Yesterday marked the 86th anniversary of the Scopes Trial which began on the morning of Friday, July 10, 1925 in Dayton, Tennessee at the Rhea County Courthouse. Four months earlier, John Washington Butler’s “Anti-Evolution bill” had became law. It made it unlawful for any teacher in any of the universities, normals, and all other public schools in the State, to teach any theory that denied the story of the divine creation of man as taught in the Bible. (Allen, 1925)
A month after this bill became law, John Scopes, a twenty-four-year-old teacher at Central High School in Dayton, Tennessee admitted to teaching Darwinism to his students. He was the son of Thomas Scopes, a railroad machinist and Mary Alva Brown. Scopes was a native of Paducah who had studied at the University of Kentucky. According to the American National Biography Online Database (ANBOD), Scopes substituted for the principal one day and taught biology. He was convinced by his peers to test the law and was arrested after admitting to have taught evolution. From this point on, he became the subject of world-wide controversy. He traveled to New York and sought the aid of the American Civil Liberties Union.
To his aid came Clarence Darrow who at the time was one of the most famous criminal attorneys. Born in Kinsman, Ohio he was the son of Amirus Darrow, a furniture maker and undertaker. Clarence achieved fame defending American Railway Union president Eugene Debs in anti-junction proceedings that stemmed after the Pullman strike. Darrow then worked on this case which would receive worldly attention in the case against Prosecutor William Jennings Bryan.
Bryan was a three-time presidential candidate and nationally recognized as a skilled orator. A native of Salem, Illinois, he was the son of a lawyer and judge. Both parents were highly religious and the church took a central role in his life. He supported using silver to limit currency inflation which benefitted farmers. During his first presidential campaign in 1896, he traveled 18,000 miles and delivered as many as 600 speeches, according to the ANBOD. Two more presidential campaigns followed and he also served as secretary of state under Woodrow Wilson. After that, he began to turn more towards social issues like womens suffrage and prohibition.
Historian Ray Ginger in his book “Six Days or Forever” writes that some of the reasoning behind the anti-evolution law were excerpts such as this one: “The Bible said that God had created man in his own image, so man could not have evolved from lower animals as the scientists said.” (Ginger, 1974)
The Rhea County Courthouse in Dayton became the focus of thousands of people. Crowds were so voluminous they had to open extra rooms to make space for the incoming visitors. Sandwich and drink lines were created with the aid of Robinson’s Drug Store across the street as this event would bring world-wide fame to Dayton. The temperature was over one-hundred degrees in the court room.
-Prosecutor William Jennings Bryan
Darrow and the other defense attorneys did not focus on acquitting Scopes of his charges. Instead they focused primarily on making the Tennessee law unconstitutional, and in order to do that, they needed to bring this case to a higher court such as the U.S. Supreme Court to make the law unconstitutional. “The Defense counsel denounced the appellate court’s ruling as a subterfuge to prevent further appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court” (Caudill, 2000)
The jury convicted Scopes guilty just as Darrow asked so he could appeal the case in a higher court, and the judge set a penalty of one-hundred dollars which the Baltimore Sun paid on behalf of Scopes. According to the ANBOD, “Scopes demanded that Darrow argue the appeal, which he did in June 1926.” The state’s highest court overturned the ruling in the Scope’s trial on the ground that the jury, not the judge had to set the fine. The law was not repealed until 1967. Scopes felt that he was “just a warm body” in the “center of the storm” as the issue of evolution was still debated at the local level in Tennessee. After the trial Scopes took a job in Venezuela and went to graduate school and helped raise a family.
If the intent of the trial, as some have argued, was to promote tourism in Dayton, success was short lived. The Scopes trial is commemorated annually in Dayton, Tennessee.
To learn more about the trial, see WKU’s American History in Video database which contain descriptions about the Scopes Trial with original pictures. Also, check out the following books and DVD at WKU libraries:
Ginger, R. (1958). Six days or forever?. Boston: Oxford University Press.
Allen, L. H. ed. (1925). Bryan and Darrow at Dayton. New York: Arthur Lee & Company.
Caudill, E. (2000). The Scopes Trial a Photographic History. Knoxville: The University of Tennessee Press.
Israel, Charles A. (2004). Before Scopes: Evangelicalism, Education, and Evolution in Tennessee, 1870-1925. Athens: The University of Georgia Press.
Tracy, S. (Actor). (2001). Inherit the Wind [DVD].