The March 19, 1927, Portland Press Herald features a photograph of three men: lawyer Clarence Darrow, Maine Supreme Judicial Court Justice William R. Pattangall and Dr. Clifton Daggett Gray, president of Bates College.

Who were they, and what were they up to?

They were preparing to engage in a two-hour philosophical debate about the nature of God and man in front of a paying audience at City Hall auditorium. And while it might be unthinkable in today’s media environment, back then it was Page 1 news.

Darrow is the best remembered of the three today. In the 1920s, he was a household name.

The Press Herald called him “the famous criminal lawyer”; the Boston Herald, “one of the country’s foremost.” Once a corporate railroad lawyer, he switched sides to defending unions and radicals like Pullman strike organizer Eugene Debs. Almost 100 years later, Darrow is best remembered for defending Tennessee school teacher John Scopes against the 1925 “monkey” prosecution, challenging a statute that outlawed the teaching of evolution. Darrow succeeded in embarrassing expert prosecution witness William Jennings Bryan (President Woodrow Wilson’s secretary of state and three times a candidate for president), by putting him on the witness stand and questioning him whether every story in the Bible is literally true. The 1960 movie “Inherit the Wind,” starring Spencer Tracy, along with several later television remakes, has kept the Scopes trial alive in our collective memories.

Darrow had other famous cases – for example, his 12-hour sentencing argument in 1924 before Cook County (Illinois) Circuit Court Judge John R. Caverly, which saved wealthy Chicago college students Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb from hanging (they had murdered 14-year-old Bobby Franks to prove they could commit the perfect crime and get away with it). Meyer Levin’s 1956 play “Compulsion” and the 1959 movie with Orson Welles and E.G. Marshall prolonged the notoriety of that case.

Then, in 1925-’26, the NAACP hired Darrow to defend African American Dr. Ossian Sweet, his family members and friends against murder charges. Sweet’s house and family were attacked by a Detroit mob because they had moved into a previously white neighborhood. Shots were exchanged in both directions and a white man in the mob was killed. In a criminal trial against eight African American defendants, an all-white jury could not agree on a unanimous verdict. In a second trial, solely against Sweet’s brother Henry and again with an all-white jury, Darrow obtained an acquittal, and the prosecutor dropped all charges against the remaining defendants. Kevin Boyle’s “Arc of Justice” won the 2004 National Book Award for nonfiction for its account of the case.

Those are just a sample of Darrow’s famous cases. Aside from renowned lawyering, Darrow unabashedly trumpeted his agnosticism, and enthusiastically engaged in debates outside the courtroom – about free will with a University of Chicago Divinity School theologian (1917); about religion with the famous Catholic apologist G.K. Chesterton in New York City (1931: “Will the World Return to Religion?”), and in general about the nature of humankind.

In the 1920s, Bates College in Lewiston was also in the news.

In 1922, The New York Times pronounced Bates “the power centre of college debating in America” and recounted its many victories over other American colleges. That same year, the world-famous Oxford Union challenged the Bates debate team to cross the Atlantic to debate at Oxford, and then in 1923 Oxford came to Lewiston to debate Bates here. Bates’ third president, Gray, was energetic and successful in promoting his college and raising money. In 1926, while speaking to Bates alumni in Chicago (Darrow’s home turf), Gray could not resist boasting that the Bates debate team was good enough to debate the agnostic Darrow on the question “Is Man a Mechanism?” (As a Baptist clergyman and theologian, Gray obviously thought the answer was “no.”) When Darrow heard of the boast, Darrow issued a debate challenge – not to the Bates debate team, but to Gray himself!

Of course, Gray had to accept. He and Darrow agreed on a two-phase debate for 1927, first in Boston’s Symphony Hall on March 16 and second in Portland City Hall’s Municipal Auditorium (now known as the Merrill) on March 18.

They chose as their topic the title of a recent popular book by Richard La Rue Swain, “What and Why is Man?” The project attracted a lot of attention. The Feb. 27 Boston Herald recounted a lengthy interview with Gray. The newspaper called Darrow “one of the country’s foremost criminal lawyers” and Gray “a thoroughly red-blooded, normal and conservative defender of the faith.” It added: “Mr. Darrow will be meeting as a forensic adversary what the Bates boys would tell you is a two-fisted, straight-talking he-president of a college.”

The preliminary two-hour debate took place at Symphony Hall on March 16 as scheduled. The next day The New York Times reported that professor Kirkland F. Mather of Harvard’s department of geology and geography presided, but “there were no judges and no decision.” The March 17 Press Herald was more colorful: “A doubting lawyer, Clarence Darrow of Chicago, arch agnostic of the day, and a college preacher, President Clifton D. Gray of Bates … crossed forensic lances … . Though they drove at one another for two hours with logic, wit and evidence, neither was unhorsed nor was decision rendered. If the scholarly shield of Dr. Gray shone with a higher polish, the ironic lance of Mr. Darrow smote with a sharper point.”

The next day an advertisement in the March 18 morning Press Herald announced ticket prices ($1-$2, plus tax) and speaking sequence for that evening’s debate in Portland.

The succeeding morning’s edition, March 19, gave prominent, above-the-fold, Page 1 coverage to what occurred. Next to the photograph it began: “Clarence S. Darrow, bowed with the tragedy of civilization, and Dr. Clifton D. Gray, alert to the glory of civilization, debated the origin and nature of mankind for two hours Friday evening before an audience presided over in the City Hall auditorium by William R. Pattangall, Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of Maine.” The newspaper described Darrow as “the man who fought the late William Jennings Bryan on the right to believe in Evolution.”

And Darrow’s performance in Portland? According to the newspaper, “the audience leaned forward, tense and expectant, when the famous criminal lawyer, searcher for loop-holes in the law, shuffled forward to the center of the platform. For 40 minutes the listeners sat spell-bound, docile to the persuasion of the master.”

Another description: “Coming forward in his turn, after Dr. Gray had outlined the case as he proposed to argue it, Darrow, the defender of cornered criminals, seemed all too inadequate for his part. He allowed the audience to believe him crushed, beaten by the weight of a superior antagonist’s argument. If this feeling penetrated, as it apparently did, it was then that the great lawyer in him had scored its first point of many during the evening. Sympathy he sought and he came near, before he uttered a word of plea, to obtaining it. So, he would have played on the feelings of a jury . . . . Had the audience wished to visualize Darrow as he pleaded for Leopold and Loeb before Judge Caverly in Chicago, they had their desire. No art of the lawyer was missing, no attempt to drive home a telling point with emphasis.”

High praise, indeed. But at the end of the evening, the Press Herald reported, “The contest of wit and logic rested at the conclusion without decision.”
Darrow died in 1938, age 81. He is best captured by a lawyer who practiced with him, but then chose the life of a poet instead. Edgar Lee Masters (of “Spoon River Anthology” fame) said:

“This is Darrow, Inadequately scrawled

With his young, old heart,

And his drawl, his infinite paradox,

And his sadness, and his kindness,

And his artist sense that drives him to shape his life

To something harmonious, even against the schemes of God.”

Gray retired as Bates College president in 1944 and died in 1948, age 73. Time magazine’s obituary mentioned Gray’s 1927 debate with Darrow, saying that Gray “emerged undefeated.”

And that is what happened when Clarence Darrow came to Maine.


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