Jul 212015


On this date in 1925 John T. Scopes was found guilty of violating the Butler Act which had made it unlawful in Tennessee to teach evolution in state-funded schools (the Act was not repealed until 1967). The trial is formally known as The State of Tennessee v. John Thomas Scopes, but is commonly referred to as the Scopes Monkey Trial. The trial, though immensely important, was not a “test case” in the conventional sense in that it was deliberately staged and stage managed by the ACLU. Scopes offered himself up to be incriminated even though he admitted that he had not, in fact, taught evolution, his students were heavily coached by Scopes and lawyers before taking the stand, and the expenses of the trial were funded by various interested parties including major newspapers. The town of Dayton was having financial difficulties at the time, so welcomed the publicity. Even now the town makes money hosting an annual Scopes Trial Festival. It was, at best, a cynical moneymaker.


Scopes was fined $100 (equivalent to $1,345 in 2015), but the verdict was overturned on a technicality – on appeal it was thrown out because the judge had set the fine when the jury should have set it. The trial served its purpose of drawing intense publicity, as national reporters flocked to Dayton to cover the big-name lawyers who had agreed to represent each side. William Jennings Bryan, three-time presidential candidate, argued for the prosecution, while Clarence Darrow, the famed defense attorney, spoke for Scopes. However, what is rarely acknowledged, especially in the play/film(s) “Inherit the Wind,” is that Bryan and Darrow were not exactly going toe to toe. Both sides had large legal teams who did a great deal of the heavy lifting and made some of the best speeches and arguments.

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The trial publicized what is sometimes called the “Fundamentalist–Modernist Controversy,” terms I do not like at all. The so-called modernists argued that science and religion were not incompatible, whilst the so-called fundamentalists believed that the word of God, as revealed in the Bible, took priority over all human knowledge. The case was thus seen as both a theological contest and a trial on whether contemporary science regarding evolution should be taught in schools. Sad to say, the contest continues unabated with little sense being talked by either side. Both sides, to my mind, value prejudice and bias over intellect. If you glance back at my post on the trial of Galileo you’ll see that many of the issues were the same then (https://www.bookofdaystales.com/trial-galileo-think/ ); both trials were most emphatically NOT about religion versus science, but about money and politics, with a pinch of personal animus thrown in for good measure. I have written a great deal about this “debate” in an unpublished book MS I really should work on. I believe that this phony debate is expensive, pointless, and endlessly destructive, as the details of the Scopes trial attest. The trial was the invention of the media.


The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) offered to defend anyone accused of teaching the theory of evolution in defiance of the Butler Act. On April 5, 1925, George Rappleyea, local manager for the Cumberland Coal and Iron Company, arranged a meeting with county superintendent of schools Walter White and local attorney Sue K. Hicks at Robinson’s Drug Store, convincing them that the controversy of such a trial would give Dayton much needed publicity. According to Robinson, Rappleyea said, “As it is, the law is not enforced. If you win, it will be enforced. If I win, the law will be repealed. We’re game, aren’t we?” The men then summoned 24-year-old John T. Scopes, who was at the time a substitute Dayton high school science and math teacher. The group asked Scopes to admit to teaching the theory of evolution. 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 was indicted on May 25, after three students testified against him at the grand jury; one student afterwards told reporters, “I believe in part of evolution, but I don’t believe in the monkey business.” Judge John T. Raulston accelerated the convening of the grand jury and “… all but instructed the grand jury to indict Scopes, despite the meager evidence against him and the widely reported stories questioning whether the willing defendant had ever taught evolution in the classroom”. Scopes was charged with having taught from the chapter on evolution to an April 24, 1925, high-school class in violation of the Butler Act and nominally arrested, though he was never actually detained. Paul Patterson, owner of The Baltimore Sun, put up $500 in bail for Scopes.


The original prosecutors were Herbert E. and Sue K. Hicks, two brothers who were local attorneys and friends of Scopes, but the prosecution was ultimately led by Tom Stewart, a graduate of Cumberland School of Law, who later became a U.S. Senator. Stewart was aided by Dayton attorney Gordon McKenzie, who supported the anti-evolution bill on religious grounds, and described evolution as “detrimental to our morality” and an assault on “the very citadel of our Christian religion”.

Hoping to attract major press coverage, George Rappleyea went so far as to write to the British novelist H. G. Wells asking him to join the defense team. Wells replied that he had no legal training in Britain, let alone in the US, and declined the offer. John R. Neal, a law school professor from Knoxville, announced that he would act as Scopes’ attorney whether Scopes liked it or not, and he became the nominal head of the defense team.

Clarence Darrow and William Jennings Bryan, 1925

Baptist pastor William Bell Riley, the founder and president of the World Christian Fundamentals Association, was instrumental in calling lawyer and three-time Democratic presidential nominee, former United States Secretary of State, and lifelong Presbyterian William Jennings Bryan to act as that organization’s counsel. Bryan had originally been invited by Sue Hicks to become an associate of the prosecution and Bryan had readily accepted, despite the fact he had not tried a case in thirty-six years. As Scopes pointed out to James Presley in the book Center of the Storm, on which the two collaborated: “After [Bryan] was accepted by the state as a special prosecutor in the case, there was never any hope of containing the controversy within the bounds of constitutionality.” What should have been a trial about the First Amendment became an arena for showboating about Genesis versus Darwin.

In response, the defense sought out Clarence Darrow, an agnostic. Darrow originally declined, fearing that his presence would create a circus atmosphere, but eventually realized that the trial would be a circus with or without him, and agreed to lend his services to the defense, later stating that he “realized there was no limit to the mischief that might be accomplished unless the country was aroused to the evil at hand”. After many changes back and forth, the defense team consisted of Darrow, ACLU attorney Arthur Garfield Hays, and Dudley Field Malone, an international divorce lawyer who had worked at the State Department. The prosecution team was led by Tom Stewart, district attorney for the 18th Circuit (and future United States Senator), and included, in addition to Herbert and Sue Hicks, Ben B. McKenzie and William Jennings Bryan.


The trial was covered by famous journalists from the South and around the world, including H. L. Mencken for The Baltimore Sun, which was also paying part of the defense’s expenses. It was Mencken who provided the trial with its most colorful labels such as the “Monkey Trial” of “the infidel Scopes”. It was also the first United States trial to be broadcast on national radio.

By the later stages of the trial, Clarence Darrow had largely abandoned the ACLU’s original strategy and attacked the literal interpretation of the Bible as well as Bryan’s limited knowledge of other religions and science. Only when the case went to appeal did the defense return to the original claim that the prosecution was invalid because the law was essentially designed to benefit a particular religious group, which would be unconstitutional.

Bryan chastised evolution for teaching children that humans were but one of (precisely) 35,000 types of mammals and bemoaned the notion that human beings were descended “Not even from American monkeys, but from Old World monkeys”. This is a typically ignorant remark, given that Darwin and evolution argue no such thing, and shows, among other things, that most people don’t even know the difference between monkeys and apes.

Malone responded for the defense in a speech that was universally considered the oratorical triumph of the trial (NOT any speech by Darrow). Arousing fears of “inquisitions”, Malone argued that the Bible should be preserved in the realm of theology and morality and not put into a course of science. In his conclusion, Malone declared that Bryan’s “duel to the death” against evolution should not be made one-sided by a court ruling that took away the chief witnesses for the defense (expert scientists were barred from testifying, quite rightly, because the case was ostensibly about the Butler Act and not the validity of evolution). Malone promised that there would be no duel because “there is never a duel with the truth.” The courtroom went wild when Malone finished, and Scopes declared Malone’s speech to be the dramatic highpoint of the entire trial. I urge you to read the complete transcripts here — http://darrow.law.umn.edu/trials.php?tid=7 – to get a sense of the reality of the trial rather than be misled by continued histrionics in print and on film.


Apart from the Scopes Trial Festival, Dayton holds an annual strawberry festival with recipes here http://www.timesfreepress.com/news/life/entertainment/story/2014/may/14/berry-delici-us/140004/ (the photo being of a recent winner). In light of this I recommend classic Southern strawberry shortcake as a celebratory recipe.


Strawberry Shortcake

Hull about 1 ½ pounds of strawberries and slice them into a glass or ceramic bowl. Sprinkle with sugar and refrigerate for at least 1 hour (until juices flow).

Sift into another bowl 2 cups of all-purpose flour, 2 teaspoons of baking powder, ¼ teaspoon of baking soda, 2 tablespoons of sugar and ¾ teaspoon of salt. Add 1 ½ cups of heavy cream and blend to a smooth paste. Pour into a greased 8-inch baking dish and bake at 400°F for about 20 minutes or until golden.

Let the shortcake cool in the pan and then cut into 4 squares. Split the squares in two, place on chilled plates and pour the strawberries over. Top with sweetened whipped cream flavored with a little vanilla essence.