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The Great Trials of Clarence Darrow: The Landmark Cases of Leopold and Loeb, John T. Scopes, and Ossian Sweet

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“Wonderfully evocative… Donald McRae captures the Great Defender in all his complexity.... A joy to read.” — Kevin Boyle, National Book Award-winning author of Arc of Justice "Astonishingly vivid." —James Tobin, Award-winning author of Ernie Pyle’s War The story of the three dramatic trials that resurrected the life and career of America’s most colorful—and controversial—d “Wonderfully evocative… Donald McRae captures the Great Defender in all his complexity.... A joy to read.” — Kevin Boyle, National Book Award-winning author of Arc of Justice "Astonishingly vivid." —James Tobin, Award-winning author of Ernie Pyle’s War The story of the three dramatic trials that resurrected the life and career of America’s most colorful—and controversial—defense attorney: Clarence Darrow. Many books, plays, and movies have covered Darrow and the trials of Leopold and Loeb, John T. Scopes, and Ossian Sweet before: Geoffrey Cowan’s The People v. Clarence Darrow; Simon Baatz’s For the Thrill of It; Kevin Boyle’s Arc of Justice; Meyer Levin’s Compulsion and the film adaptation of the same name; Inherit the Wind; but few, if any, have achieved the intimacy and immediacy of Donald McRae’s The Great Trials of Clarence Darrow.


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“Wonderfully evocative… Donald McRae captures the Great Defender in all his complexity.... A joy to read.” — Kevin Boyle, National Book Award-winning author of Arc of Justice "Astonishingly vivid." —James Tobin, Award-winning author of Ernie Pyle’s War The story of the three dramatic trials that resurrected the life and career of America’s most colorful—and controversial—d “Wonderfully evocative… Donald McRae captures the Great Defender in all his complexity.... A joy to read.” — Kevin Boyle, National Book Award-winning author of Arc of Justice "Astonishingly vivid." —James Tobin, Award-winning author of Ernie Pyle’s War The story of the three dramatic trials that resurrected the life and career of America’s most colorful—and controversial—defense attorney: Clarence Darrow. Many books, plays, and movies have covered Darrow and the trials of Leopold and Loeb, John T. Scopes, and Ossian Sweet before: Geoffrey Cowan’s The People v. Clarence Darrow; Simon Baatz’s For the Thrill of It; Kevin Boyle’s Arc of Justice; Meyer Levin’s Compulsion and the film adaptation of the same name; Inherit the Wind; but few, if any, have achieved the intimacy and immediacy of Donald McRae’s The Great Trials of Clarence Darrow.

30 review for The Great Trials of Clarence Darrow: The Landmark Cases of Leopold and Loeb, John T. Scopes, and Ossian Sweet

  1. 4 out of 5

    Seamus Thompson

    Clarence Darrow has been one of my heroes ever since I first watched Inherit the Wind in high school. Every couple years I find myself reading another book about Darrow or one of his cases, refining and bringing more shadow to this legendary figure. While this is not the best book I have read about Darrow it would probably make the best introduction for someone approaching this figure for the first time. Over a period of 15 months late in his career, Darrow served as the defense attorney in three Clarence Darrow has been one of my heroes ever since I first watched Inherit the Wind in high school. Every couple years I find myself reading another book about Darrow or one of his cases, refining and bringing more shadow to this legendary figure. While this is not the best book I have read about Darrow it would probably make the best introduction for someone approaching this figure for the first time. Over a period of 15 months late in his career, Darrow served as the defense attorney in three landmark cases: he saved the young, homosexual, thrill-killers Leopold & Loeb from the death penalty; he challenged the notorious Tennessee law that banned the teaching of evolution in schools by defending high school biology instructor John Scopes; and he defended a black doctor (Ossian Sweet) who, along with his wife and nine other men (friends and family) was charged with murder while defending Sweet's home in Detroit from a mob of KKK-motivated whites. While each case is treated more thoroughly in other books (most notably, the Sweet case is the subject of Kevin Boyle's masterful The Arc of Justice) McRae is at his best in the book's final pages as he follows Darrow and his defendants to their natural ends. His epilogue, explaining his interest in Darrow as a young, white South African disgusted with apartheid, is also fascinating and would make for a fine memoir in itself.

  2. 5 out of 5

    Relstuart

    This was sort of a biography along with the stories of three court cases. The author appears to take some liberties in representing Darrow and his once upon a time mistress views as coming from particular emotional outpourings that he is only guessing at. He is also a huge fan of Darrow and it's pretty apparent with the worshipful tone he takes to describe him. I did find the last case very interesting as I had not read about the Sweet case before. This was sort of a biography along with the stories of three court cases. The author appears to take some liberties in representing Darrow and his once upon a time mistress views as coming from particular emotional outpourings that he is only guessing at. He is also a huge fan of Darrow and it's pretty apparent with the worshipful tone he takes to describe him. I did find the last case very interesting as I had not read about the Sweet case before.

  3. 5 out of 5

    Virginia

    This is a fascinating book for observers of the current politico-cultural scene. Nearly a century has passed since these events, yet we find here much that is familiar. I’d thought of the days of public adulation for silver-tongued orators as having just skirted its peak in the early 1920’s, yet I recognize the gatherings described here. Crowds hanging on the words of spirited Christian speakers, for example-- once relegated to boonie Bible Belt & middle-of-the-night TV (unless you were Billy Gr This is a fascinating book for observers of the current politico-cultural scene. Nearly a century has passed since these events, yet we find here much that is familiar. I’d thought of the days of public adulation for silver-tongued orators as having just skirted its peak in the early 1920’s, yet I recognize the gatherings described here. Crowds hanging on the words of spirited Christian speakers, for example-- once relegated to boonie Bible Belt & middle-of-the-night TV (unless you were Billy Graham or MLK)—are today regularly featured in the a.m. on mainstream channels & have their own cable channels. And radio! During low times 20 yrs ago I would seek prayer and talk of religion in the car, finding ony 1 metro-NYC station (I’d filter out the dire Revelations predictions). Today you can hear this stuff in English or Spanish 24/7 on AM & FM nationwide, w/your choice of prosperity gospel, quasi-medical spiritual healing, end of church times/ et al end-times timeline. Ditto the vociferous demand that public schools teach “intelligent design” (i.e., creationism rather than natural selection), Earth is only 6000 yrs old etc, most recently barely put down by referendum in Texas: I’d thought we were hearing today from a backwater fringe getting a megaphone courtesy of thin Evangelical margin for Republicans in a polarized era. I didn’t understand that this was mainstream thinking for all of the South and much of the Midwest then (95 yrs ago) as today: all that’s happened is, it’s come out of its wraps. That homophobia and anti-African-American racism were rampant in the early ‘20’s is not a revelation. The cultural context for all three trials helped me understand that both derive from literal Biblical interpretation regarding the devil/ evil, & concepts of animal vs human. What shocked me is that social change has been so minimal in 95 yrs. Lots of lip service, but not so much different on the ground. Now that Trump has normalized trash-talk as a relief from coastal-lib-PC repression, even lip-service is disappearing. What did surprise me is that block-busting didn’t start in the ‘50’s-‘60’s: the new cohort of black professionals in the early 1920’s were pioneers of that movement out of Northern ghettoes; it was a continuing phenomenon consequent to migration of Southern blacks away from Jim Crow/ limited sharecropper future toward job opportunity in the North, where incoming blacks were offered housing only in increasingly-crowded minority urban wards. I know from my own Midwestern experience in the ‘70’s that poor whites likewise migrated North to mfg jobs, then & continuing, as small farms started being squeezed out by big ag—bringing w/them the competitive hatred of blacks that had been going on since end-of-slavery days. Also surprising (but not, given the Northern-migration context): redux of KKK was well underway by early ‘20’s, moving to dominate Detroit police force & politics. Some Northerners here may be surprised that KKK was in northern Midwest, but my Dad was from IN; KKK was endemic & widespread there in his ‘20’s childhood, focusing hatred on blacks, Catholics & Jews. McRae’s book on Darrow’s Last Trials is a great read. I often have a tough time finishing non-fiction longer than 200pp (embarrassed), but this one was a page-turner. I gather that students of the law—or of Darrow, or of American history—can avail themselves of many deep tomes already written on these trials and this lawyer. But McRae is no slouch. The book is relatively brief (350pp) because it focuses on the last three years of Darrow’s career, which encompass his three most famous trials. There is only broad framing of legal arguments and strategy. McRae’s interest is in how the attorney connects with witness and jury, prosecution and audience, and his manner of oratorical delivery. The text jumps with live observations of “the master at work” drawn from a panoply of local and national news coverage, letters and diaries of principals and attendees including luminaries of the era such as H L Mencken and H G Wells. The book is new in Darrow writing in that it brings in a continual counterpoint during these years to the public man: a view of Darrow the private human, gleaned from journals, letters, interviews etc of his long-time friend, occasional associate, and onetime lover, the journalist/ writer Mary Field Parton. Some here were offput by that and marked it down accordingly. I found the personal & feminine viewpoint an important and depth-providing contrast to the proliferation of public [male] commentary. Also invigorating just to know that there were such women: Darrow had not just a staid wife and many bimbo dalliances, but a decades-long feminine companion who was part of the Greenwich Village intelligentsia. Those who didn't care for this may simply have found the action needlessly slowed down by Parton's ruminations: though she ran with him sometimes, many of her thoughts are posted remotely from a rural upstate-NY summer retreat or from her separate family life in lower Manhattan. I too found myself momentarily frustrated-- yet glad for a few reprieves from the racing plot, & enlightened by this peephole view into such significant details as: how Darrow treated her child; how Field managed the delicate balance between continuing professional association with a onetime passionate/ intellectual object of desire vs making a family w/an equally intellectual yet adventurous/ often absent beloved husband/ father to her child; how Darrow sought Field out at key points in his career, which led to her rescuing him from suicide... The last 30+ pages tying up loose ends are a bore, but the author's afterword comparing S Africa of '70's-'80's to US of '20's is fascinating.

  4. 4 out of 5

    Jane Thompson

    Law Story An excellent book, this is another book about Clarence Darrow and his trials. It is amazing that a man with his values remains one of the most admired men of America. He was not in favor of capitol punishment; he also denounced prejudice and extol!ed science. He has remained one of the most admired men of the country for the past 125 years.

  5. 5 out of 5

    Gregory L.

    Excellent read regarding a preeminent trial lawyer Loved the portions reciting Darrow’s cross-examinations and closing arguments. Should motivate any attorney to work on developing both those skills.

  6. 5 out of 5

    Francis X DuFour

    Tremendous! The narration of Darrow’s courtroom performance in these three cases sends chills down the spine. Undoubtably one of the greatest trial lawyers in history, driven by his desire to defend the downtrodden and oppressed.

  7. 4 out of 5

    Richie

    Spectacular Must read for Darrow fans or fans of the law. Greatest trial lawyer ever and a true thinking giant in his time.

  8. 4 out of 5

    Daniel

    This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here. Clarence Darrow has an iconic status as defender of the defenseless and champion of causes. Darrow is revealed as a man of great reading, erudition, and appetites. He was larger than life. Sometimes his clients came second and his agendas came first, as the did with the defendant in Scopes. Darrow seemed hell bent on settling his score with William Jennings Bryant and poor Scopes was the forgotten man in the case. Also, I was shocked at what lawyers could get away with back then ethically. The C Clarence Darrow has an iconic status as defender of the defenseless and champion of causes. Darrow is revealed as a man of great reading, erudition, and appetites. He was larger than life. Sometimes his clients came second and his agendas came first, as the did with the defendant in Scopes. Darrow seemed hell bent on settling his score with William Jennings Bryant and poor Scopes was the forgotten man in the case. Also, I was shocked at what lawyers could get away with back then ethically. The Chicago thrill killers Nathan Leopold and Dick Loeb clearly had divergent roles in their crime but Darrow represented both without a discussion of conflict. Similarly, Darrow represented eleven co-defendants in the Ossain Sweet case. The Sweets were an upper middle class black family that moved into a white neighborhood and were confronted by a hateful mob, which hurled rocks at their home and attempted to Drive the Sweets out. Shots rang out and one of the participants in the mob was struck by a bullet and died while a second was injured. The book also discusses the faces and circumstances behind the bribery trial that Darrow faced fifteen years earlier In California. The book perhaps should have explored more the relationship Darrow had with co-counsels As I suspect he was more of a theatrical trial lawyer than what lawyers would refer to as "a law man." Darrow's conflict with the ACLU over trial and appellate tactics on Scopes may have been reflexive of Darrow's grandiosity versus the ACLU's focus on developing a cogent framework of constitutional precedent.

  9. 5 out of 5

    Heidi | Paper Safari Book Blog

    Clarence Darrow was a fabulous orator and could hold a courtroom captive with his speeches. He had just come off a scandalous time in California where he was charged with jury tampering. He now found himself practicing in NY and defending some of the most unsympathetic clients Leopold and Loeb on a charge of murder. His clients were so unsympathetic and so odd that there was no chance of not having them convicted but he was able to escape the death penalty. After that trial Darrow who thought hi Clarence Darrow was a fabulous orator and could hold a courtroom captive with his speeches. He had just come off a scandalous time in California where he was charged with jury tampering. He now found himself practicing in NY and defending some of the most unsympathetic clients Leopold and Loeb on a charge of murder. His clients were so unsympathetic and so odd that there was no chance of not having them convicted but he was able to escape the death penalty. After that trial Darrow who thought his career was over after California, found himself front and center in some of the most talked about and important trials ever. If you have any interest in the law and history this is a fascinating account of one of the best lawyer in America. His home life may have been a mess but no one could ever doubt his prowess in a courtroom. Fascinating read.

  10. 5 out of 5

    Vicki

    Overall the book was an interesting read, focusing almost exclusively on the last three major cases Clarence Darrow tried. However, the author decided to add a lot about one of Darrow's mistresses, and not just as her life intersected with his. That is the reason I didn't rate the book higher. It is incredibly interesting to compare the way criminal courts were conducted in the mid-1920s to the way they are conducted today. Overall the book was an interesting read, focusing almost exclusively on the last three major cases Clarence Darrow tried. However, the author decided to add a lot about one of Darrow's mistresses, and not just as her life intersected with his. That is the reason I didn't rate the book higher. It is incredibly interesting to compare the way criminal courts were conducted in the mid-1920s to the way they are conducted today.

  11. 4 out of 5

    Jane Steele

  12. 4 out of 5

    Thomas M. Jenkins

  13. 5 out of 5

    Julianne

  14. 5 out of 5

    (US)Jammie Tai

  15. 4 out of 5

    Elizabeth Loeb

  16. 4 out of 5

    Karli

  17. 4 out of 5

    Andrew Holt

  18. 5 out of 5

    Harlow

  19. 4 out of 5

    David Beadles

  20. 4 out of 5

    Peter Berger

  21. 4 out of 5

    Linda Stacey

  22. 4 out of 5

    Richard Maddox

  23. 4 out of 5

    F.C. Etier

  24. 5 out of 5

    John R. Deschaine

  25. 5 out of 5

    Zoe

  26. 4 out of 5

    Nikki

  27. 4 out of 5

    audrey

  28. 5 out of 5

    Sarah - All The Book Blog Names Are Taken

    I skimmed the first few chapters about Darrow and the chick because they were not terribly interesting to me. But getting into the first case of Leopold and Loeb, my interest could not be maintained. Pass on this, on to the next!

  29. 5 out of 5

    Alondra

  30. 5 out of 5

    Vikas

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