This month marks the 88th anniversary of the Scopes “Monkey” Trial, a famous legal case in 1925 in which a high school teacher, John Scopes, was accused of violating Tennessee’s Butler Act, which made it unlawful to teach human evolution in any state-funded school. Here are nine things you should know about this infamously misunderstood case.
1. Inherit the Wind was an anti-anti-communist play — Most of what the public knows about the Scopes trial comes from Inherit the Wind, a script that became a Broadway production, an Academy Award winning film, and a made-for-TV movie. Like Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, playwrights Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee wrote Inherit the Wind as a response to the climate of anti-communist hysteria during the McCarthy era. But while the play was never intended to present an historically accurate depiction of the trial, many people still assume it is basically factual.
2. The trial was a publicity stunt — When the Butler Act, a law which forbade the teaching of evolution in Tennessee’s public schools, caught the attention of the ACLU they sent out a press release stating that they wanted to challenge the act in court. Dayton resident George Rappelyea, who was both a church goer and an adherent of evolution theory, saw an opportunity to garner some attention for the small mining town. After consulting with several town leaders, Rappelyea sent a telegram to the ACLU notifying the organization that they would provide the test case.
3. Scopes wasn’t a martyr–he was a co-conspirator — Although John T. Scopes was the plaintiff in the famous trial, he was not the regular biology teacher but a football coach who only taught the subject as a substitute. When Rappelyea approached him about being the ‘sacrificial lamb’ Scopes hesitantly agreed to go along with the PR stunt. Local prosecutors — who were also in on the plan — swore out a warrant for Scopes who was arrested and immediately released on bail pending trial.
4. Darrow wasn’t the first choice — Although Clarence Darrow was portrayed as the hero of Inherit the Wind, he wasn’t the first choice of either the citizens of Dayton or the ACLU. Rappelyea originally contacted the science fiction writer H.G. Wells (who wasn’t interested) and the ACLU feared the militantly atheistic Darrow would turn the trial into an attack on religion rather than a defense of the First Amendment. The choice was ultimately left to Scopes who was impressed by the fact that Darrow had significant name recognition as the attorney for the most recent “trial of the century”, the murderers Loeb and Leopold.
5. Bryan wasn’t the lead prosecutor – and he knew the defendant — While Darrow was the lead defense attorney, William Jennings Bryan was only the assistant prosecutor. The district’s attorney-general Tom Stewart was the lead prosecutor. Scopes also knew his famous prosector. Not only had he previously met Bryan (at a high school graduation in Salem, Illinois) Scopes considered the man prosecuting his trial to be “the greatest man produced in the United State since the days of Thomas Jefferson.”
6. The prosecution’s “Bible expert” believed in the day-age theory — During the trial William Jennings Bryan took the stand as an expert witness on the Bible. In response to Darrow’s relentless questions as to whether the six days of creation were twenty-four hour days, Bryan said “My impression is that they were periods.” (The next day the judge ruled that Bryan’s testimony be stricken from the record as evidence.)
7. Teaching evolution . . . and eugenics — The biology book that was used by Scopes was George William Hunter’s Civic Biology. Although a standard biology text, it included the author’s championing of eugenics and white supremacy, his contempt for people with disabilities, and his dislike of charity for the “inferior.”
8. The defense wanted to lose the case — As the trial neared an end, Darrow asked the jury to return a verdict of guilty in order that the case might be appealed to the Tennessee Supreme Court. They complied and the judge handed down the $100 fine to Scopes. H.L. Mencken, whose coverage of the trial for The Baltimore Sun swayed public opinion against the anti-evolutionists, paid the fine for Scopes.
9. The ruling was reversed, but no one wanted to retry the case – A year after the trial, the Tennessee Supreme Court reversed the decision of the Dayton court on a technicality (the fine should have been set by the jury rather than the judge). Rather than send the case back for further action, however, the Tennessee Supreme Court dismissed the case claiming, “Nothing is to be gained by prolonging the life of this bizarre case.”
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