Clarence Darrow, best known as one of America’s greatest trial lawyers, was also an author, public intellectual, leading civil libertarian, and outspoken agnostic. In his long legal career, he participated in some of the great trials of the 20th century, including the Scopes “Monkey Trial” and the defense of youthful thrill killers Leopold and Loeb.
Clarence Seward Darrow was born in 1857 in Kinsman, Ohio. His parents were unconventional people – freethinkers and self-taught intellectuals who barely scraped by economically. Darrow had little education beyond high school – one year at Allegheny College and one at the University of Michigan’s law school. After reading law, he gained admission to the Ohio bar, practicing mainly in Ashtabula. Seeking greater legal and political opportunity, he moved to Chicago in 1888.
In Chicago, Darrow quickly became active in the Democratic Party and progressive circles. He became a protege and political ally of the progressive Democrat John Peter Altgeld, whom he helped to win the governorship of Illinois.
After holding “respectable” jobs as counsel to the City of Chicago and then to the Chicago and Northwestern Railroad – both at Altgeld’s suggestion – Darrow took the enormous risk of quitting his railroad job to defend Eugene V. Debs, head of the American Railway Union, in two important criminal cases arising out of the Pullman strike. These cases marked the beginning of Darrow’s long career as a labor lawyer. Given the anti-union policies of the times, many of these cases ended up as criminal prosecutions of labor leaders. As a union lawyer, Darrow became an outspoken critic of Federal and state “conspiracy” statutes.
Darrow’s ties with labor came under great strain in 1911, when he was retained to defend the McNamara brothers, who were accused by the State of California of bombing the offices of the ultraconservative Los Angeles Times. When Darrow persuaded the defendants to plead guilty, most union members – wrongly certain of the brothers’ innocence – believed Darrow had betrayed their cause. He lost most of his labor support, and nearly all of his law practice.
As a by-product of the McNamara defense, Darrow himself faced two criminal trials for attempting to bribe jurors. Despite a strong prosecution case, he won acquittal in the first trial. The second resulted in a hung jury. Darrow had escaped prison, but his reputation was ruined, his labor allies lost, and he was effectively broke.
In the years that followed, Darrow returned to Chicago, slowly rebuilding his career in a new field, criminal defense. He benefited greatly from his outspoken support of American intervention in World War I. After the war, his reputation effectively restored, the sixty-something Darrow moved into the most celebrated phase of his career.
In 1924, he defended Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb in the murder of a younger schoolmate, Bobby Franks, saving the killers from almost certain execution.
The following year, Darrow confronted William Jennings Bryan – a long-time ideological antagonist – in the celebrated trial of John T. Scopes, a young teacher accused of violating Tennessee’s statute prohibiting the teaching of Darwinian theory in the public schools. Though Scopes was convicted, public opinion decisively swung toward the teaching of evolution as a result of this trial.
Next, Darrow defended Ossian Sweet, a black physician, along with ten of his relatives and friends. The case originated from the action of mobs of white residents attempting to drive Dr. Sweet from a home he had purchased in a previously all-white Detroit neighborhood. Sweet or one of his co-defendants had opened fire on the mob, killing a single white man. All eleven were charged.
In two trials, Darrow won acquittals from all-white juries. His closing addresses to these juries are among the most famous in American jurisprudence.
As his health deteriorated, Darrow gradually withdrew from the public arena. He died in 1938.
In recent decades, Clarence Darrow’s fame has been revived by several one-actor shows. Most notable among these was Henry Fonda’s performance of “Darrow”, a one-actor play by David Rintels. Darrow also received dramatic attention as the inspiration for the character Henry Drummond in the stage play “Inherit the Wind”. In the film version of the play, Drummond (Darrow) was played by Spencer Tracy.