Today In History: The Scopes Trial Begins
Today in 1925, the so-called Scopes “Monkey” Trial began. A high school science teacher named John Thomas Scopes was brought to trial for teaching the theory of evolution, in contradiction to Tennessee state law.
The newly minted law stated that it was not permissible to “teach any theory that denies the story of the Divine Creation of man as taught in the Bible, and to teach instead that man has descended from a lower order of animals.” This misdemeanor infraction was made punishable by fine.
When Scopes was charged, it was by his own design. He had collaborated with George Rappalyea to deliberately trigger the lawsuit, at which point they went to the American Civil Liberties Union for defense.
The trial became a national lightning rod. It attracted the attention of William Jennings Bryan, prominent politician and staunch Christian fundamentalist. Bryan sided with the prosecution. Clarence Darrow, famous attorney, volunteered to help the defense.
The trial began on July 10, 1925. From the outset, things were chaotic. The courthouse was besieged by throngs of religious protesters, holding tent revivals outside the Rhea County Courthouse. The judge, John Raulston, also ruffled feathers by insisting on beginning each day with a prayer.
The scrum outside the courthouse turned into an outright circus. Opportunistic carnies arrived at the scene to hock cheap Bibles, food and sideshow acts. One prominent one showcased a “missing link,” a short, middle-aged man pretending to be an ape. They also brought real chimpanzees, which they dressed in suits to solicit tips from the crowd.
Judge Raulston eventually decided to move the trial outdoors, because the courthouse was so packed with spectators that he feared the floor would collapse. The previous day, he had ruled that scientific testimony about the validity of evolution was inadmissible in court.
Darrow, his back against the wall, decided to change his strategy. He called Bryan as a sole witness, and in front of thousands, proceeded to humiliate him by grilling him on his interpretation of scripture. Bryan was repeatedly cornered into making contradictory statements, which brought him great shame.
Darrow then, in his closing remarks, asked the jury to rule Scopes guilty, so that he could appeal. As a consequence, Bryan was forbade from making a closing speech. The jury returned the requested guilty verdict, and Scopes was ordered to pay a $100 fine, the minimum required by law.
William Jennings Bryan had technically won the Scopes “Monkey” Trial, but was so publicly humiliated that it killed him. On July 26, he passed away in his sleep.
The verdict was overturned in 1927. Evolution remained a constitutionally murky issue until a Supreme Court decision in 1968 overturned an anti-evolution Arkansas law. Since then, the teaching of evolution has been protected under the First Amendment.