Blagojevich Calls to Mind Clarence Darrow and Chicago Corruption

Putting Blagojevich's arrest in historical perspective

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By John Aloysius Farrell, Thomas Jefferson Street blog

Now that Illinois Gov. Rod R. Blagojevich has joined Chicago's long list of political rogues and rascals who have spent time in handcuffs, connoisseurs of the city's politics are having fun exchanging their favorite Second City tales.

Here's one that I've come across while researching my book on Clarence Darrow—who, as a young lawyer, represented a prime cast of Chicago's crooks and boodlers in the 1890s, long before he achieved saintly status for the courtroom heroics of his later years.

Chicago then had the ethics, as one of its leading journalists put it, of a mining camp with skyscrapers. (Apparently, not much has changed.) And one of the City Council's most notorious scams involved the sale of public-utility franchises.

It was quite a simple shakedown. Some enterprising local council members would pick an existing city service—the gas or electricity or streetcar company—and, after many florid speeches about how competition would drive down prices for consumers, vote to award a second franchise to a group of their buddies. The existing utility would then be allowed to buy the new group out, and so retain its profitable monopoly. Everybody profited, except the citizens.

So it was in early 1895, when a gang of the state's politicos—which included Chicago's Democratic Mayor John Hopkins and Illinois Gov. John Altgeld—steered two measures through the council that, according to the next day's Chicago Tribune, "will stand for all time to come as monuments of corruption." One gave a franchise to the Ogden Gas Co., and the other to the Cosmopolitan Electric Co.

"Each of the twins which went through the Council grants a franchise of 50 years. Each made its appearance for the first time in the Council last evening, and each was passed on a single reading with practically no opportunity to amend," the Trib reported. "Neither ordinance was read section by section and neither ordinance ever saw the light of a committee room." The Chicago Record valued the benefits bestowed by the ordinances at "millions of dollars" and called the occasion of their passage "the most disgraceful night in the history of the city's disgraceful legislative body."

The council's action spurred opposition—and not only from the goo-goo types at the newspapers. A rival gang of Democratic politicians, led by future mayor Carter Harrison (no doubt with the encouragement of the existing gas and electric monopolies), fought to kill the ordinances, in the council and in court. The Ogden Gas folks had to actually build a plant, and produce gas, before they were bought out.

That is where Darrow came in. He was a friend, political lieutenant, and future law partner of Altgeld and was hired as the lawyer for the Cosmopolitan company, to defend its franchise in court.

Darrow's friends in Chicago's reform movement were stunned that he was representing the boodlers. They had thought he was a reformer and a liberal, even radical, friend of the working man. Their anger prompted Darrow to write a long letter to one of them, which must rank as one of American history's finer cold and analytic explorations of a lawyer's duty—and a reformer's options.

"I did not know how this ordinance was passed," Darrow explained. "I however know enough about municipal affairs to believe it was passed for boodle like every ordinance granting valuable privileges in this city."

According to the "ordinary commercial and legal standard of ethics," Darrow wrote, "all clients have the right to have their cases represented." But that did not obscure the fact that "judged by the higher law, in which we both believe . . . I am practically a thief."

"Society is organized injustice," Darrow wrote. "Business is legal fraud . . . a landowner is a pirate who takes money from the poor for standing on the ground that should be free to all."

But after selling "my professional services to every corporation or individual who cared to buy," Darrow explained, he put the proceeds of his work to use to further political causes, and take on legal cases that advanced the rights of organized labor and the poor. "I have taken their ill gotten gains and have tried to use it to prevent suffering."

"I have defended the poor and weak, have done it without pay, will do it again. I cannot defend them without bread," he said.

Darrow received "a thousand times as much as my services are worth even assuming they were useful and honest." Altgeld, under intense financial pressure, was forced to sell his share in the scheme before it fully matured. He got $200,000 for a cut that the New York Times said was worth "$1,000,000 or more."

A footnote: Altgeld sold his share to Jacob Franks, a Chicago businessman who would be famous, three decades later, when his son Bobby Franks was kidnapped and murdered by the infamous thrill killers, Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb.

Darrow went on to defend labor organizers and coal miners; to save African-Americans from legal lynch mobs; to defend conscientious objectors during war, American Communists during Red Scares, and to advance the cause of academic freedom, free speech, and other personal liberties.

And in 1924, with a brilliant legal performance, a storied plea for mercy, and a relentless critique of capital punishment, it was Clarence Darrow who saved Leopold and Loeb from the gallows.

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