The Truth About The Scopes Trial

Quit monkeying around

On April 24, 1925, a high school teacher named John Scopes taught a class in Dayton, Tennessee, using a state-mandated textbook that included a chapter explaining Darwin’s theory of evolution. In doing so, Scopes was in violation of Tennessee’s Butler Act, passed earlier in the year. He was arrested, tried, convicted, and fined $100. The verdict was later overturned on a technicality, but the case has gone down in history as an example of faith against science, ignorance against knowledge, and tradition against progress. This conception of the Scopes trial was only reinforced by the famous 1960 film, Inherit the Wind, starring Gene Kelly and Spencer Tracy.

But that version of the story is too simple. The real story of how the Scopes Trial came about, and why, is far more interesting and intriguing. And it shows us the complications and conflicting motives of all those who were involved.

Essentially, the trial itself was a publicity stunt cooked up by the city fathers of Dayton (population 6,000) in an effort to bring visitors and money to the town. In this they were very successful. The Scopes Trial was a huge event and attracted national and international attention.

Here’s what happened, and it all happened rather quickly: the state of Tennessee passed the Butler Act, which forbade the teaching of evolution in state schools, on March 25, 1925. In response, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) offered to pay the legal fees of any Tennessee teacher who was willing to challenge the law.

Enter George Rappleyea, the manager of the local coal company. He called a meeting of a Dayton notables on April 5 and convinced them that a challenge to the Butler Act would draw exactly the kind of attention the town needed. They agreed, and called for one of the local teachers, John T. Scopes. They asked him if he’d be willing to admit to teaching evolution and suffer the consequences under the Butler Act. Scopes told them that he couldn’t be absolutely sure that he had taught evolution in the sense that he was teaching the truth of evolution, but that he had gone over the evolutionary chart with the students during class. But he said, “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.”

They all agreed to go ahead with the plan, and Scopes went over the theory of evolution with his students on April 24th, leading to his arrest. But clearly Scopes was in on the plan. Between his arrest and his indictment on May 25, he convinced his students to testify against him during the hearing. He even helped them prepare their testimony and coached them in how best to answer questions. And Scopes was duly indicted of violating the Butler Act.

Then the promotion machine went into high gear. Local lawyers had been appointed for both the prosecution and the defense, but George Rappleyea realized that only famous lawyers and orators would boost the chances of garnering the attention for the trial that Dayton was looking for. He wrote to the prominent British novelist, H.G. Wells, and asked him to be on the defense team. Wells declined, partly because he was not licensed to practice law in the United States, or even in England.

Other civic and religious leaders in Dayton used their connections with national organizations such as the World Christian Fundamentals Association to help find the most prominent attorneys for the case. In addition to other lawyers, they were able to convince William Jennings Bryan, the former Secretary of State, former Democratic presidential candidate, and greatly-admired social and political reformer, to join the prosecution. Bryan was a thunderous orator, a ferocious Christian, and a committed anti-evolutionist. He was also one of the most famous men in the country.

The ACLU had promised to fund the defense of any teacher who challenged the Butler Act. In addition to prominent and respected ACLU lawyers, the organization was eventually able to convince Clarence Darrow, probably the most famous defense attorney in American history, to join the defense team.

In terms of publicity, the civic leaders of Dayton couldn’t have picked two greater titans. And given the fact that they were polar opposites in terms of religion (Bryan was a fundamentalist and Darrow was an agnostic), the stage was set for an epic court battle, played out over the national and international media.

scopes2Rappleyea and the Dayton civic leaders were certainly successful in gaining attention. Over 200 national newspapers, and two London newspapers, sent correspondents to Dayton. Telegraph operators worked feverously during the seven days of the trial, tapping out over 150,000 words per day. WGN, the major Chicago radio station broadcast live from the trial itself, the first time that had ever happened in a criminal trial. Film crews were camped out on the courthouse lawn, where they jockeyed for position with other reporters. Hucksters and circus performers brought chimpanzees into town and had them perform in front of the courthouse.

Perhaps the most famous newspaperman of the day, H.L. Mencken, also reported directly from the trial. And it is from Mencken that we get the phrase “Monkey Trial.”

All this attention certainly brought much-needed revenue to the town. The teams of lawyers, the cavalcade of reporters, and the various side-show entertainers certainly boosted the hotel and restaurant trade. So the civic leaders of Dayton got part of their wish. They also expected lots of tourists to come for the trial, but that didn’t happen. The media coverage was so extensive that it was probably not worth it to travel to the town itself.

As we said before, the upshot of the trial was that Scopes was convicted and fined, but the conviction was overturned on appeal. Scopes later went off to do graduate work in geology. He became an engineer in the oil and gas business, traveling all over the southwest to work, and eventually retired to Shreveport, Louisiana and died in 1970. As far as anyone knows, he more or less lived out the rest of his life in obscurity.

But the trial did not. In 1955, “Inherit the Wind,”a play by Jerome Lawrence and Robert Edwin Lee, opened in New York, and ran for two years. The authors used the Scopes trial as a way to dramatize the issues and morals raised by 1950s McCarthyism anti-communism trials and persecutions. “Inherit the Wind” became even more famous as a 1960 film starring Spencer Tracy the Darrow character, Frederic March as the William Jennings Bryan character, and Gene Kelly playing a cynical, wise-cracking newspaperman based on H.L. Mencken.

The whole publicity-stunt origins of the trial were mostly ignored in the play and the film, and the case was depicted as an intellectual battle between religion and science, and what should be taught in public schools. The movie was perhaps the most successful element of the whole Scopes story because that is the way the episode is still perceived in the public mind.

Further Reading:

Adam Shapiro, Trying Biology: The Scopes Trial, Textbooks, and the Anti-evolution Movement in American Schools (2013).

Edward Larson, Summer for the Gods: The Scopes Trial and America’s Continuing Debate Over Science and Religion (1997).

PBS, American Experience: Monkey Trial

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