On January 28, 1925, a measure prohibiting the teaching of evolution or denying the biblical account of the origin of man, passed the Tennesse House of Representatives, 71 to five. The Tennessee senate passed the so-called “Butler bill” named after Representative John Washington Butler on March 13, the measure signed into law that same month by Governor Austin Peay.
It was now illegal to teach the theory of evolution in Tennessee public schools, colleges and universities.
The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) immediately announced an intention to sue, offering to defend anyone accused of violating the act. Local businessman George Rappleyea arranged a meeting with the county superintendent of schools and local attorney Sue Kerr Hicks, possibly the inspiration for Shel Silverstein’s “A Boy Named Sue” everyone remembers from the Johnny Cash song, of 1969.
The three met at Robinson’s Drug Store and agreed their little town of Dayton could use the publicity. The trio summoned 24-year-old High School football coach John Scopes, asking the part-time substitute teacher to plead guilty to teaching the theory of evolution. Scopes replied he couldn’t recall if he had done so or not, but he’d be more than happy to be the defendant if anyone could prove that he had.
Scopes stepped into legal history barely two months later. According to charging documents Scopes had used the textbook “Civic Biology” to describe the theory of evolution, race and eugenics. The prosecution brought in William Jennings Bryan to try the case. The defense hired Clarence Darrow.
Two of the heaviest of jurisprudential heavy hitters of the day were now lined up in what promised to be, the “Trial of the Century”.
Bryan complained that evolution taught children that humans were no more than one among 35,000 mammals. He rejected the idea that humans were descended from apes. “Not even from American monkeys, but from old world monkeys”. The ACLU wanted to oppose the Butler Act on grounds that it violated the teacher’s individual rights and academic freedom, but it was Darrow who shaped the case, taking the position that theistic and evolutionary views were not mutually exclusive.
What began as a publicity stunt quickly became an overwhelming media event. 200 newspaper reporters from all over the country arrived in Dayton. Two come all the way from London. Twenty-two telegraphers sent out 165,000 words a day over thousands of miles of telegraph wires, specifically hung for the purpose.
Trained chimpanzees performed on the courthouse lawn. Chicago radio personality Quin Ryan broadcast the nation’s first on-the-scene coverage of a criminal trial. A specially constructed airstrip was prepared from which two movie cameramen had their newsreel footage flown out, daily.
H.L. Mencken, writing for the Baltimore Sun, mocked the prosecution and the jury as “unanimously hot for Genesis.” Mencken labeled the town’s inhabitants “yokels” and “morons”. Bryan was a “buffoon” he claimed, his speeches “theologic bilge”. It was Mencken who dubbed the proceedings, “Monkey Trial”. The defense, on the other hand, was “eloquent” and “magnificent”.
Or so he claimed. Not the least little bit of media bias, there.
After eight days of trial, the jury took only nine minutes to deliberate finding Scopes guilty on July 21. The gym teacher was ordered to pay a $100 fine, equivalent to something like $1,300, today. Scopes’ conviction was overturned by the Tennessee Supreme Court, on the basis that state law required fines over $50 to be decided by a jury, and not by the judge presiding.
To this day you can find American creationists who believe that media reports turned public opinion, against the religious view.
Today, the Evolution vs Creation debate has faded to the background, but never really ended. Such discussions may be reasonably expected to continue. Neither view seems supportable by anything more than the faith, of its own adherents.
One thought on “March 13, 1925 Trial of the Century”