During the peak of his career, Clarence Darrow was the most well-known criminal lawyer in the United States. It is a fact that not one of Darrow’s clients ever received the death penalty under his defense, including the infamous murder trial of Leopold and Loeb, sons of rich socialites. A brilliant maneuver at the last minute of the trial and a two-day long summation spared the two boy’s lives. Also in Darrow’s extensive résumé was his defense in the “trial of the century” where he defended John T. Scopes for teaching evolution and the thoughts of Charles Darwin to his students; this case has been nationally remembered as the “Monkey Trial” and was the cornerstone of the transformation from traditionalist ideals to the recognition of scientific evidence.
Clarence Darrow’s origins were, at best, humble. He was born in Kingsman, Ohio, on April 18, 1857, the fifth child of Amirus and Emily Eddy Darrow. The town of Kingsman had only 400 inhabitants and was not even labeled on contemporary maps of the area. Amirus Darrow manufactured and sold furniture and was the town’s undertaker. Emily Eddy Darrow played the traditional role of running the household; she died when Clarence was only 15 years old. Although the Darrows lived a meager existence in the smallest of towns, they had a love for books; they read Jefferson, Voltaire, and Thomas Paine, and this love of books was force-fed to their children.
Despite Clarence Darrow’s humble origins, he went to Allegheny College, from which he graduated. After a brief time of fruitless jobs, he attended the University of Michigan Law School, where he gained his juror’s doctorate in law. Darrow did badly in school, mostly because he was not disciplined; he failed to prepare for and to contend with unexciting works, which would hurt him in his future legal career. He relied on luck, inspiration, and his uncanny ability to “rise to the occasion.”
Clarence Darrow laid claim to many victories in court, but none were more recognized than the “Leopold and Loeb” case and the “Monkey Trial.” The Leopold and Loeb trial happened in the summer of 1924, in the city of Chicago. Richard Loeb, age 17, the son of the vice president of Sears, Roebuck, and Company, and Nathan Leopold, age 18, also the son of a wealthy family, conspired to commit the perfect murder. They lured a friend into a rented car. Once in the vehicle, the two boys proceeded to stab the young boy with a chisel and strangle him with rope. After dumping acid on the boy to make identification difficult, Loeb and Leopold disposed of the body in a swamp. After the body was disposed of, they proceeded to mail a letter to the murdered boy’s family and asked for a ransom, with the promise that the boy would be unharmed. Although the young murderers thought they had pulled it off, they soon found out that their scheme was far from perfect.
Police discovered the young boy’s body soon after Loeb and Leopold disposed of it, and were able to identify the body. A crucial mistake by the boys was that Nathan Leopold had dropped his spectacles where the body was disposed; these spectacles had special hinges on them that were sold to only three people in all of Chicago, one of those being Nathan. Ten days after the murder, Loeb and Leopold were brought in for questioning; both cracked under pressure and confessed to the murder, though both confessed that the other did the actual killing.
The murder attracted national media attention due to the defendants’ social status as sons of upper-class families. The common belief was that only uneducated, poor, and vile people committed these types of crimes—yet two young boys from “good,” wealthy families had committed this atrocious premeditated offense. Clarence was called in to represent Loeb and Leopold. The media immediately criticized Darrow for defending these two boys solely for materialistic gain. With a full-fledged confession by both boys and an insurmountable amount of evidence against them, Darrow was hired to save their lives from the death penalty, which in Illinois was death by hanging. Darrow, who was an avid spokesperson against the death penalty, had almost an impossible case to win.
From the beginning, Darrow knew that the only way to attain a sentence of life imprisonment for Leopold and Loeb was to try the case before a judge in a bench trial, because there was no possibility of attaining an unbiased jury. Darrow originally had the boys plead not guilty, with the intention of changing this plea to guilty, which would force the judge alone to sentence Loeb and Leopold to death, and use the element of surprise to throw off the prosecution.
In a dramatic two-day summation, Darrow downplayed the murder, while focusing on the boys’ mental abnormality as well as the fact that the crime was senseless, motiveless, and mad. He also attacked the prosecution because of their persistence for the death penalty in light of his clients’ economic class and the national exposure to the case. When he made his verdict, Judge John Calverly disagreed with many of the points that Darrow made, but was swayed nonetheless by the summation and especially the boys’ young ages. He gave them both life sentences for kidnapping and murder. Although Darrow was criticized for materialistic gain in this case, the families of Leopold and Loeb at first refused to pay Darrow any money; after much debate, the families paid Darrow a total of $100,000, which in no way compensated Darrow as well as his staff for the time and work they had put into the case.
The trial of John T. Scopes took place in July 1925. Clarence Darrow defended Scopes for free, and it was the first and last time he would ever do so in a case. He waived his fee and defended Scopes only because the prosecutor in the case was William Jennings Bryan, a well-known rival. Bryan was the nation’s leading fundamentalist, and three-time presidential candidate. John T. Scopes was arrested for teaching evolution and the theories of Charles Darwin at Dayton High School, in Dayton, Tennessee. Scopes was not actually a biology teacher, but rather a physics teacher; only after Scopes had substituted in the biology class and gave a reading assignment dealing with evolution was he charged.
The jury in the “Monkey Trial” had never heard of Charles Darwin, and all but one were fundamentalists. Bryan was considered a “man of God,” while Darrow was disliked as “the devil.” The prosecution led by Bryan motioned that no expert testimony be allowed for either side of the trial. The judge ruled in favor of the prosecution, almost crippling the defense’s case. Although not his idea, Darrow called Bryan himself to testify on his religious beliefs and evolution. Bryan agreed to this blindly and took the stand before Darrow. Clarence humiliated Bryan by subjecting him to question after question, targeting the many miracles and inconsistencies of the Bible while Bryan testified unwavering to his strict beliefs. The judge ultimately threw out the testimony, but Bryan was embarrassed and was criticized throughout the nation for his behavior.
Darrow, along with his defense team, consisting of Dudley Field Malone and Arthur Garfield Hays, knew that because they were not allowed to introduce expert testimony and Bryan’s testimony was thrown out, there would be no way to win the case against a fundamentalist jury. To save face and not allow Bryan to fight back against the humiliating display, Darrow chose not to make a closing statement—in Tennessee, the law stated that the prosecution must also waive closing statements along with the defense.
John T. Scopes was convicted under the antievolution law, but the guilty verdict was later reversed by the Supreme Court of Tennessee on nonconstitutional technical grounds. Although Darrow was unsuccessful with this case, this led to other cases dealing with the unconstitutionality of the teaching of evolution. The “Monkey Trial” actually stimulated other states to pass anti-evolution laws, which had not been established before. This case was about the freedom of expression and the value of scientific evidence. The whole country knew that John T. Scopes broke the law, but the question was whether the law was just. And more important, was the law constitutional? In 1968, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that statutes prohibiting the teaching of Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution were unconstitutional because it violated the prohibition on the establishment of a state religion. Clarence Darrow died on March 13, 1938, but his legacy will remain because of his unwavering defense of those who would not be heard because of prejudice and bigotry.
- Boyle, K. (2004). Arc of justice: A saga of race, civil rights, and murder in the jazz age. New York: Henry Holt.
- Cowan, G. (1993). The People v. Clarence Darrow: The bribery trial of America’s greatest lawyer. New York: Time Books.
- Darrow, C. (1932). The story of my life. New York: Grossett’s Universal Library.
- Tierney, K. (1979). Darrow, a biography. New York: Fitzhenry & Whiteside.