Clarence Darrow

(History of the World: The 20th Century)

Article abstract: The most renowned defense attorney of his time, Darrow won a number of important verdicts in difficult cases while espousing unpopular causes.

Early Life

The fifth of eight children (one of whom died in infancy), Clarence Seward Darrow was born on April 18, 1857, in Kinsman, a small town in northeastern Ohio. His father, Amirus Darrow, was a carpenter who increasingly supplemented his income by working as an undertaker; he was also an avid reader who scattered books on all subjects throughout the house. In addition to his own commitment to reading and self-instruction, young Darrow owed some of his later outlook to his father’s unorthodoxy and skepticism toward revealed religion. His mother, Emily Eddy Darrow, bestowed much attention upon him and, until her death when he was fifteen, had great hopes for his success. He was educated at a local school and spent his summers playing baseball or working on a farm. At the age of sixteen, Darrow enrolled at Allegheny College, in Meadville, Pennsylvania; he gave up his studies there after a year and for a time was employed as a schoolteacher. In 1877, he spent a year at the University of Michigan’s law school. Apparently, Darrow grew weary of formal education, and he spent a further year working and studying at a law office in Youngstown, Ohio. After a brief and apparently perfunctory oral examination, Darrow was admitted to the Ohio bar, at the age of twenty-one.

With his career now fairly started, Darrow took a fancy to Jessie Ohl, the daughter of a prosperous mill keeper, and after an involved courtship, they were married in 1880; their son Paul was born three years later. Darrow opened law offices in Andover and then in Ashtabula, Ohio; although few cases came his way, in 1884 he was elected borough solicitor, or prosecutor. Darrow had already campaigned actively for the national Democratic Party. He chafed at a small-town existence and thought it likely that his legal career would advance further in a large city. Accordingly, in 1887, he moved with his family to Chicago, where social and political strife had already given the city some notoriety.

Life’s Work

For a time, Darrow served on the legal staff of the city of Chicago, and he also obtained a position as corporation counsel for the Chicago and North Western Railway. Increasingly disaffected with the venality and easy ethics of his employer, he took another job with a law firm and began to specialize in cases with social implications. After the mayor of Chicago was shot to death, Darrow tried unsuccessfully, in an appeal, to save the assassin from the gallows. In 1894, widespread disorders accompanied a massive strike of the Pullman Company’s railroads; Darrow offered his services but was unsuccessful in his efforts to defend Eugene V. Debs from charges of criminal conspiracy. Darrow also attempted a sortie into national politics but was defeated when he ran for the United States Congress as a Democrat in 1896. As his professional commitments mounted, Darrow became estranged from his wife, Jessie, and they were quietly divorced in 1897. For a time, Darrow considered a literary career; he produced works that dealt with crime and social ills, as well as Farmington (1904), a semiautobiographical novel.

In 1898, Darrow took up another criminal conspiracy case, brought against Thomas I. Kidd and other leaders of a woodworkers’ union in Wisconsin; he persuaded a jury that Kidd could not be held responsible for incidental acts of union violence that the leaders had neither foreseen nor encouraged. Elected to the Illinois legislature in 1902, Darrow continued to take labor cases, and he served as counsel for the United Mine Workers at United States Anthracite Coal Arbitration Commission hearings in Scranton, Pennsylvania. His remarriage, to Ruby Hamerstrom in 1903, seemed to put his personal life on a firmer footing. Social concerns continued to attract him; in 1907, he won acquittal for William D. Haywood, of the Western Federation of Miners, who had been charged with complicity in the bombing death of a former governor of Idaho. In 1911, in another case involving union violence, Darrow defended James B. and John J. McNamara, who had planted dynamite in the Los Angeles Times building; the resulting explosion had killed twenty-one people. Pleading his clients guilty and pointing out that they had not intended to cause any loss of life, Darrow prevailed upon a jury to spare the lives of the defendants; one was sentenced to life imprisonment and the other received fifteen years in prison. After this trial, Darrow himself was charged with jury bribery, and he assisted in his own defense. During the proceedings, the testimony of detectives and police informants was discredited, and he retained his freedom.

Darrow often gave the impression of studied casualness; he was tall, large boned, with prominent cheekbones, a sharp beaklike nose, and an overhanging forehead. He had light-blue eyes that, according to his contemporaries, could be animated by kindness or contracted in anger and outrage. In his gait, he seemed to slump forward; frequently during arguments, an unruly shock of hair would fall over his eyes. His clothes, though well tailored, seemed invariably unpressed, and Darrow claimed that he usually slept in them. His voice was deep, resonant, and slightly rasping. He was a born debater, skilled at the parry and thrust of cross-examination. His summations were moving and masterfully devised treatises upon morality and the law, which frequently attracted overflow audiences into the...

(The entire section is 2304 words.)