Clarence S. Darrow (1857–1938)

Clarence S. Darrow rode to fame in education law with his unusual defense of high school teacher John T. Scopes in the infamous “Monkey Trial” in Dayton, Tennessee, in 1925. His innovative strategy of putting the prosecution’s attorney, William Jennings Bryan, on the witness stand for the defense to illustrate the flaws in Christian fundamentalist assaults on Darwin’s theory of evolution was later embedded in the Broadway play and the film, Inherit the Wind. But this foray was not Darrow’s only work in education. The Chicago attorney also donated his time to assist Catherine Goggin and Margaret Haley, leaders of the Chicago Teachers Federation, in their pursuit of having corporations pay their fair share of property taxes for public education in Chicago. This entry summarizes his life and legal career.

Early Years

Darrow was born in Kinsman, Ohio, the fifth child of Amirus and Emily Eddy Darrow. While Darrow’s father had studied theology, he never became a preacher. Darrow came to understand that most of the townsfolk regarded his father as an iconoclast on most matters. Darrow soon followed in his father’s footsteps.

Darrow did not find formal education much to his liking, believing that it produced narrow minds and rigid responses to life’s circumstances. He was particularly critical of the morality tales embedded in the school books of his times. As a young person growing up, he came also to deeply resent his mandatory attendance at Sunday school. His resistance later became the source of a career-long skepticism for most forms of organized religion.

For a brief time, Darrow attended Allegheny College, but he did not graduate. He became a school teacher in a nearby town. As a teacher, Darrow abolished corporal punishment in the school and expanded time for lunch. He also took time to study law. Later he attended the University of Michigan’s law school but once again did not graduate. Darrow apprenticed to an attorney and passed the Ohio bar at age 21. Ashort time later, he began the practice of law, first in Andover and later in Ashtabula.

Darrow soon discovered that he could not be a dispassionate legal counselor. He had to believe in his client and in the cause. He moved to Chicago in 1887. Almost immediately, Darrow became involved with John P. Altgeld, considered a Democratic radical. Altgeld later became governor of Illinois.

Legal Career

From his Chicago law office, Clarence Darrow was at the heart of many celebrated cases in the political spasms of the early 19th century. He became the attorney for the United Mine Workers. In 1906, Darrow went to Idaho to defend Big Bill Haywood, secretarytreasurer of the Western Federation of Miners, who was accused of murdering ex-Governor Frank Steunenberg. In that trial, Darrow gave a long and impassioned plea to the jury. Bill Haywood was acquitted.

Darrow went to Los Angeles where he defended three union men who were accused of being involved in the bombing of The Los Angeles Times, a tragedy that resulted in the deaths of 21 people. When one of the men arrested with the bombers turned state’s evidence and confessed to the plot, it became clear to Darrow that his clients were actually guilty. Under these circumstances, Darrow determined that a trial would not be in their best interests, and he did not want certain documents made public that implicated the union in the bomb scheme.

He tried for a negotiated sentence with the bombers shifting their pleas to guilty. This maneuver ended Darrow’s work with labor unions. A short while later, he had to defend himself against charges that he had attempted to bribe prospective jurors. While Darrow pled innocence and spent eight months defending himself, a careful review of his case by Geoffrey Cowan, a public affairs lawyer and a faculty member at UCLA, concluded that he indeed had tried to bribe two jurors. However, after a long and emotional plea by Darrow at his own trial, it ended with a “not guilty” verdict.

The result was that Darrow restarted his legal career with a public pledge to continue to help the disadvantaged in all walks of life. This commitment earned him the moniker of “attorney for the damned.”

Clarence Darrow was not the totally selfless hero as he has come to be portrayed in some books or films, nor was he the ideal trial lawyer. He was sometimes not well prepared and left the burdensome task of writing legal briefs to associates who sometimes grumbled at their lack of recognition. Even so, many of Darrow’s oral summaries at his most celebrated trials have come to be seen as exemplars of social justice and compassion. As a lifelong opponent of the death penalty, Darrow lost only one case and client to capital punishment. In another legal epoch, he defended Loeb and Leopold, who tried to commit the perfect murder, a case that became the plot of the novel and film Compulsion. Darrow was one of the first big-time attorneys to fully grasp the fact that some celebrated cases and trials are first won or lost in the public mind before the legal system has had time to render an official verdict, and that one is sometimes connected to the other.

Fenwick W. English

See also Epperson v. State of Arkansas; Prayer in Public Schools; Religious Activities in Public Schools; Religious Freedom Restoration Act; Scopes Monkey Trial

Further Readings

  • Cowan, G. (1993). The people v. Clarence Darrow. New York: Random House. 
  • Tierney, K. (1979). Darrow: A biography. New York: Thomas Y. Crowell. 
  • Weinberg, A. (Ed.) (1989/1957). Attorney for the damned: Clarence Darrow in the courtroom. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.