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
was the most
at torney in
America a century
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 socalled
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
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 cigarash
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 citation. Cigar
Aficionado magazine quotes federal judge
Loren Smith as saying he once slipped a
straightened-out paper clip into an eightinch
stogie, which he then calmly smoked
in a white-carpeted meeting room, declining
an ashtray until he had seven 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.
to say this
accompl i shed
nothing, since the
cigars needed air
them to keep them
lit, which, as a
was disinclined to
supply. She next
tried rigging up
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 finer-gauge wires worked best— the thicker ones (these included 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. The 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.