Clarence Darrow died today in 1938. For the last 50 years, civil rights activists, lawyers, and labor leaders have gathered on this date to toss a wreath into the Jackson Park Lagoon from the Clarence Darrow Memorial Bridge, where his ashes were scattered, right behind the Museum of Science and Industry. This tradition began when Darrow claimed that he would return to the place where his ashes were thrown after he died. He has yet to appear.
Darrow’s work as a defender of the poor, “the underdog,” labor, and social justice issues is woven all through the curriculum I teach: He defended the assassin, Patrick Eugene Prendergast, who murdered Mayor Carter Harrison the day before the closing of the World’s Columbian Exposition in 1893; he became good friends with Governor John Altgeld and helped prepare the pardon for the three remaining Haymarket prisoners in 1893, which literally cost Altgeld his reelection; he was the defender of Eugene Debs after the Pullman Strike in Chicago in 1896 and the defender of John T. Scopes in Tennessee (the “Monkey” trial) against the defense of William Jennings Bryan in 1925; (By the way, the Tennessee law against the teaching of evolution was passed on this very day in the same year.); and, in our history fair, there is always one student who focuses on the trial of Leopold and Loeb (1924), defended by Darrow. This case is compelling for lots of reasons, but one in particular is that Loeb actually attended our high school. Darrow was only a teenager during Reconstruction. Otherwise I am sure he would have been involved in significant litigation then as well. About a 10 minute walk from our school is the Clarence Darrow Memorial Bridge. Darrow lived in Hyde Park about two blocks away from my classroom.
At the end of the Leopold and Loeb case in 1924, Darrow argued against the death penalty for his clients in a twelve hour (yes, it was a twelve hour) closing argument. Some have claimed that it was the most eloquent and powerful (and certainly the longest) argument ever presented against capital punishment. Just a few days ago, Governor Quinn signed a bill into law which outlaws capital punishment in this state. This law formally replaces the moratorium on the death penalty put in place about ten years ago by Governor Ryan which recognized 13 wrongly condemned men. The 15 prisoners presently on death row have had their death sentences commuted and will stay in prison for life without any chance for parole.
In commemoration of Clarence Darrow’s “bridge,” which still constructively and instructively impacts our world today and the work I do with students—pushing them toward taking responsibility for more than just themselves, empowering them to believe they can be agents of change—excerpts from his 12 hour closing argument against the death penalty are printed below:
Gradually the laws have been changed and modified, and men look back with horror at the hangings and the killings of the past. What did they find in England? That as they got rid of these barbarous statutes, crimes decreased instead of increased; as the criminal law was modified and humanized, there was less crime instead of more. I will undertake to say, Your Honor, that you can scarcely find a single book written by a student, and I will include all the works on criminology of the past, that has not made the statement over and over again that as the penal code was made less terrible, crimes grew less frequent….
Do I need to argue to Your Honor that cruelty only breeds cruelty? That hatred only causes hatred; that if there is any way to soften this human heart which is hard enough at its best, if there is any way to kill evil and hatred and all that goes with it, it is not through evil and hatred and cruelty; it is through charity, and love, and understanding….
I have a list of executions in Cook County beginning in 1840, which I presume covers the first one, because I asked to have it go to the beginning. Ninety poor unfortunate men have given up their lives to stop murder in Chicago. Ninety men have been hanged by the neck until dead, because of the ancient superstition that in some way hanging one man keeps another from committing a crime. The ancient superstition, I say, because I defy the state to point to a criminologist, a scientist, student, who has ever said it….
For God’s sake, are we crazy? In the face of history, of every line of philosophy, against the teaching of every religionist and seer and prophet the world has ever given us, we are still doing what our barbaric, ancestors did when they came out of the caves and the woods….
I am pleading for life, understanding, charity, kindness, and the infinite mercy that considers all. I am pleading that we overcome cruelty with kindness and hatred with love. I know the future is on my side. … I am pleading for the future; I am pleading for a time when hatred and cruelty will not control the hearts of men. When we can learn by, reason and judgment and understanding and faith that all life is worth saving, and that mercy is the highest attribute of man.