Clarence Darrow

Formal picture of Clarence Darrow taken a few years after he spoke in Quincy.

On October 5, 1913, the Quincy Daily Whig informed readers that “the prominent Chicago lawyer” Clarence Darrow would “address Quincy unionists and sympathizers of labor” at the Labor Temple. An October 8 story reported—without a byline—his presentation, observing that Darrow “at the age of 56 is in the zenith of mental power…gifted to the point that approaches brilliance…is dissatisfied, discontented and disgruntled.”

In 1894, he had resigned as corporate counsel for a Chicago railroad to represent Eugene V. Debs and the American Railway Union striking against the Pullman Palace Car Co. The strike had disrupted mail delivery, and Attorney General Richard Olney had obtained an injunction prohibiting Debs and union leaders from “compelling or inducing” any employees of the railroads “to refuse or fail to perform any of their duties.”

A federal district court found Debs in contempt, and the Supreme Court affirmed his jail sentence. The Quincy Daily Herald reported on July 18 that “Debs Slept in a Cell Last Night—Refuses to Give Bail and Goes to Jail”, quoting his statement, “We will see whether a man can be sent to jail without trial for organizing against oppression.” Despite Darrow’s loss in this important case, he became the preeminent union lawyer in the United States.

Before enactment of the National Labor Relations Act of 1935, courts often deemed union organizing and strikes “conspiracies” injuring businesses and impairing contractual relationships between employers and workers. Writing in 1931, Harvard law professor Felix Frankfurter (later a Supreme Court justice), and law student Nathan Greene argued that these rulings led “to grave abuses that intensify rather than compose industrial conflicts.”

Consequently, Darrow’s labor law practice compelled him to be a criminal defense attorney. A June 25, 1907 front-page Daily Whig story pictured Darrow addressing the jury as he successfully defended William “Big Bill” Haywood, leader of the Industrial Workers of the World (the “Wobblies”), for conspiracy to murder former Idaho governor Frank Steunenberg.

Darrow’s Quincy audience likely knew of Darrow’s great crisis in 1911. While representing brothers James and John McNamara, California union leaders accused of bombing the anti-labor Los Angeles Times, and causing 21 deaths with many others injured, Darrow had concluded that only a plea agreement for prison would prevent their conviction and execution. Many labor leaders and workers thought Darrow had surrendered too easily.

Simultaneously in that case, prosecutors alleged that Darrow had attempted to bribe jurors by directing his investigator to approach a juror, who then alerted authorities. In what was either a legitimate sting operation or an illegal entrapment, the police claimed that Darrow arrived at the scene just as they observed the investigator hand money to the juror.

At trial jurors acquitted Darrow after deliberating 27 minutes. Although represented by California lawyer Earl Rogers, Darrow addressed the jury: “I am not on trial for having sought to bribe a man … I am on trial because I have been a lover of the poor, a friend of the oppressed, because I have stood by labor all of these years.” A second jury, considering evidence of a separate alleged bribe, could not agree on a verdict, and prosecutors withdrew charges upon Darrow’s agreement never to appear again in a California courtroom.

Most biographers have accepted Darrow’s claim of innocence, although doubt remains. Fearing the episode would destroy his law practice, he returned to wider intellectual interests: reforming criminal law and protecting intellectual freedom. In Chicago he had been the law partner of John Peter Altgeld (Illinois’s future reform governor) and, in the city’s cultural circles, an unsurpassed debater of public issues. His Quincy visit was part of a speaking tour.

The Daily Whig’s 1913 sub-headline that he “Tears Up the Constitution and Jumps on the Courts” conveyed the anxiety he elicited among the establishment of his day. The story quoted what Darrow probably considered his personal creed: “Hasten the day when every laboring man will be a capitalist and every capitalist a laboring man jointly to own” the earth “and govern it for the common good”; a “universal brotherhood to take the place of narrow creed of religion.”

His law practice did not collapse, and he remained the nation’s foremost trial lawyer with three cases establishing his iconic reputation. In 1924, after advising Nathan Leopold, Jr. and Richard Loeb to admit murdering a teenage boy, with Chicago demanding revenge amid homophobic and anti-Semitic rage, he convinced a judge to impose sentences of life imprisonment, not death.

In 1925 the American Civil Liberties Union retained Darrow to represent Tennessee school teacher John T. Scopes whom a jury convicted for teaching the theory of biological evolution. The Tennessee Supreme Court reversed because the trial judge had fined Scopes $100, a function assigned to the jury. Tennessee never retried Scopes and repealed the evolution law in 1967.

Additionally, retained by the NAACP in 1925, Darrow won acquittal on self-defense grounds of African American brothers Dr. Ossian and Henry Sweet, charged with murder for a death occurring when a mob threatened Dr. Sweet’s home in a segregated white Detroit neighborhood. Apart from the legal issues litigated, each of these cases allowed Darrow to address problems of great concern to him: capital punishment, free speech and racial equality.

On March 14, 1938, the Herald Whig carried a length Associated Press obituary of the “noted lawyer-philosopher” who was “not a criminal lawyer” but “a practicing philosopher, a student of society, of crime and its causes and cures.” A federal judge delivered a eulogy for a lawyer who had so often challenged the legal system. Perhaps some readers remembered the 1913 speech by that “dissatisfied, discontented and disgruntled” visitor from Chicago.

SOURCES

“Clarence Darrow’s Death Ends the Famous Career of Lawyer Philosopher”, Quincy Herald Whig, March 14, 1938, p.1.

“Darrow at the Temple”, Quincy Daily Herald (October 8, 1913), p.8

“Darrow Will Speak to the Unionists”, Quincy Daily Whig, October 5, 1913, p.1

“Debs Slept in a Cell Last Night”, Quincy Daily Herald, July 18, 1894, p.8.

Frankfurter, Felix, and Nathan Greene, “Congressional Power over the Labor Injunction”, 31 Columbia Law Review, pp. 385, 387 (1931).

“Haywood is Plot Victim—Charge of Clarence Darrow in His Speech for the Defense”, Quincy Daily Whig, June 25, 1907, p.1.

North, Luke, ed., “Plea of Clarence Darrow in his Own Defense…” (1912), p.4, University of Minnesota Law Library, Clarence Darrow Digital Collection.

Kent Hull, a retired lawyer living in South Bend, Ind., is a long-distance member of the Historical Society. He grew up in Plainville and graduated from Seymour High in Payson, Ill.

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