Interviews, photographs, and records related to the landmark case of the State v. John Scopes.
Without a doubt, the question, "where do humans come from?" was asked long before Charles Darwin published Origin of Species in 1859. Yet throughout the twentieth century and into the twenty-first century, the debate amongst members of the scientific and religious communities has continued to be a divisive and widely debated topic. The Scopes "Monkey" Trial is perhaps one of the critical events of this controversy and one of the landmark legal decisions of the twentieth century.
In 1859 English naturalist Charles Darwin published On the Origin of Species By Means of Natural Selection, a collection of scientific evidence that supported the theory of evolution. Darwin’s theory was seen by many fundamentalists as a challenge to the Biblical story of creation. The controversy over the theory came to a head in March 1925 with the passage of the Butler Act, which prohibited the teaching of evolution in any Tennessee school receiving public education funding from state government.
The State of Tennessee v. John Thomas Scopes, commonly called the Monkey Trial, was intended to accomplish two goals: to challenge the Butler Act, which made the teaching of the theory of evolution illegal in Tennessee schools, and to draw commercial attention to the small town of Dayton, in Rhea County. In 1925 the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) advertised in a Chattanooga newspaper for a teacher who was willing to challenge the act in court. Community leaders in Dayton saw the opportunity for publicity and convinced local teacher John T. Scopes to accept the A.C.L.U. offer. Offering an opportunity for two of the era’s most prominent legal minds to face off against each other, the trial became a media circus, attracting attention from around the world.
On May 4, 1925, the ACLU made an offer in the Chattanooga Daily Times to finance a test case challenging the Butler Act. Community leaders in Dayton were quick to respond. George Rappalyea, head of the Cumberland Coal and Iron Company, arranged for a meeting in Robinson’s Drugstore the very next day. Present were Walter White, county of superintendent of schools; Frank Robinson, owner of the store and head of the county board of education; and two local lawyers, Sue Hicks (a man named after his mother) and Wallace Haggard. After being turned down by the regular high school science teacher, the group sent for 24-year-old John T. Scopes, who had just completed his first year of teaching math, physics, and chemistry (but not biology). Scopes did not recall teaching the theory of evolution but agreed to help with the case. Scopes was arrested on May 9 and released immediately on bond. After a grand jury indictment on May 25, Tennessee v. John T. Scopes was scheduled for July 10, 1925.
Bryan and Darrow were powerful speakers and long-time adversaries, so the trial was bound to be dramatic. William Jennings Bryan had been a three-time candidate for President, served in the US House of Representatives, and was a former Secretary of State. Darrow was a high-profile defense attorney who had won victories in a number of capital cases. The Scopes Trial quickly became a contest between the concepts of creationism and evolution or, more simply, religion versus science.
On Day Seven, the July heat was so sweltering in the courtroom that the trial was ordered outside. Darrow, ever the dramatist, made the unusual move of calling Bryan to the stand. By questioning Bryan directly in court, Darrow controlled the line of questioning and managed to define the defense arguments. Though the testimony was later stricken from the record, Darrow was able to broadcast the theory of evolution to a national radio audience. Bryan never got the opportunity to make a grand summation, since Darrow changed his client’s plea to "guilty" the following day.
Dayton reveled in the publicity that came with the "trial of the century." Charles Darwin had theorized only that man and apes had a common ancestor, not that man had descended from apes. This popular misconception gave rise to a flurry of monkey-themed songs, dolls, and souvenirs. The Dayton Hotel placed a gorilla display in its lobby, and a trained chimpanzee named Joe Mendi entertained spectators around town. Book, food, and souvenir vendors vied with local clergy and itinerant preachers for space outside the courthouse.
Scopes was found guilty and fined $100 for violating the Butler Act. Despite the media hype, the verdict was something of an anticlimax, and the "Monkey Trial" began to fade into relative obscurity. In a sense, both sides won. The jury sided with Bryan, but Darrow managed to bring widespread attention to the theory of evolution. The Tennessee Supreme Court narrowly upheld the constitutionality of the Butler Act in 1927 but reversed Scope’s sentence on a technicality. Four decades after the Scopes Trial, the Tennessee General Assembly repealed the Butler Act, allowing teachers to introduce evolution as a legitimate scientific theory. William Jennings Bryan, "The Great Commoner," died of a stroke in Dayton only five days after Scopes was found guilty. The stress of the trial, the excessive heat, and a history of diabetes probably contributed to his death. Bryan College, a Christian liberal arts school in Dayton, is named in his honor. Clarence Darrow appealed the case to the Tennessee Supreme Court but largely withdrew from public life after the Scopes Trial. He published his autobiography in 1932 and died six years later at the age of 80. John T. Scopes, never comfortable in the limelight, left teaching altogether. After completing a master’s degree, he became a professional geologist and worked in the oil industry. He lived to see the Butler Act repealed and died in 1970.
Fascination with the trial and its central issue continued unabated for decades. Inherit the Wind, a drama based on the trial, premiered on Broadway in 1955. It brought new life to the controversy. The film version, starring Spencer Tracy and Frederic March, opened to movie audiences in 1960.