Darrow was an American lawyer, best known for having defended 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), opposing the famous prosecutor
William Jennings Bryan. He remains famous for his wit, compassion
and agnosticism that have marked him as one of the most famous American
lawyers and civil libertarians.
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, although the work was
not pro bono.
defended Haywood, the radical 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
Darrow saw the weight of the evidence against the brothers he
convinced them to change their plea to guilty and was able to
plea bargain prison sentences instead of the death penalty. However
Darrow himself was subsequently charged with two counts of attempting
to bribe jurors in the MacNamara case, and although he was acquitted
on both charges he was barred from ever practicing law in California
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.
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. Despite scant education, which included a
year at the University of Michigan Law School, Darrow had a keen
intellect often shielded by his rumpled, unassuming appearance.
story attributed to Darrow is his quip to a client, who, after
winning, said, "How can I ever show my appreciation, Mr.
Darrow?" Darrow replied, "Ever since the Phoenicians
invented money, there has been only one answer to that question."
Indeed, Darrow's pursuit of wealth is often cited by his detractors,
and it is notable that in his entire legal career Darrow only
ever accepted one pro bono case - John Scopes of the Scopes Monkey
Even on that one occasion Darrow acted from necessity. He badly
wanted to take part in the trial, but Scopes was in no position
to pay him, and the ACLU, who were paying all of Scopes' legal
costs, didn't want Darrow involved in the trial and certainly
wouldn't have agreed to pay him.
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 based their defense on the claim that they weren't
completely responsible for their actions, but were the products
of the environment they grew up in. This was done in order to
avoid the death penalty. During the Leopold-Loeb trial, when Darrow
had supposedly accepted "a million-dollar fee", many
ordinary Americans were angered at their apparent betrayal. In
truth, Darrow and his two co-counsels were given $100,000 to split
three ways— after dunning the wealthy Loeb family for several
In 1925, he defended Henry Sweet, a young black man living in
Detroit with his brother, Dr. Ossian Sweet, in the shooting death
of a member of a white mob. The mob of at least a 1,000 people
had gathered outside Dr. Sweet's home to force him to move from
the neighborhood. Eleven people were originally charged with the
murder, and after the first trial ended in a mistrial, Darrow
requested separate trials for each defendant and Henry Sweet's
was the first. Darrow referred to the trial as one of his best
argued, finishing with a legendary eight-hour impassioned closing
argument which won acquittal for Henry Sweet from the eleven-man
jury, shocking the city. Following the acquittal, charges against
the remaining defendants were dropped.
the 1925 Scopes Trial, Clarence Darrow largely retired from practice,
emerging only occasionally to undertake cases, such as the 1934
Massie Trial in Hawaii.
volume of Darrow's boyhood Reminiscences, entitled "Farmington,"
was published in Chicago in 1903 by McClurg and Company.
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.
his death, a full-length one man play was created, 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 trials were fictionalized
in another play, entitled "Inherit the Wind." This was
later turned into a film. Darrow is also mentioned in the musical,