The 1925 trial of John Thomas Scopes, commonly known as the “Monkey Trial”, is probably one of my favorite subjects. I decided to write about it today because one of the major players in the trial was born today (March 19, 1860), William Jennings Bryan.
John Thomas Scopes was born August 3, 1900, in Paducah, Kentucky. The Scopes family lived in the country until John was eight, giving him considerable freedom from is mother and four sisters. He spent much of his time roaming the countryside.
In 1913, the family moved to Danville, Illinois, where John liked to attend vaudeville shows. Danville schools were racially integrated, which greatly impressed Scopes and appealed to his sense of fairness. After spending two years in Danville, the family moved again, this time to Salem, Illinois. In Salem, he was a forward on the Salem High School basketball team.
One day, William Jennings Bryan came to speak at Salem High. Though a superb orator, he repeatedly mispronounced a word, which set Scopes and his sisters laughing. Finally, the rest of the audience joined in, breaking the spell Bryan had woven over them. It so rattled Bryan that he remembered Scopes and the incident years later at the trial in Dayton.
Scopes attended the University of Illinois where he majored in chemistry, but had to drop out due to illness. He then tried at the University of Kentucky in Lexington, but had to drop out again in 1921. He eventually returned and garnered honors in Educational Psychology, Philosophy, Law, Sociology, Geology, Mathematics and Zoology. Even though his chief interest was in science, Scopes graduated with a Bachelor of Arts in Law.
Because of financial problems, he left college to coach and teach in Dayton, Tennessee. In 1924, he coached, taught algebra, physics and chemistry at Central High School for $150 a month. In my opinion, Scopes is a hero because of what he did while teaching at Central High.
Fundamentalism was a religious movement based on a strict, literal interpretation of the Bible. They thought the teaching of Evolution was a crime and had already started anti-evolution movements in fifteen states. In Tennessee, the Butler Act banned any teaching thought to be conflicting with the Book of Genesis. The Tennessee House passed it thinking the Senate would not. The Senate passed it thinking Governor Austin Peay would veto it, be he signed it into law thinking it would never be enforced.
The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) issued press releases that stated it would finance any test cases which challenged the constitutionality of the law. Scopes agreed to have George Rappleyea, who owned several local mines, to swear a complaint against him. Rappleyea pointed out that while the Butler Act prohibited the teaching of the theory of evolution, the state required teachers to use a textbook that explicitly described and endorsed the theory of evolution, and that teachers were, therefore, effectively required to break the law. Scopes mentioned that while he couldn’t remember whether he had actually taught evolution in class, he had, however, gone through the evolution chart and chapter with the class. Scopes added to the group “If you can prove that I’ve taught evolution and that I can qualify as a defendant, then I’ll be willing to stand trial.”
Scopes became an increasingly willing participant, even incriminating himself and urging students to testify against him. He was indicted on May 25, after three students testified against him at the grand jury, at the behest of Scopes. Scopes was charged with having taught from the chapter on evolution to an April 7, 1925, high-school class in violation of the Butler Act (and nominally arrested, though never detained). His bail of $100 was paid by Paul Patterson, owner of the Baltimore Sun.
Scopes knew it would mean the end of his teaching career, possibly heavy fines and maybe even imprisonment. His arrest caused a clash between the ACLU and
the Fundamentalists. William Jennings Bryan, former Secretary of State, volunteered to prosecute. However, the Fundamentalists Association asked him to assist the chosen prosecutors. Bryan wanted to force the Anti-Evolution Amendment into the American Constitution.
For the defense stood ACLU president, Arthur Garfield Hays; Dudley Field Malone, a great libertarian lawyer; John R. Neal, a Constitutional expert; and the greatest legal mind of his time, Clarence Darrow. Darrow and Malone volunteered to defend without charge. Part of Scopes’ defense fund was provided by the Baltimore Sun. The Sun also sent their best reporter, H. L. Mencken, who named it the “monkey trial.”
Anticipating that Scopes would be found guilty, the press fitted the defendant for martyrdom and created an onslaught of ridicule. Time’s initial coverage of the trial focused on Dayton as “the fantastic cross between a circus and a holy war”. Life adorned its masthead with monkeys reading books and proclaimed, “the whole matter is something to laugh about”.
The case came before Judge John T. Raulston in a special term of the Eighteenth Judicial Circuit on Friday, July 10, 1925. Judge Raulston opened the first day with a prayer. “Not just an ordinary prayer, but an argumentative one, directed straight at the defense,” wrote Hays.
Scopes said, “Darrow’s opening had been the aggressive sort of speech I had expected him to give, based on what I heard of him and read about him.”
“Your honor,” said Darrow, “every single word that was said against this defendant, everything was true.”
“So he does not care to go on the stand?”
“No,” said Darro, “what is the use?”
“So I sat speechless, a ringside observer at my own trial, until the end of the circus,” Scopes wrote later.
Scopes wrote, “Today Darrow’s is the name most persons link with the defense. Certainly Darrow deserves all the credit he has been given. At the same time, the work of the other attorneys was just as important. Hays and Neal remained in the background. They were the legal mechanics, the engineers who kept the defense roaring down the tracks. Neither made any dramatic speeches and therefore their brilliance was easily overlooked and their significance soon forgotten. Hays especially was the one who bounced up regularly to object, to raise legal points, and otherwise to busy himself with the technical aspects of the law, the matters that might prove crucial when he appealed the case. Without the quiet efficiency and sharpness of both Hays and Neal, the public utterances of Malone and Darrow would never have shone so brilliantly.” The one thing that cheered Scopes during the trial was that Representative Butler, who had drafted the law they were fighting, admitted publicaly that he did not know what evolution was.
The prosecution got Judge Raulston to deny any scientific testimony. Hays developed a new tactic – to build their case on the Bible. Darrow called William Jennings Bryan to witness as a Bible expert. He destroyed Bryan’s credibility by getting him to admit that the Bible could not always be taken literally. The jury took nine minutes to convict Scopes. They jury was supposed to set the fine but Judge Raulston set it at $100, giving the Court of Appeals reason to overturn the conviction. Scopes almost missed his only chance to speak when the judge forgot to ask if he had anything to say before sentencing. Malone immediately objected. Scopes stood and addressed the court. “Your Honor, I feel I have been convicted of an unjust statute. I will continue in the future as I have in the past, to oppose this law in any way I can. Any other action would be in violation of my ideals of academic freedom, that is to teach the truth as guaranteed in our Constitution of personal and religious freedom. I think that fine is unjust.”
After Raulston ruled against the admission of scientific testimony, Mencken left Dayton, declaring in his last dispatch “All that remains of the great cause of the State of Tennessee against the infidel Scopes is the formal business of bumping off the defendant.”
Scopes left teaching and became a geologist. The Butler Act remained in force for the next 42 years.
The circus in Dayton could hardly be repeated today. It was like a last gasp of ignorance and bigotry. Anti-evolution laws remain on the books, not only in Tennessee but in many other states. Today, there are many schoolteachers in elementary and high schools, as well as professors in state-controlled colleges, who are reluctant to express their views not only on evolution, but also on many other subjects. Academic freedom in America is still not a clear-cut achievement, but the trial of Scopes went a long way to help make it a reality.
The play Inherit The Wind and subsequent movie of the same title is a dramatized version and loosely based on actual events. Since 1987, the city of Dayton has staged a reenactment of the trial using the original transcripts, performing it in the same courtroom in which the trial took place. The annual event occurs during Dayton’s Scopes Trial festival with several performances showing over the weekend.