He doesn’t say he is innocent—only that his conscience is clear. That was an important distinction for Darrow, for whom motive was the overriding question in defining an evil, a sin or a crime.
Darrow’s great patron was Illinois Gov. John Altgeld, whom Darrow said admiringly was “absolutely honest in his ends and equally as unscrupulous in the means he used to attain them.” Altgeld “would do whatever would serve his purpose when he was right. He’d use all the tools of the other side—stop at nothing,” he said. “There never was a time that I did not love and follow him.”
In both his trials Darrow pleaded not guilty, took the stand, swore an oath and testified that Franklin’s testimony against him was a lie. But in the telegram to his brother and other correspondence to family and friends, Darrow distinguishes between legal and moral guilt. “Do not be surprised at any thing you hear,” Darrow warned his son, in a note newly unearthed from the Minnesota files. But, he told Paul, “my mind and conscience are at ease.”
Indeed, in his second trial, Darrow virtually dared the jury to convict him, making arguments that seemed to justify the McNamaras’ terrorist attack. Jim McNamara placed the bomb in the Times building, Darrow told the jury, because “he had seen those men who were building these skyscrapers, going up five, seven, eight, ten stories in the air, catching red hot bolts, walking narrow beams, handling heavy loads, growing dizzy and dropping to the earth, and their comrades pick up a bundle of rags and flesh and bones and blood and take it home to a mother or a wife.” Darrow went on,“He had seen their flesh and blood ground into money for the rich. He had seen the little children working in factories and the mills; he had seen death in every form coming from the oppression of the strong and the powerful; and he struck out blindly in the dark to do what he thought would help....I shall always be thankful that I had the courage” to represent him.
After hearing that, the jurors told reporters, they were convinced that Darrow would surely resort to bribery, and other illegal acts, to defend or advance his beliefs and clients.
How should we judge Darrow?
He left Los Angeles in 1913 a changed man. “The cynic is humbled,” his friend Steffens wrote. “The man that laughed sees and is frightened, not at prison bars, but at his own soul.”
After he returned to Chicago, he rebuilt his practice and his reputation by taking cases that other lawyers would not touch. Mentally ill men accused of heinous crimes. Black men charged with raping white women. Communists and anarchists snared in the reactionary fervor of the Red Scare. He defended Frank Lloyd Wright when federal prosecutors hounded the architect for violating the Mann Act, which made it a crime to transport women across state lines for “immoral purposes.” He saved the killers Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb from the gallows. Most famously, he scored a triumph for academic freedom after John Scopes was accused of violating a Tennessee law that prohibited the teaching of evolution.
“The marks of battle are all over his face,” the journalist H.L. Mencken wrote. “He has been through more wars than a whole regiment of Pershings....Has he always won? Actually, no. His cause seems lost among us.
“Imbecilities, you say, live on? They do,” wrote Mencken. “But they are not as safe as they used to be.”