Darrow, Clarence

views updated May 29 2018

Clarence Darrow

Excerpt from "The Plea of Clarence Darrow"

Reprinted from The Amazing Crime and Trial of Leopold and Loeb, edited by Maureen McKernan

Published in 1996

Richard Loeb and Nathan Leopold were nineteen years old, exceptionally bright students, and from wealthy families. Loeb was a handsome University of Chicago student and Leopold an ornithologist (person who studies birds). The Leopolds were wealthy German Jewish immigrants who made their fortune shipping grains and minerals on the Great Lakes.

Nathan entered college at age sixteen and graduated from University of Chicago in 1923 with high honors. He was taking law classes with plans to attend Harvard Law School. Richard's father was a millionaire executive in charge of the massive Sears-Roebuck mail order business. Richard was a brilliant child, graduating from high school at age fourteen and becoming one of the youngest graduates in University of Michigan history, at age seventeen.

"When the public is interested and demands a punishment, no matter what the offense, great or small, it thinks of only one punishment, and that is death."

Their lives, however, would take a dramatic and tragic turn on Wednesday, May 21, 1924. That afternoon Bobby Franks, fourteen years of age, was walking home from school when Richard Loeb and Nathan Leopold pulled up in a rental car and offered him a ride. Bobby knew both the nineteen-year-olds since they all three lived in a wealthy neighborhood of Chicago known as Kenwood, and Loeb was Bobby's neighbor. As soon as Bobby was in the car they hit him over the head with a heavy metal chisel and stuffed a piece of cloth down his throat suffocating him.

While waiting for dark Leopold and Loeb had dinner at a hotdog stand. They then drove to Wolf Lake, took the boy's clothes off, poured hydrochloric acid over him to obscure his identity, and dumped the body in a culvert. On their way back to town, they mailed a ransom note to Franks home demanding $10,000. The note provided instructions on how to deliver the money. They warned about contacting authorities and not following instructions. They went to Loeb's house where they burned bloodstained clothes and tried taking any bloodstains out of their rental car. The two young men then stayed up late that night playing a game.

The special delivery ransom letter arrived the following morning at the Franks' residence. A phone call from Loeb and Leopold to Bobby's father Jacob gave further instructions on how to deliver the money to a particular drugstore address. In the confusion, Jacob forgot the address of the drugstore mentioned and was unable to carry through with the delivery. Later that same day the body of a boy, identified as Bobby, was found in a culvert at Wolf Lake.

Rewards for the capture of the murderer quickly mounted. Police investigators and newspaper reporters searched for clues. It was discovered that a pair of glasses found near the body of Franks had an unusual hinge. Sales records showed that only three had been sold in the Chicago area, one to Leopold. When approached by authorities, however, he explained that he often bird-watched in the area and the glasses had recently fallen out of his pocket there.

On May 29, 1924, both Leopold and Loeb were detained and questioned separately by authorities at the La Salle Hotel. They avoided the police station because of the intense media coverage. Though their stories did not match perfectly, police were unable to build a case and finally let them go. Newspaper investigators discovered much more substantial evidence. The type on the ransom note matched a portable typewriter that Loeb had sometimes used.

Faced with the new evidence, Leopold and Loeb confessed to the murder and kidnapping, and told their story. They
readily revealed the kidnapping had been planned for months as a legal challenge to the two bored students. Through the following days the two young men took police to locations where they found various pieces of evidence including the chisel.

The case was a major story in the newspapers. The public demanded swift trials and executions. To this point, the boys were not represented by lawyers during the questioning. Albert Loeb went to sixty-seven-year-old Clarence Darrow, known for his personal opposition to the death penalty. Loeb sought a life sentence rather than death penalties.

On June 5, 1924, a grand jury indicted Leopold and Loeb for murder and kidnapping. The following day their full confessions were published in the Chicago newspapers. The trial began on July 21. Darrow immediately stunned the court by changing their pleas from not guilty to guilty. Everyone had assumed he would be using a defense of not guilty by reason of insanity. Darrow knew a not guilty plea would lead to a trial by jury; given the confessions and evidence, he figured a jury would be more likely to sentence his clients to death than Judge John R. Caverly. On August 22, 1924, Darrow made his impassioned two hour speech against the death penalty.

Things to remember while reading excerpts from "The Plea of Clarence Darrow":

  • The fact that Leopold and Loeb had already confessed and told their stories in detail to the police, including leading them to evidence, already established that they had indeed killed Franks.
  • The public and the media were strongly pressing for a quick trial and execution.
  • A key reason famed attorney Clarence Darrow accepted the case was because it gave him a unique opportunity to present his arguments against the death penalty before the media.
  • The two young men were pampered while in jail awaiting trial. A local restaurant provided catering service including food, cigarettes, and even liquor though this was in the midst of Prohibition when the possession and sale of alcoholic beverages was illegal.
  • Hanging was the key means of execution in Illinois where the trial was being held.

Excerpt from "The Plea of Clarence Darrow"

Your Honor, it has been almost three months since the great responsibility of this case was assumed by my associates and myself. Iam willing to confess that it has been three months of great anxiety. . . .

Our anxiety over this case has not been due to the facts that are connected with this most unfortunate affair, but to the almost unheard of publicity it has received; to the fact that newspapers all over this country have been giving it space such as they have almost never before given to any case. The fact that day after day the people of Chicago have been regaled with stories of all sorts about it, until almost every person has formed an opinion.

And when the public is interested and demands a punishment, no matter what the offense, great or small, it thinks of only one punishment, and that is death.

It may not be a question that involves the taking of human life; it may be a question of pure prejudice alone; but when the public speaks as one man it thinks only of killing. . . .

I told your Honor in the beginning that never had there been a case in Chicago, where on a plea of guilty a boy under twenty-one had been sentenced to death. I will raise that age and say, never has there been a case where a human being under the age of twentythree has been sentenced to death. And, I think I am safe in saying, although I have not examined all the records and could not—but I think I am safe in saying—that never has there been such a case in the State of Illinois.

And yet this court is urged, aye, threatened, that [it] must hang two boys contrary to precedents, contrary to the acts of every judge who ever held court in this state.


Tell me what public necessity there is for this.

Why need the State's Attorney ask for something that never before has been demanded?

Why need a judge be urged by every argument, moderate and immoderate, to hang two boys in the face of every precedent in Illinois, and in the face of the progress of the last fifty years?. . .

You may stand them up on the trap-door of the scaffold, and choke them to death, but that act will be infinitely more cold-blooded whether justified or not, than any act that these boys have committed or can commit.


Let the State, who is so anxious to take these boys' lives, set an example in consideration, kindheartedness and tenderness before they call my clients cold-blooded.

I have heard this crime described; this most distressing and unfortunate homicide, as I would call it—this cold-blooded murder, as the State would call it.

I call it a homicide particularly distressing because I am defending.

They call it a cold-blooded murder because they want to take human lives.

Call it what you will. . . .

They say that this was a cruel murder, the worst that ever happened. I say that very few murders ever occurred that were as free from cruelty as this.

There ought to be some rule to determine whether a murder is exceedingly cruel or not. . . .

But I would say the first thing to consider is the degree of pain to the victim.

Poor little Bobby Franks suffered very little. There is no excuse for his killing. If to hang these two boys would bring him back to life, I would say let them go, and I believe their parents would say so, too. . . .

Robert Franks is dead, and we cannot call him back to life. It was all over in fifteen minutes after he got into the car, and he probably never knew it or thought of it. That does not justify it. It is the last thing I would do. I am sorry for the poor boy. I am sorry for his parents. But, it is done. . . .

This is a senseless, useless, purposeless, motiveless act of two boys. Now, let me see if I can prove it. There was not a particle of hate, there was not a grain of malice, there was no opportunity to be cruel except as death is cruel—and death is cruel. . . .

Three hundred and forty murder cases in ten years with a plea of guilty in this county. All the young who pleaded guilty—every one of them, three hundred and forty in ten years with one hanging on a plea of guilty, and that a man forty years of age. And yet they say we come here with a preposterous plea for mercy. When did any plea for mercy become preposterous in a tribunal in all the universe?. . .

I have faith that this court [the judge] will take this case, with his conscience, and his judgment and his courage and save these boys' lives. . . .

What about this matter of crime and punishment, anyhow? I may know less than the rest, but I have at least tried to find out, and I am fairly familiar with the best literature that has been written on that subject in the last hundred years. The more men study, the more they doubt the effect of severe punishment on crime. And yet Mr. Savage [the prosecutor] tells this court that if these boys are hanged, there will be no more murder.

Mr. Savage is an optimist. He says that if the defendants are hanged there will be no more boys like these.

I could give him a sketch of punishment. . . . You can trace it all down through the history of man. You can trace the burnings, the boiling, the drawings and quarterings, the hanging of people in England at the crossroads, carving them up and hanging them as examples for all to see.

We can come down to the last century when nearly two hundred crimes were punishable by death, and by death in every form; not only hanging—that was too humane—but burning, boiling, cutting into pieces, torturing in all conceivable forms.

You can read the stories of the hangings on a high hill, and the populace for miles around coming out to the scene, that everybody might be awed into goodness. Hanging for picking pockets—and more pockets were picked in the crowd that went to the hanging than had been known before. Hangings for murder—and men were murdered on the way there and on the way home. Hangings for poaching, hangings for everything and hangings in public, not shut up cruelly and brutally in a jail, out of the light of day, wakened in the night time and led forth and killed, but taken to the shire town on a high hill, in the presence of a multitude, so that all might see that the wages of sin were death. . . .

Gradually the laws have been changed and modified, and men look back with horror at the hangings and the killings of the past. What did they find in England? That as they got rid of these barbarous statutes crimes decreased instead of increased; as the criminal law was modified and humanized, there was less crime instead of more. I will undertake to say, your Honor, that you can scarcely find a single book written by a student—and I will include all the works on criminology of the past—that has not made the statement over and over again that as the penal code was made less terrible crimes grew less frequent. . . .

If these two boys die on the scaffold, which I can never bring myself to imagine—if they do die on the scaffold, the details of this willbe spread over the world. Every newspaper in the United States will carry a full account. Every newspaper of Chicago will be filled with the gruesome details. It will enter every home and every family.

Will it make men better or make men worse? I would like to put that to the intelligence of man, at least such intelligence as they have. I would like to appeal to the feelings of human beings so far as they have feelings—would it make the human heart softer or would it make hearts harder? How many men would be colder and crueler for it? How many men would enjoy the details, and you cannot enjoy human suffering without being affected for better or for worse; those who enjoyed it would be affected for the worse.

What influence would it have upon the millions of men who will read it? What influence would it have upon the millions of women who will read it, more sensitive, more impressionable, more imaginative than men? Would it help them if your Honor should do what the state begs you to do? What influence would it have upon the infinite number of children who will devour its details as Dicky Loeb has enjoyed reading detective stories? Would it make them better or would it make them worse? The question needs no answer. You can answer it from the human heart. What influence, let me ask you, will it have for the unborn babes still sleeping in their mother's womb? And what influence will it have on the psychology of the fathers and mothers yet to come? Do I need to argue to your Honor that cruelty only breeds cruelty?—that hatred only causes hatred; that if there is any way to soften this human heart which is hard enough at its best, if there is any way to kill evil and hatred and all that goes with it, it is not through evil and hatred and cruelty; it is through charity, and love and understanding. . . .

We have raised the age of hanging. We have raised it by the humanity of courts, by the understanding of courts, by the progress in science which at last is reaching the law; and in ninety men hanged in Illinois from its beginning, not one single person under twentythree was ever hanged upon a plea of guilty—not one. If your Honor should do this, you will violate every precedent that had been set in Illinois for almost a century. There can be no excuse for it, and no justification for it, because this is the policy of the law which is rooted in the feelings of humanity, which are deep in every human being that thinks and feels. There have been two or three cases where juries have convicted boys younger than this, and where courts on convictions have refused to set aside the sentence because a jury had found it. . . .

I do not know how much salvage there is in these two boys. I hate to say it in their presence, but what is there to look forward to? I do not know but what your Honor would be merciful if you tied a rope around their necks and let them die; merciful to them, but not merciful to civilization, and not merciful to those who would be left behind. To spend the balance of their days in prison is mighty little to look forward to, if anything. Is it anything? They may have the hope that as the years roll around they might be released. I do not know. I do not know. I will be honest with this court as I have tried to be from the beginning. I know that these boys are not fit to be at large. I believe they will not be until they pass through the next stage of life, at forty-five or fifty. Whether they will be then, I cannot tell. I am sure of this; that I will not be here to help them. So far as I am concerned, it is over.

I would not tell the court that I do not hope that some time, when life and age has changed their bodies, as it does, and has changed their emotions, as it does—that they may once more return to life. I would be the last person on earth to close the door of hope to any human being that lives, and least of all to my clients. But what have they to look forward to? Nothing. . . .

I care not, Your Honor, whether the march begins at the gallows or when the gates of Joliet close upon them, there is nothing but the night, and that is little for any human being to expect.

But there are others to be considered. Here are these two families, who have led honest lives, who will hear the name that they bear, and future generations must carry it on.

Here is Leopold's father—and this boy was the pride of his life. He watched him, he cared for him, he worked for him; the boy was brilliant and accomplished, he educated him, and he thought that fame and position awaited him, as it should have awaited. It is a hard thing for a father to see his life's hopes crumble into dust.

Should he be considered? Should his brothers be considered? Will it do society any good or make your life safer, or any human being's life safer, if it should be handed down from generation to generation, that this boy, their kin, died upon the scaffold?

And Loeb's, the same. Here is the faithful uncle and brother, who have watched here day by day, while Dickie's father and his mother are too ill to stand this terrific strain, and shall be waiting for a message which means more to them than it can mean to you or me. Shall these be taken into account in this general bereavement ?

Have they any rights? Is there any reason, your Honor, why their proud names and all the future generations that bear them shall have this bar sinister written across them? How many boys and girls, how many unborn children will feel it? It is bad enough as it is, God knows. . . . But it's not yet death on the scaffold. It's not that. And I ask your honor, in addition to all that I have said, to have two honorable families from a disgrace that never ends, and which could be of no avail to help any human being that lives. . . .

I am pleading for life, understanding, charity, kindness, and the infinite mercy that considers all. I am pleading that we overcome cruelty with kindness and hatred with love. I know the future is on my side. Your Honor stands between the past and the future. You may hang these boys; you may hang them by the neck until they are dead. But in doing it you will turn your face toward the past. . . . I am pleading for the future; I am pleading for a time when hatred and cruelty will not control the hearts of men. When we can learn by reason and judgment and understanding and faith that all life is worth saving, and that mercy is the highest attribute of man.

What happened next . . .

The small, stuffy courtroom holding some two hundred news media members and another seventy spectators had just witnessed what many historians regarded the finest oration by Clarence Darrow in his career though he had long been noted for his oratory skills. On September 19 Judge Caverly announced his decision. He accepted Darrow's arguments. Based on the young age of the defendants, Caverly sentenced them to life in prison and recommended no possibility of future parole.

In 1932 Leopold and Loeb opened a school for prisoners making use of their educations and talents in a constructive way. On January 28, 1936, Loeb's cellmate attacked him with a razor blade slashing him over fifty times. He died from loss of blood at thirty-two years of age. Leopold dedicated himself to learning. He learned twenty-seven languages, raised canaries, worked in the prison library, and volunteered for medical experiments. In 1953 he was given a parole hearing but was denied. A second time, however, was successful.

Leopold was paroled in March 1958 after thirty-three years in prison. Also during that year he published an autobiography titled Life Plus 99 Years. He moved to Puerto Rico where he obtained a master's degree from the University of Puerto Rico, married, and worked at various jobs. Leopold published a book titled The Birds of Puerto Rico. He died of a heart attack in 1971 at the age of sixty-six.

Despite Darrow's pleas against use of the death penalty, capital punishment continued in the United States even though almost all other developed countries had banned capital punishment by the late twentieth century. Over seven thousand executions occurred in the United States during the twentieth century. Some six hundred took place after 1977 with over 80 percent in southern states and 35 percent in Texas alone.

By 2000 two-thirds of all executions were in three states—Texas, Oklahoma, and Virginia. To guarantee fairness, an extensive system of court reviews is provided making the execution process long and complex. Supporters of the death penalty are as dissatisfied with it as opponents; because of the lengthy process inmates sentenced to die sit for years on death row. For this reason the number of death row inmates grew from 220 in 1960 to 3,500 in 2000.

Did you know . . .

  • The effect of the trial to participants was pronounced. Judge Caverly and his wife entered a hospital immediately afterwards to recover from exhaustion and strain. He only heard divorce cases in the future.
  • The crime and trial took a huge toll on the families; the fathers of Franks, Loeb, and Leopold all died within a few years time by 1929.
  • Two of Nathan Leopold's older brothers changed their names to separate themselves from the crime.
  • Clarence Darrow went from the fame of this case to his most famous case of all, the Scopes "Monkey' trial in which he defended a Tennessee schoolteacher charged with teaching evolution (that mankind was descended from ape-creatures rather than created by a supreme being) in the classroom.

Consider the following . . .

  • Divide the class into two groups and debate the merits of capital punishment. Does it serve a useful purpose in deterring future crime? Use the Internet in your research, using Web sites to support and oppose the death penalty.
  • What organizations in your state or community support the death penalty? Which ones oppose the death penalty?
  • What is the perception of the death penalty in other countries? How do Europeans view the death penalty?

Regaled: Amused.

Prejudice: Opinion already established.

Bereavement: The loss of a loved one through death.

Bar sinister: Sense of shame.

For More Information


Higdon, Hal. Crime of the Century: The Leopold & Loeb Case. New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1975.

Leopold, Nathan F., Jr. Life Plus 99 Years. New York: Doubleday, 1958.

McKernan, Maureen. The Amazing Crime and Trial of Leopold and Loeb. Holmes Beach, FL: Gaunt, Inc., 1996.

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

Web Sites

"Illinois v. Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb." University of Missouri Faculty: Famous Trials.http://www.law.umkc.edu/faculty/projects/ftrials/leoploeb/leopold.htm (accessed August 19, 2004).

Darrow, Clarence Seward

views updated May 29 2018


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.

Darrow, Clarence

views updated May 09 2018

Clarence Darrow

Born April 18, 1857 (Kinsman, Ohio)
Died March 13, 1938 (Chicago, Illinois)


"Your honor stands between the past and the future. You may hang these boys; you may hang them by the neck until they are dead. But in doing it you will turn your face toward the past."

Clarence Darrow was one of the most famous lawyers in U.S. history. Always a strong defender of the underdog and a winner of seemingly lost causes, Darrow played a leading role in some of the most extraordinary courtroom dramas of the 1920s. A lifelong opponent of capital punishment, he used testimony based on the new, modern science of psychology in a successful attempt to save murderers Nathan Leopold (1904–1971) and Richard Loeb (1905–1936) from execution. In the famous court battle known as the Monkey Trial, which involved the clash of religious and scientific views of the origin of humanity, Darrow defended the right of educator John Scopes (1900–1970) to teach his students about the theory of evolution.

A young Ohio lawyer

Born in the northeastern Ohio town of Kinsman in April 1857, Darrow was the son of Amirus and Emily Darrow. His father had once been a Unitarian minister but after losing his religious faith became a carpenter and furniture maker. The elder Darrow was a book-loving agnostic (someone who doubts but does not

deny the existence of God), and his wife was a supporter of women's rights. They passed their liberal social views and concern for the less privileged members of society to their son.

As a boy, Darrow enjoyed participating in outdoor activities such as fishing, sledding, and baseball with his seven brothers and sisters. He also developed a fear of death that seems to have grown out of his discomfort with his father making coffins as a carpenter. Some historians have even linked Darrow's hatred for the death penalty to this part of his past. The death of his mother when he was fourteen also cast a shadow over his youth.

Darrow was never an enthusiastic student, even though he loved to read books. After spending a year at Allegheny College in Pennsylvania, he returned to Kinsman and took a job as a teacher. He enjoyed the experience of addressing a class, but soon he decided to become an attorney. Darrow attended the University of Michigan law school for a year, and then, like many law students of the period, completed his education by working in a law office.

In 1878, when Darrow was twenty-one, he passed Ohio's bar examination (a test of qualifications for practicing law). For the next ten years he worked as an attorney in the small towns of Kinsman, Andover, and Ashtabula, Ohio. He married a quiet, reserved young woman named Jessie Ohl in 1880 (the couple would divorce in 1897, and six years later Darrow would begin a happy thirty-five-year marriage to Ruby Hamerstrom). In 1887 Darrow moved his family, which now included his only child Paul, to Chicago, Illinois, a lively, bustling city that seemed to hold exciting possibilities for a sharp young lawyer. Chicago would be Darrow's much-beloved home for the rest of his life.

Gaining fame as a labor lawyer

Darrow made many new contacts in Chicago, where he took part in Democratic Party politics and established a close friendship with John Peter Altgeld (1847–1902), a millionaire and judge who shared Darrow's interest in social reform. Following Altgeld's election as governor of Illinois in 1892, Darrow too became a prominent figure. In 1889 he was appointed the head of Chicago's legal department, but he left this job three years later to become an attorney for the Chicago and Northwestern Railway Company.

Darrow's career as a corporate (company) lawyer was shortlived. By the middle of the 1890s, he was making a name for himself in labor law. As U.S. industry had expanded in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the labor movement too had evolved as a way for workers to protect their interests. In addition to caring about such matters as fair wages and safe working conditions, Darrow believed that workers should be allowed to form unions in order to give themselves bargaining power in disagreements with owners and managers. In the early decades of the twentieth century, tensions between management and unions often resulted in conflict and even violence.

In 1894 Darrow agreed to represent labor leader Eugene V. Debs (1855–1926), a well-known Socialist (someone who believes in a political and economic system in which the means of production, distribution, and exchange are owned by the community as a whole, rather than by individuals) and president of the American Railway Union. With other union leaders, Debs had organized a massive railroad strike that made a significant impact on the nation. Lower courts had ruled that Debs and the others had conspired to obstruct trade between states and also violated a judge's order to end the strike.

Darrow took the case to the U.S. Supreme Court, but the earlier rulings were upheld, and Debs spent six months in jail. Despite this loss, Darrow gained fame as a defender of labor. He worked on labor cases for the next seventeen years, always striving to bring attention to the problems of ordinary workers. For example, while serving as a defense counsel during arbitration (a way to resolve a dispute outside the court system) of a coal miners' strike, Darrow cast light on the dangers of this kind of work and the industry's reliance on underage laborers.

Other famous cases

Another of Darrow's most famous labor cases involved his defense of William D. "Big Bill" Haywood (1869–1928), the head of the newly formed International Workers of the World (IWW) Union. Former Idaho governor Frank Steunenberg (1861–1905), who was well known for his antiunion stance, was killed when a bomb exploded outside his home. Haywood and two other union officials were charged with the murder. Despite a defense effort that was not up to the standard of most of Darrow's performances, the jury found the defendants not guilty. During the trial, Darrow had exposed the many efforts of mining company managers and local government leaders to harass union members.

Darrow tried his last labor law case in 1911, when he agreed to defend brothers Joseph and James McNamara, who were socialists and union activists. They had been charged with the October 1910 bombing of the building that housed the Los Angeles Times, whose publisher, Otis Chandler, was known to be antiunion. The blast killed twenty-one people and injured forty. A surprising turn of events came in the middle of the trial, when the brothers changed their plea from not guilty to guilty. Darrow had advised his clients to plead guilty so that he could work on helping them avoid the death penalty (a guilty plea meant that their fate would be decided by a judge, not a jury). This plan worked, but labor leaders were angry with Darrow. They felt he had tarnished the image of the labor movement by not winning a not guilty judgment for the McNamaras.

This was quickly followed by two charges that Darrow had tried to bribe members of the jury during the McNamara trial. Darrow was tried and found not guilty, but the publicity had damaged his reputation. He returned to Chicago to rebuild his career, a difficult task for a man already in his fifties. During the next decade, however, Darrow would make a remarkable recovery from this low point.

As World War I (1914–18; the United States entered the war in 1917) broke out in Europe, Darrow called for the United States to get involved. This was not a popular stance at first, but the United States did eventually enter the conflict on the side of the Allies (Great Britain, France, and Italy) against Germany. Before the war was over, however, Darrow had changed his mind. He disapproved of the American public's suspicion and intolerance of foreign-born people and their supposedly radical ideas that had been generated by the war, which resulted in the passage of several laws designed to keep people from expressing unpopular views. Darrow defended several clients charged with breaking these laws.

Gaining mercy for killers

Darrow gradually began taking more criminal cases, and this eventually became his specialty. Over the course of his career, he would defend more than fifty people accused of first-degree murder, and only one of these clients—his first, Robert Prendergast, whom Darrow represented only at the appeal stage—would receive the death penalty. Many of the trials took place in Chicago, but several would make front-page

Capital Punishment: Always Controversial

Clarence Darrow was one of the most eloquent opponents of capital punishment, the lawful use of death as a penalty for certain crimes. Although it has existed throughout the United States' history, this ultimate form of punishment has always been controversial.

The first European settlers to the American colonies brought with them the tradition of capital punishment. The earliest recorded execution took place in 1608 in Virginia's Jamestown colony. After gaining independence in the American Revolution (1773–89), the U.S. Constitution, under the Eighth Amendment, and the constitutions of nine of the eleven former colonies prohibited "cruel and unusual punishment," but permitted death as a penalty for crimes specified by law. This unwittingly set the stage for a debate that has continued into the twenty-first century.

What exactly did the nation's founders consider to be cruel and unusual punishment? Some maintain that the phrase prohibits torture and particularly brutal forms of execution, such as burning at the stake. Others believe the phrase includes any form of capital punishment. Critics often refer to the Eighth Amendment to support their arguments against the death penalty. Supporters claim that capital punishment deters crime, although studies are inconclusive.

Debate over capital punishment has existed since the nation's founding, but it has rarely affected the executions themselves. The number of people executed for a capital crime has grown over time, with one hundred and sixty recorded during the eighteenth century, almost fourteen hundred in the nineteenth century, and more than four thousand from 1930 to 2004. In 2002 more than three thousand prisoners awaited execution on death row.

In the 1960s opposition to the death penalty did interrupt executions while the issue was considered by the Supreme Court. In Furman v. Georgia (1972), the court ruled that some state capital punishment laws were applied randomly and thus were unconstitutional. The court did not, however, determine the death penalty to be a cruel and unusual punishment, and the ruling did little to end the practice. States with questionable laws quickly changed them to comply with the court's ruling.

In addition to the cruel and unusual argument, capital punishment critics charge that the practice is racially biased. Figures from the U.S. Department of Justice show that in 1997, 42 percent of those on death row were African American, even though less than 15 percent of the total U.S. population was African American. Figures also showed that between 1977 and 1995, more than 80 percent of murder victims of those sentenced to death were white, while those who killed African Americans received lesser sentences. The Supreme Court, however, ruled in McKleskey v. Kemp (1987) that these inequalities were only unconstitutional if they resulted from intentional discrimination, which is difficult to prove.

By the end of the twentieth century, thirty-eight U.S. states, as well as the federal government, allowed capital punishment. By the mid-1990s, polls showed that more than 70 percent of U.S. citizens supported capital punishment. As the debate continued, several states in the early twenty-first century instituted stays of executions after some death row inmates were found to be not guilty.

headlines across the nation. These so-called "Crimes of the Century" would add even more excitement to a decade that seemed to thrive on sensationalism and controversy.

In 1924 Darrow was hired to defend Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb, teenagers from wealthy Chicago families who had confessed to murdering a fourteen-year-old acquaintance. The young men had killed Bobby Franks for no other reason than to plan and execute the perfect crime, and they showed no remorse for what they had done. News of the murderers' cold-blooded approach to killing caused much public outrage, and many people believed that the boys' rich families were trying to buy their freedom.

Realizing that his only hope was to save his clients from execution, Darrow directed them to plead guilty. During the trial, he introduced an array of experts to establish that Leopold and Loeb were psychologically unstable and had never developed a sense of right and wrong. Darrow told the judge that the crime had been, as quoted in Nathan Miller's New World Coming: The 1920s and the Making of Modern America, "the act of immature and diseased brains." This approach to criminal defense is now common, but in the 1920s, the field of psychology was in its infancy and Darrow's technique was unusual.

In an emotional and lengthy closing statement, Darrow asked the judge to spare the lives of Leopold and Loeb. He pointed out that his clients' wealth was actually a disadvantage, because it made people less sympathetic to them. Finally, he emphasized that capital punishment was a brutal, outdated practice that would someday be condemned. "Your Honor stands between the past and the future," Darrow declared. "You may hang these boys; you may hang them by the neck until they are dead. But in doing it you will turn your face toward the past." The judge sentenced the young men to life in prison, not execution, giving Darrow another victory over capital punishment.

The Scopes Trial

About a year after the Leopold and Loeb case, Darrow was involved in one of the most famous trials in U.S. history. In early 1925 the state of Tennessee passed a law banning the teaching of the scientific theory of evolution, or any other theory that contradicted the biblical version of humanity's origin, in the public schools. A number of similar laws were being passed in other states, highlighting the struggle between traditional values and modern beliefs that was taking place in the 1920s.

Although many welcomed the technological and scientific advances that the twentieth century had brought, others feared that religious faith was threatened by scientists like Charles Darwin (1809–1882), whose theory of evolution traced the changes in human beings, animals, and plants over millions of years. Fundamentalists (those who believe that the stories told in the Bible are literally true) waged a fierce struggle against what they viewed as a coldhearted, immoral approach to humanity's origin.

A showdown between Bryan and Darrow

Soon after the passage of the Tennessee law, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) offered to defend any teacher who was willing to test its constitutionality, for they believed that such a ban violated the right of freedom of speech. A group of citizens in Dayton, Tennessee, who disapproved of the ban but also hoped to bring some fame and business to their small town, persuaded a high school teacher named John Scopes to purposely break the law. In April Scopes taught his students a lesson on evolution. He was arrested, and his trial was set for July.

Almost immediately, William Jennings Bryan (1860–1925; see entry), a Nebraska politician, former presidential candidate, and ardent fundamentalist, agreed to join the prosecution. When he heard of Bryan's involvement, Darrow (who had sided with Bryan on many political issues and supported his presidential bids) volunteered to head the defense team. As the trial date approached, Dayton was overtaken by a circus-like atmosphere, as a host of outsiders—from reporters to street-corner preachers to souvenir sellers—invaded the town.

Bryan made a splashy arrival, stepping down from his train to an adoring crowd. He began to make appearances and speeches around town, proclaiming his willingness to stand up for religion against science. Arriving two days after Bryan, Darrow spoke at a dinner gathering where, in an attempt to stir up sympathy for his side of the issue, he recalled his own smalltown roots. Most of the townspeople, however, were on Bryan's side.

An emotional trial

Closely followed by people across the nation, the trial proved to be an emotional confrontation between tradition and modernity. Knowing that Scopes' violation of the law could not be disputed, Darrow planned to show that the law itself was unconstitutional. While Bryan called witnesses simply to prove that Scopes had taught evolution, such as students from his class, Darrow's witnesses included scientists with religious beliefs, who would show that there need be no conflict between religious faith and scientific truths. The judge, however, ruled this testimony invalid, because it was unrelated to the central issue of whether Scopes had violated the law.

Frustrated and desperate, Darrow made a bold move. He called Bryan himself to the witness stand as an expert witness on the Bible. Knowing Darrow's reputation for ruthless crossexaminations (questioning of prosecution witnesses), the other prosecutors urged Bryan not to testify. Bryan, however, readily accepted the challenge. At first he held up fairly well under Darrow's questioning, but by the end of the hour-and-ahalf session Darrow was in control. He grilled Bryan relentlessly about his religious beliefs, asking him, for example, if he truly believed that Jonah could have survived for three days inside the stomach of a whale. (This was a popular story in the Bible.)

Bryan ended up looking confused and foolish. The trial ended when Darrow asked the jury to find his client guilty, so that he could take the case to a higher court. The defense rested without making a final statement, which meant that Bryan was denied a chance to summarize the prosecution's position. Scopes was found guilty and fined one hundred dollars. (The sentence was later overturned, and no further attempt was made to enforce Tennessee's law. A 1968 ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court made all such bans unconstitutional.)

To most observers, it appeared that despite the outcome of the trial, Darrow had won a moral victory, delivering a major blow to the fundamentalist movement while upholding freedom of speech. Five days after the trial ended, Bryan died in his sleep, and many suggested that the trial and especially Darrow's questioning had taken a fatal toll on his health.

A quiet life

In 1929 Darrow retired from his law practice. Three years later, however, he traveled to Hawaii to represent Lieutenant Thomas Massie, a U.S. Navy officer who, along with several other defendants, was charged with murder. A Hawaiian man who had been accused of raping Massie's wife had been kidnapped and killed. The defendants admitted to the crime and were found guilty, but the charge was reduced from murder to manslaughter. They served only one hour of a ten-year sentence.

Darrow lived quietly for the rest of his life. He was in demand for lectures and debates, however, and in these forums as well as in a number of publications he continued to express his liberal views, which included a defense of agnosticism, opposition to capital punishment, and calls for reforms to the court and prison systems. Darrow died of heart disease when he was eighty years old. At his request, his body was cremated and his ashes sprinkled over a pond in a Chicago park.

For More Information


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

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

Weinberg, Arthur, and Lila Weinberg. Clarence Darrow: A Sentimental Rebel. New York: Putnam, 1980.

Web Sites

"Clarence Darrow (1857–1938)." Eastland Memorial Society. Available online at http://www.inficad.com/~ksup/darrow.html. Accessed on June 22, 2005.

Linder, O. Douglas."Who Is Clarence Darrow?" Available online at http://www.law.umkc.edu/faculty/projects/ftrials/DARESY.HTM. Accessed on June 22, 2005.

Darrow, Clarence

views updated May 14 2018

Clarence Darrow

Born April 18, 1857 (Kinsman, Ohio) Died March 13, 1938 (Chicago, Illinois)

Defense attorney

Clarence Darrow was an attorney who championed the fundamental principle that everyone is entitled to a fair trial in a court of law. He promoted radical political and social causes and secured his place in history by opposing governmental and religious limits on individual freedom. Darrow helped sway public opinion toward tolerance of organized labor with the right of working people to unionize.

A lifelong opponent of the death penalty, he was an active member of the Amnesty Association, an organization formed to seek death row pardons (release from prison or legal responsibility for a convicted offense) for inmates who had not yet been executed for capital crimes. The Clarence Darrow Death Penalty Defense College is part of the University of Michigan Law School in Ann Arbor in the early twenty-first century. The college teaches the skills needed for attorneys representing those who face the death penalty.

"I am pleading for a time when hatred and cruelty will not control the hearts of men. When we can learn by reason and judgment and a understanding and faith that all life is worth saving, and that mercy is the highest attribute of man."

As a courtroom speaker, Darrow was one of the first to favor plain words over the rhetoric, or flowery speech, used by most lawyers of the time. His realist style of public speaking was widely imitated by attorneys who admired his innovative
techniques of selecting jurors, interrogating hostile witnesses, and making closing arguments. Darrow's presentation skills have rarely been equaled. Building his legal practice with high-paying criminal cases and high-visibility causes, he was America's most famous trial attorney of the 1920s.

Early life and law career

Clarence Seward Darrow was born in 1857 in the small, rural village of Kinsman, Ohio. Born just before the American Civil War (1861–65; war in the United States between the Union [North], who was opposed to slavery, and the Confederacy [South], who was in favor of slavery), he was the fifth of eight children of Amirus and Emily Eddy Darrow. In the community where Clarence was raised, most people opposed slavery. The "underground railroad" (a secret system to help slaves escape from the South) ran directly through the area where the Darrow family lived. This early experience had a lifelong influence on Clarence and his career, making him sensitive to the problems of minorities and the oppressed.

The Darrows were hardworking but poor and Clarence attended local public schools. He went on to attend Allegheny College in Meadville, Pennsylvania, and then taught school for a short time. He studied at the University of Michigan Law School for one year and became a member of the Ohio bar (legal profession) in 1878 at the age of twenty-one. Darrow married Jessie Ohl in April 1880. The young couple moved ten miles from Kinsman to Andover, Ohio, where Clarence set up a law practice. The couple's only child, Paul Edward, was born in 1883.

Clarence and Jessie divorced in 1897 and Darrow married a journalist, Ruby Hammerstrom, in 1903. Ruby and Clarence had no children together but Darrow maintained a relationship with his son Paul throughout his life. Darrow did not like either of his given names and was not called Clarence or Seward in his adult life. Known to his friends simply as "Darrow," he was called "Dee" by his wife.

In Andover, Darrow gained a reputation as a public speaker but opportunities for law were limited. Darrow and Ruby moved to Ashtabula, Ohio, a railroad town and a Great Lakes port. In 1885 Darrow was elected to the part-time position of borough city solicitor (the chief law officer of the town). This position gave him financial security while also allowing him time to build his private practice.

During his time in Ashtabula, Darrow discovered the political writings of John Peter Altgeld (1847–1902), which would redefine his life both personally and professionally. Altgeld was a strong supporter of workers' rights and their efforts to gain better working conditions from big business. Altgeld was a superior court judge in Cook County, Illinois, who became Illinois governor in 1892. Altgeld eventually joined Darrow's law practice in 1896.

Defending organized labor in Chicago

In 1887 Darrow made the move from Ashtabula to Chicago. He struck up an immediate friendship with Altgeld who guided his new protégé's career until Darrow became the general attorney to the Chicago and Northwestern Railroad in 1891. Darrow resigned his railroad position in 1894 to defend Eugene V. Debs (1855–1926), a labor leader charged with crimes related to a strike against the Pullman Company.

The trial marked the beginning of a series of criminal cases in which Darrow defended organized labor throughout the United States. This phase of his career ended in 1911 when Darrow himself was prosecuted for jury tampering in a Los Angeles, California, murder case. After two trials against him, the prosecution ended with a hung jury (a jury unable to reach a verdict). Though Darrow was not convicted, he was not acquitted either and his reputation was severely damaged. He never worked on behalf of organized labor again. He returned to Chicago with his finances in ruin, trying to make a living in criminal defense work and rebuild his law practice.

Recovering his reputation

Through hard work, Darrow improved his reputation and took on two of his most famous cases. Both trials ran at a fever pitch in public opinion and guaranteed his place in history as a defense attorney.

The first was the Leopold and Loeb murder trial in Chicago. Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb were two eighteen-year-old college students from wealthy families who were charged with the murder of fourteen-year-old Bobby Franks. Darrow's summation (the final part of an argument) before the jury seemed as much an attempt to change public attitudes concerning the criminal justice system and the death penalty as it was an attempt to keep his clients from hanging. Darrow would save over one hundred accused murderers from execution throughout his career.

The second was the 1925 Scopes trial that debated academic freedom versus legislative control over public education (see sidebar). In the Scopes trial, Darrow defended a science teacher, John Scopes, who was charged with violating Tennessee's Anti-Evolution Law, which prohibited teaching the theory of evolution (theory introduced by Charles Darwin [1809–1882] that all life is related and has descended from a common ancestor) in the state's public schools.

Although Darrow often defended wealthy or privileged individuals, he is most remembered for defending those accused of crimes tied to their race or to their political beliefs, such as radical labor union leader William "Big Bill" Haywood. Darrow's beliefs were rooted in populism (representing the common person), not socialism (an economic and political system in which the government controls all production).

Darrow's emphasis on individualism (belief that the rights of individuals outweigh the needs of the state), however, often put him at odds with government programs. The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) kept a file on Darrow. A memorandum written on June 24, 1936, which can be found at the Department of Justice's Freedom of Information Act Web site, noted that Darrow was a fine example of how "unscrupulous [without moral integrity] criminal lawyers stimulate disrespect for law and influence crime conditions."

The Scopes Trial

In 1925 John T. Scopes, a twenty-four-year-old general science teacher and part-time football coach, faced charges brought by the state of Tennessee for violating its Anti-Evolution Law. William Jennings Bryan (1860–1925) was a Tennessee politician who guided the law through the state's legislature. The 1925 law made teaching the theory of human evolution in the state's public schools a misdemeanor, punishable by a maximum penalty of $500.

Although retired, Bryan joined the prosecution team to support the state's authority to control public school curriculum in the famous Scopes Trial. Clarence Darrow led a team of nationally prominent attorneys to defend Scopes's right to academic freedom in the public school system.

The lawsuit originated in the town of Dayton, Tennessee, when a copy of a newspaper arrived at the local drugstore with an American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) advertisement. The ACLU announced it was offering its services free of charge to anyone who was willing to challenge the new Tennessee anti-evolution statute. Town leaders, including the school superintendent, became convinced the publicity generated by a controversial trial might help their dwindling population, which had fallen from a high of three thousand to only eighteen hundred by 1925.

They decided to use Scopes as their test case. Two local Dayton attorneys, also friends of Scopes, agreed to prosecute. The ACLU was contacted and began their selection of a high-profile defense team for the case. The Scopes case was headline news all over America for months before it finally came to trial. Because of the controversy, public feelings ran high and the trial captured the nation's attention.

A thousand people jammed the sweltering Rhea County Courthouse on July 10,1925 for the first day of trial. Hundreds of reporters covered the eight-day event, which was broadcast live over the radio to millions of homes and filmed for newsreels. It was the first live radio broadcast from a trial courtroom.

A carnival atmosphere pervaded the town with street banners, lemonade stands, and even chimpanzees performing in a sideshow. The court itself was moved outside to a tent in the courthouse square. Two thousand people crowded in by the final day of proceedings. The highlight of the battle within the trial was the sparring between Bryan and Darrow, the two famous attorneys. Darrow had been trying to engage Bryan in a public debate over science and religion for years and welcomed the chance at the Scopes trial.

The climax of events came when Darrow cross-examined Bryan, his longtime foe, after he called him to the witness stand as an expert on religion. The dramatic cross-examination by Darrow led to a furious argument until the judge finally called a halt.

The court narrowed the legal issue to whether Scopes ever taught the theory that humans were descended from other species and not from Adam and Eve as written in the Bible. The defense agreed to this fact; they asked jurors for a conviction so they could appeal the law. The jury convicted Scopes and he was fined $100.00. William Jennings Bryan died five days after the trial ended.

Ruling in 1927, the Tennessee Supreme Court upheld the statute but overturned Scopes's conviction on a technicality and directed prosecutors not to retry him. The Scopes trial had a profound cultural impact despite its legal insignificance. It was the focus of a popular Hollywood movie Inherit the Wind (1960). In 1968 the U.S. Supreme Court, in Eppersonv. Arkansas, declared antievolution statutes to be unconstitutional as well as in violation of the constitutional separation of church and state expressed in the First Amendment.

Critic of the New Deal

Increasingly skeptical of government power, Darrow concluded his public career as a critic of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt's (1882–1945; served 1933–45) federal government programs introduced during the 1930s. Roosevelt had campaigned for president in 1932 promising a "New Deal" for the American people. The New Deal offered an unprecedented number of reforms addressing the catastrophic effects of the Great Depression (1929–41; the period, following the stock market crash in 1929, of depressed world economies and high unemployment). Congress was passing bills to relieve poverty, reduce unemployment, and speed economic recovery.

Although retired from his law practice, Darrow made national headlines when he received a presidential appointment. He was chair on a commission to study and review the operation of the National Recovery Administration (NRA) in 1934. The NRA was designed to address unemployment by regulating the number of hours worked per week and banning child labor. Despite his declining health, Darrow accepted the position because of financial difficulties.

Final days

By the 1930s Darrow still ran a small law practice when the legal profession as a whole was moving more toward the establishment of larger firms. Even though other attorneys admired his innovative techniques, Darrow was known for being unwilling to collaborate with other lawyers. Darrow became an outdated figure, respected by younger generations who had no interest in actually adopting his theories.

In failing health, Darrow was unable to find a lawyer to carry on his legal practice. His final years were spent as an invalid. He died in the Chicago apartment he and Ruby had rented for over thirty years. Darrow's career and triumphs went on to inspire many articles, books, plays, and films.

For More Information


Blake, Arthur. The Scopes Trial: Defending the Right to Teach. Brookfield, CT: Millbrook Press, 1994.

Hynd, Alan. Defenders of the Damned. New York: A. S. Barnes, 1960.

Gurko, Miriam. Clarence Darrow. New York: Crowell, 1965.

McWhirter, Darien A. The Legal 100: A Ranking of the Individuals WhoHave Most Influenced the Law. Secaucus, NJ: Carol Publishing Group, 1998.

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

Web Sites

"Clarence Darrow." National Archives Learning Curve.http://www.spartacus.schoolnet.co.uk/USAdarrow.htm (accessed on August 15, 2004).

"Clarence Seward Darrow." University of Missouri Faculty: Famous Trials.http://www.law.umkc.edu/faculty/projects/ftrials/darrow.htm (accessed on August 15, 2004).

Darrow, Clarence

views updated Jun 27 2018

Clarence Darrow

Closing Argument in the Leopold and Loeb Trial
Published in 1924

In the late spring of 1924 the nation was shocked by the news of a kidnapping and murder in Chicago, Illinois. Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb, two nineteen-year-olds from wealthy families, had confessed to the brutal killing of fourteen-year-old Bobby Franks. The young men had shown no remorse, admitting that they had plotted for some time to commit the perfect crime. Their plan was spoiled when Leopold left his eyeglasses at the scene, which eventually led to their arrest. The public expressed outrage at the crime, with many declaring that the killers, popularly characterized as "spoiled brats," deserved the death penalty.

Hoping to spare their children from such a fate, the families of Leopold and Loeb hired the famous lawyer Clarence Darrow (1857–1938) to defend them. A Chicago attorney in his late sixties, Darrow had earned a reputation as a champion of the underdog through his defense of union leaders, antiwar activists, and others. He was also a strong opponent of capital punishment (the death penalty) and had already saved more than one hundred clients from execution.

Through interviews with Leopold and Loeb, Darrow concluded that the young men did not know the difference between right and wrong. But he did not want to pursue an insanity plea (that is, one based on the idea that the defendants were innocent because they had not known what they were doing), because that would force a jury trial. Darrow knew that public sentiment was against the young men, and that a jury would be likely to condemn them to death. Instead, he directed his clients to enter a guilty plea, which meant that a judge would determine their fate. Darrow planned to appeal to the judge to spare the young men's lives based on their youth and their deranged personalities.

The trial began in July, with Darrow arguing his case before Chief Justice John Caverly. Darrow produced three psychiatrists as expert witnesses who testified that, as Darrow stated as quoted in Nathan Miller's New World Coming: The 1920s and the Making of Modern America, the crime had been "the act of immature and diseased brains." In a powerful but lengthy closing statement, which lasted twelve hours and stretched out over two days, Darrow made no attempt to downplay the horror of the crime or his clients' guilt. Instead, he asked for mercy on the grounds of the young men's age, their mental condition, and the general inhumanity of capital punishment. In the last part of the statement, excerpted here, Darrow calls on Judge Caverly to look toward the future, when, he suggests, the execution of criminals will be viewed as a brutal practice of the past.

Things to remember while reading this excerpt from Darrow's closing argument …

The case of Leopold and Loeb was one of several that were popularly labeled "crimes of the century." Newspapers as well as the new medium of radio both helped to inform the public and to sensationalize (make exciting, often at the expense of accuracy, in order to attract public attention) the crime and the trial. Some observers saw this seemingly irrational crime as evidence of the moral breakdown of traditional U.S. society and as a sign of more senseless violence to come.

Part of the public's shock over the case was due to the background of the people involved. Leopold and Loeb were not only wealthy (as was their victim) but also intelligent young men, both had scored high on IQ tests and graduated from high school early, with promising futures. They were both graduate students at the University of Chicago, and Leopold was set to attend Harvard Law School in the fall. They had planned and executed the murder with precision and emotional detachment. As quoted in Miller's book, Leopold later said that he had felt nothing more than an entomologist (a scientist who studies insects) would when "impaling a butterfly on a pin."

Darrow's appearance in the courtroom was not particularly impressive. A tall man with a slouching posture, his face was craggy and tired-looking and his clothing rumpled. But

Freudianism Becomes a Fad

The Roaring Twenties were a time of major breakthroughs in science, technology, and medicine. The theories of groundbreaking Austrian psychiatrist Sigmund Freud (1856–1939), who is recognized as one of the most influential thinkers of the twentieth century, were especially popular during this period. Aspects of Freudianism, as his theories are called, found their way into the conversations of both highly educated and ordinary people, as well as magazine and journal articles, literary works, and some court cases.

Freud's ideas were developed during the two decades leading up to the 1920s. In such works as Studies on Hysteria (1895), The Interpretation of Dreams (1900), and The Origin and Development of Psychoanalysis (1910), Freud proposed that childhood experiences could determine a person's behavior as an adult, particularly in cases of mental illness, even if the actual memories of specific incidents had been forgotten or buried.

Previously, those involved in treating mental illness had relied on the conscious, or surface awareness, of people's thoughts and personalities. Freud focused on the subconscious (the part of the mind of which one is unaware) to explain neurotic (abnormally sensitive, anxious, or obsessive) behavior and psychological problems. He believed that through psychoanalysis (talking with a specially trained analyst) deeply hidden causes to psychological problems could be exposed and addressed.

Freud's theories were scientific and complex, and thus his work was not accessible to most readers. In the early 1920s, however, several summaries of his work became available, and a mass audience was exposed to simplified, and sometimes distorted, explanations of Freudianism. Words like sublimate (to divert an instinctual impulse into a more socially acceptable form) and inferiority complex were fashionable cocktail party talk, and it became a common pastime to psychoanalyze one's friends. A particularly popular game based on the work of Freud's student Carl Jung involved answering a series of forty questions to determine one's personality type.

All of this alarmed Freud, who worried that unqualified and poorly informed people were carelessly applying his theories. Other people agreed, but some of them blamed Freud himself rather than the mass popularity that Freudianism had achieved. Those who criticized Freud often pointed to his emphasis on the role of sexual repression in neurosis; they felt that Freud was encouraging people to be sexually free and irresponsible.

Darrow's passionate stance against the death penalty and his gift for public speaking made him a formidable force. It was rumored that his rich clients had paid Darrow $1,000,000, but in fact his fee was less than $100,000.

Excerpt from Darrow's closing argument

Now, I must say a word more and then I will leave this with you where I should have left it long ago. None of us areunmindful of the public; courts are not, and juries are not. We placed our fate in the hands of a trained court, thinking that he would be more mindful and considerate than a jury. I cannot say how people feel. I have stood here for three months as one might stand at the ocean trying to sweep back the tide. I hope the seas are subsiding and the wind is falling and I believe they are, but I wish to make no false pretense to this court. The easy thing and the popular thing to do is to hang my clients. I know it. Men and women who do not think will applaud. The cruel and the thoughtless will approve. It will be easy today; but in Chicago, and reaching out over the length and breadth of the land, more and more fathers and mothers, the humane, the kind and the hopeful, who are gaining an understanding and asking questions not only about these poor boys, but about their own—these will join in noacclaim at the death of my clients. These would ask that the shedding of blood be stopped, and that the normal feelings of manresume their sway . And as the days and the months and the years go on, they will ask it more and more. But, your Honor, what they shall ask may not count. I know the easy way.

I know your Honor stands between the future and the past. I know the future is with me, and what I stand for here; not merely for the lives of these two unfortunate lads, but for all boys and all girls; for all of the young, and as far as possible, for all of the old. I am pleading for life, understanding, charity, kindness, and the infinite mercy that considers all. I am pleading that we overcome cruelty with kindness and hatred with love. I know the future is on my side. Your Honor stands between the past and the future. You may hang these boys; you may hang them by the neck until they are dead. But in doing it you will turn your face toward the past. In doing it you are making it harder for every other boy who in ignorance and darkness mustgrope his way through the mazes which only childhood knows. In doing it you will make it harder for unborn children. You may save them and make it easier for every child that some time may stand where these boys stand. You will make it easier for every human being with anaspiration and a vision and a hope and a fate. I am pleading for the future; I am

pleading for a time when hatred and cruelty will not control the hearts of men. When we can learn by reason and judgement and understanding and faith that all life is worth saving, and that mercy is the highestattribute of man.

I feel that I should apologize for the length of time I have taken. This case may not be as important as I think it is, and I am sure I do not need to tell this court, or to tell my friends that I would fight just as hard for the poor as for the rich. If I should succeed in saving these boys' lives and do nothing for the progress of the law, I should feel sad, indeed. If I can succeed, my greatest reward and my greatest hope will be that I have done something for the tens of thousands of other boys, for the countless unfortunates who must tread the same road in blind childhood that these poor boys have trod—that I have done something to help human understanding, totemper justice with mercy, to overcome hate withlove. I was reading last night of the aspiration of the old Persian poet, Omar Khayyam. It appealed to me as the highest that I can vision. I wish it was in my heart, and I wish it was in the hearts of all:

"So I be written in the Book of Love
I do not care about that Book above.
Erase my name or write it as you will,
So I be written in the book of Love."

What happened next …

On September 10, 1924, Judge Caverly (who had received threats against both his own and his wife's life from people on both sides of the issue) announced his decision. Given the defendants' youth, the judge said, he had decided to sentence them to life in prison rather than execution.

After his involvement in one of the "crimes of the century," Darrow went on to participate in what would be called "the trial of the century." In 1925 he went to the small town of Dayton, Tennessee, to defend high school teacher John Scopes, who had been arrested for teaching the scientific theory of evolution to his students. In doing so Scopes had violated a recently enacted Tennessee law intended to uphold the traditional, Bible-based belief that God had created each species separately. Assisting the prosecution was William Jennings Bryan (1860–1925), a noted conservative politician and activist (see William Jennings Bryan's Undelivered Closing Statement from the Scopes Trial Primary Sources entry). During the trial, Darrow called Bryan to the stand to defend his literal interpretation of the Bible. Although Scopes was convicted, Darrow was credited with an intellectual victory. The next year, he successfully defended Henry Sweet, an African American charged with murder. The killing had occurred when Henry and his brother Ossian, who had moved into a white neighborhood, tried to defend Ossian's home against a hostile mob.

Darrow died in 1938. Meanwhile, Loeb was killed in a prison fight in 1936, while Leopold was paroled in 1958 and lived until 1971.

Did you know …

  • When questioned about why they had committed the murder, Leopold and Loeb mentioned their interest in the ideas of German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche (1844–1900). The young men claimed to see themselves as examples of Nietzsche's "superman," who is driven by a strong will to exert power over others and who is immune to all moral and social rules.
  • During their years in prison, Leopold and Loeb remained friends and worked together to set up a school for inmates. In 1936 Loeb was killed by a prisoner who claimed that Loeb had made sexual advances toward him. Leopold was released after spending thirty-three years in prison. He went to live in Puerto Rico, where he became an ornithologist (bird expert) and published a book on the birds of his new home. He married in 1961 and died ten years later, insisting to the end of his life that it was Loeb who was primarily responsible for the murder of Bobby Franks.

Consider the following …

  • Clarence Darrow was strongly opposed to capital punishment, even in the case of a criminal who confessed to a horrible murder. The case of Sacco and Vanzetti was very different from that of Leopold and Loeb, but it also involved the issue of the death penalty. Compare and contrast the two cases.
  • Knowing the extent of the public outrage against his clients and wishing to avoid a jury trial, Darrow chose not to enter an insanity plea. If the trial took place today, do you think he would make the same decision? How much have people's ideas about the insanity defense changed or stayed the same? Research a recent court case to help you shape your thoughts.

For More Information


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

Hanson, Erica. The 1920s. San Diego, CA: Lucent Books, 1999.

Higdon, Hal. Crime of the Century: The Leopold & Loeb Case. New York: Putnam, 1975.

Larson, Edward J. Trial and Error: The American Controversy over Creation and Evolution. New York: Oxford University Press, 1994.

Miller, Nathan. New World Coming: The 1920s and the Making of Modern America. New York: Scribner, 2003.

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

Weinberg, Arthur, and Lila Weinberg. Clarence Darrow: A Sentimental Rebel. New York: Putnam, 1980.

Web Sites

"Famous American Trials: Illinois versus Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb." Famous Trials by Doug Linder. Available online at http://www.law.umkc.edu/faculty/projects/ftrials/leoploeb/leopold.htm. Accessed on June 20, 2005.

Unmindful: Not paying attention to.

Acclaim: Praise.

Resume their sway: Return to normal.

Grope: Feel one's way with uncertainty.

Aspiration: Goal.

Attribute: Quality, characteristic.

Temper: Balance.

Darrow, Clarence

views updated May 17 2018

Clarence Darrow

Born: April 18, 1857
Farmdale, Ohio

Died: March 13, 1938
Chicago, Illinois

American lawyer

As an American labor lawyer and as a criminal lawyer, Clarence Darrow participated in debates about the path of American industrial growth and the treatment of individuals in conflict with the law.

Early life

Clarence Seward Darrow was born on April 18, 1857, in Farmdale, Ohio, the fifth of Amirus and Emily Darrow's eight children. His father, after completing studies at a seminary (institution for training members of the priesthood), had lost his faith and become a nonbeliever living within a strongly religious community. (The Darrows were also outsiders in a political sense; they were Democrats in a strongly Republican area.) The elder Darrow worked as a carpenter and coffin maker. His mother, who died when he was fifteen, was a strong supporter of women's rights. From his parents Darrow received a love of reading and a skeptical (doubting) attitude toward religion.

Darrow, after completing his secondary schooling near Farmdale, spent a year at Allegheny College in Meadville, Pennsylvania, and another year at the University of Michigan Law School. Like most lawyers of the time, he delayed his admission to the bar until after he had studied under a local lawyer. He finally became a member of the Ohio bar in 1878. For the next nine years he was a typical small-town lawyer, practicing in the cities of Kinsman, Andover, and Ashtabula, Ohio. He married Jessie Ohl, the daughter of a mill owner, in 1880, and the couple had a son three years later.

Seeking more interesting opportunities, however, Darrow and his family moved to Chicago, Illinois, in 1887. In Ohio he had been impressed with the book Our Penal Machinery and Its Victims by Judge John Peter Altgeld. Darrow became a close friend of Altgeld, who was elected governor of Illinois in 1892. Altgeld not only raised questions about the process of criminal justice but, after pardoning several men who had been convicted for their part in the Haymarket riot of 1886 (a dispute between striking laborers and the Chicago police that led to the bombing deaths of seven policemen), he also questioned the treatment of those who were trying to organize workers into unions. Both of these themes played great roles in Darrow's life.

Labor lawyer

Darrow had begun as a common civil lawyer. Even in Chicago his first jobs included appointment as the city's corporation counsel in 1890 and then as general attorney to the Chicago and North Western Railway. In 1894, however, he began what would be his main career for the next twenty yearslabor law. During 1894 he defended labor leader Eugene V. Debs (18551926) against a court order trying to break the workers' strike Debs was leading against the Pullman Sleeping Car Company. Darrow was unsuccessful, though; the order against Debs was finally upheld by the Supreme Court.

In 1906 and 1907 Darrow successfully defended William D. "Big Bill" Haywood, the leader of the newly formed Industrial Workers of the World, against a charge of plotting to murder the former governor of Idaho. But in 1911 disaster struck, as Darrow, while defending two brothers against a charge of killing twenty-one people by blowing up the Los Angeles Times building, was suddenly faced with his clients' changing their previous plea of innocent to guilty. There were also rumors that Darrow had attempted to bribe one of the members of the jury. As a result, Darrow was charged with misconduct, although he was found not guilty on all charges. This event ended his career as a labor lawyer, however.

Criminal lawyer

Darrow had always been interested in criminal law, in part because of his acceptance of new theories involving the role of determinism in human behavior. He believed that criminals were people led by outside factors (such as personality and environment) into committing unlawful acts. For this reason he was a bitter opponent of capital punishment, viewing it as an inhuman practice. Now he began a new major career as a criminal lawyer.

Without a doubt Darrow's most famous criminal trial was the 1924 Leopold-Loeb case, in which two Chicago college students had murdered a youngster simply to see if they could get away with it. For the only time in his career, Darrow insisted that his clients plead guilty. He then turned his attention to saving them from the death penalty. He was successful in this, partly because he was able to introduce a great deal of testimony from psychiatrists (doctors who deal with mental or behavioral disorders) supporting his theories regarding the determining influences on individual acts. In another successful case he defended members of an African American family charged with murdering a member of the Ku Klux Klan (KKK; a secret society whose members believe that white people are superior and who frequently resort to violence against nonwhite citizens) who had attempted to drive them from their home.

Scopes trial

During this period Darrow was also involved in another great American case, the Scopes trial of 1925 in Dayton, Tennessee. The issue was the right of a state legislature to prohibit the teaching in public schools of Charles Darwin's (18091882) theories of evolution (which suggested that the origins of humans and apes could be traced back to a common ancestor). Darrow, as a nonbeliever in religion and a believer in evolution, was annoyed with the religious tone of the law that had been passed. He sought to defend the young schoolteacher, John T. Scopes, who had raised the issue of evolution in his classroom. Technically, Darrow was unsuccessful, as Scopes was convicted and fined $100 for what the court believed was a crime. But Darrow's defense, and particularly his cross-examination of William Jennings Bryan (18601925), the three-time Democratic candidate for president who spoke for the religious, antiscientific side, won national attention and led many to question the wisdom of strict interpretation of the Bible.

Two books among Darrow's many writings are evidence of his interests toward the end of his life. In 1922 he wrote Crime: Its Cause and Treatment; in 1929 appeared Infidels and Heretics, coedited with Wallace Rice, in which he presented the case for free thinking. To these two issue-oriented books he added The Story of My Life (1932), an autobiography (the story of his own life). Darrow's last important public service was as chairman of a commission appointed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt. The commission examined the operation of the National Recovery Administration, an agency set up during the early 1930s to regulate industry competition and workers' wages and hours. Darrow died on March 13, 1938.

For More Information

Darrow, Clarence. Attorney for the Damned. Edited by Arthur Weinberg. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1957. Reprint, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1989.

Darrow, Clarence. The Story of My Life. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1932. Reprint, New York: Da Capo Press, 1996.

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

Stone, Irving. Clarence Darrow for the Defense. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1941.

Clarence Seward Darrow

views updated Jun 11 2018

Clarence Seward Darrow

As an American labor lawyer and as a criminal lawyer, Clarence Seward Darrow (1857-1938) helped sharpen debate about the path of American industrialism and about the treatment of individuals in conflict with the law.

Clarence Darrow was born on April 18, 1857, in Farmdale, Ohio, to Amirus and Emily Darrow. He was introduced early to the life of the dissenter, for his father, after completing studies at a Unitarian seminary, had lost his faith and had become an agnostic living within a community of religious believers. Furthermore, the Darrows were Democrats in a Republican locale.

After completing his secondary schooling near Farmdale, Darrow spent a year at Allegheny College in Meadville, Pa., and another year at the University of Michigan Law School. Like almost all lawyers of the time, he delayed his admission to the bar until after he had read law with a local lawyer; he became a member of the Ohio bar in 1878. For the next 9 years he was a typical small-town lawyer, practicing in Kinsman, Andover, and Ashtabula, Ohio.

Seeking more interesting paths, however, Darrow moved to Chicago in 1887. In Ohio he had been impressed with the book Our Penal Machinery and Its Victims by Judge John Peter Altgeld. Darrow became a close friend of Altgeld, who was elected governor of Illinois in 1892. Altgeld not only raised questions about the process of criminal justice but, when he pardoned several men who had been convicted in the aftermath of the Haymarket riot of 1886, also questioned the treatment of those who were trying to organize workers into unions. Both of these themes played great roles in Darrow's life.

Labor Lawyer

Darrow had begun as a conventional civil lawyer. Even in Chicago his first jobs included appointment as the city's corporation counsel in 1890 and then as general attorney to the Chicago and North Western Railway. In 1894, however, he began what would be his primary career for the next 20 years—labor law. During that year he defended the Socialist Eugene V. Debs against an injunction trying to break the workers' strike Debs was leading against the Pullman Sleeping Car Company. Darrow was unsuccessful, though; the injunction against Debs was finally upheld by the Supreme Court.

In 1906-1907 Darrow successfully defended William D. "Big Bill" Haywood, the leader of the newly formed Industrial Workers of the World, against a charge of conspiring to murder former governor Steunenberg of Idaho. But in 1911 disaster struck as Darrow, defending the McNamara brothers against a charge of blowing up the Los Angeles Times Building, was suddenly faced with his clients' reversing their previous plea of innocence to one of guilt. In turn, Darrow was indicted for misconduct but was not convicted. With this his career as a labor lawyer came to an end.

Criminal Lawyer

Darrow had always been interested in criminal law, in part because of his acceptance of new, psychological theories stressing the role of determinism in human behavior. He viewed criminals as people led by circumstance into committing antisocial acts rather than as free-willing monsters. For this reason he was a bitter opponent of capital punishment, viewing it as a barbaric practice. Now he embarked on a new major career as a criminal lawyer.

Without a doubt Darrow's most famous criminal trial was the 1924 Leopold-Loeb case, in which two Chicago boys had wantonly murdered a youngster. For the only time in his career Darrow insisted that his clients plead guilty, then turned his attention to saving them from the death penalty. He was successful in this, partly because he was able to introduce a great deal of psychiatric testimony supporting his theories of the determining influences upon individual acts.

Scopes Trial

During this period Darrow also participated in another great American case, the Scopes trial of 1925 in Dayton, Tenn. The issue was the right of a state legislature to prohibit the teaching of Darwinian theories of evolution in the public schools. Darrow, as an agnostic and as an evolutionist, was doubly contemptuous of the motives behind the fundamentalist law that had been passed, and he sought to defend the young schoolteacher who had raised the issue of evolution in his class. Technically, he was unsuccessful, for Scopes was convicted and fined $100 for his crime. But Darrow's defense, and particularly his cross-examination of William Jennings Bryan (the three-time Democratic candidate for president who spoke for the biblical, antiscientific, fundamentalist side) served to discredit religious fundamentalism and won national attention.

Two books among Darrow's many writings typify his concerns toward the end of his life. In 1922 he wrote Crime: Its Cause and Treatment; in 1929 appeared Infidels and Heretics, coedited with Wallace Rice, in which he presented the case for freethinking. To these two issue-oriented books he added in 1932 his autobiography, The Story of My Life.

Darrow's last important public service was as chairman of a commission appointed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt to analyze the operation of the National Recovery Administration. He died on March 13, 1938.

Further Reading

The standard popular biography of Darrow is Irving Stone, Clarence Darrow for the Defense (1941). A more recent work is Miriam Gurko, Clarence Darrow (1965). A specialized, scholarly study is Abe C. Ravitz, Clarence Darrow and the American Literary Tradition (1962), which takes note of Darrow's participation in some of the literary controversies of his time. □

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