The Scopes Monkey Trial – new insights (for me)

I recently came across a site that contains rather a lot of details about the famous Scopes Monkey Trial that took place in 1925.

The site is a legal one and contains all the details of the scopes trail itself and also insights into what happened and why it happened, stuff I quite frankly never knew at all. Yes, we are all familiar with the trial itself, most of us have perhaps seen the rather famous Inherit the Wind 1960 film directed by Stanley Kramer, with Spencer Tracy as Drummond and Fredric March as Brady, but how did it all start, what kicked it off? Well that is the bit I did not know. Here it how it is described …

William Jennings Bryan, three-time Democratic candidate for President and a populist, led a Fundamentalist crusade to banish Darwin‘s theory of evolution from American classrooms. Bryan’s motivation for mounting the crusade is unclear.

Well no, his motivation is rather clear, he was a religious nut who felt that his cherished beliefs were being pushed to one side by all this modern godless sciency stuff. The introduction perhaps does get there eventually …

More likely, the Great Commoner came to his cause both out a concern that the teaching of evolution would undermine traditional values he had long supported and because he had a compelling desire to remain in the public spotlight–a spotlight he had occupied since his famous “Cross of Gold” speech at the 1896 Democratic Convention. Bryan, in the words of columnist H. L. Mencken, who covered the Scopes Trial, transformed himself into a “sort of Fundamentalist Pope.” By 1925, Bryan and his followers had succeeded in getting legislation introduced in fifteen states to ban the teaching of evolution. In February, Tennessee enacted a bill introduced by John Butler making it unlawful “to teach any theory that denies the story of divine creation as taught by the Bible and to teach instead that man was descended from a lower order of animals.”

Ah, but how did Scopes, a school teacher (pictured to the right) get into the mix? Like this (now this is the bit that was new to me) …

 The Scopes Trial had its origins in a conspiracy at Fred Robinson’s drugstore in Dayton. George Rappalyea, a 31-year-old transplanted New Yorker and local coal company manager, arrived at the drugstore with a copy of a paper containing an American Civil Liberties Union announcement that it was willing to offer its services to anyone challenging the new Tennessee anti-evolution statute. Rappalyea, a modernist Methodist with contempt for the new law, argued to other town leaders that a trial would be a way of putting Dayton on the map. Listening to Rappalyea, the others–including School Superintendent Walter White–became convinced that publicity generated by a controversial trial might help their town, whose population had fallen from 3,000 in the 1890’s to 1,800 in 1925.

The conspirators summoned John Scopes, a twenty-four-year old general science teacher and part-time football coach, to the drugstore.  As Scopes later described the meeting, Rappalyea said, “John, we’ve been arguing and I said nobody could teach biology without teaching evolution.” Scopes agreed.  “That’s right,” he said, pulling a copy of Hunter’s Civic Biology–the state-approved textbook–from one of the shelves of the drugstore (the store also sold school textbooks).  “You’ve been teaching ’em this book?” Rappalyea asked.  Scopes replied that while filling in for the regular biology teacher during an illness, he had assigned readings on evolution from the book for review purposes. “Then you’ve been violating the law,” Rappalyea concluded.  “Would you be willing to stand for a test case?” he asked. Scopes agreed. He later explained his decision: “the best time to scotch the snake is when it starts to wiggle.” Herbert and Sue Hicks, two local attorneys and friends of Scopes, agreed to prosecute.

Rappalyea initially wanted science fiction writer H. G. Wells to head the defense team. “I am sure that in the interest of science Mr. Wells will consent,” Rappalyea predicted. Wells had no interest in taking the case, but others did. John Neal, an eccentric law school dean from Knoxville, drove to Dayton and volunteered to represent Scopes. When William Jennings Bryan offered to join the prosecution team–despite having not practiced law in over thirty years–, Clarence Darrow, approaching seventy, jumped to join the battle in Dayton. Darrow was not the first choice of the ACLU, who was concerned that Darrow’s zealous agnosticism might turn the trial into a broadside attack on religion.The ACLU first preferred former presidential candidates John W. Davies and Charles Evans Hughes, but neither was willing to serve alongside Darrow. Instead, it dispatched Arthur Garfield Hays, a prominent free speech advocate, to join the defense team. The final member of the defense team was Dudley Field Malone, an international divorce attorney (and another volunteer who the ACLU might have preferred to stay at home). Completing the prosecution team in Dayton were present and former attorneys general for Eastern Tennessee, A. T. Stewart and Ben B. McKenzie, and Bryan’s son, federal prosecutor William Jennings Bryan, Jr.  Time has a way of simplifying events and today Darrow and Bryan are remembered as the key adversaries in the trial, even though Hays for the defense and Stewart for the prosecution played equally important roles at the trial.

… and so the carnival that we are now  familiar with proceeded.

Pictured here (smithsonian picture) is the rather famous showdown between Darrow and Bryan during Day 7  …

darrowquestionswjbs (1)


Yes, that was a surprise to me as well, if you had seen the movie you would have expected it to have been inside, but apparently not, on that Monday afternoon, because of the extreme heat, Judge Raulston had moved court proceedings outdoors. So what is actually happening here?

It is Monday, the seventh day of trial, and Judge Raulston asked the defense if it had any more evidence. The response to this was described by the New York Times at the time as “the most amazing court scene on Anglo-Saxon history.” Hays (not Darrow) asked that William Jennings Bryan (then part of the prosecution team) be called to the stand as an expert on the Bible. Bryan rather foolishly agreed, but only on the understanding that he should have a chance to interrogate the defense lawyers. As you might imagine, his prosecution colleagues were more than a bit worried by this, but Bryan, dismissing their concerns, took a seat on the witness stand (pictured above), and began fanning himself.

Darrow (standing in the picture above) began his interrogation of Bryan with a quiet question: “You have given considerable study to the Bible, haven’t you, Mr. Bryan?” Bryan replied, “Yes, I have. I have studied the Bible for about fifty years.”

An extract of the actual transcript is here.

As so Darrow proceeds with a series of questions designed to undermine a literalist interpretation of the Bible. Bryan was asked about a whale swallowing Jonah, Joshua making the sun stand still, Noah and the great flood, the temptation of Adam in the garden of Eden, and the creation according to Genesis. After initially contending that “everything in the Bible should be accepted as it is given there,” Bryan finally conceded that the words of the Bible should not always be taken literally. In response to Darrow’s relentless questions as to whether the six days of creation, as described in Genesis, were twenty-four hour days, Bryan said “My impression is that they were periods.”

Bryan, who began his testimony calmly, stumbled badly under Darrow’s persistent prodding. At one point we had this exchange …

Darrow–What do you think?
Bryan–I do not think about things I don’t think about.
Darrow–Do you think about things you do think about?
Bryan–Well, sometimes.
(Laughter in the courtyard.)

It soon came to a head when Bryan accused Darrow …

Bryan–Your Honor, I think I can shorten this testimony. The only purpose Mr. Darrow has is to slur at the Bible, but I will answer his question. I will answer it all at once, and I have no objection in the world, I want the world to know that this man, who does not believe in a God, is trying to use a court in Tennesseee–
Darrow–I object to that.
Bryan–(Continuing) to slur at it, and while it will require time, I am willing to take it.
Darrow (interrupting)–I object to your statement. I am exempting you on your fool ideas that no intelligent Christian on earth believes.

At this outburst, Judge Raulson steps in …

The Court–Court is adjourned until 9 o’clock tomorrow morning.

The next day, Raulston ruled that Bryan could not return to the stand and that his testimony the previous day should be stricken from evidence.

It had of course happened and the press was not going to just ignore it, so it was reported as a defeat for Bryan. According to one historian, “As a man and as a legend, Bryan was destroyed by his testimony that day.” His performance was described as that of “a pitiable, punch drunk warrior.”

As for the trail itself, Scopes was found guilty, but what I did not appreciate is that is is exactly what Darrow had asked for …

Darrow–May I say a few words to the jury? Gentlemen of the jury, we are sorry to have not had a chance to say anything to you. We will do it some other time. Now, we came down to offer evidence in this case and the court has held under the law that the evidence we had is not admissible, so all we can do is to take an exception and carry it to a higher court to see whether the evidence is admissible or not. As far as this case stands before the jury, the court has told you very plainly that if you think my client taught that man descended from a lower order of animals, you will find him guilty, and you heard the testimony of the boys on that questions and heard read the books, and there is no dispute about the facts. Scopes did not go on the stand, because he could not deny the statements made by the boys. I do not know how you may feel, I am not especially interested in it, but this case and this law will never be decided until it gets to a higher court, and it cannot get to a higher court probably, very well, unless you bring in a verdict. So, I do not want any of you to think we are going to find any fault with you as to your verdict. I am frank to say, while we think it is wrong, and we ought to have been permitted to put in our evidence, the court felt otherwise, as he had a right to hold. We cannot argue to you gentlemen under the instructions given by the court–we cannot even explain to you that we think you should return a verdict of not guilty. We do not see how you could. We do not ask it. We think we will save our point and take it to the higher court and settle whether the law is good, and also whether he should have permitted the evidence. I guess that is plain enough.

In was a good strategy, but sadly it did not pan out that way. About one year later the Tennessee Supreme Court reversed the decision of the Dayton court on a technicality, and not on the constitutional grounds as Darrow had hoped. According to the court, the fine should have been set by the jury, not Judge Raulston. Rather than send the case back for further action, however, the Tennessee Supreme Court dismissed the case. I suspect they realised that anything else would have proven to be too disruptive for too many, and so it was best to simply bury it.

The trial itself was important because it proved to be a turning point for the anti-science crusade that had been gathering momentum; of the fifteen states with anti- evolution legislation pending in 1925, only two states (Arkansas and Mississippi) enacted laws restricting the teaching of Darwin’s theory.

1 thought on “The Scopes Monkey Trial – new insights (for me)”

  1. To add to what is written above, for those interested in more details of the REAL story of the Scopes Trial as contrasted with the Hollywood history in “Inherit the Wind,” see the website or download the original trial transcript from that site. For starters, as is noted above in passing, the State of Tennesee never outlawed teaching the theory of evolution in the public schools or anywhere else; it DID outlaw the teaching in the public schools that ONE SPECIES (out of an estimated 2,000,000) evolved: namely that mankind evolved from a lower order of animal (monkeys). This aspect of Darwinism was contained in the biology text that John Scopes allegedly (but never actually) taught from where the races of mankind are ranked from the lowest (Negro) to the highest (Caucasian). Scary stuff to teach kids but very popular at the time. The biology text also contained plenty of “eugenics” — the idea that mankind should be bred to weed out the weak and purify the strong. You might want to also look at the 2010 movie on this trial starring Brian Dennehy as Charles Darwin, Sen. Fred Thompson as William Jennings Bryan, and Colm Meany as H.L. Mencken. It’s called “Alleged” and I co-wrote and produced it. Fun!


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