In the early 20th century, if you were in deep trouble and needed the best defense attorney in America, Clarence Darrow was your man.
He confessed to being an agnostic, soaked up Darwin, couldn’t accept the Bible — though he conceded that “If anybody finds anything in this life that brings them consolation and health and happiness I think they ought to have it.”
Darrow believed mankind descended from apes, and called Piltdown Man the evidence — though he must have been embarrassed when later they discovered that Piltdown was a hoax.
And he failed miserably in losing his first criminal case, defending Patrick Prendergast who murdered Chicago mayor, Carter H. Harrison Sr., and was sent to the gallows.
Clarence Darrow was born in Kinsman, Ohio, in 1857. He didn’t finish college but earned his law degree by studying while working at a law firm and passing the bar exam at age 21. His father was an abolitionist and religious freethinker whom they called the “village infidel,” and his mother was a women’s rights activist.
Darrow started his lawyer career at Kinsman, later moving to nearby Ashtabula where he was hired as city legal counsel. He became active in Democratic Party politics and his oratory eloquence began to blossom.
Moving to Chicago in 1887 with his wife and son, he worked in city government before going corporate with the Chicago and Northwestern Railway Company.
The nationwide Pullman Strike of 1894 catapulted Darrow into the limelight when some 4,000 Pullman railroad car company employees went on a wildcat strike following layoffs and wage slashes. Thirty were killed in the violence. American Railway Union President Eugene V. Debs — five-time Socialist Party presidential candidate — was indicted twice, once for alleged contempt of court injunction, and another for blocking passage of U.S. mail.
Darrow defended him, winning the mail case but losing the contempt charge. Debs spent six months in jail.
In 1899, labor violence erupted in Idaho’s Shoshone County when Western Federation of Miners (WFM) workers blew up the non-union Bunker Hill Mining Company mill in Wardner because of various issues. Governor Frank Steunenberg called for help.
The First Idaho Volunteer Infantry was in the Philippines fighting in the Spanish-American War and not available, so Steunenberg declared martial law and asked President McKinley for federal troops. They came and put a stop to the mayhem — infuriation the WFM.
Five years later, the union got even. They hired a hitman to whack the former governor. He was Harry Orchard (real name Albert Edward Horsley), a former WFM miner and paid informer for the union.
He rigged a bomb on the gate of Steunenberg’s house in Caldwell at 1602 Dearborn Street.
On December 30, 1905, Steunenberg returned from a walk in eight inches of snow, opened the gate and was blown ten feet into the air. He died within the hour.
Orchard was quickly arrested and under intense questioning by Pinkerton detective James McParland confessed and said he was hired by the union — that had also paid him for 17 other killings. He said orders came from William “Big Bill” Haywood, the union’s secretary-treasurer, Charles Moyer, WFM president, and labor activist George Pettibone.
All three were arrested in Denver and brought back to Idaho for trial.
The stage was set for a headlining court battle in Boise featuring the brilliant attorney for the defense Clarence Darrow and newly elected Idaho Senator William Borah — who’d later earn the sobriquet “Lion of Idaho.”
Reporters came from everywhere in the summer of 1907 — the trial lasting for months. Darrow’s team of lawyers grilled Orchard for 26 hours and presented more than 100 witnesses.
Defense attorney Edmund F. Richardson spoke for more than ten hours in closing arguments, followed by Darrow who spoke for more than eleven hours. Prosecutors James Hawley spoke for more than eight hours and Borah for five.
“Let me tell you, gentlemen,” Darrow told the jury, pleading the moral righteousness of the union, “if you destroy the labor unions in this country, you destroy liberty when you strike the blow, and you would leave the poor bound and shackled and helpless to do the bidding of the rich.
“Other men have died in the same cause in which Bill Haywood has risked his life, he continued. “Men strong with devotion, men who love liberty, men who love their fellow men have raised their voices in defense of the poor, in defense of justice, have made their good fight and have met death on the scaffold, on the rack, in the flame, and they will meet it again until the world grows old and gray.
“Bill Haywood is no better than the rest; he can die, if die he needs. He can die if this jury decrees it, but, oh, gentlemen, don’t think for a moment that if you hang him you will crucify the labor movement of the world.”
Surprisingly, Darrow won, and Haywood was acquitted. Pettibone was also acquitted in a separate trial, and charges dropped against Moyer. Orchard received a life sentence.
Many legal scholars today praise Darrow’s closing argument, but the “contemporary reaction was universally negative,” one report said, the Chicago Tribune calling it “the most unseemly, abusive, inflammatory speech ever delivered in an American courtroom.”
Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb were two high-IQ teenagers from Chicago with college degrees who were fascinated by crime and German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche’s concept of Übermensch — “supermen” who because of their superior intellect didn’t have to obey societal norms of behavior.
Acting out their fantasy, they began indulging in petty theft and vandalism — then graduating to arson. Disappointed that the press didn’t publicize their crimes, they plotted something much more sensational.
That “perfect crime” would be to kidnap and murder Bobbie Franks, Loeb’s 14-year-old cousin, and the pair spent seven months planning it.
They lured Bobbie into a car rented under a false name, killed him “for the thrill” with a chisel and buried the body. Then they sent a ransom note to his parents with intricate payment instructions for the release of their “kidnapped” son
Then the body was found, and the kidnapping ruse was over. Leopold and Loeb tried to cover up the crime by resuming normal living, but the police soon caught them.
Loeb’s parent hired Clarence Darrow.
At first, the young men blamed each other for the actual killing. Darrow decided the defense would plead guilty and seek the court’s leniency.
Because of the guilty plea, the trial was actually the penalty hearing before Cook County Circuit Court Judge John R. Caverly.
Pleading for life sentences instead of the gallows, Darrow blamed the crime on the children being bombarded by images and violence they see in the world around them. “I know it has influenced these boys so that life was not the same to them as it would have been if the world had not been made red with blood,” he argued.
“I protest against the crimes and mistakes of society being visited upon them. All of us have a share in it. I have mine…how many words of mine might have given birth to cruelty in place of love and kindness and charity.”
Both boys were given a life sentence.
Loeb was murdered in prison in 1936; Leopold was paroled in 1958, then moved to Puerto Rico, and devoted the rest of his life in community service.
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A favorite story about Darrow tells about how he smoked a cigar at a trial while the opposing attorney was giving his closing argument. The ash kept growing longer and longer but wouldn’t fall off. The jury was mesmerized, their eyes fixed on the cigar and paying little attention to the court proceeding at hand. As the other attorney finished, the ash had grown some four inches. Then Darrow tapped the stogie and the ash fell off, revealing a wire inserted into the length of the cigar.
How true that tale is will no doubt be debated forever, but the trick probably couldn’t be used today because of no-smoking rules in court.
NEXT WEEK: Clarence Darrow defends the firebombers of the Los Angeles Times, faces bribery charges, headlines other big cases including battling William Jennings Bryan in the Scopes “Monkey Trial,” while dealing with financial, family and philandering problems.
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Contact Syd Albright at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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Darrow on justice…
“Justice has nothing to do with what goes on in a courtroom; Justice is what comes out of a courtroom.”
— Clarence Darrow
Pinkerton detective James McParland armed with warrants arrested the three suspects in the Steunenberg assassination who were in Denver before they could fight extradition and spirited them out to Idaho on a special train — essentially kidnapping them. Charles Moyer was caught after boarding a train to South Dakota — possibly heading for Canada — and Big Bill Haywood while having sex with this sister-in-law.
“The German prefix “über” can have connotations of superiority, transcendence, excessiveness, or intensity, depending on the words to which it is attached. Mensch refers to a member of the human species, rather than to a male specifically. The adjective übermenschlich means super-human, in the sense of beyond human strength or out of proportion to humanity.”
“History repeats itself, and that’s one of the things that’s wrong with history.”
— Clarence Darrow
Haywood case closing argument…
“That speech is amazing, for his ability both to tear apart the prosecution’s case and to draw from the jurors — who were not union men, but were working men — an appreciation for what labor was trying to do.”
— Tom A. Frail, Smithsonian Magazine
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