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Labor's Love Lost : THE PEOPLE VS. CLARENCE DARROW: The Bribery Trial of America's Greatest Lawyer, By Geoffrey Cowan (Times Books: $27.50; 546 pp.)

May 09, 1993|Sheldon M. Novick | Novick is a scholar in residence at Vermont Law School and the author of "Honorable Justice: The Life of Oliver Wendell Holmes" (Dell Publishing)

Clarence Darrow, now remembered mostly as the hero of the Scopes "Monkey" trial, dramatized in "Inherit the Wind," was famous in his own day as labor's lawyer. In 1911, after defending the McNamara brothers, union men who had bombed the Los Angeles Times building, he himself was tried for attempting to bribe a juror. Prof. Geoffrey Cowan, who says Darrow was a hero of his youth, has found much new material, if not much actual evidence, and has made up his mind that Darrow was guilty. To understand how Darrow could have done such a thing, he has tried to understand--and to make us understand--the context in which it was done. This makes the book more interesting and valuable than it might have been.

At the center of the tale is the Bridge and Structural Iron Workers Union. Times were hard, and construction firms avoided the union, cut wages and hired non-union workers, or subcontracted to non-union outfits. Finding that they were losing ground, in 1908, the Iron Workers began to plant bombs on construction sites where non-union workers were employed. This worked very well for a time. After 70 bombings, from 1908 to 1911, the Iron Workers had moved from being one of the lowest to one of the highest paid building trades.

There is not the slightest doubt about the bombings. Cowan, for all his sympathy for the union, sees no sign that state and federal prosecutors fabricated evidence: the Iron Workers had simply become a protection racket. But the union was a member of the American Federation of Labor, and in 1911, when the prosecutions of the union leadership began, Samuel Gompers, head of the AFL, sprang to their defense.

Gompers' advocacy signaled a general mobilization of organized labor. The relatively conservative and well-established AFL was joined by the newer, immigrant-based, industrial unions under the banner of the Industrial Workers of the World; the Socialist unions, and the Socialist Party, led by Eugene Debs; and by the anarchist leader Emma Goldman (whom Cowan oddly does not mention). The violently warring factions of organized labor and left-wing politics for a moment combined in a great proletarian movement--fused by the electric charge of the prosecution of the Iron Workers.

The first to be arrested, John J. McNamara, was president of the Iron Workers, a handsome and able man who seems to have been utterly callous. He had directed the bombing campaign. His principal agent was his trusted younger brother, Jim, who was passionate where John was cold. Jim--pale, thin, chain-smoking--was an idealist, half in love with martyrdom.

The elder McNamara sent young Jim to bomb the Times building. But it was ineptly done. Jim put the bomb--a bundle of dynamite sticks wired to an alarm clock--beside some barrels of ink for the presses, and the explosion and fire which followed, instead of sending a modest warning, destroyed the building and killed 27 people. The hapless Jim was the first of the conspirators to be put on trial for the multiple murders.

Enter Clarence Darrow. He had worked for Gompers before, and had defended Debs, as well as Big Bill Haywood and other founders of the IWW, who were acquitted of murder-by-dynamite charges in 1907. Darrow was then 54, and as Cowan draws him, a bleak and burned-out man. The portrait is carefully constructed and persuasive. Darrow's very success had left him cynical and reckless. But he didn't want to take the McNamara case--he confided to a reporter that he thought the McNamaras were guilty and that the evidence collected by the William J. Burns agency was too damning. But Gompers insisted, and Darrow yielded.

Cowan carefully explores the pressure Gompers could apply, and the lure of an immense fee--$50,000 to be paid in advance. But he passes rather lightly over the question of Gompers' motives. Gompers (and Debs) later claimed that they had been innocently deceived by the McNamaras, and that they had mounted a national defense in complete ignorance of the facts of the case. Cowan accepts these assertions, and does not ask us to wonder, if they were true, why then Darrow was not able to communicate his own reservations about the case.

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