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Memphis Flyer Monkey Business

Seventy-five years later, the Dayton, Tennessee, Scopes trial still rivets the nation.

By George Shadroui

FEBRUARY 7, 2000: 

It would be hard to imagine a more moral town than Dayton. If it has any bootleggers, no visitor has heard of them. Ten minutes after I arrived a leading citizen offered me a drink made up half of white mule and half of Coca-Cola, but he seems to have been simply indulging himself in a naughty gesture. No fancy woman has been seen in town since the end of the McKinley administration. There is no gambling. There is no place to dance. The relatively wicked, when they would indulge themselves, go to Robinson's drug store and debate theology.
— H.L. Mencken, July 13, 1925

It would be called the trial of the century.

It would pit the greatest courtroom lawyer of the day against the greatest populist in American history, and it would bring one of the most legendary journalists in modern times to Dayton, Tennessee, just to write about it.

That journalist, H.L. Mencken, would call it "the monkey trial."

The name stuck.

Within a week of the trial's end, William Jennings Bryan would be dead, Clarence Darrow would be hated, and Mencken would be disgusted, again, by all the "yokels," "ignoramuses," "bumpkins," and "buffoons" he was forced to encounter on his journey to Dayton, a small town just north of Chattanooga.

During the trial, more than 200 reporters wrote more than two million words for more than 2,000 newspapers across the nation. It has generated thousands of books, articles, and monographs, not to mention plays, three television movies, and a motion picture called "Inherit the Wind" that in 1960 rekindled much of the trial's controversy.

Bryan College was established in Dayton shortly after the trial, where, to this day, staff and townspeople wage a daily campaign to salvage the reputation of the man who gave the college its name.

The trial would so sear the consciousness of the nation that almost 75 years later, George magazine (October 1999) would call it the fourth most significant event of the 20th century.

For all of this, noted historian Garry Wills has called the Scopes case "a comedy of errors" that was "in many respects, a nontrial over a nonlaw, with a nondefendant backed by nonsupporters. Its most profound moment involved nontestimony by a nonexpert, which was followed by a nondefeat."

Why the trial continues to fascinate us is not hard to understand. Evolution, the core issue around which the trial revolved, is still hotly debated by those, on the one hand, who call it an undeniable scientific truth, and those, on the other, who consider it theological blasphemy. It is the science-versus-faith issue at its core, an issue that has been around as long as time. And it isn't going to go away.

As recently as last summer, the Kansas board of education decided to remove evolution as a topic from its standardized tests, thereby sparking protests from many quarters, including the American Civil Liberties Union and this newspaper.

Bryan College professor Richard Cornelius, who has authored 18 articles about the Scopes trial, says with some understatement: "It was more a trial of ideas than most other trials have been or could be. It is the ideas that have made the trial so significant."

Hard to believe, then, that the whole episode began as a public relations stunt concocted by a group of men gathered in a small-town drugstore. They succeeded — beyond their wildest expectations, but that success would prove bittersweet.

Many townspeople would rue the day they ever approached the young football coach named John Scopes and asked him to go to court. And the people of Dayton for much of the century would wrestle with the legacy of that hot July of 1925, for it visited upon the town not only fame, but embarrassment, tragedy, anger, and, for some, even doubt.

The Trial

John Scopes in his autobiography, Center of the Storm, published 40 years after the trial, stated without exaggeration: "I did little more than sit, proxy-like, in freedom's chair that hot, unforgettable summer — no great feat, despite the notoriety it has brought me. My role was a passive one that developed out of my willingness to test what I considered a bad law."

The law in question had been passed by the Tennessee legislature earlier that year. It read simply: "that it shall be unlawful for any teacher in any of the Universities, Normals, and all other public schools of the State which are supported in whole or in part by the public school funds of the State, to teach any theory that denies the story of Divine Creation of man as taught in the Bible, and to teach instead that man has descended from a lower order of animals."

Anyone found guilty of such an act, the statute goes on, would be fined a minimum of $100 and not more than $500 for the offense.

Scopes considered the law wrong, but he had no intention of making an issue of it until a group of Dayton townsmen called him off the tennis court one day and asked if he would be willing to test the law in court. He agreed, little expecting what followed.

Whatever the merits of the legal issue, it became secondary to the larger drama — a contest of wills between two of the most notable men in America.

That William Jennings Bryan agreed to prosecute the case transformed the Scopes trial into a national event, for Bryan had been a three-time presidential candidate who only a decade before had served as Secretary of State under President Woodrow Wilson. After Teddy Roosevelt, he was arguably the most famous politician of his time.

He was also a political lightning rod, the kind of man about whom it was difficult to be neutral. His remarkable oratory skills ("you shall not crucify mankind on a cross of gold") had won him a massive following for almost three decades, particularly among rural and small-town people who shared his populist ideas and traditional religious convictions. He was at once a progressive and a throwback, a man before his time who championed a woman's right to vote and fair labor practices, but who also embraced what many considered "reactionary ideas" that frightened and angered people of all political stripes.

"Of all public figures, Bryan best represented rural piety," says Kevin Tierney, biographer of opposing attorney Clarence Darrow. "He was its spokesman and even its personification. As such he was Darrow's pet aversion, and the Scopes trial was a dream-come-true for Darrow. In a sense, he had been preparing for it all his life."

Clarence Darrow, for the first time in his storied legal career, which included his defense of Leopold and Loeb, agreed to serve without payment just so he could be in the courtroom to oppose Bryan. He was as anxious to undercut Bryan's credibility as Bryan was to put the "enemies of faith" on trial.

Not surprisingly, the media descended on Dayton. The Baltimore Sun alone sent four reporters and a cartoonist, among them Mencken, who spent a great deal of his energy chastising Bryan and his creationist followers.

Eloise Reed was 12 years old that summer. She has become something of a folk hero in Dayton, if only because, as she puts it humbly, "I'm one of the older people here and I happened to be there."

Ms. Reed's older brother Crawford played football for John Scopes, who, amazingly enough, was not even a biology teacher. It was her brother who was playing tennis with Scopes the day he was called to Robinson's drugstore to discuss his willingness to test the Tennessee law.

Scopes, Reed remembers, was a "serious" young man, but a pleasant person who spent a lot of time hanging out with members of the high school football team he coached. He was only 24, but he was chosen to test the Tennessee law because he had substituted for the full-time biology teacher and he happened to be single (no risk for his family) and cooperative.

The men who approached Scopes hoped to bring favorable publicity to Dayton, which was suffering hard economic times. It worked, for a while at least. A carnival atmosphere descended upon Dayton that summer. Hucksters sold souvenirs. Live monkeys were paraded up and down the streets, to the delight of Reed and other Dayton children. Street corner preachers competed with entrepreneurs who sold cold drinks chilled in ice-filled washtubs. Someone even brought a gorilla into town.

You could see him for 10 cents, Reed recalls. "I guess I saw him two or three times," she adds without apology.

Most vivid in her memory is the confrontation between Darrow and Bryan, which, because of the heat, occurred not in the Rhea County Courthouse, but outside on the lawn. With well over a thousand people watching, Darrow cross-examined Bryan about the Bible. Reed sat in the front row.

That this exchange ever occurred is a reminder of how unorthodox the case was. The scientific experts for Darrow and the defense were prohibited from testifying by the judge, who ruled it was not relevant to the legal issue, which simply dealt with whether or not Scopes taught evolution, not the truth of the theory. Still, the judge relented when Darrow asked if he could call an expert on the Bible, that expert being Bryan. Bryan, not one to shy away from center stage, quickly assented to take the stand.

Bryan, Reed remembers, fanned himself constantly and began to get "a little edgy" as Darrow questioned him. "You could tell there was fatigue there. I know he was surprised by the way Darrow came after him."

The crowd grew restless, too, as Darrow, in white shirt and no tie, grilled Bryan.

"He had on red suspenders and he would hunch over when he talked to Bryan," Reed recalls. "He snapped the suspenders, gestured with his finger and said, 'Do you really believe that whale swallowed Jonah?' Darrow liked to put on his antics."

Darrow would ask Bryan a long series of questions about the age of the earth, the length of a day as described in Genesis, and whether he believed the earth actually stood still as described in the Bible. Bryan gradually began to slip, admitting that some interpretation of the Bible might be appropriate.

Just how badly Darrow "humiliated" Bryan, however, has been an issue of contention since the trial. Mencken, who ironically was not even there for the historic confrontation, would later declare that Darrow had won a victory for enlightenment ideas against the dark and backward views of a Neanderthal like Bryan.

Others were not convinced by Mencken's clearly one-sided reporting. Scopes himself in his memoirs described Mencken as a "sensationalist" and remembered Bryan as defiant after the exchange with Darrow — already planning a counterattack.

Bryan's death a few days later created the popular and perhaps understandable perception that the pressure of the trial had brought about "the great commoner's" demise. One person even charged that Darrow had broken Bryan's heart. Darrow, not known for his sentimentality where Bryan was concerned, retorted "he died of a busted belly," a reference to Bryan's large appetite.

There were mixed feelings in Dayton about the trial and the law itself, but almost everyone was deeply saddened that Bryan had died in their town, Reed says. As she recalls it: "He led the prayer at a local church that day and went home, fell asleep, and never woke up."

The Aftermath

The immediate reaction in Dayton to all of the events that occurred that week in July was both a sense of embarrassment and shock, brought on by the kind of attention Mencken and others focused on the town. To this day, Reed and other Dayton citizens contend that it was not the town that turned the event into a circus but the media and opportunists from out of town who hoped to somehow profit from the trial.

Mencken, "that awful man" as Reed calls him, even complained about the water, according to stories handed down from decade to decade.

"What did he care?" Reed says. "People told me that the only thing he drank here was moonshine liquor."

Such were the hard feelings of the small-town people subjected to the glare of national and international publicity.

There is no question, however, that the result of the trial was hardly a clear-cut victory for Darrow, Mencken, and other proponents of evolution. They lost the case in Dayton, which was Darrow's intent in any case because he wanted to appeal to a higher court. The appeal, however, proved anti-climactic. After much infighting with the American Civil Liberties Union, which sponsored the case, Darrow, who was now seen as highly controversial because of his alleged animosity toward religion, remained part of the legal team. But the court dismissed the issue with a subtle maneuver. They overturned Scopes' conviction on the technicality that the jury, not the judge, should have imposed the fine, but refused to overturn the state law. The statute would stand another four decades, and those called "fundamentalists" would mobilize to disprove evolution and to demand, at the very least, equal time for creationism.

It was not until 1967 that the Tennessee legislature, after rancorous debate, repealed the law. A year later, in Epperson vs. Arkansas, the United States Supreme Court ruled that laws prohibiting the teaching of theories that contradict the biblical account of creation amounted to establishing a religious perspective. This violated separation of church and state, or so U.S. Supreme Court Justice Abe Fortas argued in 1968 in writing the majority opinion.

Fortas' view was strident even among those on the court who sought to strike down the Arkansas law, and it contained echoes of the Scopes trial, not surprisingly. Fortas grew up in Memphis in the 1920s and had followed the Scopes trial with a mixture of fascination and concern as a high school student.

Dayton Afterwards

Dayton experienced ups and downs over the next few decades, but basically it stayed a simple country town of a few thousand people. Folks wanted to forget the shock of Bryan's death, and the circus atmosphere for which Dayton was labeled "monkey town."

The motion picture, "Inherit the Wind," changed that for a time. The townspeople at first hoped the film would clear up lingering misunderstandings about the trial, but they were sorely disappointed when the film premiered in Dayton in 1960. Reed, by then running a clothing store, was invited to a reception after the film was shown. She found herself next to the director, Stanley Kramer, who asked her opinion. "I told him it was awful. There was nothing about it like the trial. And he just laughed at me."

The film essentially embraced the Mencken point of view, portraying Bryan (played by Frederic March) for the most part as a buffoon and Darrow (played by Spencer Tracy) as a hero. While one scene did show Bryan trying to temper the emotions of a rowdy crowd, that positive depiction changed by the end of the film. The town fared even worse than Bryan, however. There were dark, sinister forces at work in Dayton, the film implied, and a fictional local minister was introduced to symbolize the harsh, unrelenting fundamentalist community.

"The community felt burned by Mencken during the original trial and they felt burned after 1960 and "Inherit the Wind," " says Rick Dye, a relatively new resident of Dayton who has worked with the chamber of commerce in recent years to highlight the Scopes trial.

Dayton again tried to downplay the trial as a part of its cultural backdrop. While Scopes was brought to Dayton to discuss the trial in 1960, Dye, general manager of WDNT Radio in Dayton, said it was not until the mid- or late-1980s that community leaders began to organize annual events to commemorate the historic event.

Today there is a festival that includes tours, a re-enactment of the trial, and other cultural and economic activities. Sites on the tour include the courthouse, which now has a small museum in the basement; Bailey Boarding House where Scopes lived; the old Robinson drugstore site, where Scopes was first asked to test the Tennessee statute; the Bailey Hardware Store, the upstairs loft of which was converted to a media room for reporters; and the Rogers home where Bryan stayed. Media attention in anticipation of the 75th anniversary has already generated several television appearances by local residents, not to mention a number of interviews with journalists.

While it might be a stretch to say that the Scopes trial is big business in Dayton, it certainly is no longer the embarrassment it once was. Tom Davis, director of public information at Bryan College, says: "Most of the people who had firsthand recollections are gone now. It is looked at as a major event in America [by townspeople], not something to be ashamed of."

Another goal is to correct stereotypes and inaccuracies that town residents contend have become a part of the trial's legacy because of one-sided depictions. "We were not a backward, close-minded, or solely fundamentalist community," Dye explains.

Davis agrees. "Most people accept "Inherit the Wind" as the historical record," Davis says. "And it's not quite accurate. Just because something has creationism in it, doesn't mean we accept it. Just because it has evolution in it, does not mean we will reject it out of hand."

Cornelius believes the trial's continued prominence on the cultural and political landscape is rooted in the important issues that underlie the case: science versus faith, academic freedom, media ethics (the first "media" trial), separation of church and state, and parental and community control over curriculum, to name a few.

Bryan College today takes what it considers a reasonable view on the issue: Evolution can be taught as a theory of the origins of man, but other theories also should be allowed in the classroom. That was Bryan's view, though this is forgotten in many popular portrayals that depict him as a close-minded fundamentalist who sought to ban the teaching of evolution completely, Cornelius says.

The ACLU, however, continues to take a hostile view toward any effort to include creationism in science classrooms. When the board of education in Kansas announced recently that it would remove evolution as a topic on standardized tests, the ACLU responded with a statewide mailing and released a statement denouncing the decision: "Having failed to succeed at forcing their so-called 'creation-science' on public school students, proponents of creationism are now resorting to the tactic of removing essential scientific instruction," said Jay Barrish, president of the ACLU's affiliate board. "We think the courts will ultimately see this tactic for what it is — a blatantly unconstitutional attempt to introduce a specific religious viewpoint into the classroom."

Seventy-five years later, the debate goes on.

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