The Myth of the Scopes Trial

From time to time in this journal, we have mentioned the fact that the Scopes trial of 1925 has been tremendously overblown. The trial was caused by the ACLU placing an ad in Tennessee newspapers offering to pay the expenses of any teacher willing to test the anti evolution law that existed in Tennessee at that time. John Scopes was not a biology teacher, but a coach who substituted for two weeks for a science teacher named W. F. Ferguson. The whole trial was a publicity stunt concocted by a local businessman named George Rappleyea to attract people to Dayton, Tennessee. Local businessmen staged all kinds of stunts to keep the trial in the news. WGN, a radio station in Chicago, broadcast the entire trial--the first time a trial was broadcast on radio. Clarence Darrow asked for a guilty verdict for Scopes, prohibiting William Jennings Bryan from giving his closing statement and crossexamining Darrow. There was no "winner" of the trial. Like most debates, everyone seemed to feel their man won.

The problem with the Scopes trial has been and continues to be the play Inherit the Wind. This play was written in 1956 by Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee as a reaction to the threat they saw to intellectual freedom caused by the anti-Communist activity of the McCarthy era. By the playwnght's own admission, the play has no real connection to what happened in the Scopes trial. They say:

Inherit the Wind is not history.... Only a handful of phrases have been taken from the actual transcript of the famous Scopes Trial.... Inherit the Wind does not pretend to be journalism. It is theater. It is not 1925.

In spite of this, we receive a constant flow of mail from students and teachers who believe it is history. A recent ad for the movie in video format that is all over the country says, "See the famous monkey trial that rocked America." The people who wrote "National Standards for United States History" recommend using the film as "a tool for understanding Bryan's thinking and fundamentalists' ideas." With all of this support, the problems of people correctly understanding what really happened in the Scopes trial are going to become worse and worse.

Dr. Randy Moore of the University of Louisville has done a areas service in this matter by comparing the video of Inherit the Wind distributed by MGM Home Entertainment (copyright 1993) with the actual Scopes trial. We have taken Dr. Moore's analysis as printed in The Amercan Biology Teacher, April, 1999, vol. 61, #4, pages 246250 and rearranged it into a chart we hone will be useful to our readers.

Movie Trial
The trial originates in Hillsboro (Dayton, Tennessee), a small southern town.  The ACLU is not mentioned in the play or film. The Scopes trial originated in New York City when the ACLU placed an ad in Tennessee's newspapers offering to pay the expenses of any teacher willing to test the Butler Law. 
A preacher, three business-men, and a photographer march through Hillsboro's deserted streets to Scopes' classroom, where Scopes is arrested. No clergy or businessmen went to Scopes' classroom, and no one caught Scopes teaching that humans evolved from "a lower order of animals."  Local citizens didn't know or care what Scopes taught.  Scopes' indictment was a staged event.  Although a local druggist (who also chaired the school board) told a Chattanooga newspaper that Scopes had been arrested, he was never formally arrested.  This is why, when writing about his experiences, Scopes always put arrested in quotation marks (Scopes & Presley 1997). 
Scopes is a biology teacher who taught that humans evolved from a lower form of animals. Scopes was not a biology teacher; he was a coach.  Scopes substituted for two weeks when the regular science teacher (Mr. W. F. Ferguson) was ill.
The trial was driven by theological and intellectual issues.  Initially, the potential economic benefits of the trial are dismissed [one businessman is asked when he last sold grits to a "smart aleck from New york," and another is asked when he last rented a room to a Frenchman].  Local businessmen realize the potential benefits of the trial only after learning that William Jennings Bryan will be involved in the case. ["The Lord has sent his right hand... [People] will come pouring out of the hills.  This town will fill up like a rain barrel in a flood. This will put Hillsboro on the map."] Thereafter, economic benefits of the trial are occasionally mentioned but are not portrayed as being overly important. The Scopes trial was a publicity stunt concocted to stimulate Dayton's economy; locals-most notably businessman George Rappleyea-wanted to use the trial to generate publicity that would attract business and industry to Dayton.  Before the trial started, local businessmen staged various publicity stunts (e.g., fights at a local barbershop to keep the trial in the news).
Scopes' fianc'ee (Rachel Brown), a teacher who is the fundamentalist preacher's daughter, wants Scopes to recant. Scopes refuses. Scopes had no fianc'ee, much less one wanting him to recant.
A newspaper reporter from the Baltimore Herald arranges Scopes to be defended by Darrow. Darrow volunteered his services for Scopes' defense.  This was the only time in his life that Darrow offered his services free of charge.  Mencken was from the Baltimore Sun, not the Baltimore Herald.
Scopes is a central figure throughout the trial. He is referred to as a martyr. Scopes was a relatively minor figure in the trial.  On days that Scopes was late for the trial, the proceedings often started without him.
Upon his arrival in Hillsboro (i.e., Dayton, Tennessee, "the buckle of the Bible belt"), Bryan is greeted by a parade and people singing "Give Me That Old Time Religion." Bryan gets a similar welcome at the courthouse on the first day of the trial. Darrow's arrival in Hillsboro is virtually unnoticed. When Darrow arrives at court, he is greeted by scowling, booing residents.  People holding signs saying "Down with Darrow," "Atheists Go Back to Your Monkey," and "Keep Satan Out of Hillsboro."  Darrow, like Bryan, was greeted warmly by Dayton's residents; both were given a welcoming dinner at Dayton's Progressive Club.
Local citizens are portrayed as fanatical, ignorant, mean, and threatening. Darrow insults the residents of Hillsboro. The local citizens were pleasant to the defense.  Darrow praised the people for having been "treated better, kindlier, and more hospitably than I fancied would have been the case in the north."  Journalist H. L. Mencken, not Darrow, offended the residents of Dayton.
Townspeople were led by Reverend  Jeremiah Brown, a fanatical fundamentalist preacher.  At the prayer meeting after the first day of the trial, Brown justifies his fanaticism by proclaiming that "Heaven has chosen us to show the way." Brown claims that Scopes offers nothing but sin, asks God to strike down Scopes and his sympathizers (including his daughter), and urges eternal damnatioin for Scopes. Bryan quotes Proverbs 11:29 as he intervenes to save Rachel from her fanatical father. There was no such preacher leading the people against Scopes.
Scopes' defense team consists only of Darrow, who is assisted by H. L. Mencken. The prosecutor's team consists of Bryan and a local attorney. Both sides were represented by teams of attorneys.  The counsel for the prosecution included Bryan, Bryan's son (William Jennings Bryan, Jr.), Ben McKenzie, J. Gordon McKenzie, A. T. Stewart, Wallace Haggard, and brothers Sue and Herbert Hicks.  Counsel for the defense included Darrow, John R. Neal, Arthur Garfield Hays, Dudley Field Malone, W. O. Thompson, and F. B., McElwee, and was assisted by biblical authority Charles Potter.  Mencken had no role in the defense team.
Bryan condemns "godless science" and claims that "scientism" is the "way of darkness." Bryan enjoyed science, read about science, and was a member of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.  He even supported the teaching of evolution, provided that humans were made exempt from the process.
Bryan betrays the confidence of Scope's fianc'ee by forcing her to testify against Scopes, thereby making Scopes look like a nonbeliever.  Bryan's fanatical examination of Rachel leaves her in tears. No women participated in Scopes' trial.  Bryan was courteous to witnesses; it was Darrow who was cited for contempt.
A local farmer whose son had been condemned by Rev. Brown puts up his farm as a guarantee to cover Darrow's citation for contempt of court. The trial included no testimony about any deceased children of local residents.  No local farmer offered to pay Darrow's fine.  However, George Rappleyea, an architect of the trial, had decided to "show [the fundamentalist] up to the world" after hearing a fundamental preacher condemn a dead child because its parents hadn't had it baptized. 
Williams Jennings Bryan and many of the citizens of Dayton are portrayed as stupid, fanatical, uncouth idiots, bigots, and villains. It is hard to watch Inherit the Wind without detesting Bryan's fanaticism. Williams Jennings Bryan was a likable, generous, kind, and intelligent man.  He was the greatest orator of his time and wanted to be friends with Scopes despite their different opinions about Tennessee's  Butler Law (i.e., the recently passed law under which Scopes was prosecuted).  Bryan had served as Secretary of State under Woodrow Wilson where he advocated progressive ideas such as an income tax, the free and unlimited coinage of silver, the creation of the Department of Labor, and women's suffrage.
Expert witnesses are not allowed to testify. Twelve scientists and theologians were allowed to make statements as part of the record presented by the defense.  None of the expert witnesses was cross-examined.
Darrow requests permission to withdraw from the case. Darrow never requested permission to withdraw from the case.
Local citizens burn Scopes and Darrow in effigy, shout at Scopes in jail, and threaten to lynch Scopes while "Glory, Glory Hallelujah" plays in the background. Local citizens didn't burn Scopes and Darrow in effigy or threaten to lynch Scopes.  In fact, citizens of Dayton liked Scopes, and Scopes greeted people coming into town for the trial.  There was no morally outraged posse of citizens in Dayton.  Scopes was never jailed.
When called by Darrow as a witness, Bryan claims that he takes every word of the Bible literally. Bryan volunteered to Darrow that he didn't believe in a literal interpretation of the Bible.
Bryan says he has not read (and would not read) Darwin's Origin Bryan read Origin in 1905; he was familiar with Darwin's work.
Darrow asks Bryan about sex in the Bible.  Bryan tells Darrow that all sex is sin. There was no mention of sex or sin at Scopes' trial.
Bryan claims that creation occurred at 9:00a.m. on 23 October 4004 B.C. as proposed by Bishop Ussher. Bryan didn't claim to know the age of the earth.  When cross-examined by Darrow, Bryan handled most of the questions well.
Darrow vigorously defends Scopes. Darrow asked for a guilty verdict.
Bryan's wife questions Bryan and his actions. Bryan and his wife were on good terms; she didn't question him.  Bryan's wife was a semi-invalid for whom Bryan was protective.
After his conviction, Scopes loses his teaching job. Scopes' job remained open to him.  He chose to leave Dayton for graduate school.
When the verdict is announced, Bryan becomes vindictive and complains about the paltry $100 fine levied against Scopes. Bryan wants a "more drastic punishment." No one cared about the fine levied against Scopes; this lack of concern with the fine (and the technical violation of the law that resulted) was the basis for Scopes' conviction being later overturned by the Tennessee Supreme Court.  Bryan offered to pay Scopes' fine.
Protesting Scopes' light punishment, Bryan throws a fit and tries to make a closing speech in the courtroom to regain people's respect.  However, he is blocked by the judge, who abruptly ends the trial. After the court is adjourned, Bryan screams his closing remarks. Bryan wasn't driven to insanity or despair in the courtroom.  Darrow's plea for a guilty verdict prohibited Bryan from giving his closing statements and cross-examining Darrow.  Bryan did not get to deliver his closing statement-a statement that he felt was his life's "mountain peak."
Bryan dies in the courtroom. Bryan died in Dayton five days after the trial a few blocks up the street from the courthouse.  Although Bryan was an ardent pacifist, he was given a hero's burial in Arlington National Cemetery.  (Bryan had served as a colonel in the U.S. Army during the Spanish-American War, but he never saw combat.)

--John N. Clayton

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