Historical Biography: Clarence Darrow

Clarence Darrow, a famous attorney of the early portion of the 20th century. His cases ranged from murder defenses to fightng for labor and the rights of workers.

Born in Ohio in 1857, Clarence Darrow earned a reputation as a fierce litigator who, in many cases, championed the cause of the underdog. After being admitted to the Ohio bar in 1879, Darrow embarked on a legal career that would span more than four decades.

Darrow was a contradiction of sorts. Fiercely competitive in the courtroom, he admitted that he was very fond of championing causes. Nevertheless, he was not the biggest fan of people. He would go on to save many people from death row in several states, but he would occasionally turn down a case because he did not like the person who had been convicted or was accused of a crime. Many of his cases, though saturated with endless publicity, were taken by Darrow on a pro bono, or free, basis. He often complained that he did not have enough money to make a living.

He first came to national prominence in the mid-1880s after venturing to Chicago, Illinois. Several men had been convicted there of the Haymarket bombings which had taken place in 1886. Although all of the men tried were convicted and three of them were executed, Darrow's efforts had not gone without notice. He was offered a job as an attorney for the city of Chicago. He later became the chief attorney for powerful Chicago and Northwestern Railroad.

Darrow's staunch legal efforts would keep many accused criminals out of jail, including a railway executive named Eugene Debs. He would make his way west to Los Angeles, California in 1910 to defend a pair of brothers who were accused of bombing a newspaper plant. The blast had killed over fifteen people. A trial was highly anticipated, but on its first day, the two accused brothers pled guilty.

The most famous of Darrow's cases would occur after his return to the Midwest. In 1924, Darrow, then in his late 60s, was allegedly offered one million dollars to defend two boys who were accused of murder. The two, Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb, had confessed to the Chicago area killing of fourteen year old Robert Franks, allegedly as a "thrill" and to see if they could get away with it. Both Leopold and Loeb were brilliant students at the University of Chicago, and their cavalier attitudes toward the crime shocked many. Darrow, however, did not see how the state could attempt to execute the two young men who he felt were quite likeable.

Through the penalty phase, Darrow's arguments were dramatic and poignant. He succeded in saving both from the electric chair. Loeb died in prison, but Leopold was released after serving nearly thirty-five years.

Having "retired", in his words, Darrow nevertheless accepted another case which would attain landmark status. John Scopes, a Tennessee school teacher, had been convicted under a state law for teaching evolution. Scopes had not taught the biblical version of creationism, and now was facing penalties.

In a packed courtroom, Darrow squared off against the prosecutor, William Jennings Bryan, who had run for president of the United States three times. Attacking Bryan's prosecution, Darrow focused on the fact that Bryan's faith in biblical stories ingnored certain items. One of them, Darrow inquired, was how the biblical figure Cain could have taken a wife, if, as Bryan insisted, Adam, Eve, Cain, and Abel were the only people on the face of the earth at the creation of the world.

During Bryan's closing argument, legend has it that Darrow diverted the jury's attention in a most unorthodox fashion. He supposedly placed a piece of piano wire through his cigar and lit it. Though Darrow puffed furiously on it throughout Bryan's closing, the gathering ash on the end of it refused to fall. Jurors were tranfixed as they watched the cigar intently, wondering when the voluminous ash would finally cave in. As the argument ended, Darrow pulled out the wire, revealing the secret of his success to the jurors.

Scopes would be convicted, but the case had spurred a national debate and had succeeded in thrusting individual liberties into the national spotlight.

Darrow died a few years later. He is generally regarded, for better or worse, as the greatest criminal defense lawyer in American history.

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