University Law Library buys famous attorney’s letters

Molly Moker

Imagine what could be learned from reading a lifetime of someone’s mail.

Now, think of what could be learned from reading the mail of one of the most famous lawyers in U.S. history.

That’s exactly what University students will be able to do, now that the University’s Law Library has bought the largest collection of Clarence Darrow’s personal and professional letters.

The Law Library bought the collection from Darrow’s family for more than $100,000. The library will pay for the papers through endowments and donations over several years, said Joan Howland, Roger Noreen Professor of Law and associate dean at the Law School. Howland is also the director of the Law Library.

One of Darrow’s most famous cases was his defense of John Scopes, a teacher who was arrested in 1925 for teaching evolution in public schools, said Randall Tietjen, a Minneapolis attorney and Darrow scholar.

“All of (Darrow’s) life, he took on many cases for poor people who could not pay for his services,” Tietjen said. “He firmly believed in providing a criminal defense for every defendant, regardless if they could pay for his services or not. He had such a reputation for defending the little guys, so to speak.”

Howland said the Darrow family sold the papers at a very reasonable price because the Law Library promised not to break up the collection and to preserve it correctly, under the care of a curator in a highly secured and climate-controlled area.

“The family is pleased (the papers) came to us,” Howland said. “They were very pleased they are going to a law school and one of the most respected law libraries in the country.”

The Darrow letters were officially inducted into the Law Library on Friday. Several people attended the event, including members of the Darrow family, former Vice President and Law School alumnus Walter Mondale, Senior Vice President for Academic Affairs and Provost E. Thomas Sullivan and Regent Frank Berman.

The Darrow papers mark the Law Library’s millionth volume.

Howland said the collection is a perfect fit for the 1-million mark because of what Darrow represents.

“He took on issues that were controversial or unpopular and really fought for the causes he believed in,” she said. “He is the epitome of what we hope our students at the University, and all lawyers, are doing.”

On Friday, the Law Library also inducted one of the first copies of Thomas Paine’s “Common Sense” and an electronic database about Darrow’s greatest cases, specifically designed for the Law School by Thomson-West Publishing.

The Law Library has pursued the Darrow collection of letters for almost a year, Howland said. The letters’ availability in the library will be the first time they have been made public, she said.

The collection is the largest and most comprehensive collection of Darrow’s papers. It includes more than 900 letters written by and to Darrow. Of the letters, 350 are written to his family and friends.

The collection also includes letters written to Darrow, from former Presidents Woodrow Wilson and Franklin D. Roosevelt, and Helen Keller.

The letters span more than 60 years. They include his earliest known letter, written as a teenager, and one written shortly before his death.

Howland said the collection will not be available to the public for at least a year. Because of Darrow’s nearly illegible handwriting, the library must transcribe the letters, index them into an easily researchable system, make hardcopy facsimiles and scan them into an electronic database.

Tietjen said the letters will present a personal side of Darrow.

“Because he’s writing to his family, he’s writing more intimate letters about his experiences and feelings of the day,” Tietjen said. “But the letters also contain a great deal of information about his professional activities.”