Clarence Darrow

Clarence Darrow in 1922

Darrow and Bryan at the Scopes Trial 1925

Clarence Seward Darrow (April 18, 1857, Kinsman Township, Ohio – March 13, 1938, Chicago) was a lawyer and leading member of the American Civil Liberties Unionbest known for defending teenaged 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), in which he opposed the famous statesman William Jennings Bryan.  He remains notable for his wit, compassion and agnosticism that marked him as one of the most famous American lawyers and civil libertarians.

Clarence Darrow was the son of Amirus Darrow and Emily (Eddy) Darrow. Clarence's father was an ardent abolitionist and Emily Darrow an early supporter of female suffrage and a woman's rights advocate. He attended Allegheny College and the University of Michigan Law School and was admitted to the Ohio bar in 1878.

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, 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.

Also in 1894, Darrow took on the first murder case of his career, defending Patrick Eugene Prendergast, the "mentally deranged drifter" who had confessed to murdering Chicago mayor Carter H. Harrison, Sr. Darrow's "insanity defense" failed and Prendergast was executed that same year. Among fifty defenses in murder cases throughout the whole of Darrow's career, the Prendergast case would prove to be the only one resulting in an execution.

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 employees. Darrow perceived right away that the McNamara brothers were guilty, but he planned to celebrate them as heroes in the struggle of the workers against oppression and have them acquitted by bribed jurors. When Darrow was seen standing on a street corner within view from the place where an associate of his handed over money to one of the jurors of the case, he was forced to convince them to change their plea to guilty and was able to plea bargain prison sentences instead of the death penalty. After representing the MacNamaras, Darrow was charged with two counts of attempting to bribe jurors, although the brothers' guilty pleas meant that the jurors played no part in the case. After two very lengthy trials - in the first, defended by Earl Rogers, he was acquitted; in the second he struggled, defending himself, for a hung jury - he agreed never to practice law again in California and not be retried.

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. Though Darrow's formal education was limited, he did study for one year at the University of Michigan Law School and had a keen intellect often hidden by his rumpled, unassuming appearance.

A July 23, 1915 article in the Chicago Tribune describes Darrow's effort on behalf of J.H. Fox — an Evanston, Illinois landlord — to have Mary S. Brazelton committed to an insane asylum against the wishes of her family. Fox alleged that Brazelton owed him rent money although other residents of Fox's boarding house testified to her sanity.

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 then argued for his clients to receive life in prison rather than the death penalty.

Darrow based his argument on the claim that his clients weren't completely responsible for their actions, but were the products of the environment they grew up in, and that they could not be held responsible for basing their desire for murder in the proto-existentialist philosophy of Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche. In the end, the judge sentenced Leopold and Loeb to life in prison rather than sending them to be executed. During the Leopold-Loeb trial, when Darrow was believed to have accepted "a million-dollar fee", many ordinary Americans were angered at his apparent betrayal, thinking that he had "sold-out." He issued a public statement stating that there would be no large legal fees and that his fees would be determined by a committee composed of officers from the Chicago Bar Association. After trial, Darrow suggested $200,000 would be reasonable. After lengthy negotiations with the defendant's families, he ended getting $70,000 in gross fees, which, after expenses and taxes, netted Darrow $30,000.

In 1925, Darrow defended John Scopes in the famous "Monkey Trial."  The Scopes Trial of 1925 pitted against each other lawyers William Jennings Bryan and Clarence Darrow (the latter representing teacher John T. Scopes) in an American court case that tested a law passed on March 13, 1925, which forbade the teaching, in any state-funded educational establishment in Tennessee, of "any theory that denies the story of the Divine Creation of man as taught in the Bible, and to teach instead that man has descended from a lower order of animals". This is often interpreted as meaning that the law forbade the teaching of any aspect of the theory of evolution. It has often been called the "Scopes Monkey Trial".

During the trial, Darrow requested that Bryan be called to the stand as an expert witness on the Bible. Over the other prosecutor's objection, Bryan agreed. Many believe that the following exchange caused the trial to turn against Bryan and for Darrow:

"You have given considerable study to the Bible, haven't you, Mr. Bryan?"

"Yes, sir; I have tried to ... But, of course, I have studied it more as I have become older than when I was a boy."

"Do you claim then that everything in the Bible should be literally interpreted?"

"I believe that everything in the Bible should be accepted as it is given there; some of the Bible is given illustratively. For instance: "Ye are the salt of the earth."  I would not insist that man was actually salt, or that he had flesh of salt, but it is used in the sense of salt as saving God's people."

After about two hours, Judge Raulston cut the questioning short, and on the following morning ordered that the whole session (which in any case the jury had not witnessed) be expunged from the record, ruling that the testimony had no bearing on whether Scopes was guilty of teaching evolution. Scopes was found guilty and ordered to pay the minimum fine of $100.

A year later, the Tennessee Supreme Court reversed the decision of the Dayton court on a technicality--not the constitutional grounds as Darrow had hoped. According to the court, the fine should have been set by the jury, not Raulston. Rather than send the case back for further action, however, the Tennessee Supreme Court dismissed the case. The court commented, "Nothing is to be gained by prolonging the life of this bizarre case."

Darrow took on a few more cases, but effectively he began to retire from the law.  He did visit Leopold in prison several times and kept up a correspondence with him, always encouraging him and hoping for his eventual parole.  He died in Chicago in 1938.