture, 1674-1860 (New York, 1993); Patricia Cline Cohen, The Murder of Helen Jewett: The Life and Death of a Prostitute in Nineteenth-Century New York (New York, 1998); Amy Gilman Srebnick, The Mysterious Death of Mary Rogers: Sex and Culture in Nineteenth-Century New York (New York, 1995); Andie Tucher, Froth & Scum: Truth, Beauty, Goodness, and the Ax Murder in America's First Mass Medium (Chapel Hill, NC, 1994); P. C. Cohen, "The Mystery of Helen Jewett: Romantic Fiction and the Eroticization of Violence," Legal Studies Forum 17:2 (1993): 133-45. On child prostitution, see D.A. Cohen, "The Female Marine" and Related Works: Narratives of Cross. Dressing and Urban Vice in America's Early Republic (Amherst, 1997); Marilynn Wood Hill, Their Sisters' Keepers: Prostitution in New York City, 1830-1870 (Berkeley, 1993).

5. For the full text of Darrow's closing argument, see Clarence S. Darrow, "Closing Argument for the Defense in the Leopold-Loeb Murder Trial," in Frederick C. Hicks, ed., Famous American Jury Speeches (St. Paul, MN, 1925), 992-1089, quoted at 996, 1023, and 1046.

6. See Fass, The Damned and the Beautiful, 329-34.

7. Darrow, in Hicks, ed., Famous American Jury Speeches, 1089. For the characterization of the Rubiyat of Omar Kayyam, see William Rose Benet, The Reader's Encyclopedia, 2nd ed., 2 vols. (New York, 1965), II: 881-82. For the sake of readers who may not know how the story ends: The judge in the case, acting in "accordance with the progress of criminal law" and "dictates of enlightened humanity," granted Darrow's plea, and sentenced Loeb and Leopold to "life" imprisonment. Leopold was nevertheless released from custody in 1958, just in time to promote sales of his newly-published memoirs and to sue author Meyer Levin - who had testified in his behalf before the parole board - for "cashing in" on Leopold's youthful expoits in his best-selling 1956 novel, Compulsion. See Fass, Kidnapped, 88; Fass, "Making and Remaking an Event: The Leopold and Loeb Case in American Culture," in Journal of American History 80 (Dec. 1993): 943-49.

8. Fass's discussion of shifting stances toward child sexual abuse over the past forty or so years is actually more complex and interesting than might be suggested by those brief snippets; the point here is simply to illustrate her preference for therapeutic over repressive or retributive approaches to the problem.

9. The cases of Noel, Robinson, Heirens, and Hall are discussed in Alix, Ransom Kidnapping in America, 49, 108, 127-28, and 184. Those of Robinson, Heirens, and Hall are not discussed by Fass.

10. Fass, The Damned and the Beautiful, 244-45 and 307.

11. Darrow, quoted in Robert E. Crowe, "Closing Argument for the Prosecution in Leopold-Loeb Murder Trial," in Hicks, ed., Famous American Jury Speeches, 1163-65.

12. The point here is certainly not that "therapeutic" approaches to criminals or other social deviants are always misguided, but that an indiscriminate therapeutic sensibility should not be allowed to override all sense of proportion in moral judgment - nor should it be allowed, as in the case of Darrow, to negate the very principle of individual moral responsibility. For a good discussion of awareness of the latter danger during the 1920s, see Fass, Kidnapped, 72-73.

13. For the classic study of the "discovery of the asylum" in the early republic, see David J. Rothman, The Discovery of the Asylum: Social Order and Disorder in the New Republic (Boston, 1971). It should be noted that lawyers of the early republic did occasionally offer various types of insanity defenses in criminal cases, albeit (as today) with only sporadic Success.

14. Christopher Lasch, The Culture of Narcissism: American Life in An Age of Diminishing Expectations (New York, 1978), 52-70, quoted at 52, 64-66, and 69.
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Title Annotation:Review
Author:Cohen, Daniel A.
Publication:Journal of Social History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 22, 1999
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