Clarence Darrow

Clarence Darrow books and biography


Clarence Darrow


Clarence Seward Darrow ca. 1922
Clarence Seward Darrow ca. 1922

Clarence Seward Darrow (April 18, 1857 – March 13, 1938) was an American lawyer and leading member of the American Civil Liberties Union, best known for defending teenaged thrill killers Leopold and Loeb in their trial for murdering 14-year-old Bobby Franks (1924) and defending John T. Scopes in the so-called "Monkey" Trial (1925), in which he opposed the famous prosecutor William Jennings Bryan. He remains notable for his wit, compassion, and agnosticism that marked him as one of the most famous American lawyers and civil libertarians.



Clarence Darrow was born in Kinsman, Ohio in 1857, the son of Amirus and Emily Darrow. Clarence's father was an ardent abolitionist and Emily Darrow an early supporter of female suffrage and a woman's rights advocate.

From corporate lawyer to labor lawyer

Darrow began his career as a lawyer in Youngstown, Ohio, where he was first admitted to the profession (Judge Alfred W. Mackey). He subsequently moved to Chicago, Illinois, where he soon became a corporations lawyer for the railroad company. His next move was to "cross the tracks," when he switched sides to represent Eugene V. Debs, the leader of the American Railway Union in the Pullman Strike of 1894. Darrow had conscientiously resigned his corporate position in order to represent Debs, making a substantial financial sacrifice in order to do this.

Also in 1894, Darrow took on the first murder case of his career, defending Patrick Eugene Prendergast, the "mentally deranged drifter" who had confessed to murdering Chicago mayor Carter H. Harrison, Sr.[1] Darrow's "insanity defense" failed and Prendergast was executed that same year. Among fifty defenses in murder cases throughout the whole of Darrow's career, the Prendergast case would prove to be the only one resulting in an execution.[2]

Darrow defended Bill Haywood, the leader of the Industrial Workers of the World and the Western Federation of Miners, who was acquitted of charges of being involved in the murder of former Idaho governor Frank Steunenberg in 1905.

His next notable case was the defense of the MacNamara Brothers, who were charged with dynamiting the Los Angeles Times building during the bitter struggle over the open shop in Southern California, resulting in the deaths of 20 employees. When Darrow was seen standing on a street corner within view from the place where an associate of his handed over money to one of the jurors of the case, he was forced to convince them to change their plea to guilty and was able to plea bargain prison sentences instead of the death penalty. After representing the MacNamaras, Darrow was charged with two counts of attempting to bribe jurors, although the brothers' guilty pleas meant that the jurors played no part in the case. After two very lengthy trials — in the first, defended by Earl Rogers, he was acquitted; in the second he struggled defending himself for a hung jury — he agreed never to practice law again in California and not be retried.

From labor lawyer to criminal lawyer

A further consequence of the bribery charges was that the labor unions dropped Darrow from their list of preferred attorneys. This effectively put Darrow out of business as a labor lawyer, and he switched to acting in criminal cases...

Throughout his career, Darrow devoted himself to opposing the death penalty, which he felt to be in conflict with humanitarian progress. In more than 100 cases, Darrow only lost one murder case in Chicago. He became renowned for moving juries and even judges to tears with his eloquence. Though Darrow's formal education was limited, he did study for one year at the University of Michigan Law School and had a keen intellect often hidden by his rumpled, unassuming appearance.

A July 23, 1915 article in the Chicago Tribune describes Darrow's effort on behalf of J.H. Fox — an Evanston, Illinois landlord — to have Mary S. Brazelton committed to an insane asylum against the wishes of her family. Fox alleged that Brazelton owed him rent money although other residents of Fox's boarding house testified to her sanity.

Leopold and Loeb

In 1924, Darrow took on the case of Leopold and Loeb, the teenage sons of two wealthy Chicago families, who were accused of kidnapping and killing Bobby Franks, a 14-year old boy, to see what it would be like to commit the ultimate crime. Darrow convinced them to plead guilty and then argued for his clients to receive life in prison rather than the death penalty.

Darrow based his argument on the claim that his clients weren't completely responsible for their actions, but were the products of the environment they grew up in, and that they could not be held responsible for basing their desire for murder in the proto-existentialist philosophy of Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche. In the end, the judge sentenced Leopold and Loeb to life in prison rather than sending them to be executed. During the Leopold-Loeb trial, when Darrow was believed to have accepted "a million-dollar fee", many ordinary Americans were angered at his apparent betrayal, thinking that he had "sold-out." He issued a public statement stating that there would be no large legal fees and that his fees would be determined by a committee composed of officers from the Chicago Bar Association. After trial, Darrow suggested $200,000 would be reasonable. After lengthy negotiations with the defendant's families, he ended getting $70,000 in gross fees, which, after expenses and taxes, netted Darrow $30,000. (See A. Winber, ed., Attorney for the Damned, pp. 17-18, n. 1 (Simon & Schuster, 1957))

The Scopes Trial

In 1925, Darrow defended John Scopes in the famous "Monkey Trial."

The Scopes Trial of 1925 pitted against each other lawyers William Jennings Bryan and Clarence Darrow (the latter representing teacher John T. Scopes) in an American court case that tested a law passed on March 13, 1925, which forbade the teaching, in any state-funded educational establishment in Tennessee, of "any theory that denies the story of the Divine Creation of man as taught in the Bible, and to teach instead that man has descended from a lower order of animals". This is often interpreted as meaning that the law forbade the teaching of any aspect of the theory of evolution. It has often been called the "Scopes Monkey Trial".

During the trial, Darrow requested that Bryan be called to the stand as an expert witness on the Bible. Over the other prosecutor's objection, Bryan agreed. Many believe that the following exchange caused the trial to turn against Bryan and for Darrow:

"You have given considerable study to the Bible, haven't you, Mr. Bryan?"

"Yes, sir; I have tried to ... But, of course, I have studied it more as I have become older than when I was a boy."

"Do you claim then that everything in the Bible should be literally interpreted?"

"I believe that everything in the Bible should be accepted as it is given there; some of the Bible is given illustratively. For instance: "Ye are the salt of the earth."  I would not insist that man was actually salt, or that he had flesh of salt, but it is used in the sense of salt as saving God's people."

At this point Darrow had made his point — that each person interprets the Bible according to his or her beliefs, knowledge, etc. Nevertheless he continued to ask Bryan a string of questions, based on his article in the Chicago Tribune in 1923, regarding Jonah and the whale, Joshua's making the sun stand still and the Tower of Babel. By the end of the trial, this string of questions had quite ruined the reputation of Bryan, and also hurt Darrow. Bryan died six days later.

It is often claimed that Darrow tricked or forced Bryan into admitting that the Creation described in Genesis must have taken longer than 6 days of 24 hours. In reality, however, the word usually translated as "day" is also used (in Genesis 2, for example) to indicate an unspecified period of time, and this interpretation had long been accepted by many Christians at the time of the trial, though it did further Darrow's point. Thus Bryan actually volunteered the fact that he believed the passage meant six periods of time rather than 6 literal days as soon as Darrow raised the subject:

Darrow - Would you say that the earth was only 4,000 years old

Bryan - Oh, no; I think it is much older than that.

Darrow - How much?

Bryan - I couldn't say.

Darrow - Do you say whether the Bible itself says it is older than that?

Bryan - I don't think the Bible says itself whether it is older or not.

Darrow - Do you think the earth was made in six days?

Bryan - Not six days of twenty-four hours.

In the end Darrow's cross examination merely demonstrated that the two men had fundamentally opposing views on religion — Darrow being an agnostic, and Bryan a Biblical absolutist and fundamentalist. After about two hours, by which time both men were on their feet shouting at each other, judge Raulston cut the questioning short, and on the following morning ordered that the whole session (which in any case the jury had not witnessed) be expunged from the record. Scopes was found guilty and ordered to pay the minimum fine of $100.

Ossian Sweet

A white mob in Detroit attempted to drive a black family out of the home they had purchased in a white neighborhood. In the struggle, a white man was killed, and the eleven blacks in the house were arrested and charged with murder. Dr. Ossian Sweet and three members of his family were brought to trial and after an initial deadlock, Darrow argued to the all-white jury: "I insist that there is nothing but prejudice in this case; that if it was reversed and eleven white men had shot and killed a black while protecting their home and their lives against a mob of blacks, nobody would have dreamed of having them indicted. They would have been given medals instead..." They were found not guilty.

Massie Trial

Aged 68, Darrow had already announced his retirement before he volunteered to take part in the Scopes Trial, apart from the Sweet trial, later that same year, Darrow really did retire from practice, emerging only occasionally to undertake cases, such as the 1932 Massie Trial in Hawaii.

Books by Darrow

A volume of Darrow's boyhood Reminiscences, entitled "Farmington," was published in Chicago in 1903 by McClurg and Company.

Darrow shared offices with Edgar Lee Masters, who achieved more fame for his poetry, in particular the Spoon River Anthology, than for his advocacy. Darrow also took Eugene V. Debs as a partner, following his release from prison.

The papers of Clarence Darrow are located at the Riesenfeld Rare Books Research Center of the University of Minnesota Law School.

List of books

  • Persian Pearl
  • The Story of My Life
  • Farmington
  • Resist Not Evil

Works about Darrow

After his death, a full-length one man play was created, Darrow, featuring Darrow's reminiscences about his career. Originated by Henry Fonda, many actors, including Leslie Nielsen, have since taken on the role of Darrow in this play. The Scopes Monkey trial was fictionalized in another play, entitled Inherit the Wind, which was later turned into a film, in which Spencer Tracy played the character representing Darrow. Darrow is also mentioned in the musical, Lil Abner. In the 1947 film "[Miracle on 34th Street]", Kris Kringle tell lawyer Fred Gailey "I believe you're the greatest lawyer since Darrow".

Darrow was fictionalized as Johnathan Wilk in the 1956 novel Compulsion, which was about the Leopold and Loeb case.

The Clarence Darrow Memorial Bridge is located in Chicago, just south of the [Museum of Science & Industry].


  • Clarence Darrow biography by Judge Alfred W. Mackey
  • The Story of My Life, Clarence Darrow
  • Stone, Irving (1941). Clarence Darrow For The Defense. Doubleday, Doran & Company, Inc.

This article might use material from a Wikipedia article, which is released under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share-Alike License 3.0.

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