ode to a hero: attorney for the damned (with thanks to jill lepore)

Clarence Darrow was one of my earliest heroes. I first encountered Darrow in the guise of Spencer Tracy, who portrayed the lawyer in the 1960 movie "Inherit the Wind". Darrow famously defended John Scopes, who tried to teach evolution in a Tennessee public school. His courtroom opponent was William Jennings Bryan, portrayed in the same movie by Frederic March. (In "Inherit the Wind," as was typical in those days, names were fictionalized. Darrow was called Henry Drummond and Bryan was called Matthew Harrison Brady. "Inherit the Wind" was originally a play, written by Jerome Lawrence and Robert Edwin Lee, who also wrote the screenplay. It has been adapted for film several times.)

Some years later, as a young teenager exploring ideas of atheism and agnosticism, I came upon this.
I don't believe in God because I don't believe in Mother Goose. - Clarence Darrow
A simple statement, maybe even simplistic, but it spurred a lot of thought for me. I wanted to know about the man who said this.

I discovered Darrow's life work was defending the poor from the rich, defending labour from oppression, and especially saving people from being murdered by the state under the guise of justice. Naturally, I loved this, and for a long while dreamed of becoming a defense attorney to do the exact same thing.

During those same years I stumbled on another fictionalized version of Darrow, in a novel called Compulsion, by Meyer Levin, about the Leopold and Loeb murder case, one of the most sensationalist trials of its time. The fictionalized account interested me enough to look into the actual case, and I discovered Darrow had defended two boys who had abducted, sexually assaulted and murdered a child. The public was clamoring for the electric chair (it didn't help that the murderers were rich and Jewish) and Darrow saved their lives.

Of course, with my interest in labour history, I started running into Darrow on a regular basis. In Big Trouble, a towering work of history by the late J. Anthony Lukas - one of my favourite nonfiction books, ever - there's a mini-biography of Darrow. He seemed to be one of those figures that would pop up wherever I looked.

* * * *

Many years later, I had a rare experience. I learned about the tarnish on my hero's shine, and it only made me admire him more.

Clarence Darrow, "Attorney for the Damned," would do anything to win a case. He would bend any rule to within an inch of its life, subject the legal system to interpretations wider than his bull-like broad shoulders. He was not above jury-tampering, lies, bribery, suborning perjury, or any other trick. Whatever it took, he would do. For Darrow, the ends justified the means, because the goal was saving a person's life.

It's a radical approach to defense, and I admire it deeply. It recognizes that the legal and judicial systems are tremendously biased, designed to protect the interests of the state, and often, the interests of property, of capital, of industry and corporations. The poor defendant is at an incalcuable disadvantage. "Playing by the rules" doesn't mean playing fairly.

In the cases Darrow agreed to represent, the state was often trying to set an example to deter further disobedience. Prosecutors were trying to score political points with the people who would get them elected, the captains of industry whose interests they maintained. But the defendant was fighting for her or his life. If the state lost, nothing much changed. If the defendant lost, he died.

As my politics and worldview grew and formed, my imagined kinship with Darrow deepened. After reading Sister Helen Prejean's Dead Man Walking, my opposition to capital punishment moved from conditional to absolute. And at some point I realized that I actually don't believe in nonviolence as an absolute dogma in liberation movements - that nonviolent resistance is important and often a good strategy, but there are times when it's not necessarily the best path. Darrow, too, believed that certain ends are to be achieved - or at least fought for - by any means necessary.

* * * *

Along with Frederic Douglass and Martin Luther King, Jr., Darrow was one of the US's greatest orators. His closing summations to juries read like manifestos or declarations. Closing statements would go on for hours. He spoke, always, without notes. He was also one of the country's most famous skeptics, who believed "doubt was the beginning of wisdom."

I recently read "Objection," a long magazine piece by writer and historian Jill Lepore. Lepore is (among other things) a staff writer at The New Yorker, and she writes about many subjects that interest me. Two books about Darrow were published last year, and Lepore wrote a nominal book review that is really an ode to my enduring hero.

The excellent piece is only available online by subscription. Ms. Lepore gave me permission to reprint a couple of paragraphs, so I'm trying to limit myself to that. If you're interested in Darrow, try to get your hands on this issue of The New Yorker (or ask me for the text).

"Objection" recounts the story of Darrow's defense of a labour organizer Thomas Kidd on charges of conspiracy. The charges were an attempt to criminalize union organizing.

In Oshkosh, Wisconsin, also known as "Sawdust City", workers turned out 400,000 doors a year for the Paine Lumber Company. After the men reported to work in the morning, the factory doors were locked, and remained locked, except for a lunch break, until the guards opened the door at dusk. For a 12-hour day, a grown man could expect to earn 45 cents. But lately many workers were earning much less, because they were children, often hired to replace their fathers, working with the same giant saws. Kidd and the workers sent a letter to the owner, George Paine, demanding "better wages, a weekly payday, the end of woman and child labour, and recognition of their union". Paine trashed the letter.

The workers of the Paine Lumber Company went on strike, and the governor of Wisconsin called in the National Guard. On June 24, 1898, "four companies of infantry, a battery of artillery, and a squadron of cavalry armed with rifles and Gatling guns" faced the workers outside the factory gates. The National Guard, mind you, had been formed specifically to deal with labour unrest. Their salaries were paid partly by industry. But guess what? In Oshkosh the guardsmen were sympathetic with the strikers. They were sent back to Milwaukee and the mills remained closed. The workers struck for 14 weeks.

Now the state of Wisconsin thought it had found a way to rid itself forever of worker unrest. Kidd was charged with conspiracy to destroy the Paine Lumber Company. The trial became a test case for labour versus capital.

Lepore walks the reader through Darrow's closing statement, which would have constituted a famous speech for any other man. Darrow recounts the facts of the case - did the accused make a speech, did he incite fellow workers to strike, did he write a letter calling on the company to change its ways - and dismisses each one as trivial.
No, Darrow didn't care about the facts; nor, for that matter, did he care about the case. He cared only about one question: "Whether when a body of men desiring to benefit their condition, and the condition of their fellow men, shall strike, whether those men can be sent to jail."

And then Darrow said to the jury, "I know that you will render a verdict in this case which will be a milestone in the history of the world, and an inspiration and hope to the dumb, despairing millions whose fate is in your hands." He had spoken for eight hours.

The Kidd trial may not have been a milestone in the history of the world, but it was a landmark in the Gilded Age debate about prosperity and equality. There were two ways of looking at what Darrow called "the great questions that are agitating the world today." Either wealthy businessmen like Paine and Pullman were ushering in prosperity for all or else the interests of the Paines and the Pullmans of the world were at odds with everyone else's interests. In Oshkosh, Darrow won that argument. The jury was out for fifty minutes. All three defendants were acquitted.

. . . .

After [his own trial and indictment, in 1910], Darrow left the labor movement. He went on to do his best work, speaking and writing against fundamentalism, eugenics, the death penalty, and Jim Crow. "America seems to have an epidemic of intolerance," he wrote. That's still true. And the Gilded Age debate about the right to strike did not end in Sawdust City, a century later, it's still going on. Just this past March, Scott Walker, the Republican governor of Wisconsin, signed a law making public-sector collective bargaining a crime.

"Gentlemen, the world is dark," Darrow told that jury in Oshkosh, "but it is not hopeless." After all, no attorney for the damned ever lacks for work.

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