by Nelson Johnson
Clarence Darrow is the best-known lawyer of modern times and possibly all times, but where fact ends and myth begins often blurs. Darrow’s Nightmare is not a biography, but rather the true story of Darrow’s worst two years when he and his wife Ruby were under siege in Los Angeles, 1911-13.
In the spring of 1911, Clarence and Ruby Darrow left Chicago for Los Angeles, not knowing when they’d return. The battle between labor and capital in America was raging, and months earlier, on October 1, 1910, an explosion destroyed the Los Angeles Times’ building, killing 20 employees. After a nation-wide manhunt, the “McNamara Brothers” of the Iron Workers union (Golden Boy “J.J.” and ne’er-do-well Jim) were arrested and charged with murder.
Harrison Gray Otis, owner of the Times, demanded revenge. Known as “the General,” Otis was the survivor of two wars, the American Civil War and the Spanish-American War. Early 20th Century Los Angeles was a boom town and business moguls, led by the General, controlled things totally. The death of the Times employees was a moral outrage, and the local mindset was that of a lynch mob. Organized labor cried frame-up. The brothers had been kidnapped by celebrity detective William J. Burns and dragged to Los Angeles sans an extradition hearing. The General’s nemesis, socialist mayoral candidate, Job Harriman charged Otis with neglecting a gas leak, causing the explosion; Otis was due to collect millions in insurance proceeds.
Yet Harriman’s accusations against Otis were unsupportable and within several months of arriving in Los Angeles, Darrow concluded that the only hope to save the McNamaras was to plead them guilty. With help from his friend, muckraking journalist Lincoln Steffens, a plea bargain sparing the brothers’ lives was negotiated in December of 1911. That disappointed General Otis, yet he perked up when in January of 1912, the nation’s best-known lawyer was facing criminal charges for attempted jury tampering in the McNamara case. Darrow soon needed an attorney of his own and retained Los Angeles favorite, Earl Rogers. But for the flamboyant, charismatic, and deeply troubled Rogers, Darrow’s career might have ended in Los Angeles.
Also, with the defense team was Horace Appel, a brilliant Mexican Jew with a vast command of accented English, capable of goading his adversaries into apoplexy. The prosecutors were the politically ambitious District Attorney John Fredericks and his Deputy, Joe Ford; both too aggressive for their own good. Finally, there was the trial judge, George Hutton, a patient gentleman whose expertise was in western water rights; his inexperience in criminal law and managing the courtroom led to chaos.
No one was spared the toll taken by the twelve-week trial, especially Ruby who suffered a nervous breakdown. Ruby’s plight throughout this ordeal was aggravated by the presence of two other women. One was a former lover of Darrow’s, Mary Field a labor journalist in attendance at the trial. Her constant presence was unnerving. The other woman was Earl Rogers’ precocious daughter Adela. She and Ruby despised one another - sparks flew repeatedly.
The verdict was a swift acquittal. To attempt to recount more from an 8,5000(+) page transcript would be foolhardy. As discussed in the Epilogue, the trial was a life-altering experience for each of the participants.
“Darrow’s Nightmare” stands apart from anything written about Darrow. As a retired trial judge, Nelson Johnson is the only author who has read the entire trial transcript with an understanding of the courtroom dynamics. Finally, Johnson is the first author to pay proper respect to Ruby’s role in Clarence’s career. Without Ruby, Clarence would have had difficulty functioning at the high level that made him a legend.