By Joseph B. Frazier, for The Associated Press
DAYTON, Tenn. — It was yet another Trial of the Century — one of those noisy spectacles that roll around every decade or so — but this one wasn’t about murder or celebrity kidnapping.
Rather it involved a new Tennessee law prohibiting the teaching of evolution in public schools and an unassuming high school science teacher, John Scopes, who went on trial in July 1925 in the hill town of east Tennessee for violating it.
It was quickly dubbed “The Monkey Trial,” a description the town still dislikes, and for a couple of weeks the world was focused on conservative backwater Dayton, population about 3,000, which was flooded with some 200 journalists from around the world, scores of telegraph operators, thousands of onlookers and some of the finest legal talent in America. It was the first American trial to be broadcast live nationally on the radio.
The trial was the inspiration for the play and 1960 Spencer Tracy movie “Inherit the Wind,” widely seen as jab at the McCarthy era of the 1950s much as was Arthur Miller’s “The Crucible.” It had four Oscar nominations.
The courtroom in the 1891 brick courthouse has been restored and the basement is now a Scopes Trial museum, all free. Each July, the town holds a festival marking the anniversary of the trial; this year it’s scheduled for July 20-21.
It remains a working courtroom, looking as it did when the high-profile protagonists, in shirtsleeves and suspenders rather than suit jackets (the judge’s concession to the heat) slugged out the finer points of the Book of Genesis for nearly two weeks that sweltering mid-July.
The museum, through photos and other artifacts, seeks to recreate the feel of the town during Dayton’s flash of fame. With a little imagination, it works.
Unless you are an ardent “Monkey Trial” fan, two or three hours should suffice, but it is worthwhile for anyone tickled by one of America’s more unusual and splashy legal battles.
Scopes, then 24, was accused of violating a new law against teaching in public schools that man came from a “lower form of animals” instead of the Genesis route. Oddly, and the law aside, a biology text approved by the state already noted that “We have learned that animal forms may have begun” with a one-cell form.
But the real protagonists were imports.
For the defense there was Clarence Darrow, one of the greatest trial lawyers the nation has produced, tireless defender of hopeless cases, who had some “trials of the century” under his belt already, most recently the sensational Leopold and Loeb murder trial in Chicago.
The prosecution was led by populist icon William Jennings Bryan of Nebraska, the “Great Commoner,” thrice a presidential candidate, former congressman and secretary of state, strict creationist and firm believer in the literal truth of every word in the Bible, from Jonah being swallowed by a whale to the serpent spending eternity on his belly for his role in the temptation of Eve.
How, Darrow asked Bryan in a legendary and withering cross-examination, did the snake get along before that?
Darrow had called Bryan himself as an expert Bible witness and grilled him mercilessly about his unwavering fundamentalist beliefs then requested that his client be found guilty in hopes of taking the larger issue, the law itself, to a favorable judgment on appeal.
Darrow quickly jumped in when he learned an evangelical group had retained Bryan. The former allies had grown far apart.
The New York American Civil Liberties Union had been looking for a test case for the law and similar ones, and town leaders figured a trial might bring some attention to economically stressed Dayton. By most accounts they conspired with Scopes to break the law, hoping to cash in on the resulting publicity.
Thus Scopes, who conceded he might have taught evolution, volunteered as defendant.
The streets of Dayton, very much pro-Bryan, became a circus of vendors, hucksters, self-proclaimed Bible champions and more. A man tattooed with Bible verses shouted gospel from a street corner. A monkey was brought in and paraded about town, and banners exhorting Daytonians to “Read Your Bible” hung from buildings.
Scopes, “the infidel Scopes” in the sometimes-unkind reporting by the Baltimore Sun’s widely-read and agnostic H.L. Mencken, was never really a factor.
Bryan stated his case bluntly: “If evolution wins, Christianity loses,” strong words for the time and place.
Dayton chafed at its description by many urban reporters especially Mencken, as a village of hicks and unwashed yokels in the Bible Belt, a term Mencken coined himself in 1924, although such put-downs were not universal. Some visiting reporters found genuine sincerity in the folks from the hills and said so.
Bryan was followed by adoring crowds. His life-size statue today adorns the courthouse lawn, where there is nothing of Darrow and Scopes. Bryan College, (“Christ Above All”), an accredited institution of some 800 students, arose from the trial and continues to flourish.
Dayton, a pleasant riverside community, now grown 10-fold, has returned to its quiet ways. The festival includes trial reenactments and trial transcripts in the original courtroom, said Becky Bodkin, executive assistant to the Rhea County Economic and Tourism Council.
The event draws good crowds, she said, and tries to tend to all ages. Many visitors make it a day trip from Chattanooga 45 minutes or so to the south.
She said a few newer motels and restaurants have opened but that accommodations generally are scanty. The basic fundamentalism of the 1920s, she said, probably still dominates in Dayton.
Scopes was convicted in nine minutes by the watch and fined the minimum $100. The verdict was overturned on a technicality but the law was upheld and stayed on the books until 1967.
Scopes was offered his job back but declined, continued his studies and became a geologist in the oil industry.
Bryan suffered a heart attack and died in his sleep in Dayton a week after the trial, the last stand for a religious warrior who “kept the faith.”
It says so right on his grave marker.