It was a lawsuit to test the constitutionality of Tennessee’s Butler Act, a 1925 statute making it a misdemeanor for teachers in state-supported schools “to teach any theory that denies the Story of the Divine Creation of man as taught in the Bible, and to teach instead that man has descended from a lower order of animals.” But when State of Tennessee v. John Thomas Scopes caught the satirical eye of anti-fundamentalist editor H. L. Mencken, he came up with a catchier name: the Scopes “Monkey Trial.”
The defendant was John Scopes, a Dayton, Tennessee high school coach, substitute biology teacher and Paducah, Kentucky native. The attorney “dream teams” included Clarence Darrow for the defense and William Jennings Bryan for the prosecution. After 12 days of testimony, in July 1925 a Dayton court upheld the law and convicted Scopes of violating its provisions. Although the conviction was later overturned on a technicality, the Butler Act was not repealed until 1967.
Part of a scrapbook kept by John Scopes and his wife Mildred containing material relating to the Scopes Trial has been recently donated to the Manuscripts & Folklife Archives section of WKU’s Special Collections Library. Included in its pages are letters from international divorce lawyer Dudley Field Malone offering his services as co-counsel, and from Clarence and Ruby Darrow commenting on press reaction to the trial in the South.
Much of the material documents the years after the trial during which Scopes, who left teaching for a career as a geologist, found himself a reluctant celebrity. When Inherit the Wind, a movie based on the trial, was released in 1960, however, he appeared at its premiere in Dayton and at the accompanying “Scopes Trial Day” festivities. Other correspondence relates to his 1967 memoir, Center of the Storm. Also included are hand-crafted anti-evolution religious tracts and letters from both friends and strangers offering thoughts and reflections on the “Monkey Trial.”
Click here to download a finding aid for the John T. Scopes Collection. For more of our collections, search TopSCHOLAR and KenCat.