The background event which made possible the Scopes Evolution Trial (known then popularly as "The Monkey Trial") in Dayton, Tennessee in July, 1925 was the passing in March of that year of a statute (Acts of 1925, ch.27) by the Tennessee legislature which made it unlawful for any teacher in any educational institution supported by the public school funds "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 descended from a lower order of animals." The statute further stated that "any teacher violating this section shall be guilty of a misdemeanor and fined not less than one hundred dollars ($100) not more than five hundred dollars ($500) for each offense."

In the spring of 1925, John Thomas Scopes was a twenty-four year old science teacher at Rhea County High School in Dayton. Among the discussions in the wake of the Tennessee evolution law were those which took place in Dayton at Robinson's Drug Store on Market Street, a favorite gathering place for local citizens. There a small group headed by Earle Robinson, "The Hustling Druggist", and George Rappleyea, Superintendent of Dayton Coal & Iron Company, "conspired" with young Scopes to violate the Tennessee statute to provide a court test case. The original context for the plan appears to have been that of a publicity stunt. The interest and resulting world-wide publicity which quickly developed surprised even the event's planners. The original drug store table at which the decision was made on May 15, 1925 to make a test case is still on view today in the Scopes Museum in the basement of the Rhea County Courthouse in Dayton, Tennessee.

With Scopes' arrest and indictment, the proposed trial took on an interest of national proportions. At one point, nearby Chattanooga, sensing the publicity and economic value of the event, tried to steal the trial away from Dayton in a publicity effort focused in a widely distributed pamphlet entitled, "Why Dayton of All Places?" The prosecution was headed by William Jennings Bryan, who had been thrust into national prominence in 1896 by his "Cross of Gold" speech at the Democratic Convention in Chicago, a speech which was directly responsible for his winning the presidential nomination of his party that year. He was the most celebrated orator of his day and had serviced as Secretary of State in the first administration of Woodrow Wilson; he was also a leader of the fundamentalist forces in the century, of which the science-Bible issue was a facet. Heading the defense was Clarence Darrow, America's most famous criminal lawyer and an agnostic, who came to Dayton fresh from his success in the Chicago Loeb-Leopold murder trial of 1925. He had been contacted by the American Civil Liberties Union. Arthur Garfield Hayes and Dudley Field Malone were two other well-known lawyers of the day who aided the defense.

Hundreds of reporters descended on Dayton for the trial. Press coverage of this trial perhaps exceeded coverage of any event up to the time; and a new device called radio was used to report the proceedings. Newspapers from all over the world sent not just reporters but editors to witness the courtroom battle. The Baltimore Sun sent a team of five writers, the best known of whom was the acerbic H.L. Mencken. It was estimated that 10,000 visitors from far and near overran the town daily. The trial lasted from July 10 to July 21 in one of the hottest and driest Tennessee summers on record.

As a legal contest, the trial dealt with the issue of whether Scopes violated the Tennessee statute in his teaching as a substitute biology teacher(physics was his subject field); but in the overall activites this public interest--academic freedom, tolerance, bigotry, science, evolution and religion--dominated the court. Emotions ran high as did the temperatures, which, together with the overcrowded courtroom conditions, led to moving the trial outside under the shady willow oaks to the north side of the courthouse.

Many viewed the trial as a contest between the two greats, Darrow and Bryan. Indeed, Darrow's interrogation of Bryan was and has remained in terms of interest, one of the major facets of the proceedings. The agreement in advance that Bryan would be granted "equal time" for rebuttal was not carried out as the trial ended abruptly shortly afterwards, the judge apparently having decided that enough fireworks had taken place. Bryan's statement awaited publication after his death. The jury convicted Scopes of violating the law and Judge Raulston fined him $100. Later, the Tennessee Supreme Court overturned the conviction on the technicality that the jury, rather than the judge, should have set the fine. Bryan died in his sleep on a Sunday afternoon five days after the trial. The aging Darrow returned to Chicago to live until 1938, and Scopes drifted, by the fall of 1925, to the Unversity of Chicago where his study of geology led him to a career in the oil industry in Louisiana.

Written by R.M. Cornelius

For more information:
See Bryan College