• Gabriel Donio

Johnson writes new book on Darrow


Nelson Johnson is the author of Boardwalk Empire and his latest book Darrow's Nightmare: The Forgotten Story of America’s Most Famous Trial Lawyer. (Courtesy Photo)

HAMMONTON—Retired New Jersey Superior Court Judge Nelson Johnson is a local resident who is the author of Boardwalk Empire, which became an HBO television series and three other books,. His latest book, Darrow’s Nightmare: The Forgotten Story of America’s Most Famous Trial Lawyer, is a nonfiction account of an extremely difficult period in Clarence Darrow’s life that took place in Los Angeles from 1911 to 1913.


The book is an entertaining read that captures its era perfectly, with an incredible amount of detail about a bribery trial that had Darrow as the defendant following his role as a defense attorney for two unionists who bombed the Los Angeles Times, killing 20 employees. Johnson was interviewed by The Gazette about his latest book on April 28.


He said he had been interested in the law and Darrow since childhood. Clarence Darrow became even more famous in his own time for his role defending a teacher who taught evolution in what became known as the Scopes Monkey Trial and was portrayed by Spencer Tracy in the movie Inherit the Wind. In the summer after eighth grade, Johnson’s mother gave her son a copy of one of Stone’s books about Darrow.


“At the age of 5 I decided I wanted to be a lawyer. In the eighth grade my mother gave me a copy of Irving Stone’s Darrow for the Defense … She had read all of Stone’s books and thought I was ready to read about Darrow. From that point on, along with Richie Ashburn, Chuck Bednarik and Wilt Chamberlain, Darrow was one of my heroes,” Johnson said.


Johnson said he had trouble accepting Stone’s take on the case, so much so that eventually, he and his wife, Johanna, were down at the Library of Congress reading letters from Stone and Ruby Darrow, Clarence Darrow’s wife. That experience and another book that referenced the bribery trial helped fuel Johnson’s desire to pursue the story further.


“In 1993 somebody wrote a book about this case and tells you in the first chapter that Darrow is guilty. It was called The People vs. Clarence Darrow. I had a problem with that as a lawyer and a judge because he was acquitted,” Johnson said.


Feeling that the earlier accounts relied too much on newspaper reports, Johnson decided to look for original documents. After finding information through the University of Minnesota Library’s website about the existence of a transcript, Johnson spoke with the library directly and soon had access to an 8,000-page digital transcript.


The research began in earnest, with Johnson spending an hour to an hour and a half each day reading the transcript and making notes.


“For this type of thing, you can’t get better than the transcript. Having presided over trials, I know what I’m reading when I read the transcript, and how it influenced the jury. I knew I had to write this book,” Johnson said.


The book presents Darrow as a flawed, but great, figure, whose mistakes become magnified because he is operating on such a large stage.


“He made too many miscues. In a case as big as this one, you can make a fool of yourself and he did,” Johnson said.


Among the many characters in the book—Johnson’s publisher encouraged him to include a list of the 20 “players” in it before the book begins—is Lincoln Steffens, the famous muckraking journalist of the era. Steffens attempted to advise Darrow, but without success, Johnson said.


“I tried to be as objective as possible when I talked about Lincoln Steffens negotiating a plea bargain for the McNamara brothers … Steffens says let’s get out of here—and said to include Darrow, but Darrow said no,” Johnson said.


Newspapers also featured prominently in the research and in the book itself, because the Los Angeles Times bombing was what brought Darrow to Los Angeles, but also because newspapers were the preeminent media of the era.


“LA had like 10 different newspapers. There were four or five pro-labor, some anti-labor, some others … there was a lot of power wielded by newspapers — Darrow was a famous national lawyer, and the newspapers made him a famous national lawyer,” Johnson said.


That decision led to a bribery trial with one of the most famous attorneys in the nation—if not the most famous—as the defendant.


When asked, Johnson said that his book could be seen as a cautionary tale about the dangers of hubris. One quote from Earl Rogers, Darrow’s defense attorney during the bribery trial, regarding the subject of the dangers of being prideful appears in the book twice.


“You don’t understand this man. Like so many great men, his mistakes are colossal. He must be saved from them. Genius always needs protection if it is to be used for mankind,” Johnson quoted Rogers as saying about his client Darrow.


The Gazette asked Johnson about the process of writing his latest book.


“It took me about five years, because I was still on the bench. Research never really stops … you’re constantly second-guessing yourself. The research is really intense before you start writing, then you do an outline, then you start writing … There is a lot of give and take. The publisher was very respectful of my thoughts. There were times when we had a kind of a tussle, and they would win some and I would win some. We crunched it from 20 chapters to 15 chapters,” Johnson said.


During his research period, when he was reading the massive transcript of the bribery trial, he became confident that there was enough material.


“As soon as I read the first 1,500 pages of the transcript, I said, ‘I got a book,’” Johnson said.


Darrow's Nightmare: The Forgotten Story of America's Most Famous Trial Lawyer is available on Amazon.com and at area bookstores. (Courtesy Photo)

Even the cover of the book is striking, with a painted rendering of what the artist conceived Darrow would have looked like during the era when the events in the book took place.


“My publisher and I had a conference call about a year ago. They said they were struggling with a cover, but they have an artist they’d used. They asked me to give them a picture of Darrow in that era. I gave them one from 1910 and one from 1915. They did a rendering of what they thought he looked like in between those two years,” Johnson said.


In the years leading up to the book being written and published, the author said he received encouragement for his book about Darrow, including in one of the unlikeliest of places—during a trip to Cooperstown, New York.


“It was about seven years ago in November, we decided to take a long weekend, and Johanna knows at this time I’m getting serious about Darrow. We went to Cooperstown, to the Baseball Hall of Fame. We found this used bookstore at the end of an alley. Johanna comes up to me and said ‘You’re not going to believe this’ and I asked her what she had. It was a bibliography of Clarence Darrow. I started leafing through it, and now I had all sorts of sources to look through, with all the newspaper and magazine sources and more. It was amazing,” Johnson said.


According to his biography, Johnson’s other books include Boardwalk Empire, The Northside: African Americans and the Creation of Atlantic City and Battleground New Jersey: Vanderbilt, Hague and Their Fight for Justice.


Prior to his retirement in 2018, as a New Jersey Superior Court Judge where he presided over more than 200 jury trials, Johnson practiced law for more than 30 years, his biography said. Johnson is now a full-time author, residing with his family in Hammonton, New Jersey.


Darrow’s Nightmare can be purchased on Amazon.com and at area bookstores.