Clarence Darrow - 'Attorney for the Damned'

August 25, 2011|By ALLAN POWELL

It is very probable that those who have any knowledge about the life of Clarence Darrow have only a most incomplete picture presented in the movie, "Inherit The Wind." In that fine film, they saw an aging, wise and able defense for John Scopes in the famous (or infamous) "Monkey Trial."

In Dayton, Tenn., in 1925, science teacher Scopes was fined for teaching evolution (illegally). This legal battle ushered in a never-ending legal conflict over the role of religion (if any) in teaching science.

A recently published biography, "Clarence Darrow," authored by Andrew C. Kersten, shows a much more complicated and multifaceted person that was a curious mix of free thinker, warrior for social justice, dedicated friend of laborers, left-wing political advocate and "attorney for the damned." This combination of traits generated a life of turmoil and volatile relationships.

Darrow was raised in a home of modest means in a series of small towns in rural Ohio. His father provided adequately for the family in the occupation of a maker of furniture. Both parents were well-educated and exposed the children to a wide range of literature, including free thought and skeptical habits of mind. Darrow was attracted to other unorthodox ideas such as socialism, prison reform and legal means to improve the life of laboring people.

While pursuing the career of a teacher, he happened upon some law books and eventually took some courses in law. He was impressed by the fact that lawyers were called upon to give speeches at various celebrations, and this appealed to his vanity and desire for recognition. Practicing law in rural Ohio turned out to be a struggle for financial survival, which did not change until Darrow moved his family to Chicago and became embroiled in city government political clashes.

Chicago had more than its share of crime, dirt, stench and raw political entanglements. Max Weber, a noted sociologist, described this city in the most unflattering light, saying "it is like a human being with its skin removed: fascinating and repulsive." Darrow was one of those principled, self-actualized and caring reformers who worked tirelessly for the unfortunate, victims of exploitation and those who needed legal remedies to improve their plight.

Practicing law in Chicago introduced cases that evoked deep empathy for the bottom ranks of society for Darrow. He was especially touched by conditions faced by the laborers for the railroad and mining industries. This concern earned him the title, "attorney for the damned." This might have been a source of embarrassment to some; however, it energized Darrow with a sense of pride.

His sensitivity for the disadvantaged became evident in 1893 when he agreed to defend a severely troubled person who murdered the mayor of Chicago, Carter Harrison. The mayor had refused to offer a job to this deranged applicant, who then fatally wounded the unsuspecting politician. Popular opinion called for a death sentence. Darrow argued for legal precedent that was opposed to public demand. If insanity could be established, there was no case for the death penalty. Unfortunately, this clearly insane victim was found guilty and hanged. Of 102 possible executions in Darrow's legal career, this was the only case he lost.

Darrow seemed always destined to be the underdog in his legal battles with the rich and powerful railroad and mining monopolies. In 1893, George Pullman, owner of the luxury railway passenger car company, made huge layoffs, cut wages, strangled collective bargaining and forced children to pay the debts of laid off or deceased parents. The strike that followed failed because Pullman hired scabs to cross the picket line. In a trial that followed, Darrow was witness to insult added to injury when the court ruled that unions were guilty of violating the Sherman anti-trust act. That legislation was passed to halt monopolies from engaging in restraint of trade. Now, it was turned upside down and used against labor.

Now, nearing middle age, Darrow might have experienced what is popularly referred to as a "midlife crisis." Long periods from home and an apparent lack of interest in marriage brought an end to the relationship. The desire for a more open, hedonistic, bohemian and "free spirited" style made his apartment in Chicago a center for radical politics and liberated friendships.

A closing thought about Darrow's most publicized case is in order. The Scopes "Monkey Trial" was more properly defined as a "revivalist-circus." Two giants, William Jennings Bryan (more a preacher than a lawyer) and Darrow (a certified agnostic) engaged in a legal joust that ended in a "guilty" verdict. Both men were overtaxed by bad health and the effects of a trial held during very hot days in July. Five days after closure, Bryan died of complications related to diabetes. Neither science nor religion benefited from this trial and the verdict was quite predictable — no jury selected from Dayton, Tenn., would have acquitted Scopes.    

Darrow was an active, feisty and popular speaker on the lecture circuit until the end. The "Old Lion," as he was affectionately called, passed away in 1938, just one month short of his 81st birthday. His last reported words came in the form of a question: "Do I look 80 years old?" His guest replied, "Mr. Darrow, you have always looked 80 years old." No doubt this brought a grin to the face of the unconquerable "attorney for the damned."

Allan Powell is a professor emeritus of philosophy at Hagerstown Community College.

The Herald-Mail Articles