Clarence Seward Darrow ca. 1922
|Born||April 18, 1857
Kinsman Township, Trumbull County, Ohio
|Died||March 13, 1938 (aged 80)
|Alma mater||Allegheny College, University of Michigan Law School|
Clarence Seward Darrow (April 18, 1857 – March 13, 1938) was an American lawyer and leading member of the American Civil Liberties Union, best known for defending teenage thrill killers Leopold and Loeb in their trial for murdering 14-year-old Bobby Franks (1924) and defending John T. Scopes in the Scopes Trial (1925), in which he opposed William Jennings Bryan (statesman, noted orator, and three time presidential candidate for the Democratic Party). Called a "sophisticated country lawyer", he remains notable for his wit and agnosticism that marked him as one of the most famous American lawyers and civil libertarians.
Clarence Darrow was the son of Amirus Darrow and Emily (Eddy) Darrow. Both the Darrow and the Eddy families had deep roots in colonial New England, and several of Darrow's ancestors served in the American Revolution. Clarence's father was an ardent abolitionist and a proud iconoclast and religious free-thinker, known in town as the "village infidel." Emily Darrow was an early supporter of female suffrage and a women's rights advocate. Clarence attended Allegheny College and the University of Michigan Law School but did not graduate from either institution. He was admitted to the Ohio bar in 1878. The Clarence Darrow Octagon House, which was his childhood home in the small town of Kinsman, Ohio, contains a memorial to him.
Darrow began his career reading law in Youngstown, Ohio, where he was first admitted to the profession by Judge Alfred W. Mackey. He opened his first practice in Andover, Ohio and then moved to Ashtabula, where he became involved in Democratic Party politics and served as the town counsel. In 1880 he married Jessie Ohl, and seven years later he moved to Chicago with his wife and young son, Paul. There, he worked for the city government as a lawyer, and made a mark for himself speaking at Democratic rallies and other speaking engagements. He was a close friend and protege of Illinois Gov. John Altgeld, and helped secure a pardon from the governor for the anarchists who were imprisoned for the Haymarket Square bombing. With Altgeld's help, Darrow became a corporate lawyer for the Chicago & Northwestern Railway Company, a major Midwestern railroad. In 1894 Darrow represented Eugene V. Debs, the leader of the American Railway Union, who was prosecuted by the federal government for leading the Pullman Strike of 1894. Darrow severed his ties with the railroad to represent Debs, making a financial sacrifice. He saved Debs in one trial, but could not keep the union leader from being jailed in another.
Also in 1894, Darrow took on the first murder case of his career, defending Patrick Eugene Prendergast, the "mentally deranged drifter" who had confessed to murdering Chicago mayor Carter H. Harrison, Sr. Darrow's "insanity defense" failed and Prendergast was executed that same year. Among fifty defenses in murder cases throughout the whole of Darrow's career, the Prendergast case would prove to be the only one resulting in an execution.
Darrow became one of America's leading labor attorneys. He helped organize the Populist Party in Illinois, then ran for Congress as a Democrat in 1896, but lost to Hugh R. Belknap. In 1897 his marriage ended in divorce. He represented the woodworkers of Wisconsin in a notable case in Oshkosh in 1898, and the United Mine Workers in Pennsylvania in the great anthracite coal strike of 1902. He flirted with the idea of running for mayor of Chicago in 1903, but ultimately decided against it. That year he married Ruby Hammerstrom, a young Chicago journalist.
From 1906 to 1908, Darrow represented the Western Federation of Miners leaders William "Big Bill" Haywood, Charles Moyer and George Pettibone when they were arrested and charged with the 1905 murder of former Idaho Gov. Frank Steunenberg. After a series of trials, Haywood and Pettibone were found not guilty and the charges were dropped against Moyer.
The American Federation of Labor then called on Darrow to defend the McNamara brothers, John and James, who were charged with dynamiting the Los Angeles Times building during the bitter struggle over the open shop in Southern California (21 employees had died as a result of the explosion). Darrow came to realize that the McNamara brothers were guilty, but worked hard to have them acquitted. With his help, they were portrayed by the AFL as heroes to American workers, who contributed their hard-earned money to a McNamara defense fund. In November, 1911, an orchestrated plot was launched by the defense to bribe jurors in the McNamara case. Darrow was at the scene of one attempted bribery, as one of his investigators was arrested handing money to one of the prospective jurors. With the case collapsing around him, Darrow convinced the brothers to change their plea to guilty. The plea bargain he helped arrange got them lengthy prison sentences instead of the death penalty, but he was accused by many in organized labor of selling the movement out. Two months later, Darrow was charged with two counts of attempting to bribe the jurors. He faced two lengthy trials. In the first, defended by Earl Rogers, he was acquitted. Early during the second trial, Rogers abandoned the case, disagreeing with Darrow about the defense strategy, and Darrow defended himself. The trial ended with a hung jury. Subsequently the D.A. agreed not to retry the case if Darrow promised not to practice law again in California, and Darrow was allowed to go home.
As a consequence of the bribery charges, most labor unions dropped Darrow from their list of preferred attorneys. This effectively put Darrow out of business as a labor lawyer, and he switched to civil and, most notably, criminal cases.
Throughout his career, Darrow devoted himself to opposing the death penalty, which he felt to be in conflict with humanitarian progress. In more than 100 cases, Darrow only lost one murder case in Chicago. He became renowned for moving juries and even judges to tears with his eloquence. Darrow had a keen intellect often hidden by his rumpled, unassuming appearance.
A July 23, 1915 article in the Chicago Tribune describes Darrow's effort on behalf of J.H. Fox – an Evanston, Illinois landlord – to have Mary S. Brazelton committed to an insane asylum against the wishes of her family. Fox alleged that Brazelton owed him rent money although other residents of Fox's boarding house testified to her sanity.
In the summer of 1924, Darrow took on the case of Leopold and Loeb, the teenage sons of two wealthy Chicago families, who were accused of kidnapping and killing Bobby Franks, a 14-year-old boy from their stylish Kenwood neighborhood. Nathan Leopold was 19 and Richard Loeb was 18 when they were arrested. Leopold was a law student at the University of Chicago, about to transfer to Harvard Law School. Loeb was the youngest graduate ever from the University of Michigan. When asked why they committed the crime, Leopold told his captors: "The thing that prompted Dick to want to do this thing and prompted me to want to do this thing was a sort of pure love of excitement...the imaginary love of thrills, doing something different....The satisfaction and the ego of putting something over."
The Chicago newspapers labeled the case a "crime of the century," and Americans around the country wondered what could drive the two young men, blessed with everything their society could offer, to commit such a depraved act.
The killers were arrested after a passing workman spotted the victim's body in an isolated nature preserve near the Indiana border, just half a day after it was hidden, before they could collect a $10,000 ransom. Nearby were Leopold's eyeglasses, with their distinctive, traceable frames, which he had dropped at the scene.
Leopold and Loeb made full confessions, and took police on a grim hunt around Chicago to collect the evidence that would be used against them. The state's attorney told the press that he had a "hanging case" for sure. Darrow stunned the prosecution when he had the killers plead guilty, to avoid a vengeance-minded jury and place the case before a judge. The trial, then, was actually a long sentencing hearing in which Darrow contended, with the help of expert testimony, that Leopold and Loeb were mentally diseased.
Darrow's closing address lasted 12 hours. He repeatedly stressed the ages of the "boys" (before the Vietnam War, the age of majority was 21), and noted that "never had there been a case in Chicago, where on a plea of guilty a boy under 21 had been sentenced to death." His famous plea was designed to soften the heart of Judge John Caverly, but also to mold public opinion, so that Caverly could follow precedent without too huge an uproar. Darrow succeeded. Caverly sentenced the killers to life plus 99 years.
The Leopold and Loeb case raised, in a well-publicized trial, Darrow's lifelong contention that psychological, physical and environmental influences control human behavior - not a conscious choice between right and wrong. The public got an education in psychology and medicine and, because Leopold was an admirer, the philosophy of Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche.
During the Leopold-Loeb trial, the newspapers claimed that Darrow was presenting a "million dollar defense" for the two wealthy families. Many ordinary Americans were angered at his apparent greed. He had the families issue a statement insisting that there would be no large legal fees, and that his fees would be determined by a committee composed of officers from the Chicago Bar Association. After trial, Darrow suggested $200,000 would be reasonable. After lengthy negotiations with the defendant's families, he ended up getting some $70,000 in gross fees, which, after expenses and taxes, netted Darrow $30,000.
In 1925, Darrow defended John T. Scopes in the State of Tennessee v. Scopes trial of 1925. It has often been called the "Scopes-Monkey Trial," a title popularized by author and journalist H.L. Mencken. This pitted Darrow against William Jennings Bryan in an American court case that tested the Butler Act which had passed on March 21, 1925. The act forbade the teaching, in any state-funded educational establishment in Tennessee, of "any theory that denies the story of the Divine Creation of man as taught in the Bible, and to teach instead that man has descended from a lower order of animals." The law made it illegal for public school teachers in Tennessee to teach that man evolved from lower organisms, but the law was sometimes interpreted as meaning that the law forbade the teaching of any aspect of the theory of evolution. The law did not prohibit the teaching of evolution of any other species of plant or animal.
During the trial, Darrow requested that Bryan be called to the stand as an expert witness on the Bible. Over the other prosecutor's objection, Bryan agreed. Many[who?] believe that the following exchange caused the trial to turn against Bryan and for Darrow:
- Darrow: "You have given considerable study to the Bible, haven't you, Mr. Bryan?"
- Bryan: "Yes, sir; I have tried to ... But, of course, I have studied it more as I have become older than when I was a boy."
- Darrow: "Do you claim then that everything in the Bible should be literally interpreted?"
- Bryan: "I believe that everything in the Bible should be accepted as it is given there; some of the Bible is given illustratively. For instance: "Ye are the salt of the earth." I would not insist that man was actually salt, or that he had flesh of salt, but it is used in the sense of salt as saving God's people."
After about two hours, Judge Raulston cut the questioning short, and on the following morning ordered that the whole session (which in any case the jury had not witnessed) be expunged from the record, ruling that the testimony had no bearing on whether Scopes was guilty of teaching evolution. Scopes was found guilty and ordered to pay the minimum fine of $100.
A year later, the Tennessee Supreme Court reversed the decision of the Dayton court on a technicality–not the constitutional grounds as Darrow had hoped. According to the court, the fine should have been set by the jury, not Raulston. Rather than send the case back for further action, however, the Tennessee Supreme Court dismissed the case. The court commented, "Nothing is to be gained by prolonging the life of this bizarre case."
A white mob in Detroit attempted to drive a black family out of the home they had purchased in a white neighborhood. In the struggle, a white man was killed, and the eleven blacks in the house were arrested and charged with murder. Dr. Ossian Sweet and three members of his family were brought to trial and after an initial deadlock, Darrow argued to the all-white jury: "I insist that there is nothing but prejudice in this case; that if it was reversed and eleven white men had shot and killed a black while protecting their home and their lives against a mob of blacks, nobody would have dreamed of having them indicted. They would have been given medals instead..." Following the mistrial of the 11, it was agreed that each of them would be tried individually. Darrow alongside Thomas Chawke would first defend Ossian's brother Henry, who had confessed to firing the shot on Garland Street. Henry was found not guilty on grounds of self defense and the prosecution determined to drop the charges on the remaining 10. The trials were presided over by the Honorable Frank Murphy, who went on to become Governor of Michigan and an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States. Darrow's final closing statement, which lasted over 7 hours, is seen as a landmark in the Civil Rights movement, and was included in the book 'Speeches that Changed the World' (given the name 'I Believe in the Law of Love'). Uniquely, the two closing arguments of Clarence Darrow, from the first and second trials, are available, and show how he learned from the first trial and reshaped his remarks.
Aged 68, Darrow had already announced his retirement before he volunteered to take part in the Scopes Trial, apart from the Sweet trial later that same year. After those final trials, Darrow would retire from full-time practice, emerging only occasionally to undertake cases such as the 1932 Massie Trial in Hawaii.
In his last headline making case, the Massie Trial, Darrow–devastated by the Great Depression–was hired to come to the defense of Grace Hubbard Fortescue, Edward J. Lord, Deacon Jones and Thomas Massie, Fortescue's son-in-law, accused of murdering Joseph Kahahawai. Kahahawai had been accused, along with four other men, of raping and beating Thalia Massie, Thomas' wife and Fortescue's daughter; the resulting 1931 case ended in a hung jury (though the charges were later dropped and repeated investigation has shown them to be innocent). Enraged, Fortescue and Massie then orchestrated the murder of Kahahawai in order to extract a confession and were caught by police officers while transporting his dead body.
Darrow entered the racially charged atmosphere as the defense lawyer for the defendants. Darrow reconstructed the case as a justified honor killing. Considered by the New York Times to be one of Darrow's three most compelling trials (along with the Scopes Trial and the Leopold and Loeb case), the case captivated the nation and most of white America strongly supported the honor killing defense. In fact, the final defense arguments were transmitted to the mainland through a special radio hook-up. In the end the jury came back with a unanimous verdict of guilty, but on the lesser crime of manslaughter.
A volume of Darrow's boyhood Reminiscences, entitled "Farmington," was published in Chicago in 1903 by McClurg and Company.
The papers of Clarence Darrow are located at the Library of Congress. The Riesenfeld Rare Books Research Center of the University of Minnesota Law School has the largest collection of letters to and from Darrow, though they remain closed to the public.
After his death, a full-length one-man play was created, Darrow, featuring Darrow's reminiscences about his career. Originated by Henry Fonda, many actors, including Leslie Nielsen, have since taken on the role of Darrow in this play.
The play Inherit the Wind (later adapted to the screen) is a broadly fictionalized account of the Scopes Trial. Though the authors note that the 1925 trial was "clearly the genesis" of their play, they insist that the characters had "life and language of their own." They also mention that the issues raised in the play "have acquired new dimension and meaning" a possible reference to the political controversies of the 1950s. Still, they finish their foreword by inviting a more universal reading of the play: "It might have been yesterday. It could be tomorrow."
Darrow was the inspiration for the character of Johnathan Wilk in the 1956 novel Compulsion, a thinly fictionalized account of the Leopold and Loeb case. In 1959, the novel was adapted into a film of the same name, starring the legendary filmmaker Orson Welles as Wilk. Welles, whose closing monologue was the longest ever committed to film at that time, shared the Best Actor award with co-stars Bradford Dillman and Dean Stockwell at that year's Cannes Film Festival.
The Clarence Darrow Memorial Bridge is located in Chicago, just south of the Museum of Science & Industry.
Historical novelist Irving Stone wrote a biography of Darrow entitled Clarence Darrow for the Defense.
Kevin Boyle's book, Arc of Justice (Owl Books, 2004), looks in depth at the Ossian Sweet trial.
There is also a film, Darrow, starring Kevin Spacey and released by American Playhouse in 1991.
Arguably the most penetrating analysis of Darrow, both as a lawyer and as a person, is Geoffrey Cowan's biographical The People v. Clarence Darrow.
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