Darrow, Clarence Seward

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Darrow, Clarence Seward

Clarence Darrow.

Lawyer and social reformer Clarence Seward Darrow was the most famous and controversial defense attorney of the early twentieth century. He won unprecedented fame in momentous courtroom battles in which he championed the causes of labor, liberal social thought, and the use of scientific Criminology. His aggressive legal tactics, as well as his outspoken denunciations of industrial capitalism, political corruption, and popular religion, aroused animosities throughout his life. But in the end, his compassion for oppressed persons, as well as his winsome personality, compelled friends and foes alike to honor his unparalleled legal career as attorney for the damned.

Darrow was the master of the courtroom drama. One striking and effective aspect of his legal style was his physical appearance in the courtroom. He wore rumpled suits—often bared to shirtsleeves and suspenders—and let his tousled hair hang into his face. He had a halting walk and slouching stance, and his habits of smoking long cigars slowly during the proceedings and even reading and writing during the prosecution's presentation were endlessly arresting for juries and distracting for opponents.

"I do not consider it an insult, but rather a compliment to be called an agnostic. I do not pretend to know where many ignorant men are sure—that is all agnosticism means."
—Clarence Darrow

Darrow was born poor, on April 18, 1857, near Kinsman, Ohio. His mother died when he was fourteen, and his father, an embittered seminary student–turned–undertaker, bore the stigma of the village atheist in an intensely religious rural community. As a child, Darrow hated formal schooling, but with his father's encouragement, he read widely from the extensive family library to educate himself. As his father's intellectual companion, Darrow grew to love reading, to hate being poor, and to willingly embrace unpopular causes. Once, Darrow's father went to observe a public hanging to see what it was like, but left before the moment of execution and reported to Darrow how he felt a terrible shame and guilt for being any part of such a "barbaric practice." This report was not lost on Darrow, who would become a fierce public opponent of the popular practice of capital punishment, defending fifty murderers in his legal career, with only one being sentenced to death and executed.

Darrow's entrance into the Practice of Law was strained by poverty. He left his studies at Allegheny College after one year for lack of money. After three years teaching in a rural one-room schoolhouse and one year at the Michigan University Law School, where he again withdrew for lack of tuition, Darrow gained an apprenticeship with a law firm in Youngstown, Ohio. There, he read the law and passed the bar exam in 1878 at the age of 21. Returning home, he married his childhood sweetheart, Jessie Ohl, began his own practice in the rural Ohio towns of Andover and Ashtabula, and fathered his only child, a son. In search of a better income for his family and eager for opportunity, Darrow accepted an invitation from his brother Everett Darrow to move to Chicago—then the commercial and cultural center of the Midwest—in 1887.

Darrow's path from the country to the city was well-worn by millions of others at the end of the nineteenth century. The lure of jobs and opportunities following the Civil War combined with mass migrations from Europe added 31 million residents to U.S. cities between 1860 and 1930. Chicago, which had barely existed in 1830, had grown by 1900 to 3 million inhabitants. Along with other large U.S. cities such as New York and Boston, Chicago was unprepared for this overwhelming influx of urban immigrants. The results were poverty, crime, and corruption spawning human misery on a grand scale.

When Darrow moved his hopes and his family to Chicago, the city was in the midst of both a population and an industrial boom. With its being the railroad center of the nation, the meat-packing, lumber, steel, and agricultural industries were rapidly expanding. A devastating fire in 1871 had leveled much of the city and helped to inspire new building programs and fresh commercial initiatives. The city had also become a magnet for social reformers, artists, and intellectuals, including Jane Addams, Lincoln Steffens, upton sinclair, Edgar Lee Masters, and Theodore Dreiser, who viewed the human suffering of the great city with outrage.

Darrow found Chicago both fascinating and troubling. While he saw opportunity for himself to advance, he was moved by the evident suffering of laboring families, poor people, and those who were imprisoned. His passion for the lower class only increased as he witnessed the economic contrasts of industry and labor. Throughout the city, industrial tycoons were striking it rich off the backs of laborers—often uneducated and poor—who earned poverty wages under hazardous conditions. Similarly, the prisons were filled with poor and broken people who had little means of defending themselves.

Having read the prison reform writings of Judge John P. Altgeld of Illinois, Darrow shortly introduced himself to this social reformer who would one day become governor. He began a mentorship in the law and politics of reform under Altgeld that would last until Altgeld's death. When Darrow became outraged by the heavy sentences laid upon four anarchist defendants in the Haymarket Square bombing of 1887, Altgeld urged him to join the alliance for their Amnesty. In turn, Darrow later successfully implored Altgeld as governor to commute their sentences.

In 1888, after being impressed by Darrow's public speaking ability, Mayor DeWitt Cregier, of Chicago, offered him an appointment as a special assessment attorney. Within a year, Darrow rose to chief corporation counsel—becoming the head of the legal department for the entire city of Chicago at age thirty-three. From this vantage point, he observed firsthand the plight of the city's working class in industries where labor had little power to organize, and government had little power to regulate.

After four years, with his city appointment about to be terminated, Darrow accepted an offer to become chief counsel for the Chicago and Northwestern Railway (CNR), which he had recently defeated in court. He imposed one condition: that he be allowed to continue his out-side legal assistance work as long as it did not conflict with his loyalty to the company. Within two years, a decisive conflict was staring Darrow in the face: the Pullman Strike of 1894. This bitter dispute pitted the workers of the newly formed American Railway Union (ARU) against the powerful Pullman Company and its railroad industry allies. The conflict was so violent that President grover cleveland sent in army troops to protect the trains.

Darrow resigned his corporate position with CNR despite enticing offers of higher pay. Instead, he took the case of the ARU's national leader eugene v. debs, who was charged with violating a strike Injunction. Darrow's defense strategy was not to quibble about the violation of an injunction order but to expose the working conditions imposed upon railroad workers by the industry—in this case, the enormously wealthy Pullman Company. To do this, Darrow boldly subpoenaed company president George M. Pullman to testify, but the tycoon went into hiding rather than appear. So, after describing the abysmal working conditions of Pullman's railroad workers and their families, he argued fervently that people had a right to strike for just causes, and that adequate wages and safe working conditions were such causes.

Darrow defended Debs in two trials—taking an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court before finally losing and seeing his client sentenced to six months in prison. In this defense of the underdog against the powerful, Darrow had found his calling. In just six years, Darrow had moved from positions of political power and financial security to that of gladiator in the nation's emerging class struggle.

In 1894 Darrow handled his first criminal case in Chicago, defending Eugene Prendergast. Prendergast was a mentally ill drifter who had murdered Mayor Carter H. Harrison Sr. of Chicago, then walked to a police station and confessed to the crime. Darrow attempted an Insanity Defense and failed, and Prendergast was executed. Of the fifty murder defendants Darrow represented in his lifetime, this was the first and last one he lost to execution.

In 1897, Darrow divorced his wife of 17 years. In 1903, he married Ruby Hamerstrom, a Chicago newspaper journalist. This second marriage for Darrow lasted for the rest of his lifetime but produced no children.

In 1907, the former governor of Idaho Frank Steunenberg was killed by a booby trap bomb on his front gate. Steunenberg had been a powerful supporter of the mining industry. william ("big bill") haywood, leader of the Western Federation of Miners union, and several others were abducted by Pinkerton Agents from other states and brought to Boise, where they were charged with conspiracy to murder. The miners' union hired Darrow for the defense, and he traveled with Ruby to Idaho and assembled a defense team.

The prominence of the individuals involved and the violent nature of the crime drew national attention to the trial. Darrow was able to crack the government's case with painstaking cross-examination of its star witness, the self-confessed perpetrator of the crime, Harry Orchard. Darrow exposed Orchard to be a man bent on personal revenge who had implicated the labor leaders only after being prompted to do so by the prosecutors. Darrow's moving summation in defense of the labor movement—"for the poor, for the weak, for the weary—who, in darkness and despair, have borne the labors of the human race"—drew tears in the courtroom, and Haywood and the others were acquitted.

Thanks to Darrow, labor was again vindicated over opponents in government and industry. But the cost to Darrow was considerable. After the trial, he was broke and in poor health. His legal fees from the union had already been spent, and he suffered from an acute ear infection. When he returned to Chicago, the financial crash of 1907 had wiped out all of his savings, and he returned to his law practice.

Darrow reluctantly entered the limelight again in 1911, when he agreed to defend the accused in what newspapers called the crime of the century. At one o'clock in the morning on October 10, 1910, Los Angeles was rocked by two explosions that blew apart the Los Angeles Times Building with over one hundred people inside. Twenty-one people were killed and 40 injured in the concussion and the fire that followed. The Times's prominent and antiunion editor, Harrison Gray Otis, managed to get out an edition with the headline "Unionist Bombs Wreck Times."

Under pressure from Otis, the mayor of Los Angeles hired a private detective agency to investigate and abduct labor movement suspects living in Indiana and Michigan and return them to Los Angeles to stand trial. Labor movement members appealed to Darrow, but he resisted, still drained and wary from the Haywood defense. Renowned labor leader Samuel Gompers, then president of the american federation of labor (AFL), visited Darrow in Chicago and appealed to him to defend labor, the innocent, and due process. In return, Gompers promised that a nationwide AFL union war chest would generously compensate him for his services. Darrow agreed.

By the time Darrow arrived in Los Angeles, the three defendants had already confessed to the crime. Darrow entered guilty pleas on their behalf in an attempt to save them from execution. The shock and outrage from labor supporters were devastating. Darrow was jeered by a waiting crowd and shunned by Gompers and other labor leaders. The promised legal fees evaporated.

Within days, Darrow was charged with attempting to bribe the jury and was brought to trial. Away from home, and without funds or allies to make a strong defense, Darrow fell into a depression that lasted through most of the proceedings. But in the closing arguments, he arose to defend himself to the jury with such force and poignancy that he again brought the jury, the audience, the press, and even the judge to tears. When the verdict came, and Darrow was acquitted, the courtroom burst into sustained cheers and embraces. Darrow never again took a major labor case.

Darrow continued to take the unpopular route in his court cases. When the United States entered World War I despite a strong pacifist movement, Darrow managed to offend people on both sides of the war issue by personally supporting the war while professionally defending pacifists who refused to serve.

Darrow's choice of clients in a notorious murder case further outraged popular sentiments. In 1924, two Chicago teens from millionaire families—Richard Loeb, age 18, and Nathan Leopold Jr., age 19—decided to commit a murder for the thrill of it. Loeb had graduated with honors from the University of Michigan and was on his way to Harvard Law School. Leopold was a Phi Beta Kappa member, already attending law school. They thought they were clever enough that they would not get caught. Luring a 14-year-old friend named Bobby Franks into their car, Loeb killed Franks with a chisel. The two then stuffed his body into the trunk before sending ransom notes to the boy's millionaire family. Two days after the boys had been caught, had been charged, and had confessed, three members of the Loeb family came to Darrow's home in the early morning before he had yet awakened and insisted on making their way to his bedside to beg him to take the case. As a friend of the family, and because of their desperation, Darrow accepted.

Hoping to save the boys from execution, Darrow had his clients plead guilty and then presented expert scientific testimony from 14 psychiatrists and psychologists. These witnesses contended that the boys suffered from a mental illness that caused them to commit the crime. Loeb and Leopold received life sentences. This verdict was extremely unpopular with the public, for many had called for the death penalty for this unusually grisly murder. Darrow was attacked in the press and threatened in the mail, and the millionaire families who had begged him to save their children balked at paying the agreed legal fees. Darrow, by then age 67, spoke of retiring from legal work unless he could really "have some fun" doing it. The following year, he got his chance.

Intent on stemming the influence of modernist thinking in the schools, in 1925, the Tennessee legislature passed a law making it illegal to teach anything that contradicted the account of the Creation portrayed in the Bible's book of Genesis. With the help of local citizens and the support of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), a 24-year-old biology teacher in rural Dayton (TN), a Tennessee native named John T. Scopes, challenged the law by teaching the evolutionary theories of Charles R. Darwin in his high-school classroom. When Scopes was arrested and charged with violating the law, William Jennings Bryan, a well-known former member of the U.S. House, offered his services. At Scopes's insistence, the ACLU recruited the most controversial defense attorney and atheist in the country, Darrow.

For nearly a century, European scholars in linguistics and geology, as well as in Darwin's biology, had contested certain beliefs about the Bible, which left many of the faithful anxious. The fundamentalists in the Tennessee legislature had attempted one solution to this problem: forbid the teaching of anything in conflict with creationism in the public schools. Since Darrow passionately opposed this in principle and was no friend of religion, he happily took the case.

The trial drew enormous media attention in the form of international newspaper coverage and live nationwide radio broadcasts. The popular Henry L. Mencken covered the story and joined other major newspaper reporters in calling it the "Monkey Trial." Since the weather was hot and muggy, and the trial had drawn more than 2,000 visitors, the judge moved the proceedings outside the courthouse onto a platform built for the occasion. There, the two masters of law and rhetoric sparred before a stirred crowd and an international audience. The trial was ostensibly intended to determine whether Scopes had violated the law, which clearly he had purposely done. But the exchanges between Bryan and Darrow quickly revealed deeper issues, such as the constitutional guarantee of free speech and the struggle between fundamentalist and modernist interpretations of the Bible.

This time, Darrow's favorite strategies of elevating the crime to a context of higher issues and presenting expert Scientific Evidence did not work. The presiding judge repeatedly upheld objections to these defense tactics. So, knowing that the local folk were overwhelmingly fundamentalist and that they saw Bryan as their champion, Darrow took a masterful gamble and put Bryan himself on the stand as a Bible expert for the defense. In a series of deft and probing questions about the Bible, Darrow managed to so befuddle the champion of fundamentalism that the crowds were finally laughing with Darrow and at Bryan. To many observers, Bryan and his cause were humiliated.

Although the jury voted to convict, the judge imposed only a nominal fine of $100 on Scopes, who was immediately rehired by the school board. Five days later, after eating a characteristically heavy meal, Bryan died in his sleep. Many believed that the devastating cross-examination by Darrow and the court's decision against imposing a larger fine upon Scopes were the cause of Bryan's death.

After the Scopes trial, Darrow became a public celebrity once again. He received many invitations to speak and to debate the issue of religion. As he had in the Pullman case, Darrow lost in the courts but seemingly won before a wider audience.

A year later, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) asked Darrow to defend 11 blacks in Detroit who were being charged in the death of a single white during an ugly racial incident. Darrow again, at age 69, called upon his powerful defense skills to prove that none of the accused had fired the fatal bullet but that all were instead the target of racial prejudice. All charges were dismissed.

In 1934, President franklin d. roosevelt appointed Darrow, at age 77, to head a commission to adjust inequities in the law for the national industrial recovery act, a program intended to relieve the Depression. Darrow's work proved successful when the Supreme Court declared the law unconstitutional, and the necessary revisions were made. The same year, Darrow was asked to chair the opening session of the American Inquiry Commission, a citizens' committee to study the darkening events in Germany. He emerged to tell Mayor Fiorello La Guardia, of New York, at lunch that "Herr Hitler is a very dangerous man and should be destroyed."

Darrow died in Chicago in 1938, at the age of 81. He had asked his friend Judge William H. Holly to deliver his eulogy because, as Darrow put it, "he knows everything about me, and has the sense not to tell it." As Darrow's body lay in state in Chicago for two days, thousands from every sector of humanity lined up in a driving rain to say good-bye. The tributes to Darrow were bountiful. He was commended for his courage and compassion; his public service and his private practice; his support for labor, minority groups, poor people, and criminals; and, always, his defense of freedom. Although his popularity rose and fell during his lifetime, Darrow's memory has received the highest accolades. Popular and scholarly biographies, as well as theater, cinema, and television dramatizations of his impassioned career and complex life, have won for Darrow a legendary stature in U.S. law and history.

Despite wavering public opinion, fickle allies, and powerful opponents, he was an uncommonly skillful and courageous warrior for justice in the courts and in public life. The secret of his courage was revealed in a memorial comment by the eminent attorney joseph n. welch: Darrow was "so brave and fearless that he never seemed to realize he was either."

Further readings

Cowan, Geoffrey. 1999. "A Man for Some Seasons: The Darrow Legend Once Inspired Generations of Young Idealists; Stripped of His Mythic Stature, Clarence Darrow Is Now a Man We Worship Less but Identify with More." American Lawyer 21 (December): 56.

——. 1993. The People v. Clarence Darrow. New York: Times Books.

Darrow, Clarence. 1996. The Story of My Life. New York: Da Capo Press.

Driemen, John E. 1992. Clarence Darrow. New York: Chelsea House.

Tierney, Kevin. 1979. Darrow: A Biography. New York: Crowell.

Uelmen, Gerald F. 2000. "Who Is the Lawyer of the Century?" Loyola of Los Angeles Law Review 33 (January): 613–53.

Vine, Phyllis. 2004. One Man's Castle: Clarence Darrow in Defense of the American Dream. New York: Amistad.

Weinberg, Arthur, and Lila Weinberg. 1987. Clarence Darrow: A Sentimental Rebel. New York: Atheneum.


Haymarket Riot; Labor Union; Leopold and Loeb Trial; Scopes Monkey Trial.

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