by William “Doc” Halliday
If I was charged with a crime, I would hope that I would be able to get off, whether I was guilty or innocent, even if it were on a technicality. Certainly a not guilty verdict would be the best outcome, but a technicality is better than being found guilty. Or is it? Sometimes people have ulterior motives for what they do. Ninety-one years ago today, on May 25, 1925, John Thomas Scopes was indicted for violating the Butler Act in Tennessee. His indictment resulted in The State of Tennessee v. John Thomas Scopes and what has been commonly referred to as the Scopes Monkey Trial.
Soon everything seemed to get out of hand. Attorneys came out of the woodwork volunteering for one side or the other. Everyone wanted a piece of the action.
John Scopes was a substitute high school science teacher and part-time football coach. His prestige was dwarfed by the legal talent in the courtroom. William Jennings Bryan was a three-time Democratic presidential candidate who argued for the prosecution. Clarence Seward Darrow was a famous legal scholar who contended for the defense.
Bryan had led a fundamentalist crusade to eliminate Darwin’s theory of evolution from classrooms in this country. By 1925, Bryan and his followers had succeeded in getting legislation introduced in fifteen states to prohibit the teaching of Darwin’s theory. In February, Tennessee enacted Butler’s Law which made it unlawful “to teach any theory that denies the story of divine creation as taught by the Bible and to teach instead that man was descended from a lower order of animals.”
A group of businessmen in Dayton, Tennessee met with the superintendent of schools and agreed that their small town of Dayton could use the publicity from a controversial trial. The town population had shrunk from 3,000 at the turn of the century to 1,800 at that time. Scopes was summoned by the schemers to this meeting at the drugstore, and agreed to be prosecuted. Herbert and Sue Hicks, two local attorneys who were also friends of Scopes, agreed to prosecute. The group originally desired science fiction writer H. G. Wells to head the defense lineup, but Wells declined.
Soon everything seemed to get out of hand. Attorneys came out of the woodwork volunteering for one side or the other. Everyone wanted a piece of the action. When it was learned that William Jennings Bryan had offered to become part of the prosecutorial lineup, Clarence Darrow couldn’t get to Dayton fast enough to offer his services to the defense team. Darrow was almost 70 years old at this time, but Bryan had not practiced law in over three decades!
As the summer rolled into Dayton, so did the frivolities. By July there were banners, lemonade stands, and even chimpanzees in the town. The chimpanzees were rumored to be prosecution witnesses. On July 10, 1925 the trial started with 1,000 people in the courthouse. A third of those in attendance were required to stand. Over Darrow’s objections, the trial was opened with a prayer. A jury was swiftly selected and seated. It was comprised of twelve men, eleven of whom regularly attended church.
On Sunday the presiding judge and his family sat in the front pew of the Dayton Methodist Church. In the pulpit was William Jennings Bryan who delivered the sermon attacking the defense in the trial. The goal of the defense team was not to obtain an acquittal for Scopes, but rather to have the Supreme Court rule that laws prohibiting the teaching of evolution were unconstitutional. After eight days the trial was over. Darrow asked the jury to return a guilty verdict in order to have the case appealed to the Tennessee Supreme Court. The jury did comply with Darrow’s request in nine minutes. The Judge then fined Scopes $100.
Scopes defense lawyers appealed the case to the Supreme Court of Tennessee. That court set aside the conviction because of a legal technicality. The court found that the jury should have decided the fine, not the judge, since under the state constitution; Tennessee judges could not at that time set fines above $50. The Butler Act as it was passed specified a minimum fine of $100. The Attorney General swiftly announced that he would not seek a retrial.
In 1967 Tennessee repealed the Butler Act. In 1968, the Supreme Court of the United States ruled that such bans contravene the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment because their primary purpose is religious.
William “Doc” Halliday is an historian and writer. He can be reached at Doc@dochalliday.us