Law News Network
A Man For Some Seasons

Clarence Darrow

Geoffrey Cowan
The American Lawyer
December 6, 1999 

For me, and many of my contemporaries, Clarence Darrow was more legend than fact, more myth than man. He was a composite of actors, like Paul Muni, Spencer Tracy, Orson Welles, and Henry Fonda, all of whom brought him to the screen and stage. Our idea of him came from reading his own words in The Story of My Life; the matchless orations compiled in Attorney for the Damned; and Irving Stone's powerful, iconographic account, Clarence Darrow for the Defense. We knew him as one of America's greatest orators, whose arguments still resonate in speech classes around the country.

Born in rural Ohio in 1857, Darrow practiced small-town law until 1887, when he moved to Chicago, inspired by big-city life and the controversy surrounding the Haymarket bombing. With the help of his benefactor, Illinois governor John Peter Altgeld, Darrow gained a job with the Chicago and North Western Railway. He abandoned his lucrative post in the company's law department in 1894 - changing sides in the great Pullman workers strike, where he represented Eugene Debs, the labor organizer who later became the leader of the Socialist Party.

The years that followed his defection from the railroad were crammed with achievement. Early in the century, Darrow represented the anthracite coal workers, many of them children, before a special seven-member commission named by President Theodore Roosevelt. A few years later, in a sensational trial, he won the acquittal of William "Big Bill" Haywood and his codefendants, who had been accused of killing the former governor of Idaho (in a tale later captured by J. Anthony Lukas in Big Trouble). In the twenties, he outwitted William Jennings Bryan in the Scopes trial (thinly fictionalized in Inherit the Wind). While he didn't win the actual case, his oratory won the hearts of H. L. Mencken and eastern sophisticates. Darrow capped his career as a steadfast opponent of capital punishment by persuading a court in Chicago to spare the lives of Leopold and Loeb (their murder of a 14-year-old boy being the basis for the novel and the movie Compulsion). The facts and legend of Darrow's life inspired generations of young idealists, like myself, to go to law school and to specialize in civil rights, civil liberties, labor law, or criminal defense.

Ten years ago, still dazzled by the Darrow myth, I began a quest to unravel one of the central mysteries of his life. In 1911 Darrow moved to Los Angeles to defend two brothers, Jim and J.J. McNamara, accused of killing 21 men in the bombing of the Los Angeles Times building. Trumpeted as the "Trial of the Century," the case took a strange turn when the police caught one of Darrow's associates bribing a juror on a L.A. street corner in broad daylight. Disillusioning his admirers, Darrow promptly pleaded his clients guilty. Despite the plea, he was charged with instigating the bribery of two jurors. The next two years were the worst period of Darrow's life. He was humiliated, abandoned, and vilified by friends - and he faced bankruptcy and prison. Darrow's autobiography and Stone's masterful saga depict a man unjustly accused and quite possibly framed by the city's corporate leadership in the pervasive quasi-war between "capital" and "labor" that dominated much of America as it was being transformed by the Industrial Revolution. I was determined to find the truth, after all those years, and clear Darrow's name.

To my surprise, I soon came to know a Darrow who was very different from his popular image. He might have been idealistic and heroic in the late nineteenth century, but by 1911, in his mid-fifties, Darrow had become cynical and, in the view of many friends and former admirers, greedy and corrupt. While he still handled an occasional case for the underdog, Darrow spent most of his time representing corporate clients, often against the poor and helpless. Reading manuscripts of the era, including the private correspondence of scores of Darrow's "friends," I learned that by the time he moved to Los Angeles, long before the bribery charges, most of these friends - including the poet Edgar Lee Masters, who had been Darrow's law partner, and Hamlin Garland, the novelist - had turned away from him. Offended by the man he had become, they complained, for example, that in personal injury cases he regularly represented corporations that had injured workers and pedestrians. On the day that AFL chief Samuel Gompers and others asked him to represent the McNamara brothers, Darrow was defending a company in a suit brought by small investors who had been deliberately defrauded. Darrow excused the deceptive practices of his client, the Kankakee Manufacturing Company, arguing that the investors should have conducted their own research. (In finding against the company, the judge held that the company and its lawyers should have been a bit more concerned about "the Golden Rule.") Darrow reluctantly went on to represent the McNamara brothers only when Gompers offered him a huge fee and warned that, if he refused, labor would never hire him again.

People who knew his tactics in other cases, including the defense of Big Bill Haywood in Idaho in 1907, were confident that he had bribed witnesses and jurors in the past. So in 1912, when he was charged with jury tampering in the McNamara case, they were convinced, on the basis of substantial evidence, that he was guilty. Worse, from their perspective, they felt that he had forced the brothers to plead guilty in a desperate, if unsuccessful, effort to save his own skin, thus betraying the cause of labor, socialism, and the left. In anger, Gompers joined Debs in lifelong condemnation of his onetime friend.

People familiar with Darrow's personal life were also outraged by his treatment of his wife, Ruby (whom he betrayed during a long affair with a young socialist reporter named Mary Field), and by his behavior toward Field (whom he abandoned to return to his wife). Waiting for his own case to come to trial, feeling their scorn, and fearing a life in prison, Darrow became suicidal. 

But as the jury tampering trials wore on, Darrow gradually came back to life, taking charge of his own defense, admitting some of his failings and, in a magnificent closing argument, promising to be a better man. He learned from his time in purgatory. When he won his freedom with an acquittal in one trial and a hung jury in the second in 1913, he began to redeem himself, to resemble the man he once had been - the Attorney for the Damned. Though he never again represented labor, Darrow resumed his career as an orator, won back the friendship (if not the admiration) of some former friends, and handled what today stand as his most important cases: Scopes and Leopold and Loeb. By the time of his death in 1938, the myth had begun to eclipse the reality.

One measure of that myth is the fact that many people today believe that Darrow won the Scopes case, when, in fact, he lost it. Moreover, as Gary Wills describes at length in his book Under God, the Scopes case mobilized a previously inert movement of Bible Belt conservatives. By humiliating their generally progressive patron saint, William Jennings Bryan (whose opposition to the teaching of Darwin was based, in large part, on his fear that social Darwinism was being and would be used by the ruling elites to discriminate against the common man), and by ridiculing what he called their "fool religion," Darrow actually may have inflicted untold damage on the progressive cause in the South.

In some respects, it was disappointing to see through the mythic stature of a man I had so admired and who had proved such an inspiration to so many outstanding members of the bar. In a new introduction to Darrow's The Story of My Life, Alan Dershowitz cites my research into Darrow's almost certain guilt, and concludes, "If Darrow did indeed resort to bribery - regardless of the perceived provocation - he disqualifies himself as a role model for lawyers." But perhaps the recognition of Darrow's myriad faults, and of his efforts to overcome them, has helped to make Darrow more human, and an even more credible object for study by today's lawyers, who live in an era in which we are more public, and perhaps more realistic, about the pervasiveness of human frailty.

Geoffrey Cowan is the Dean of the USC Annenberg School for Communication. He is the author of The People v. Clarence Darrow.

Copyright ©1999 NLP IP Company -- American Lawyer Media. All rights reserved.