Skip to content Skip to footer

Submitted by Gary Moss

Clarence Seward Darrow is generally regarded as the greatest criminal lawyer of the 20th Century as well as one its most colorful – and controversial – characters. 

Born in Farmdale on April 18, 1854, he grew up in nearby Kinsman, in an eight-sided house that seemed perfectly suited for the Darrow family and their odd-ball ways.

He cemented his place in history in 1925 defending John Scopes in the infamous “Monkey Trial,” facing off against William Jennings Bryan in their dramatic showdown over the teaching of evolution. The two antagonists had long shared a mutual concern for the common man, but their divergence on religious matters was profound.

Darrow professed no faith in God or religion, and “little respect for the crowd,” an instinct he learned back in Kinsman from his father, Amirus, a freethinking carpenter and coffin maker who taught his son to question the conventional wisdom others gladly accepted as truth.

Darrow practiced law during a period of rapid and tumultuous change as the country grew from its agrarian roots into an industrial powerhouse. At the age of 30, Darrow came to understand those changes firsthand when he left the small town of Ashtabula, Ohio for the big city of Chicago. It was here in 1894 that Darrow became a hero of the labor movement defending railroad union leader Eugene Debs in the landmark Pullman Strike case.

In 1907, he successfully defended Big Bill Haywood, the brawling, one-eyed labor leader on trial for assassinating Idaho’s governor. During the trial, Darrow spoke with plain, emotional conviction of the nobility of mankind and the threat to liberty posed by men of wealth and their legal guns-for-hire.

In 1911, Darrow represented James B. and John J. McNamara, the union activists accused of the bombing at the Los Angeles Times that led to the death of 21 employees.  Darrow helped the two brothers escape the gallows, but the victory came at a high price. After he was indicted for jury bribery, Darrow was forced to defend himself in to order to save his license and keep out of jail. The case was finally dropped after the second trail ended with a hung jury, but the public spectacle left Darrow deeply wounded. At 56, he returned to Chicago a broken man, with his vaunted reputation in tatters. 

Forced to reinvent himself yet again, Darrow turned to criminal law and carved his niche in history as a voice for the oppressed, the inarticulate and the poor. His friend, the muckraking journalist Lincoln Steffens, dubbed him the “attorney for the damned.”

Even in old age Darrow cut a magnificent presence. He was not quite 6 feet tall, and handsome in a roughcast way, with eyes set deep beneath a mighty brow. His hair was brown and straight and fine, with a famously unruly lock that drifted down to his forehead.  His voice was a melodious grumble of a baritone that he could turn into a whisper or roar as he stood before a jury or stared down an opponent.

Chicago newsman Ben Hecht said of him, “The picture of Darrow drawling in front of a jury box was a notable scene of a vanished U.S.A., the great barrister artfully gotten up in baggy pants, frayed linen and string tie, and ‘playing dumb’ for a jury as if he were no lawyer at all, but a cracker-barrel philosopher groping for a bit of human truth.”

Among his most centrally held beliefs was that “all life is worth saving,” and again and again, Darrow delivered days-long closing arguments to win miraculous reprieves for men doomed to hang. The most sensational of those miracles took place in 1924 when Darrow took the defense of Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb, sons of two wealthy Chicago families who kidnapped and killed 11-year-old boy for the mere thrill of seeing if they could get away with it.

 In his closing argument, Darrow appealed to the judge for mercy, evoking the words of Persian poet Omar Khayyam:

“So I be written in the Book of Love.

I do not care about that Book Above.

Erase my name, or write it as you will.

So I be written in the Book of Love.”

Darrow reached the height of his notoriety a year later, during the hot summer of 1925 in Dayton, Tennessee, when he championed the cause of John Scopes, the high school biology teacher charged with violating a newly enacted statute prohibiting the theory of evolution in public schools. Scopes was inevitably found guilty, but the trail is still remembered for the withering questioning that Bryan was subjected to after Darrow called him to the stand as an expert on the Bible.

To the end, Darrow remained an unrepentant unbeliever, and after his death on March 13, 1938, his wife Ruby shared one of her husband’s most whimsical sayings: “Mr. Darrow always maintained that he didn’t care whether he went to heaven or hell because he has so many good friends in either place.”