On a summer morning in July 1915, thousands of poor factory workers lined the Chicago docks, waiting to board ships for the much anticipated annual picnic hosted by Western Electric Company. But as 2,500 passengers flooded aboard the first ship, the SS Eastland, disaster struck. The huge liner flipped onto its side, drowning more than 800 people in the filthy Chicago River, including 22 whole families.
Following the disaster, the city – and the nation – called for swift justice. Several men were quickly indicted, including the ship’s young engineer, a Norwegian immigrant whose heroic action following the disaster prevented even greater loss of life. Representing him in a shadowy trial that exposed the corruption of the era was a lawyer whose once-stellar career was reeling from recent charges of bribing a juror — Clarence Darrow. Darrow would later gain fame for defending John Scopes in what became known as the Scopes Monkey Trial, and for other high-profile legal work.
Today’s guest, Michael McCarthy, recounts the awful tragedy of the SS Eastland and its aftermath in his book Ashes Under Water. He is a former longtime reporter and editor for The Wall Street Journal and the author of a previous book, The Sun Farmer.