Leopold and Loeb
Nathan Freudenthal Leopold Jr. was born on 19 November 1904 in Chicago, Illinois, into a wealthy family of immigrant German Jews, who had made a freight & transport-related fortune since their arrival in the United States. Reportedly a child prodigy, with an IQ of 210, Leopold spoke his first words aged just 4 months old, and amazed a succession of nannies and governesses with his intellectual precocity.
Leopold’s intelligence set him apart from his contemporaries, and the boy had difficulty making friends when he started school, a trait that continued throughout his education, made more difficult by his own superior attitude, in relation to both his family’s wealth and his own intelligence. When the family moved to the exclusive Chicago neighbourhood of Kenwood, he was transferred to the private Harvard School, and his educational development was even more rapid. It was at this time that he met Richard Loeb, although it wasn’t until he entered the University of Chicago, as a freshman in September 1920, before his sixteenth birthday, that they became what he referred to as ‘firm friends’.
Richard Albert Loeb was six months younger than Leopold, born on 11 June 1905, and also born with the proverbial silver spoon in his mouth, to a wealthy Jewish lawyer, who went on to become a senior executive with the department store company, Sears and Roebuck. He was similarly raised by a succession of nannies, and was also extremely intelligent (although not on the same level as Leopold), and skipped several grades at school, thanks mostly to a rather strict disciplinarian nanny, called Emily Struthers.
Here the similarity ended, however: whether as a result of rebellion at the repressive educational regime, or some deep-seated psychological flaw, Loeb showed distinct ‘Jekyll/Hyde’ characteristics from an early age. He was outwardly an affable, popular child, but also showed a more sinister side to his personality, become an accomplished thief early on and, whilst recognising that lying was wrong, readily resorted to elaborate fabrications when caught out. He developed an elaborate fantasy life, which cast him at its centre, as a master criminal, and his interests evolved from minor family theft to shoplifting, vandalism and arson. Leopold would later describe him as ‘amoral’ rather than ‘immoral’: he simply didn’t see why he shouldn’t have anything he wanted, and would go to any lengths to satisfy his desires. Despite both boys having enjoyed over-indulged and privileged upbringings, it appeared that Leopold was capable of recognising these advantages; Loeb saw them as his absolute right.
Loeb was admitted to the University of Chicago in October 1919, aged fourteen, as a result of skipping numerous grades, and it was here that the friendship with Leopold began to develop, who arrived there a year later: they were both considerably younger than their University contemporaries. While Leopold was a genuine prodigy, mastering a dozen languages, and an excellent student, Loeb was more a product of his nanny’s ruthless tutelage, and his studies floundered when she was no longer there to assist him.
But Leopold and Loeb were an excellent match psychologically: the brilliant, but socially inept, Leopold was enthralled by the handsome and vivacious Loeb; and Loeb found an excellent alter ego for his fantasy world in which he was supreme. Psychiatrists later described it as a ‘master-slave’ relationship, with mutual acquiescence, although it was far more complicated than the term implied.
By the summer of 1921 they were inseparable, and it is likely that they had already begun a sexual relationship, although both boys were fairly evasive about this aspect of their relationship, not surprising in the 1920s. The Loebs owned a vast estate in Charlevoix, Michigan, in addition to an elaborate Chicago mansion, complete with tennis courts and swimming pool, and the boys went to work on the estate during their summer vacation.
Loeb’s father had built him his own boathouse, complete with boat, which they used to explore Lake Michigan. It was here that their sexual affair became known: an employee of the estate, called Buchman, witnessed Loeb climbing into Leopold’s bed one night: given his domineering personality, it seems likely that Loeb controlled all aspects of their relationship. In later years, there was evidence of Loeb having persuaded Leopold into various criminal acts, through the promise of sexual favours.
There have been various accounts of the events which unfolded following their discovery: Buchman later claimed that Loeb & Leopold tried to drown him, by capsizing Loeb’s boat, while Buchman was on-board, but this was not raised at their later murder trial. Had it been introduced, it might have thrown some light on their murderous tendencies, almost three years before the case that saw them tried for the murder of teenager Bobby Franks.
When they returned to school for the new academic year, Buchman had spread the word about the pair’s affair, and Loeb was only admitted to a fraternity, at the University of Michigan, on the intervention of his brother Allen, to whom Buchman had also written. Allen was forced to intercede with the fraternity and vouch for any ‘misunderstanding’, but the condition for Loeb’s admission was that he sever all ties with Leopold. Despite this, they remained in contact, but had to be careful not to be seen out alone together. Leopold transferred back to the University of Chicago, and graduated with honours in March 1923. Loeb remained at the University of Michigan, where he barely graduated, in June 1923: his only distinction being that he was the youngest graduate in the University's history.
With both now back in Chicago, and the rumours about their affair safely left in Michigan, they again became inseparable, as each pursued post-graduate studies at the University of Chicago whilst again living at home: Leopold studied law, with a view to attending Harvard Law School, whilst Loeb studied history.
Loeb continued to embroil Leopold in a number of different criminal pursuits, using the promise of sexual favours as an enticement, and became increasingly obsessed with the development and commission of ‘the perfect crime’.