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The Trials of Clarence Darrow : Charged With Bribing Jurors, the Lawyer Who Had Saved So Many Faced His Biggest Challenge: Saving Himself.

May 16, 1993|Geoffrey Cowan | Geoffrey Cowan is a public intersest lawyer, Emmy-award winning producer and UCLA faculty member. Thie article was adapted from his book "The People v. Clarence Darrow," published this month by Times Books/Random House

ONE RAINY NIGHT IN LATE DECEMBER, 1911, Clarence Darrow climbed the steps of 1110 Ingraham Street, a block south of Wilshire Boulevard near downtown Los Angeles. When his lover, Mary Field, heard the knock at the door, her long brown hair was unfastened for the night; it hung down to her waist. She quickly put on a bathrobe and opened the door.

Darrow was standing in the corridor soaking wet, his thin brown hair in disarray, his weathered skin more wrinkled than ever, his sad blue eyes swollen from sleepless nights and tearful days. He looked even more slovenly than usual, his raincoat weighted down at the pockets. He asked if he could come in and Mary said he could, of course.

Mary's tiny flat was almost barren, her few belongings packed. Tired of being an afterthought in her lover's life, treated as "a hot water bag," she planned to leave for San Francisco in the morning. Darrow slumped down in a wooden chair at the kitchen table, under a bare overhead light hanging on a cord. He surprised Mary by pulling a bottle of whiskey out of a coat pocket and putting it on the table. Darrow usually didn't drink. She brought him two glasses and he poured a shot in each.

"Molly," he said. "I'm going to kill myself." He pulled a revolver out of his other trench coat pocket and put it on the table, beside the bottle of whiskey.

"They're going to indict me for bribing the McNamara jury," he said. "I can't stand the disgrace." And he started to cry.

Her heart breaking for him, Mary smoked an endless chain of cigarettes as she used all of the arguments she knew to talk him out of suicide. She spoke to him of religion, reflecting her own strict Baptist background. But Darrow didn't put much stock in God. Then she said it would be wrong to kill himself, that people would always think the worst and his legacy would be destroyed. The only way to save his reputation was to stand and fight, to be bold and courageous. And so it went, on into the early hours of the morning.

Finally, he gave in. "Well, Molly," he said at last, "maybe you're right."

He got up slowly and put the half-empty bottle in one pocket and the revolver in the other. Then he walked sadly out into the rain.

Less than a month later, Clarence Darrow, the legendary Chicago lawyer whose eloquent and powerful pleas on behalf of the working masses had moved the nation, whose clients had included labor leaders such as Eugene Debs and corporate tycoons such as William Randolph Hearst, was indicted for bribery.

DARROW'S TROUBLES REALLY BEGAN EARLY on the morning of Oct. 1, 1910, when a huge explosion tore the Los Angeles Times building apart, setting off a roaring fire that killed 20 men. The rabidly anti-union paper immediately blamed the fire on leaders of organized labor.

After a six-month manhunt, William J. Burns, a flamboyant detective hired by the city to investigate the bombing, arrested John (J.J.) McNamara at his office in Indianapolis and charged him--along with his younger brother, Jim--with the crime. Jim was a ne'er do-well printer, but J.J. was the secretary-treasurer of one of the country's most successful unions, the Structural Iron Workers. As Burns spirited the men across the country by train, the leaders of organized labor called on Darrow.

Darrow didn't want to take the case. At 54, he was feeling old and frail. Four years earlier, he had moved to Idaho to defend William (Big Bill) Haywood and other leaders of the Western Federation of Miners when they were charged with the murder of a former governor of Idaho. He won months of favorable publicity--and freedom for his clients--but in the process ruined his health and lost almost every dollar he had saved.

After the trial, he yielded to the demands of his wife, Ruby, and promised that he would never take another demanding case. He resented Ruby's dictates and began a sporadic affair with Mary Field, a radical young journalist, but he kept his promise. He focused on corporate cases, trying to build up a retirement nest egg, leading old friends like Debs to say that he "loved money too much." But then the leaders of organized labor came to him en masse, led by AFL President Samuel Gompers and San Francisco union leader Olaf Tvietmoe, perhaps the most powerful organizer on the West Coast, the man many people believed had actually ordered the bombing of The Times. After much argument--and a $50,000 fee to be paid by the unions--he agreed to defend the McNamaras. With Ruby at his side, Darrow arrived in Los Angeles early in the summer of 1911.

The case against his clients was overwhelming--witnesses all but saw Jim strike the match--but he didn't dare tell his adoring followers that they had almost no chance to win, no chance, that is, unless he used unconventional and possibly illegal tactics.

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