Clarence Darrow Biography
The following biography
Clarence Seward Darrow (April 18, 1857 in
Kinsman, Ohio – March 13, 1938 in Chicago, Illinois) was an American
lawyer, best known for having defended teenaged thrill killers Leopold
and Loeb in their trial for murdering 14 year old Bobby Franks (1924)
and defending John T. Scopes in the so-called "Monkey" Trial (1925),
opposing the famous prosecutor William Jennings Bryan. He remains famous
for his wit, compassion and agnosticism that have marked him as one of
the most famous American lawyers and civil libertarians.
From Corporate Lawyer to Labor Lawyer
Darrow began his career as a lawyer in
Youngstown, Ohio, where he was first admitted to the profession (Judge
Alfred W. Mackey). He subsequently moved to Chicago, Illinois, where he
soon became a corporations lawyer for the railroad company. His next
move was to "cross the tracks," when he switched sides to represent
Eugene V. Debs, the leader of the American Railway Union in the Pullman
Strike of 1894. Darrow had conscientiously resigned his corporate
position in order to represent Debs, making a substantial financial
sacrifice in order to do this, although the work was not pro bono.
Darrow defended Haywood, the radical leader
of the Industrial Workers of the World and the Western Federation of
Miners, who was acquitted of charges of being involved in the murder of
former Idaho governor Frank Steunenberg in 1905. His next notable case
was the defense of the MacNamara Brothers, who were charged with
dynamiting the Los Angeles Times building during the bitter struggle
over the open shop in Southern California, resulting in the deaths of 20
When Darrow saw the weight of the evidence
against the brothers he convinced them to change their plea to guilty
and was able to plea bargain prison sentences instead of the death
penalty. However Darrow himself was subsequently charged with two counts
of attempting to bribe jurors in the MacNamara case, and although he was
acquitted on both charges he was barred from ever practicing law in
From Labor Lawyer to Criminal Lawyer
A further consequence of the bribery
charges was that the labor unions dropped Darrow from their list of
preferred attorneys. This effectively put Darrow out of business as a
labor lawyer, and he switched to acting in criminal cases.
Throughout his career, Darrow devoted
himself to opposing the death penalty, which he felt to be in conflict
with humanitarian progress. In more than 100 cases, Darrow only lost one
murder case in Chicago. He became renowned for moving juries and even
judges to tears with his eloquence. Despite scant education, which
included a year at the University of Michigan Law School, Darrow had a
keen intellect often shielded by his rumpled, unassuming appearance.
A story attributed to Darrow is his quip to
a client, who, after winning, said, "How can I ever show my
appreciation, Mr. Darrow?" Darrow replied, "Ever since the Phoenicians
invented money, there has been only one answer to that question."
Indeed, Darrow's pursuit of wealth is often cited by his detractors, and
it is notable that in his entire legal career Darrow only ever accepted
one pro bono case - John Scopes of the Scopes Monkey Trial fame.
Even on that one occasion Darrow acted from
necessity. He badly wanted to take part in the trial, but Scopes was in
no position to pay him, and the ACLU, who were paying all of Scopes'
legal costs, didn't want Darrow involved in the trial and certainly
wouldn't have agreed to pay him.
Leopold and Loeb
In 1924 Darrow took on the case of Leopold
and Loeb, the teenage sons of two wealthy Chicago families, who were
accused of kidnapping and killing Bobby Franks, a 14 year old boy, to
see what it would be like to commit the ultimate crime. Darrow convinced
them to plead guilty and based their defense on the claim that they
weren't completely responsible for their actions, but were the products
of the environment they grew up in. This was done in order to avoid the
death penalty. During the Leopold-Loeb trial, when Darrow had supposedly
accepted "a million-dollar fee", many ordinary Americans were angered at
their apparent betrayal. In truth, Darrow and his two co-counsels were
given $100,000 to split three ways— after dunning the wealthy Loeb
family for several months.
In 1925, he defended Henry Sweet, a young
black man living in Detroit with his brother, Dr. Ossian Sweet, in the
shooting death of a member of a white mob. The mob of at least a 1,000
people had gathered outside Dr. Sweet's home to force him to move from
the neighborhood. Eleven people were originally charged with the murder,
and after the first trial ended in a mistrial, Darrow requested separate
trials for each defendant and Henry Sweet's was the first. Darrow
referred to the trial as one of his best argued, finishing with a
legendary eight-hour impassioned closing argument which won acquittal
for Henry Sweet from the eleven-man jury, shocking the city. Following
the acquittal, charges against the remaining defendants were dropped.
After the 1925 Scopes Trial, Clarence
Darrow largely retired from practice, emerging only occasionally to
undertake cases, such as the 1934 Massie Trial in Hawaii.
A volume of Darrow's boyhood Reminiscences,
entitled "Farmington," was published in Chicago in 1903 by McClurg and
Darrow shared offices with Edgar Lee
Masters, who achieved more fame for his poetry, in particular the Spoon
River Anthology, than for his advocacy. Darrow also took Eugene V. Debs
as a partner, following his release from prison.
After his death, a full-length one man play
was created, featuring Darrow's reminiscences about his career.
Originated by Henry Fonda, many actors, including Leslie Nielsen, have
since taken on the role of Darrow in this play. The Scopes Monkey trials
were fictionalized in another play, entitled "Inherit the Wind." This
was later turned into a film. Darrow is also mentioned in the musical, "Lil
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