Tuesday, October 20, 2009

The Last Trials of Clarence Darrow by Donald McRae

This book was provided free of charge through Amazon Vine

I knew more about Clarence Darrow's famous cases––defending Leopold and Loeb, The Scopes Trial, and the Sweets––than I did about the man. Though growing up in a family that was pro-union with an immigrant grandfather who supported the Communist party, was an atheist, and nearly arrested during the Palmer Raids , I had a vague sense of who Darrow was and what he stood for. Still, I probably wouldn't have considered this book had it not been available to me through the Amazon Vine program.

Overall I'm glad I did decide to try it. While I generally prefer my biographies (though this is really only a partial biography dealing with the end of Darrow's life) a little more straight forward and less inclined toward the dramatic, when dealing with an individual I might not normally read about, a slightly lighter treatment makes for an easier read. Former South African Donald McRae did an excellent job of researching, and his dramatic touch perhaps was necessary when dealing with a figure who depended so much on drama to win his cases.

At first I wasn't too keen on references to Darrow's love life with Mary Field Parton, his almost life-long mistress, mostly through her diary entries, especially as she wasn't present for any of the main events. Yet they did serve to provide insights into Darrow's character. On the other hand, telling so much from her point of view left me wondering whether she was his "one and only" or as Darrow's wife Ruby obviously thought, one of many or someone who insinuated herself into his life for personal gain. A little more about Ruby Darrow––who, after all, was there for most of the trials––other than how she appeared through his mistress's eyes, might have provided more balance.

What enthralled me the most about this book, though, was the history.  Amazing that back in the 1920s this avowed atheist, Clarence Darrow, could have so much support in the press defending two obvious sociopaths and the teaching of evolutionary theory in schools. In our more "modern" times hiring an atheist as your defense lawyer would be tantamount to flipping your own switch on the electric chair. I also remember learning about the Scopes trial in high school and thinking how lucky I was to be living in a time when Evolution could be taught freely. That was 1969.  We could definitely use more Clarence Darrows today––men and women not afraid to claim the freedoms guaranteed in our Constitution.

All in all, a book worth reading.

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