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.
Previously unpublished material--including the personal papers of Mary Field and her family--provide new insights into an American folk hero, a man with as many faults as strengths, as he faced the watershed in his career and his life during a tumultuous chapter in L.A. history.
AS THE EVIDENCE AGAINST THE MCNAMARAS mounted, Darrow's professional and personal behavior became risky, self-destructive and bizarre. Nowhere, on a personal level, was it more fraught with danger than in his relationship with Mary Field, his admirer, protege, ally and lover. He had sent Mary from Chicago to New York two years earlier, partly so that they could continue their relationship without disrupting his marriage. He saw her there, introduced her to friends and delighted in her success. But he did not expect her to move back into the center of his life.
When the McNamaras were arrested, several publications asked Mary to cover the trial for them. She wrote to Darrow, telling of the offers, expecting him to rejoice at their chance to be together at a great moment in history. Darrow sent letters warning Mary--accurately--that he was being watched by detectives, that she would "expose or divert" him and that "any, even purely friendly intercourse of a formal nature would be out of the question." Though his response wounded and infuriated her, Mary came anyway and rented an apartment near downtown. She was an independent woman, a talented reporter, and the trial seemed certain to be the political event of the era. If necessary, she would stay clear of him, abide by his wishes, and spend her time with other friends. It was not long, however, before he changed his mind and resumed their relationship.
Ruby, naturally, learned about Mary and the affair was exceedingly painful to her. After all, she had been forced to uproot her household and move to Los Angeles where, but for a few old close friends, she was a stranger. It was a wound that haunted her for the rest of her life.
The turmoil in his personal life mirrored that in his professional life. With each passing day, the case against the brothers, particularly against Jim, looked more hopeless.
Darrow's plan for an alibi defense for Jim fell apart when Burns and his men found a Los Angeles hotel clerk named Kurt Diekelman in Chicago--where Darrow and his allies had hidden him--and persuaded him to return West. With Diekelman able to place Jim in Los Angeles at the time the bomb was set, how could Darrow possibly persuade the jury that his client had been in San Francisco on the night of the blast? Darrow started to tell a few friends, including Mary, that Jim was "guilty as hell" and didn't have "a shadow of a chance to win."
Needing a friendly jury, Darrow turned to Bert Franklin, a short, stocky but dapper former detective with a neatly trimmed mustache and a well-developed taste for alcohol to develop background information about those in the jury pool. But Franklin did not confine himself to helping Darrow determine which jurors might be sympathetic to labor. He also attempted to make sure that at least one or two of the jurors would be on Darrow's side.
On Friday afternoon, Oct. 6, he went to the home of an old acquaintance, Robert Bain, a 70-year-old Civil War veteran who was in the jury pool. Bain was out on a carpentry job, so when Franklin visited that afternoon, Dora Bain was home alone. Franklin complimented her on the house, which was newly purchased, and she said that she had not been so happy since she and Bob were married.
"What do you owe on it?" he asked.
It's none of your business, she answered. But when he said that he might be able to help out, she began to talk more freely. She explained that the house had cost $1,800, that they were paying it off at the rate of $15 a month, and that the happiest day of her life would be the day that she could hand her husband the deed and say, "Bob, this is our home."
"Mrs. Bain," Franklin said, "I think I can very soon place you in the position that you can do that." He offered her $4,000. All he wanted in return was for Robert Bain to do what he would no doubt be predisposed to do anyway: serve as a member of the McNamara jury and vote to acquit the young men who, he assured her, had been framed.
That evening after supper, Dora Bain broached the subject with her husband. He resisted, she later recalled, but "I flung myself on the floor and with my arms clasped around his knees, I begged piteously. He finally yielded, but when he did he pushed me from him. He never looked into my eyes again."
Seven weeks later, Franklin found another likely juror: George Lockwood. Semi-retired and living on an alfalfa ranch near Covina, Lockwood had worked with Franklin in the Los Angeles County sheriff's office. Since Lockwood was scheduled to come into downtown Los Angeles to be considered for the jury, the men agreed to meet at a busy intersection early Tuesday morning, Nov. 28, to arrange a $4,000 bribe.
This time, however, Franklin had misjudged his target. Lockwood called the district attorney and told him where and how the bribe was to take place.
Early on Tuesday morning, Lockwood took a streetcar into town. At about 9 a.m., he arrived at the busy intersection of Los Angeles and 3rd Street. A few minutes later, Franklin emerged from a saloon. After giving the bribe money to Lockwood, he took a quick look up and down the street. At the far end of the block, near Los Angeles streets, he saw Detective George Home of the Los Angeles Police Department. "The sons of bitches," Franklin said. "Let's get out of here." They started walking north on 3rd Street, away from Detective Home.
As they approached the corner of 3rd and Main, they saw someone crossing the busy intersection in their direction, hurrying through the pedestrians, automobiles and teams of buggies, horses and wagons. It was Clarence Darrow.
Seeing his employer approach, Franklin stopped dead in his tracks. "Wait a minute," he said to Lockwood. "I want to speak to this man."
But before Franklin and Darrow could exchange a word, Detective Sam Browne, who had been watching the scene from the hallway of a nearby building, rushed to where the men were standing, put his hands between them, and placed Bert Franklin under arrest.
"I have no theory as to how this thing occurred," Darrow told the press. "It is a mystery to me."
THREE DAYS LATER, DARROW STUNNED THE world of labor and the left by pleading his clients guilty: Jim was sentenced to life in prison for bombing The Times, and J.J. to 15 years for a lesser offense. Working men and women throughout Los Angeles, who had contributed their nickels and dimes to the defense fund with an almost religious belief in the brothers' innocence, were shocked, then distraught, then angry at everyone connected with the case. "Let's hang the men who led us into the trap," one worker shouted at a labor hall. Darrow claimed that he pleaded them guilty to save Jim from the gallows, but some of his friends, including many powerful labor leaders, suspected darker motives, accusing him of trying to save his own skin by creating a plausible defense against charges of jury tampering. Darrow, they said, planned to argue that he had no need to bribe the jurors because he already knew he was going to plead his clients guilty.
For almost two months, Darrow lived in fear. He knew it was only a matter of time until he would be charged with bribing Lockwood and Bain. He was formally indicted on Jan. 29.
Darrow's sensational trial began in May and lasted for three months. At his side was Earl Rogers, the brilliant, devious and alcoholic lawyer whose own career was the stuff of legend. Facing him was Dist. Atty. John Fredericks, Deputy Dist. Atty. Joe Ford and their star witness, Bert Franklin, who had cut a deal with the prosecution. He testified that Darrow had instructed him to bribe Bain and Lockwood and had given him the money to do it. His story was corroborated by John Harrington, Darrow's old colleague and co-counsel. Perhaps Darrow's strongest argument was the "lack of motive" claim that he had already decided to plead both brothers guilty before the street-corner bribe took place. Why would he pay $4,000 to Lockwood, Darrow asked, for a case he had already decided to end?
There were powerful witnesses for both sides, but none more important than Darrow himself.
A THRONG OF SPECTATORS CAME TO COURT early on the morning of Monday, July 29. More than a thousand people were turned away, but hundreds found space in the corridor, some standing, some squatting or sitting on the cold floor, hoping to see or hear fragments of the trial.
Mary Field watched the trial from the press section, writing powerful dispatches for a labor union paper, pleading Darrow's case to the workers who had abandoned him.
Dressed entirely in white, Ruby Darrow looked tired and frail. She used a fan to shield her tearful face from curious spectators.
As he began a week on the stand, Darrow also looked tired, his face drawn and flushed. But his demeanor was calm and confident. He presented himself as a lawyer for corporations as well as unions, much sought after as an arbitrator and mediator, a man known for compassion and fairness, not radicalism or ideology.
Turning to his work on the McNamara case, Darrow explained that he had tried to persuade the labor unions to find someone else, someone younger and healthier. When they continued to insist that he take the case, he said, he hired John Harrington "to take hold of it, come out here and prepare the evidence for the case, take charge of it and to hire whom he pleased." If there was any wrongdoing by the people in his employ, Darrow suggested, Harrington was to blame.
Then Darrow dropped a bombshell. Franklin had testified that Darrow had first told him to bribe Bain on Oct. 6, 1911, and gave him a $1,000 check toward the bribe that same day. But Darrow had found the check and it was dated Oct. 4, 1911. Thus, Darrow argued, it was simply one of many payments he had made to his jury investigator.
It was a powerful point. It seemed to discredit the sequence of events that the prosecution had so carefully established. Perhaps there was a reasonable explanation. Darrow might have written the wrong date on the check or Franklin might have gotten the date wrong. But there was at last the glimmering of reasonable doubt. Rogers put the question to Darrow as broadly as possible. "Did you give him this check or any other check for the purpose of paying Bain or any other juror any money whatsoever?"
"I never did." Darrow's voice was steady and firm.
After reading glowing press accounts about his testimony, Darrow arrived in court Wednesday morning in good humor, ready to face Deputy Dist. Atty. Ford. But Ford had a bombshell of his own. He hoped to show that Darrow's main defense was false, that he had not decided to settle the case until after Franklin's arrest on Nov. 28, when it became clear that there was no remaining alternative. Peering from behind his thick glasses, Ford began by noting that authorities in Indianapolis had a large amount of evidence that the Los Angeles prosecutors desperately needed in their case against J.J., and that at Darrow's instruction, Indianapolis attorney Leo Rappaport was using every possible device to keep the material away from Los Angeles.
"Did you not instruct Mr. Rappaport that he could spend $1,000 to regain possession of all those articles for you?"
"I don't remember. I have a recollection of sending a telegram, but no recollection of its having contained that."
"You have testified, Mr. Darrow, that on Sunday, Nov. 26, you had determined that the McNamaras should plead guilty if necessary."
"Now, was it before or after that date that you authorized Mr. Rappaport to regain that Indianapolis evidence and spend $1,000 in doing so?"
"I couldn't tell you."
"Isn't it a fact that on Tuesday, the day of Franklin's arrest, that you did not intend to have both the McNamaras plead guilty?"
"It is not," Darrow said.
Now for the next bombshell.
"Isn't it a fact that on Wednesday, the day after Franklin's arrest, you instructed Rappaport to spend $1,000 to regain that evidence?"
Rogers was on his feet. "I instruct you not to answer," he shouted at Darrow.
Ford then showed a copy of the telegram to Rogers and then handed it to Darrow. It was written in code. "This is the handwritten copy that Mr. Rappaport gave to the telegraph office."
Ford asked the bailiff to bring over a blackboard on which he wrote down the words of the decoded message. "May I spend thousand to regain Indianapolis evidence?"
Darrow seemed surprised and flustered. But Ford wasn't through. "In response, did you not send a telegram on the same day in which you said, 'May spend thousand dollars if necessary' ? "
"I don't want to commit myself, because I am not certain."
Of course, Darrow had sent the telegram. The questions left him struggling for answers, since they tended to prove that as of one day after the street-corner bribe, he still expected the case to go to trial.
Hard as he attacked him on the evidence, though, Ford must have realized that Darrow was nevertheless coming across as a man of extraordinary qualities; of compassion, intelligence, dignity and legal skill. If he occasionally spoke with bitter sarcasm, showing, as one reporter noted, "scorn, contempt, defiance and rage in his face," if he "flushed scarlet time and time again and fidgeted uneasily in the witness chair," who could blame him? Through it all, his statements were remarkably effective and dignified. Even if guilty, he had won the hearts of the jurors.
By Tuesday, as the prosecution began putting its rebuttal witnesses on the stand, Darrow was working on his next presentation, the closing argument. It was becoming clear that this would be the most important speech he had ever delivered.
JOE FORD OPENED FOR THE STATE. IRONICAL-his passionate closing argument was the perfect preface for Darrow's stirring defense.
Ford started with a stunning personal attack on Darrow. He compared him to other once-great men who had turned sour, men like Judas Iscariot and Benedict Arnold. "History," he said, "is filled with the examples of men whose minds are brilliant, whose sentiments are noble, but whose practices are ignoble." "Previous good reputation," he said, "is no guarantee against the commission of an offense."
Ford argued that Darrow had been "preaching to the criminal classes of this country that there is no such thing as crime, as the word is generally understood," that "there are no courts of justice, that criminals have the right to do anything necessary to defeat and obstruct justice, and that there is no difference between the people in jail and those out of jail, except this: that if you are in jail, it is better if you have a smart lawyer like Clarence Darrow."
Ford stood with his arms folded, glaring fiercely at the defendant, then turned to face the jury.
"Picture in your mind, if you can, gentlemen of the jury, the agonized faces of the mothers and wives and children, as they stood at the fire-lines on that fateful October morning, watching the fiery furnace at 1st and Broadway, hoping against hope that their loved ones might be saved. Picture, if you can, the poor father of a family, caught like a rat in a trap, praying upon his scorched knees for the safety of his little children who would be deprived of a father's care during the years they needed his guidance most."
Ford started to move over toward the defendant. "Ah, well and truly may the widowed mother turn to the defendant and say, 'Give me back my boy.' " With that, Ford dramatically stretched out his arms toward Darrow.
At precisely 2:22 p.m., Darrow rose to deliver the defense summation. He walked forward slowly. His hair was unkempt; an unruly lock fell down over his forehead.
He began in a low voice, hands thrust in his pockets. "Gentlemen of the jury, it is not easy to argue a case of importance, even when you are talking about someone else." Darrow looked from juror to juror as he spoke. The room was silent. His plea was to the working masses who had turned away from him, to friends like Debs who had abandoned him, as well as to the men in the jury box.
"An experience like this never came to me before. But I have felt, gentlemen, by the patience you have given this case for all these weeks, that you would be willing to listen to me. I might not argue it as well as I would some other case, but I felt that I ought to say something to you 12 men besides what I said on the witness stand.
"In the first place, I am a defendant, charged with a serious crime. I have been looking into the penitentiary for six or seven months, waiting for you 12 men to say whether I shall go or not. In the next place, I am a stranger in a strange land, 2,000 miles away from home and friends, although I am proud to say here, so far away, there have gathered around me as good and loyal and faithful friends as any man could ever have upon the face of the earth. Still, I am unknown to you.
"The settlement of the McNamara case cost me many friends, friends that have been coming back slowly, very slowly, as more and more this matter is understood. I am not a fool. I knew I was losing friends. With the eyes of the world upon me, knowing that my actions would call down the doubt and, in many cases, the condemnation of my friends, I never hesitated for the fraction of a second. Was it wise or unwise? Was it right or wrong? You might have done differently. I don't know. . . . I heard these men talk of their brothers, of their mothers, of the dead; I saw the human side; I wanted to save them, and I did what I could to save them."
"I could have tried the McNamara case, and a large class of the working people of America would honestly have believed, if these men had been hanged, that they were not guilty. I could have done this and saved myself. But I knew that if you hanged these men, you would have settled in the hearts of a great mass of men a hatred so deep, so profound, that it would never die away.
"And I took the responsibility, gentlemen. Maybe I did wrong. But I took it. Here and there I got praise for what was called a heroic act, but where I got one word of praise, I got a thousand words of blame! And I have stood that for nearly a year. But I have gone on about my way as I always have regardless of this, without explanation, without begging, without asking anything of anybody who lived, and I will go on that way to the end.
"What am I on trial for, gentlemen of the jury?" Darrow's tone was quiet, moderate, almost intimate. "You have been listening here for three months. If you don't know, then you are not as intelligent as I believe. I am not on trial for having sought to bribe a man named Lockwood. . . . I am on trial because I have been a lover of the poor, a friend of the oppressed, because I have stood by labor for all these years, and have brought down upon my head the wrath of the criminal interests in this country. Whether guilty or innocent of the crime charged in the indictment, that is the reason I am here."
He paused to gain control of his voice. "I have tried to be the friend of every man. . . . I have tried to help in the world. I have done the best I could."
Darrow was in tears and so were dozens of his supporters. "Sobs were audible during his dramatic pauses," the Los Angeles Record reported.
"If you should convict me, there will be people to applaud the act. But if in your judgment and your wisdom and your humanity, you believe me innocent and return a verdict of not guilty . . . . I know that from thousands and tens of thousands and yea, perhaps millions of the weak and the poor and the helpless throughout the world, will come thanks to this jury for saving my liberty and my name."
In a report for the San Francisco Bulletin, Mary Field wrote: "Clarence Darrow has shaken his clenched fist in the faces of the Los Angeles prosecutors. He has asked the jury to take his guilt for granted and then dare to convict him . . . (knowing that he was on trial) not because he bribed jurors, but because he has been a lifelong champion of labor."
Darrow ended his plea near noon, and the chimes in St. Vibiana's Cathedral, a block away, began to play. "His face was streaming with tears and the jury was weeping like children," the Record reported, "with not a dry eye in the crowded courtroom."
Observers called it "the greatest oratorical effort of his long career."
It was not an easy argument for Dist. Atty. Fredericks to rebut. He sensibly acknowledged the sentiment the jury felt. "You have listened to one of the most marvelous addresses ever delivered in any courtroom," he said. "But that only reflects upon the ability of the man; it has mighty little to do with his guilt and innocence."
AT 9:20 A.M. ON THE DAY after Fredericks' closing arguments, the judge instructed the jury. Since almost everyone agreed that the jury would take several hours to decide the case, most of the spectators started to exit. Only about 200 people, including most of Darrow's strongest supporters, remained. Fredericks and his staff took the elevator up to the D.A.'s offices. The clerk left the room, as did Earl Rogers, who went out into the hall to smoke a cigarette. In a nearby anteroom, a group of reporters started a game of poker, prepared for a long vigil.
Darrow paced up and down the courtroom, hands deep in his coat pockets. From time to time he stopped at the counsel table for a drink of water. Ruby sank deeper into her chair, laughing and crying by turns.
At 9:50 a.m., an electric rumor started to run through the room. The jury was ready with its verdict. It had been gone for less than 40 minutes.
Bailiff Van Vliet was the first to arrive. He asked for quiet. "Remember, there shall be no demonstrations of any kind, no matter what the verdict shall be," he announced.
As the jurors filed into the jury box, spectators rushed to their seats and Judge George Hutton took his place on the bench. Darrow chewed on a pencil. Ruby held a handkerchief to her mouth.
"Gentlemen of the jury, have you agreed on a verdict?" Judge Hutton asked.
"We have, your honor," said jury foreman M.R. Williams.
"You may read it."
The foreman hesitated, then shouted his answer.
Ruby stood up and threw her arms around her husband. They stood holding each other, half laughing, half crying, as the room exploded with excitement and their friends rushed down the aisle to share in the joy.
It was more than an acquittal. After eight months of torment, Darrow felt vindicated and loved.
The battle for his freedom and redemption provided him with a new sense of purpose. The man who had craved financial security promised to "spend the rest of my life . . . in doing the best that I can to help the cause of the poor." The man who wanted to avoid any more big trials went on to handle his greatest cases, including the Scopes "Monkey Trial" and the clemency plea for Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb, who in 1924 killed a 14-year-old boy in a scheme to commit a perfect crime.
Whether guilty or innocent, Darrow's own trial had served to redefine his future as well as his past.