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Book review: “Clarence Darrow: Atttorney for the Damned” by John A. Farrell

Finishing “Clarence Darrow: Attorney for the Damned” by John A. Farrell, I was surprised to find myself underwhelmed by the book.

No question, it’s a good solid effort. Farrell has done a yeoman’s job of tracking down, reading and incorporating the far-flung records of Darrow’s key trials, as well as much else in his life. (If you read the endnotes, you realize how sloppy other writers have been, including Darrow himself and Irving Stone, author of the 1941 “Clarence Darrow for the Defense.”)

Perhaps Farrell’s book suffers a tad from all that research. On many occasions throughout the book, I had the wish that he had quoted less from Darrow’s courtroom speeches and his essays and his books.

Darrow was nothing except his words and ideas, of course. Well, not nothing. There was his physical presence and his mannerisms, his body language, at which he was as adept as a great actor. Even more, there was his sly, cunning feel for human nature, his ability to read juries and play them like a musical instrument.

The mannerisms, though, were there to frame his words, and his words were how he put to use that cunning feel for human nature.

So, yes, you can’t write about Darrow without trotting out his words. Perhaps this book would have benefited if Farrell had used fewer of those words and framed them better. The danger of quoting too much of Darrow is to make him boring. And Darrow, it appears, was never boring.

And perhaps Farrell could have done a lot more framing in general — a lot more to put Darrow into context.

On page 352 of the 466 pages of text in this book, Farrell writes:

Darrow was, in retrospect, a uniquely apt lawyer for Leopold and Loeb. He had the audacity to treat judges and juries to original sermons on an intellectual plane far higher than the usual courtroom wrangling, and to do so in a captivating way. People listened to his reasoning, despite its strangeness, its theory, its difficult demand for mercy.

“Yes!,” I said to myself, when I came across those three sentences.

At another point in the book, Darrow turns late in life to one of his many lady friends, this one a former lover, and says, “Mary, I am terribly famous and goddamn unimportant.” That was a question I had pondered throughout Farrell’s book. Darrow was certainly colorful, certainly skilled, certainly brilliant. But important? I wasn’t sure.

Then, I read those three sentences in Farrell’s chapter on the Leopold and Loeb case, and they crystallized for me Darrow’s importance.

Darrow was significant in U.S. history not because he got his clients off or helped them avoid the executioner. Other lawyers have been as highly skilled.

He was significant because he used the bully pulpit of the courtroom to promulgate philosophies and principles that have made us a better nation — that the rich should not be permitted always to lord over the poor, that African-Americans have as much right as whites to equal treatment, that government’s killing of killers is brutal and without value, that one religious faith cannot be given prominence above others.

A century ago, those were ideas that were nascent. They came into bloom and came to improve the lives of all Americans, in part, because they were spelled out so clearly and so eloquently by Darrow.

So, I thank Farrell for those three sentences.

Patrick T. Reardon

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