“He returned to Chicago a bankrupt and broken man.” It was March of 1913 and Clarence Darrow had just faced three of the most important trials of his life. The three scheduled trials were born from his defense of the politically radical McNamara brothers, guilty of firebombing the Los Angeles Times building.
Darrow had saved the brothers from the gallows but was himself indicted afterwards for jury tampering. F. Lee Bailey once said that “Any lawyer who represents himself has a fool for a client and an even bigger fool for a lawyer.” But Darrow delivered the closing arguments himself in the first trial and was acquitted. The second trial ended in a hung jury, and the third never happened.
Donald McRae narrates Darrow’s adventures in a captivating story that ranks on a par with Erle Stanley Gardner or John Grisham’s works. In this case, it’s not fiction. The Great Trials of Clarence Darrow: The Landmark Cases of Leopold and Loeb, John T. Scopes, and Ossian Sweet (2010) was previously published as The Last Trials of Clarence Darrow in 2009. Over fifty pages of notes and sources detail the references including diaries, private memoirs and unpublished biographies along with the usual publicly available data. Thus armed, McRae gives the reader a “behind-the-scenes” look through the eyes of several different characters.
A prominent character here is Mary Field Parton, a woman with whom Darrow was involved outside his marriage for many years. Much of the story is told from her point of view as the relationship was the foundation for Darrow’s emotional stability.
Clarence Darrow was also an author and in 1922 published what he considered his best and most radical work, Crime, Its Cause and Treatment. An underlying interest in promoting this book along with his insistence that “even the rich have rights” was part of what motivated him to become involved in the first of three successive trials that would each become known as “the trial of the century.”
Two bright sons of Jewish millionaires, a Tennessee school teacher, and a black medical doctor in Detroit were the defendants in three iconic legal thrillers that personified the transformation of the American dream into a nightmare. Frequently the press described Darrow’s speeches as “eloquent” or “logical” and in almost every case, “emotional”. He was able to bring all male juries to tears and evoke at least empathy if not sympathy for his obviously guilty clients.
Books and movies have been based on Darrow, his career, and his cases, but few are as thorough or more captivating as The Great Trials of Clarence Darrow: The Landmark Cases of Leopold and Loeb, John T. Scopes, and Ossian Sweet.