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Thursday, November 14, 2019

New Darrow Letters: Transcription Project

The Law Library's collection of autograph letters by (and to) the legendary American attorney Clarence Darrow is represented now by over 1000 pieces of correspondence held in the Riesenfeld Center. It is the richest trove of Darrow's letters in the country and a terrific source for study. First acquired as part of the Law Library's millionth volume celebrations in 2004, the collection of letters was augmented by a significant second acquisition, and has been enlarged with additions since that time. As a result of the original purchases, the Library created an award-winning digital site, the Clarence Darrow Digital Collection, featuring images of the majority of the letters, together with transcriptions and additional historical context regarding the correspondents. This undertaking has made Darrow's letters accessible online for the first time, and provides a foundation for new perspectives on Darrow's storied career through the research of students and scholars. In addition, the digital site includes the most extensive and in-depth analyses of Darrow's leading court cases, which were created through the extraordinary work of Mike Hannon, our Associate Director for Access Services & Digital Initiatives, who also managed the creation of the site.

More recently, we have been transcribing letters not originally included online, with the aim of expanding the material available on the website. This material includes new purchases of letters made in the last ten years. Some of the notable correspondence relates to early moments and cases in Darrow's career, including an 1881 property law case in Ohio, not far from where Darrow grew up. Other letters relate to Darrow's relationship with his publishers, who printed his many articles and speeches; and to his wife Ruby, who maintained their circle of friends and protected her husband's image and legacy for years after his death in 1937. Some of the most notable letters throw light on his often controversial views on a range of social and political issues, including capital punishment and euthanasia. In one letter, Darrow eloquently addresses his position on capital punishment, arguing it is incompatible with a necessary human forbearance and mercy. On euthanasia, Darrow writes that the practice is illegal only on account of outmoded religious beliefs. Other letters concern Darrow's long fight against Prohibition, whose effects were felt in Chicago, for many years Darrow's home.

Darrow's handwriting is notoriously difficult to read. As America's most famous defense attorney and an avid public speaker, Darrow was relentlessly active over the course of an almost 60-year career, particularly between about 1905 and 1930. He frequently scrawled out notes on hotel letterhead, bearing place names from New Hampshire to Los Angeles, and often wrote on trains as he crisscrossed the country. Ian Moret, our special collections assistant, has been doing heroic work to decode Darrow's handwriting, often throwing light on unknown moments and little known figures in the lawyer's life. One example is the letter mentioned above from 1881, which represents the second dated letter in our collection and first related to Darrow's career. In it, Darrow discusses a property case he was engaged in as a young lawyer, not long after passing the Ohio bar. Ian's good post on the letter, and our initial transcription work, is over on our Tumblr blog. A few letters, like this difficult one, are good candidates for crowdsourcing!

   - Ryan Greenwood, Curator of Rare Books and Special Collections



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