THE DEATH OF CLARENCE DARROW
Did the Famous Attorney Really Plan to Return from the Grave?
On this date, March 13, 1938, famous defense attorney Clarence Darrow died in Chicago. Over a long career that spanned for decades, he represented and became involved in some of the most notorious trials in American history. But the pragmatic, often curmudgeonly, attorney held a close secret – a belief in life after death and a promise that, if possible, he would return to this world from the other side..
Famous American defense attorney Clarence Darrow
In 1924, Clarence Darrow was thrust into the national headlines with his defense of two young Chicago men, Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb, who, “just for the thrill of it,” murdered a boy named Bobby Franks. Leopold and Loeb were the sons of wealthy Chicago businessmen and while each of them had confessed to the crime, the family hired Darrow to defend them from a certain death sentence. But the Leopold and Loeb trial was certainly not Darrow’s first foray into the national spotlight.
Darrow was often known in the circles of the law, as “the attorney for the damned” because he would take on cases that no one else would touch. He had been born in the farmlands of Ohio in 1857 and his formal education ended after the equivalent of one year in high school. He continued to study law books at night, however, and eventually saved up enough money to attend law school.
He was admitted to the bar in 1878 and later became a well-known corporation lawyer, even though his sympathies always lay with the workingman. In 1894, he rejected the business world to defend notorious labor leader Eugene V. Debs for his connection with the Pullman Strike. He also defended radical labor leader Big Bill Haywood on murder charges in 1906, but in 1910 was forced to accept a guilty plea for labor defendants John and James McNamara for bombing a Los Angeles newspaper office. The decision had a shattering effect on the western labor movement. The unions refused to pay his $50,000 fee and the prosecution, spurred on by corporate interests, charged Darrow with jury tampering. Darrow beat the charges but he never took on another labor-related case.
Darrow continued to plead criminal cases and in 1924, took on his most famous case with the trial of “thrill killers” Leopold and Loeb. In 1894, Darrow had taken on the case of a convicted murderer who was appealing to a higher court. Darrow lost and the man, Robert Prendergast, was executed. He was the first --- and the last --- Darrow client to be sentenced to death. Darrow would go on to represent more than 50 accused murderers, many of whom, like Loeb and Leopold, were undoubtedly guilty but none of them ever received a death sentence.
During the Leopold and Loeb trial, Darrow earned his place in history as one of the greatest geniuses to ever serve as an attorney. He bypassed a jury trial and focused all of his attentions on the judge, who he managed to sway away from what should have been a certain death penalty decision. Before the trial, Loeb’s family disowned him when he confessed to the murder but Leopold’s father turned to Darrow in hopes that he might save his son. He literally got down on his knees and begged Darrow to take the case. For $100,000, he agreed to seek the best possible verdict that he could, which in this case was life in prison. “While the State is trying Loeb and Leopold,” Darrow said. “I will try capital punishment.”
Darrow with his infamous clients, Leopold and Loeb, during their trial
Darrow would have less trouble with the case than he would with his clients, who constantly clowned around and hammed it up in the courtroom. The newspaper photographers frequently snapped photos of them smirking and laughing in court and the public, already turned against them, became even more hostile toward the "poor little rich boys".
Darrow was fighting an uphill battle but he brought out every trick in the book and used shameless tactics during the trial. He declared the boys to be insane. Leopold, he said, was a dangerous schizophrenic. They weren’t criminals, he railed; they just couldn’t help themselves. After this weighty proclamation, Darrow actually began to weep. He then began to offer a detailed description of what would happen to the boys as they were hanged, providing a graphic image of bodily functions and physical pain. Darrow even turned to the prosecutor and invited him to personally perform the execution.
Darrow‘s horrifying description had a marked effect on the courtroom and especially on the defendants. Loeb was observed to shudder and Leopold got so hysterical that he had to be taken out of the courtroom. Darrow then wept for the defendants, wept for Bobby Franks ----- and then wept for defendants and victims everywhere. The master manipulator won the case. The defendants were given life in prison for Bobby Frank’s murder and an additional 99 years for his kidnapping. The judge stated that neither of them was ever to be paroled and they were to be kept separated for the rest of their lives.
Ironically, after all of that, Darrow only managed to get $40,000 of his fee from Leopold’s father. He got this after a seven-month wait and the threat of a lawsuit.
Nathan Leopold eventually reformed and was paroled in 1958, thanks largely to efforts made by poet Carl Sandburg. As for Loeb, he was murdered in prison. When Clarence Darrow was told of Loeb’s death, he slowly shook his head. “He is better off dead,” the great attorney said, “for him, death is an easier sentence.”
The “Scopes Monkey Trial” riveted the attention of the entire nation with Darrow squarely in the spotlight.
In 1925, Darrow achieved more fame during the so-called “Scopes Monkey Trial”, in which he dueled with former presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan over the theory of evolution. Darrow defended teacher John Scopes in Dayton, Ohio for illegally teaching evolution in a state school. The trial was the first to be covered live on the radio. Scopes was eventually convicted, a decision that was inevitable given the time and place, and fined $100 but Darrow clearly won the case against Bryan in the world of public opinion.
During his days of greatest fame, Darrow was living in Chicago’s Hyde Park neighborhood on the south side of the city. Living close to Jackson Park and the Museum of Science and Industry, both of which had been constructed for the World’s Columbian Exposition in 1893, Darrow often liked to stroll through the area. One spot in the park that he liked in particular was a bridge that overlooked a winding lagoon behind the museum. He often referred to it as having “the prettiest view on Earth” and it would later be named in his honor.
Darrow loved walking in Jackson Park and described this bridge as “the prettiest place on earth.” It would later be named in his honor.
Darrow was always an agnostic when it came to God, as evidenced by his views during the Scopes Monkey Trial, but he had a strong belief in the afterlife. He told his son that when he died, he wanted to be cremated and have his ashes scattered over the waters of the lagoon in Jackson Park. Legend has it that he also told his son that if there were a way to do so, he would return to the bridge after death and give some sign from the other side.
Many have wondered why Darrow would have made such a pronouncement but, in those days of the late 1920s and early 1930s, the Spiritualist movement was in the waning days of its greatest revival. The movement, which is centered around the idea that the dead can communicate with the living, was often featured in newspapers of the time and had attracted the interest of many authors and celebrities of the day. Famous people, like illusionist Harry Houdini, had very publicly made similar plans of trying to communicate with the living after death and perhaps Darrow was inspired by this.
On March 16, 1938, a few days after his death, Darrow’s final request was carried out. A group of family and friends gathered on the bridge behind the museum and after a brief ceremony, his ashes were scattered out over the waters of the lagoon. The following year, on the anniversary of Darrow’s funeral, most of this same group returned to the bridge and recited speeches and poems in honor of the famous attorney. They waited anxiously for Darrow’s promised “sign from the other side” but nothing happened that year, nor the year after that.
The March 13 gathering became an annual event and as time passed, and the original group died out, new revelers came along to take their place. The event became a celebration of sorts of the life and death of Clarence Darrow. No manifestation of Darrow has ever appeared during these gatherings but could the ghost of the great lawyer be appearing at other times instead?
There are many who believe that the phantom has, and does, appear somewhat regularly on a veranda that spans the back of the Museum of Science and Industry. This wide stone area is at the bottom of the steps leading into the rear entrance of the museum and the apparition that appears here is only visible from the site of the Clarence Darrow Memorial Bridge, just across the lagoon. The ghost is reportedly seen dressed in a suit, hat and overcoat and bears a striking resemblance to the attorney. The figure is reported to stand and stare out across the water before disappearing.
The rear veranda of the Museum of Science and Industry, where the ghost of a man in an overcoat and hat has been reported many times over the years. Is it the ghost of Clarence Darrow, still strolling at one of his favorite spots?
Over the years, it has been sighted by literally dozens of people, although none of them have ever gotten close enough to the specter to see it clearly. Whenever it is approached ---- usually by would-be “ghost busters” who are intent on capturing it somehow --- the figure simply vanishes.
Is this the ghost of Clarence Darrow, finally making his presence known from a world beyond our own? There are no other ghostly manifestations connected to this site and certainly none that look like Darrow did in his last days, as he strolled through the park admiring the “prettiest view on Earth.” If it is Darrow, why does his ghost still walk here? Is it because of a promise to return that he had somehow managed to keep or his ties to business in this world that he never managed to complete? We’ll never know for sure but one thing that we can say is that this Chicago legend will forever remain a part of the city’s long history of crime and punishment.