Clarence Darrow was cantankerous, a nonstop self-publicizer, a man of easy ethics, often lazy, and, at least on a technical level, a so-so attorney.
I suppose there has been more written about him than any other American trial lawyer. There is a good, simple reason for this. He had a career which, while not typical of most lawyers' work, involved the sorts of gamey cases that people find endlessly fascinating. He is remembered, first and foremost, as the archetypal crimonal lawyer, although he was more than that.
Darrow was born in rural north-eastern Ohio. His father was a bookish agostic, a rare bird in those parts, and young Clarence grew up in the traditions of 19th-century rationalism. After reading law, Darrow practiced in a succession of small Ohio towns. Having not much else to do during this period, he read and was electrified by Illinois Judge John Peter Altgeld's "Our Penal Machinery and Is Victims." In 1887 Darrow moved to Chicago and worked with Altgeld in his efforts to convert the Democratic Party to a liberal program. At the same time Darrow became a spokesman for the egregiously corrupt Cook County Democratic machine. This assured him of a lucrative law practice.
As Kevin Tierney's biography makes clear, Darrow's legal career had three phases. The first was largely orthodox, involving the conduct of civil matters on behalf of the city of Chicago and the Chicago & Northwestern Railway. But even in these early paper-shuffling days Darrow was getting into headier matters.
Almost immediately after his arrival in Chicago, Darrow entered the campaign to obtain amnesty for the eight defendants in the Haymarket riot case and in 1894 he carried the appeal, unsuccessfully, of a man convicted of assassinating Mayor Carter Harrison. And then came the Pullman strike. Darrow defended Eugene V. Debs and other American Railway Union leaders against charges of violating an injunction and conspiracy to obstruct interstate commerce. Although the Supreme Court upheld the injunction (it took later legislation to block anti-strike injunctions) and Debs was jailed for contempt, Darrow acquired a national reputation in labor law.
For the next 20 years he was a union lawyer, appearing in matters that drew wide attention. Tierney's biography gives carefully detailed descriptions of the important ones, most notably the defense of William D. (Big Bill) Haywood of the Western never to have another major labor case.
He then entered the third phase of his career, involving the conduct of spectacular criminal cases. They are Federation of Miners against a charge of conspiring to murder former Idaho governor Frank R. Steunenberg and the case of the McNamara brothers, charged with bombing the offices of the Los Angeles Times. Out of this last came two charges that Darrow had taken part in a conspiracy to suborn perjury. Separate trials were held; the first ended in acquital, the second in a hung jury with the charge later dropped. In 1913 Darrow came back to Chicago a nearly ruined man, described with admirable clarity by Tierney, who teaches criminal law at Wayne State University Law School in Detroit. There was the Loeb-Leopold kidnap-murder (1924), in which Darrow used novel forms of psychiatric evidence; the Scopes evolution trial (1925), during which Darrow dismantled the aging William Jennings Bryan; the Sweet trial in Detroit (1925-26), in which Darrow successfully defended a black family that had used force against a white mob seeking to evict them from a new home in a white neighborhood; the Greco-Carrillo case in New York (1927), involving a bloody conflict between fascist and anti-fascist Italian immigrants; and finally the Massie trial in Honolulu (1932), in which a Hawaiian-who had allegedly raped the wife of a Navy officer-was kidnapped and killed by the officer, two enlisted men, and the victim's mother. (The defendants, represented by Darrow, were convicted of manslaughter, their prison sentences being commuted to one hour.)
Tierney gives us Darrow with all the warts, which makes the man all the more intriguing. Perhaps because he was swept by an astounding variety of social and intellectual currents-realism in literature, skepticism in philosophy and religion, evolution in science, determinism in psychology, socialism and even anarchism in politics-Darrow displayed abundant contradictions. He championed the rights of blacks white denigrating the role of women; he sometimes seemed more interested in being famous than furthering his law practice; his public statements, including some of his jury arguments, were, as Tierney puts it, "striking and his arguments ingenious, but his substance rarely equaled his eloquence and even his admirers were sometimes puzzled upon reflection to know what he stood for."
Still, Darrow was an incomparable voice for the inarticulate, the poor, the oppressed. F. Lee Bailey and William Kunstler won't like Tierney's ultimate assessment of the man but it is probably not an exaggeration. Darrow had said, "There are younger men than I . . . who will do the work when I am gone." Tierney says, "He was wrong; nobody took his place. There was no successor worthy of the name."