Clarence Darrow: An Unapologetic Pessimist's Search for Truth
Legendary defense attorney for Leopold and Loeb, Scopes "Monkey" Trial was Allegheny alumnus
Clarence Darrow was a complicated man. He was both gruff and charismatic. He could be combative and difficult, yet was playful and witty. He was principled, but could be inconsistent. Central to his very existence was empathy and idealism, however he was consistently doubtful and cynical and intensely pessimistic — so much so that he gave public lectures defending pessimism.
His worldview didn't soften as he aged. "It's a pretty silly world, from wherever you look at it," he said near the end of his life. "If I were a young man, with life ahead of me, I think I'd chuck it all. The odds are too great against you."
That life for Darrow began in 1857 in Kinsman, Ohio, a quiet country village of about 400 near modern-day Pymatuning State Park. His parents, Amirus and Emily, had married and moved to Meadville, Pa. where his father attended Allegheny College with theological aspirations. After graduating, they moved back to Kinsman where Amirus made furniture and served as the village undertaker. They had eight children, the fifth being Clarence.
About an hour's drive from Erie. still stands the octagon-shaped house that the Darrows called home. Clarence remembered his childhood there fondly. It was a youth filled with reading, exploring, swimming, fishing, riding horses, and daily games of baseball. He liked to learn, but on his own terms, and found much of his schooling to be wasted time. When he was sixteen, the Darrows were struck by tragedy: Emily died from cancer. It profoundly affected the family and Darrow always stressed the influence of her "infinite kindness and sympathy."
Clarence Darrow's octagonal childhood home still stands about an hour away from Erie in Kinsman, Ohio — near modern-day Pymatuning State Park. Nyttend
That same year, Darrow enrolled at Allegheny College. When the Panic of 1873 (a financial crisis spurred by European investors selling off investments in American railroads) prevented him from going back, he returned home and dabbled in manual labor. He loathed it. He took a teaching job and studied law on his own, eventually attending University of Michigan's law school for one year. He returned home again and passed the bar exam.
"I had no money and no influential friends," Darrow recalled. He opened his first law practice in Andover, a few miles north of Kinsman. In 1880, he married family friend Jessie Ohl, and three years later their son Paul was born. The family soon moved to Ashtabula. While he was improving as a lawyer and an orator, his marriage was collapsing. In a private letter, he told Jessie that he understood she had never truly been in love with him and they had been too young to know any better. "I suppose neither of us are to blame for this," he wrote.
They divorced amicably in 1887. Jessie and Paul moved to Chicago. Darrow followed soon after. He took a job with the city and then with the railroads before his career trajectory shifted drastically when he represented union leader Eugene V. Debs, defending him against federal charges over organizing the Pullman Strike of 1894. For the next 15 years, Darrow practiced primarily as a labor lawyer. He irritated many in power, including Joseph Pulitzer who denounced him as a "misanthrope" and "hopeless cynic."
During these years, Amirus died. Paul enrolled at Dartmouth. Darrow also married again. Ruby Hammerstrom was a sharp, witty, and fashionable journalist, and she'd initially turned down his offer of courtship — after all, he was older, divorced, and had a reputation as a womanizer — but later came around to the idea, describing him as being "all ages" at once with a "boyish" charm and shyness. Ruby became an essential partner of his in every facet of his life.
After a bribery scandal nearly ended his career in 1912, Darrow shifted to criminal law. The courtroom became his pulpit and he vocally opposed capital punishment, keeping dozens off death row. He took on more and more criminal cases, many pro bono for people whose prospects seemed hopeless. His reputation as a "champion of the underdog" grew.
An Evolving Career
In 1925, his most remembered case made national headlines: the so-called "Scopes Monkey Trial." The openly agnostic Darrow defended Tennessee teacher John T. Scopes against charges of teaching evolution. Scopes was found guilty, but the sensationalized trial (and his own showmanship) made Darrow the most famous lawyer in the United States.
That same year, he traveled to Detroit to defend Dr. Ossian Sweet and his family against murder charges in another highly-publicized trial. The Sweets were arrested after defending their home from a white mob determined to terrorize them out of the neighborhood. Darrow, like his abolitionist parents, had always been passionate about issues of equality. He spoke out against segregation, mocked those against interracial marriage, and openly ridiculed the Ku Klux Klan. John Brown, no surprise, was a personal hero.
Darrow championed other causes too. He had long supported women's rights. He criticized Prohibition, calling it an "unmitigated humbug" and its supporters hypocrites who "enjoy making everyone else miserable." He attacked the growing eugenics movement, likening its following to a cult. He had little patience for perceived fools.
"Few people try to think," Darrow remarked. "Most of them deliberately chloroform themselves, lest a random thought might find lodgment in their brains."
Darrow in Erie
In 1926, at the height of his fame, Darrow was invited to Erie to lecture at the Elks Club on evolution. Tickets sold out quickly. This alarmed some. One local minister announced a "reply, review, and discussion" to Darrow's talk the following Sunday.
Darrow came at the invitation of Rabbi Max C. Currick of Erie's Eighth Street Temple. Currick had served in Erie since 1901 and was a respected member of the community, described by the Erie Daily Times as "a highly constructive citizen, interested in all projects for the public good." To curtail the criticism, he penned an op-ed explaining the invitation. "The answer is not hard," he wrote. "Clarence Darrow has been a valiant exponent of some of religion's main teachings ... He has dared to stand against the majority for what he holds to be justice and truth. Almost his entire record ... has been consistently an advocacy and defense of suppressed truth and oppressed right."
Darrow and Ruby arrived in Erie by train and they checked in at the Hotel Lawrence. An Erie Daily Times reporter accompanied them, describing Darrow as a "twenty minute egg," a term for someone tough and unsentimental. Before the lecture, Ruby set out more casual clothes for her husband to wear. "Oh, I'm not going to put on that soup and fish stuff," he told her. "They tell me they're regular folks here in Erie and I guess they'll accept me as I am."
The crowd was at capacity. Rabbi Currick introduced Darrow to the stage to applause. As he began speaking, he stood mostly in place with his thumbs hanging in his vest, occasionally fidgeting with his glasses, pointing an index finger for emphasis, and taking a sip of water.
The Erie Daily Times wrote that Darrow explained evolution with simple language, but refrained from making absolute claims. "His entire talk, while entertaining and replete with wit and humor … left none convinced that man descended from an ape," they wrote. Regardless, the audience response was positive.
A few days later, the Erie Daily Times printed a response from Reverend H.C. Shaw, who had attended the lecture. He wrote that it was "familiar and bookish" and a "rehash" of the Scopes trial that didn't contain "a single new thought." He called Darrow a sarcastic "iconoclast," comparable to "the heathen Goliath" whose "worst enemy would not accuse him of being handsome."
"Mr. Darrow was welcomed by his admirers in Erie as a conqueror," Shaw purported, then reminded readers that Darrow had lost the Scopes case. "Some folks have an exaggerated idea of scientific men. But they are just ordinary men who have studied science."
Shaw recalled an audience "shocked beyond measure" when Darrow said that man's ancestors "had roamed about the earth as vagabonds, clothed in nothing but sunshine and shadow." He said people didn't challenge evolutionists because scientists were "egotistic and presumptuous" and "intolerant and abusive."
An Agnostic Among Believers
Over the next few years, Darrow continued with his speaking engagements — partially out of financial necessity due to the economic depression. He returned to Erie in 1931 for a "Conference for Tolerance," described as "one of the most unique forums it has ever been Erie's privelege [sic] to witness." It was a series of lectures, not debates, with Darrow and three others: Rabbi Max C. Currick representing Judaism; sociologist Dr. John A. Lapp representing Catholicism; Dr. Bruce S. Wright, a former Erie minister, representing Protestantism; and Darrow explaining his agnosticism. Each presenter was allotted 30 minutes. There were not to be any rebuttals or rulings.
On the morning of the event, the four men met at the Hotel Lawrence. They arrived at the lecture hall that evening to over 2,500 in attendance. The lectures were reported as "brilliant and logical." Wright and Lapp were described as professor-like, talking "point by point, slowly without color." Wright wasn't planning to convert anyone, he said, as most people retain the religion of their parents. Protestantism though was "against all things which hinder the progress of civilization." Lapp explained that Catholics were extremely diverse and Catholicism transcended race, politics, and geography — but more than anything, they all strove to "love their neighbors and to be good to them."
Clarence Darrow, an agnostic, was invited to Erie to speak at the 1931 "Conference for Tolerance" at the Hotel Lawrence.
Currick was described as outstanding and the most compelling. He noted that he was, of course, born Jewish, but he embraced Judaism more spiritually as he aged. "As I grew older, I learned to look upon Judaism not only as a religion but as a way of life," he stated. He explained that humanity was progressing towards "justice, brotherhood, and peace" and Judaism provided "a prescription for the healing of the world's hurt."
The 74-year-old Darrow was described as gaunt with squinting eyes, a bit of stubble, and dark, slightly grayed hair. In his talk, he "appealed to the humor of the audience with a sparkling wit" and with "the showmanship of a Barnum." Still, the Erie Daily Times reported, he spent less time explaining agnosticism and more time mocking religion.
"No man who thinks for himself can believe in the stories of the Bible," declared Darrow. "They merely believe in it because they think they will be damned if they don't." He criticized religious leaders who fought scientific advances. "It is the death of wisdom," he stated. "Doubt and skepticism are the foundation of what we call civilization. The modern world is the child of doubt and inquiry."
Despite his hostility, he reminded the audience that he was agnostic. "I am not an atheist," he stated. "Atheism is too dogmatic. Man believes what he believes and can't help it. If I don't know, well, I don't know, and that's all there is to it." Not knowing didn't stop him from enjoying life. It didn't make him immoral. Everyone was agnostic about something, he contended, and anyone who claimed otherwise belonged "in the madhouse."
"There is only one way to live," Darrow concluded. "Live openly and freely, looking for the truth and the truth alone."
The audience was engaged over the two hours. While many clearly disagreed with Darrow, the paper noted that the audience responded to his humor. Another op-ed stated how many "openly deride his theories and arguments," but his sincerity was undeniable as "an intense lover of humanity, especially suffering humanity."
A Return to Kinsman
Darrow was given a ride to his old hometown of Kinsman the following day. He viewed his vacant boyhood home. He visited with companions, old and new. He wrote about these rare visits home with far more sentimentality than one might expect, but also noted that going home was always his "undoing." Each time, his playmates were increasingly "bent and gray and old." Each time, the cemetery included more familiar names.
Now in his seventies, Darrow retired from law, but he wrote and continued lecturing. He left his Chicago home less and less. He'd read and answer letters and visit with his three granddaughters, Jessie, Mary, and Blanche, as Paul lived only a block away. Still, his cynicism towards humanity swelled. He seemed despondent. The "almighty dollar," he proclaimed, had replaced religion in a society that had gone crazy. "Greed will ruin the world," he suspected. "There's plenty of wealth, but a rotten distribution of it. There's a tremendous supply of food everywhere and yet people are starving. It's all bughouse. I'll be glad to leave it."
In 1935, he told a reporter that he was waiting for death "without fear or enthusiasm," but throughout his long life had found no evidence of an afterlife. "I no longer doubt," he said. "I know now that there is nothing after death — nothing to look forward to in joy or in fear."
The Erie Daily Times printed an editorial defending the "old warhorse" against his own melancholy. It stated that Darrow had dedicated his life to fighting "desperate, last-ditch battles" for the less fortunate. "For underneath everything else, Darrow has been moved by a rich human sympathy, an understanding of erring humanity, and a warm desire to take the side of the man whom everybody is against," the editorial said. "[He] may think of himself as a blind and helpless pawn of chance, wandering under a starless sky. But somehow he hasn't acted like one. ... His life itself is the very stuff of which human hope remains."
Reflecting on his law career the following year, Darrow said that it had been horrible. "There is no such thing as justice — in or out of court," he remarked. Humanity loved vengeance, not justice. "At 20, a man is full of fight and hope. He wants to reform the world. When he's 79, he still wants to reform the world, but he knows he can't."
He returned to Kinsman once more. With the scenes of his childhood as the background, he visited, read, and contemplated — "mental whittling," as Darrow put it. "I cannot realize that I am old, and that the sun has so quickly passed from the morning over the meridian," he'd written. He now understood that life had no "hard-and-fast rules," that the line between right and wrong was rarely straight. "It is only our mistakes and failures and trials and sins that teach how really alike are all human souls," he said.
Darrow was bedridden not long after. Ruby, Paul, and a sister were by his side as he fell into a coma and slipped away into the great unknown. "He seemed to have no fear of death," his son later said.
Clarence Darrow was a complicated man, but for someone so full of doubt, a cynic, and an unapologetic pessimist, his words still periodically reverberated with a cautious optimism. "The best that we can do," he advised, "is to be kindly and helpful toward our friends and fellow passengers who are clinging to the same speck of dirt while we are drifting side by side to our common doom."
Jonathan Burdick runs the historical blog Rust & Dirt. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.