Clarence Seward Darrow was an American lawyer whose work as defense counsel in many dramatic criminal trials earned him a place in American legal history. He was also well known as a public speaker, debater, and miscellaneous writer.
Clarence Seward Darrow was born in the small town of Kinsman, Ohio, on April 18, 1857, the fifth son of Amirus and Emily Darrow (née Eddy). Darrow's father was an ardent abolitionist and a proud iconoclast and religious freethinker. He was known throughout the town as the "village infidel". Emily Darrow was an early supporter of female suffrage and a women's rights advocate. His mother died when he was fourteen.
As a child, Darrow hated formal schooling, but with his father's encouragement, he read widely from the extensive family library to educate himself.
He left his studies at Allegheny College after one year for lack of money. Darrow attended Michigan University Law School for only one year, where he again withdrew for lack of tuition.
After three years teaching in a rural one-room schoolhouse and one year at the Michigan University Law School, Darrow was admitted to the Ohio bar in 1878.
Darrow practiced for nine years in Ohio, at Andover and Ashtabula, and then moved to Chicago, Ill.
At 37 he became counsel for the Chicago and North Western Railway and was on his way to becoming a wealthy corporation lawyer when Eugene V. Debs called a strike of his newly formed American Railway Union.
He defended William D. Haywood and other members of the Western Federation of Miners, charged with the murder by bomb of Frank R. Steunenberg, former governor of Idaho; in this case (Boise, Idaho, 1905 - 1907) he documented the conspiracy between industry and local government to victimize workers.
Destitute and discredited, Darrow returned to Chicago, where he slowly built a new private practice and began a new career, which again made him famous.
In 1924 he defended Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb in the murder of Bobbie Franks and was able to save them from the death sentence.
Opposed by William Jennings Bryan, in 1925 he defended John T. Scopes in the celebrated trial involving a Tennessee law against the teaching of evolution.
He fought segregation and intolerance in the Sweet case in Detroit in 1926 and in the Scottsboro case in 1932.
In the intervening years he has become a folk hero, the subject of novels and plays, and the inspiration of an important segment of the contemporary American bar.
Thanks to Darrow, labor was again vindicated over opponents in government and industry.
But the cost to Darrow was considerable.
His legal fees from the union had already been spent, and he suffered from an acute ear infection.
When he returned to Chicago, the financial crash of 1907 had wiped out all of his savings, and he returned to his law practice. Darrow reluctantly entered the limelight again in 1911, when he agreed to defend the accused in what newspapers called the crime of the century.
Darrow wrote a number of books, including A Persian Pearl and Other Essays (1899); Farmington (1904), an autobiographical novel; Crime, Its Cause and Treatment (1925); The Prohibition Mania (with Victor S. Yarros, 1927); Infidels and Heretics (with Walter Rice, 1927); and The Story of My Life (1932).
Books about Darrow include Irving Stone's Clarence Darrow for the Defense (1941).
As part of a public symposium on belief held in Columbus, Ohio, Darrow delivered a speech, later titled "Why I Am An Agnostic", on agnosticism, skepticism, belief, and religion. In the speech, Darrow thoroughly discussed the meaning of being an agnostic and questioned the doctrines of Christianity and the Bible. He concluded that "the fear of God is not the beginning of wisdom. The fear of God is the death of wisdom. Skepticism and doubt lead to study and investigation, and investigation is the beginning of wisdom. "
"I do not consider it an insult, but rather a compliment to be called an agnostic.
I do not pretend to know where many ignorant men are sure—that is all agnosticism means. "
American Civil Liberties Union
In April 1880 Darrow married his childhood sweetheart Jessie Ohl. They had one child, Paul Edward Darrow in 1883. Divorced in 1897, he married Ruby Hamerstrom, a Chicago newspaper journalist in 1903. She was 16 years his junior. This second marriage for Darrow lasted for the rest of his lifetime but produced no children.