Wednesday 10 July 2013

A Monkey in a Plaid Suit

"Monkeys View Humanity" cartoon from Chicago Defender courtesy

A monkey sporting a plaid suit, a brown fedora and white spats frolicked on the Rhea County courthouse lawn.  Vendors sold hot dogs, lemonade and toy monkeys.  Spectators overflowed the courtroom.  It was like a scene from a circus.  The date was July 10, 1925.  The event was the Scopes Monkey Trial.

                                              File:John t scopes.jpg

                                              John Thomas Scopes courtesy 

In May of 1925, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) approached high school teacher John Thomas Scopes with a proposition:  would he present the theory of evolution to his students and be prepared to get arrested for his stance?  After all, a Tennessee law called the Butler Act stated that it was punishable by fine for anyone to "teach any theory that denies the story of the Divine Creation of man as taught in the Bible".  Mr. Scopes obliged the ACLU and was arrested for his teachings.

John Scopes and his initial defendants beneath "Read Your Bible" banner courtesy

Clarence Darrow was brought in by the ACLU to defend John Scopes.  William Jennings Bryan, who had run three times for President of the United States and lost, was brought it as the prosecutor.  The latter was a Fundamentalist who strongly believed in Creationism.  Judge Raulston presided over the Rhea County courtroom in Daytona, Tennessee.

And the nation watched from inside and outside the courtroom to see what the verdict would be.  The judge ordered the trial to be taken outside after the weight of the large crowd threatened to collapse the courthouse floor.  Other Americans listened to an account of the daily proceedings on the radio.  The media covered the event including Paul Patterson from the Baltimore Sun who offered the $500 bail money for the defendant.

Dayton scene courtesy 

Concerned about the undermining of God's Word, revival tents popped up in the area.  Bibles were sold on the Daytona streets.  Some did not take too kindly to the fact that Fundamentalism was under fire.

Mr. Darrow cross-examined Mr. Bryan, a gruelling experience where the latter was ridiculed and forced to eat his own words.  The former asked for a guilty verdict for his client,hoping for an appeal.  Because of the plea, Mr. Bryan was denied the opportunity to make his closing argument.  Judge Raulston ruled that Scopes was guilty and would pay a $100 fine.

William Jennings Bryan addresses the court courtesy

Within two years, the verdict was overturned on account of a technicality.  However, it wasn't until 1967 that the Butler Act was repealed.   In 1955 a play loosely based on the monkey trial was staged.  In 1960 a film starring Spencer Tracy and Frederic March was screened.  Unfortunately, the movie is not an accurate rendering of the actual events (the prosecutor commits suicide after the trial).

The Monkey Trial remained a controversial topic in American history.  The Encylopedia Britannica, prompted by the staging of the play, first mentioned the trial in 1957.  American textbooks did not recognize the trial until the 1960's.


               Clarence Darrow cross-examines William Jennings Bryan outside courtesy

Although William Jennings Bryan won the case, the damage to his reputation would cost him his health.  He died only five days later in his sleep.  Mr. Scopes went on to do graduate work in geology at the university of Chicago and was hired by the United Gas Company for the remainder of his career.  He died in 1970.  Mr. Darrow went on to try other cases and write several books.  He died in 1938.  The Rhea County Courthouse, the very place where the monkey in the plaid suit frolicked on the lawn, was designated a historic site in 1972.

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