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)

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Darrow loved the company of friends and the balm of candid conversation, but at times some of his friends questioned his choice of cases and causes. Why?

There was a feeling, at least up until the trial in Los Angeles, that he was motivated by money, that he saw the opportunity for a very skilled labor lawyer and took it. You find newspaper editorials and people saying, for somebody who’s talking about the cause of labor, he sure is making a lot of money off the poor working man. But after Los Angeles and his disgrace, he had a second act, and it was redemptive. He represented an awful lot of indigent clients and took a lot of civil rights cases. The two major cases of his career came when he was in his 60s—the Leopold and Loeb case and the monkey trial. Also his defense in the Sweet trial, which is the key in deciding whether you like him or not.

After the monkey trial he was without a doubt the most famous trial lawyer in America. He could have commanded titanic fees from any corporation in America; they would have loved to have him. And instead, he used his fame to go to Detroit and represent for $5,000 over nine months a group of African Americans who had been trapped in a house by a racist mob at a time when the city was whipped into a hateful frenzy by the Ku Klux Klan. [The homeowner, an African American physician named Ossian Sweet, had just bought the house in a white neighborhood; when the mob stoned his house, some men in the house returned fire with guns, killing a white neighbor. The 11 men in the house were charged with murder.]

He got them acquitted in an amazing trial that basically put down in law something we take for granted today—that if we believe a person has the right to defend his home, then African Americans have that right, too. Darrow was a founding attorney for the NAACP, and this was a big case for the NAACP. So that’s how he chose to invest all the fame and potential riches he could have had after his triumph in Dayton, Tennessee.

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.

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