Brethren Historical Library and Archives

Hidden Gems
A Second Chance at Life: From Convicted Murderer to Brethren Service Volunteer

by Haley Steinhilber, archival intern

Courtesy of German Federal Archives

Richard Loeb (left), Nathan Leopold (right) Taken during the trial

On March 13, 1958, Nathan Leopold was paroled from Statesville Penitentiary in Illinois into volunteer service work with the Brethren Service Commission in Castaner, Puerto Rico. He had formerly been imprisoned thirty-three years for his involvement in the 1924 murder of fourteen-year-old Bobby Franks.

Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb were born to wealthy Jewish families in Chicago at the turn of the 20th century. Both boys were intellectually gifted and completed college before they turned eighteen.[1] As he approached the end of adolescence, Leopold developed an obsession with Friedrich Nietzsche's concept of the Ubermensch: the theory that "the goal of the evolutionary struggle for survival would be the emergence of an idealized superior, dominating man," powerful enough to act above existing moral codes in order to establish new ones.[2] Leopold idealized Loeb and may have believed he was this Nietzschean "superman." Motivated simply by the belief that they could escape punishment, Leopold and Loeb began planning the "perfect crime": to kidnap and murder a child and collect the ransom.[3]

Courtesy of Brethren Historical Library and Archives

Nathan Leopold and W. Harold Row board flight for Puerto Rico (1958)

On Wednesday, May 21, 1924, Leopold and Loeb prowled the streets of Chicago's South Side, searching for a victim. Loeb approached a few different boys at the nearby Harvard School, but was not able to convince any of them to get in the car.[4] Finally, the boys spotted Bobby Franks, a distant relative of Loeb, walking home from a baseball game. He climbed into the car after they offered him a ride. His body was found the next morning hidden in a culvert under a railroad bridge just south of Chicago.[5] The police linked Leopold to the crime after his prescription glasses were found near the crime scene.[6] Soon after, Loeb was brought in for questioning to verify Leopold's alibi, and the variations in their testimonies paired with newly discovered evidence led to their eventual confessions.[7]

The boys' random method of victim selection and lack of motive earned the case the title, "the crime of the century." The teens pleaded guilty to the murder at the urging of their attorney, Clarence Darrow. Consequently, Leopold and Loeb's fate would not be decided by a jury, but instead by Judge John R. Caverly. Darrow managed to secure a punishment as a life sentence rather than the death penalty, arguing "Killing is just wrong, whether the state or a criminal commits it."[8]

Thirty-three years later, Leopold's release from prison in 1958 was a result of his impeccable behavior and efforts to prove his rehabilitation. While serving his life sentence, he worked as an X-ray technician and volunteered as a test subject for a malaria experiment during World War II. He and Loeb also established a library and rudimentary education course where they tutored other inmates.[9] In his memoir, Life Plus 99 Years, Leopold details his time in prison as a period of growth and maturation—adhering to Darrow's court argument to consider the teens' youth and immaturity before sentencing them to death.

Courtesy of Brethren Historical Library and Archives

Nathan Leopold in Puerto Rico

Leopold was denied parole during his first attempt in 1953, however his continual petitioning of the parole board led to a new hearing in 1958.[10] In order to be considered for parole, a convict required evidence of employment, lodging, and a sponsor upon their release. Leopold's imprisonment as a teenager meant that he had never worked for an income. The parole board was apprehensive about his lack of employable skills upon his release from prison. Nonetheless, Leopold submitted five job offers of for the parole board to review: an x-ray technician in Hawaii, doing factory work in New York or Florida, undertaking historical research in Illinois (in case he was barred from exiting the state), and as a laboratory technician in Puerto Rico for the Brethren Service Project.[11]

The Brethren Service Commission (BSC) became associated with Leopold's case purely by chance. A Quaker acquaintance of Leopold's brother recommended the Castaner service project after hearing of Leopold's upcoming hearing. He introduced the family to Dr. W. Harold Row, the executive secretary of BSC.[12] However, before BSC would accept Leopold into the program, there were many concerns that had to be addressed. A letter between the Director of Brethren Service in Castaner, Dr. Homer Burke, and W. Harold Row, reveals a discussion over the implications that might follow by aligning the Church with the infamous felon. Questions regarding Leopold's future conduct, potential "anti-social habits" he may have acquired in prison, and issues of adequate supervision in Puerto Rico emerged as major concerns.[13] After a period of deliberation, it was decided to offer Leopold the position as a volunteer upon his release. His service was viewed as "atonement" for his crime and endorsed by the Church of the Brethren's "basic commitment to the Christian doctrine of the redeemability of human nature."[14] Leopold's case was reportedly the first instance that the Church of the Brethren sponsored an inmate's release from prison.[15]

Two days after his release, Leopold began work in Puerto Rico as a lab technician in the Brethren hospital. He flourished in his position and was widely accepted by the project workers and members of the Castaner community.[16] After his term ended with Brethren Service, he pursued a master's degree in social work at the University of Puerto Rico and was subsequently offered a position as a social worker in Puerto Rico's Department of Social Welfare.[17] By 1964, Leopold became the director of a $125,000 medical research project commissioned by the Puerto Rico Department of Health.[18]

While in Puerto Rico, Leopold met and married Gertrude "Trudi" Feldman Garcia de Quevedo. Although he enjoyed a tremendous amount of freedom, Leopold was still subject to the authority of his parole until 1963—he had to adhere to a curfew and was not allowed to drink or drive, much to his chagrin. Leopold died on August 30, 1971 at a hospital in San Juan, Puerto Rico.[19] Leopold never joined the Church of the Brethren but maintained a close friendship with W. Harold Row, attended Annual Conferences, and visited the Brethren Headquarters in Elgin, IL.[20]


[1] Hal Higdon, Leopold and Loeb: The Crime of the Century, University of Illinois Press, 1975, 200.

[2] Hal Higdon, Leopold and Loeb: The Crime of the Century, University of Illinois Press, 1975, 19-20.

[3] Simon Baatz, "Leopold and Loeb's Criminal Minds," Smithsonian Magazine, August 2008.

[4] Hal Higdon, Leopold and Loeb: The Crime of the Century, University of Illinois Press, 1975, 31-32.

[5] Nathan F. Leopold, Jr., Life Plus 99 Years, New York: Doubleday & Company, Inc, 1958, 24.

[6] William Braden, "At last a clue on why Leopold killed Bobby Franks," Chicago Sun-Times, September 12, 1976.

[7] Nathan F. Leopold, Jr., Life Plus 99 Years, New York: Doubleday & Company, Inc, 1958, 47.

[8] Ron, Grossman, "Commentary: The original ‘affluenza' case: Leopold and Loeb," Chicago Tribune, March 31, 2016.

[9] Richard Jerome, "Playing for Keeps," People, June 14, 1999, 144.

[10] Nathan F. Leopold, Jr., Life Plus 99 Years, New York: Doubleday & Company, Inc, 1958, 349, 380.

[11] Nathan F. Leopold, Jr. Snatch For A Halo, unfinished, unpublished.  Box 2, Folder 11, Row-Leopold Papers, Brethren Historical Library and Archives.

[12] Nathan F. Leopold, Jr. Snatch For A Halo, unfinished, unpublished. Box 2, Folder 11, Row-Leopold Papers, Brethren Historical Library and Archives.

[13] Letter between Dr. Homer Burke and Dr. W. Harold Row, January 10, 1953. Box 3, Folder 1, Row-Leopold Papers, Brethren Historical Library and Archives. Letter between Elmer Gertz and Dr. W. Harold Row, February 7, 1958, Box 3, Folder 2, Row-Leopold Papers, Brethren Historical Library and Archives.

[14] "Rehabilitation of Nathan Leopold," The Christian Century, April 2, 1958. Box 3, Folder 1, Row-Leopold Papers, Brethren Historical Library and Archives.

[15] Nathan Leopold, Jr., "Ministry of the Brethren in Years to Come," Brethren Life and Thought 10, Autumn, 1965. 4-12.

[16] Dr. W. Harold Row, "Statement by Dr. W. Harold Row…on behalf of the Commission, regarding Nathan F. Leopold Jr." March 1959.

[17] "The Long Road Back For Nathan Leopold," Medical World, December 2, 1966, 174.

[18] Howard E. Royer, "Nathan Leopold Calls on the Brethren," Gospel Messenger, February 1, 1964, 7.

[19] Richard Jerome, "Playing for Keeps," People, June 14, 1999, 144.

[20] Alvin F. Klotz, "From the Other Side," September 6, 1971. Typescript News Release found in BHLA Nathan Leopold Papers. Howard E. Royer, "Nathan Leopold Calls on the Brethren," Gospel Messenger, February 1, 1964, 7.