Today marks the 90th anniversary of the final day of the infamous Scopes Monkey Trial, held in the small town of Dayton, Tennessee. The events surrounding the trial not only made headlines throughout the world, it also inspired popular stage and film adaptations.
On July 10, 1925, a Dayton, Tennessee school teacher, John T. Scopes, was put on trial for violating a state law prohibiting the teaching of Evolution. The trial, and the events surrounding it, would change how science was taught in schools, and was forever immortalized in the film (and the play of the same name), Inherit the Wind (1960).
Being raised in the Tennessee Valley is an interesting experience. I didn’t come from a particularly “fire and brimstone” upbringing, but it was certainly around me: acquaintances, relatives, and fellow church members would attempt to cast out bits and pieces of their staunch religious views in my general direction. That old, possibly racist guy with the faded green Naval tattoo espousing his beliefs, both intrigued and frightened me… but mostly frightened me. And although I didn’t completely understand exactly what I was supposed to believe and why, I just “did,” …except I had questions; more questions than answers.
Questions that no one, even the spiritual leaders I looked up to and admired, could answer with any reasonable amount of logic.
“Is there a heaven?”
“Wait, so you’re saying the Earth is 6,000 years old. What about the dinosaurs?”
“Satan placed those dinosaur fossils there to trick us? You’re kidding, right?”
“So you’re basically saying that Satan looks like Underwood Deviled Ham guy, mincing around burying bones like the neighbor’s dog? Hmm, ok.”
With all of my doubt, though, I still had this one issue that I didn’t struggle with: there was no way we evolved from monkeys.
At least that is what years of close-minded teachings had done for my capacity to reason. Even though I was born in the late seventies, over five decades after the Scopes Trial, many of those archaic beliefs were still held as the real, only truth. This idea that Evolutionary Theory was straight up bunk was something that I was taught all throughout my elementary and middle school years. You see, I attended a small, Christian school, and we were taught a strictly Creationist approach to everything. What’s odd is that one of my super religious science teachers showed us episodes of Carl Sagan’s Cosmos. I guess it’s because Sagan just had a knack for explaining how the universe operates. But when he got to details surrounding The Big Bang or Darwinism, it was used as a “teaching moment” on how even the most brilliant of minds can be led astray (there’s that Underwood Deviled Ham guy again, makin’ mischief). Believe it or not, when I got into high school (a reasonably progressive Catholic high school, way off from my humble protestant upbringing), my eyes were opened. It was a devout Catholic science teacher, and a priest, who both taught me that one can have faith and not literally interpret the sacred text of the Bible. One of the hardest things to do for a reformed Creationist is budging on evolution. Doing so embraces chaos and acknowledges that we aren’t necessarily the ultimate end point. And that’s a scary concept for those who believe in either side of the debate.
In 1921, the great orator, politician, former Secretary of State (but a pacifist), and anti-evolution movement leader, William Jennings Bryan, famously remarked in one of his speeches: “ It is better to trust in the Rock of Ages, then to know the age of rocks; it is better for one to know that he is close to the Heavenly Father, than to know how far the stars in the Heavens are apart.” Bryan was a rock star amongst devout Christians (literalists, to be exact), and they hung on each and every word as if it was the Gospel itself. Matter of fact, Bryan is still a god amongst men in certain fundamentalist Christian circles. Bryan College, located in Dayton, Tennessee, is named after their hero.
In March 1925, with the anti-evolution movement gaining traction, the Tennessee state legislature passed the Butler bill, the first of its kind in the United States, which prohibited the teaching of any theory besides the Divine Creation story that is found in the Bible. After the Butler bill was signed into law, the American Civil Liberties Union was fast at work in an attempt to challenge it. They ran an article in a Chattanooga newspaper asking for someone to step up for what would essentially be a test case. Not too subtle, eh? When the leaders of Dayton saw this little item, a dim-witted lightbulb popped over their heads. If they could only find a patsy to take the ACLU’s bait, they might just be able to boost tourism and put little Dayton, Tennessee on the map. They found their man in football coach and substitute Biology teacher, John T. Scopes. Mr. Scopes supposedly claimed that he wasn’t even sure if he had violated the Butler bill when he was initially approached. He broke the law on command, and helped kickstart this political and religious farce.
The prosecution was able to secure the assistance of Bryan. With all his posturing and grandstanding, Bryan promised the leaders of Dayton that their fight would receive positive national attention. Bryan was quite the celebrity in the God-fearing South, but the defense managed to snag their own legal celebrity: the great Clarence Darrow. The town of Dayton prepared for the trial by building a stage for grand speeches, a pedestrian mall with vendors, music, and sideshows. A real-life chimp, named Joe Mendi, appeared fully dressed in an attempt to mock the idea that man descended from such simple beast. It was a circus. As for the trial? It made the three-ring act outside seem like a normal day. Presiding Judge John Raulston ruled the trial be held outside in the sweltering July heat, which was somehow cooler than inside the old courthouse. This only added to the spectacle of it all. For a little over a week, both sides fanned themselves and argued. Darrow, becoming increasingly frustrated with the seemingly rigged proceedings, fought everything he possibly could– from the prayer at the start of session each day to his right to be able to call scientific witnesses (he wasn’t allowed). In an interesting twist, Darrow’s key witness was his opponent, Bryan, and the two engaged in one of the greatest debates in history. This debate is featured in both the play and the film, something that has always felt a bit like the Hollywood treatment. Nope, it really happened. Despite losing the case, Darrow really came out on top as the victor, at least symbolically. He delivered one of the finest closing arguments in history, and he had the final say; Bryan wasn’t able to read the remarks he had been working on for weeks due to the rules of the trial. Eventually, the Butler bill would be overturned, paving the way for more progressive legislation years later.
The Scopes Monkey Trial, as it was known, came to a conclusion almost as quickly as it had begun. This horribly executed publicity stunt backfired in every way. Did they think their stance and behaviors would be received favorably around the country and turn their little podunk town into a thriving tourist hub? The entire thing was incredibly disingenuous. It made a mockery of the legal system, and ultimately weakened the argument for the literalist interpretation. And with the death of Bryan a mere five days after the end of the trial, the anti-evolution community suffered a tremendous blow to its cause.
The Scopes Trial was so fascinating, that it inspired a fictionalized play entitled “Inherit the Wind,” which premiered on Broadway in 1955. Five years after its successful run, the play was adapted to the screen. Directed by Stanley Kramer, and starring acting giants Spencer Tracy and Fredric March, Inherit the Wind, unfortunately, isn’t that far off from the true events of the Scopes Trial.
William Jennings Bryan and Clarence Darrow are represented in the film by Matthew Harrison Brady (Fredric March) and Henry Drummond (Spencer Tracy), with an appearance by journalist and all-around smart ass E.K. Hornbeck (the fictional version of H.L. Mencken, played by Gene Kelly). John T. Scopes also gets a name change to Bertram T. Cates (Dick York, aka Bewitched’s Darrin #1), and the town of Dayton becomes the quaint mountain town of Hillsboro.
Inherit the Wind is quite the spectacle, with grand theatrical performances that often border on the ridiculous. Yet how can performances be ridiculous when the art is imitating real life? For this Southern gal who grew up in a community directly affected by this embarrassing event, Inherit the Wind is painfully true. It’s a horror film where reason and intellect are bludgeoned to death, with the lone, sane, courageous voice of Henry Drummond, struggling to find steady ground on which to stand and fight. Hillsboro’s corruption, ignorance, and disgusting zealotry conspire together to suppress one’s right to free thought–a right that must be protected, even if it only applies to a small minority of people. Inherit the Wind is an important story that manages to inform its audience in an entertaining way, while also embarrassing all of us who were raised around this culture. It hits way too close to home.
While Dayton didn’t get the tourism boom it had hoped for 90 years ago, it did earn a spot in cinematic history, under the pseudonym of Hillsboro, with two, two-time Academy Award winners reenacting its folly.
This year not only marks the 90th anniversary of the trial, but also the 55th anniversary of the release of Inherit the Wind. Twilight Time recently released a stunning limited-edition blu-ray, which is available exclusively from their website and partners at Screen Archives Entertainment.