Clarence Darrow Biography

Clarence Darrow, the most famous trial lawyer in the United States, was a strong advocate for free-thinking and equal rights for women. Growing up in a small town in Ohio, Darrow was driven to make a difference in the social status of women and practiced abolitionist views. As a member of the American Civil Liberties Union, he tirelessly fought for female suffrage and empowerment. Despite his activist views, Darrow’s career as a lawyer was filled with tumultuous twists and turns. Notably, he supported teenage killers Leopold and Loeb during their trial for murdering a 14-year-old. Darrow’s legacy as a vociferous orator, witty demeanor, and unwavering support for the “underdogs” in complex trials still resonates today. He is widely regarded as one of the greatest criminal defense lawyers in American history.

Quick Facts

  • Also Known As: Clarence Seward Darrow
  • Died At Age: 80
  • Family:
    • Spouse/Ex-: Jessie Ohl
    • Father: Amirus Darrow
    • Mother: Emily
    • Children: Paul
  • Quotes By Clarence Darrow
  • Lawyers
  • Political ideology: Democratic Party
  • Died on: March 13, 1938
  • Place of death: Chicago
  • U.S. State: Ohio
  • Ideology: Democrats
  • Education: University of Michigan, University of Michigan Law School, Allegheny College

Childhood & Early Life

Clarence Darrow was born to Amirus Darrow and Emily Darrow in Ohio on April 18, 1857. His father was an abolitionist and his mother was an avid advocate of women’s rights. He attended Allegheny College and then enrolled in Michigan Law School, but failed to graduate from both institutions. He was finally admitted to the bar in 1878, where he began reading law in Youngstown, Ohio.


He started his own practice in Andover, Ohio and was soon involved in Democratic Party politics. Following his close involvement with the political scenario in Ohio, he was appointed as the town counsel for his achievements and contributions.

In 1887, he moved to Chicago with his wife and son, where he worked with the city government as a lawyer. Here, he made a mark for himself at Democratic Party rallies and while engaging in other projects that required his oratory skills.

With the help of a close friend, John Altged, he became a corporate lawyer for the ‘Chicago and Northwestern Railway Company’ and in 1894 he represented Eugene V. Debs, prosecuted by the government for initiating the Pullman Strike.

The same year, he took up his first criminal murder case in his career. He chose to defend Patrick Prendergast, who was the murderer of the Chicago mayor, Carter H. Harrison, Sr. Many were taken aback by his decision to defend a criminal and although his defense failed miserably and the guilty was hanged to death, he decided that he wanted to become a criminal lawyer once and for all.

By 1897, he became known as one of the leading attorneys of America and also helped organize the Populist Party in Illinois. He decided he would take a shot at the election and ran for Congress as a Democrat, but did not succeed.

From 1906 to 1908, he represented the Western Federation of Miners, charged with the murder of the former governor of Idaho, Frank Steuenenberg, in 1905.

In 1911, he was asked to represent the McNamara Brothers, who allegedly bombed the Los Angeles Times building on October 1, 1910. In November 1911, Darrow was charged with orchestrating a bribe to a prospective juror. Although he didn’t achieve what he wanted to, he managed to save the brothers from the death sentence, but was also criticized by the public for bribing his way to a less severe punishment for the brothers.

Being unpopular among the other attorneys in America, he was effectively put out of business as a labor lawyer and he decided to take criminal cases instead. He always openly opposed the ‘death penalty’ and became known for his witty ways and eloquent presentations in court.

In 1924, he defended the case of the teenage killers, Leopold and Loeb, who had kidnapped Bobby Franks, a fourteen-year-old boy. The case was hailed as the ‘trial of the century’ and both boys openly accepted their crimes. However, Darrow decided to mold the public and the judge’s heart with his eloquence. The boys were saved from death, but both were sentenced to life imprisonment.

He went on to fight a number of famous cases including the ‘Scopes Monkey Trial’, the ‘Ossian Sweet’ case, and the ‘Massie Trial’.

Personal Life & Legacy

In 1880, he married Jessie Ohl and the couple had a son. They, however, got divorced in 1897 and he went on to marry Ruby Hammerston in 1903.

He passed away from a pulmonary heart disease. Even today, he is remembered as an aggressive litigator in the history of American criminal defense lawyers.

His life and works have been depicted in a number of movies including ‘Alleged’ and ‘Darrow’. A number of plays have also been written based on his life including ‘Darrow’, ‘My Name is Ossian Sweet’, and ‘Inherit the Wind’.

A number of books on his life have been published. These include ‘The People v. Clarence Darrow’, ‘Compulsion’, ‘The Angel of Darkness’, and ‘Clarence Darrow for Defense’.

Leave a Comment