Masters and Darrow, the Odd Couple

by Terry Hogan

I'm a sucker for used books, and there is a used book store just a few blocks from my office. About once a week, I can be found spending my noon hour, prowling the shelves, looking for interesting and cheap books. Recently, I found two, and to my surprise, they related to one another and each had a tie to Galesburg. But it is an odd story.

The first book was "Clarence Darrow for the Defense", written by Irving Stone and published in 1941. The second book was Edgar Lee Masters' "Lincoln the Man" published in 1931. Yes, the one connection with Galesburg is obvious. This Lincoln biographer is the same Knox College student that gave Spoon River its moment of fame - "Spoon River Anthology".

The Clarence Darrow tie to Galesburg and the Darrow to Masters tie are a little more obscure. Clarence Darrow's second wife - his wife through most of his life and through the hard years, was Ruby Hamerstrom. Ruby was born in Galesburg. Her mother was described as a "Swedish beauty" who wrote pieces for religious magazines. Ruby's father, according to the book about Darrow, "…was in charge of the blacksmith shops of the Chicago, Burlington and Quincy Railroad".

Ruby dropped out of high school at the age of 14 to take care of her seriously ill, bed-ridden mother and her six brothers. Although not a student at Knox, Ruby spent what time she could at the Knox College library, particularly trying to learn how to be a journalist. At 18, Ruby left Galesburg for Chicago, with the intent of becoming a newspaper woman. At age 26, she met Clarence Darrow, and he pursued the beautiful Swede with long auburn hair. It took four years, but they married and she was his wife in the good and the bad times. Thus we have the Galesburg (and Knox College) tie to both Darrow and Masters.

But how do these two relatively famous men tie together? The answer can be easily given, but I have to admit that it puzzles me more than just a little. Both were lawyers. Both practiced law in Chicago. And, Clarence Darrow, the voice for the worker, for "the little guy" and Masters, who would have to be called aloof, became law partners. It was a strange team. Irving Stone writes:

"It is difficult to imagine a sharper contrast between two men: Darrow despised the human race but loved people; Masters loved humanity but hated people. Darrow was warm, informal, generous, tolerant, lovable; Masters was cold, intellectual, brittle, self-centered."

The partnership lasted for a number of years. Some sources say it lasted six years; others say eight years. The details of the breakup of their relationship was not clear, but I suppose, reflective of the time, Stone simply writes, "…he [Darrow] formed a partnership with Edgar Lee Masters, which was to result in the only tragic relationship of his life". Perhaps it had to do with a joint banking venture that Darrow convinced Masters to invest in. Darrow's son was a key figure in the bank. The deal went bad and although the depositors were made whole, Darrow and Masters lost a lot of money. Perhaps this was it. Perhaps not.

Darrow's life read like a soap opera in terms of really good times and really bad times. He found himself at times an American hero and at times an American villain. He was the defense attorney in the famous evolution teaching case, "Scopes Monkey Trial". He was also a defendant in a case alleging that he was involved in tampering. This case caused him to spend nearly all his money hiring criminal lawyers in his defense. The details go beyond this article's scope but make good reading.

Darrow was predictably generous with his legal fees. He, for example, took a death case in the workplace for a 50% contingency, which was typical for that period of time. He was able to negotiate a $20,000 settlement for the widow. However, rather than claiming the $10,000 contingent fee, he only accepted $10, claiming that this was a fair price as he did not have to go to trial. The rest of the money was turned over to the widow.

On the other hand, in Master's biography of Lincoln, you may find it more of an autobiography of Masters or at least his thoughts. Writing about Lincoln's early formative years, Masters makes the following sweeping statement (page 13): "There was a callousness and dumbness about some of the pioneer people of the Middle West, which persist to this day, and have become the nourishment of a sort of semi-barbarism, sometimes becoming cruel bigotry, at others a sort of savage indifference to the refined interests of life; and of this quality, in some particulars, was Abraham Lincoln."

In a treatment of Lincoln's father, you can read a somewhat embittered attribution to Lincoln's father’s behavior: "Much whiskey was drunk; and all weird superstitions abounded concerning the moon, the flight of birds, the bringing of a shovel into a room, which meant a near death; and there were ghosts and witches about, whispering in dark corners, or flying over the roofs. In this sort of cabin was Abraham Lincoln born, in an obscure back settlement of Kentucky of cane brake society, in no wise fit to be called the home of a human being. This was the kind of home which Thomas Lincoln provided for Nancy Hanks, when he might have lived in some comfort in Elizabethtown, from which he moved, as it is supposed, because he could not stand the attitude of a better class of people toward him. Rather than labor to rise to their level, he preferred the woods and loathsome poverty, rats and cold and filth." (Page 16).

Such attributions of motivation given to Lincoln's father were also freely applied to Lincoln as well: "In Lincoln's case the subjugation of the South had to be smeared over with religion, it had to be made at one with the creed of Methodists, and Baptists, with the whole rank and file of Calvinism, with the nauseating piety and the sadistic righteousness of America as a Christian nation, in order to conceal its purpose, in order to satisfy those who fought for the Lord, if they fought at all, that such was their battle at Gettysburg." (Page 480).

Much of Masters' writings about Lincoln and the conduct of the war appear to be a reflection of his belief that Lincoln's actions so strengthened the federal government, and so weakened the state governments, that he put the United States on a course of big power monopolies, corruption, and loss of individual and state rights. Masters writes of Lincoln's assassination by Booth- "…Booth's bullet was the last one fired for States' Rights." (Page 477).

It must have been an interesting law firm, with Darrow and Masters as partners. They truly had to be the "Odd Couple".


Master, Edgar Lee. 1931. Lincoln the Man. Dodd Mead & Company. New York.

Stone, Irving. 1941. Clarence Darrow, For the Defense. Doubleday, Doran & Company, Inc. Garden City, New York