Three Hot and Contentious Weeks in July 1925 - the Scopes "Monkey" Trial
In the summer of 1925, the Tennessee State Legislature passed a controversial bill. Backed by the Fundamentalist dominated legislators and dubbed the “monkey bill,” it prohibited the teaching of the theory of evolution in all universities, normal and other public schools supported partly or entirely by State funds. It passed because the legislators were afraid to veto the bill for fear they would lose votes on other issues.
Tennessee Governor Austin Peay, John T. Scopes, and the “Monkey Bill”
Tennessee newspaper editors pointed out that Governor Austin Peay felt that a new and necessary reform program where every child in Tennessee should be assure of an eight month school term should be implemented. He claimed the matter of the longer school term was more important than the “monkey bill,” but along with other legislators he feared losing the votes that would make his social reform possible, so he signed the anti-evolution bill.
In his speech approving the bill, Governor Peay said “Rightly or wrongly, there is a deep and widespread belief that something is shaking the fundamentals of the country, both in religion and morals. It is the opinion of many that the abandonment of old-fashioned faith and belief in the Bible is our trouble in large degree.”
The bill caused nationwide discussion, Fundamentalists and Modernists argued the question with spirit. Five men sat in a drugstore in Dayton, Tennessee, and argued the issue. Later it was christened the “Monkey Soda-Fountain.”
One of the men, 24-year-old John T. Scopes, a biology teacher at Central High School in Dayton, Tennessee, informed the debaters that the biology textbook called “Civic Biology” that he used in his classes contained material about evolution.
He added that the State of Tennessee approved the book as an “official text.” The four men decided that this situation was good test case. George Rappelyea, a mining engineer, suggested between sips of lemon phosphate that Scopes allow himself to be caught in the act of teaching the theory of evolution. Half serious, half joking, Scopes agreed, and got caught teaching evolution.
Clarence Darrow for the Defense and William Jennings Bryan for the Prosecution
From its modest beginning in Robinson’s drug store, the incident snowballed. Organizations lined up in Scopes’ defense. Newspapers took sides, the public debated, and more people began to outline Dayton, Tennessee, in bold, black, crayon strokes on the map of the United States. Three Justices of the Peace of Rhea County questioned Scopes. They heard passages from the “Civic Biology” text read out loud and they bound him over to the Grand Jury, which indicted him on the charge of violating the evolution law. Judge John T. Raulston announced a special court term in July 1925, for the defendant’s trial.
When John Scopes was arrested, his friend George Rappelyea wired the Civil Liberties Union in New York and obtained the legal assistance of Clarence Darrow, Dudley Field Malone, and Arthur Garfield Hayes to defend him. William Jennings Bryan, the famous “silver-tongued” orator, volunteered his services for the prosecution.
The Scopes “Monkey Trial”
At first, Dayton citizens resented the national attention bombarding their town, but gradually the sight of the Dayton, Tennessee, dateline in the newspapers aroused their civic pride to such an extent that they raise a $5,000 advertising fund and made special arrangements to accommodate the crowds that were expected to attend the trial. Judge John T. Raulston announced a special court term on July 10, 1925 for the defendant’s trial.
Into the quiet town of Dayton they streamed, gaunt Tennessee farmers and their families in mule-drawn wagons and Model T’s, firm Fundamentalists in overalls and gingham and equally firm evolutionists. All were ready for a fight, some fighting for the faith against the “foreigners,” but some were curious about the evolutionary theory and others determined to root out what they considered old fashioned bigotry. Hot dog and lemonade vendors hawked their wares. Booksellers sold volumes about biology. Over a hundred newspaper men poured into town, eager to write hot copy that would sell papers. Western Union installed 22 telegraphy operators in a room off the grocery store.
In the courtroom itself at the trial, reporters and cameramen rubbed shoulders with Tennessee mountaineers. Judge, defendant and counsel stripped to their shirt sleeves. Bryan wore a pongee shirt turned in at the neck. Darrow wore lavender suspenders, while Judge Raulston wore galluses of a more sober hue. The Judge’s daughters entered the courtroom with him, wearing rolled stockings like any metropolitan flappers. Court opened with prayer and motion pictures operators climbed on tables and chairs to photograph trial participants from every possible angle.
Evidence ranged from admissions of 14-year-old Howard Morgan that Scopes told him about evolution and it hadn’t hurt him a bit to the estimate of a zoologist amid disbelieving gasps that life had begun about six hundred million years ago. Altogether, about two million words were telegraphed out of Dayton. The Chicago Tribune’s Station, WGN, broadcast the trial an cable companies reported huge increases in transatlantic cable tools. Newspapers from all over the world deluge news agencies in London with requests for more Dayton copy.
Clarence Darrow and William Jennings Bryan Clash
The trial changed from carnival atmosphere to bitter. Tennessee Attorney General A. Thomas Stewart spoke against what he called the “insidious doctrine which was undermining the faith of Tennessee’s children and robbing them of their chance of eternal life.”
The Dreamland Circus at Coney Island offered “Zip” the monkey, to the Scopes defense as a “missing link.”
William Jennings Bryan and Clarence Darrow squared off like two boxers aiming for a knock-out blow. Bran charged arrow with wanting to “slur at the Bible.” Darrow sneered at Bryan’s “fool religion.”
On the afternoon of July 20, 1925, the Defense put Bryan on the stand as an expert on the Bible. That afternoon the Judge moved the court outside to a platform built against the courthouse under the maple trees because of the tremendous crowd. Reporters sat on benches, on the ground, or wherever they could find a place, scribbling their stories. Behind the seated people, many more stood in the hot sunshine streaming through the trees.
Clarence Darrow sat on the platform in his shirt sleeves, a Bible on his knee. Clarence Darrow cross- examined William Jennings Bryan. He asked Bryan about Jonah and the whale, the dates of the Flood, and about the Creation story. Bryan said that he believed that the world was created in 4,004 B.C., the Flood occurred in or about 2,348 B.C., and the “big fish” did swallow Jonah.
When Darrow asked Bryan if he had ever discovered where Cain got his wife, Bryan answered, “No sir, I leave the agnostics to hunt for her,.”
Darrow asked, “Do you say you do not believe that there were any civilizations on this earth that reach beyond five thousand years?”
Bryan said, “I am not satisfied by any evidence I have seen.”
Heat and tension frazzled escalated the cross-examination. At one point, Darrow declared that his cross-examination of Bryan would “show up Fundamentalism…to prevent bigots and ignoramuses from controlling the educational system of the United States.”
Bryan jumped up, his face purple. He shook his fist at Darrow and said, “To protect the word of God against the greatest atheist an agnostic in the United States!”
Judge Raulston Rules and the Jury Reaches a Verdict
On the morning of July 21, 1925, Judge Raulston deleted the previous afternoon’s testimony and John T. Scope’s lawyers couldn’t get any of their scientific evidence presented to the Jury. Now their only chance for the kind of defense they had planned hinged upon giving up the case and bringing it before the Tennessee Supreme Court on appeal. The Jury found John T. Scopes guilty and the Judge fined him one hundred dollars. The State Supreme Court later upheld the anti-evolution law, but freed Scopes on a technicality and prevented further appeal.
In theory, the Fundamentalists won the case, because the law stood, but practically speaking, the anti-evolutionists prevailed. William Jennings Bryan didn’t have much time to savor his victory, because he died on July 26, 1925, days after the trial ended.
All of the visitors who had converged on Dayton, Tennessee left, but the after effects of the Scopes Trial have resonated for decades.
Edward J. Larson. Summer for the Gods: The Scopes Trial and America’s Continuing Debates over Science and Religion. Harvard University Press, 1998.
Jim Whiting. The Scopes Monkey Trial. Monumental Milestones: Great Events of Modern Times. Mitchell Lane Publishers, 2006.