Minnesota Law

Spring 2022
For the Record

New Law Library Acquisitions

Letters of Clarence Darrow, Legal Icon

Lithograph of Darrow by Mike Hagel, c. 1985.

A legend in the legal profession, Clarence Darrow (1857–1938) is considered America’s greatest trial lawyer and a symbol of consummate courtroom skill. In a career spanning 60 years, Darrow built his legacy on an unmatched record in capital cases and on daring heroics during several “trials of the century,” most notably the Leopold and Loeb murder trial (1924) and the Scopes “Monkey” trial (1925).

Darrow’s down-to-earth manner belied a brilliant legal mind and peerless oratory in the courtroom. A bare-knuckles labor lawyer in his early career, he often defended controversial figures, earning him many friends and foes. In his later career, Darrow became the country’s foremost criminal defense attorney, aiding otherwise hopeless clients in the face of the longest odds. When involved in a case at the trial stage, Darrow never lost a client to the death penalty. As a public intellectual during the Roaring Twenties, Darrow challenged popular assumptions and taboos with his iconoclastic views, which greatly contributed to his fame. His fascinating career and trials have been the subject of numerous novels, biographies, and movies. Few lawyers have captured the public imagination in America or elsewhere as much as Darrow.

Caricature of Darrow by Henry Major, 1925.

The University of Minnesota Law Library is proud to hold the premier collection of letters to and from Clarence Darrow. The majority of the collection was acquired in 2004, representing the Law Library’s millionth-volume milestone, under the guidance of Joan S. Howland, the Roger F. Noreen Professor of Law and Associate Dean for Information & Technology. The Darrow collection, housed in the Library’s Riesenfeld Rare Books Center, continues to grow. Today it includes more than 1,000 letters, as well as books, speeches, debates, trial briefs and transcripts, and other material by and about Darrow.

Letter of Darrow to Charles J. Dutton, c.1930.

The extraordinary research collection has been enhanced by recent acquisitions that shed additional light on Darrow’s life and career. A series of 15 letters from Darrow to Charles J. Dutton (1888– 1964), a mystery writer and Unitarian minister, documents a previously unknown friendship that led Darrow to frequent Dutton’s congregation in Des Moines, Iowa, where he spoke on crime and capital punishment. In a letter to Forrest Black, a law professor at the University of Kentucky, Darrow comments favorably on arguments in Black’s book manuscript, Ill-Starred Prohibition Cases:
A Study in Judicial Pathology
(1931), for which Darrow wrote a preface.

Another newly acquired letter was sent by Darrow to his co-counsel, John Wourms, as Darrow argued before the U.S. Supreme Court for
a writ of habeas corpus in Pettibone v. Nichols (1906). The petition sought the release of murder suspects kidnapped and transported across state lines to face indictment in a notorious case.

Clarence Darrow’s will, 1911.

The Library also recently received Darrow’s signed and witnessed will from 1911. The will was generously donated by Henry Mangels, a nephew of the pathbreaking lawyer Nellie Carlin (1869–1948). Carlin worked in Darrow’s office and later became the second president of the Women’s Bar Association of Illinois and assistant Cook County State’s Attorney. These and several other acquisitions will enrich our knowledge of Darrow’s career, causes, and associates, and provide valuable new resources for students, faculty, and other researchers.

By Ryan Greenwood, Law Library faculty member and curator of rare books and special collections