Clarence_DarrowThere is more to Clarence Darrow than I thought.

As the old story goes, the famous litigator slyly distracted juries with his cigar. He supposedly threaded a thin wire through the cigar to keep the burning ashes from falling. Enthralled juries would watch the ashes with anticipation instead of listening to the opposing counsel. True or not, the story has longevity for every negative attorney stereotype. Darrow’s most famous cases – The Scopes Monkey Trial and the murder trial of Leopold and Loeb – are noteworthy for their fame and sensationalism. For these bits of trivia, I quickly dismissed Darrow in my early days of studying speeches.

The other famous case, Leopold and Loeb, is strikingly perverse. Two college students tried to commit the perfect crime by killing a boy. Darrow defended them by citing their infatuation with Nietzsche, the popularity of violence in the war-time heroics of the day, and the boys’ immersion in detective fiction. Replace detective fiction with video games, and Leopold and Loeb are troubled goth teens wearing trench coats and shooting up Columbine, Sandyhook, or Virginia Tech.

Since pop culture then and now cannot be blamed for school shootings, Darrow is easily dismissed even though his closing statement for the Leopold and Loeb trial articulated a foundational position against capital punishment, and established a major legal argument about the psychological defense for criminal behavior. The case later served as the basis for the Hitchcock move Rope, which certainly added to its historical significance as entertainment more than substance. The scandalous trial, the story’s mark on popular culture, and the speculation that followed Leopold and Loeb throughout their lives make it worth the Wikipedia read if anything. Clarence Darrow was a great legal mind and a skillful notoriety chaser.

But then there’s the problem of Eugene Debs.

Darrow defended Debs, the only American Communist (sic) ever mentioned in high school history. That case was substantive, but also a form of political ambulance chasing. Or at least to a naive college student like me, without a lick of sense, who looked at the whole through the lens of the other two infamous cases.

Darrow did so much more, I learned this week. He was a progressive through and through, working for labor, prison reform, social reform, an ally for women and people of color. He was even a central figure in forming the NAACP. The three most notorious cases make sense in light of this political work. They all point to the weight of institutional and structural influences over individual choices and and behaviors. Leopold and Loeb had wealth, but they also suffered from psychological problems caused by institutions that merited remedy by institutional policy change. Teaching evolution in school isn’t just a constitutional matter, evolution itself is a scientific principle that structures man’s destiny, and labor is all about the institutions and structures of working life. Of course, if you look at the sum of Darrow’s work, the point is obvious.

Darrow was quite the character. The quote circulating the internet, from the New York Times, says he had a “wicked zest and mordant humor.” Snopes is iffy on the cigar story, but it’s a tale worth preserving if only to remind us that sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.

Some links:

A timeline of Darrow’s legal cases with good explanations:

Darrow’s essay on criminality. An interesting read. He starts by describing the mind, particularly the criminal mind, as a telephone. Applying the old-style sender-receiver model or transmissional model of communication to criminals is fascinating.

An introductory chapter to a book on Darrow:

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