The Enduring Legacy of Clarence Darrow

Adam Gravano


With only a meager political career, a jury bribing scandal that almost destroyed his legal career (and life), and a “trial of the century” every few years in recent memory, it is by no means obvious that Clarence Darrow should occupy a place in the pantheon of American historical figures. Few lawyers have achieved Darrow's fame, especially not while in the second act of their career, as most of Darrow's most well-known cases were fought when he was in his 60s.


The arc of Clarence Darrow's life could easily be made into a movie, although, of his greatest trials, each on its own is replete with the drama and moral arc we might expect from Hollywood at its best. In fact, there have even been attempts to adapt Darrow's greatest trials for the stage, efforts which, doubtless, would have made this often fame-seeking lawyer happy. Be it Kevin Spacey's one-man show, Darrow, or Inherit the Wind, or even Malice Aforethought, Arthur Beer's theatrical adaptation of the Sweet trials, Darrow's most notable trials have provided fodder for high drama. Perhaps the thought would've made the lawyer, who had a taste in literature and poetry, quite happy.


It's possible to say that the action in The State of Tennessee vs. John Thomas Scopes (1925) didn't start with the passage of the Butler Act but, instead, with the first meeting between Darrow and William Jennings Bryan at the 1896 Democratic presidential campaign. Darrow had blamed Bryan for the party's loss, telling him to “quit this village religious stuff” and “You're the leader of a party before you are ready and a leader should lead with thought.” Strong words from a man who, according to some reports, had once been impressed with Bryan's “Cross of Gold” speech.


A less personal view would see the key acts in the conflict begin much later. First, when John Washington Butler sponsored a bill forbidding “any teacher in any of the Universities, Normals and all other public schools of the state which are supported in whole or in part by the public school funds of the State, to teach any theory that denies the Story of the Divine Creation of man as taught in the Bible, and to teach instead that man has descended from a lower order of animals.” Rather than sit idly by and let the nation be swallowed in a then rising tide of religious fundamentalism, the nascent American Civil Liberties Union decided to challenge the case, offering to pay the fine and any legal fees for anyone bold enough to challenge the law.



When some Dayton, Tennessee hucksters saw the marketing value for their town, they leapt on the offer, inviting the local science teacher John T. Scopes to immortality. While Darrow initially saw the case as a potential circus and thought to avoid it, as did the ACLU, which originally planned to hire former Supreme Court Justice and presidential candidate Charles Evans Hughes, he jumped in after the entry of Bryan and the stage was set for what would be a titanic showdown.


In the opening arguments, Darrow keenly attacked the indictment of Scopes for being too vague. While he also raised issues about freedom of religion (or from religion) and the place of science in the schools, focus on the indictment shows Darrow was approaching the legal issues as well as the sociopolitical ones: “A man is held to answer for a specific thing and he must be told what that specific thing is before he gets into court.” Although the trial was set to be a circus, with “You Can't Make a Monkey out of Me” merchandise, an army of tent preachers, and a big sign stating “Read Your Bible,” Darrow didn't plan on being the clown.


Much in the trial would seem unusual. A large portion of the trial took place with the jury out of the courtroom, while the prosecution and the defense argued over the admissibility of expert witnesses for the defense. After the experts' testimony was ruled against, Clarence Darrow almost earned himself a ruling of contempt of court. The court recessed for a weekend, the press went home, and the trial's finish seemed hopeless; when court was back in session, Darrow quickly found his way back into Judge Raulston's good graces and the defense called one of the prosecuting attorneys, William Jennings Bryan, to the stand. The examination is an item of trial law legend. It destroyed the political career of Bryan, and, due to his death shortly after, the newspapers also said it destroyed his life. It's well worth reading in its own right, and as you do, imagine a courtroom audience cheering as Bryan knows he's floundering with a broader audience. While the examination was purged from the court record, the record survives.


Few trials have so captured the American imagination as Scopes did. But a trial as important to Darrow, that he actually won, is the murder trial of a black doctor, Ossian Sweet. In 1925, Ossian Sweet and his wife moved into a white neighborhood in Detroit, Michigan. Through a range of unofficial and semi-official means, like conditions of purchase to only sell a house to a white family to maintain the racial makeup of a neighborhood, 1920s Detroit was a segregated city — even to a man who'd studied under the most advanced physicians in his field like Dr. Sweet.


When Dr. Sweet moved into his new home on Garland Avenue, he had already understood that the task in front of him would be quite difficult. Having grown up in Florida and having seen a man burnt to death by a lynch mob, he'd seen real prejudice; he knew intimately the mindset he was to be confronting by choosing to move into a white neighborhood. More pertinently, in the summer of 1925, another black physician, Dr. Alexander Turner, was forcibly removed from a recently purchased home in a white neighborhood: a mob of his potential neighbors swarmed his house, crashed through the door, and under threat of violence compelled Dr. Turner to sign over his house to a local “improvement” association. Regardless, pressed on by his wife and with hopes of providing a better home for their newborn child, the Ossian Sweet and his wife signed a nearly usurious contract to buy 2905 Garland Avenue.



In order to help with moving in and to keep his newly purchased house from being invaded, Dr. Sweet asked for the insurance company to send an employee and invited a few friends and relatives, including his two brothers, Otis, a dentist, and Henry, a college student. On their first night in the house, the Sweets experienced a pretty normal moving in, except at dusk when their neighbors gathered on their lawn. Rocks were thrown alongside vague promises to “get” the inhabitants. On the second night, the group was back. This time, they harassed Henry and his college friend as they made their way to the house. And, as rocks were being thrown at the house, a panicked Henry Sweet fired shots into the crowd, leaving one dead and another wounded.


Immediately, police closed in on the house, cordoning off the newly minted crime scene and arresting eleven of the house's inhabitants. As they left the house, the police van was almost tipped by the now enraged mob. As if to make matters worse, at the police station Henry Sweet confessed to the shooting.


Although Clarence Darrow preparing for the appeal of the Scopes Trial, he took the case along with one of his co counsels from Scopes, Arthur Garfield Hays. On the other side was Wayne County Prosecutor Robert Toms, and the judge was a young Frank Murphy.


Toms took a different strategy to other prosecutors in Darrow's past. Rather than giving Clarence Darrow motivation through mutual dislike, Toms was almost obsequiously polite to a man who, at this point, was just about a legend — albeit not for his legal reasoning but his command of jurors emotions.


Across the courtroom, Hays and Darrow had a different plan. They decided to focus on the definition of a mob, as that would enable them to recast the shooting as a defensive action. Once the jury was selected, the trial was on. Despite numerous efforts to say that only a handful of neighbors had gathered, the defense was able to cross-examine the truth out of Detroit's finest. Combined with efforts to highlight the ignorance and bigotry of the neighbors, in which a particular testimony over the proper pronunciation of Goethe stands out, one sees a mastery of witness handling.


Though the trial ended in a hung jury, Ossian Sweet was let off. He was put on trial a second time as the sole defendant. This time, Arthur Garfield Hays was called away on other business. Rather than try the case alone, Clarence Darrow called upon another attorney, one with a winning streak against Robert Toms. Thomas Chawke's name may not be listed high in the historical record, mainly because he had acquired a reputation as being a mob lawyer, but as far as courtroom skill went he had it in abundance. Hiring top flight attorneys wasn't alien to Darrow: in his own jury bribing trials in 1912, Clarence Darrow hired Earl Rogers, a fiery attorney who'd later serve as the basis for Erle Stanley Gardner's Perry Mason.



Chawke may have billed for more than Darrow, but he soon made up for it. Through his firm's investigation of potential jurors, three Klansmen were rooted out of the talesmen. While Chawke's reputation hung over the defense, it was no albatross. The second trial, for all its fireworks, ended in a verdict of not guilty.


The Sweet trials are perhaps a bit less known because of their result. Darrow did keep the Sweets from additional prison time; he also saved them from the gallows. Robert Toms would continue his career as a prosecutor, eventually fighting cases at the Nuremburg Trials; Frank Murphy would continue in politics, eventually making his way to the Supreme Court to pen a strong dissent in Korematsu vs. The United States (1942); and Thomas Chawke fought perhaps his most idealistic case. As far as the rest goes, though, Darrow's next cases are seen as disappointments. Which leaves us to the defendants themselves.


Gladys Sweet and Ossian's daughter both die of tuberculosis, likely contracted by Gladys while she was held in anticipation of the trial. Henry Sweet also dies of tuberculosis. Ossian Sweet kills himself in 1960 in the Garland Street house. Despite the best efforts of the best defense team money could assemble, Ossian Sweet was lynched over the course of years in a process which could have been described as a punishment.


Inside and outside of the courtroom, Clarence Darrow did the best he could to turn the America of his age into a more compassionate society. His victories — and some, like Scopes after it was quashed in the Tennessee Supreme Court, are moral victories — for science, racial equity, and civil liberties, still capture the imagination of our time and are freighted with cultural significance. While he always sought to be a novelist, his devotion to his practice made him something more than a literary talent: a larger-than-life character, as Lincoln Steffens would put it, the “attorney for the damned;” in other words, a folk hero who didn't just take cases for money and fame but their ability to show a way forward.


Author Bio:


Adam Gravano is a contributing writer at Highbrow Magazine.


For Highbrow Magazine

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