Darrow began his career as a lawyer in Youngstown, Ohio, where he was first admitted to the profession (Judge Alfred W. Mackey). He subsequently moved to Chicago, Illinois, where he soon became a corporations lawyer for the railroad company. His next move was to "cross the tracks," when he switched sides to represent Eugene V. Debs, the leader of the American Railway Union in the Pullman Strike of 1894. Darrow had conscientiously resigned his corporate position in order to represent Debs, making a substantial financial sacrifice in order to do this.
Also in 1895, Darrow took on the first murder case of his career, defending Patrick Eugene Prendergast, the "mentally deranged drifter" who had confessed to murdering Chicago mayor Carter H. Harrison, Sr. Darrow's "insanity defense" failed and Prendergast was executed that same year. Among fifty defenses in murder cases throughout the whole of Darrow's career, the Prendergast case would prove to be the only one resulting in an execution.
His next notable case was the defense of the MacNamara Brothers, who were charged with dynamiting the Los Angeles Times building during the bitter struggle over the open shop in Southern California, resulting in the deaths of 20 employees. Darrow perceived right away that the McNamara brothers were guilty, but he planned to celebrate them as heroes in the struggle of the workers against oppression and have them acquitted by bribed jurors. When Darrow was seen standing on a street corner within view from the place where an associate of his handed over money to one of the jurors of the case, he was forced to convince them to change their plea to guilty and was able to plea bargain prison sentences instead of the death penalty. After representing the MacNamaras, Darrow was charged with two counts of attempting to bribe jurors, although the brothers' guilty pleas meant that the jurors played no part in the case. After two very lengthy trials - in the first, defended by Earl Rogers, he was acquitted; in the second he struggled, defending himself, for a hung jury - he agreed never to practice law again in California and not be retried.
Throughout his career, Darrow devoted himself to opposing the death penalty, which he felt to be in conflict with humanitarian progress. In more than 100 cases, Darrow only lost one murder case in Chicago. He became renowned for moving juries and even judges to tears with his eloquence. Darrow had a keen intellect often hidden by his rumpled, unassuming appearance.
A July 23, 1915 article in the Chicago Tribune describes Darrow's effort on behalf of J.H. Fox — an Evanston, Illinois landlord — to have Mary S. Brazelton committed to an insane asylum against the wishes of her family. Fox alleged that Brazelton owed him rent money although other residents of Fox's boarding house testified to her sanity.
During the Leopold-Loeb trial, when Darrow was believed to have accepted "a million-dollar fee", many ordinary Americans were angered at his apparent betrayal, thinking that he had "sold-out." He issued a public statement stating that there would be no large legal fees and that his fees would be determined by a committee composed of officers from the Chicago Bar Association. After trial, Darrow suggested $200,000 would be reasonable. After lengthy negotiations with the defendant's families, he ended up getting $70,000 in gross fees, which, after expenses and taxes, netted Darrow $30,000. (See A. Weinberg, ed., Attorney for the Damned, pp. 17-18, n. 1 (Simon & Schuster, 1957)).
The Scopes Trial of 1925 pitted against each other lawyers William Jennings Bryan and Clarence Darrow (the latter representing teacher John T. Scopes) in an American court case that tested a law passed on March 13, 1925, which forbade the teaching, in any state-funded educational establishment in Tennessee, of "any theory that denies the story of the Divine Creation of man as taught in the Bible, and to teach instead that man has descended from a lower order of animals." This is often interpreted as meaning that the law forbade the teaching of any aspect of the theory of evolution; however, the Butler Act forbade public school teachers in Tennessee to deny the literal biblical account of man’s origin and to teach in its place the evolution of man from lower animals. The law did not prohibit the teaching of evolution of any other species of plant or animal. It has often been called the "Monkey Trial".
During the trial, Darrow requested that Bryan be called to the stand as an expert witness on the Bible. Over the other prosecutor's objection, Bryan agreed. Many believe that the following exchange caused the trial to turn against Bryan and for Darrow:
"You have given considerable study to the Bible, haven't you, Mr. Bryan?" "Yes, sir; I have tried to ... But, of course, I have studied it more as I have become older than when I was a boy." "Do you claim then that everything in the Bible should be literally interpreted?" "I believe that everything in the Bible should be accepted as it is given there; some of the Bible is given illustratively. For instance: "Ye are the salt of the earth." I would not insist that man was actually salt, or that he had flesh of salt, but it is used in the sense of salt as saving God's people."
After about two hours, Judge Raulston cut the questioning short, and on the following morning ordered that the whole session (which in any case the jury had not witnessed) be expunged from the record, ruling that the testimony had no bearing on whether Scopes was guilty of teaching evolution. Scopes was found guilty and ordered to pay the minimum fine of $100.
A year later, the Tennessee Supreme Court reversed the decision of the Dayton court on a technicality--not the constitutional grounds as Darrow had hoped. According to the court, the fine should have been set by the jury, not Raulston. Rather than send the case back for further action, however, the Tennessee Supreme Court dismissed the case. The court commented, "Nothing is to be gained by prolonging the life of this bizarre case."
In the Massie Trial, Darrow—devastated by the Great Depression—was hired to come to the defense of Grace Hubbard Fortescue, Edward J. Lord, Deacon Jones and Thomas Massie, Fortescue's son-in-law, accused of murdering Joseph Kahahawai. Kahahawai had been accused, along with four other men, of raping and beating Thalia Massie, Thomas' wife and Fortescue's daughter; the resulting 1931 case ended in a hung jury (though the charges were later dropped and repeated investigation has shown them to be innocent). Enraged, Fortescue and Massie then orchestrated the murder of Kahahawai in order to extract a confession and were caught by police officers while transporting his dead body.
Darrow entered the racially charged atmosphere as the defense lawyer for the murderers. Adopting a strategy developed by the KKK for lynching cases, Darrow reconstructed the case as a justified honor killing. This defense ignored the fact that all investigation showed that Thalia had invented the rape and accused the five non-white men to deflect attention from her own marital and social difficulties.
Considered by the New York Times to be one of Darrow's three most compelling trials (along with the Scopes Monkey Trial and the Leopold and Loeb case); the nation was captivated by the case and most of white America strongly supported the honor killing defense. In fact, the final defense arguments were transmitted to the mainland through a special radio hook-up. In the end the jury came back with a unanimous verdict of guilty, but on the lesser crime of manslaughter.
Darrow shared offices with Edgar Lee Masters, who achieved more fame for his poetry, in particular the Spoon River Anthology, than for his advocacy. Darrow also took Eugene V. Debs as a partner, following his release from prison.
The papers of Clarence Darrow are located at the Library of Congress. The Riesenfeld Rare Books Research Center of the University of Minnesota Law School has the largest collection of letters to and from Darrow, though they remain closed to the public.
After his death, a full-length one-man play was created, Darrow, featuring Darrow's reminiscences about his career. Originated by Henry Fonda, many actors, including Leslie Nielsen, have since taken on the role of Darrow in this play. The play (later made into a film) Inherit the Wind is a broadly fictionalized account of the Scopes Monkey Trial. Though the authors note that the 1925 trial was "clearly the genesis" of their play, they insist that the characters had "life and language of their own." They also mention that the issues raised in the play "have acquired new dimension and meaning" a possible reference to the political controversies of the 1950s. Still, they finish their foreword by inviting a more universal reading of the play: "It might have been yesterday. It could be tomorrow.
Darrow was fictionalized as Johnathan Wilk in the 1956 novel Compulsion, which was about the Leopold and Loeb case.
The Clarence Darrow Memorial Bridge is located in Chicago, just south of the Museum of Science & Industry.
In the 2004 film Collateral, Jamie Foxx's character Max mentions Darrow in his line about lawyers. "...Little bit. There's the dark pin-stripe suit, elegant, not too flashy, that rules out advertising, plus a top-drawer briefcase that you live out of. And the purse. A Bottega. Anyway, a man gets in my cab with a sword, I figure he's a sushi chef. You: Clarence Darrow," he said.
Historical novelist Irving Stone wrote a biography of Darrow entitled Clarence Darrow For The Defense.
Kevin Boyle's book, Arc of Justice (Owl Books, 2004), looks in depth at the Ossian Sweet trial.
The Sweet Trials: Malice Aforethought is a play written by Arthur Beer, based on the trials of Ossian and Henry Sweet, and derived from Kevin Boyle's Arc of Justice.
There is also a film, 'Darrow', starring Kevin Spacey and released by American Playhouse in 1991.
Arguably the most penetrating analysis of Darrow, both as a lawyer and as a person, is Geoffrey Cowan's biographical The People v. Clarence Darrow.
The popular Television series Frasier features a reference to Darrow in an episode from 1994 titled 'Retirement Is Murder'.