Clarence Darrow

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 15)

Arthur and Lila Weinberg, prolific authors who have written a number of books on reform and reformers in American history, have joined together to depict the life of one of the country’s most famous mavericks. Born in Farmdale, Ohio, in 1857, Clarence Darrow developed early a probing, critical intellect, heavily influenced by his father. His education was eclectic: individual reading, a short stint in college, three years teaching in a district school, one year at the University of Michigan Law School, and reading law in a lawyer’s office in Youngstown, Ohio. After practicing law for a few years in Ohio, he moved to Chicago in 1886. Married, with one child, and abundant energy, Darrow was ready to challenge the world.

Beginning in private practice, he soon became corporation counsel for the City of Chicago, then corporate counsel for the Chicago Northwestern Railway Company, all of which gained him valuable experience. During these years, he was also developing his concern for the oppressed and his socialist political commitments. His conscience and legal skills were visibly joined in 1893, when he agreed to defend Eugene Prendergast, who had assassinated Mayor Carter Harrison. Darrow, strongly opposed to the death penalty, defended the assassin with his great oratorical skills in order to save his life. He lost. He never gave up, however, and in the future he would usually win. The following year he defended Eugene Victor Debs, president of the American Railway Union, indicted by the federal government for violating an injunction during the Pullman strike. For Darrow, the issue was clear: the rights of working people versus the power of corporations and the government. Again he lost, but his reputation as a radical lawyer had grown.

Darrow was a man of many talents—state legislator, popular speaker, prolific author of books, pamphlets, and articles on a wide range of topics, and a raconteur—but his enduring love was the law and defending society’s unfortunates, whoever they were and whatever their crimes. Having already become the champion of organized labor, it was natural that in 1907, he was asked to defend William Dudley Haywood, Charles Moyer, and George Pettibone, three active members of the Western Federation of Miners, who were charged with the murder of former Idaho Governor Frank Steunenberg. The defendants were tried separately, with Haywood’s first. Because of Darrow’s magnificent defense Haywood was acquitted, to the surprise of the prosecution and even President Theodore Roosevelt. There were similar victories for the others. Darrow returned to Chicago a hero to working people.

Three years later, he was again called upon to come to the aid of organized labor. Two brothers, James B. and John J. McNamara, were accused of bombing the Los Angeles Times building over a labor dispute. First maintaining their innocence, the brothers eventually pleaded guilty upon Darrow’s recommendation. Subsequently, organized labor criticized Darrow for abandoning the case. To add insult to injury, Darrow himself was next accused of trying to bribe a juror in the case. Greatly humiliated, and pleading innocence, he was forced to hire another lawyer to defend himself. The trial lasted three months and Darrow was acquitted. His ordeal was not over, however, for he was soon tried on a second charge, which ended in a hung jury. Finally, the prosecutor dropped the case. The trials were a harrowing experience for Darrow, consuming over a year of his life and exactng a heavy toll on his mental and physical health. One indication of the importance of this episode is that the authors examine it at length in more than eight chapters and ninety pages of intimate detail.

Darrow was down, temporarily, but certainly not out. Seemingly, he would defend anybody, including the Assistant State’s Attorney accused of fraudulently marking ballots, the Chicago police chief accused of graft conspiracy and corruption, a cab driver charged with stealing from the company, a machine politician charged with plundering the Chicago Board of Education’s treasury, and another accused of bribery. The verdicts were usually the same: not guilty. Politics had little to do with who came to him for help, or whom he chose to help. After all, he was in business to make money, and such cases were necessary to subsidize the labor and radical cases for...

(The entire section is 1790 words.)