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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It was extraordinarily dangerous because he was using a plea for a client as a soapbox. He made a very political speech, talking in almost socialistic terms about the rights of the working class, and there was a danger that the jury would react against that—as one of his juries later did in Los Angeles. But it was a very small courtroom and the defense table was right up against the jurors; over the course of 90 days he got a very good sense of who they were, talking during breaks, listening to them, watching them as they listened to the testimony. I think it was an informed bet he was willing to make.

In that trial, there was a whisper that Darrow, or someone working for the defense, tried to bribe potential witnesses. And after he defended two brothers accused of firebombing the Los Angeles Times in 1911, Darrow himself was tried—twice—on charges that he’d bribed jurors in that trial. He was acquitted the first time, but the second case ended with the jury hung 8-4 for convicting him. So: Did he do it?

In the book I argue that he almost certainly did. It’s going to be a puzzle for historians forever; I don’t think we’re ever going to find one piece of paper on which Darrow wrote to one of his cohorts, “Hey, did you make sure you got the juror that bribe?” But all the evidence indicates—well, there certainly was an attempt by the defense to bribe jurors; the question is, to what extent did Darrow know about it and to what extent did he actually inspire it? One of the most compelling things for me was to find in his mistress’s diary from years later that she concluded he had the capacity to do it. She had been his most faithful supporter and had insisted on his innocence.

He was very careful in talking to his friends and family about the charges. He never actually said, “I didn’t do this.” He pled not guilty, but he believed that guilt was always a matter of motive and intent. And in this case he thought he had a good motive and a good intent because he was fighting for labor.

Darrow grew up on a hardscrabble farm in Ohio and told his friend Jane Addams, “I have never been able to get over the dread of being poor, and the fear of it.” But he had a pretty complicated relationship with money, didn’t he?

He did, and it got him into a lot of trouble. His law partner for a time was Edgar Lee Masters, the famous poet, and Masters said it was the money that ruined him. And Darrow did need money, because, for one thing, he was a womanizer. He was supporting two households—his first wife and their son, and then his second wife. It also cost money to run around chasing other women.

Another problem is that he was an awful investor. His second wife, Ruby, once wrote to one of his sisters and said, well, Clarence’s new idea is for a ranch in California, and I guess that’s better than an empty or gold mine or any of the other crackpot schemes he always jumps at. One of the sadder things about his life is that he finally got his money into a sound natural-gas company in Colorado, and when he sold his interest in the 1920s he had enough money to retire. And then he lost it all in the crash, so he had to go out in his 70s making speeches and public appearances and doing stunts like defending Benedict Arnold on the radio, just to keep the wolf away from the door.

And speaking of complicated relationships: as you said, Darrow was twice married and a serial philanderer. What was up between Darrow and women?

There is a philosophical consistency, in that he was an advocate of the free-love movement of his day. In Victorian America the times were so repressive, particularly for women. One of Darrow’s clients was a well-respected gynecologist from Chicago who wanted to write in the American Medical Association journal that it was okay to have pleasure from sexual relations. The other doctors in the AMA said no, we’re not going to say anything like that; sex is for procreation; it might be for pleasure if men can go to bordellos, but certainly not for women at home. That’s the kind of climate that the free-love movement moved against, and Darrow was a supporter of it. As far as I can tell, he was up front with his mistresses and the young ladies that he met in the free-love cause, and they agreed that this was a natural inclination and you shouldn’t try to repress it.

Politically, he was a very early feminist; he argued in the 1880s for giving women the vote. But later he soured on the suffragette movement because it aligned itself with Prohibition, which he hated. He didn’t speak or campaign against giving women the vote, but there was a marked loss of enthusiasm for what he had thought would be a very good thing for the country.

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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