Nathan "Babe" Leopold
Leopold's father Nathan Sr. is seated on left
Leopold's prison record
Everyone called him "Babe".
Nathan F. Leopold Jr. was born November 19, 1904 on Michigan Avenue in Chicago, Illinois. He spoke his first words four months later: "Nein, Nein. Momma."
"An intellectual machine going without balance" is how Clarence Darrow described Nathan Leopold in his trial summation. Leopold was a boy of supernormal intelligence, busy every minute of his life, who nonetheless was "void of the healthy instincts of practical life." As a teen, Leopold became obsessed with the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. Nietzsche's philosophy became his life and destroyed his life.
Nathan Leopold was the son of a millionaire box manufacturer who indulged Nathan's most every whim after his mother died when he was young. Unlike the handsome, athletic Loeb, Leopold was undersized, with rather bulging eyes. By many accounts, he was sensitive about his appearance. He threw himself into intellectual pursuits where he met with remarkable success. By 18, he had mastered nine or ten languages, was an advanced botanist, a nationally recognized authority on birds, and a scholar of the classics and philosophy. Clarence Darrow was to write of Leopold in his 1932 autobiography that "He had, and has, the most brilliant intellect that I ever met in a boy.... He was often invited to lecture before clubs and other assemblages; he was genial, kindly, and likeable. Everyone prophesied an uncommon career for the lad." Not everyone, however, agreed with Darrow's characterization of Leopold as likeable. Others found him to be arrogant and contemptuous.
The Leopold children were raised, as were many wealthy children at the time, by a series of nurses or governesses. Nathan's first governess was a girl named Marie (Mimie) Giessler. Giessler was Leopold's nurse for five years. After Mimie left, a girl named Pauline Van den Bosch filled the vacancy. Pauline, a Christian, introduced Nathan to the Christian saints. Nathan, at five years of age, took a keen interest in the saints and set about categorizing saints and religions. He would have the chauffeur drive him to various churches in the neighborhood. At about this time he also became interested in the life of Christ and of crucifixes. "The idea of nailing somebody to something was very appealing to me". Pauline only stayed on for six months.
The third and final governess was an Alsatian woman named Mathilda Wantz. Nathan nicknamed her "Sweetie." She only spoke German.
When Nathan stole some stamps from a cousin, instead of punishing him, Sweetie blackmailed him, to cover for her days off. She bathed with Nathan and his brother Sam and was "familiar" with their bodies. She wrestled with the boys as reward for good behavior.
Wantz was let go when Nathan was twelve, when his mother caught her dumping an ill Nathan out of bed one morning. Nathan was stretched out between his brother's and his own bed and Wantz pulled the two beds apart just as Florence Leopold stepped to the door.
Nathan, unlike Richard, was never a particularly popular boy. His first two years of school were attended at "Miss Spade's", a once co-ed but at the time Nathan entered, an almost all girls school, to which he and only one other boy attended.
He was then transferred to Douglas School, a public school where he was told by his mother not to touch anything and not to use the bathroom – which resulted in an accident. Nathan was the only pupil at Douglas that lived on Michigan Ave. Michigan Ave. in the 1920's, was a bit similar to the Michigan Ave. of today's "Magnificent Mile." Those that lived on Michigan Ave. were wealthy.
Nathan was also the only pupil who was accompanied to school every day by a governess. These factors led to his assumption of superiority to his classmates. He also had altercations at Douglas on occasions when his governess was not waiting to meet him. At one time, two tough boys walked him home. They made him cross the street, something he wasn't allowed to do. They accused him of stealing pennies from the teacher and "playing with her pussy". He didn't know what they meant, but knew it was something forbidden.
When the Leopold family moved from Michigan Avenue to the Hyde Park/ Kenwood neighborhood, two blocks away from another wealthy Jewish family, the Loebs, Nathan transferred to the private Harvard School and progressed rapidly. He was called "The Great Nathan", "Crazy Bird", and "Flea".
When Nathan was 15, he began going about with a group of six or seven boys, of which Richard Loeb, who was attending the University of Chicago as a freshman, was a member. Loeb was a year younger than Nathan. At first the boys disliked, even detested one another. But this quickly changed. By the time Nathan entered the University of Chicago at age 15 years, ten months, he and Loeb were friends. By February 1921, they were, what Leopold described as "firm friends".
Both Leopold and Loeb transferred to the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor the following year (1921-1922), where they roomed together until Richard moved into the Zeta Beta Tau fraternity house.
Loeb was accepted to the frat under the condition that he break his friendship with Leopold. Rumors had spread about the two. The rumors took the form of letters written by a boy named Hamlin Buchman. The boy worked summers at the Loeb estate in Charlevoix. One night after they'd been drinking, Richard got up to go to the bathroom and got into bed with Nathan. Buchman wrote letters to Nathan's brother, Richard's brother, and the Zeta Beta Tau fraternity.
Leopold and Loeb remained friends, and did get drunk together a number of times at Michigan. However, they agreed not to be seen alone together in public. If they went anywhere together, they would take along a "chaperone". Loeb later stated that this was solely on the advice of his brother, Allen, who had been called to Michigan to straighten out the mess.
The year at Ann Arbor then, was anything but pleasant for Nathan. His mother had just died and he missed some school at the beginning of the year. When he got to school, his best friend, with whom he expected to spend a great deal of time, was cold to him as a result of the rumors. Richard moved into the frat. Nathan was "led along" by one frat, but they didn't pledge him. In mourning for his mother, he wasn't supposed to play cards, but this ban was lifter by his father, after some outside prompting.
The following year (1922-1923), Nathan transferred back to the University of Chicago, and graduated in March, Phi Beta Kappa. Richard Loeb remained at the University of Michigan, still living at the frat, where he was accepted as a brother but not given any responsibilities and was voted incapable of mentoring a pledge, due to his childish behavior. He graduated in June with no special honors, other than being the youngest graduate in the University's history, a fact that while apparently still true, is unacknowledged by the University presently, as they claim they have no way of proving it. Richard applied for a teaching job at the University but was turned down due, in part, to his age. He was disappointed and thought the situation was very unfair.
At the time of the crime, both Leopold and Loeb were taking part time post graduate courses at the University of Chicago and living at home. Leopold was studying law, Loeb was studying history. Leopold planned to transfer to Harvard Law School in September, after taking a trip to Europe. He was also teaching four birding classes and dating his girlfriend Susan Lurie. Loeb planned to enter the University of Chicago Law School.
Back in Chicago, they seem to have felt safe enough to once again become inseparable companions. For the most part, the rumors had remained in Michigan. But the memories remained clear in each of their minds. During a fight in October 1923, Leopold would revive the memory, and warn Loeb that in case they should break friendship, extreme care must be had. "A falling out of a pair of cock suckers would no doubt prove popular", he wrote to Loeb.
Relationship with Loeb
The relationship between the two was intense. It included sex. According to a prosecution psychiatrist, "Leopold acquiesced in Loeb's criminalistic endeavors and received in return opportunities for certain twisted biological satisfactions." Leopold said of Loeb that he was "jealous of the food he ate and the water he drank" because these "became part of his being." The boys quarreled often. Leopold was apparently irked by Loeb's mental inferiority and immaturity. The strange nature of their relationship is revealed in a lengthy October, 1923 letter to Loeb in which Leopold wrote, "When you came to my home this afternoon I expected either to break friendship with you or attempt to kill you unless you told me why you acted as you did yesterday." According to one psychiatrist who examined the boys, the two had a "king-slave relationship" in which Leopold played the slave to King Loeb. Other evidence, however, tends to suggest the relationship was far more complicated than that description suggests.
Leopold tried, without complete success, to stifle common emotions and live the unscrupled life of Nietzsche's superman. He was an atheist who felt unbound by any moral code. Although Leopold "had not," according to Darrow, "the slightest instinct toward what we are pleased to call crime," his desire to please Loeb led him to join in petty thefts, vandalism, and finally murder.
After his conviction, Leopold was a remorseful prisoner. He continued his obsession with learning, eventually mastering 28 languages. He taught other prisoners, volunteered for malaria testing, reformed the Joliet prison's library and educational system, and worked in the prison hospital.
His first appeal for parole in 1953 was denied. He then wrote a book Life Plus Ninety-Nine Years that attempted to show his rehabilitation. The book was not a commercial success, but did help convince the Parole Board, along with the support of poet Carl Sandburg and author Meyer Levin. Levin sought Leopold’s cooperation in his writing Compulsion, Levin’s fictional account of the Leopold and Loeb case. Leopold did meet with Levin (who as a young man passed up covering the trial to take a planned trip to Europe) and helped Levin gain insight into his personality. Leopold would later sue Levin unsuccessfully.
Following his release from prison in 1958, Leopold migrated to Puerto Rico where he studied birds, taught mathematics at the University of Puerto Rico, and worked as an X-Ray technician in a hospital operated by The Church of the Brethren. His constant movement from job to job suggests his tendency to become easily bored. He commented that "Helping others has become my chief hobby--it's how I get my kicks." In 1961, he married a widow who was working in a flower shop in San Juan. Five years out of prison, Leopold concluded that his time spent in prison had come to be worth the joy of his freedom: "I came to the conclusion that on September 15, 1963, I reached the point where it all became worthwhile: that the joy of being a free man again equaled the grief of those thirty-three years." Hal Higdon, author of a book on the Leopold-Loeb trial, saw Leopold in his last years as nostalgic, wanting to be loved, "wanting to be seen as human."
In 1971, Leopold died of heart trouble brought on by his diabetes. He willed his body to the University of Puerto Rico for medical research.