Nathan Leopold, Birdwatcher and Murderer

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You might be familiar with one of the most famous murders of the 20th century, that committed by Richard Loeb and Nathan Leopold, teenagers who killed a 14 year old Bobby Franks in 1924 apparently for thrills, money, and the thought that they were smart enough to get away with it. They were intellectually astute and accomplished – Leopold spoke five languages fluently and read another ten; Loeb graduated from the University of Michigan at the age of 17. They were caught 10 days after the murder. Defended in court by the famous Clarence Darrow, they were convicted and sentenced to life plus 99 years. It’s an interesting story that’s been adapted into screenplays, films, and fiction.

Nathan Leopold

Rereading the story in the book The Leopold and Loeb Files, I was fascinated to learn that Nathan Leopold was an avid birdwatcher who amassed a large personal collection of birds and taught field classes in ornithology to children and married (no singles) women (interesting). He spent many hours birdwatching in the Chicago area and shot over 3000 birds which he preserved and stored in the third story of his parents’ mansion home. He apparently wasn’t intimidated by the Migratory Bird Act of 1918 which protects all migratory birds because enforcement was minimal at the time. Like many male naturalists of his time, he wore a suit, albeit an old one, on his birdwatching trips, the same suit he wore on the day of the murder. In the process of disposing of the body, a pair of glasses fell out of the breast pocket, providing a piece of evidence for his conviction.

Nathan Leopold had a special interest in a rare songbird called the Kirtland’s Warbler. At the time of the Franks murder, Leopold probably knew more about the Kirtland’s Warbler than anyone in the country. In the summer of 1923, Leopold travelled to northern Michigan in search of the warbler, took copious notes, and collected several of the birds with a shotgun. In October, Leopold went to Boston to deliver a paper on the Kirtland’s Warbler at the annual meeting of the American Ornithologists’ Union and later published a paper in the society’s journal, the Auk, in 1924. You can read more about the Kirtland’s Warbler and the museum display of the bird in The Murderer and the Museum Curator – Nathan Leopold and Kirtland’s Warbler.

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, IL prison’s library and educational system, and worked in the prison hospital. He apparently kept canaries as did Robert Stroud, the Birdman of Alcatraz. Following his release in 1958, Leopold moved 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. In 1961 he married a widow who was working in a flower shop in San Juan. Leopold spent much of his free time in the island forests observing birds and published a book entitled “A Checklist of the Birds of Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands.”

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