After a long and difficult pregnancy spent largely in bed to prevent a miscarriage, Florence Leopold gave birth in her home to her third son on the 19th of November, 1904. He was named Nathan Freudenthal Leopold Jr. after his father and the details of his early life were meticulously recorded in his baby book. According to this book, he said his first words: “Nein, nein, mama,” at just 4 months old.
Leopold, the youngest member of his extended family, was soon given the nickname ‘Babe,’ which he never quite managed to outgrow. During his early years his well being was largely given over to the care of nurses and governesses who lived in the home, a then common practice among the upper class. His father worked long hours, his brothers were significantly older and his mother was weak and ill for much of his youth, so it was practical to have an extra pair of hands around.
Leopold’s first nurse was a German woman named Marie, who stayed with the family until he was six years old. As with the rest of his family members, German was Leopold’s first language, though he quickly picked up English as well and became bi-lingual at an early age. As he grew, he became interested in churches and would make Marie, and his later governess Paula, drive him around the neighborhood so he could catalog them. Paula, though she was only with the family for six months, made an impact on her charge by encouraging Leopold’s interest in Christianity and the lives of the saints.
His next governess, who started with the family in 1910, was a woman named Mathilda Wantz who spoke only German. A few weeks after she joined the family, under the guise of helping her learn English, Leopold taught her inappropriate and incorrect phrases; at one point telling her that “Go to hell” meant “Good morning”. Leopold would come to call her “Sweetie” and became devoted to her despite their rough start. She allegedly sexually abused Leopold and his older brother Sam and endeavored to make the boys like her more than any other woman in the house. She was dismissed when Leopold was twelve years old.
During his childhood, Leopold had several serious illnesses and a tonsillectomy, after which he reports having more energy and enthusiasm for sports, though he was never especially interested or proficient in them. He did attend summer camp for several years and enjoyed hiking and other outdoor activities, which he found useful in his ornithological work. When he wasn’t at camp, he spent his first eleven summers at Wildwood, a vacation haven created by his extended family. Four families had bought property and erected houses side by side in Highland Park, Illinois, with a communal building between them that was used as a kitchen and sleeping area for the servants. The Leopold home sat at the end of this row of houses, bordered on two sides by a deep ravine the children could explore. His summers here were spent with a large collection of cousins, uncles, aunts and grandparents doing a variety of activities including swimming, staging short plays and horseback riding.
One such cousin, Adolph Gerhard Ballenger, usually called ‘Bal,’ was informally adopted by the family when Leopold was six years old. Bal’s mother had died a month after his birth, and when he was orphaned in 1911 he moved in permanently with the Leopold family. He was eleven years older than Leopold and much closer with Mike, the oldest Leopold son, but was loved and admired by his younger cousin who grew to consider him another brother.
At six years old, Leopold entered Miss Spaide’s school, where he and one other male student remained after it was switched from co-ed to an all girl’s school. After a couple years there he went to elementary school and progressed normally until his fifth grade teacher took an interest in him and encouraged him to skip a grade. After this he moved through school rather quickly, entering the private high school, The Harvard School For Boys, at eleven years old, more than 2 years ahead of most of his classmates. He stayed at Harvard until 1920 when he was 15, and graduated eager for college life.
His time at school was not always easy. He had a tendency to boast and parade his intelligence, which the other students found irritating. He was also very interested in ornithology and insects, for which he was mocked in the school yearbook. The following entry was written by his peers about the “praised genius”:
“Nathan Leopold-the crazy “bird” of the school. The avicular member of the fifth class is forever harping on birds, their advantages and their twitterings…”Flea” has not found much difficulty in covering his yet unsprouted wings and is always up to some “cimicic” mischief. His favorite prank is proving Mr. Schobinger wrong, or telling Mr. M.K.M. that he is laboring under a major neurosis”
He was indeed an avid ornithologist, even so young. The hobby began when he was six years old and taken to the home of his father’s friend, who had a large collection of taxidermy birds. Drawn to the birds and their classification, he started bird watching and then collecting his own specimens.
Though Leopold was precocious, he was not always able to connect with his older brothers. His oldest brother Mike and foster brother Bal were ten and eleven years older and already away at college when Leopold was in elementary school. His brother Sam, whom he was less fond of, had left for University by the time Leopold was in high school. Luckily he had a big family, and was able to spend time with cousins he felt close to. A large part of his family lived in the same neighborhood and he was very good friends with Henry Steele Jr., the cousin closest to him in age. He loved his mother and maternal aunt Birdie especially, but did not mix well with most other children and presumably spent much of his time alone or with adults.