On a rainy night in Los Angeles in December 1911, Clarence Darrow arrived at the apartment of his mistress, Mary Field. They sat at the kitchen table, beneath a bare overhead light, and she watched with dismay as he pulled a bottle of whiskey from one pocket of his overcoat and a handgun from the other.
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“I’m going to kill myself,” he told her. “They’re going to indict me for bribing the McNamara jury. I can’t stand the disgrace.”
The great attorney had come to Los Angeles from Chicago to defend James and John McNamara, brothers and unionists accused of conspiring to bomb the Los Angeles Times, the city’s anti-union newspaper, killing 20 printers and newsmen. But jury selection had not gone well, and Darrow feared the brothers would hang.
One morning a few weeks earlier, Darrow had taken an early streetcar to his office in the Higgins Building, the new ten-story Beaux-Arts structure at the corner of Second and Main Streets. At around 9 a.m. the telephone rang. Darrow spoke briefly to the caller. Then he picked up his hat and left the building, heading south on the sidewalk along Main.
Meanwhile, his chief investigator, a former sheriff’s deputy named Bert Franklin, was two blocks away, passing $4,000 to a prospective member of the McNamara jury who had agreed to vote not guilty.
Franklin, in turn, was under police surveillance: The juror had reported the offer to the authorities, who had set up a sting. Franklin now sensed that he was being watched and headed up Third Street to Main. There he was arrested—just as Darrow joined him.
Franklin became a witness for the state, and in January 1912, Darrow was arrested and charged with two counts of bribery.
With the help of another legendary trial lawyer, California’s Earl Rogers, Darrow was acquitted in one trial, and the other ended with a hung jury. He returned to Chicago broke and disgraced, but he picked up the pieces of his career and became an American folk hero—champion of personal liberty, defender of the underdog, foe of capital punishment and crusader for intellectual freedom.
Darrow’s ordeal in Los Angeles 100 years ago was eclipsed by his later fame. But for a biographer the question is insistent: Did America’s greatest defense attorney commit a felony and join in a conspiracy to bribe the McNamara jurors? In writing a new account of Darrow’s life, with the help of fresh evidence, I concluded that he almost certainly did.
The Los Angeles Law Library is on Broadway, across the street from the lot, now empty, where the bombing destroyed the Los Angeles Times building. The library holds the 10,000-page stenographic record of Darrow’s first bribery trial. It is a moving experience to page through the testimony so close to where the carnage took place.