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David A. Schwinghammer

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Clarence Darrow (book review)
By David A. Schwinghammer
Last edited: Wednesday, December 07, 2011
Posted: Wednesday, December 07, 2011

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Author John A. Farrell covers all the great cases (Leopold and Loeb; Scopes Monkey Trial; the Wild Bill Haywood trial etc.) and doesn't shy away from detailing Darrow's faults.

Without a doubt the greatest influence on Clarence Darrow's career as "Attorney for the Damned" was his father, Amiris, a furniture store owner in Kinsman, Illinois. He was the town radical who had a hard time making ends meet, but somehow always found money for books, which he passed on to his precocious son.

Darrow began his career in Chicago working for the city and spent six years dispensing legal advice for the railroads, as Abraham Lincoln had done before him. He quit when his mentor, William C. Gowdy died, but said he had felt guilty working for a giant corporation long before that.

Darrow's career as a radical lawyer began when he represented coal miners who were bargaining for an eight hour day. Author Farrell gives us a gruesome picture of children under ten years old working sorting coal. The coal owners purposefully paid their men and boys less than a living wage and the garment industry took full advantage of it in that families needed to send the mother and daughters out to work also. Textile mills popped up around the coal mines. Eventually Darrow would move up the ladder of radical causes, representing Wild Bill Haywood who was charged in the murder of Governor Steunenberg, who had been a union foil, and he would later represent the McNamara brothers charged with bombing the LOS ANGELES TIMES.

John A. Farrell reveals Darrow's warts as well as his talents. He divorced his first wife and was a lifelong advocate of free love, although he married a second time. He carried on a long affair with reporter Mary Field Parton, even after she was married, and he tried to seduce her sister every time he saw her. The famous poet, Edgar Lee Masters, who was Darrow's law partner, viewed Darrow as somewhat of a phony, claiming Darrow chiseled him out of some fees.

Darrow was also tried twice for trying to bribe the McNamara jury. Farrell shows how Pinkertons were hired to infiltrate Darrow's defense team, so Darrow may have felt he was justified in using extra legal tactics, that is if he was guilty. Some of his friends thought he was.

Darrow also represented some questionable clients, namely Chicago gangsters and the rich such as the Leopolds and the Loebs, which astonished his fellow radicals. Darrow's excuse was always that he was a lawyer and that's what lawyers did.

Sometimes Darrow couldn't get his clients off so he tried to get the sentence reduced. This happened with Leopold and Loeb; Darrow argued that the state of Illinois had never put to death a murderer under the age of 18. He also defended Patrick Prendergast, the murderer of Chicago mayor Carter Harrison, employing an insanity plea.

Farrell doesn't do justice to Darrow's most famous case, The Scopes Monkey Trial held in Dayton, Tennessee. We do learn that the case was a show trial conceived by drugstore lawyers in Dayton, as a sort of booster ploy for the town. Darrow and William Jennings Bryan brushed the other lawyers aside. When the noted agnostic and the evangelical politician became the focus of the trial, matters got serious. Unfortunately the judge disallowed expert witnesses and the case for evolution never got a fair hearing.

Darrow often spent days making a closing statement. He must've been really good because it seems he usually did it to a packed house. He may be the greatest lawyer in American history.

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