Clarence Darrow Poetry
compiled from various sources
by Michael R. Burch
This page contains poems written about Clarence Darrow, the famous American
lawyer, by his law partner Edgar Lee Masters, who was a well-known poet. The
page also contains biographical information about Darrow gleaned from his
Wikipedia page and other Internet sources.
by Edgar Lee Masters
This is Darrow,
Inadequately scrawled, with his young, old heart,
And his drawl, and his infinite paradox
And his sadness, and kindness,
And his artist sense that drives him to shape his life
To something harmonious, even against the schemes of God.
Darrow II (unpublished)
by Edgar Lee Masters
This is a man with an old face, always old ...
There was pathos, in his face, and in his eyes.
The early weariness; and sometimes tears in his eyes,
Which he let slip unconsciously on his cheek,
Or brushed away with an unconcerned hand.
There were tears for human suffering, or for a glance
Into the vast futility of life,
Which he had seen from the first, being old
When he was born.
Clarence Seward Darrow (1857–1938) was an American lawyer and a leading member
of the American Civil Liberties Union. He is best known for defending teenage
thrill killers Leopold and Loeb in their trial for murdering 14-year-old Robert
"Bobby" Franks, for defending Ossian Sweet, and for defending a Tennessee
teacher accused of teaching evolution in the Scopes "Monkey Trial." Called a
"sophisticated country lawyer", Darrow was notable for his compassion, eloquence
and wit, which combined to make him one of the most famous American lawyers and
According to John A. Farrell, author of Clarence Darrow: Attorney for the
Damned, "He was tall for his time. Before he put on weight, he had a look
of a young Lincoln which certainly was no handicap in Illinois and Chicago where
he practiced. He was, he had what one woman admirer called the beauty of the
devil, which is a French term meaning that he wasn't classically handsome. He
had leathery skin and such, but he had an overwhelming charisma. He had big
shoulders that if you go back through all the historical records you find that
they're always talking about him, tossing his shoulders back and forth. They
were so big that his wife had to order hats especially made to sort of counter
balance the bulk of the upper body." Farrell also described Darrow as "the free
love movement in Chicago."
Clarence Darrow exists most prominently in the public memory as he was portrayed
by Spencer Tracy in the 1960 movie Inherit the Wind. That film was based on Darrow's 1925 defense of
John T. Scopes, a Tennessee educator accused of
teaching evolution in public schools in violation of a state law. Darrow lost The State of Tennessee v. Scopes, or the "monkey trial," as it was
known; however, the law was later repealed.
The following question and answer session appeared on Smithsonian.com with the
byline of T. A. Fail:
Before Darrow became the champion of labor, proponent of the poor and defender
of the most hopeless of death-row cases, he was a corporate lawyer—and for a
railroad, no less. What turned him away from a career as a fat cat?
He couldn't look at himself in the mirror. He was at heart one of the most
compassionate people you could imagine meeting, and that part of him was always
at war with the striver, the go-getter. But whenever the chips came down, they
always came down on the side of the guy who needed a good lawyer. Depending on
how he was fixed at any given time, a third to a half of his cases he was
handling for free for indigent clients. He didn't charge big fees for his most
notorious clients if there was a good cause behind it. It was just conscience,
basically, that forced him to give up that job as counsel for the Chicago &
North Western Railway. He was also prompted by his boss, his patron at the
railroad, who had a sudden heart attack and died, so Darrow's decision was
helped along by the fact that he no longer had a career there."
He operated for a while as a political lawyer in Chicago when the words
"politics" and "Chicago" were pretty much synonymous with "graft" and
"corruption." How did he avoid the taint of that time and place?
He didn't, entirely. He got involved in several of the scandals of the time, but
even crooked politicians need a good lawyer, and sometimes the law is applied in
courts that are straight. So there was a respect for Darrow among the political
boys for his ability to actually get things done, to run things, while they
pursued their tricks and their deals. At the same time he was an idealist, and
in fact one of the movers in the attempt by the Populists to spread their
campaign from the farms, where it was born, to the cities.
Of course, William Jennings Bryan became Darrow's most famous foil during the
monkey trial. Yet the two men were aligned in the 1896 presidential campaign.
What brought them together, however briefly?
You had the growth of the Populist movement—a widespread feeling out in the West
and Midwest that the financiers of the East were using the gold standard to keep
the average farmer and the average working man in poverty. For the first time,
in Chicago in 1896 [at the Democratic National Convention], you had a major
party declare that it was going to represent the poor. That was Bryan's amazing
feat of political rhetoric: he was this young, unknown congressman and he stood
up there and he captivated that convention hall and brought the Populists and
the Democrats together.
Darrow was part of that same movement, but he never particularly cared for Bryan
as a person. He thought Bryan was too religious and basically too stupid to lead
a major party, and it really grated on him that Bryan got the presidential
nomination three times. So their rivalry began to simmer and fester, and when
Darrow had a chance to ambush Bryan in the courtroom in Dayton, Tennessee, in
1925, he took full advantage of it.
In Darrow's day there was open warfare between labor and capital. He stepped
into that war in a major way in Idaho in 1907, when he defended Big Bill Haywood
and two other unionists charged with murdering a former governor. You write
that, "Of all of Darrow's courtroom speeches, his summation in the Haywood case
was arguably the most brilliant, and dangerous." In what way brilliant, and in
what way dangerous?
It's brilliant in its eloquence. In those days attorneys and prosecutors could
speak for up to 12 hours, or even longer—Darrow, in the Leopold and Loeb case,
spoke for three days. The Haywood summation is long, and to the modern ear it
tends to wander, but you have to think of him standing in the courtroom and
speaking to the jury, and going back and forth over his major themes like a
weaver. That speech is amazing, for his ability both to tear apart the
prosecution's case and to draw from the jurors—who were not union men, but were
working men—an appreciation for what labor was trying to do.
It was extraordinarily dangerous because he was using a plea for a client as a
soapbox. He made a very political speech, talking in almost socialistic terms
about the rights of the working class, and there was a danger that the jury
would react against that—as one of his juries later did in Los Angeles. But it
was a very small courtroom and the defense table was right up against the
jurors; over the course of 90 days he got a very good sense of who they were,
talking during breaks, listening to them, watching them as they listened to the
testimony. I think it was an informed bet he was willing to make.
In that trial, there was a whisper that Darrow, or someone working for the
defense, tried to bribe potential witnesses. And after he defended two brothers
accused of firebombing the Los Angeles Times in 1911, Darrow himself was
tried—twice—on charges that he'd bribed jurors in that trial. He was acquitted
the first time, but the second case ended with the jury hung 8-4 for convicting
him. So: Did he do it?
In the book I argue that he almost certainly did. It's going to be a puzzle for
historians forever; I don't think we're ever going to find one piece of paper on
which Darrow wrote to one of his cohorts, "Hey, did you make sure you got the
juror that bribe?" But all the evidence indicates—well, there certainly was an
attempt by the defense to bribe jurors; the question is, to what extent did
Darrow know about it and to what extent did he actually inspire it? One of the
most compelling things for me was to find in his mistress's diary from years
later that she concluded he had the capacity to do it. She had been his most
faithful supporter and had insisted on his innocence.
He was very careful in talking to his friends and family about the charges. He
never actually said, "I didn't do this." He pled not guilty, but he believed
that guilt was always a matter of motive and intent. And in this case he thought
he had a good motive and a good intent because he was fighting for labor.
Darrow grew up on a hardscrabble farm in Ohio and told his friend Jane Addams,
"I have never been able to get over the dread of being poor, and the fear of
it." But he had a pretty complicated relationship with money, didn't he?
He did, and it got him into a lot of trouble. His law partner for a time was
Edgar Lee Masters, the famous poet, and Masters said it was the money that
ruined him. And Darrow did need money, because, for one thing, he was a
womanizer. He was supporting two households—his first wife and their son, and
then his second wife. It also cost money to run around chasing other women.
Another problem is that he was an awful investor. His second wife, Ruby, once
wrote to one of his sisters and said, well, Clarence's new idea is for a ranch
in California, and I guess that's better than an empty or gold mine or any of
the other crackpot schemes he always jumps at. One of the sadder things about
his life is that he finally got his money into a sound natural-gas company in
Colorado, and when he sold his interest in the 1920s he had enough money to
retire. And then he lost it all in the crash, so he had to go out in his 70s
making speeches and public appearances and doing stunts like defending Benedict
Arnold on the radio, just to keep the wolf away from the door.
And speaking of complicated relationships: as you said, Darrow was twice married
and a serial philanderer. What was up between Darrow and women?
There is a philosophical consistency, in that he was an advocate of the
free-love movement of his day. In Victorian America the times were so
repressive, particularly for women. One of Darrow's clients was a well-respected
gynecologist from Chicago who wanted to write in the American Medical
Association journal that it was okay to have pleasure from sexual relations. The
other doctors in the AMA said no, we're not going to say anything like that; sex
is for procreation; it might be for pleasure if men can go to bordellos, but
certainly not for women at home. That's the kind of climate that the free-love
movement moved against, and Darrow was a supporter of it. As far as I can tell,
he was up front with his mistresses and the young ladies that he met in the
free-love cause, and they agreed that this was a natural inclination and you
shouldn't try to repress it.
Politically, he was a very early feminist; he argued in the 1880s for giving
women the vote. But later he soured on the suffragette movement because it
aligned itself with Prohibition, which he hated. He didn't speak or campaign
against giving women the vote, but there was a marked loss of enthusiasm for
what he had thought would be a very good thing for the country.
Darrow loved the company of friends and the balm of candid conversation, but at
times some of his friends questioned his choice of cases and causes. Why?
There was a feeling, at least up until the trial in Los Angeles, that he was
motivated by money, that he saw the opportunity for a very skilled labor lawyer
and took it. You find newspaper editorials and people saying, for somebody who's
talking about the cause of labor, he sure is making a lot of money off the poor
working man. But after Los Angeles and his disgrace, he had a second act, and it
was redemptive. He represented an awful lot of indigent clients and took a lot
of civil rights cases. The two major cases of his career came when he was in his
60s—the Leopold and Loeb case and the monkey trial. Also his defense in the
Sweet trial, which is the key in deciding whether you like him or not.
After the monkey trial he was without a doubt the most famous trial lawyer in
America. He could have commanded titanic fees from any corporation in America;
they would have loved to have him. And instead, he used his fame to go to
Detroit and represent for $5,000 over nine months a group of African Americans
who had been trapped in a house by a racist mob at a time when the city was
whipped into a hateful frenzy by the Ku Klux Klan. [The homeowner, an African
American physician named Ossian Sweet, had just bought the house in a white
neighborhood; when the mob stoned his house, some men in the house returned fire
with guns, killing a white neighbor. The 11 men in the house were charged with
He got them acquitted in an amazing trial that basically put down in law
something we take for granted today—that if we believe a person has the right to
defend his home, then African Americans have that right, too. Darrow was a
founding attorney for the NAACP, and this was a big case for the NAACP. So
that's how he chose to invest all the fame and potential riches he could have
had after his triumph in Dayton, Tennessee.