Author Q&A

Author Nelson JohnsonWhy is the story told in “Darrow’s Nightmare” relevant to today’s world?

Clarence Darrow was a fearless champion of justice. He was someone who dared to shine a light into the dark corners of our society, and to provoke the conscious of America and speak truth to power – no matter the price. We will never have enough people like him.

“Darrow’s Nightmare” is quite different from your best-seller, “Boardwalk Empire.” Why did you decide to write about Clarence Darrow’s worst two years?

Darrow has always been one of my heroes. Early on, I learned that Darrow had been charged with attempting to bribe a juror in 1911, while defending a case in Los Angeles. About 5-6 years ago, I gained access to the transcript of the 12-week trial in the summer of 1912. More than 8,000 pages, it’s an amazing read. When I finished reading the transcript I was determined to use it to tell the complete story of what occurred at trial.

Besides the trial transcript, what other materials did you rely upon?

Clarence’s wife Ruby was a journalist before giving up her career to become “Mrs. Darrow.” She saw the trajectory of her husband’s career better than anyone and was committed to enabling Clarence to become the best-known attorney in American history. Ruby wrote a large number of articulate, colorful, informative letters to biographer, Irving Stone, to which my wife and I gained access at the Library of Congress.

Discuss Ruby’s role in Darrow’s life.

It’s been said that “in every relationship there is a lover and a beloved;” in the Darrow marriage there was no mystery who was the beloved. Following their marriage in 1903, and for the remainder of his life, it was Ruby who handled the logistics and mastered the details to place Clarence where he needed to be to continue fighting the good fight. Vital to the care and feeding of a crusading lawyer – loved and hated, admired and disdained – was the creation of a refuge, where his wounds healed and his energy restored. Overlooked and misunderstood, this was Ruby’s role in the life of the best-known lawyer in modern history. Only through an understanding of their marriage, and their worst two years together, do we gain the true measure of the man: his strengths and weaknesses, his foibles and needs.

What brought Darrow to L.A. in the spring of 1911?

In the early hours of October 1, 1910, the Los Angeles Times building was the object of what remains the single worst act of labor terrorism in American history. Sixteen sticks of dynamite had blown a hole in the first floor of the building and ignited several barrels of printer’s ink stored next to the building and created an inferno, resulting in the deaths of 20 workers. Following a six-month manhunt, John & Jim McNamara (the ‘McNamara Brothers”) of the Iron Workers Union out of Indianapolis were arrested. Organized labor cried foul, arguing that the entire matter was a frame-up. The Los Angeles labor leaders claimed that the explosion was caused by a gas leak, long neglected by Times’ owner, Harrison Gray Otis, who stood to reap millions in insurance payments.

Tell us about Times’ owner, Harrison Gray Otis.

Otis was a giant in the history of Los Angeles. For him, organized labor was poison; he viewed unions as a cancer on society. He was adamantly opposed to collective bargaining and used the Times to promote his views. A survivor of two wars, the American Civil War and the Spanish-American War, in 1898 at age 61, he volunteered for the second war and was commissioned with the rank of General. Otis was proud of his wartime service, and no one disputed his personal courage, love of country, and passion for Los Angeles. Everyone in L.A. referred to him as “General Otis.” The Times set the set the boundaries on the public debate of local issues; it was the newspaper most-hated by the American labor movement. Otis welcomed their hatred.

How did it come to be that instead of representing the McNamara brothers, Darrow was a criminal defendant himself?

In gathering evidence, and speaking to potential witness for a defense of the McNamara brothers, Darrow soon realized that the brothers were guilty, and feared that a trial would result in his clients being hung. A fierce opponent of the death penalty, Darrow sought the help of his friend, journalist Lincoln Steffens, to negotiate a plea bargain that saved the brothers’ lives. Within days of the plea bargain agreement, one of Darrow’s investigators, Bert Franklin – hired by others – was arrested for attempted bribery of a prospective juror in the McNamara case. A short time later, Darrow himself was indicted.

Who represented Darrow at trial?

Earl Rogers, an extraordinarily talented Los Angeles attorney. Rogers was a legal genius, far ahead of his time; he brought more innovations to the courtroom than any single lawyer. In addition to his law practice, Rogers was professor of jurisprudence in a medical school, and a professor of advocacy in a law school; he taught the law to medical students, and medicine to law students. Yet Rogers was a trendsetter in more than the law. He cut a path in the fashion world. His wardrobe was so cutting-edge that he caught the attention of movie stars. Actors like Clark Gable and Gary Cooper sought out Rogers’ tailor. But for Earl Rogers, we might never have known of Clarence Darrow.

Tell us about the trial.

The trial transcript is filled with one cinematic scene after another. It’s difficult to summarize a 12-week long trial, but here goes. First, the judge and the prosecutors weren’t up to the challenge of dealing with both Rogers and Darrow, plus co-counsel Horace Appel. Second, the three lawyers for the defense had a combined experience of 70 years of criminal trial experience. Rogers had an operatic brilliance for choreographing events at trial, and he knew that there were instances when it was best for Horace Appel to take the lead, and on occasion for Darrow to also play a role. Third, the prosecutors, District Attorney, John Fredericks and his deputy district attorney, Joe Ford were out of their depth; both made embarrassing miscue during the trial.

Discuss the impact of Darrow’s two years in L.A.

The McNamara brothers marked the end of Darrow’s standing as the go-to lawyer of the American labor movement. Beginning in the last decade of the 19th Century, Darrow had successfully tried many cases brought against union leaders and activists. For 15 years prior to Los Angeles, Darrow was labor’s number one hero. As to the McNamara brothers, the American Labor Movement had expected not only an acquittal but total vindication. Guilty pleas were unacceptable. Darrow was quickly viewed as a traitor to organized labor. Upon being indicted, the national labor movement turned its back on Darrow. Never again did he represent union workers. Darrow went on to handle many high-profile, controversial, difficult trials for which some biographers have labeled him “Attorney for the Damned.”