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.
The Butler Act
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 educational 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.
The Dayton Challenge
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.
The plan to bring the trial to Dayton was hatched at the table in the picture, where members of the school board met with John Scopes. Shown are George W. Rappalyea, Walter White, Clay Green, F. E. Robinson and Owen Wasson.
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.
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. 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.
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 legitimate science theory.
Dayton, in Rhea County, quietly returned to normal life once the bible salesmen, protesters, souvenir hawkers, and reporters left. Tourists and curiosity seekers still visit the town in East Tennessee that was the site of a national debate nearly 80 years ago.
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.
Joe Mendi, the chimpanzee, disappeared from the record. It is likely that he would have denied relationship to any of the humans involved in the Scopes Monkey Trial.
Suggestions for further research
Allen, Leslie Henri. Bryan and Darrow at Dayton: The Record and Documents of the “Bible-evolution Trial.” New York: A. Lee and Company, 1925.
Angoff, Charles. H. L. Mencken: A Portrait from Memory. New York: T. Yoseloff, 1956.
Bryan, William Jennings and Bryan, Mary Baird. The Memoirs of William JenningsBryan. Philadelphia: The United Publishers of America, 1925.
Bryan, William Jennings and Coate, Lowell Harris. The Dawn of Humanity: The Menace of Darwinism and the Bible and Its Enemies. Chicago: Altruist Foundation, 1925.
Conkin, Paul Keith. When All the Gods Trembled: Darwinism, Scopes and American Intellectuals. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, 1998.
Cornelius, R. M. and Morris, John David. Scopes: Creation on Trial. El Cajon, California: Institute for Creation Research, 1995.
De Camp, Lyon Sprague. The Great Monkey Trial. Garden City, New York: Doubleday, 1968.
Darwin, Charles. The Descent of Man. New York: American Home Library, 1902.
Darwin, Charles. The Origin of the Species. New York: Modern Library, 1962.
Ginger, Ray. Six Days or Forever? New York: Oxford University Press, USA, 1958.
Hanson, Freya Ottem. The Scopes Monkey Trial: A Headline Court Case. Berkeley Heights, New Jersey: Enslow Publishers, 2000.
Hibben, Paxton and Grattan, Clinton Hartley. The Peerless Leader: William JenningsBryan. New York: Farrar and Rinehart, 1929.
Hobson, Fred C. Serpent in Eden: H. L. Mencken and the South. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1974.
Hogue, Albert Ross. Peculiar Laws and Lawsuits in Tennessee, 1796-1926. Jamestown, Tennessee: no publisher given, 1900.
Hunter, George William. A Civic Biology: Presented in Problems. New York: American Book Company, 1914.
Israel, Charles Alan. Before Scopes: Evangelism, Education and Evolution in Tennessee, 1870-1925, Athens, Georgia: University of Georgia Press, 2004.
Johnson, Anne Janette. The Scopes “Monkey Trial.” Detroit: Omnigraphics, 2007.
Kemler, Edgar. The Irreverent Mr. Mencken. Boston: Little, Brown, 1950.
Larson, Edward J. Summer for the Gods: The Scopes Trial and America’s Continuing Debate over Science and Religion. New York: Basic Books, 1997.
Levine, Lawrence W. Defender of the Faith: William JenningsBryan, The Last Decade, 1915-1925. New York: Oxford University Press, 1965.
Mencken, H.L. A Religious Orgy in Tennessee. Hoboken: Melville House Publishing, reprint, 2006.
Mencken, H. L. The Diary of H. L. Mencken. New York: Knopf, 1989.
Moran, Jeffery P. The Scopes Trial: A Brief History with Documents. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2002.
Nardo, Don. The Scopes Trial. San Diego, California: Lucent Books, 1997.
Olson, Steven P. The Trial of John T. Scopes: A Primary Source Account. New York: Rosen Publishing Group, 2004.
Scopes, John T. and James Presley. Center of the Storm. New York: Holt, Rhinehart and Winston, 1967.
Settle, Mary Lee. The Scopes Trial: The State of Tennessee vs. John Thomas Scopes. New York: F. Watts, 1972.
Stone, Irving. Clarence Darrow for the Defense. Garden City, New York: Doubleday, Doran and Company, Inc., 1941.
The Scopes Trial: A Photographic History. Knoxville: The University of Tennessee Press, 2000. Introduction by Edward Caudill. Captions by Edward Lawson. Afterword by Jesse Fox Mayshark.
Tompkins, Jerry R. D-days at Dayton: Reflections on the Scopes Trial. Baton Rouge, Louisiana: Louisiana State University Press, 1965.
Wilson, Charles Morrow. The Commoner: William JenningsBryan. Garden City, New York: Doubleday, 1970.
Younger, Irving. Clarence Darrow’s Cross-Examination of William Jennings Bryan in Tennessee vs. John Thomas Scopes. Minnetonka, Minnesota: Professional Education Group, 1988.