History Flashback takes a look at historical “found footage” of all kinds—newsreels, instructional films, even cartoons—to give us a glimpse into how much things have changed, and how much has remained the same.
In the scorching summer heat of small-town Dayton, TN, in July of 1925, crowds of reporters and local residents gathered at the courthouse to watch the showdown between Charles Darwin and the Christian Church.
The trial was of John Thomas Scopes, a 24-year-old high school teacher and football coach with “carrot-colored hair” and a “pleasant demeanor,” who, with backing from the American Civil Liberties Union, had violated the newly passed Butler Act by teaching evolution in his classroom. It was the first U.S. trial ever to be broadcast live on the radio, and the whole world listened to hear the fate of evolution in America.
In the end, Scopes lost (although the verdict was eventually overturned on a technicality). But the Monkey Trial, as it came to be known, was an important milestone in Darwin’s road to becoming a permanent fixture in the American classroom.
An Ideological Duel to the Death
While Scopes may have been the unassuming defendant in the case, the real face-off occurred between the two lead lawyers. Fighting for the prosecution was William Jennings Bryan, a three-time presidential candidate who saw the trial as his chance to give the performance of a lifetime in his fight to defend the religious fundamentalism in which he so avidly believed.
“The contest between evolution and Christianity is a duel to the death. It has been in the past a death struggle in the darkness. From this time on it will be a death grapple in the light. If evolution wins in Dayton, Christianity goes—not suddenly, of course, but gradually—for the two cannot stand together. They are as antagonistic as light and darkness, as good and evil,” Bryan said in a speech he gave before the trial began.
Scopes and the tenets of evolution were defended by rockstar criminal defense lawyer Clarence Darrow, who emerged as the real MVP of the trial. In a stunning performance that took place on the front lawn of the courthouse in order for the proceedings to escape the sweltering heat and crowds of onlookers indoors, Darrow cross-examined none other than his opponent Bryan about how the Bible should be interpreted. By all accounts, he ripped Bryan’s argument to shreds. While Bryan’s side would technically win the case, it was something of a defeat for him personally. Five days after the trial ended, he died in his sleep.
A Whole Lotta Monkey Business
The official name of this legal battle may have been The State of Tennessee v. John Thomas Scopes, but it has gone down in history as the Scopes Monkey Trial thanks to Baltimore Sun reporter H.L. Mencken’s lively coverage.
The nickname stemmed from a misreading of Darwin—the naturalist posited that humans and monkeys had a common ancestor, not that humans descended from monkeys as many fans of the prosecution contended and objected to—and it was whole-heartedly embraced. From the beginning, the trial had been just as much a spectacle as it was a serious legal affair, and the occupants of Dayton embraced their new-found fame by offering monkey souvenirs and paraphernalia. Local country singer Vernon Dalhart even released a song honoring the proceedings called “The John T. Scopes Trial.”
But the most entertaining appearance of all was that of a legendary chimpanzee, Joe Mendi, who had performed in vaudeville acts and on Broadway, but whose most famous role just might have been the antics he carried out around Dayton as he became the mascot of the trial.
Darwin’s Fate Is Far From Settled
In 2018, nearly 100 years after the famous Monkey Trial took place, you would be forgiven for assuming that the fate of the evolution debate is settled. While Scopes’s conviction and $100 fine were overturned on a technicality, the decision in favor of evolution was solidified on a national level in 1968, when the U.S. Supreme Court overturned a similar law in Arkansas. But while Darwin’s theory of evolution is taught throughout American schools today, there are a surprising number of people around the country still trying to change that.
In several conservative states, bills continue to be proposed that would give teachers the right to teach what they believe. Unlike Scopes’s fight, teachers aren’t battling to educate students according to scientific truth; this time, select legislatures are proposing to protect teachers who choose to follow their beliefs by promoting a religious-based, anti-evolution curriculum in the public school classroom. And they are not without their supporters. In 2015, a Pew Research Center study revealed that 34 percent of Americans still wholly reject the idea of evolution. Looks like it may be time to call Mr. Joe Mendi back to the stand.