On This Day in Criminal History: Monkey Trial Ends

21 Jul

The Scopes Monkey Trial ended on this date in 1925 with the conviction of Dayton, TN teacher John Scopes, who was found guilty of teaching evolutionary theory in violation of a Tennessee State Law known as the Butler Act. The trial attracted world-wide attention, even H. L. Mencken of the Baltimore Sun, and pitted two American giants against one another: three-time presidential candidate, Congressman, and former Secretary of State William Jennings Bryan for the prosecution and Clarence Darrow for the defense. The trial was a major milestone in the controversy between creationists and evolutionists, a debate that continues today.


Darrow and Bryan

In what the state believed was a violation of the Butler Act, Scopes used a textbook that contained the concepts laid out by Charles Darwin in his seminal On the Origin of Species. Scopes was charged for this violation. The eight-day trial played out in the sweltering summer heat and at one point was moved outdoors because the courtroom became too hot. Once the closing arguments were completed, it took the jury only nine minutes to convict Scopes. He was fined $100. Two years later the Tennessee Supreme Court overturned the conviction and Scopes was never retired.

I first learned of and became fascinated with the trial in the 7th grade. This led me to my local Carnegie Library where I found a wonderful, just published book: Six Days or Forever by Ray Ginger. Loaded with quotes from the trial transcript, the battle between Bryan and Darrow is laid out in great detail. What did an impressionable 12 year old take from this book? That science and religion need not be mutually exclusive. That whether creation took 6 days or billions of years is irrelevant and isn’t the issue anyway. It’s what drove evolution that counts. And that, despite what many profess, no one knows the answer to.

Proverbs 11:29: He that troubleth his own house shall inherit the wind.


Tracy and March

Two years later in 1960, along came my all-time favorite movie: Inherit the Wind. Though it took liberties with the facts, with Spencer Tracy, Frederick March, Gene Kelly, Dick York, Claude Akins, Harry Morgan, director Stanley Kramer, and a screenplay ripped right from the trial, what’s not to love? Seen it 100 times, at least.


A few years ago, I visited Dayton and the Rhea County Courthouse where the trial took place. It was like walking into history, like walking on to the set of Inherit the Wind. The echoes of Bryan, Darrow, Tracy, and March can still be heard. If you ever find yourself in eastern Tennessee, visit Dayton. It’s a beautiful small town and a slice of American history.


UMKC School of Law



Posted by on July 21, 2009 in Interesting Cases, On This Day


5 responses to “On This Day in Criminal History: Monkey Trial Ends

  1. Chester Campbell

    July 22, 2009 at 9:12 am

    Good blog, Doug. The trial ended a few months before I was born, but I’ve heard about it all my life. I was a reporter for The Knoxville Journal in the late 1940s and covered some stories down in the Dayton area. I’m sure at that time it looked like it did in 1925. One small correction. Dayton and Rhea County are in “East” Tennessee, not “west.” They’re south of Knoxville.


    • D.P. Lyle, MD

      July 22, 2009 at 9:21 am

      Duh. East-west. Directional dyslexia. I knew it was east and for some reason typed west. I’ll fix it. Thanks.


  2. Patrice

    July 22, 2009 at 4:31 pm

    Makes me think of the news breaking stories about the discovery of dinosaur fossils/bones back in the 19th century, and how this shook religious views about God making the world in six days, and creating humans in his image. Scientists were implying that God made giant lizards before Adam and Eve. People were shocked.

    It also makes me think about how the Catholic Church silenced Fr.Teilhard de Chardin because he was a Darwinist, so he was packed off to China. While in China, with nothing to do, he joined in an expedition that discovered Peking Man.

    And it makes me wonder what science will discover in the next 100 or 200 years, long after we are gone. How will it challenge future people’s beliefs and change what they thought our life on earth was about.


  3. Patrice

    July 22, 2009 at 4:33 pm

    Saw ‘Inherit the Wind’ ages ago. Must add it to my NetFlix.


    • D.P. Lyle, MD

      July 22, 2009 at 4:35 pm

      Get some popcorn and enjoy. It’s the great Spencer Tracy at his best.



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