The “Scopes Monkey Trial”- What Really Happened

We’ve all heard about the so-called “Scopes Monkey” Trial. If asked in a trivia contest we might remember that this trial happened way back in the oh, uh,… nineteen twenties or thirties or sometime long ago when the state of Tennessee passed a dumb anti-evolution law and arrested a fellow who had dared to defy that law and teach Darwin’s then controversial theory to a group of high school students. He was put on trial and the whole thing became a big event in which two of the top lawyers in the US found their way to the rural Tennessee courtroom and had it out to the amusement and amazement of millions listening in on the radio. Then there was a play about it that we saw at the community theatre. Or was it a movie too? Yes there was. Oh..oh starring Spencer Tracy. For the average guy on the street, even the average educated guy, that’s probably about all he will know.

Most of what the average guy knows or rather, thinks he knows, will relate to the play: INHERIT THE WIND a compelling drama written by Jerome Lawrence and Robert Lee. Theatre enthusiasts will remember the play in more detail. Here’s the gist of it. As the play opens poor Cates (Scopes) is sitting in a Tennessee jail in great agony wondering if he’s gonna do time for the “crime” of teaching evolution. His situation is only made worse when famous lawyer and prosecuting attorney WH Brady (WJ Bryan) has come to town in a big parade surrounded by well wishers and admirers. He promises the enthusiastic crowd that he will nail Mr. Cate’s hide to the wall. By all appearances Cates doesn’t have a chance. Later, amidst no fanfare, the opposition, the defense lawyer Mr. Drummound, enters- a clear-headed stranger in a strange land of hard-core biblical fundamentalists and against all odds, armed only with a head full of common sense and a copy of the ORIGIN OF THE SPECIES, he must do battle in a hostile environment. He carefully builds his case, all the time watching Brady parade about as if he is God’s gift to the American courtroom. We all know what’s coming: Brady, that pompous fool, falls into Drummound’s trap and in the climactic scene of the show, goes down in utter humiliation. Reason and good sense triumph. Religious extremism collapses as it, by golly, should. The good guy wins. Stand up and cheer. But do so with this in mind and the message of ITW is clear: these religious nut-jobs are all around us. Be ever mindful and vigilant. Freedom of thought and the right to think independently are always under siege! Next time it could be YOU sitting in that cell awaiting trial. Don’t take your freedom for granted!

That’s the play. What about the real event? Most of us, with a shrug of the shoulders, will quickly admit that “Hollywood history” is usually unreliable and script writers will often take a few liberties with the facts. We know that ITW is based on a real event mentioned in history books. Why? The “Scopes Monkey Trial” was the biggest media event of the nineteen twenties and the first mass media event in US history. For the first time ever millions gathered around a mass communications device and listened in on something important AS it was occurring-an extremely important first. If then, our principal knowledge of such an important thing is based on a historically unreliable depiction of that event, maybe it’s time we discover what really happened.

First, the play has very little to say about the real event. No surprise here. Lawrence and Lee got a few things right. Yes, the state of Tenn did pass a law prohibiting the teaching of Darwin’s Theory of Evolution. And yes there was a trial of a schoolteacher in a small town in Tenn on the matter. And yes, two famous lawyers, one for the defense, a feisty agnostic, and another for the prosecution, a Bible-believer, battled it out in a hot courtroom. A tiny bit of the dialogue was lifted from the actual transcript and place into the dramatic script. That, incredibly enough, is about it. Beyond these very basic facts, the play bears little resemblance to what really happened.

So, what really happened? As usual, the real story is far more interesting than the theatrical fiction. Here’s the short version. After hearing of the new law in Tenn prohibiting the teaching of evolution, the ACLU wanted to test it. But they needed someone, preferably a schoolteacher, to do so. That’s how things are done in our system (Roe vs. Wade, Brown vs. Board of Education, etc.)They placed an ad in several Tenn newspapers promising to provide legal aid to any school teacher willing to help. Seeing this a group of Dayton, TN businessmen , acting as a sort of ad hoc chamber of commerce, thought that a show trial held in their local Rhea county courthouse would be an excellent way to direct attention to their community. The approached a local high-school teacher and coach, John Scopes, and persuaded him to incriminate himself even though he had only been a biology substitute teacher for two weeks and couldn’t remember if, indeed, he had really broken the law! His decision to cooperate may have had something to do with the fact that breaking that law was not a serious affair. It was a mere MISDEMEANOR with a fine not to exceed $500. The local judge, a Mr. Raulston, had to be persuaded to convene a grand jury and bring charges. After some arm twisting, they convinced him to go along.
When the announcement was made that a trial would occur, the thing snowballed. A local Baptist church invited William Jennings Bryan, a famous three-time presidential candidate (on the Democrat ticket), to come to Dayton and lead the prosecution. He accepted. When word got out about this, famous defense attorney Clarence Darrow joined what was essentially an already ACLU stocked defense “dream team” and the trial date was set for mid-July, 1925. Momentum continued to build as journalists, both of the print and radio variety, boarded the trains and headed to Dayton, Tn- a place few had ever heard of. By the time of the opening gavel, millions of Americans were listening in and the wildest dreams of that tiny group of small town businessmen were realized. Across the nation, millions were locating Dayton, TN on their USA maps. It was a publicity stunt that exceeded all expectations.

The trial lasted eight days. It was unbearably hot. If air conditioning had existed then, or if the trial had occurred at a different time of the year, it might have gone on longer but judge Raulston, obviously fatigued with it all, brought the testimony to an end before Bryan had a chance to cross examine Darrow on the stand in the same way that he himself had been cross examined the day before by Darrow. The jury deliberated for only a few minutes before delivering the guilty verdict. No one was surprised at this.

Was the real WJ Bryan the narrow minded bigot portrayed by “Brady” in INHERIT THE WIND? Hardly. Of Darwin’s book, Brady says (in ITW) that he has never read it and has no intention of doing so. Not only is Brady ignorant but willfully so. Unlike Brady, WJ Bryan, the real man, was well acquainted with Mr. Darwin’s book and prior to his encounter with Darrow had debated learned men on many occasions and lectured widely on the Chautauqua Circuit.The famous trial wasn’t his first “monkey” rodeo.He was a veteran “evolution” debater who probably knew the Evolution business better than his opponent.

Was Clarence Darrow, the agnostic secularist, given the cold shoulder in Dayton as portrayed in the play? Negative. At the time he praised the people of Dayton for their hospitality. Later he said he enjoyed the thing immensely. Funny thing. People tend to be on their best behavior when invited company arrives. They also avoid behaving badly when the whole world is watching. Remember, it was a publicity stunt. All the out-of-town folk, spectators, journalists, radio folk, etc. were INVITED guests! By all reliable accounts, the people of Dayton were happy to see them and went to great lengths to show impartiality in the whole matter. Darrow had no complaints about his treatment in Dayton.

What about Scopes? Did he languish in jail, worried to death that he may have to “do time?” Worried that he may never get the dough to pay the huge fine? Was he afraid that he’d never work again in that town? None of the above. He never spent a second in jail. Not a second. He never paid a dime in fines. It was a publicity stunt. All his fees were paid. Scopes was fine and never fined. After the debut of the play in the early nineteen-fifties, he wrote his own account of the trial to set the record straight. Few read it. It is long out of print.

On the other hand millions have seen the play. As I write this, there is a pretty good chance that some school or community theatre somewhere in the US is in rehearsal for ITW, a play that ain’t likely to go away. As theatrical entertainment goes, it’s good stuff. As for me, I’d jump at the chance to do one of the leading roles!

Nevertheless ITW is still bad history. The big howler in ITW is, of course, when Brady, in utter humiliation, staggers off the witness stand mumbling incoherently, goes into an adjoining room and dies-a fate he, being the colossal bigot, richly deserves. Nothing of the kind happened. After the real trial, Bryan and Darrow shook hands, congratulated each other on a great performance and parted ways. Bryan died five days later. But he did so after a very active five days. And he died in his sleep due to complications from diabetes. No, he didn’t die of a “broken heart”, a broken spirit or anything like that-nothing so dramatic. He died of natural causes. The play is, I admit, far more entertaining.

In a play or movie we love a heroic principled good guy up against a devious, bigoted, narrow-minded bad guy. We like it straight and simple-good verses evil. In the real trial, did we have a good guy up against a bad one? Not really. No one walked away from that hot courtroom a clear winner or a clear loser. As to the public opinion of Darrow or Bryan nothing changed. Technically Scopes lost and got a $100 fine-the least the judge could do. Later, in the appeal, (yes the ACLU wanted to keep the thing going-imagine that), the Tenn court dropped all charges against Scopes on a technicality. They decided that Judge Raulston did not have the authority to issue fines over $50! That completely ended the matter (for the Tenn government anyway)and it wasn’t what the ACLU wanted to hear. They went away disappointed and the law, for the time being, stayed on the books. Why? No one else challenged it. At least no one that we know of.

INHERIT THE WIND is but a work of art. In the intro the authors of ITW unconvincingly deny any association of their play to “real events.” The problem is simply that the play is better known than the real event. Sure, it is a good thing when the movie or play is released and real-life bad guys, in a sense, finally get what’s coming to them. But the opposite can occur. Sometimes a good guy, a real guy, is a victim. Sometimes the good guy is caricatured and slandered with his reputation dragged through a dirty lowdown puddle of artistic mud. This is surely the case with ITW. If there is a worse case of a good man, possibly a great man, treated so unfairly in a prominent well-known work of drama I don’t know about it. William Jennings Bryan, a great American, a great progressive spirit, “the great commoner”, three-time candidate of the Democratic party for President, is viciously slandered in INHERIT THE WIND.The authors created a great play at his expense-plain and simple.

After the trial Tennessee lawmakers and law enforcers had had enough “Monkey business.” This law against the teaching of Evolution, a law favored by conservative fundamentalist Protestants, became one that they wished that they had never passed, more trouble than it was worth, but, being stubborn, (like most human beings) those who passed it refused to change it because that would have meant backing down to outside forces. They compromised by ignoring it. In a practical sense that law became merely a symbol, a bit of fundamentalist window dressing. Afterward, there was NEVER another prosecution of a teacher for violating this law. Finally, in 1967, in a little publicized move that barely made the back page of a newspaper, this long-ignored and unenforced law was removed from the legal code.

Once upon a time the state of Tennessee had a law forbidding the teaching of the theory of Evolution in public schools. For eight memorable days in July 1925 a titanic battle of ideas, science verses religion, took place in Dayton Tenn. That law supporting the religious side of the argument received national attention as it was attacked and defended and then enforced with a whooping $100 fine that was never paid. And for his misdemeanor misdeed, the defendant John Scopes became the most famous substitute teacher in history. And that folks, is what really happened.

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5 Comments

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5 responses to “The “Scopes Monkey Trial”- What Really Happened

  1. Good post. I admit I didn’t know a whole lot about the Scopes Trial, and I am not even sure we covered it in High School History (although, my 9th history teacher didn’t teach us jack, but that is another story). Still, learned more about that in reading this blog then anything else I had ever seen. Nice to see that things haven’t changed much in politics in nearly a century, especially in context of the maxim: “Never let the truth get in the way of a good story”. Definately in play here. Also, Hollywood is good for sparking interest in events, but it is important to use that opportunity to get the “real” story. Lord knows how many websites/blogs/etc are out there where people do the comparisons of the ficitional account vs. the reality.

    • Thanks for the response. This was my first post in awhile and arose out of research I did for a church school class I’m teaching. After reading up a bit on wj Bryan I became acutely aware of the manner in which he is so viciously slandered in Inherit the Wind. Something else I didn’t mention. The play was written in the early 1950’s to address/respond to McCarthyism. So the thing was political -originally? That message got lost pretty quick don’t you think? The dangers of an unfettered religious right. That seems to be the message now of ITW.

      Sent from my iPhone

  2. Dave Lavell

    Jim,

    I have missed seeing your posts. It’s good to get another one, especially such a good one. You’re right- all I knew about the Scopes Monkey Trial is what I read in the play in high school. Thanks for setting me straight.

    I’ll tell you something much scarier- about 60% of the American population got most of what they know about the assassination of JFK from Oliver Stone’s movie!

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