Before the twentieth century was three decades old, there had already been at least three trials of the century, and Clarence Darrow was the lead attorney for the defense in all three of them: the thrill kill trial of Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb, the Scopes’ “monkey trial,” and perhaps the less well-known trial of Dr. Ossian Sweet and others for murder in a Detroit racial incident. These are the three trials that make up the bulk of Donald McRae’s The Last Trials of Clarence Darrow, and this fact is both the book’s strength and its weakness. While it is true that the detailed stories of the each of the trials make for fascinating reading in and of themselves, it is also true that each one has been written about numerous times. There is little that is new to say about them.
Indeed there are recent excellent books on all of them. John Theodore’s Evil Summer: Babe Leopold, Dickie Loeb, and the Kidnap-Murder of Bobby Franks (2007) is a comprehensive study of that case. Edward Larson’s Summer for the Gods: The Scopes Trial and America’s Continuing Debate Over Science and Religion (1997) is an exhaustive study of the Scopes trial. Kevin Boyle’s Arc of Justice: A Saga of Race, Civil Rights, and Murder in the Jazz Age (2004) provides an intensive look at the Sweet case. McRae’s book goes over most of the same ground in much less detail, while focusing his attention on Darrow’s role.
It is not that the other books fail to do recognize Darrow’s importance — they certainly do. It is more that they don’t make it the central concern of their narrative. They are all as much interested in the social and intellectual contexts of the trials as they are with the details of the cases. For McRae, it too often seems that the trials are more about Clarence Darrow than anything else. For readers unfamiliar with the three trials, McRae provides most of the significant information; for readers who want a more exhaustive account, the other books would be more likely to suit their needs.
The Leopold and Loeb case is one of the earliest examples of what has come to be called a “thrill kill” murder. The two young men, both from wealthy socially prominent Chicago family, cold-bloodedly chose a victim for kidnapping and murder simply to put into practice their deluded understanding of the ideas of Frederich Nietzsche. They were caught red-handed, and Darrow was hired to save them from hanging. The Scopes trial is, of course, the famous case in which Darrow defended the teaching of evolution in Tennessee. The Sweet case involved a black doctor and his family, who purchased a house in a white neighborhood in Detroit. When they and a small group of relatives and friends were threatened by an angry mob of whites on their second night in the house, a shot was fired, and a member of the mob was killed. Darrow was hired to help with the NAACP.
What McRae does might best be described as “pop” history. He uses his source material as a novelist might, rather than as one would expect from a scholarly historian. Hardly a page goes by where he doesn’t characterize people’s thoughts and feelings, based on accounts they later gave or stories in the news. A juror gives a verdict in “a ragged cry.” A psychiatrist speaks “with a semblance of awe.” An attorney rises to his feet “angrily.”
This sort of emotional characterization may attract some readers, but it does lend itself to melodrama. Indeed, McRae does tend to indulge himself in the melodramatic. After the Scopes trial, for example, Darrow “was about to be plunged, one last time, into the depth of an American nightmare.” At the end of the Leopold-Loeb trial, Darrow closes his fist “in triumph. He had won. Compassion had overcome vengeance. Leopold and Loeb had escaped death. He had won.” McRae is fond of the rhetorical flourish.
Running through his accounts of the trials, there is interspersed the story of Darrow’s relationship with Mary Field Parton. Parton was something of a writer and journalist. She and Darrow had been intimate in Los Angeles when he had been practicing labor law, and she had helped him when he was put on trial for jury tampering, one of the darkest periods of his life. When she understood that he was never likely to leave his wife, she married and had a child. But just before the Leopold-Loeb trial, he asked her to come to Chicago, and they remained in contact through the rest of his life.
McRae is able to add a good bit of new information about their relationship based on Parton’s letters and journals, a relationship which he feels is much more important than has been previously recognized. However, since we are really only shown one side of the story, it is really very difficult to come to any conclusion about the accuracy of that conclusion. How certain can a reader be about Darrow’s feelings? He was, perhaps, a womanizer. McRae points out that he often made passes at the pretty women attracted by his celebrity. Still, for whatever reason, he didn’t leave his wife. Mary did marry, and, according to McRae, she did love her husband. One has to wonder.
If he doesn’t really break new ground, if he does overdo the prose every once in awhile, McRae does write an eminently readable book about one of the most fascinating personalities of the last century, a man who spent his life battling for many of the liberal causes that are still being fought over today.