Darrow in any case was persuaded to defend the McNamaras, and to present the theory that the Iron Workers had been framed. The now-familiar machinery of a national defense fund began to turn: rallies and marches, relentless repetitions of "frame-up" in the sympathetic press, buttons and stickers, boycotts and protests. Gompers and Debs campaigned systematically for the defense, constantly repeating the charge of "frame-up" and Debs seemed to threaten violence, a wave of "white rage" that would sweep the continent if the McNamaras were to be convicted. Public opinion swung heavily toward the defendants. In Indiana, at union headquarters, complaisant state prosecutors began returning to union officials the evidence the Burns agents had found. The prosecution of the union leadership would have collapsed, leaving Jim McNamara as a solitary martyr to the labor cause, if President William Howard Taft had not intervened. Taft, whose presidency was in the balance, knew that he was injuring it further by taking sides in a labor dispute.
But Los Angeles district attorney John Fredericks, prosecutor of Jim McNamara, set up a sting and caught the defense team investigators trying to bribe a prospective juror. Abruptly the defense in Jim McNamara's case, and labor's campaign for the Iron Workers, collapsed. Darrow, working very quickly, before the AFL leadership could be consulted, forced both the McNamara brothers to enter guilty pleas, and so doomed the strategy that had bound together the labor movement and the Socialist Party. Darrow's motives were complex, but Cowan gives persuasive evidence that the hasty guilty pleas were engineered at least in part by Darrow to cut off the continuing investigation of which he was now a target.
Was Darrow guilty of the bribery attempt that backfired so disastrously? Perhaps. Cowan has found a great deal of new material, including the papers of Mary Field, Darrow's mistress, but he has not found any new evidence that Darrow directed the bribe attempt. Cowan relies, as the prosecutors did, on evidence of a whole pattern of offenses by the defense team--suborning perjury, bribing jurors, intimidating, even attempting to kidnap, witnesses.
The evidence of abuses on both sides is strong. It was a hard fought and dirty contest. But the McNamara defense was to some extent managed by the AFL, who were paying the bills, and the investigators apparently were getting cash and perhaps instructions directly from headquarters. Cowan is a little too eager to sacrifice Darrow to the labor cause. The ultimate target of the bribery investigation seems to have been Samuel Gompers, and at one point Darrow agreed to plead guilty and give testimony against Gompers, to avoid a jail term. Cowan passes by this curious fact in silence.
Darrow's plea offer was not accepted, apparently because he was not willing or able to give enough evidence against Gompers to satisfy the prosecution. The trial of Clarence Darrow on the bribery charge, which followed, was one of the great dramas in our legal literature. Darrow shared in his own defense. Cowan has rendered the trial beautifully, and Darrow's defense and masterly summation is shown to be one of the great artistic triumphs of the law. He defended himself, he defended organized labor, he defended the bribery attempt and even the bombing itself. He was the martyr-savior of labor.
Yet Darrow after all had avoided martyrdom: He was acquitted of the bribery charge. But the leaders of organized labor never forgave him for saving himself. The brief alliance between Gompers and Debs disintegrated; Goldman and the more militant Wobblies and Communists damned them both. The moment of unity passed, and we will never know what might have come of it, if Darrow had been more like Jim McNamara, and less like John.