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Clarence Darrow: Dragonslayer

By John A. Farrell
9/29/2017 • American History Magazine

Clarence Darrow turned court clashes into mass entertainment as he wielded his lance against big business and big government.

He had magnificent presence. He would walk into the courtroom, the conversation would stop and people would murmur, “There’s Darrow.” He was more than 6 feet tall, and handsome in a rough cast way, with eyes set deep beneath the mighty brow, and the bold cheekbones that evoked, as George Bernard Shaw once said, a Mohican brave. His hair was brown, and straight and fine, with a famously unruly lock that was apt to drift down to his forehead. His face, in middle age, was deeply lined; his skin charitably described as leather-like, or bronzed. His voice was a melodious grumble of a baritone, flowing from a deep chest. His eyes roamed restlessly, until those times when, with intent fury, they bore into a witness or a foe.

“His clothes were a mess, wrinkled, untidy,” noted journalist William Allen White. “He slouched when he walked and he walked like a cat.” He would slouch, as well, in his seat at the defense table, sinking indolently toward the horizontal, a signal to the jurors that nothing they were hearing from the prosecutor was important.

It was all, of course, a performance. “The picture of Darrow drawling in front of a jury box was a notable scene,” wrote Chicago newsman and scriptwriter Ben Hecht, who Darrow defended from the censors. “The great barrister artfully gotten up in baggy pants, frayed linen and string tie, and ‘playing dumb’ for a jury as if he were no lawyer at all, but a cracker-barrel philosopher groping for a bit of human truth.”

He put on quite a show. He whispered, he roared, he shook his fist, he pointed his finger in the face of an opponent, he snapped his suspenders so loudly that one newsman compared the sound to “the explosion of a .45.”

In the days before radio and television, courthouse clashes were mass entertainment, and when Darrow delivered a closing argument, the courtroom was packed with newspapermen, off-duty judges, prominent lawyers and politicians. And ordinary folks: Sometimes, a mob of thousands would spill through the corridors, down the stairs and out into the yard, to surround a courthouse and listen at the windows.

He savored the attention. “He disliked being invisible,” said writer Louis Adamic. “The actor-egotist in him sought opportunities to play great parts. Hero parts.”

Clarence Darrow became the most famous lawyer in American history by transforming himself into a new kind of American hero—dragonslayer for the downtrodden, attorney for the damned. He defended Socialist Eugene Debs, radical labor leader Big Bill Haywood and assorted anarchists, communists, gangsters and psychopaths. He starred in at least two dramas dubbed “the trial of the century”—the 1924 Chicago case of thrill killers Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb, and the 1925 Scopes “Monkey Trial” in Dayton, Tenn., where he humiliated the renowned populist orator William Jennings Bryan in a legendary cross-examination about evolution—a bravura performance later immortalized in the movie Inherit the Wind, with Spencer Tracy playing the Darrow role. And he created the prototype for dozens of crusading attorneys who came after him, including William Kunstler, F. Lee Bailey, Johnny Cochran and Gloria Allred.

Darrow himself was the intellectual heir of Thomas Jefferson, America’s foremost champion of personal liberty. The great theme of his life, the long war he fought in his march through courtrooms, was the defense of individual liberty from modernity’s relentless, crushing, impersonal forces of wealth and power. “No era of the world has ever produced such a rapid concentration of wealth and power as this one in which we live,” Darrow said. “All the greatness of America, all her marvelous wealth, all the wonders…are a monument to the wisdom of liberty.” But, he added, “our liberty produced prosperity, and this prosperity looks with doubting eye upon the mother who gave it breath, and threatens to strangle her to death.”

Like Jefferson, the freedom-loving slaveholder, Darrow was a man of enormous contradictions. He was an idealist with a wide streak of cynicism, a humanist who distrusted humanity, an atheist whose mistress described him as “Christ-like,” a reformer who was skeptical of reform, a tireless defender of the underdog who harbored no illusions about the moral superiority of his clients. “If the underdog got on top, he would probably be just as rotten as the upper dog,” he said, “but in the meantime I am for him. He needs friends a damn sight more than the other fellow.”

He was a rebel who scorned society and its norms, and he was willing to employ any trick to save a client. Twice, he was tried for allegedly bribing jurors. Both times he beat the rap, but he was almost certainly guilty. “Do not the rich and powerful bribe juries, intimidate and coerce judges as well as juries?” he told an associate. “Do they shrink from any weapon?”

At his core, Darrow was a Byronic hero—intelligent, captivating, jaded, moody—a renegade with little regard for rank and privilege, the descendant of a family of dissidents and iconoclasts. “I am proud of my rebel ancestors,” he declared. Several had fought in the Revolution, at the battles of Lexington and Saratoga. His father, Amirus, an Ohio furniture maker, was a rebel, too—an abolitionist and freethinker, a disciple of Jefferson, Thomas Paine and Charles Darwin. “He was always in rebellion against religious and political creeds of the narrow and smug community in which he dwelt,” Darrow recalled. It was a description he could also have applied to himself.

Clarence Seward Darrow was born in 1857 and raised in the small town of Kinsman, Ohio. In his teens, he taught school for three years, then, at 20, he enrolled in the University of Michigan law school. He failed to graduate and never earned a law degree. Instead, he apprenticed with an Ohio attorney, passed the bar and hung out a shingle in several small towns before moving to Chicago, where he landed a cushy job as corporate counsel for the Chicago & North Western Railroad. As such, it was his duty to defend the railroad against lawsuits by the families of people killed or crippled by its trains as they roared over crowded streets.

He lasted a few years, then quit the job and began defending the kind of rebels and radicals that his father had admired. “He found himself offside and had to cross over to where he belonged,” wrote his friend Lincoln Steffens, the muckraking journalist who wrote The Shame of the Cities.

Darrow’s decision to switch sides was influenced by the glaring contrasts between bucolic Kinsman and turn-of-the-century Chicago. When he was a boy, Darrow liked to say, the hired man had dignity; he dined with the family of his employer, shared their pew on Sunday and could court the boss’ daughter. “Nobody had a monopoly of either riches or poverty,” he recalled. “The community was truly democratic.”

Thirty years later, the roar of the Industrial Revolution had changed America beyond recognition, and Chicago was a city of sweatshops and slaughterhouses, where the hired men worked, and sometimes died, for pennies an hour, their names unknown to their corporate employers. If they organized unions and fought back, private armies and local militias were summoned to break up their strikes and demonstrations, often with volleys of rifle fire. According to the courts, a worker’s only right was to negotiate, man-to-man, with his employer, and to take himself elsewhere if the terms were not to his liking. And none married the boss’ daughter. Darrow, like his father, cast his lot with the underdog and became, as Steffens dubbed him, “the attorney for the damned.”

As his fame spread, the bench in Darrow’s outer office was invariably filled by “men in overalls, their arms in slings; by women huddled in shawls and threadbare clothes, wan-faced, waiting for Darrow,” a friend recalled. The renowned lawyer would emerge at the end of the day, see the long line, sigh and offer an understanding smile. Dinners would grow cold as he sat with a supplicant for an hour or more, patiently hearing the facts of the case, and offering advice on the poor man’s trouble, or agreeing to defend him gratis. A third or more of Darrow’s cases earned him nothing.

In the midst of the Leopold and Loeb case, a woman stopped him on his way to court; her son was in jail and she had no money to defend him. Darrow stopped, listened and sent word to the judge that he would be late. He went to jail to see the boy, and agreed to represent him for free. “What can a fellow do,” Darrow asked, “when some poor devil comes to him, without a cent or a friend in the world, trembling in his shoes and begging for a chance before the law?”

Darrow the skeptic distrusted his own altruism, identifying it as selfishness in disguise. “To avoid pain,” he told a colleague, “I do what other men call altruistic things.”

Of course, he was no saint. He cheated on his devoted wife, Ruby—and on his mistresses. He was a notorious rake—a professed sensualist who took much pleasure from seduction and the act of love. He used sex as a narcotic to escape the “spiritual isolation” of his life, wrote one of his mistresses, because he was often lonely, haunted by death and prey to melancholy. “Sex,” he told her, was “the only feeling in the world that can make you forget for a little while.”

Work was his other narcotic. “Even as I have fought for freedom,” he said, “I have always had a consciousness that I was doing it to keep myself occupied so I might forget myself.” Every man has his “dope,” Darrow said, whether it was “religions, philosophies, creeds, whisky, cocaine, morphine…anything to take away the reality.” Sex and work were his.

Despite his reputation for defending the downtrodden, he also served those rich enough to pay legal bills, people like Emma Simpson, a socialite who smuggled a handgun into court and shot her philandering husband in the midst of their divorce proceeding. “You’ve killed him!” said a shocked clerk. “I hope so,” replied Emma. Darrow, with classic chutzpah, convinced the jury to have mercy on the widow.

Fat fees from rich miscreants helped offset the cost of defending folks like poor Tommy Crosby, a 13-year-old charged with shooting the sheriff sent to evict the boy and his widowed mother from their home three days before Christmas. Darrow told the sad story to the jury, and dared them to send Tommy to the hangman. Of course, they didn’t. Perhaps that was an easy sell, but Darrow also defended crazed killer Russell Pethick, a grocery boy who slashed a woman to death with a butcher knife, cut the throat of her 2-year-old son and sexually abused her corpse. Somehow, Darrow managed to save Pethick’s life, too.

He detested the death penalty, convinced that no government should have the right to kill its people. “He fought capital punishment because it was the State laying its bloody hands upon some poor forlorn individual who it had earlier betrayed by neglect or oppression,” wrote his friend, theologian John Haynes Holmes.

“I have known him a lifetime, wrote another friend, Erskine Wood. “His almost insane desire is to save life.”

He didn’t care if his clients were guilty or innocent. He was a determinist who didn’t believe in guilt or innocence, or free will, or good and evil. There were no moral absolutes, no truth, no justice. There was only mercy.

“We are all poor, blind creatures bound hand and foot by the invisible chains of heredity and environment, doing pretty much what we have to do in a barbarous and cruel world,” he said. “That’s about all there is to any court case.”

Darrow’s famously eloquent and emotional summations, which attracted so many eager spectators, were all about context. He believed that jurors could be persuaded to look past the legal particulars, to judge a defendant in the context of the times, to consider the situational factors that prompt behavior. He sought to make even the most hideous of crimes comprehensible. “The first task of a lawyer,” he said, “is to put forward the human side of his client, to show the jury that the defendant is merely a man like themselves.”

Building empathy was his goal, and to that end he would employ all his tricks of showmanship. To endear himself to the jury, he feigned regular-guy simplicity, slouched, dressed in sloppy suits. He would lean on the jury box, as if taking the jurors into his confidence, talking so softly that those in the back row would lean toward him to listen. Then, suddenly, his demeanor would change. His voice would turn harsh; his jaw muscles would tighten. Soaring toward a crescendo, he would swing his arms; shake his clenched fists at heaven. And then the storm would pass, the sun would return, the jurors would relax, and Darrow would be genial and engaging, lightening the mood with a wisecrack.

He never addressed juries, he said. He talked to them.

“In homely language and with a great wealth of illustrations, he would talk about human beings, the difficulties of life, the futility of human plans, the misfortunes of the defendant, the strange workings of fate and chance that had landed him in his trouble,” said Arthur Garfield Hayes, his co-counsel in several celebrated cases. “Darrow would try to make the jury understand, not so much the case, as the defendant.”

When he ended his summations, he was frequently in tears—and sometimes the jurors were, too.

He was a shameless ham, a flagrant manipulator of emotions, but his over-the-top performances saved countless souls from the gallows. And his oratory helped educate America about the cruelties that a winner-take-all society inflicts on its weakest members.

Long before his death at 80 in 1938, Darrow had become a legend, an icon, a new archetype of American hero—the lawyer as brave knight riding to rescue the helpless from the fierce dragons of big business and big government.

Americans of his era drew strength watching Darrow rage against the machine. And Americans of our era can do the same. There is something grand and epic in his fierce resistance to those inexorable oppressive forces that imperiled freedom in his lifetime—and still do in ours. There is also something touching about his simple human compassion.

“His instantaneous reaction toward people—especially people in trouble—was the welling forth of that tremendous, instinctive kindliness and sympathy,” one of his clients recalled. “It was so genuine, so immediate, so unforced. And it embraced the whole world. Or, at least, nearly the whole world. The only things Mr. Darrow hated were what he considered cruelty, narrow-mindedness, or obstinate stupidity. Against these he fought with every weapon he could lay a hand to.”

Darrow would no doubt be pleased with that moving endorsement of his character—and amused that it came from the notorious thrill killer Nathan Leopold.


From the book Clarence Darrow, by John A. Farrell, © 2011 by John A. Farrell. Published by arrangement with Doubleday, an imprint of the Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, a division of Random House, Inc.

Originally published in the June 2011 issue of American History. To subscribe, click here.  

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