July 21

This Day in History

Crime

Jul 21, 1925:

The "Trial of the Century" draws national attention

Schoolteacher John T. Scopes is convicted of violating Tennessee's law against teaching evolution in public schools. The case debated in the so-called "Trial of the Century" was never really in doubt; the jury only conferred for a few moments in the hallway before returning to the courtroom with a guilty verdict. Nevertheless, the supporters of evolution won the public relations battle that was really at stake.

Despite popular perceptions of the case, fueled in part by the Broadway play and movie Inherit the Wind, the Scopes trial was never more than a show trial. On May 4, 1925, the American Civil Liberties Union published a newspaper advertisement offering to help any Tennessee schoolteacher challenge the new law that had outlawed the teaching of evolution. George W. Rappleyea, a New Yorker who had moved to Dayton, Tennessee, read the ad and persuaded the local townspeople that Dayton should host a trial in order to spark interest in the town.

The leaders of the less than 2,000 residents of Dayton quickly came around to Rappleyea's idea. The school superintendent agreed with the law but wanted to gain publicity for the town. Even Dayton's prosecutors were in on the deal. The last piece of the puzzle was to find a defendant. Twenty-four-year-old John T. Scopes, a local high school science teacher and football coach, agreed to fill the roll since he wasn't planning on staying in Dayton for the long term. No one was really concerned whether he had actually taught evolution to his students. The fact that he had been using the state-approved science textbook, which included a chapter on evolution, was deemed sufficient. A warrant was made for Scopes' arrest, and word went out that the trial would begin in the summer.

Although the rest of Tennessee was displeased with Dayton's plan, 500 seats were added to the town's courtroom for press and spectators, and loudspeakers were set up on the lawn outside and in four auditoriums around town. This proved necessary when the nation's leading figures in the evolution debate hijacked the case from the local attorneys. William Jennings Bryan, a former congressman who had twice run for president before serving as secretary of state for Woodrow Wilson, took over the prosecution. Bryan had personally initiated the campaign against evolution in the United States; the Tennessee law was his first major success.

Knowing that it would be the perfect forum to debate Bryan on the evolution and creationism issue, the great liberal lawyer Clarence Darrow wormed his way into the case as the defense attorney. While the press flooded into Dayton for the showdown between these two larger-than-life figures, a Chicago radio station broadcast the trial live—a first in America.

The trial opened on July 10 with magnificent speeches from both Bryan and Darrow. However, it soon became evident that the trial judge was not going to play along: He cut off every attempt by Darrow to debate the validity of evolution. The trial would have been completely uneventful except for a creative gambit by Darrow—he called Bryan as a witness. Although the judge would never have allowed a prosecutor to be called as a defense witness, Bryan didn't dare back down to the challenge. In a famous exchange, Darrow questioned Bryan on the literal interpretation of the Bible's account of the beginning of the world. With masterful questioning, Darrow forced Bryan to admit that a purely literal interpretation was not possible, making him look very foolish.

Darrow's performance didn't save Scopes from a conviction and $100 fine (it was later overturned on a technicality), but in the mainstream press, the theory of evolution clearly won the debate.

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