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Introduction: Jefferson's Heir
Clarence Darrow, sitting at his desk in the law offices of the Chicago & North Western Railway Company on an April morning in 1893, had much to be pleased about. In the six years since he arrived in Chicago, he had carved a fine niche. The mayor and governor asked his advice. The newspapers covered his speeches. He had taken a real estate dispute to the Illinois Supreme Court and won his client a $500,000 award that, so large for its time, got front- page attention. He had a pleasant house, a proper wife, influential friends, and a son he loved. As first assistant counsel to a mighty railroad, he had a salary and social standing to be envied by the city’s glut of aspiring lawyers: dire, sepulchral figures, languishing in the courts, longing for the stroke of fortune that would land them such a choice position.
Darrow had just turned thirty-six. He was a tall man for his time, with high cheekbones and a formidable brow that could give him the look of a young Lincoln: no disadvantage in Illinois. His eyes were a soft blue and his smile, a law partner would recall, was “wreathed in good nature and irresistible charm.” He had a kind of rough charisma that, he was discovering, charmed the pretty girls who attended his talks and lectures.
Small-town Ohio could not hold him and so he had come to Chicago, to the flickering gaslight, the smoke and cinder, the clamor and hoot and honk of that most American city. He had applied himself, in the courts by day and by making the rounds of political clubs and debating societies in the evenings. And he had sought as mentors rich and famous men, and had prospered from their interest. If Darrow sought a template for success, he needed look no further than his boss and patron, the railroad’s general counsel, whose office was next to his in the law department at Fifth Avenue and Lake Street, in downtown Chicago.
William C. Goudy was a trailblazer in a new specialty of the industrial age: the “corporation lawyer.” With his bearded chin and stern demeanor, Goudy looked like an Amish elder, and though friends insisted that he had a warm heart, he was cold and direct in his professional affairs. He was said to be a millionaire, and Darrow knew him as “ultra conservative.” As a chieftain of the Illinois “silk- stocking” Democrats, Goudy served as an adviser to President Grover Cleveland, who had just been elected to a second term, and who shared his corporate sympathies. “No harm shall come to any business interest as the result of administrative policy so long as I am President,” Cleveland boasted. Goudy was a close friend, as well, of Chief Justice Melville Fuller, a Chicagoan who led the era’s notoriously conservative Supreme Court, known for decisions shielding monopolies and trusts, outlawing the income tax, and, in the infamous Plessy v. Ferguson, authorizing racial segregation.
In the Gilded Age, when the interests of politicians and industrialists ran in tandem—or could be made to do so with a timely payoff—Goudy’s political ties enhanced his appeal to the clients who secured his services. He represented the Vanderbilt railroad empire, the great Armour meatpacking firm, and other powerful interests in their wars against government regulation. It was said that Congress passed the Interstate Commerce Act in part to counteract Goudy, who so ably promoted the rights of corporations and monopolists to run their affairs as they saw fit, without regard to the public interest.
Goudy and the railroad were, this day, engaged in one such battle with the people of Chicago. That great midway between the crops and natural resources of the West and the markets and capital of the East was a wicker of railroad tracks. Five million engines and freight cars passed through Chicago each year, on 1,400 miles of rails. As the city’s population leaped, so did the number of those killed and injured by trains traversing its roads and alleys at the thousands of street-level crossings. It was Darrow’s duty to represent the railroad in court, fighting to limit the compensation sought by the victims or their families.
The carnage was ghastly. “A stranger’s first impression of Chicago is that of the barbarous gridironed streets,” a British visitor wrote, “his second is that of the multitude of mutilated people . . . the mangled remnant of the massacre.” In a single month that spring, there were forty-five deaths. One story suffices, that of the mother driving home, who froze at the roar of an approaching train. A passerby pulled her from the driver’s bench, but her two young daughters were left behind to be shattered and tossed in the shards of the carriage as their wounded horse bellowed in pain.
But the railroads were tough, and abetted by public officials who collected “lavish bribery . . . year after year,” the Chicago Timesreported. When, finally, the city council voted to compel the railroads to raise their tracks, the companies went to court. “There is no power on earth which can compel us to elevate our tracks,” said a confident Marvin Hughitt,
the president of the Chicago & North Western. “The opinions of the best lawyers in the country have been obtained.” A test case was pending at the Supreme Court, and earlier that month Goudy had traveled to Washington to speak to the chief justice and visit with his allies at the White House. He returned to Chicago cheered about his company’s prospects.
Here, then, was a blueprint for Darrow’s aspirations. He was no scion of a wealthy family like his liberal friends, the muckraker Henry Demarest Lloyd or the philanthropist Jane Addams, who used her inheritance to found the Hull House settlement for immigrants in Chicago’s West Side ghetto. Darrow’s parents, though educated, were moneyless. He tasted want and shame as a child, and “I never have been able to get over the dread of being poor, and the fear of it,” he would confide to a friend. Nor were there government programs in this laissez-faire era for a man to fall back on in hard times, illness, or old age. The only social safety net was the free lunch offered in workingmen’s saloons, and a bit of floor space on which to sleep in municipal hallways during Chicago’s bitter winters. Darrow had a deep interest in learning, and in literature, “but he has been under the awful compulsion of the age, to make money,” his friend Brand Whitlock would tell a confidant. “Have you ever reflected that we of this time are kept so busy making a living that we never find time to live?”
Yet Darrow chafed in corporate harness. There was something missing in the Goudy model. If Darrow’s cunning was a defining attribute, more so was his empathy. He was “sensitiveness and egotism all twisted as the strands of a rope... a great character of wonderful sweetness, of profound intelligence, of Godlike patience and tenderness—shot through with queer pettiness—about money, about criticism,” one of his lovers, Mary Field Parton, would confide to her diary. What saved him was his “extraordinarily” acute compassion, she concluded, “the edges of his emotions sensitive as the antennae of insects.”
Darrow felt guilty working for a corporation, where his legal skills and his boss’s clout were employed at union busting, or to limit the relief sought by the pitiful victims of the railway crossings. He longed for peace of mind. “It seems to me, and for me, that I have no right to save myself when the injustice is so great,” he would tell Addams.
Around him was injustice in abundance. The slaughter at Chicago’s railway crossings was emblematic of conditions in the Gilded Age, when the United States grappled with economic and social transformations that many Americans feared, with some justification, might trigger revolution. Immigrants packed the tenements of the cities, where women took piecework in squalid, ill-lit flats, while men and children labored in the factories, mills, mines, and collieries for twelve hours a day, six or seven days a week, for cents. Unions were assailed; a political and corporate aristocracy employed the police, the state militia, and private armies of detectives to disperse—or gun down—striking workers. Blacks were condemned to lynch law. Congress, the judiciary, and the state legislatures were corrupted, and the criminal justice system was no such thing. “The rich and powerful are seldom indicted and never tried,” one of the city’s leading lawyers, W. S. Forrest, told an audience in 1892. “Manslaughter is committed by corporations with impunity. Men are convicted who are innocent. Even in ordinary trials, the forms of law are frequently set aside and the rules of evidence ignored.”
Chicago witnessed all the era’s ills. Drenched in blood, bone-weary workers slaughtered the illimitable herds of hogs and cattle that clanked by them on the assembly lines of the stockyards. At McCormick Reaper and other storied industrial works, union organizers fighting for higher wages or an eight-hour day were locked out, harassed, and beaten by police. The houses of prostitution never closed in Little Cheyenne and the Levee, nor the predatory gambling and drinking dens. The city was divided along class lines and still seething that spring from the 1886 bombing that killed seven policemen at a workers’ rally in the Haymarket, and the subsequent public delirium that sent four guiltless anarchists to the gallows. The city’s smokestacks cast a famous pall, to rival that of London, across the prairie sky, and the polluted water spurred outbreaks of cholera. A visitor from England, well versed in the miseries of the industrial age, was stunned. “Chicago is a pocket edition of hell,” he wrote, “and if it is not, then hell is a pocket edition of Chicago.”
Darrow had delved into politics, joining the movement to assist the Haymarket defendants and employing his talents and political connections to persuade the Illinois legislature to pass a bill regulating sweatshops and child labor. More than a year before, he had written to Lloyd, confessing his shame at working for the railroad and praising a protest that his friend had led after a police raid on a union meeting. “You dare to say what is true,” Darrow told him. “Your speech...made me feel that I am a hypocrite and a slave, and added to my resolution to make my term of servitude short.” But he could not summon the will to act. The months passed, and his time of “servitude” dragged on.
Darrow’s conscience was still struggling with his comfort on the morning of Thursday, April 27, when, shortly after eleven a.m., Goudy finished dictating a letter, dismissed his secretary, and summoned his first visitor—a retired Civil War hero, General John McArthur—into his office. Darrow prepared to join them.
“Good morning, Judge,” McArthur said, greeting his friend Goudy. Then: “You don’t look very well...are you ill?”
Goudy seemed stricken, and gasped. McArthur cried out in alarm, and Darrow rushed in, as Goudy collapsed at his desk.
Darrow and McArthur carried the lawyer to a couch. Goudy stared up at Darrow with pleading eyes, said nothing, and died.
The great man’s heart attack was front-page news in Chicago. “He lived only a few minutes,” Darrow told the reporters. “It all happened so suddenly that we can scarcely appreciate that Mr. Goudy is really dead.” Darrow was a pallbearer at the funeral. He had lost his patron, and his paradigm.
Goudy’s death changed Darrow’s life. That weekend, the newspapers carried the story: C. S. Darrow was leaving his position as lawyer for the railroad to go to work for Mayor Carter Harrison. No one then perceived that this was the birth of the grandest legal career in American history. In 1893, of Darrow’s future clients, Eugene Debs was still an obscure labor leader with dreams of forming a national railway union. Patrick Prendergast was a mumbling paperboy, lost in delusions. Bill Haywood was a frontier ruffian. Nathan Leopold, Richard Loeb, Ossian Sweet, and John Scopes were not yet born.
And yet, in little more than a year, Darrow would be battling to keep Debs and the other ringleaders of a turbulent workers’ uprising out of prison, and to save the demented Prendergast, by then an infamous assassin, from the hangman. He would be on his way to becoming an American icon, his name synonymous with a passionate, eloquent, and miraculous defense of the underdog. Journalist Lincoln Steffens would cite Darrow’s departure from the railroad as the “turning point” in his friend’s life. “Darrow counted the cost; he seems always to have counted the cost,” Steffens wrote, but “he found himself off-side, and had to cross over to where he belonged.”
And so was born, said Steffens, “the attorney for the damned."