Wednesday, July 21, 2010

The Scopes Trial Verdict Delivered 1925

The Scopes Trial—formally known as The State of Tennessee vs. Scopes and informally known as the Scopes Monkey Trial—was an American legal case in 1925 in which high school biology teacher John Scopes was accused of violating the state's Butler Act which made it unlawful to teach evolution.

After eight days of trial, it took the jury only nine minutes to deliberate. Scopes was found guilty on July 21 and ordered to pay a US$100 fine (approximately $1,228 in 2010 when adjusted from 1925 for inflation). Raulston imposed the fine before Scopes was given an opportunity to say anything about why the court should not impose punishment upon him and after Neal brought the error to the judge's attention the defendant spoke for the first and only time in court:

"Your honor, I feel that I have been convicted of violating an unjust statute. I will continue in the future, as I have in the past, to oppose this law in any way I can. Any other action would be in violation of my ideal of academic freedom — that is, to teach the truth as guaranteed in our constitution, of personal and religious freedom. I think the fine is unjust (World's Most Famous Court Trial 313)."

Scopes (above) was found guilty, but the verdict was overturned on a technicality and he was never punished. The trial drew intense national publicity, as national reporters flocked to the small town of Dayton, to cover the big-name lawyers representing each side. William Jennings Bryan (top photo right), three time presidential candidate for the Democrats argued for the prosecution, while Clarence Darrow (top photo left), the famed defense attorney, spoke for Scopes. The trial saw modernists, who said religion was consistent with evolution, against Fundamentalists who said the Word of God as revealed in the Bible trumped all human knowledge. The trial was thus both a religious or theological contest, and a trial on the veracity of modern science regarding the creation-evolution controversy. The teaching of science and evolution expanded, as Fundamentalist efforts to use state laws to reverse the trend had failed in the court of public opinion.


Anticipating that Scopes would be found guilty, the press fitted the defendant for martyrdom and created an onslaught of ridicule. Time's initial coverage of the trial focused on Dayton as "the fantastic cross between a circus and a holy war." Life adorned its masthead with monkeys reading books and proclaimed, "the whole matter is something to laugh about." Hosts of cartoonists added their own portrayals to the attack (the greatest collection of cartoons available would be the 14 reprinted in L. Sprague de Camp's The Great Monkey Trial). Both Literary Digest and the popular humor magazine Life (1890–1930) ran compilations of jokes and humorous observations garnered from newspapers around the country.

Overwhelmingly, the butt of these jokes was the prosecution and those aligned with it: Bryan, the city of Dayton, the state of Tennessee, and the entire South, as well as fundamentalist Christians and anti-evolutionists. Rare exceptions were found in the Southern press, where the fact that Darrow had saved Leopold and Loeb from the death penalty continued to be a source of ugly humor. The most widespread form of this ridicule was directed at the inhabitants of Tennessee. Life described Tennessee as "not up to date in its attitude to such things as evolution." Time related Bryan's arrival in town with the disparaging comment, "The populace, Bryan's to a moron, yowled a welcome."

Attacks on Bryan were frequent and acidic: Life awarded him its "Brass Medal of the Fourth Class," for having "successfully demonstrated by the alchemy of ignorance hot air may be transmuted into gold, and that the Bible is infallibly inspired except where it differs with him on the question of wine, women, and wealth." Papers across the country routinely dismissed the efforts of both sides in the trial, while the European press reacted to the entire affair with amused condescension.

Famously vituperative attacks came from journalist H. L. Mencken, whose syndicated columns from Dayton for the Baltimore Sun drew vivid caricatures of the "backward" local populace, referring to the people of Rhea county as "Babbits," "morons," "peasants," "hill-billies," "yaps" and "yokels." He chastised the "degraded nonsense which country preachers are ramming and hammering into yokel skulls." The nicest thing Mencken managed to say about the community was that "The Klan has never got a foothold here, though it rages everywhere else in Tennessee." Mencken attempted to perpetuate a hoax, distributing flyers for the "Rev. Elmer Chubb," but the claims that Chubb would drink poison and preach in lost languages were ignored as commonplace by the people of Dayton and only the Commonweal bit. Mencken's most venomous assault was his withering obituary of Bryan, "In Memoriam: W.J.B," in which Mencken became one of the few people ever to accuse Bryan of insincerity. Years later Mencken did question whether dismissing Bryan "as a quack pure and unadulterated" was "really just," but the damage could hardly be undone. Mencken's columns made the Dayton citizens irate and drew general fire from the Southern press. After Raulston ruled against the admission of scientific testimony, Mencken left Dayton, declaring in his last dispatch "All that remains of the great cause of the State of Tennessee against the infidel Scopes is the formal business of bumping off the defendant." Consequently, the journalist missed Darrow's cross-examination of Bryan on Monday.

Stage and film

The play Inherit the Wind (1955), by Jerome Lawrence and Robert Edwin Lee was loosely based on this trial. The play turned Darrow and Bryan into characters named Henry Drummond and Matthew Harrison Brady. In its preface ("disclaimer") the play claims to be both unbiased and not based on any actual event. The play was made into a 1960 film directed by Stanley Kramer, with Spencer Tracy and Fredric March as Drummond and Brady. There have also been a trio of television versions, with Melvyn Douglas and Ed Begley in 1965, Jason Robards and Kirk Douglas in 1988, and Jack Lemmon and George C. Scott in 1999. The Scopes trial did not appear in the Encyclopædia Britannica until 1957, when its inclusion was spurred by the successful run of Inherit the Wind on Broadway, which was mentioned in the citation. It was not until the 1960s that the Scopes trial began to be mentioned in the history textbooks of American high schools and colleges, usually as an example of the conflict between fundamentalists and modernists, and often in sections that also talked about the rise of the Ku Klux Klan in the South.

Since 1987, the city of Dayton has staged a reenactment of the trial using the original transcripts, performing it in the same courtroom in which the trial took place. The annual event occurs during Dayton's Scopes Trial festival with several performances showing over the weekend. In 2007, Bryan College, the institute founded in memory of Bryan, purchased the rights to the production and made a filmed version for DVD release using the same performers entitled "Inherit the Truth" in an attempt to clear up any misunderstandings regarding the trial due to Inherit the Wind.

In September 2009 and October 2009 Alleged, a movie based upon an original screenplay about the trial, was filmed in the living history Crossroads Village in Genesee County, Michigan. Brian Dennehy will portray Clarence Darrow and Fred Thompson will play William Jennings Bryan.

Summer for the Gods: The Scopes Trial and America's Continuing Debate Over Science and ReligionThe Scopes Trial: A Brief History with Documents (The Bedford Series in History and Culture)Monkey Business: True Story of the Scopes Trial

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