How Well Do You Know Your Labor History?

ANSWER to identity of person in QUIZ in July 2017 online edition of Wisconsin Labor History Society newsletter:

Who was this man?

He kept three labor union leaders out of jail after they were charged with conspiracy after an 1898 strike in Oshkosh. He argued on behalf of science in the “Trial of the Century” in 1920. He had a lifetime of support for workers and the down-trodden.



Clarence Darrow


Clarence Darrow (April 18, 1857 – March 13, 1938)

Often considered one of the nation’s first “labor lawyers,” Darrow was also one of the nation’s highest profile defense attorneys. His career began as a corporate lawyer for the old Chicago & Northwestern Railroad that served much of Wisconsin. It was then he found greater sympathy with the workers in the 1894 Pullman Strike, and he quit the railroad firm to defend Eugene V. Debs, the head of the American Railway Union who led the strike and had been charged with contempt of court for his actions in the strike.

After a ten-week strike in 1898 by workers at the major millwork shops in Oshkosh, Darrow came into that city to defend three strike leaders who had been charged with “conspiracy,” a typical tactic of management in that era to stifle union organizing and strikes. Darrow’s daylong eloquent final statement was credited with acquittal of the three.

In 1905, Darrow defended “Big Bill” Haywood, the leader of the Industrial Workers of the World and the militant Western Federation of Miners, against the charge of murdering former Idaho Governor Frank Steunenberg during the days of organizing miners in the mountain states. Haywood was acquitted.

Darrow also played a controversial role in the 1912 trial of John and James McNamara, Irish trade unionists who were active in organizing efforts of the Ironworkers Union. They had been charged with the bombing of the Los Angeles Times building in 1910 that killed at least 20 persons (the exact number has never been verified). Trade unionists throughout the world, including the leaders of the American Federation of Labor, rallied to the cause of the McNamara brothers, claiming they had been railroaded because of their union activity. Darrow was hired to come to their defense, but when he learned that the evidence against them was too convincing he urged a plea bargain that saved their lives by avoiding execution in favor of life imprisonment. Many supporters of the McNamaras accused Darrow of selling out; to this day, some believe the brothers were innocent scapegoats. (For a complete summary of this incident, go to https://revolvy.com/topic/McNamara%20brothers&item_type=topic.)

Perhaps the trial that brought Darrow the greatest renown was when he defended John T. Scopes, a public high-school teacher accused of teaching evolutionary theory in violation of Tennessee state law. Owing to simmering national controversy over the origins of homo sapiens, the trial attracted widespread notoriety. The prosecuting attorney was William Jennings Bryan, onetime friend and Democratic presidential candidate who believed strongly in literal translations of the Bible. While Darrow was credited with outshining Bryan at the trial, Scopes lost.

Darrow was also in the national spotlight in the famous 1924 trial of Richard Loeb and Nathan Leopold, two college students who killed a 14-year-old boy for the “thrill of it.” Darrow’s two-hour defense summary was credited with persuading the jury to spare the lives of the two in exchange for life imprisonment.