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Attorney for the Damned: Clarence Darrow in the Courtroom

Attorney for the Damned: Clarence Darrow in the Courtroom

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by Clarence Darrow, Arthur Weinberg (Editor), Justice William O. Douglas (Foreword by)

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A famous defender of the underdog, the oppressed, and the powerless, Clarence Darrow (1857-1938) is one of the true legends of the American legal system. His cases were many and various, but all were marked by his unequivocal sense of justice, as well as his penchant for representing infamous and unpopular clients, such as the Chicago thrill killers Leopold and


A famous defender of the underdog, the oppressed, and the powerless, Clarence Darrow (1857-1938) is one of the true legends of the American legal system. His cases were many and various, but all were marked by his unequivocal sense of justice, as well as his penchant for representing infamous and unpopular clients, such as the Chicago thrill killers Leopold and Loeb; Ossian Sweet, the African American doctor charged with murder after fighting off a violent, white mob in Detroit; and John T. Scopes, the teacher on trial in the famous Scopes Monkey Trial.
Published for the first time in 1957, Attorney for the Damned collects Darrow’s most influential summations and supplements them with scene-setting explanations and comprehensive notes by Arthur Weinberg. Darrow confronts issues that remain relevant over half a century after his death: First Amendment rights, capital punishment, and the separation of church and state. With an insightful forward by Justice William O. Douglas, this volume serves as a powerful reminder of Darrow’s relevance today.

Editorial Reviews

Stanford Law School
"Attorney for the Damned is a volume that remains as relevant today as on the days Clarence Darrow delivered his powerful arguments. Substantively, Darrow presented a near-prophetic vision of justice and morality on many of the issues that continue to engender passionate debate. Rhetorically, Darrow’s arguments are the most fertile source available for those wishing to develop the skills of a great trial lawyer or simply to learn how to argue persuasively.  We would all be so much richer were Clarence Darrow alive today. Short of that, this volume keeps his spirit and essence alive in ways that allow us and future generations to continue to learn from his extraordinary battles.— Lawrence Marshall
Stanford Law School - Lawrence Marshall
"Attorney for the Damned is a volume that remains as relevant today as on the days Clarence Darrow delivered his powerful arguments. Substantively, Darrow presented a near-prophetic vision of justice and morality on many of the issues that continue to engender passionate debate. Rhetorically, Darrow’s arguments are the most fertile source available for those wishing to develop the skills of a great trial lawyer or simply to learn how to argue persuasively.  We would all be so much richer were Clarence Darrow alive today. Short of that, this volume keeps his spirit and essence alive in ways that allow us and future generations to continue to learn from his extraordinary battles."

author of There Are No Children Here - Alex Kotlowitz
“Clarence Darrow’s courtroom speeches feel as timely today as when he delivered them nearly a century ago. Each reads like a compelling narrative, each delivered to protect the unprotected, to right a wrong. Darrow was an American hero, someone who stood his ground — with eloquence, wisdom and a clear sense of drama. Anyone grappling with the fissures in the American landscape should have this book on their shelves.”
author of The Secret Lives of Citizens - Tom Geoghegan
"Thank goodness for court reporters, so we have these masterworks by Clarence Darrow, America’s Cicero. We should be even more grateful for Arthur Weinberg’s skilful edit and arrangement of these speeches - starting with Darrow addressing prisoners in Cook County Jail and ending with an address to keep himself out of prison. While Darrow was one of America’s greatest lawyers, and while this book is better than an entire college course in Rhetoric, I hope readers grasp that he was one of the great American writers - a writer whose work takes us to far darker places than most of our great writers dare to go. 

This book can make you despair about the country, and cherish it for the brilliance and honesty of speeches like these."

Dean and Distinguished Professor of Law, University of California, Irvine School - Erwin Chemerinsky
"A truly timeless book.  This brilliantly edited collection captures the eloquence and the passion of Clarence Darrow.   Darrow's insights about justice and society—on topics such as the death penalty, criminal responsibility, inequality, and the importance of labor—are as relevant today as when they were spoken.  Law students, lawyers, judges, and all who care about justice should read and reread this book." 
American Bar Association Journal

“That Clarence Darrow was the great protagonist of that age, no one would deny. . . . In the present volume Mr. Weinberg wisely permits him to speak for himself."

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University of Chicago Press
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Clarence Darrow in the Courtroom
By Clarence Darrow

The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 1989 Arthur Weinberg
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-226-13650-9

Chapter One

Crime and Criminals


* * *

The warden of the Cook County Jail in Chicago, who knew Clarence Darrow as a criminologist, lawyer and writer, invited him to speak before the inmates of the jail. Darrow accepted the invitation. This was in 1902.

The prisoners marched into the auditorium where they heard what is today still considered one of the most extraordinary and unique speeches ever delivered to such an audience.

If I looked at jails and crimes and prisoners in the way the ordinary person does, I should not speak on this subject to you. The reason I talk to you on the question of crime, its cause and cure, is that I really do not in the least believe in crime. There is no such thing as a crime as the word is generally understood. I do not believe there is any sort of distinction between the real moral conditions of the people in and out of jail. One is just as good as the other. The people here can no more help being here than the people outside can avoid being outside. I do not believe that people are in jail because they deserve to be. They are in jail simply because they cannot avoid it on account of circumstances which are entirely beyond their control and for which they are in no way responsible.

I suppose a great many people on the outside would say I was doing you harm if they should hear what I say to you this afternoon, but you cannot be hurt a great deal anyway, so it will not matter. Good people outside would say that I was really teaching you things that were calculated to injure society, but it's worth while now and then to hear something different from what you ordinarily get from preachers and the like. These will tell you that you should be good and then you will get rich and be happy. Of course we know that people do not get rich by being good, and that is the reason why so many of you people try to get rich some other way, only you do not understand how to do it quite as well as the fellow outside.

There are people who think that everything in this world is an accident. But really there is no such thing as an accident. A great many folks admit that many of the people in jail ought to be there, and many who are outside ought to be in. I think none of them ought to be here. There ought to be no jails; and if it were not for the fact that the people on the outside are so grasping and heartless in their dealings with the people on the inside, there would be no such institution as jails.

I do not want you to believe that I think all you people here are angels. I do not think that. You are people of all kinds, all of you doing the best you can—and that is evidently not very well. You are people of all kinds and conditions and under all circumstances. In one sense everybody is equally good and equally bad. We all do the best we can under the circumstances. But as to the exact things for which you are sent here, some of you are guilty and did the particular act because you needed the money. Some of you did it because you are in the habit of doing it, and some of you because you are born to it, and it comes to be as natural as it does, for instance, for me to be good.

Most of you probably have nothing against me, and most of you would treat me the same as any other person would, probably better than some of the people on the outside would treat me, because you think I believe in you and they know I do not believe in them. While you would not have the least thing against me in the world, you might pick my pockets. I do not think all of you would, but I think some of you would. You would not have anything against me, but that's your profession, a few of you. Some of the rest of you, if my doors were unlocked, might come in if you saw anything you wanted—not out of any malice to me, but because that is your trade. There is no doubt there are quite a number of people in this jail who would pick my pockets. And still I know this—that when I get outside pretty nearly everybody picks my pocket. There may be some of you who would hold up a man on the street, if you did not happen to have something else to do, and needed the money; but when I want to light my house or my office the gas company holds me up. They charge me one dollar for something that is worth twenty-five cents. Still all these people are good people; they are pillars of society and support the churches, and they are respectable.

When I ride on the streetcars I am held up—I pay five cents for a ride that is worth two and a half cents, simply because a body of men have bribed the city council and the legislature, so that all the rest of us have to pay tribute to them.

If I do not want to fall into the clutches of the gas trust and choose to burn oil instead of gas, then good Mr. Rockefeller holds me up, and he uses a certain portion of his money to build universities and support churches which are engaged in telling us how to be good.

Some of you are here for obtaining property under false pretenses—yet I pick up a great Sunday paper and read the advertisements of a merchant prince—"Shirtwaists for 39 cents, marked down from $3.00."

When I read the advertisements in the paper I see they are all lies. When I want to get out and find a place to stand anywhere on the face of the earth, I find that it has all been taken up long ago before I came here, and before you came here, and somebody says, "Get off, swim into the lake, fly into the air; go anywhere, but get off." That is because these people have the police and they have the jails and the judges and the lawyers and the soldiers and all the rest of them to take care of the earth and drive everybody off that comes in their way.

A great many people will tell you that all this is true, but that it does not excuse you. These facts do not excuse some fellow who reaches into my pocket and takes out a five-dollar bill. The fact that the gas company bribes the members of the legislature from year to year, and fixes the law, so that all you people are compelled to be "fleeced" whenever you deal with them; the fact that the streetcar companies and tho, gas companies have control of the streets; and the fact that the landlords own all the earth—this, they say, has nothing to do with you.

Let us see whether there is any connection between the crimes of the respectable classes and your presence in the jail. Many of you people are in jail because you have really committed burglary; many of you, because you have stolen something. In the meaning of the law, you have taken some other person's property. Some of you have entered a store and carried off a pair of shoes because you did not have the price. Possibly some of you have committed murder. I cannot tell what all of you did. There are a great many people here who have done some of these things who really do not know themselves why they did them. I think I know why you did them—every one of you; you did these things because you were bound to do them. It looked to you at the time as if you had a chance to do them or not, as you saw fit; but still, after all, you had no choice. There may be people here who had some money in their pockets and who still went out and got some more money in a way society forbids. Now, you may not yourselves see exactly why it was you did this thing, but if you look at the question deeply enough and carefully enough you will see that there were circumstances that drove you to do exactly the thing which you did. You could not help it any more than we outside can help taking the positions that we take. The reformers who tell you to be good and you will be happy, and the people on the outside who have property to protect—they think that the only way to do it is by building jails and locking you up in cells on weekdays and praying for you Sundays.

I think that all of this has nothing whatever to do with right conduct. I think it is very easily seen what has to do with right conduct. Some so-called criminals—and I will use this word because it is handy, it means nothing to me—I speak of the criminals who get caught as distinguished from the criminals who catch them—some of these so-called criminals are in jail for their first offenses, but nine tenths of you are in jail because you did not have a good lawyer and, of course, you did not have a good lawyer because you did not have enough money to pay a good lawyer. There is no very great danger of a rich man going to jail.

Some of you may be here for the first time. If we would open the doors and let you out, and leave the laws as they are today, some of you would be back tomorrow. This is about as good a place as you can get anyway. There are many people here who are so in the habit of coming that they would not know where else to go. There are people who are born with the tendency to break into jail every chance they get, and they cannot avoid it. You cannot figure out your life and see why it was, but still there is a reason for it; and if we were all wise and knew all the facts, we could figure it out.

In the first place, there are a good many more people who go to jail in the wintertime than in summer. Why is this? Is it because people are more wicked in winter? No, it is because the coal trust begins to get in its grip in the winter. A few gentlemen take possession of the coal, and unless the people will pay seven or eight dollars a ton for something that is worth three dollars, they will have to freeze. Then there is nothing to do but to break into jail, and so there are many more in jail in the winter than in summer. It costs more for gas in the winter because the nights are longer, and people go to jail to save gas bills. The jails are electric-lighted. You may not know it, but these economic laws are working all the time, whether we know it or do not know it.

There are more people who go to jail in hard times than in good times—few people, comparatively, go to jail except when they are hard up. They go to jail because they have no other place to go. They may not know why, but it is true all the same. People are not more wicked in hard times. That is not the reason. The fact is true all over the world that in hard times more people go to jail than in good times, and in winter more people go to jail than in summer. Of course it is pretty hard times for people who go to jail at any time. The people who go to jail are almost always poor people—people who have no other place to live, first and last. When times are hard, then you find large numbers of people who go to jail who would not otherwise be in jail.

Long ago, Mr. Buckle, who was a great philosopher and historian, collected facts, and he showed that the number of people who are arrested increased just as the price of food increased. When they put up the price of gas ten cents a thousand, I do not know who will go to jail, but I do know that a certain number of people will go. When the meat combine raises the price of beef, I do not know who is going to jail, but I know that a large number of people are bound to go. Whenever the Standard Oil Company raises the price of oil, I know that a certain number of girls who are seamstresses, and who work night after night long hours for somebody else, will be compelled to go out on the streets and ply another trade, and I know that Mr. Rockefeller and his associates are responsible and not the poor girls in the jails.

First and last, people are sent to jail because they are poor. Sometimes, as I say, you may not need money at the particular time, but you wish to have thrifty forehanded habits, and do not always wait until you are in absolute want. Some of you people are perhaps plying the trade, the profession, which is called burglary. No man in his right senses will go into a strange house in the dead of night and prowl around with a dark lantern through unfamiliar rooms and take chances of his life, if he has plenty of the good things of the world in his own home. You would not take any such chances as that. If a man had clothes in his clothes-press and beefsteak in his pantry and money in the bank, he would not navigate around nights in houses where he knows nothing about the premises whatever. It always requires experience and education for this profession, and people who fit themselves for it are no more to blame than I am for being a lawyer. A man would not hold up another man on the street if he had plenty of money in his own pocket. He might do it if he had one dollar or two dollars, but he wouldn't if he had as much money as Mr. Rockefeller has. Mr. Rockefeller has a great deal better hold-up game than that.

The more that is taken from the poor by the rich, who have the chance to take it, the more poor people there are who are compelled to resort to these means for a livelihood. They may not understand it, they may not think so at once, but after all they are driven into that line of employment.

There is a bill before the legislature of this state to punish kidnaping children with death. We have wise members of the legislature. They know the gas trust when they see it and they always see it—they can furnish light enough to be seen; and this legislature thinks it is going to stop kidnaping children by making a law punishing kidnapers of children with death. I don't believe in kidnaping children, but the legislature is all wrong. Kidnaping children is not a crime, it is a profession. It has been developed with the times. It has been developed with our modern industrial conditions. There are many ways of making money—many new ways that our ancestors knew nothing about. Our ancestors knew nothing about a billion-dollar trust; and here comes some poor fellow who has no other trade and he discovers the profession of kidnaping children.

This crime is born, not because people are bad; people don't kidnap other people's children because they want the children or because they are devilish, but because they see a chance to get some money out of it. You cannot cure this crime by passing a law punishing by death kidnapers of children. There is one way to cure it. There is one way to cure all these offenses, and that is to give the people a chance to live. There is no other way, and there never was any other way since the world began; and the world is so blind and stupid that it will not see. If every man and woman and child in the world had a chance to make a decent, fair, honest living, there would be no jails and no lawyers and no courts. There might be some persons here or there with some peculiar formation of their brain, like Rockefeller, who would do these things simply to be doing them; but they would be very, very few, and those should be sent to a hospital and treated, and not sent to jail; and they would entirely disappear in the second generation, or at least in the third generation.

I am not talking pure theory. I will just give you two or three illustrations.

The English people once punished criminals by sending them away. They would load them on a ship and export them to Australia. England was owned by lords and nobles and rich people. They owned the whole earth over there, and the other people had to stay in the streets. They could not get a decent living. They used to take their criminals and send them to Australia—I mean the class of criminals who got caught. When these criminals got over there, and nobody else had come, they had the whole continent to run over, and so they could raise sheep and furnish their own meat, which is easier than stealing it. These criminals then became decent, respectable people because they had a chance to live. They did not commit any crimes. They were just like the English people who sent them there, only better. And in the second generation the descendants of those criminals were as good and respectable a class of people as there were on the face of the earth, and then they began building churches and jails themselves.

A portion of this country was settled in the same way, landing prisoners down on the southern coast; but when they got here and had a whole continent to run over and plenty of chances to make a living, they became respectable citizens, making their own living just like any other citizen in the world. But finally the descendants of the English aristocracy who sent the people over to Australia found out they were getting rich, and so they went over to get possession of the earth as they always do, and they organized land syndicates and got control of the land and ores, and then they had just as many criminals in Australia as they did in England. It was not because the world had grown bad; it was because the earth had been taken away from the people.


Excerpted from ATTORNEY FOR THE DAMNED by Clarence Darrow Copyright © 1989 by Arthur Weinberg. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Arthur Weinberg (1915-1989) was the Lloyd Lewis Fellow in American History at the Newberry Library in Chicago. He was coauthor, with Lila Weinberg, of The Muckrakers, Verdicts Out of Court, and Clarence Darrow: A Sentimental Rebel, among other books.

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Attorney for the Damned: Clarence Darrow in the Courtroom 3 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 2 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Clarence Darrow was the greatest and most fearless defence lawyer of all-time. This book is a must read for defence lawyers, forever reminding us why we got into business in the first place and what we can acheive. The transcripts of his closing arguments are also the greatest lesson one can hope to learn when it comes to oral advocacy. It's a great history book too, as the quirks of old-time law are readily apparent in the transcripts. One of the most memorable books I have ever read.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago