“To be an effective criminal defense counsel,” Clarence Darrow said, “an attorney must be prepared to be demanding, outrageous, irreverent, blasphemous, a rogue, a renegade, and a hated, isolated and lonely person — few love a spokesman for the despised and the damned.”
Darrow was right — it all applied to him.
In 1907, he defended William “Big Bill” Haywood and other mining union leaders who hired a hit-man to assassinate former Gov. Frank Steunenberg for doing his job as governor in ending union violence in Idaho’s Silver Valley.
Haywood may have been popular with the miners and others for his battle to protect “the little guy” from the big, bad mine owners. But not everyone supported union violence, and considered Haywood and the others the bad guys.
That made Darrow the bad guy too for defending him.
How popular were Johnnie Cochrane, Robert Kardashian, Robert Shapiro, Alan Dershowitz, Barry Scheck and F. Lee Bailey — the “Dream Team” that defended O.J. Simpson in front of 150 million mesmerized TV viewers?
Darrow never seemed overly concerned about his PR image. He just liked taking the tough cases — defending the unlikeable client or unpopular cause.
He also battled his own demons — bad investments, rocky marriages, smoking, drinking, womanizing and being an agnostic in mostly Christian America.
He survived it all however, and history may always remember Clarence Darrow as America’s greatest criminal defense lawyer.
Darrow’s courtroom judgment is no doubt recommended law school reading, but not his private life outside court.
Tom A. Frail wrote in Smithsonian, “Darrow grew up on a hardscrabble farm in Ohio and told his friend Jane Addams, ‘I have never been able to get over the dread of being poor, and the fear of it.’ But he had a pretty complicated relationship with money … and it got him into a lot of trouble.
“His law partner for a time was Edgar Lee Masters, the famous poet, and Masters said it was the money that ruined him.”
He needed the money because he had an ex-wife and their son to support — as well as his second wife. And adding to his woes was the expense of chasing other women.
He was a brilliant lawyer, but not an astute investor. His second wife, Ruby, in a letter to her sister wrote, “Clarence’s new idea is for a ranch in California … I guess that’s better than an empty gold mine — or any of the other crackpot schemes he always jumps at.”
When the stock market crashed, he lost the money he’d saved from an earlier natural gas investment, forcing him to earn money from speeches and “doing stunts like defending Benedict Arnold on the radio.”
He was an early feminist and supported allowing women to vote — though his enthusiasm waned after the suffragettes aligned themselves with Prohibition. He was also a stanch advocate of free-love, approving of free choice for women long tradition-bound in straight-laced Victorian times.
“As far as I can tell,” Tom Frail wrote, “he was up front with his mistresses and the young ladies that he met in the free-love cause, and they agreed that this was a natural inclination and you shouldn’t try to repress it.”
There was another side to Clarence Darrow:
He could have solved his financial troubles by accepting the huge fees offered by big corporations, but instead preferred to help the little guy pro bono or at substantially lower fees.
Three years after the Haywood trial in Boise in 1907, the national spotlight was back on Darrow. On October 1, 1910, union thugs blew an entire wing off the fortress-like Los Angeles Times building. Exploding natural gas lines made it worse. Twenty-one employees were killed — including the night editor — and many more badly injured.
Non-union companies were under attack.
Another exploding bomb ripped apart the Llewellyn Iron Works in L.A. on Christmas Day. Both explosions were linked to brothers James B. and John J. McNamara, leaders in the Iron Workers Union.
Clarence Darrow defended them.
The district attorney’s office obtained 25 first-degree murder indictments against the brothers. The trial only lasted six weeks. James then confessed to the Times bombing deaths, and received a life sentence. John J. confessed to the Llewellyn bombing and received 15 years — Darrow’s plea bargaining saving them both from the death penalty.
Then unexpectedly, Darrow himself became embroiled in the affair. His chief investigator, Bert Franklin, was caught giving a $4,500 bribe to a prospective juror in the McNamara jury, and to save his own skin he implicated Darrow.
The matter went to trial, with Darrow accused of bribery. He was acquitted in the first trial and the second ended in a hung jury. Defending himself in the second trial, he denied the bribery charge and painted the McNamara brothers as the little guy battling “oppression of the strong and the powerful.”
Darrow returned to Chicago in 1913 broke and disgraced. His friend, muckraking-journalist Lincoln Steffens wrote, “The cynic is humbled. The man that laughed sees and is frightened — not at prison bars, but at his own soul.”
Darrow immediately rebuilt his law practice, defending unpopular cases — the mentally ill, blacks charged with raping white women, Communists, anarchist and the teenage genius “thrill killers” Loeb and Leopold.
In 1925, came the big one — the Scopes “Monkey Trial” in the humid, hot and sweaty Tennessee hamlet of Dayton.
Substitute teacher and coach John T. Scopes was accused of teaching evolution in a public school — violating Tennessee’s Butler Act. Darrow defended him and was opposed by his old nemesis — the eloquent Christian fundamentalist William Jennings Bryan.
Not only was the case Evolution versus Creationism, but Darrow versus Bryan.
Darrow argued that Modernists believe evolution is not inconsistent with religion. Bryan said Fundamentalists believe the word of God as revealed in the Bible takes precedent over all human knowledge. Basically, the question was “should modern science be taught in schools?” Could schools teach that humans descended from ape ancestors? Tennessee law said “No,” and the jury agreed.
Scopes was found guilty, fined $100 (about $1,400 today) and then released. The verdict was later overturned on a technicality, and the case considered a victory for the evolutionists.
Later that same year, Darrow charged only $5,000 for the Sweet Case, helping a group of African Americans trapped in a house by a violent white mob stirred up by the Ku Klux Klan.
Black physician Ossian Sweet had just bought the house in a white Detroit neighborhood when the mob attacked. There were 11 men inside at that time and some fired back with guns, killing one white neighbor.
All 11 were charged with murder.
Darrow, who was a founding attorney for the NAACP, defended them in the nine-month trial. All were acquitted. Since then, the law has supported everyone’s right to protect their home — including African-Americans.
Darrow’s last big case was the 1932 Massie murder trial in Honolulu, defending New York City socialite Grace Hubbard Granville Fortescue, her son-in-law U.S. Navy Lt. Thomas Massie, and two sailors, Edward J. Lord and Deacon Jones.
All four were accused of the revenge abduction and murder of well-known local Hawaiian prizefighter Joseph Kahahawai, whom they said was one of a group of men who beat and raped Massie’s wife, Thalia.
All the defendants were convicted and sentenced to 10 years in prison.
Darrow however amazingly got the sentence commuted to one hour for manslaughter, and they served their sentence in territorial sheriff’s Honolulu office.
Darrow died at his home in Chicago on March 13, 1938, of pulmonary heart disease at age 80.
Smithsonian writer T.A. Frail said Clarence Darrow “was at heart one of the most compassionate people you could imagine meeting, and that part of him was always at war with the striver, the go-getter. But whenever the chips came down, they always came down on the side of the guy who needed a good lawyer.”
Darrow was skeptical about the afterlife, but he invited people to “talk” to his spirit on Clarence Darrow Memorial Bridge in Chicago on the anniversary date of his death.
Like the mysterious Lady in Black who annually put flowers on the tomb of actor Rudolph Valentino’s crypt in Hollywood, people come to the small bridge, hoping one day to see his ghost.
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Contact Syd Albright at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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No credit to family names…
Clarence Darrow defended a pedigreed client in the 1932 Massie case tried in Honolulu. Grace Hubbard Bell Fortescue, accused of arranging the murder of a local prizefighter was the granddaughter of Gardiner Greene Hubbard, the first president of the National Geographic Society. Her father, Charles John Bell was first cousin of inventor Alexander Graham Bell.
“I have never killed anyone, but I have read some obituary notices with great satisfaction.”
— Clarence Darrow (1922)
“Defender in a hundred or more murder trials, no client of his had ever died on the gallows or electric chair. He had built up a reputation for himself as a friend of labor and of the downtrodden.”
— New York Times (March 14, 1938)
Darwinism in education…
“Crusades to purge Darwinism from American public education began as early as 1917 and were most successful in the South, where Fundamentalists controlled the big Protestant denominations. In 1923, the Oklahoma Legislature passed a bill banning the use of all school texts that included evolutionist instruction. Later that same year, the Florida Legislature approved a joint resolution declaring it ‘improper and subversive for any teacher in a public school to teach Atheism or Agnosticism, or to teach as true, Darwinism, or any other hypothesis that links man in blood relationship to any other form of life.”
‘Monkey Trial’ promotions…
“If there was a consistent theme to the garish exhibits and most of the gossip in Dayton it was, of all things, monkeys. Monkey jokes were faddish. Monkey toys and souvenirs were ubiquitous. A soda fountain advertised something called a ‘monkey fizz,’ and the town’s butcher shop featured a sign reading, ‘We handle all kinds of meat except monkey.’”
“When Darwin announced his theory that humans and apes had descended from a common ancestor, he sent shock waves through the Western world.
“In the years that followed his 1859 declaration, America’s churches hotly debated whether to accept the findings of modern science or continue to follow the teachings of ancient scripture. By the 1920s, most of the urban churches of America had been able to reconcile Darwin’s theory with the Bible, but rural preachers preferred a stricter interpretation.
“Amid the dizzying changes brought by the roaring decade, religious fundamentalists saw the Bible as the only salvation from a materialistic civilization in decline.”
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