Cranbrook’s Tenuous Connection to “Crime of the Century”

Birdwatcher. It sounds so benign, doesn’t it? And difficult to reconcile with the infamous names of Leopold and Loeb, perpetrators of the “Crime of the Century” in 1924.

While refiling some material in the Cranbrook Institute of Science (CIS) Director’s Papers recently, I came across a folder labeled “Leopold, Nathan F., correspondence, 1924-1974.” Imagine my surprise—the name leapt out at me! Leopold was half of an infamous pair of murderers in the early 1920s. The correspondence file deals with Leopold’s experience as an amateur ornithologist. While a student at the University of Chicago he authored a monograph called “The Kirtland’s Warbler in its Summer Home,” published in the now defunct The Auk (Jan. 1924). The Kirtland’s warbler is considered a rare bird because in the summer, the only place in the world that it nests is a few counties in northern Michigan (upper and lower peninsulas), in Wisconsin and in Ontario.

Jan. 1924 issue of The Auk. Courtesy Cranbrook Archives

Jan. 1924 issue of The Auk. Courtesy Cranbrook Archives

Leopold’s explorations in ornithology were cut short when he followed his friend Richard Loeb’s challenge to commit a murder, to “see how it felt.” The two boys, from wealthy Chicago families, thought they could commit the perfect crime. On Loeb’s initiative they kidnapped the 14-year old son of a Chicago millionaire, murdered him and dumped the body. The pair were quickly apprehended and prosecuted, and faced the death penalty. Their rich parents were able to hire Clarence Darrow who won them life in prison.

Nathan Leopold was released in 1958, moving to Puerto Rico where he worked in medical research until his death in 1971. He contacted CIS director Dr. Robert Hatt in 1964 to see if the Institute was interested in receiving his diorama of a family of Kirtland’s warbler. “The birds were collected by me with a 16 gauge, double-barreled shotgun … in the late morning of June 20, 1923 … timed [for] the arrival in Oscoda of the only daily train south as would allow for preparing the birds for shipment to Chicago,” he explained in a letter to Hatt. Leopold chose Cranbrook, over the Smithsonian or the New York Museum of Natural History because “ … I believe that this typical Michigan bird should remain in Michigan …” He also donated correspondence with another birder, Douglas S. Middleton, started when he was in prison, and with a friend, Kate Friedman.

leopold postcard2

Postcard sent to Leopold friend upon finding Kirkland's warbler. Courtesy Cranbrook Archives

Postcard Leopold sent to friend upon finding Kirtland’s warbler. Courtesy Cranbrook Archives

In a book called Life Plus 99 Years, Leopold explained that he was already in prison by the time the taxidermist completed the exhibit of the warbler. However, the warden allowed the Leopold family chauffeur to drive the exhibit to the prison for Leopold to view.

The diorama was part of a CIS exhibit called One Does Not Live Alone, under a section called “Conflict,” in June 19, 1967.

– Cheri Y. Gay, Archivist

5 thoughts on “Cranbrook’s Tenuous Connection to “Crime of the Century”

  1. The irony that this was posted on May 21st! In the Auk article, Nathan writes on June 22nd “we were forced, much against our will, to leave the area.” I’ve wondered why, maybe now I know!


  2. ^^Edie–isn’t that wonderfully coincidental/creepy? Been researching this story for years…it never ceases to fascinate.


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