Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

The Defense of Dr. Ossian Sweet by Clarence Darrow

Who Was Dr. Ossian Sweet?

Dr. Ossian Sweet
Dr. Ossian Sweet

By any measure, Ossian Sweet's life was a success story. Born in Bartow, Florida, in 1895, he was a grandson of slaves, and the oldest of 10 children of a share cropper and his wife. He was born at the virulent height of the Jim Crow era, in a state that exhibited the full force of its repressiveness of blacks the poll tax, strict segregation, and the more than occasional lynching. Whites shot and killed blacks without fear of penalty. While Ossian Sweet was named for the benign White Reconstruction governor of Florida, Ossian Hart, by the time he was born attitudes more closely resembled those of another Southern governor:

I have three daughters, but so help me God, I had rather find either one of them killed by a tiger or a bear and gather up her bones and bury them than to have her crawl to me and tell me the horrid story that she had been robbed of the jewel of her maidenhood by a black fiend."

Ben Tillman, as quoted in Boyle, Arc of Justice, 2004

The importance of examining Ossian Sweet's childhood cannot be underemphasized. At age 6, he witnessed a lynching. He grew up in a community where most of the populace worked in the phosphate mines under near slave-like conditions: Twelve-hour days, six days a week, at one dollar a day. The repression of blacks, the shootings, and the lynchings made an indelible impression on the boy. These psychological scars persisted into his adulthood, when race riots that he witnessed added to his fears. Most importantly, these childhood events formed the basis for his defense against the murder charge that is at the core of this story.

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