Everything You Didn’t Know About Clarence Darrow

A newly released book brings new insight into the trial attorney made famous by the Scopes monkey trial

Clarence Darrow was a trial attorney made famous for his defense of a Tennessee educator accused of breaking a state law banning the teaching of evolution in public schools. (Bettmann / Corbis)

Clarence Darrow exists foremost in the public memory as Spencer Tracy, who played a lawyer based on Darrow in the 1960 movie Inherit the Wind. That film, in turn, was based on Darrow’s 1925 defense of a Tennessee educator accused of breaking a state law banning the teaching of evolution in public schools. (Darrow lost The State of Tennessee v. Scopes, or the “monkey trial,” as it was known; the law was later repealed.) But as John A. Farrell makes clear in his new biography, Clarence Darrow: Attorney for the Damned, Darrow’s life was even more tumultuous than that sensational trial would suggest.

Before Darrow became the champion of labor, proponent of the poor and defender of the most hopeless of death-row cases, he was a corporate lawyer—and for a railroad, no less. What turned him away from a career as a fat cat?

He couldn’t look at himself in the mirror. He was at heart one of the most compassionate people you could imagine meeting, and that part of him was always at war with the striver, the go-getter. But whenever the chips came down, they always came down on the side of the guy who needed a good lawyer. Depending on how he was fixed at any given time, a third to a half of his cases he was handling for free for indigent clients. He didn’t charge big fees for his most notorious clients if there was a good cause behind it. It was just conscience, basically, that forced him to give up that job as counsel for the Chicago & North Western Railway. He was also prompted by his boss, his patron at the railroad, who had a sudden heart attack and died, so Darrow’s decision was helped along by the fact that he no longer had a career there.

He operated for a while as a political lawyer in Chicago when the words “politics” and “Chicago” were pretty much synonymous with “graft” and “corruption.” How did he avoid the taint of that time and place?

He didn’t, entirely. He got involved in several of the scandals of the time, but even crooked politicians need a good lawyer, and sometimes the law is applied in courts that are straight. So there was a respect for Darrow among the political boys for his ability to actually get things done, to run things, while they pursued their tricks and their deals. At the same time he was an idealist, and in fact one of the movers in the attempt by the Populists to spread their campaign from the farms, where it was born, to the cities.

Of course, William Jennings Bryan became Darrow’s most famous foil during the monkey trial. Yet the two men were aligned in the 1896 presidential campaign. What brought them together, however briefly?

You had the growth of the Populist movement—a widespread feeling out in the West and Midwest that the financiers of the East were using the gold standard to keep the average farmer and the average working man in poverty. For the first time, in Chicago in 1896 [at the Democratic National Convention], you had a major party declare that it was going to represent the poor. That was Bryan’s amazing feat of political rhetoric: he was this young, unknown congressman and he stood up there and he captivated that convention hall and brought the Populists and the Democrats together.

Darrow was part of that same movement, but he never particularly cared for Bryan as a person. He thought Bryan was too religious and basically too stupid to lead a major party, and it really grated on him that Bryan got the presidential nomination three times. So their rivalry began to simmer and fester, and when Darrow had a chance to ambush Bryan in the courtroom in Dayton, Tennessee, in 1925, he took full advantage of it.

In Darrow’s day there was open warfare between labor and capital. He stepped into that war in a major way in Idaho in 1907, when he defended Big Bill Haywood and two other unionists charged with murdering a former governor. You write that, “Of all of Darrow’s courtroom speeches, his summation in the Haywood case was arguably the most brilliant, and dangerous.” In what way brilliant, and in what way dangerous?

It’s brilliant in its eloquence. In those days attorneys and prosecutors could speak for up to 12 hours, or even longer—Darrow, in the Leopold and Loeb case, spoke for three days. The Haywood summation is long, and to the modern ear it tends to wander, but you have to think of him standing in the courtroom and speaking to the jury, and going back and forth over his major themes like a weaver. That speech is amazing, for his ability both to tear apart the prosecution’s case and to draw from the jurors—who were not union men, but were working men—an appreciation for what labor was trying to do.

About T.A. Frail
T.A. Frail

Tom Frail is a senior editor for Smithsonian magazine. He previously worked as a senior editor for the Washington Post and for Philadelphia Newspapers Inc.

Read more from this author

Comment on this Story

comments powered by Disqus