Forget Johnnie Cochran, F. Lee Bailey and Gerry Spence. The greatest trial lawyer in American history was the incomparable Clarence Darrow.

For that matter, forget Perry Mason, Matlock and Atticus Finch, too, because Darrow was also our greatest fictional trial lawyer.

What most Americans know about Darrow comes from Spencer Tracy’s heroic portrayal in Stanley Kramer’s 1960 movie Inherit the Wind, although Darrow’s name was changed to Henry Drummond in the script. Many also know the legendary lawyer from Orson Welles’ equally heroic portrayal in Richard Fleischer’s Compulsion the previous year, although again Darrow’s name was changed, this time to Jonathan Wilk.

Those of us who have read about Darrow also have a faulty image of his life and work—one based on a combination of facts, lies, and a generous serving of half-truths.

Darrow’s 1932 autobiography, The Story of My Life, is marred by misstatements and deliberate omissions. And Irving Stone’s 1941 Clarence Darrow for the Defense, the last full-blown biography, omitted unsavory details in deference to Darrow’s family, which cooperated with the author.

Stone, a novelist at heart, also made some stuff up.

Now comes Clarence Darrow, Attorney for the Damned, a brilliant new biography by John A. Farrell (Doubleday), to set the record straight.

Farrell is a senior writer for the Center for Public Integrity, a former Boston Globe and Denver Post reporter, and the author of Tip O’Neill and the Democratic Century, a New York Times “notable book.” He began researching Darrow after he learned that the great man’s granddaughter had discovered hundreds of previously unknown letters written to and by him. She found them in her basement a few years ago in a box labeled “Christmas ornaments.”

Farrell also discovered that Darrow’s papers in the Library of Congress were incomplete. The philanthropist who originally donated them had withheld some “sensitive” documents, but the author was able to locate them.

Supplementing this new material with an exhaustive examination of other sources including trial transcripts and newspaper accounts, Farrell has produced a thorough, warts-and-all biography that bulges with surprises.

We learn that Darrow lied when he claimed he quit his high-paying job as in-house lawyer for the Chicago & Northwestern Railroad to defend Eugene Debs and striking railway workers. In fact, the young lawyer lost the railroad job when his patron there died of a coronary.

We learn that Darrow, an ardent follower of his era’s “free love” movement, was a serial philanderer, carrying on many short and long-term affairs, often in secret but occasionally with the knowledge (if not approval) of his wife.

We learn that Darrow joined in a scheme to bribe witnesses during the1907 trial of union leader Big Bill Haywood, who was accused of ordering the assassination of the anti-union governor of Idaho.

We also learn that, as Farrell puts it, Darrow “almost certainly” bribed two jurors when he defended the union men who blew up The Los Angeles Times building in 1910. One of the newly-discovered Darrow letters comes very close to being a confession.

And when Darrow was put on trial for bribing the Los Angeles jury, one of the newly-discovered letters shows, he instructed his son Paul to pay a $4,500 bribe to a member of that jury.

We also learn new details of Darrow’s tempestuous relationships with many of his famous friends including Debs, Jane Addams, and one-time law partner Edgar Lee Masters.

The heroic Darrow is on full display here as well: the lawyer who fiercely opposed the death penalty on moral grounds, represented the poor and downtrodden pro bono (even when his own finances were perilous), tirelessly fought for the rights of women and black Americans, and defended the right of workers to organize.

Farrell walks us through many of Darrow’s most important cases including Leopold and Loeb, the Pulliam strike case, the Scottsboro Boys, the Scopes trial, and his passionate defense of the Sweets, a black family accused of murder for shooting into a white mob that tried to drive them from their Detroit home. In Darrow’s time, at least four of his cases were trumpeted as “The Trial of the Century.”

The author sets his story against the background of the Progressive Era, when children labored for pennies in mines and factories, when industrial cabals conspired to fix prices, when mine and railroad owners employed armed thugs to crush the fledgling union movement, and when labor unions responded in kind.

It was not a fair fight. The forces of the government, both state and federal, were always on the side of the rich and powerful. No wonder Lincoln Steffens, the famed journalist, dubbed Darrow “attorney for the damned.”

As Darrow saw it, he was in a no-holds-barred war for human rights. The government, the captains of industry, and their hired hands from the Pinkerton Detective Agency showed no quarter. They persecuted the innocent along with the guilty, manufactured evidence, kidnapped or bribed defense witnesses, and suborned perjury.Darrow fought back with every tool, legal and illegal, at his command in an impossible attempt to level the playing field.

Darrow’s greatest tools were his genius for court room tactics and his populist eloquence. This was a time when closing arguments could go on for days; and Darrow, always speaking without notes, had the power to bring jurors, and even judges, to tears.

“There is nothing but prejudice in this case,” he told the jury in the Sweets case. “If it was reversed, and eleven white men had shot and killed a black while protecting their home and their lives against a mob of blacks, nobody would have dreamed of having them indicted. They would have been given medals instead. . . . That is all there is to this case. Take the hatred away and you have nothing.”

“Americans,” Farrell writes, “drew strength watching Darrow rage against the machine. They can again today. There is something grand and epic in his fierce resistance to those inexorable oppressive forces that, in varying guises, inspired the rebels in his ancestry and the abolitionists of his boyhood, imperiled freedom in his lifetime, and pose a threat to liberty today.”

Except for this brief comment, the author draws no parallels between the Progressive Era and today’s America, where the death penalty Darrow so abhorred is still practiced and where Republican governors and legislatures crush unions not with guns and bribery but with laws that strip them of their bargaining rights.

For the most part, Farrell leaves readers to draw their own conclusions, and no doubt they will. Conservatives are sure to view Darrow as a villain. To progressives, he will remain an inspiration—a heroic, though flawed, giant of his corrupt era.

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BRUCE DESILVA worked as a journalist for 40 years before retiring to write crime novels full time. At the Associated Press, he was the writing coach, responsible for training the wire service's reporters and editors worldwide. Previously he directed an elite AP department devoted to investigative reporting and other special projects. Earlier in his career, he worked as an investigative reporter and an editor at The Hartford Courant and The Providence Journal. Stories edited by DeSilva have won virtually every major journalism prize including the Polk Award (twice), the Livingston (twice), the ASNE, and the Batten Medal. He also edited two Pulitzer finalists and helped edit a Pulitzer winner. His first novel, "Rogue Island," was a Publishers Weekly selection as one of the best debut novels of 2010 and won both the Edgar and the MaCavity Awards. The sequel, "Cliff Walk" will be published in May of 2012.

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