Clarence Darrow and the SS Eastland Tragedy

Shipwreck on the Chicago River

(Feature photo: The SS Eastland shipwreck sign at LaSalle and Wacker Streets in Chicago. The ship overturned in the Chicago River in front of the Reid-Murdock building in the background.)

Chicago River Eastland Tragedy map (2)
Map: Environment and Climate Change Canada

By Karen Rodriguez

On the corner of Wacker Drive and LaSalle Street in Chicago, overlooking the Chicago River, a small informational sign tells the story of the July 24, 1915 shipwreck that killed more people than passengers on the Titanic. The SS Eastland, tied to the dock on the river in front of the Reid-Murdock warehouse, had just taken on more than 2,500 passengers for a Western Electric company picnic trip to Michigan City, Indiana. In spite of Chief Engineer Joseph Erickson’s attempts to stabilize the ship, within minutes of boarding the ship rolled over and 844 people died just feet from the dock. Clarence Darrow, the Chicago “attorney for the damned,” defended Erickson from allegations that he alone was responsible for the tragedy.

The former Reid-Murdock warehouse on the Chicago River. The building was used as a temporary morgue after the disaster.

A federal grand jury was held in January 1916 at the federal court building in Grand Rapids, Michigan to determine whether six SS Eastland defendants would be extradited to Chicago for a full trial. Darrow was one of seven attorneys for the six defendants—two ship owners, Walter Steele and William Hull; two Steamboat Inspection Service inspectors, Robert Reid (Erickson’s father-in-law) and Charles Eckliff; SS Eastland Captain Pedersen, and Erickson. The defense attorneys’ clients were quick to point fingers at each other: the owners knew about the ship’s instability at the time they purchased it several years earlier; the inspectors didn’t inspect; the crew was negligent. The only person who told the truth was Darrow’s client, Erickson. Federal prosecutors attempted to argue the disaster was a result of a conspiracy to operate an unsafe ship and criminal negligence. Largely due to Darrow’s eloquent arguments, Judge Sessions ruled that the shipwreck was an accident; none of the defendants would be criminally tried. Erickson died of heart failure in April 1919 at the age of 34.

By 1915 Darrow had a national reputation. He worked for industrialists and capitalists and anarchists and the poor:

“When he was confronted by a hard luck case, it tortured him to think he might help and had not. It took nerve to cross the social divide, yet Darrow did. There was little to be gained by striving to ease the dreary lives of the working class, yet Darrow did. Respectable folks frowned at those who spoke on behalf of anarchists, Irish and Russian revolutionaries, and foreign-born workers, yet Darrow did. Trouble found the man who pleaded for trade unions and women’s suffrage, yet Darrow did. He seemed to go out of his way to vex the people and institutions that bestowed wealth.”*

Darrow’s greatest skill was his oratory. He spoke for hours in courtrooms in defense of clients, moving judges, juries and spectators to tears or riling them to anger. He defended labor union organizers such as the Chicago Haymarket defendants and the Western Federation of Miners. He famously defended young Patrick Prendergast, who murdered Chicago Mayor Carter Harrison, as an insane individual who deserved mercy and treatment for mental illness; Prendergast was hanged. He defended teenage killers Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb who killed a 14 year old boy in search of a thrill; they were imprisoned but not executed. Darrow defended teacher John Scopes in the famous Tennessee Monkey Trial. Going head to head with prosecuting attorney William Jennings Bryan, Darrow defended Darwinism in a courtroom of those believing in the literal interpretation of the bible; Scopes received a $100.00 fine. Curiously, the Eastland shipwreck was not mentioned in Darrow’s autobiography.

No large vessels dock in this part of the Chicago River anymore. The Chicago Water Taxi service runs from the West Loop at Ogilvie/Union Stations to Michigan Avenue, LaSalle Street in River North, Riverwalk Clark Street, North Avenue/Sheffield, Chinatown and Chicago Avenue. Chicago Architecture Tour boats depart from Navy Pier and travel along the lakefront, through the locks and up the Chicago River past the Eastland site to the Willis (formerly Sears) Tower. Today, only the historic car ferry SS Badger between Manitowoc, Wisconsin and Ludington, Michigan and the Lake Express between Milwaukee, Wisconsin and Muskegon, Michigan take passengers across Lake Michigan.

*Clarence Darrow, Attorney for the Damned p. 49.

The books:

*Farrell, John A. Clarence Darrow, Attorney for the Damned. New York, NY: Vintage Books. 2011. This biography of Darrow is thorough and engaging. Darrow’s temperament, actions, and greatest successes and failures as an attorney are clearly presented in the context of the times, historically important both in Chicago and nationally. Contemporaries of Darrow include William Jennings Bryan, Eugene Debs, Mother Jones, William Randolph Hearst, H.L. Mencken, Hamlin Garland, John D. Rockefeller, Theodore Roosevelt, and Edgar Lee Masters.

McCarthy, Michael. Ashes Under Water, The SS Eastland and the Shipwreck that Shook America. Guilford, CT: Lyons Press. 2014. This concise, descriptive account of the shipwreck, the grand jury proceedings and the sequence of events that led to the tragedy gives insight into the lives and motivations of those who chose profit over safety and honesty over self-preservation.

Weinberg, Arthur, Editor. Attorney for the Damned, Clarence Darrow in the Courtroom Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press. 1989. Darrow’s writings about his cases are introspective and compelling. Interestingly, he did not write about the Eastland case. However, Darrow’s writings are personal and thoughtful and record intimate views of his life.

The place:

Wacker Drive and LaSalle Street, Chicago, IL

Content and all photos copyright 2017 Karen Rodriguez

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