Darrow was 'attorney for the damned' – Tennessean


Clarence Seward Darrow once quipped, “I have suffered from being misunderstood, but I would have suffered a hell of a lot more if I had been understood.”
For instance, in 1902, the warden of Cook County Jail in Chicago invited Darrow to address the inmates under his charge. His remarks reflected the iconoclastic views that made him one of America’s most notable, and notorious, attorneys.
“I do not believe,” he began, “there is any sort of distinction between the real moral conditions of the people in and out of jail. One is just as good as the other.”
Acorn fell not far from the tree
Darrow was born on April 18, 1857, on his family’s farm in Kinsman, Ohio. His father was an arch-abolitionist and outspoken religious free thinker who was called the “village infidel.” His mother was active in support of women’s suffrage and rights.
He attended but did not graduate from the University of Michigan Law School, and passed the Ohio bar in when he was 21.
Darrow worked in Democratic politics and as a Chicago city attorney, after which Illinois Gov. John Altgeld got him a job as corporate lawyer for the Chicago & Northwestern Railway Co.
For the defense
In 1894, Darrow abruptly quit the railroad and defended Eugene V. Debs, who was head of the American Railway Union and leader of the strike against the Pullman Co. The strike ended after 30 people were killed in riots. Though Darrow won a partial victory, Debs went to jail.
That year, he also defended Patrick Prendergast, the accused killer of Chicago Mayor Carter Harrison Sr. He lost, and Prendergast was hanged. He was the only one of Darrow’s clients to be executed.
In 1911, Darrow represented the McNamara brothers, who bombed the Los Angeles Times building, killing 21 people, during a union fight against the newspaper. The brothers went to jail, and Darrow was charged with attempting to bribe jurors. He was acquitted of one charge and received a hung jury in the other. In exchange for avoiding another trial, Darrow agreed not to practice law in California.
Attorney for the damned
When his first murder case ended with his client’s execution, Darrow became an ardent opponent of the death penalty, and gravitated to some of America’s most heinous and controversial cases.
His most famous murder trial was his defense of the “thrill killers,” Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb, who he successfully kept from execution.
Because of H.L. Mencken’s coverage, Darrow’s defense of Tennessee high school teacher John T. Scopes against charges of violating the Butler Act, which forbade teaching the theory of human evolution, is considered his most memorable. Darrow came out of retirement to face William Jennings Bryan in 1925. He lost; Scopes was fined $100.
‘More poet than lawyer’
Darrow was more interested in people than justice, writing:
“I was dealing with life, with its fears, its aspirations and despairs. With me it was going to the foundation of motive and conduct and adjustments for human beings, instead of blindly talking hatred and vengeance and that subtle, indefinable quality that men call ‘justice’ and of which nothing really is known.”
Reach Frank Daniels III: fdanielsiii@tennessean.com, 615-881-7039, and on Twitter: @fdanielsiii.


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