Darrow, Clarence (1857–1938)

Clarence Darrow was born in Kinsman, Ohio, on April 18, 1857, the son of Amirus and Emily (Eddy) Darrow. His father was a former Unitarian minister who abandoned his faith to become an agnostic. Both parents were supporters of abolitionism and women's rights, and it was in such a free-thinking and reformist household that Clarence Darrow was raised. Darrow attended Allegheny College and the University of Michigan Law School, gaining admission to the Ohio bar in 1878. Over the next nine years he practiced law in Ohio; married Jessie Ohl in 1880; fathered a son, Paul, in 1883; and, looking for wider legal horizons, moved his family to Chicago in 1887.

In Chicago he became involved in Democratic Party politics, becoming a friend of Governor John Altgeld as well as an advocate of prison reform, which included ending capital punishment. Through his friendship with Altgeld, Darrow supported the drive to pardon the surviving defendants convicted of participation in Chicago's 1886 Haymarket bombing. In 1890, he took up corporate law, becoming an attorney for the Chicago and Northwestern Railroad. His corporate career, however, was short, for Darrow became alarmed over the treatment of workers during the 1894 Pullman strike, and his natural sympathies drew him to support the period's organized labor struggles. He befriended the socialist president of the American Railway Union, Eugene Debs, and later unsuccessfully defended Debs when he was repeatedly prosecuted for contempt in regard to his union agitation. In 1894, Darrow also became involved in his first significant murder trial, that of Patrick E. Prendergast, the assassin of Chicago mayor Carter H. Harrison Sr. (1825–1893). Although unsuccessful in his defense, this trial was a key first step in Darrow's long career defending numerous defendants charged with capital crimes.

During the early years of the twentieth century, Darrow increasingly participated in radical causes, promoting organizations such as the Intercollegiate Socialist Society and defending high-profile radical labor activists. In 1906 he represented Industrial Workers of the World leader William D. “Big Bill” Heywood and associates who were accused of the 1905 murder of Idaho Governor Frank Steunenberg (1861–1905). Through a series of trials, Darrow demonstrated his commitment to these causes even when a true victory was not achievable. He also defended the trade unionists John and James McNamara who were accused of the bombing of the Los Angeles Times building in 1910 that resulted in the deaths of 21 people. Darrow persuaded the brothers to change their not guilty plea to guilty in light of the convincing evidence against them, a move that saved the McNamaras from the death penalty. The 1911 McNamara trial also proved highly contentious, and Darrow was subsequently charged, but later acquitted, with bribing jurors.

Darrow continued his support of labor causes during World War I when many labor, anarchist, and socialist agitators ran afoul of the Espionage Act, which he viewed—although himself a supporter of the Allied war effort—as an attempt to silence criticism of the war. Moreover, Darrow's understanding of the root causes of illegality and antisocial behavior was evolving. He increasingly believed that unsatisfactory environmental and social factors, as well as psychological disorders, shaped wrongdoing. In this way his defendants were not simply criminals but also victims whose acts were precipitated by a variety of negative societal experiences that led them to actions beyond their immediate control. His defense in the sensational 1924 Leopold-Loeb murder case rested upon his clients’ inability to distinguish right from wrong due to their prevailing psychological and philosophical orientations.

Clarence Darrow is best remembered for his 1925 defense of the Tennessee biology teacher John T. Scopes, who was accused of teaching evolution in violation of Tennessee's Butler Act. The case became a national sensation as the prosecution team included as an expert witness former presidential candidate and Democratic-Populist William Jennings Bryan, who supported the literal interpretation of scripture. Although Scopes was convicted and fined $100, his case was eventually overturned on a technicality.

Theodore W. Eversole

See also: Altgeld, John P. (1847–1902) ; Bryan, William Jennings (1860–1925) ; Debs, Eugene (1855–1926) ; Haymarket Riot (1886) ; Industrial Workers of the World ; Progressivism ; Pullman Strike (1894) ; Scopes Trial (1925)


Darrow, Clarence. The Story of My Life. Cambridge, MA: Da Capo Press, 1996.

Jensen, Richard J. Clarence Darrow: The Creation of an American Myth. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992.

Postel, Charles. The Populist Vision. New York: Oxford University Press, 2007.

Ravitz, Abe C. Clarence Darrow and the American Literary Tradition. Cleveland, OH: Western Reserve University Press, 1962.

Stone, Irving. Clarence Darrow. New York: Doubleday, 1989.