American History

#OTD 1925: Science School Teacher John Scopes Arrested for Teaching Evolution in Tennessee Public School


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Ace Press News From Cutting Room Floor: Published: May.05: 2023:

#AceHistoryDesk – Today in History – On May 4, the day before Scopes’s arrest, the Chatanooga Times ran an ad in which the American Civil Liberties Union offered to pay the legal fees of a Tennessee teacher willing to act as defendant in a case intended to test Tennessee’s new law prohibiting the teaching of evolution in its public schools. Several Dayton, Tennessee residents hatched a plot at a local drugstore, hoping a trial of this type would bring much needed publicity to the tiny town.

Too Thin; or, Darwin’s Little Joke. Grace Carleton, words; O’Rangoutang, music; New York: Wm. A. Pond, 1874. Music for the Nation: American Sheet Music, ca. 1870 to 1885. Music Division

Scopes Trial

John Scopes agreed to admit to teaching the theory of evolution for the test case.

It certainly is most absurd, the fact can never be!
My great grand daddy never was a monkey up a tree!

Grace Carleton, “Too Thin; or, Darwin’s Little Joke”none

The Darwin Club. Rea Irvin, artist; Published in: Life, March 18, 1915. Cartoon Drawings: Swann Collection of Caricature and Cartoon. Prints & Photographs Division
Defending Lawyer and Judge of Scopes Trial. Clarence Darrow seated with Judge John F. Raulston, July 12, 1925. Prints & Photographs Division

The men enlisted several local attorneys and one teacher who believed in academic freedom and in Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution, which states that all organisms developed from earlier forms through a process of natural selection.

While volumes of scientific evidence support the theory of evolution, many felt that it contradicted the story of creation as described in the Bible, and they did not want evolution taught in schools.

The trial pitted famous labor and criminal defense attorney Clarence Darrow against former senator and secretary of state William Jennings Bryan, who worked for the prosecution. The trial was such a media circus that, on the seventh day in the courtroom, the judge felt compelled to move the proceedings outdoors under a tent due to the unbearable heat and for fear that the weight of all the spectators and reporters would cause the floor to cave in.

Scopes Trial Lawyers. William Jennings Bryan and Clarence Darrow in outdoor courtroom during Scopes trial. UPI, 1925. New York World-Telegram and the Sun Newspaper Photograph Collection. Prints & Photographs Division

As Judge John T. Raulston incrementally disallowed the use of the trial as a forum on the merits or validity of Darwin’s theory, the trial swiftly drew to a close.

The jury took only nine minutes to return a verdict of guilty. After all, Scopes admitted that he had, in fact, taught evolution. As the trial came to a close, reporter and critic H.L. Mencken explained to readers of the Baltimore Sun and the American Mercury:

All that remains of the great cause of the State of Tennessee against the infidel Scopes is the formal business of bumping off the defendant. There may be some legal jousting on Monday and some gaudy oratory on Tuesday, but the main battle is over, with Genesis completely triumphant. Judge Raulston finished the benign business yesterday morning by leaping with soft judicial hosannas into the arms of the prosecution.

When the defense appealed the verdict, the Tennessee State Supreme Court acquitted Scopes on a technicality but upheld the constitutionality of the state law. Not until 1967 did Tennessee lawmakers repeal the law, allowing teachers to teach evolution. The trial brought Dayton, Tennessee a great deal of publicity, including the reinforcement of a stereotype of the south as an intellectual backwater–certainly not the type Daytonians hoped to attract.

My First Real Bath: Gee! Ain’t it Great! Clifford Kennedy Berryman, artist, 1925. Cartoon Drawings. Prints & PhotographsDivision
Evolution in Tennessee. Clifford Kennedy Berryman, artist, 1925. Cartoon Drawings. Prints & Photographs Division

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