By Chet Yarbrough
Narrated by Danny Campbell
John A. Farrell’s biography of Clarence Darrow shows a human being that carries neither the staff of Moses nor the fork of Beelzebub. Darrow is a man both good and bad, riven with temptation, transgression, and guilt; like all conventionally normal human beings.
Farrell shows Darrow as one above a crowd of 19th century humanists because of a bed-rock belief that no higher authority has the right to murder another (Darrow takes an exception to this belief in WWI, in which he, during the conflict, supports the Wilson administration). Though Darrow never finishes college, he is shown as a man with an excellent memory, exceptional oratorical skill, and a prescient understanding of human nature. On the road to “Esquiredom”, Darrow–a literary omnivore, reads, memorizes, and quotes the lions of literature.
Darrow believes all human beings, by nature, are flawed and capable of minor and/or major transgressions. Because of Darrow’s view of human nature, he earned a reputation for defending the poor and powerless; representing heinous murderers, reviled minorities, divorcing wives, and indigent families. Whether guilty or innocent, Darrow defended the accused. He charged the highest rates for those who could afford it, and charged as little as possible for those who could not. Farrell shows Darrow on the right side of history, supporting union movements and civil rights for Negroes and women when both are anathema to most government and business leaders.
The less honorific Darrow is revealed as an agnostic hedonist. Darrow’s serial assignations, profligate spending, theatrical (sometimes unethical) actions, and questionable personal financial dealings punctuate the triumphs and tragedies of his life. Darrow divorces his wife after 17 (some say 19) years of marriage. He earns a Chicago playboy’ reputation with good looks and persuasive oratorical skills while using his partnership firm’s money like a personal bank account.
Though Darrow continues to financially support his ex-wife and their son (Paul), he manufactures justification for divorce by persuading her to sail to Europe so he can claim spousal abandonment. Darrow marries Ruby Hammerstein six years later.
His first wife, Jessie Ohl, stays in touch with Darrow for the remainder of his life. According to Farrell, Darrow paid alimony to Ohl until she remarried, many years after their divorce.
Farrell recounts Darrow’s spectacular legal defense in the Haywood union trial in Idaho. “Big Bill Haywood”, a prominent Labor Union leader, is implicated by Albert Horsley (aka Harry Orchard) in a conspiracy to murder coal mining operators in Idaho to advance the cause of unionization.
Darrow exposes Horsley as a liar and sociopathic killer. Darrow wins a not-guilty plea for Haywood.
Darrow’s counter-intuitive defense included a lengthy argument supporting unionization because of unfair labor management practices of coal mine owners. In the eyes of industrialists, Darrow’s defense classifies him as an anti-capitalist, socialist revolutionary. Though Darrow did not succeed in getting laborer’s right to unionize, he exposed slavery-like conditions of mine operations and compelled the industry to pay higher wages, reduce work hours, and abate child labor practices.
Darrow’s management of the Haywood case is repeated in the defense of two union members of the International Association of Bridge and Structural Iron Workers. They are indicted for bombing the Los Angeles Times in 1910. When first presented with the case by the union, Darrow is reluctant to accept the defense. In the end, he accepts. Darrow takes the case. He moves to California and closes his partnership in Chicago to handle the defense.
Part of the reason for Darrow’s acceptance is financial; part is belief in the value of unions. But fundamentally, Ferrell infers, it is Darrow’s belief in the imperfection of human beings, the evidence of capitalist/labor inequity, and an unfair hegemonic power exercised by industry owners.
The bombers are clearly guilty of the crime. The explosion kills 21 newspaper employees. Near the trial’s end, the accused are convicted in a plea bargain with one sentenced to life in prison; the other to serve 15 years. Farrell shows how Darrow is nearly driven to suicide by the Times’ bombing case.
Darrow is indicted for bribing jurists to get a hung jury for the two brothers (the McNamara’s), who are accused of bombing the L. A. Times’ building. From Farrell’s account of the case, it seems Darrow may have been guilty. From the tenor of Farrell’s biography, Darrow’s motive seems more about belief in the righteousness of the labor movement than the guilt or innocence of the McNamara’s.
Additionally, Darrow abhors the death penalty. Darrow’s fundamental belief is that all human beings are flawed. The flaw is in human’ judgment about what is right and wrong. In Darrow’s mind, both jurists and judges are as capable of flawed decisions as the accused; i.e. human beings cannot be trusted to make the right decision about execution.
Darrow narrowly escapes conviction on bribing jurists in the L.A. Times’ bombing. He is found not guilty in a first trial and released by a hung jury in a second trial that involves an alleged third conspirator. The results of the second trial are a damning judgment of Darrow’s Machiavellian’ approach to defending guilty clients. In Farrell’s opinion, Darrow became a better attorney after these trials; trials that nearly ended his career.
Darrow goes on to defend the two cases best known to the public; i.e. the “Leopold and Lobe” murder case and the “Scopes trial”, both of which became full length feature films.
The Scopes Monkey trial is covered in detail by the following documentary film:
This is an excellent biography; well narrated by Danny Campbell. Farrell shows Darrow to be a flawed hero that helped turn the tide of capitalist greed and American’ discrimination; both of which are battles still raging in the 21st century.