New images of the Scopes trial

May 19, 2013 | By Jim Stovall | Filed in: history.

The Smithsonian Institution announced this week that it had some never-before published pictures of the Scopes Monkey Trial that occurred in Dayton, Tenn., in July 1925. (The Smithsonian has a web page set up for these pictures.) The announcement was timed to coincide with the 80th anniversary of the trial that for a few weeks in that swelteringly hot summer captured the attention of the world.

This was the first “trial of the century,” and for the 20th century, it would certainly not be the last. But it has a special place in the imagination of people who understand the history of this country, and it has a special importance, too.

Clarence Darrow, standing right, questions William Jennings Bryant during a session of the Scopes Monkey Trial in July 1925 in Dayton, Tenn. The picture was taken by Watson Davis of the Science Service and was discovered by a volunteer historian for the Smithsonian Institution.

There aren’t many pictures of the trial itself, and that’s why these are so important. One in particular — the most striking one of the group (the one shown above) — shows William Jennings Bryan outside fielding questions from Clarence Darrow in their famous exchange as Bryan presents a spirited defense of the Bible. The heat in east Tennessee that summer was some of the worst in memory, and the judge moved the trial outside the Rhea County courthouse in an effort to find a cooler venue and to accommodate the enormous crowds.*

The big crowds came in great part because of the vast amount of attention that the news media — especially the developing medium of radio — lavished on the event. WGN, Chicago’s major radio station, set up a remote broadcasting facility in Dayton, an operation that cost the station $1,000 a day but that gave it a huge audience.

Still, despite this attention, relatively few pictures of the event exist and fewer still have been widely published. That’s why this week’s announcement is important. The pictures were taken by Watson Davis, managing editor of the Washington-based Science Service, an information service for the dissemination of scientific news. They were discovered by Marcel LaFollette, a volunteer historian who works at the Smithsonian.

The Science Service sent Watson to Dayton because the Scopes trail had a scientific subject — evolution — at its center. Evolution, the idea that species change and evolve over long periods of time, was thought to be contradictory to the Biblical story of how humans were created. Thus, it was opposed by many religious fundamentalists, and a law in Tennessee forbade the teaching of the theory of evolution in the public schools. John Scopes, a high school teacher in Dayton, was charged with violating that law.

None of what brought the trial about, including the fact that it was in Dayton, was accidental. The American Civil Liberties Union had been looking for an opportunity to challenge the constitutionality of Tennessee’s law, and civic leaders in Dayton had been seeking a way to draw publicity for the town and revitalizing its flagging economy. At a meeting in Robinson’s Drugstore (one of the subjects of the recently-discovered photos, seen at the right) Scopes agreed to let himself be charged with the “crime” of teaching evolution.

The trial’s media possibilities were enhanced by the fact that Clarence Darrow and William Jennings Bryan would be opposing each other in court. Darrow was one of the most famous trial lawyers in the nation, and he had agreed to come to Dayton to defend Scopes for the ACLU. Bryan had run for president three times and was one of the most arresting orators of his time. The trial promised to be an entertaining affair, and it lived up to its promised — despite rulings from the trial judge that hampered the debate about evolution.

Those rulings so frustrated Darrow that he called Bryan as a witness — a challenge that Bryan gladly accepted.

The Scopes Monkey Trial ended quietly and sadly. John Scopes was convicted of breaking the law and teaching evolution, and he was fined $100. (The conviction was later overturned on a technicality.) Scopes moved away from Dayton and became a geologist. Bryan died of a heart attack within a week of the end of the trial. Tennessee’s anti-evolution law stayed on the books until it was repealed in 1967, but it was never an issue again. Dayton did not get the economic boost that it had sought from the trial and returned to being a sleepy, out-of-the-way berg that it is today. The Rhea County courthouse still stands and looks much as it did in 1925.

But the trial was more than a media circus. It was an important demonstration of the cultural divide that pervades American society. That divide is most evident in modern political discourse where one side claims God and declares their opponents to be “enemies of faith,” while the other side claims intellectualism and puts a premium on detachment from the values that matter to many people. The same arguments that were made at the Scopes Monkey Trial in 1925 are being echoed today.

(Posted July 24, 2005)

*My wife’s grandmother, who lived about 70 miles away in Blount County, told me once that the drought in the area was so bad that the farmers — including her husband — wound up having nothing to do. The fields had dried up, and there was simply nothing to work on. She was pregnant with my wife’s mother that summer, which could not have been pleasant.

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