Book Review: Clarence Darrow: Attorney for the Damned

Book Review: Clarence Darrow: Attorney for the Damned.  Farrell, John A.  Doubleday, 2011.  Hardcover, ISBN: 978-0-385-52258-8, $32.50.  564 pages.

Sometimes I wish I had majored in history instead of any of the five majors I went through in college, culminating in broadcasting.  If you’re rolling your eyes at my poor choice, I assure you my parents did too, just as I am now.  Not only is everything I learned in broadcasting obsolete, but I’ve missed out on reading a lot of biographies of fascinating historical figures.  Now that I’m a law librarian (a few careers later), I eagerly await every chance to read and evaluate legal biographies and other relevant history books.  Historian John A. Farrell’s meticulously-researched Clarence Darrow: Attorney for the Damned was one of the most entertaining and insightful histories I’ve enjoyed in a long time.  I think this story of America’s most famous (and infamous) trial lawyer is a necessary purchase for law school library collections, but it’s comprehensive enough to recommend it for undergraduate libraries, and interesting and accessible enough for public libraries as well.

Clarence Darrow was born in 1857 and raised in pastoral Kinsman, Ohio, the fifth of eight children.  His father Amirus was a furniture maker and shopkeeper by trade, but also a well-read scholar and anti-authoritarian idealist.  His tendencies rubbed off on Clarence, who attended the University of Michigan school of law in 1877, but despite his gift for oratory, he only lasted a year.  In that era, most lawyers did not attend law school, but learned the trade clerking for other attorneys and studied for the bar exam on their own.  (Law students will be fascinated by that part!)

Darrow eventually moved to Chicago, the bustling center of late-19th Century America, and quickly built a reputation as a shrewd trial lawyer and ally to oppressed, unpopular underdogs.  He defended penniless petty criminals, notorious Chicago gangsters, controversial labor leaders like Eugene V. Debs and “Big Bill” Haywood, and even the insane Patrick Prendergast, who assassinated Chicago mayor Carter Harrison.  Darrow made money where he could, representing wealthy and respectable clients, and all the while navigated through Chicago’s heavily corrupt political scene as a populist and a progressive, a Democrat and a fiery radical.

Through all of this, Darrow married twice, but was a known rake and philanderer throughout both marriages.  He was witty and debonair, intellectual and flamboyant, and believed strongly in free love (and sex) without consequences.  In that regard, like so many others, Darrow was decades ahead of his time, allying himself with fellow radicals, socialists, union leaders, suffragists, feminists, anarchists, atheists, anti-Prohibitionists, hedonists, muckraking journalists, loose women, and other bohemian types throughout the Gilded Age.  He had black friends and helped found the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, and also played a role in founding the organization that became the American Civil Liberties Union.

Darrow’s career, fortune, and reputation faltered in his 50s when he defended the McNamara brothers, who bombed the anti-union Los Angeles Times building, and was indicted for bribing two jurors (which he most likely did).   A staunch enemy of the death penalty, Darrow was willing to do anything to save his clients’ lives, regardless of legal ethics.  However, the strenuous back-to-back trials in California ruined his Chicago-based law practice, exhausted his meager savings, diminished his physical health, and sent him spiraling into a deep depression.

Fortunately, Darrow rebounded, and argued some of the most famous trials of his career later in his life: defending (and saving the lives of) homosexual spree killers Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb, and then defending the high school science teacher John Scopes, who dared teach Darwin’s theory of evolution in heavily Christian Tennessee.  In this, the famous “Scopes Monkey Trial,” the cynical atheist Darrow triumphed over his old political rival William Jennings Bryan, a fundamentalist Christian and outspoken critic of evolution, when both men were in the twilight of long, illustrious careers.

I definitely think law students and other non-history majors (like me) will appreciate having access to a book like Clarence Darrow: Attorney for the Damned.  Darrow was far from perfect, but his heroism, honor, and heart outweigh his flaws.  His triumphant life should be an inspiration to anyone entering the practice of law, and the way Farrell presents his story is certainly worth owning, reading, and sharing.

Louis Rosen is a Reference Librarian and Assistant Professor of Law Library at Barry University School of Law in Orlando, Florida.

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