I. Review “The early 1920s found social patterns in chaos. Traditionalists worried that everything valuable was ending. Modernists no longer asked whether society would approve of their behavior, only whether their behavior met the approval of their intellect. Intellectual experimentation flourished. Americans danced to the sound of the Jazz Age, showed their contempt for alcoholic prohibition, debated Freudian theories. In a response to the new social patterns set in motion by modernism, a wave of revivalism developed, becoming especially strong in the American South. Who would dominate American culture–the modernists or the traditionalists? Journalists were looking for a showdown, and they found one in a Dayton, Tennessee courtroom in the summer of 1925.”
(Douglas Linder, Visiting Professor of Law, Indiana University)
II. Trial Background
William Jennings Bryan – led a Fundamentalist crusade to banish evolution from American classrooms. Bryan, in the words of columnist H. L. Mencken, transformed himself into a “sort of Fundamentalist Pope.” By 1925, Bryan succeeded in getting legislation introduced in fifteen states to ban teaching of evolution. Tennessee enacted a bill introduced making it unlawful “to teach any theory that denies the story of divine creation as taught by the Bible and to teach instead that man was descended from a lower order of animals.”
George Rappalyea – 31-year-old transplant New Yorker, local coal company manager, arrived at a Dayton drugstore with a copy of ACLU announcement that it was willing to offer its services to anyone challenging Tennessee anti-evolution statute. Rappalyea, modernist Methodist, argued to town leaders that a trial would put Dayton on the map. Dayton’s population had fallen from 3,000 in the 1890’s to 1,800 in 1925.
John Scopes – Conspirators summoned Scopes, a 24 yr. old science teacher and part-time football coach, to the store. Said to Scopes, “you’ve been violating the law…would you be willing to stand for a test case?” Scopes agreed. He later explained his decision: “the best time to scotch the snake is when it starts to wiggle.” (Aside – Rappalyea wanted H.G. Wells on defense team – Wells not interested)
John Neal – law school dean from Knoxville, volunteered to represent Scopes. William Jennings Bryan offered to join the prosecution team–despite having not practiced law in over thirty years. Clarence Darrow, approaching seventy, joined the battle in Dayton. Darrow not first choice of ACLU, who were concerned that Darrow’s zealous agnosticism might be viewed as attack on Christianity in general.
III. Trial – Banners decorated streets, lemonade stands, chimpanzees, said to have been brought to town to testify for the prosecution, performed in a side show on Main Street.
Nearly 1000 people jammed the Rhea County Courthouse on July 10, 1925 for first day of trial. Radio announcers ready to send listeners the first live radio broadcast from a trial. The proceedings opened, over Darrow’s objections, to a prayer.
On that first Sunday, William Jennings Bryan delivered sermon at Dayton’s Methodist Church; used occasion to attack the defense strategy in the Scopes case. Judge of trial and his entire family listened from their front pew seats.
Opening statements pictured the trial as a mammoth struggle between good and evil; truth and ignorance. Bryan claimed that “if evolution wins, Christianity goes.” Darrow argued, “Scopes isn’t on trial; civilization is on trial.” Because of the crowd, Judge Raulston soon moved the proceedings to the lawn outside the courthouse. Outside, facing the jury, hung a sign attached to the courthouse wall– “Read Your Bible.” Darrow asked either that the sign be removed or that a second sign of equal size saying “Read Your Evolution” be put up along with it. Judge Raulston ordered the sign removed.
On the seventh day of trial, Judge Raulston asked defense if it had any more evidence. What followed the New York Times described as “the most amazing court scene in Anglo-Saxon history.” Bryan called to the stand as an expert on the Bible. Darrow began interrogation with a question: “You have given considerable study to the Bible, haven’t you, Mr. Bryan?” Bryan replied, “Yes, I have. I have studied the Bible for about fifty years.” Thus began questions attacking a literal interpretation of the Bible. Darrow asked Bryan about a whale swallowing Jonah, Joshua making the sun stand still, Noah and the great flood, the temptation of Adam in the garden of Eden, and the creation according to Genesis. Bryan conceded that the words of the Bible should not always be taken literally. Bryan faltered badly under Darrow’s persistent questioning. At one point Bryan responded, “I do not think about things I don’t think about.” Darrow asked, “Do you think about the things you do think about?” Bryan responded, to the laughter of spectators, “Well, sometimes.” Bryant said that he would continue to answer Darrow’s impertinent questions because “I want the world to know that this man, who does not believe in God, is trying to use a court in Tennessee–.” Darrow interrupted, “I object to your statement and to your fool ideas that no intelligent Christian on earth believes.” According to one historian, “As a man and as a legend, Bryan was destroyed by his testimony that day.”
Darrow asked the jury to return a verdict of guilty so the case could be appealed to the Tennessee Supreme Court. Jury complied with Darrow’s request, and Judge Raulston fined him $100. Six days after the trial, William Jennings Bryan, after eating a large dinner, lay down to take a nap and died in his sleep. Clarence Darrow was hiking in the Smoky Mountains when he heard of Bryan’s death. When reporters suggested that Bryan died of a broken heart, Darrow said “Broken heart nothing; he died of a busted belly.”
The Scopes trial did not end debate over evolution, but it set the fundamentalists back in a way they would never recover. Of the fifteen states with anti- evolution laws pending in 1925, only two states (Arkansas and Mississippi) enacted laws restricting teaching of evolution. Darrow managed to turn the mood of country from a basic sympathy to fundamentalism to an increasing sense that fundamentalism was a joke; it was for the ignorant and tyrants of the past.
Russel D. Owen, writing in the New York Times, reported, “Each side withdrew at the end of the struggle satisfied it had unmasked the absurd pretensions of the other.”