Clarence Darrow (1857–1938)

2012-06-11 13:28:09

The most celebrated criminal defense lawyer of the twentieth century, Clarence Seward Darrow achieved near legendary status in a series of highly publicized cases in which he championed individual rights and progressive political causes. He was born in Kinsman, in rural northeastern Ohio. His father, a seminary graduate who became a freethinker, worked as a furniture maker and undertaker. His mother, whom Darrow called his greatest influence, died when he was fifteen. His parents instilled a lifelong reverence for books, which expressed itself in later literary efforts at fiction and criticism, culminating in a masterful autobiography, The Story of My Life (1932).

Darrow attended preparatory school for one year (1873) at Allegheny College. Though an indifferent student and contemptuous of formal education, he taught school for three years in Ohio while he read law. He studied law for one year at the University of Michigan (1877–1878) and apprenticed with a lawyer in Youngstown, Ohio, where he was admitted to the Ohio bar.

Darrow practiced law and participated in Democratic Party activities in rural northern Ohio. He moved to Chicago in 1887 where he sought out the patronage of Judge John Peter Altgeld, who arranged Darrow’s appointment as legal counsel for the city of Chicago. In 1891, Darrow joined the law department of the Chicago and Northwestern Railway. He also advised Altgeld during his successful campaign for governor in 1892.

Darrow’s sympathy for poor people and victims of injustice led him to join numerous reform clubs. A lifelong opponent of Capital Punishment, he encouraged Governor Altgeld to pardon the surviving anarchists convicted of the terrorist bombing during the Chicago Haymarket riot. He also intervened after Chicago’s popular mayor was assassinated, challenging the killer’s competence in an unsuccessful effort to prevent his execution.

Sympathizing with labor and disapproving of the industrialists’ influence over political power, Darrow resigned in 1894 as counsel for the railroad in order to represent Eugene Debs, the militant president of the American Railway Union. Prior to New Deal legislation, employers enlisted the aid of law enforcement to crush unions by charging organizers with Criminal Conspiracy. This crime broadly prohibited two or more persons from agreeing to do anything unlawful, and pro-owner prosecutors reasoned that labor’s goal was the unlawful injuring of employers’ economic interests.

Darrow rose to prominence representing union leaders in criminal cases. His vigorous defense of Debs at his Criminal Conspiracy trial is credited with causing the railroad to influence the government to drop the case. (This did not prevent Debs from being convicted of contempt for violating a federal injunction.) In 1898, Darrow defended Thomas I. Kidd, general secretary of the Amalgamated Woodworkers’ International Union, who was tried for Criminal Conspiracy in Oshkosh, Wisconsin. Darrow’s jury argument lasted two days. Drawing on sources from the Bible to Victor Hugo, Darrow lionized Kidd as a ‘‘great soul’’ devoted to ‘‘humanity’s holy cause’’ and accused the prosecutors and industrialists of being the true conspirators for their effort to prevent freedom of association for the sake of property rights. The jury found Kidd not guilty. In 1903, Darrow added to his reputation as a labor lawyer, representing the United Mine Workers in arbitration proceedings in Pennsylvania, where he won the workers wage increases and back pay.

In 1908, Darrow defended radical union leader William D. (‘‘Big Bill’’) Haywood in Iowa, where he was tried for the murder of former governor Frank Steuenberg. Darrow persuaded the jury to reject the testimony of the state’s main witness, a confessed killer, and the jury acquitted Haywood.

In 1911 union leaders persuaded Darrow to represent the McNamara brothers, union activists charged with the terrorist bombing of the Los Angeles Times building that claimed twenty-one victims.Darroweventually pled his clients guilty, avoiding death sentences for them, but in doing so he permanently alienated organized labor. In this highly charged atmosphere, Darrow was accused of attempting to bribe two jurors. He was obliged to remain in Los Angeles for two years and faced two separate trials. The first trial provided the occasion for one of his greatest speeches, and the jury acquitted him. In the second trial, the jury could agree neither to convict nor acquit. Though the case was eventually dropped, his reputation suffered.

Darrow returned to Chicago, economically and emotionally depleted, where he rebuilt his practice, specializing in criminal cases. He returned to civic prominence as a pro-war spokesman during the Great War and as an opponent of the League of Nations after the war.

Darrow distinguished himself from most populists and progressives by his outspoken support for African- American rights. In the 1890s, he promoted the creation of Chicago’s first interracial hospital. In 1910, he defended interracial marriage in an address to a precursor of the NAACP. His biographer Kevin Tierney records that Darrow gave more time and money to African-American causes than any other white person of the day.

In 1925, Darrow defended eleven members of the Sweet family and their friends, who had been charged with conspiracy to commit murder. The death occurred when Dr. Ossian Sweet, an African American, moved into a white neighborhood of Detroit and a mob attacked his home. When Sweet and other occupants defended themselves, a bystander was shot and killed. Darrow’s forceful confrontation of race hatred and energetic assertion of the right to self defense resulted in a hung jury. A few months later, the state retried one of Sweet’s brothers. Darrow won an outright acquittal, and the remaining charges were dropped.

Darrow’s two most publicized cases occurred during the 1920s. In 1924, he defended Leopold and Loeb, two young college graduates who murdered a teenage neighbor. Public sentiment strongly favored executing the killers, who came from wealthy Jewish families and whose motive was intellectual thrillseeking. Darrow entered pleas of guilty and devoted himself to the improbable goal of saving his clients from hanging. His argument remains one of the most forceful pleas against Capital Punishment, and it convinced the Sentencing judge to impose life prison terms. The crime inspired numerous books, plays, and films, and Darrow’s defense established him as a national spokesperson against Capital Punishment.

In the summer of 1925, Darrow appeared for the defense in the Scopes ‘‘monkey trial’’ in Dayton, Tennessee, where a schoolteacher was charged with violating a state statute banning the teaching of evolution. William Jennings Bryan, populist orator and former Democratic presidential candidate who had campaigned for the legislation, agreed to serve as special prosecutor. Scopes was convicted as expected, though his judgment was later reversed because the judge rather than jury fixed the fine. The national news media closely covered Darrow’s defense of science and his ridicule of religious ignorance. The case helped marginalize the antievolution crusade as a rural movement and identified science with tolerance and religion with censorship. Darrow dramatized the conflict by calling Bryan as an expert witness on Christianity and questioning him about Biblical passages that seemingly required interpretation. The case was popularized for later generations by the film Inherit the Wind (1960).

Darrow’s career vindicated the importance of defense lawyers in protecting groups and individuals from efforts to control unpopular thought and behavior by Criminal Law enforcement. He was by temperament an agnostic who questioned the reality of freedom of will and an individualist who asserted his right to drink during Prohibition. He insisted on the value of privacy, protesting, ‘‘Wouldn’t it be better that every rogue and rascal in the world should go unpunished than to say that detectives could put a Dictograph into your parlor, your dining room, in your bedroom, and destroy that privacy which alone makes life worth living?’’

While he recognized the need for collective action to achieve social reform, Darrow’s skepticism left him equally suspicious of moral absolutes and of popular opinion. This explains how his populist convictions could coexist with hostility to expansive government power, accounting for paradoxes such as his support for Democratic candidates and opposition to New Deal programs. He flirted with electoral politics only twice, running unsuccessfully for Congress in 1896 as a Democrat and successfully for the Illinois legislature in 1902 as an Independent. He held appointed positions, including chair of the National Recovery Review Board in 1934.

A humanist who viewed all humans as flawed, Darrow’s strategy, which succeeded even when his clients were guilty of wrongdoing, was to fight to establish a broader vision of a controversy in which his clients’ conduct did not deserve condemnation. In an age when judicial construction of the Bill of Rights provided fewer protections, he employed commonlaw doctrines like the presumption of innocence and right to self-defense to protect unpopular clients against the totalitarian tendencies he feared were inherent in the modern state.

Darrow married Jessie Ohl in 1880, and the couple moved to Andover, Ohio. The couple’s only child, Paul Edward Darrow, was born in 1883. The Darrows were divorced in 1897. In 1903, Darrow married Ruby Hamerstrom, a journalist with whom he had no children.


References and Further Reading

  • Boyle, Kevin. Arc of Justice: A Saga of Race, Civil Rights, and Murder in the Jazz Age. New York: H. Holt, 2004.
  • Cowan, Geoffrey. The People v. Clarence Darrow: The Bribery Trial of America’s Greatest Lawyer. New York: Times Books, 1993.
  • Darrow, Clarence. Resist Not Evil. Chicago: C. H. Kerr, 1903.
  • ———. Farmington. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1932.
  • ———. Attorney for the Damned: Clarence Darrow in the Courtroom, Arthur Weinberg, ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1957.
  • ———. Crime: Its Causes and Treatment. Montclair, N.J.: Patterson Smith, 1972.
  • ———. The Story of My Life. New York: Da Capo Press, 1996.
  • Higdon, Hal. Leopold and Loeb: The Crime of the Century. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1999.
  • Larson, Edward J. Summer for the Gods: The Scopes Trial and America’s Continuing Debate Over Science and Religion. New York: Basic Books, 1997.
  • Sayer, James Edward. Clarence Darrow: Public Advocate. Monograph series no. 2. Dayton, OH: Wright State University, 1978.
  • Stone, Irving. Clarence Darrow for the Defense. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, Doran and Company, 1941.
  • Tierney, Kevin. Darrow: A Biography. New York: Thomas Y. Crowell Publishers, 1979.
  • Vine, Phyllis. One Man’s Castle: Clarence Darrow in Defense of the American Dream. New York: Amistad, 2004.

See also Capital Punishment; Prohibition; Scopes Trial