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Clarence Darrow

Murphy’s Law: Clarence Darrow


Clarence Darrow (1856-1938), the most famous American trial lawyer of this century, was an enigma. He renounced his bright career of representing railroads and Chicago corporations so he could represent the despised. Part child, part crafty, part fearless, part depressed, his life was a series of panic calls from people in deep trouble. He would always side with the underdog- the minorities, the unionists, strikers, and others oppressed.

The NAACP, the ACLU, and other human rights organizations turned to him to come to the aid of those who were denied justice. He shivered his lance for freedom time and time again. Some believe his fearless, rebellious spirit came from the indignities he and his family endured as he grew up in Kinsman, Ohio. His parents taught their 8 children to read, investigate, think, differ, and to speak out against injustice. His father was a humanist minister who found even Unitarianism too confining, and the family had to brook the open bigotry displayed toward them and their disbelief in their rural community.

It all came back to him in Dayton, Tennessee during that hot July seventy-four years ago in the trial of John Thomas Scopes answering to the criminal charge of “teaching evolution.” He sought out the case and said, “My object, and my only object, was to focus the attention of the country on the program of Mr. Bryan and the other fundamentalists in America. I knew that education was in danger from the source that has always hampered it-religious fanaticism.” With beguiling, child-like innocence, Darrow chopped broad paths of doubt through Christian dogmas. A sampling-

“Adam and Eve were put in a garden where everything was lovely and there were no weeds to hoe down. They were allowed to stay there on one condition, and that is that they didn’t eat of the tree of knowledge. That has been the condition of the Christian church from then until now. They haven’t eaten as yet, as a rule they do not.” “They were expelled from the garden. Eve was tempted by the snake who presumably spoke to her in Hebrew. And she fell for it and of course Adam fell for it, and then they were driven out. How many believe that story today?” “God had a great deal of trouble with the earth after he made it. People were building a tower-the Tower of Babel-so that they could go up and peek over.” “God didn’t want them to do that and so he confounded their tongues. A man would call up for a pail of mortar and they would send him up a tub of suds or something like that. They couldn’t understand each other. Is that story true? … Everybody knows better today.”

Clarence Darrow had a well-worn bible and compared its stories to recorded history. Here are some of his findings: “Child, born of a virgin? There were at least four miraculous births recorded in the Testament. There was Sarah’s child, there was Samson, there was John the Baptist, and there was Jesus. Miraculous births were a rather fashionable thing in those days, especially in Rome, where most of the theology was laid out. Caesar had a miraculous birth, Cicero, Alexander from Macedonia-nobody was in style or great unless he had a miraculous birth. It was a land of miracles.” To Clarence Darrow, one life was quite enough. He summed up our condition as a species as follows: “Every man knows when his life began…. If I did not exist in the past, why should I, or could I, exist in the future? … The purpose of man is like the purpose of the pollywog-to wiggle along as far as he can without dying, or, to hang onto life until death takes him.”

He rebelled against society, the bar, the bench, the tradition of big business grinding down working men and women, segregation, and a host of other establishments. With his crew of clients he ran a hard charge through the judicial system of his day. As a result we all have more freedom than we would have had without him.

“Clarence Darrow” is copyright © 1999 by John Patrick Michael Murphy.

The electronic version is copyright © 1999 Internet Infidels with the written permission of John Patrick Michael Murphy.