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On 25 March, 1925, Tennessee's Butler Act declared it unlawful, in any state-funded educational establishment in Tennessee, "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." The Act was opposed by the ACLU, who funded a test case, that of high school teacher John T. Scopes.
In fact, the trial was staged as a publicity stunt to "test" the new "anti-evolution" law so recently passed in Tennessee (staged precisely because nobody had challenged it, as expected). After passage of this legislation, the citizens of Dayton, TN (presumably the smarter ones, or, well, not so much?) responded to a newspaper advertisement placed by the American Civil Liberties Union and seeking someone to challenge the law in court. At the time, nobody had complained about Scopes or his teaching (though this is the widely reported reason for the trial). Instead, Scopes was recruited to be the token defendant. Scopes never spent time in jail and was re-employed as a teacher after the trial. Bryan even offered to pay his fine.  Whether or not history has vindicated the stunt remains to be seen, since Tennessee is not currently known to be a hotbed breeding ground for the super-intelligent master race of Christian Evangelical Creationist Scientists-Slash-Warriors.
The case attracted national and international publicity, with two of the United States' greatest lawyers of the time, Clarence Darrow (defending) and William Jennings Bryan (prosecuting), facing each other. Bryan revealed a poor knowledge of science, believing that there are 35,000 mammal species (as of 2011 there are 5,494 known mammal species), and took offence that our monkey ancestors "weren't even American monkeys."[note 1] Bryan was also called upon to provide expert evidence on the Bible (as a self-declared believer). He accused Darrow of plotting "to cast ridicule on everybody who believes in the Bible," to which Darrow responded "We have the purpose of preventing bigots and ignoramuses from controlling the education of the United States."
The jury deliberated for nine minutes and found Scopes guilty. He was fined $100 dollars (about $1,300 in 2011 dollars) by the judge. By law, Tennessee judges at the time could not levy fines higher than $50, so the Tennessee Supreme Court overturned the verdict on a technicality, without addressing the constitutionality of the law, which stayed intact until 1967.
The story of the trial became a part of the ongoing debate about the teaching of evolution and creation in science classes. It was also written up as a play, Inherit the Wind, which was later made into a film starring Spencer Tracy and Gene Kelly. The Butler Act was finally repealed in 1967.
Reinterpretation in Inherit the Wind
While the play and later film Inherit the Wind is remembered as a classic of American drama, it significantly reinterpreted some of the events of the trial. This is partially due to the fact that it was meant to be an allegory about McCarthyism, but after the fall of the Soviet Union and revival of the evolution vs. creation debate, its literal narrative came to be seen as more relevant.
In the play/film,
Bert Cates John Scopes is depicted as a persecuted man. In fact, Scopes was sitting in the audience by the end of the trial. Scopes had not actually violated the law, but volunteered to stand as a test case for the ACLU, who wanted to challenge the Butler Act. Some townspeople demonized Scopes, but many believed that Bryan had an open-and-shut case against him and that creationism would certainly win out. The politicians of Dayton actually welcomed Henry Drummond Clarence Darrow and hyped the case because it was a boon for the non-existent tourism industry of the town, which had recently fallen on hard times with the closure of a local mine which had employed most townsmen. They had urged Scopes to stand trial in hopes of "putting their town on the map" and drawing in tourist dollars.
Finally, the film presents the judgment as a victory for Darrow and Scopes; however, the two were secretly hoping to get a guilty verdict so they could appeal the case and ultimately overturn the Butler Act. Darrow never even attempted to prove Scopes was "not guilty" of having taught evolution (although this was true). Instead expert witnesses were called to testify that it was true, which the judge ruled irrelevant since the only matter at hand was whether he had broken the law or not. The defense had stipulated falsely to him doing so, and in fact asked the jury to find Scopes guilty, as this was the only way to accomplish their end of getting this law ruled unconstitutional.
Further reinterpretation by evangelical Christians
In 2010 the film Alleged was released, putting an evangelical Christian spin on the events, featuring actors Brian Dennehy as Darrow, Fred Dalton Thomas as Bryan and Colm Meaney as Mencken. As might be expected, it assailed many strawmen and contained numerous historical inaccuracies. Additionally fictional side plots were added: first of a promising young local reporter, Charles Anderson, torn between impressing Mencken and thus winning a better job in the newspaper business and twisting facts to suit Mencken's completely biased view of the trial, second of his fiancee Rose attempting to stop her mixed race younger sister being sterilized.
The film does correctly show the trial as staged, and Bryan less ignorant than Inherit the Wind portrays him as. However, it adds false characterizations. Darrow is portrayed concluding when consulting with his scientific expert witnesses that the evidence for evolution is thin to nonexistent. Mencken is shown to be a completely biased hack who supports eugenics (rather than having publicly opposed it, as the real man did). It is falsely claimed Darrow had defended Leopold and Loeb against murder charges on Social Darwinist grounds. Rather, he had eloquently begged for mercy on the grounds that the death sentence they faced was barbaric (and succeeded in getting them life in prison instead). For good measure, it has Bryan reiterate the false (and irrelevant to evolution being true or not) claim that Darwin disparaged women.
Much is made of the school text in question promoting eugenics (which is true) but the real Bryan apparently didn't mind, never mentioning it, only evolution generally as supposedly leading to moral decay. In any case, focusing upon scientific racism (while deplorable) is a bit hypocritical when faced with the Jim Crow racism of the South at the time, which was strongly justified on religious grounds. Ironically, the only eugenic sentiments expressed around the trial came from Mary Bryan, Bryan's wife, noting her dislike of the local "mountain folk" and what she felt were their bad habits of inbreeding. Bryan himself was no pillar of anti-racism, believing in white supremacy and segregation (as his Southern white supporters naturally did). Contrarily, Mencken (though expressing some racist sentiments) denounced lynchings when this was almost unheard of, even in the face of scorn and death threats. Darrow was well-known as a defender of blacks, winning a very rare acquittal of a black man who shot a white onlooker accidentally while trying to drive away a mob of whites who were throwing stones at his house (this occurred the same year as Scopes' case) and aided the NAACP.
Of course the side plots wrap up predictably, with Charles Anderson rejecting Mencken as Rose saves her sister, though here they actually show Darrow positively, with him getting an injunction against sterilization (this is plausible as Darrow, like Mencken, opposed eugenics). However, Tennessee lacked any eugenics law (though one was proposed later, but defeated) and it had no known compulsory sterilizations (or attempts to perform them). Overall, it is the propaganda piece expected, correcting some historical inaccuracies while adding many of its own to compensate. For bonus points, the DVD contains a "study guide" which is intended to be used by church groups.
A second trial?
In 2012, the Tennessee legislature enacted another anti-evolution act, nicknamed the Tennessee "monkey bill," which is widely believed to be going to end in a similarly litigious event. Time will tell whether it will, and hopefully with great lulz.
- Edwards v. Aguillard
- H.L. Mencken
- How come there are still monkeys?
- Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District
- http://www.chron.com/news/science/article/In-Scopes-monkey-trial-home-an-evolution-9126315.php Scopes Monkey Publicity Stunt