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Clarence Darrow

Early Life And Law Career

Clarence Seward Darrow was born in 1857 in the small, rural village of Kinsman, Ohio. Born just before the American Civil War (1861–65; war in the United States between the Union [North], who was opposed to slavery, and the Confederacy [South], who was in favor of slavery), he was the fifth of eight children of Amirus and Emily Eddy Darrow. In the community where Clarence was raised, most people opposed slavery. The "underground railroad" (a secret system to help slaves escape from the South) ran directly through the area where the Darrow family lived. This early experience had a lifelong influence on Clarence and his career, making him sensitive to the problems of minorities and the oppressed.

The Darrows were hardworking but poor and Clarence attended local public schools. He went on to attend Allegheny College in Meadville, Pennsylvania, and then taught school for a short time. He studied at the University of Michigan Law School for one year and became a member of the Ohio bar (legal profession) in 1878 at the age of twenty-one. Darrow married Jessie Ohl in April 1880. The young couple moved ten miles from Kinsman to Andover, Ohio, where Clarence set up a law practice. The couple's only child, Paul Edward, was born in 1883.

Clarence and Jessie divorced in 1897 and Darrow married a journalist, Ruby Hammerstrom, in 1903. Ruby and Clarence had no children together but Darrow maintained a relationship with his son Paul throughout his life. Darrow did not like either of his given names and was not called Clarence or Seward in his adult life. Known to his friends simply as "Darrow," he was called "Dee" by his wife.

In Andover, Darrow gained a reputation as a public speaker but opportunities for law were limited. Darrow and Ruby moved to Ashtabula, Ohio, a railroad town and a Great Lakes port. In 1885 Darrow was elected to the part-time position of borough city solicitor (the chief law officer of the town). This position gave him financial security while also allowing him time to build his private practice.

During his time in Ashtabula, Darrow discovered the political writings of John Peter Altgeld (1847–1902), which would redefine his life both personally and professionally. Altgeld was a strong supporter of workers' rights and their efforts to gain better working conditions from big business. Altgeld was a superior court judge in Cook County, Illinois, who became Illinois governor in 1892. Altgeld eventually joined Darrow's law practice in 1896.

Clarence Darrow, leaning on table, during the Scopes trial, in which biology teacher John Scopes was prosecuted for teaching the theory of evolution. (© Bettmann/Corbis)

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationCrime and Criminal LawClarence Darrow - Early Life And Law Career, Defending Organized Labor In Chicago, Recovering His Reputation, The Scopes Trial