The "Scopes Monkey Trial" Facts vs Fiction
In the debate between supporters of Darwin's theory of evolution and the "ignorant anti-science" masses, the Scopes Monkey Trial is probably the most iconic symbol of the struggle. Many, if not most, of those familiar with the trial base their knowledge on the 1960 film Inherit the Wind. As with any Hollywood production, the historical facts tend to be discarded in favor of entertainment.
According to the film version, an honorable and brave high school biology teacher is thrown in jail and prosecuted for teaching evolution. The action is in response to the mob mentality of Christian fundamentalist who want him lynched for daring to teach contrary to the holy scriptures.
The real story of the trial is told by Edward Larson in his book Summer for the Gods and he describes a publicity stunt created by the ACLU in New York and by the civic leaders of Dayton Tennessee, the town where the trial was held. Dayton's leaders wanted to drum up publicity for the town and Scopes was a willing participant in the scheme. Scopes never spent a minute in jail and was good friends with the prosecutor. He was a substitute teacher, not a biology teacher, and had never taught evolution. After the trial, the school offered to renew Scopes' teaching contract.
In the summer of 1925, Darwin's theory of evolution was a hot issue. Margaret Sanger (founder of Planned Parenthood) was using the topic of natural selection to justify her pet cause of eugenics. Eugenics was also taken up by the militarists in Germany (Nazis) as a way to develop a master race. The most important "expert witnesses" the defense considered calling were proponents of forced eugenics.
In 1925 a few states had passed laws prohibiting the teaching of evolution but none of them attached any punishment to the violation. Tennessee's law was a misdemeanor and upon signing it the Governor had declared that it could never be enforced. It may very well have remained that way but for the idea of a native New Yorker who'd recently moved to Dayton. George Rappleyyea had read in a newspaper that the ACLU was offering to defend any Tennessee teacher who violated the law.
Rappleyea decided this would be an excellent way for Dayton to get national publicity and he took the idea to the town leadership assembled at the local drugstore. The town leaders agreed this would be an excellent way to put the town on the map. Even the school superintendent, who had supported the law, liked the idea. The ACLU subsequently signed on and agreed to pay the costs for the prosecution and the defense.
All they needed now was a teacher who would admit to having taught evolution and a prosecutor willing to take the case. One of the town's prosecutors was friends with a 24 year old substitute teacher, John Scopes, who sometimes taught biology. There was only a small problem. Scopes couldn't remember if he'd ever taught evolution.
The pharmacist pulled a popular biology book off his shelf, Hunter's Civic Biology, and asked Scopes if he had ever used it to prepare for class when he substituted for the regular biology teacher. Scopes replied that he had and the pharmacists excitedly proclaimed that the book mentioned evolution and Scopes could be their defendant.
Scopes cheerfully admitted to violating the law and a warrant for his arrest was sworn out. The school superintendent excitedly proclaimed that "Something has happened that's going to put Dayton on the Map!"
Publicity flyers were soon rushed to New York announcing the trial on evolution. Both defense and prosecution were eager to get the case to trial before another town beat them to the punch and stole their glory. Two well known blowhards were hired to represent both sides-William Jennings Bryan for the prosecution and Clarence Darrow for the defense.
Dayton civic leaders formed a Scopes Trial Entertainment Committee to plan activities around the trial. Tents were erected for shows and extra trains were requested for the expected crowds. A carnival atmosphere engulfed the town. Shop windows displayed monkeys and the sheriff put a sign on his motorcycle that said "Monkeyville Police."
The trial itself was excellent theatre with both sides playing their parts dramatically. Scopes was eventually found guilty of the misdemeanor and given a $100 fine, which Bryan offered to pay. The Tennessee Supreme Court upheld the law but threw out the conviction on a technicality. Scopes called the dismissal of his conviction a "disappointment." Meanwhile the ACLU sought to have another trial challenging any anti-evolution law in any state. There were no takers.
To this day many people bring up the specter of the Scopes Monkey Trial to portray "anti-science, Christian fundamentalist, yahoos" run amok.