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The Last Trials of Clarence Darrow
The Landmark Cases of Leopold and Loeb, John T. Scopes, and Ossian Sweet
Back in the Loop
The Loop, Chicago, June 17, 1924
Darkness spread slowly across a city in tumult. It seeped through the burnt orange and faded red streaks of a sky that softened the stone buildings towering over her. Alone in the Loop on a summer evening, Mary Field Parton picked her way through the teeming streets, slipping quietly past the blurred faces and babbling voices. And the farther she walked the more she lowered her gaze, as if willing herself to become invisible. The dusk framed her own trepidation as she went to meet the man she had loved so long.
Clarence Darrow was America's greatest and most controversial criminal lawyer, a battered sixty-seven-year-old defender of the lost and the damned. It was Darrow's knack, and his fate, to be drawn to cases of such drama and dissent that they received saturation coverage across the country. His fame was enshrined, but Darrow was revered and hated in equal measure.
The lawyer's reputation skirted redemption and ruin again as he immersed himself in yet another complicated defense. Only one certainty remained. He would soon enter the courthouse and begin the most infamous murder trial of his long career.
Darrow's name, and those of Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb, the two nineteen-year-old killers he would defend, echoed around Mary. Newspaper barkers, pressing hard to sell their final editions, shouted out rival headlines from adjoining street corners. "Darrow," they yelled, was "ready for the trial of the century." "Leopold and Loeb," who had confessed to thesenseless murder of a young boy less than a month before, on May 21, faced their likely death sentence with "an eerie calm."
Mary did not share their serenity. She could not pull down a similar mask and ignore the threat her relationship with Darrow now posed to her own marriage. Her face, as plainly intelligent and practical as it appeared, felt on the brink of collapse. She could have broken down and cried on the sidewalk if she thought too closely about the risk she had taken in traveling from New York to be with Darrow, her former lover. But the tears did not fall. A longing to see Darrow kept her moving toward him. She wanted to hear why he had called her.
Their four-year affair had ended in 1912, but in the intervening twelve years, after the pain had ebbed, they had remained friends and exchanged regular letters. They had even met occasionally and buried their past feelings in talk of books and politics, as well as gossip about former members of their circle who had known of their illicit love. But this was different. Darrow had written to her in a way she could barely believe, intimating how much she still meant to him and that he needed to see her urgently.
His words were given a fierce charge by their jolting backdrop: a saga reeking of forbidden sex and murder. The curious case of Leopold and Loeb, the sons of two millionaires, fixated America and reached the world beyond in faraway cities like Paris and London. Two weeks earlier Darrow had urged Mary to travel to Chicago to see him, and to bear witness to a new kind of trial that would test the limits of their intelligence and compassion. As a writer, and the woman who had saved him once before, she felt compelled to be with him.
At the age of forty-six Mary was not some mindless fantasist or even a wretched wife. She had endured many difficulties with her husband, Lemuel Parton, but they had recently healed the raw -patches of hurt in their marriage. Mary, having battled for so long to reconcile her inner self with her public roles as a wife and a mother, had found a newly settled life. If her ambitions had narrowed at the same time, she had also found an acceptance of the virtues of marriage and motherhood.
Those feelings had shifted again after Darrow's stark appeal to her. The familiar yearning for work and passion, for writing and recognition, seized her once more. Mary did not know if it was destiny or luck that Lem had already planned to be away the following month, on an expedition to Greenland and Labrador, and so it had been easy for her to convince him that she should seek a commission from a New York newspaper to write about Leopold and Loebâ€"and, of course, Darrow. On the inside she was tugged more by the beguiling fact that the man who had changed her life, and then hurt her, had called for her. Darrow had turned to her again, but Mary did not know what he might say when the moment came for them to be alone.
Even though the years seamed their faces, the same feelings lurked within her. If it did not move her in a way that once made her helpless to resist, Mary felt a pulse of the old desire. Her love for Darrow had changed, but it had not been entirely withered by marriage to Lem. There was an awkward irony, a jagged reminder she could not quite ignore, that her eleventh wedding anniversary was meant to be celebrated in two days' timeâ€"on June 19.
Mary could still not shut her mind to everyday responsibilities. As she expected to spend at least a week in Chicago, before returning later for an indeterminate period, she had brought her nine-year-old daughter, Margaret, with her from New York. Mary might have wished to become the writer of her deepest imagination, but she could never forget that she was a mother first. She felt relieved now that her daughter was safe with a friend in Chicagoâ€"another Margaret, the older and wiser Margaret Watson, who could guess the tangled feelings inside her.
The previous night Mary and her little girl had caught the express train to Chicago, the winningly named 20th Century, and hurtled through the blackness. Margaret had bounced up and down excitedly in the seat opposite hers. They had made faces at each other in the window and had laughed at their reflections in the gauzy yellow light cast by the gas lamps above their heads. As the steam train rocked and whistled they fell into its rhythm, and, eventually, as her frenetic talking lessened and her pale eyelids grew heavy, Margaret had allowed her mother to extinguish the lamp closest to her. Mary had settled her sweetheart down into the top bunk bed of their compartment and kissed her lightly on the cheek, before reaching for her pen.
In the gloom of the hushed carriage she had scribbled a few words on the page marked Juin 16, Lundi, in the diary she had bought earlier that year in Paris when time alone, and away from Lem, had revitalized her marriage. "Left for Chicago on 20th Century," she wrote. "Full of hope! Here is my start! Got a story from Darrow on this strange murder in Chicagoâ€"Loeb and Leopold, rich boys, precocious, everything to live for. Kill, brutally, a little boy of 14, 'for the thrill' they say. Whole country, foreign countries, avid for news . . . for explanation."The Last Trials of Clarence Darrow
The Landmark Cases of Leopold and Loeb, John T. Scopes, and Ossian Sweet. Copyright © by Donald McRae. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.