Clarence Darrow was easily the most famous lawyer in America in the Twentieth Century. He practiced law in Ashtabula County from 1878 to 1887. His most famous trials have been dramatized on stage and screen. The Scopes A Monkey Trial became Inherit the Wind, starring Spencer Tracy as the Clarence Darrow character. The Leopold and Loeb trial was dramatized as Compulsion and was a stage play before being made into a film. Darrow has been played on stage and screen by some of America's most famous actors, such as Spencer Tracy, Henry Fonda, Paul Muni, and Edward Asner.
Darrow was born in 1857 in Kinsman, Trumbull County, Ohio, the son of Amirus and Emily Darrow. His parents were drawn to each other by their shared love of learning and independent thought. Amirus Darrow was an ardent abolitionist and Emily Darrow an early supporter of female suffrage and a woman's rights advocate. Amirus Darrow was expelled from Allegheny College in Meadville, Pennsylvania, and later continued his studies at a Unitarian Theological College.
Amirus Darrow was a known supporter of the abolitionist, John Brown. Brown mustered his men for the raid on Harpers Ferry in 1859, in the Andover area, only a few miles from the Darrow home in Kinsman. Clearly, his parents had a great influence on Clarence Darrow, who in his later life, as a social activist, would be a champion of minorities, representing the NAACP, and organized labor.
Clarence Darrow attended Allegheny College but left after one year and taught school. He showed an interest in the study of law and, thereafter, attended law school at the University of Michigan for one year. Michigan had a two year law program at that time. He did not show great promise as a law student and he returned home. He then began studying law in the office of a lawyer whose name is lost to history. He appeared before a committee of the bar in Youngstown, Ohio, and gained admission to the practice of law in 1878. Darrow felt that Youngstown, population 20,000, was too big for him and he decided to practice law in the small village of Andover, a farming community about fifteen miles from his boyhood home in Kinsman. His early law practice involved disputes over horse trades, boundary lines, actions in replevin, tort, and an occasional criminal complaint. It seems that many of the criminal cases involved either the sale of liquor or the watering of milk. The liquor cases often involved farmers selling hard cider or adding water to their milk in order to increase the volume for sale.
Darrow married Jessie Ohl, who was the daughter of a prosperous family in the Kinsman area. His father-in-law loaned him the money to purchase his law books and Darrow and his wife lived in a small apartment over a shoe store, which also doubled as his law office. He found that he made less as a lawyer than he made as a school teacher. He briefly shared his practice with a young lawyer named James Roberts. Roberts stole Darrow's law books and disappeared, never to be heard from again. Shortly thereafter, Darrow associated with another lawyer, J.S. Morley, and moved to more impressive quarters in Andover.
In those days being an orator was considered essential to a successful lawyer. Darrow gave the Memorial Day address in Andover in 1883 and 1884. He also became involved in politics and was secretary of the Ashtabula County Democratic Convention and was elected as a district delegate. He was an ardent free trader and supported Grover Cleveland's campaign for election in 1884. His own tries for political office met with mixed results. In 1885, he ran for the State Senate and was defeated. In 1886, he ran for Ashtabula County Prosecutor and again was defeated.
He soon found his ambitions exceeded the small town of Andover and he decided to relocate his law practice to Ashtabula, which was then a city of 5,000 people. He was elected City Solicitor, which paid $75.00 per month and allowed him enough free time to take cases on the side. While serving as Ashtabula City Solicitor, he shared cases with another lawyer whose name was Charles Lawyer, Jr. Charles Lawyer was the son of a physician in the Andover area. Both Darrow and Lawyer started their legal careers in Andover and when Darrow left for Ashtabula, Lawyer moved to Jefferson. Lawyer later went on to a successful political career, being elected Ashtabula County Prosecutor and State Senator. Darrow defended indigent defendants and was paid $32.50 for his services. In one celebrated divorce case, Darrow's client, the wife, had sued her husband for divorce on the grounds of gross neglect and extreme cruelty and nearly one hundred witnesses testified. The wife received alimony in the sum of $1,200.00.
Darrow was a passionate man and did not believe in dispassionate advocacy. As he said AI have unconsciously and perhaps consciously tried to make life worthwhile by seeking to workout my strongest emotions. His best known Ohio case, Brockway vs. Jewell, 52 Ohio 187 (1894), was an example of his principles over his pocketbook and involved an action to recover a harness with gilt trimmings with a value of $25.00. The case involved the alcoholic son of a prosperous family, who failed to pay for a harness that he promised to a boy, Darrows client, who had looked after the man when he was ill. The case was first tried before a Justice of the Peace, where Darrow lost and an appeal was taken to the Court of Common Pleas with a jury trial. Darrow won the jury trial but it was appealed and reversed, tried again before the JP Court and then appealed to the Common Pleas Court where Darrow won the second jury trial. Darrow was successful in an appeal to the Ohio Supreme Court, however, eight years had elapsed from the time of the first trial in JP Court to his success in the Ohio Supreme Court. By that time, Darrow had moved to Chicago but he came back to argue his case before the Supreme Court. It appears that Darrow had been paid a total of $5.00 by his client and underwrote the costs of the subsequent trials and appeals out of his own pocket.
While in Ashtabula, Darrow became friends with Amos Hubbard, the cashier with the Farmers National Bank, and who advised him to read Henry George's Progress and Poverty, which had an enormous influence on Darrow. Darrow credited Hubbard with giving him insight into the radical political doctrines of the day. Judge Richards of the Ashtabula Police Court brought Darrow's attention to a book by John Peter Altgeld of Chicago, Illinois, who wrote Our Penal Machinery and its Victim. Altgeld was considered one of the Progressives and free thinkers of his time. Later, Darrow would meet him and come under his influence when he moved to Chicago.
As a Democrat in Republican Ashtabula County, Darrow was in the minority. However, his fame as a speaker caused him to be invited to speak on topics of the day. On October 3, 1884, he addressed a packed house at Smith's Opera House in Ashtabula, where he debated the free trade policies of Grover Cleveland verses the protectionist policies of the Republican party. Despite being an ardent Democrat, one of Darrow's early patrons was Judge Laban Sherman who, although a Republican, used his influence in helping Darrow secure his position as Ashtabula City Solicitor.
Most of the cases tried by the lawyers in those days were before Justices of the Peace. He described the trials as being filled with color, life and wits. People took sides between the contending parties and their lawyers. Darrow described neighborhoods, churches, lodges, and entire communities divided over lawsuits as if in war. Sometimes the cases were tried in town halls as the office the Justice of the Peace was not large enough to accommodate the interested spectators.
In Ashtabula, Darrow indulged in his passion of poker, finding a game in progress almost anytime, day or night. Darrow described the poker games as follows: AWith congenial companions, a deck of cards and a box of chips, and a little something to drink, I could forget the rest of the world until the last white bone had been tossed into the yawning jack pot.
But his favorite sport was baseball and he loved to play until age and infirmities caught up with him. One of the great moments of his life was hitting a home run for the Kinsman Town Team and winning the game.
Darrow left Ashtabula for Chicago in 1887. He said he became angry when the sale of a house from a local dentist failed to go through because the dentist's wife felt that Darrow would not be able to pay the $3,500.00 purchase price, although Darrow had made a $500.00 down payment. She felt he'd never earn enough to pay the balance due. At that point, Darrow supposedly declared he didn't want the house anyway, because he was going to move away. Shortly thereafter, he made his move to Chicago and later became associated with many of the progressive thinkers of that era. His talent as an orator, sharpened in debates in Ashtabula, was recognized as he took part in the various debating associations and discussion groups in Chicago. At the urging of his now mentor, Altgeld, he became Assistant Corporation Counsel for the City of Chicago. In just a short time, Darrow had gone from being Ashtabula City Solicitor to Corporation Counsel for the City of Chicago, and thus setting the stage for his brilliant legal career.
Even though he represented the railroads, his heart belonged to the downtrodden and the social outcasts. Darrow was initially involved in another landmark case of the twentieth century, the Scotsboro Boys: five black teenagers who were accused of raping two white girls in Alabama. It was feared that Darrow's well known atheism would pose a problem to the defense. Disputes concerning who would control the defense of the Scotsboro Boys caused Darrow, who was seventy-five years old at the time, to get out of the case.
Clarence Darrow died on March 13, 1938, and his memorial service was held at the chapel at the University of Chicago. It is ironic that his eulogy was delivered by a close friend, Judge Holly, who read the text of the same eulogy Darrow had given forty years earlier at the death of Darrow's patron, John Altgeld.
Of his eighty years on this earth, Clarence Darrow spent ten of them practicing law in Ashtabula County. It was here where he developed his oratorical skills. He decided not to be just another conservative country lawyer and moved on to Chicago, where he gained fame in some of the famous trials in American history. While there have been other famous cases and famous lawyers since Clarence Darrow, no one has occupied the prominent role that he played on the legal stage as a lawyer and social activist.
Author: JUDGE ALFRED W. MACKEY
Ashtabula County Court of Common Pleas
August 17, 2001