Clarence Darrow, Famous Defense Attorney and Crusader for Justice

Lawyer Became Widely Known as "Defender of the Damned"

photo of attorney Clarence Darrow
Clarence Darrow, a defense attorney for the Leopold and Loeb murder case, standing and leaning on a counter with an open book on it, Chicago, July 1924.

Chicago History Museum / Getty Images

Clarence Darrow became the most famous defense lawyer in early 20th century America by taking on cases considered hopeless and emerging as a leading voice for civil liberties. Among his celebrated cases was the defense of John Scopes, the Tennessee teacher prosecuted in 1925 for teaching about the theory of evolution, and the defense of Leopold and Loeb, two wealthy students who killed a neighbor boy for the thrill of it.

Darrow's legal career was utterly ordinary until he became involved in advocating for labor activists in the 1890s. Before long he would become nationally known as a crusader for justice, often speaking out against capital punishment.

His obituary in the New York Time in 1938 noted that he had defended the accused in “a hundred or more murder trials, no client of his had ever died on the gallows or in the electric chair.” That was not entirely accurate, but it underscores Darrow's legendary reputation.

Fast Facts: Clarence Darrow

  • Known For: Famous defense attorney who often won cases thought to be hopeless.
  • Notable Cases: Leopold and Loeb, 1924; the Scopes "Monkey Trial," 1925.
  • Born: April 18, 1857, near Kinsman, Ohio
  • Died: March 13, 1938, age 80, Chicago, Illinois
  • Spouses: Jessie Ohl (m. 1880-1897) and Ruby Hammerstrom (m. 1903)
  • Children: Paul Edward Darrow
  • Education: Allegheny College and University of Michigan Law School
  • Interesting Fact: Darrow claimed to believe in personal liberty, the abolition of capital punishment, and the improvement of labor conditions.

Early Life

Clarence Darrow was born April 18, 1857, in Farmdale, Ohio. After attending public schools in Ohio, young Darrow worked as a farm hand and decided the labor of the farm was not for him. He studied for a year Allegheny College in Pennsylvania before attending the University of Michigan law school for a year. His education was not impressive by modern standards, but it qualified him to read law for a year with a local lawyer in Ohio, which was a common method of becoming an attorney at the time.

Darrow became a member of the Ohio bar in 1878, and for the next decade he embarked on a fairly typical career for a lawyer in small town America. In 1887, hoping to take on more interesting work, Darrow moved to Chicago. In the big city he worked as a civil lawyer, pursuing ordinary legal tasks. He took on work as a counsel for the city, and in the early 1890s he worked as a corporate counsel for the Chicago and Northwestern Railroad.

In 1894 Darrow’s life took a significant turn when he began defending legendary labor activist Eugene V. Debs, who was fighting an injunction against him for leading a strike against the Pullman company. Darrow was ultimately not successful in his defense of Debs. But his exposure to Debs and the labor movement gave him new direction in life.

Crusader for Justice

Beginning in the mid-1890s, Darrow began taking on cases that appealed to his sense of justice. He was generally successful, for what he lacked in education and prestige he made up with his ability to speak plainly but dramatically in front of juries and judges. His courtroom suits were always rumpled, apparently by design. He portrayed himself as a common man seeking justice, though often armed with cunning legal strategies.

Darrow became known for sharp cross-examinations of witnesses, and as he championed those he considered oppressed, he would often introduce novel concepts from the emerging field of criminology.

In 1894 Darrow defended Eugene Prendergast, a drifter who killed the mayor of Chicago, Carter Harrison, and then walked into a police station and confessed. Darrow raised an insanity defense, but Prendergast was convicted and sentenced to death. He was the first and last of Darrow's clients to be executed.

The Haywood Case

One of Darrow's most notable cases came in 1907, when the former governor of Idaho, a supporter of the mining industry, was killed in a bombing. Detectives from the Pinkerton agency apprehended officials of the Western Federation of Miners (part of the Industrial Workers of the World) including the union's president, William "Big Bill" Haywood. Charged with conspiracy to commit murder, Haywood and others were to go on trial in Boise, Idaho.

Darrow was retained for the defense and deftly destroyed the prosecution's case. Under Darrow's cross-examination, the actual perpetrator of the bombing admitted he had acted alone as a matter of personal vengeance. He had been pressured to implicate the labor leaders by the prosecutors in the case.

Darrow gave a summation which amounted to a profound defense of the labor movement. Haywood and the others were acquitted, and Darrow's performance cemented his position as a defender of the common man against money interests.

Leopold and Loeb

Darrow was on the front pages of newspapers across American in 1924 when he defended Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb. The two were college students from wealthy families who confessed to a shocking crime, the murder of a 14-year-old neighbor boy, Robert Franks. Leopold and Loeb became figures of public fascination as they told detectives they had committed the kidnapping and murder of a random boy for the adventure of perpetrating the perfect crime.

Nathan Leopold, Jr., attorney Clarence Darrow and Richard Loeb
Seated left to right, Nathan Leopold, Jr., attorney Clarence Darrow and Richard Loeb. The boys were found guilty of the murder and kidnapping and Bobby Franks.  

The families of Leopold and Loeb approached Darrow, who at first resisted taking the case. He was certain they would be convicted, and he had no doubt they had committed the murder. But he took on the case as he was opposed to capital punishment, and his goal would be to save them from what seemed to be certain execution by hanging.

Darrow requested that the case be heard by a judge without a jury. The judge in the case agreed. Darrow’s strategy was not to argue about their guilt, which was certain. And as they had been judged sane, he couldn’t argue an insanity defense. He tried something novel, which was to argue that the two young men were mentally diseased. Darrow called expert witnesses to advance psychiatric theories. The witness, known at the time as alienists, claimed the young men had mental problems related to their upbringings which were mitigating factors in the crime.

The appeal for mercy posed by Darrow eventually succeeded. After deliberating for ten days, the judge sentenced Leopold and Loeb to sentences of life plus 99 years. (Loeb was killed in prison by another inmate in 1934. Leopold was eventually paroled in 1958 and died in Puerto Rico in 1971.)

The judge in the case told the press that he was moved to show mercy by the age of the defendants and not by the psychiatric evidence. However, the case was considered by the public to be a triumph for Darrow.

The Scopes Trial

Darrow was a religious agnostic and was particularly opposed to religious fundamentalism. So the defense of John Scopes, the schoolteacher from Dayton, Tennessee, prosecuted for teaching about Darwin’s Theory of Evolution naturally appealed to him.

Clarence Darrow
American lawyers Clarence Darrow (1857-1938) and William Jennings Bryan (1860-1925) at the Scopes Trial. Heritage Images / Getty Images

The case arose when the 24-year-old Scopes, teaching in a local public high school, included mentions of Darwin’s ideas in the curriculum. By doing so he violated a Tennessee law, the Butler Act, and he was charged. William Jennings Bryan, one of most prominent Americans in politics for decades, entered the case as the prosecuting attorney.

On one level, the case was simply about whether Scopes had violated the local law. But when Darrow came into the case, the proceedings became nationally known, and the case was dubbed "The Monkey Trial" in the sensationalist press. A split in American society in the 1920s, between religious conservatives and progressives advocating science, became the focus of the courtroom drama.

Newspaper reporters, including the legendary journalist and social critic H.L. Mencken, flooded into the town of Dayton, Tennessee, for the trial. News dispatches went out via telegraph, and even reporters in the new medium of radio relayed the proceedings to listeners around the country.

The highlight of the trial occurred when Bryan, claiming to be an authority on Biblical teachings, took the witness stand. He was cross-examined by Darrow. Reports of the encounter stressed how Darrow had humbled Bryan by getting him to admit to a literal interpretation of the Bible. A headline in the Washington Evening Star proclaimed: "Eve Made of Rib, Jonah Swallowed by Fish, Bryan Declares In Sensational Cross-Examination of Bible Beliefs By Darrow."

The legal result of the trial was actually a loss for Darrow’s client. Scopes was found guilty and fined $100. However, to many observers, including H.L. Mencken, Darrow was considered to have won a victory in the sense of having shown to the nation at large the ludicrous nature of fundamentalism.

Later Career

Besides his busy legal practice, Darrow published a number of books, including Crime: Its Cause and Treatment, published in 1922, dealing with Darrow's belief that crime was caused by factors impacting a person's life. He also wrote an autobiography published in 1932.

In 1934, President Franklin Roosevelt appointed the elderly Darrow to a post in the federal government, assigned to correct legal problems with the National Recovery Act (a part of the New Deal). Darrow's work was considered successful. One of his last jobs was to serve on a commission studying the threat arising in Europe, and he issued a warning about the danger of Hitler.

Darrow died in Chicago on March 13, 1938. His funeral was attended by many members of the public, and he was eulogized as a tireless crusader for justice.

Sources:

  • "Clarence Seward Darrow." Encyclopedia of World Biography, 2nd ed., vol. 4, Gale, 2004, pp. 396-397. Gale Virtual Reference Library.
  • "Scopes Monkey Trial." Gale Encyclopedia of American Law, edited by Donna Batten, 3rd ed., vol. 9, Gale, 2010, pp. 38-40. Gale Virtual Reference Library.
  • "Darrow, Clarence." Crime and Punishment in America Reference Library, edited by Richard C. Hanes, et al., vol. 4: Primary Sources, UXL, 2005, pp. 118-130. Gale Virtual Reference Library.