Personalities fascinate me--people do. One way I try to understand history and places is through people--which is why I love good historical fiction.
When I relocated here to Chicago, of course I looked at the people involved here--the historical figures of Chicago's past. Having grown up in the Midwest (Michigan) and having parents who were both Illinoisans by birth, I naturally had had some of that infused into me as a child! Mayor Daley, Old Lady Leary, Frank Lloyd Wright (one of my mother's favorites, plus there were several FLW homes in my Michigan hometown), the many figures of organized crime, Jane Addams, and Jane Byrne were names I knew well.
But as I re-acquainted myself with Chicago's famous names, one in particular caught my interest--Clarence Darrow. Now, I had known of him since high school, when we read "Inherit the Wind" in biology class (yes, biology class, I am fairly certain--if any of my high school classmates read this and want to correct me, please do, but I'm pretty sure it was Mr. B. who had us read it). I'm sure Darrow's speeches had an influence on my intention to attend law school--life took me down a different path--but I retained an interest in him. My companion interest in historical crime brought me back together with Mr. Darrow in the Leopold and Loeb case. My college history professor gave us more about the history of the labor movement in the 1890s-1910s than I ever learned, before or since--the Haymarket riots, the miners in Colorado and West Virginia, the LA Times bombing--and there was Mr Darrow in the middle of things again.
Well, when someone keeps showing up, it's time to learn more about them.
My friends, Clarence Darrow should be far more celebrated by the progressive movement than he is. He is one of our forgotten heroes.
He was born in Ohio (1857), the son of a progressive thinker father and a suffragette mother. He moved to Chicago with his wife Jessie and son Paul, when he began to feel a lack of professional progress in Ashtabula. Chicago quickly realized his legal brilliance, and he did some work for the city, went to work for the Chicago and Northwestern Railroad, and was generally active in what we would today call "networking." He joined various clubs, met influential people, including John Altgeld (Chicago mayor, soon-to-be business partner and future Illinois governor), and generally being social. But when the head counsel for the railroad died, Darrow had a wake-up call. All seemed clear for him to succeed as head counsel--and he realized he could not do that work the rest of his life. He quit the railroad, defended Eugene V. Debs, and began a career in labor law. In essence, he gave up a life of guaranteed income (if probable graft and possible outright bribery) and went to work for the working folk, with income from the unions. Darrow switched sides with a vengeance. Remember that the unions were much less powerful than today--their very existence was in doubt on many occasions. Then, after Darrow plea-bargained two labor defendants' charges--they were alleged to have bombed the Los Angeles Times newspaper--into prison sentences rather than the probable death penalty, the enraged unions refused to pay him the rest of his fees (they had wanted a trial and the possibility of complete acquittal, which was not possible, in Darrow's opinion). At the same time, California charged Darrow with jury tampering in the case. He was ultimately acquitted of the charges (one jury found him not guilty and the other jury was unable to come to a decision), but the labor unions refused to employ him any more. Darrow had frequently performed legal work for the settlement houses (precursors to social workers) in Chicago on a pro bono basis, and of course some of the labor work he had done was, in fact, criminal law. He had divorced and remarried several years earlier; so he had an ex wife, a son, and a wife to support. So he turned to a mix of criminal defense, corporate law for small businesses, and civil law as a career, with a bit of labor law thrown in from the Chicago locals.
Darrow's most famous cases, after his labor law period, date from the last twenty years of his life. Leopold and Loeb, the Scopes trial, the Dr. Ossian Sweet trial (a black Detroit man tried for shooting at a mob attacking his home), and the Massie trial--were from this time. With the probable exception of the Massie trial, he defended individuals facing overwhelming odds--the underdog.
Darrow was an early feminist, a prison abolitionist (he said several times he hated prisons, most famously in a speech to prisoners in Chicago's own Cook County Jail); anti-death penalty--his statement against capital punishment in the Leopold and Loeb case is still quoted--and believed that crime was caused by the environment a person was raised in, and was not innate in a person. He blamed it on poverty and a lack of opportunity--a bit simplistically, from what we understand today, but then that was in the 1920s, in the midst of the Great Migration, when ghettos were forming and racism barely acknowledged. Nevertheless, he named racism as a factor fearlessly in the Sweet trial--and gained an acquittal.
Darrow was never a rich man. It's interesting how often people automatically think a lawyer is wealthy. He did well for one period in his life--as a corporate railroad lawyer and city hired gun. Once he went out on his own to work for labor and the progressive causes, his income dropped like the proverbial stone. Many cases he took pro bono ("for the [public] good"; bar associations still require their members to work a certain number of hours pro bono). Some were sent his way by Jane Addams, the founder of Hull House and early social worker. Others came from the union halls or those who had heard of him by word of mouth as someone who assisted the underdog.
I won't review his cases-there are several biographies of him, including "Clarence Darrow for the Defense," by Irving Stone, who had access to many of Darrow's papers (sold to him by Darrow's wife), and the recent "Clarence Darrow: Attorney for the Damned," by John Farrell, which is very balanced and, given the distance in time, more reasoned. Darrow also wrote an autobiography with the highly (un)original title "The Story of My Life," which was less than complete, shall we say.
I am not neutral about Darrow. I am, unashamedly and unabashedly, a Darrow supporter. He was compassionate, kind, open-hearted and generous to people and causes that, in his time, were too often considered unworthy of a decent defense in a court of law, let alone protection of law. He was aware of his privilege as a white educated male of the middle class; thus the pose as a "hick country lawyer," in sloppy, sometimes stained, clothes and a haircut that often left him peering through a stray lock of hair that persisted in flopping over his forehead. But this unprepossessing appearance was blown away the moment he began his opening argument or cross-examination. Darrow was famous for not only his flights of rhetoric but his legal strategy--he continually thought "outside the box," as we would say today. No one would mistake him for a fuzzy thinker after two minutes of one of his speeches. They rang all the changes of human emotion--usually in the same speech--from clear logic to heart-wringing emotion. He was a big man--over six feet tall, with broad shoulders and a barrel chest--and his deep voice would roll and surge from filling the courtroom and then sink to a whisper and back up the register again. When it came time for closing arguments in a Darrow-for-the-defense case, crowds filled the courtroom, the halls outside, and crammed the windows to hear him (one of the ways he paid the bills between cases was on speaking tours). He famously brought judges--who were supposed to be impartial--to tears on behalf of his clients. He gave them reasons to acquit, or to reduce sentences, to save face for political reasons, in order that his clients would live, or go free. Darrow would use whatever strategy it took, within the law (usually...), to ensure justice was done.
No, Darrow wasn't perfect--he was human. He was not good with finances, as I mentioned above. He was a soft touch with women; his second marriage was an open marriage, and while he took full advantage of that, Ruby (his wife) seemed to forget the arrangement they had made and resented it, becoming somewhat of a shrew (according to contemporary accounts). Sometimes partial truth was told, when it was more comfortable or simpler or more convenient or could be labeled "confidentiality." But many of his cases were complex, and business affairs among partners (especially law partners) can quickly take on a Rashomon-like feel.
I find the end of his life particularly sad. He died in 1938, of what I think we would today call congestive heart failure. He had grown weaker and weaker, and in the last months of his life was not seeing friends any more--he was finding it difficult to speak and even his son Paul had difficulty understanding him. This is heartbreaking--the man who had filled courtrooms to hear him, whose voice had been the means of saving lives, whose speeches had brought people to tears--was now unintelligible. Darrow had lost weight to the point that when he died, that huge frame had shrunk to all of ninety pounds. A memorial service was held, and he was cremated. His son and his business manager took his ashes to the bridge in Jackson Park where he had loved to practice his speeches and statements, and scattered them into the lagoon. The bridge is now named in his memory.
Photo taken by Roger Deschner in March 2018
License: Creative Commons Attribution-Share-Alike (CC BY-SA)
Ruby had hoped to sell some of their effects to clear debts--without Darrow's speaking tours and lectures, she had only her own writing and sales of his books and pamphlets for income. It was still the Depression, however, and while friends and others were interested, their possessions sold for far less than they should have. Darrow's pocket knife for $1.50; his books, with all his annotations, to a used book seller for less than $500, a Persian carpet she had hoped to sell for $300 went for much less. She was able to sell some papers and such to Irving Stone for his use in his biography, which apparently helped, however. It makes me want to cry, though--I'd almost sell my soul for one of his annotated law books, or his pocket knife, even!
Today, most of Darrow's extant letters and papers reside at the University of Minnesota and are available online. Others are at the Library of Congress, the Historical Society of Chicago, and various labor union archives, as well as the archives of the courts before which he appeared.
Darrow was a brilliant thinker, speaker, and writer. He was ahead of his time in many ways, but he prepared the ground for those of us who come after him. I recognize his faults, but I don't quite understand the people who are so quick to point them out. His faults, with the possible exception of the jury bribery, do not disqualify him from the brilliant human rights work he did. And given the corrupt state of Los Angeles at that time, and the power that was arrayed against the defendants, I am not sure I could blame him if he did try to bribe the jury (which he never admitted and which he was never found guilty of). Darrow's compassion and dedication, his frequent habit of foregoing a fee to help someone or, as in the Leopold and Loeb case, to reduce the appearance of taking it just for the fee--Darrow worked for a legal code that was just for everyone, not only those with money, not only those who were owners, not only those who were white, not only those who were male, not only those were adults or educated or had never been arrested before--but for everyone. I don't know that he would be a public defender today--the bureaucracy of a government position might be too much for him--but he would certainly approve of Gideon v. Wainwright and the public defender's office.
Next time you're in Chicago, or in Jackson Park, stop by Darrow's bridge. It's being repaired, so you can't actually go out on it right now, but take a look. He spent a lot of time there; I'm willing to bet something of his spirit lingers; of righteous indignation, of compassion, of generosity. Perhaps he'll lend me something of his gift for rhetoric and writing!
Above all, remember what Darrow knew and fought for --every human being deserves the same rights, and to be seen as a human being, no matter their skin color or gender or age or their past deeds or the accusations against them. And go thou and do likewise.