Scopes Monkey Trial

Author:Jeffrey Lehman, Shirelle Phelps

Page 36

The criminal prosecution of John T. Scopes was an attack by citizens of Dayton, Tennessee, on a Tennessee statute that banned the teaching of evolution in public schools. The Butler Act, passed in early 1925 by the Tennessee General Assembly, punished public school teachers who taught "that man has descended from a lower order of animals" or any theory "that denies the story of the Divine Creation of man as taught in the Bible."

Some citizens of Dayton decided to challenge the statute. On the last day of school in May 1925, they congregated in Robinson's Drug Store and devised a plan to use a willing teacher to challenge the constitutionality of the statute. According to the plan, a teacher would admit to teaching evolution and volunteer to face criminal charges under the statute. One person in the assemblage suggested John T. Scopes, a popular substitute teacher who had taught science and coached athletics at the high school for the past year.

In May 1925, John T. Scopes challenged the Butler Act, a Tennessee state law that prohibited public school teachers from teaching evolution.


Scopes agreed, and within days he was accused of criminal teachings. He was arrested, indicted, and released pending trial in the town of Dayton. He faced no jail time. If convicted of the offense, Scopes would have had to pay a fine of at least $100, but no more than $500.

News of the case touched off a national debate on creationism, evolution, and public school teaching. Vendors, preachers, journalists, and gawkers descended on the town of Dayton during the months of June and July. The case also attracted legal celebrities. General A. T. Stewart was joined by a host of special counsel for the prosecution, including WILLIAM JENNINGS BRYAN. Bryan, age 65, was a skilled speaker, veteran lawyer, and former presidential candidate. A Dayton newspaper asked the eminent litigator CLARENCE SEWARD DARROW, age 68, to defend Scopes. Darrow, an ardent opponent of religious fundamentalism, agreed to defend Scopes free of charge. He was assisted by Dudley Field Malone and Arthur Garfield Hays of the AMERICAN CIVIL LIBERTIES UNION.

The trial began on July 10 in the midst of a blistering heat wave, but the intense heat did not deter spectators. The courtroom was so crowded that the last part of the trial was held outside in the courthouse yard to accommodate the large audience.

Much of the...

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