The annual Scopes Festival in Dayton, Tennessee might be difficult for outsiders to fathom, since it appears to glory in one of the most inglorious episodes in the town’s history. The Scopes Festival was named for John T. Scopes, the high school biology teacher who was prosecuted there in 1925 for introducing his students to the theory of evolution in violation of a recently passed state law. A jury of his peers found him guilty after deliberating for all of nine minutes. But his conviction was overturned on appeal, and the town was widely ridiculed for its apparent bigotry and narrow-mindedness. Eventually, Dayton came to embrace its legacy, however dubious, and a festival was organized to commemorate the event. Initially, the high point of the festival was a dramatic reenactment of the trial itself, using transcripts from the actual proceedings. In recent years, however, the transcript reading has been replaced by a play entitled “One Hot Summer,” which attempts to place the trial in a broader context. "Previous plays have done an excellent job of telling the story of what happened in the courtroom but left people wondering why it happened in Dayton,” explained the local playwright, Curtis Lipps.
The reason the trial took place in Dayton is the same reason Dayton now hosts the Scopes Festival: an historically significant event was seen as a way to put an otherwise inconspicuous little town on the map. A group of prominent citizens heard the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) was looking for a test case to challenge Tennessee’s new anti-evolution law. So they persuaded the high school’s 24-year-old football coach and substitute biology teacher to stand trial. All sides jumped at the chance to publicize their cause. The local organizers had hoped to attract the world-famous author H.G. Wells to their town. In this they were disappointed. However, William Jennings Bryan, three times a Democratic nominee for president, agreed to join the prosecution, even though he had not tried a case in 36 years. Clarence Darrow, the leading defense lawyer in the country, lined up on the other side, along with attorneys for the ACLU. H.L. Mencken, arguably the most prominent cultural critic of his day, also showed up, hoping the trial – as well as the town that hosted the tribunal -- would provide juicy targets for his caustic wit. In this he was not disappointed.
Scopes had been charged under a Tennessee statute that it made it unlawful “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.” As the defense was quick to point out, the statute failed to specify which of the two creation stories in the Book of Genesis could not be denied, the one in which man is created in God’s image or the one in which he is formed from the dust of the ground. The latter presumably would take some of the shine off divine creation. However, the trial judge settled the matter by reading into the record the first creation story, while ignoring the second. From the beginning, the judge and prosecutors were determined to prevent the defense from turning the trial into a referendum on the statute itself. Any hope of adjudicating the competing claims of science and religion was dashed when the judge refused to allow the defense to bring in scientific experts to challenge the biblical account of creation. In a moment of weakness, he did permit Clarence Darrow to call William Jennings Bryan to the stand as an expert on the Bible. But then, after Darrow forced Bryan to admit he did not necessarily think everything in the Bible should be taken literally, the judge stepped in and had the entire exchange stricken from the record.
The Scopes trial had all the elements of a modern-day media circus, including the first live broadcast coverage of a criminal proceeding over radio. Some 200 reporters descended on the town, including movie newsreel crews. Mencken set the tone for much of the coverage with his merciless jibes at the “mountebank” Bryan and the “yokels” in “monkeytown.” It was Mencken who first coined the term “monkey trial” to describe the event, which fatally undercut any seriousness of purpose on either side. Editorial cartoonists quickly jumped on the primate theme. And since no circus is complete without a live animal act, the Scopes trial soon attracted a pair of trained chimpanzees who entertained on the courthouse lawn. They were accompanied by a three-and-a-half foot man with sloping forehead and protruding jaw who billed himself as the “Missing Link.”
In the end, the trial settled nothing. The defense had no illusions the case would be decided on it merits in the Dayton courtroom but hoped the constitutionality of the Tennessee anti-evolution statute would get a decent airing on appeal. However, the state Supreme Court refused to bite, denying all constitutional challenges and overturning the verdict on a technicality. The court then admonished the prosecution not to pursue the case. “We see nothing to be gained by prolonging the life of this bizarre case,” the justices commented in their written decision. The Tennessee law thus remained on the books until the 1960s but was never subsequently enforced. The Scopes case was widely viewed as a public relations disaster for creationists, yet biology text publishers shied away from any treatment of evolution until the U.S. Supreme Court issued a definitive ruling in a separate case a half-century later. John Scopes never took the stand in his own defense, for reasons that became clear only much after the fact. He later admitted that he had never actually taught evolution in his biology class; he had merely persuaded some of his students to testify otherwise so the case could move forward. In other words, the trial was a put-up job from the beginning.
Millions of words have been written about the Scopes trial, both during and after the fact. But so far as can be determined, nobody bothered to ask the chimps that cavorted on the courthouse lawn what they thought about it. As show-business professionals, they could not have been pleased by all these hairless primates trying to horn in on their act. They might also have objected to the notion that simian ancestry was somehow incompatible with the divine creation of man. There is no earthly reason why this should be so. As John the Baptist once told pious Jews in his day, God was able to raise up stones to be children of Abraham. If stones, why not monkeys? As creatures made in God’s image, we are endowed with a sense of humor, which is just as well in this case, since the joke appears to be on us.