Nathan Leopold, The Teen Prodigy Who Turned To Murder In An Attempt To Commit The ‘Perfect Crime’

Published May 14, 2024
Updated May 15, 2024

In May 1924, Nathan Leopold and his friend Richard Loeb kidnapped and murdered 14-year-old Bobby Franks just to see if they could get away with it — then Leopold dropped his eyeglasses at the scene of the crime.

Nathan Leopold

Everett Collection Inc / Alamy Stock PhotoNathan Leopold awaiting the court’s decision. 1924.

In 1924, Nathan Leopold was a 19-year-old prodigy with a promising future ahead of him. He had a degree from the University of Chicago, spoke 10 languages, and was a nationally recognized bird expert. Then, he threw it all away just to see if he could get away with murder.

Together with his friend Robert Loeb, Leopold planned and executed what was supposed to be the “perfect crime.” The two young men murdered a 14-year-old boy named Bobby Franks and dumped his body in a culvert. They were arrogant enough to think they’d covered their tracks — but they were arrested just 10 days later.

Leopold later admitted that he’d partaken in the plot out of curiosity. “A thirst for knowledge is highly commendable,” he told a reporter, “no matter what extreme pain or injury it may inflict upon others.”

So, how exactly did this young genius with an IQ of 200 become a convicted murderer?

Nathan Leopold’s Upbringing In Chicago

Nathan Freudenthal Leopold Jr. was born on Nov. 19, 1904. His family was of German-Jewish descent and lived in Chicago’s affluent Kenwood neighborhood.

Leopold exhibited profound intelligence from a young age. At just 15, he enrolled at the University of Michigan. At 18, he earned an undergraduate degree from the University of Chicago, and he had plans to attend Harvard Law School in the fall of 1924. He was particularly interested in birds, languages, and the philosophy of Nietzsche. He even received national recognition for his work on warblers and cowbirds.

While growing up in Kenwood, Leopold had become acquainted with Richard Loeb, who also lived in the neighborhood. While Leopold was studying at the University of Chicago, Loeb began taking a few classes there. They had some mutual friends, so they naturally grew closer — and even began a sexual relationship in February 1921.

Leopold And Loeb

German Federal Archives/Wikimedia CommonsRichard Loeb (left) and Nathan Leopold (right) in August 1924.

Together, the duo discussed their passions, and Leopold told Loeb about his fascination with Nietzsche’s concept of Übermensch, someone whose superior intellect allowed them to transcend human law.

Leopold seemingly thought he was so smart that the rules and expectations set by society did not apply to him. He was reportedly quite cocky and narcissistic, often explaining his accomplishments and knowledge to anyone who would listen. This, combined with Loeb’s passion for history and crime stories, led the duo to devise a dangerous plot: to commit the perfect crime.

Committing The Crime Of The Decade

At first, Leopold and Loeb carried out petty crimes like breaking into fraternity houses, stealing inconsequential items, and setting small fires. However, the lack of media coverage of their misdeeds encouraged the pair to aim higher.

By 1923, Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb had begun planning the “perfect” murder. The pair spent that winter plotting out the crime, and on May 21, 1924, they set it into action. They drove around Kenwood looking for a victim until they spotted 14-year-old Bobby Franks. Franks was Loeb’s cousin, and his father was a wealthy watchmaker.

Leopold and Loeb first lured the boy into their car by telling him they wanted to discuss tennis rackets. While Leopold drove the car, Loeb attacked the young teen in the back seat. He struck Franks over the head with a chisel before suffocating him with a rag.

Leopold then drove the car to Hammond, Indiana, where the duo stripped Franks, poured acid on his body, and concealed the corpse in a culvert.

By the time they returned to Chicago, Franks’ parents were raising alarm bells about their son’s disappearance. That same day, Leopold dropped a letter in a random post box demanding a $10,000 ransom for Franks’ return — even though he was already dead.

Ransom Note

Public DomainThe ransom note for Bobby Franks.

However, the ransom fell through after Franks’ body was discovered in the culvert the very next day. While Leopold and Loeb lamented the lost money, they were confident they would still get away with the crime — until the police came knocking on their door.

Nathan Leopold’s Sensational Trial

A day after the murder, a passerby in Hammond discovered Bobby Franks’ body and called the police. At the scene, investigators found several clues pointing to who could have committed the crime.

Mugshot Of Nathan Leopold

German Federal Archives/Wikimedia CommonsNathan Leopold’s mugshot. 1924.

First, they discovered a pair of prescription glasses. The glasses featured a unique hinge that only three people in Chicago wore — and one of them was Nathan Leopold. Police also found the destroyed typewriter used to write the ransom note in a nearby lake and traced it back to the fraternity house Loeb and Leopold had stolen it from.

With this evidence, police brought the pair in for questioning, and they almost immediately confessed to the crime, though they put the blame on each other.

“I am sure it was Mr. Loeb that made it, and it was his plan, and it was he who did the act,” Leopold later said, according to his confession.

The crime quickly became a media sensation, and when the trial began on July 21, 1924, it completely took over the public spotlight.

Leopold and Loeb hired famed defense attorney Clarence Darrow to represent them. Both men pleaded guilty to the crime immediately, so the trial was only meant to determine whether they should be sentenced to death or not.

Clarence Darrow

Library of CongressNathan Leopold, Richard Loeb, and Clarence Darrow, their defense attorney.

During the trial, hundreds of pieces of evidence were presented alongside psychoanalytical analyses of both defendants. At the end, Darrow gave an eight-hour closing argument over the course of three days.

Ultimately, the judge ruled that Leopold and Loeb were too young for the death penalty. Instead, the judge sentenced both of them to life in prison plus an additional 99 years for the kidnapping.

Police transported the teens to Joliet Prison in Illinois, marking the beginning of their lives behind bars.

Nathan Leopold’s Life After His Conviction

Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb both resided at Joliet Prison until 1925 and 1930, respectively. Leopold was the first to be transferred to the larger Stateville Penitentiary for its more modern medical facilities after suffering from appendicitis, but Loeb joined him five years later.

Together, the two worked to build the prison’s school system, adding new courses and curriculums in 1932. For a moment, it seemed like they were turning a new leaf and using their intelligence for good.

However, in 1936, Stateville prisoner James Day fatally stabbed Richard Loeb in the men’s showers. Some reports state that Loeb propositioned Day for sex, while others claim Day stabbed Loeb after the latter refused his advances. Whatever the truth, Loeb was dead, and Leopold was on his own.

Despite suffering from depression as a result of the loss and his own imprisonment, Leopold continued teaching at the prison. In 1944, he even volunteered to partake in a malaria study as a guinea pig.

Nathan Leopold In Prison

German Federal Archives/Wikimedia CommonsNathan Leopold in his prison cell. 1931.

In 1958, Leopold published his memoir, Life Plus 99 Years. That same year, he was granted parole after serving 34 years behind bars.

With his newfound freedom, Nathan Leopold moved to Puerto Rico and began working as a laboratory technician. He started rebuilding his life there, marrying his wife in 1961, earning his master’s degree, and teaching at the University of Puerto Rico.

He even began pursuing his lifelong passion again: birds. His work among native bird species on the island has led to several conservation initiatives.

As for his crimes, Leopold reflected on them in his book:

“Looking back from the vantage point of today, I cannot understand how my mind worked then. For I can recall no feeling then of remorse. Remorse did not come until later, much later. It did not begin to develop until I had been in prison for several years; it did not reach its full flood for perhaps ten years. Since then, for the past quarter century, remorse has been my constant companion. It is never out of my mind. Sometimes it overwhelms me completely, to the extent that I cannot think of anything else.”

Nathan Leopold died from a heart attack in Puerto Rico on Aug. 29, 1971, at 66 years old.

After reading about Nathan Leopold, dive into the stories of the four most terrifying teen serial killers. Then, learn about Charles Starkweather, the teenager who led a brutal murder spree across America’s heartland in the 1950s.

Amber Morgan
Amber Morgan is an Editorial Fellow for All That's Interesting. She graduated from the University of Florida with a degree in political science, history, and Russian. Previously, she worked as a content creator for America House Kyiv, a Ukrainian organization focused on inspiring and engaging youth through cultural exchanges.
Cara Johnson
A writer and editor based in Charleston, South Carolina and an assistant editor at All That's Interesting, Cara Johnson holds a B.A. in English and Creative Writing from Washington & Lee University and an M.A. in English from College of Charleston and has written for various publications in her six-year career.
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Morgan, Amber. "Nathan Leopold, The Teen Prodigy Who Turned To Murder In An Attempt To Commit The ‘Perfect Crime’.", May 14, 2024, Accessed May 23, 2024.