The Straight Dope - Did Clarence Darrow distract a jury by using wire to keep his cigar ash from falling?
I'm sure you're familiar with the tale of Clarence Darrow hiding a wire in his cigar to keep the ash from falling and thus distracting the jury during the DA’s closing statement. Do you have any thoughts on what type of wire (gauge, material, etc.) was or would be used?
— John Kregel, Santa Cruz
John, have you no sense of system? We have, in fact, established the type and gauge of wire and other details needed to pull off this classic stunt. (Actually, my assistant Una established them, with my distant supervision.) However, if you don't mind, we need to tackle the big picture first.
Clarence Darrow, as everybody ought to know but probably doesn't, was the most famous defense attorney in America a century ago. Quick-witted and eloquent, he was renowned for his impassioned arguments on behalf of unpopular figures. His clients ranged from pioneering labor leader Eugene Debs to thrill killers Leopold and Loeb.
Darrow is perhaps best remembered for his unsuccessful defense of schoolteacher John Scopes, and by extension the theory of evolution, in the so-called Scopes monkey trial of 1925. (Scopes was accused of violating Tennessee law by teaching evolution.) Some say this was the trial at which Darrow, described by the New York Times as a man of "wicked zest and mordant humor," employed the cigar-ash trick. Other accounts merely say it was a favorite tactic, without citing a particular case.
But Darrow, not a reticent fellow, mentions nothing along these lines in his autobiography. Newspaperman H.L. Mencken, who covered the Scopes trial extensively in his columns, never said anything about it, either. So for now we'd better chalk this story up as "coulda happened, probably didn't."
The sad fact is, cherished though the notion may be, I haven't found reliable evidence that any lawyer ever tried the cigar-ash trick in a courtroom. A 1980 article in a lawyers’ magazine claims it had recently been ventured in a Dallas administrative hearing, but there's no cite. Cigar Aficionado magazine quotes federal Judge Loren Smith as saying he once slipped a straightened-out paper clip into an 8-inch stogie, which he then calmly smoked in a white-carpeted meeting room, declining an ashtray until he had 7 inches of ash. Not a trial, no jury. Still, not bad.
We do have corroboration for one impressive essay at jury bamboozlement. A 1963 Time article relates the story of high-profile attorney Melvin Belli arguing a personal-injury case for a plaintiff who'd lost her leg. At the beginning of the trial, Belli brought a large L-shaped package wrapped in butcher paper into the courtroom and let it sit for days on the counsel's table, tantalizing the jurors. Finally, while making his closing argument, he slowly unwrapped the package to reveal a prosthetic leg. You might say this lacks the subtlety of the cigar trick, but you’d have to agree it’s in the same league.
You wanted practical advice, though. I volunteered Una to discover what she could. She acquired six cigars and five short pieces of piano wire ranging in diameter from 0.062 inches down to 0.015 inches (about nine times the diameter of a human hair); she also straightened out a standard paper clip. She then carefully fed each wire into the center of a cigar and set up an elegant apparatus of metal clamps inside a box to allow the cigars to burn undisturbed. Needless to say this accomplished nothing, since the cigars needed air passing through them to keep them lit, which, as a nonsmoker, Una was disinclined to supply. She next tried rigging up a hand-pumped bladder to draw air through the cigars. This plan was also a failure. Finally, sacrificing herself for science, she sat on her patio and gingerly puffed away. The results:
• Each of the wires worked reasonably well for keeping the ash together on the cigar. Typically, the ash reached 4 to 4.5 inches before Una extinguished the cigar.
• The finer-gauge wires worked best — the thicker ones (including the paper clip) tended to shed bits of ash around the middle. Possibly the thin wire penetrated more cleanly and didn't chew up the guts of the cigar. The finest wire was able to endure a modest amount of hand movement without dropping any ash.
• Una, though careful not to inhale, thought she was going to die. However, you know what they say about omelets and eggs.
So there you have it, John — fine-gauge piano wire is all you need, plus of course a cigar. Now, what you're going to do with this knowledge I can't say. Smoking is verboten in courtrooms these days, and I doubt a cigar would go over too well in most indoor meetings. But that’s hardly my problem. All I do is provide the facts. Their application is up to you.
Comments, questions? Take it up with Cecil on the Straight Dope Message Board, straightdope.com, or write him at the Chicago Reader, 11 E. Illinois, Chicago 60611.