The trial of the century? In this article Edward Vinski looks at a famous 1925 trial between religion and science. And how later Hollywood and Broadway depictions blurred the truth of events.
Perhaps twentieth century America’s most famous clash between religion and science occurred in Dayton, Tennessee. Science teacher John T. Scopes stood trial for teaching the theory of human evolution by natural selection to a class of high school students. Over the course of eleven days in July 1925, news reporters from all around the United States crowded into the small town to cover what was called “the trial of the century”. Much of the interest in the case stemmed from the fact that Scopes was defended by Clarence Darrow, perhaps the country’s most famous trial attorney, while William Jennings Bryan, the former Secretary of State and three-time Presidential nominee, aided the prosecution. The trial peaked when Darrow put Bryan on the witness stand to answer questions about the Bible, and culminated with a guilty verdict that was ultimately and anti-climactically overturned on a technicality. That Bryan died in Dayton a few days after the trial ended only added to its drama.
FROM TENNESSEE TO BROADWAY
The story, however, did not end in Dayton. In 1955, Inherit the Wind, a play based on the events of the trial, opened on Broadway. Written by Jerome Lawrence and Robert Edwin Lee, the play used the trial as a metaphor for McCarthy-ism with the Scopes character representing those blacklisted by the House Un-American Activities Committee. Five years later, the play was turned into a film starring Academy Award winners Spencer Tracey and Frederic March in the Darrow and Bryan roles respectively. Both the play and the film were well received and have been remade several times over the ensuing decades.
The popularity of these fictionalized accounts has, though, produced an interesting by-product. Many people have come to believe that the film/stage versions are accurate depictions of what occurred in 1925. Easterbrook (N.D.) suggested that “many Americans know the Scopes trial not from history books but from ‘Inherit the Wind’.” Unfortunately, Inherit the Wind distorts the facts of the trial, and while I think most of us expect a certain amount of Hollywood-izing where ‘based on a true story’ films are concerned, we run into great dangers if we treat such fictionalized accounts as historical documents.
SETTING THE RECORD STRAIGHT
As we approach the 90th anniversary of the Scopes Trial, I would like to set some of the record straight. In doing so, I will avoid discussing minor instances of creative license, and keep my focus on the aspects of the 1960 film that can cause misunderstanding of the facts of the case.
We begin with the arrest and indictment of the defendant, John T. Scopes. The film opens with the Scopes character teaching his biology class when the lesson is interrupted by the authorities placing him under arrest. The truth was somewhat less dramatic. Following the passage of Tennessee’s anti-evolution law in May 1925, the ACLU offered to assist any schoolteacher who challenged the law. Upon hearing this, local business leaders, school board personnel and attorneys concocted a scheme in which a local teacher would be tried for violating the statute. The resulting trial would not only challenge the controversial law, but it would also serve as a publicity stunt for the town which had fallen on hard times (Moore, 1999). Scopes, 24-years-old at the time, was the local high school’s general science teacher and football coach. He was tracked down not in his classroom, but on a local tennis court and brought to a Dayton drug store where the conspirators were scheming over breakfast. Upon his arrival, he was asked whether he would be willing to let his name be used in the case. Scopes was opposed to the anti-evolution law although he knew very little about it, being primarily a physics and math teacher. In fact, there is some question as to whether or not he ever actually taught an evolution lesson while substituting for the regular biology teacher (Benen, 2000). His uncomplicated life also made the young, unmarried, childless Scopes an attractive candidate as he would have little to lose from this scheme. After some discussion, Scopes accepted (Larson, 2006).
A nearby justice of the peace swore out an arrest warrant, handed it to a police officer who promptly served the papers to Scopes. While the conspirators made phone calls to newspapers announcing the upcoming trial which would help put their town “on the map”, the accused left the drug store to resume playing tennis (Larson, 2006). Within days of the announcement, Bryan volunteered his services to the prosecution, Darrow agreed to aid the defense, and the trial of the century was set to begin.
This, however, brings us to another point of comparison between Inherit the Wind and the actual trial: Scopes’ treatment while in custody. The film shows the Scopes character languishing alone in a jail cell, being taunted and threatened with lynching by his fellow townspeople, and intimidated by prosecutors who were out for blood. Again the truth tells a different story. As one might gather from Scopes’ post-‘arrest’ tennis match, he never spent one minute in jail. The crime was, in fact, a misdemeanor offense punishable by a fine of “not less than One Hundred $(100.00) Dollars nor more than Five Hundred $(500.00 ) Dollars for each offense” (1925 Tennessee House Bill, 185).
In addition, far from being hated by the populace, Scopes was generally well liked by his fellow townspeople and this opinion seems to have been shared by members of the prosecution (Larson, 2006). In fact, during the noon recess on one particularly hot day, Scopes went swimming with two of the prosecuting attorneys, Wallace Haggard and William Jennings Bryan, Jr. They enjoyed themselves so much that they lost track of time and were late returning to the courthouse. Upon their arrival, they found that the trial had proceeded without them, and they had difficulty squeezing through the crowded courtroom to take their places.
We have begun to get a flavor for how Inherit the Wind helped to establish the Scopes Trial myth at the expense of its facts. One would expect that Scopes would be the central figure of his own trial. The personalities that dominated it, though, were such that the defendant became an afterthought.
Edward Vinski is Associate Professor of Education at St. Joseph’s College in New York.
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Benen, S. (2000). Inherit the Myth: How the movie version of the Scopes trial monkeyed with the facts. Church and State, 53, 15-16.
Easterbrook, G. (N.D.). The Scopes trial vs. “Inherit the Wind”. Retrieved from http://www.beliefnet.com/News/1999/12/The-Scopes-Trial-Vs-Inherit-The-Wind.aspx
Larson, E. J. (2006). Summer for the gods: The scopes trial and America’s continuing debate over science and religion. New York: Basic Books.
Moore, R. (1999). Creationism in the United States: The lingering impact of Inherit the Wind. The American Biology Teacher, 61, 246-250.
1925 Tennessee House Bill, 185.