Monkey Business

updated 08/07/2000 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 08/07/2000 AT 01:00 AM EDT

The heat was so stifling that afternoon—July 20, 1925—that Judge John Raulston decided to hold court outside. Thus a sprawling Dayton, Tenn., lawn became the unlikely scene of an epic showdown between America's greatest legal gladiator and its most famous orator: Clarence Darrow and William Jennings Bryan. High school teacher John Scopes, 24, stood accused of breaking state law by teaching Darwin's theory of evolution. On that memorable afternoon Scopes sat silently as Darrow, one of his many lawyers, put Bryan, a special counsel for the prosecution, on the witness stand. Snapping his purple suspenders for emphasis, Darrow, 68, asked Bryan, 65, in ill health and dripping sweat, to explain how the Bible's Genesis story could be literally true. "I believe in creation as there told," an exasperated Bryan later responded. "And if I am not able to explain it, I will accept it."

The Scopes trial, popularly known as the Monkey Trial, drew the world's attention to Dayton, a picturesque mining town in the Tennessee Valley, where two wily barristers, polemical partisans, clashed in a classic conflict between religion and science. There was a verdict, of course, but 75 years later the matter is still not settled. "People are deeply split on the role of religion in society," says University of Georgia history and law professor Edward Larson. "The trial did not resolve the debate; it just highlighted it."

Indeed, a vote just last summer by Kansas school officials would allow local districts to drop human evolution from the curriculum. In November Oklahoma began requiring that texts carry labels warning that evolution is merely a theory, but the state's attorney general halted the labeling just months later. Also last fall New Mexico's school board banned creationism from the classroom after allowing it in three years earlier. And this June the U.S. Supreme Court upheld a Louisiana court's decision to strike down a rule requiring teachers in Tangipahoa Parish schools to read a disclaimer noting that evolution should not dissuade students from the Biblical creation story. "It took 300 years to get over the idea that it was not irreligious to say that the planets revolved around the sun," says Eugenie Scott of the National Center for Science Education, which supports teaching evolution. "I hope this battle won't take another 300."

The legal maneuvering that led to the Scopes trial began, oddly, in a Dayton drugstore. In March of 1925, pressured by fundamentalist Christians, Tennessee enacted the nation's first statute making it a crime to teach evolution. Hoping to challenge the law, the American Civil Liberties Union placed a newspaper ad looking for a teacher willing to take on the state. George Rappleyea, manager of a struggling mining company seeking publicity for economically strapped Dayton, spotted the item and quickly rushed to discuss it at F.E. Robinson's drugstore, where the local elite often gathered over soda and cigarettes.

The next day, he and Robinson—who was also head of the school board—invited Scopes, a football coach and science teacher just out of college, to the drugstore but gave little clue as to why he had been summoned. "We've been arguing," said Rappleyea, drawing Scopes into the debate, "and I said that nobody could teach biology without teaching evolution." Scopes concurred, then admitted having used a text that mentioned evolution while briefly substituting for the biology teacher. "Then you've been violating the law," Robinson told him. Urged by the others present, Scopes agreed to be served with an arrest warrant, then left the store, still so nonplussed by what had transpired that he went to play tennis with a friend that afternoon. "He was a real popular fellow, but a little bit on the shy side," recalls Dayton's Eloise Reed, 88, whose brother Crawford was Scopes's tennis partner that day. Adds Larson, author of Summer for the Gods, a 1997 account of the trial: "He wasn't trying to change the world."

Eager to take on the evolutionists, Bryan, a fundamentalist and three-time Democratic presidential candidate, volunteered to join the prosecution. Darrow, who had successfully saved Leopold and Loeb from the death penalty in a celebrated Chicago murder trial a year earlier, took up Scopes's defense. Three days before the trial, Bryan, in a booming baritone, told a Dayton crowd, "The contest between evolution and Christianity is a duel to the death."

The eight-day trial also became more of a duel of legal egos, played out before a live national radio audience—a first for a trial. More than 200 journalists attended, including the legendary Baltimore Sun columnist H.L. Mencken, who offended locals by, among other things, referring to them as "gaping primates." The town took on a circus atmosphere, aided and abetted by Ringling Bros., which brought in several monkeys, some dressed in three-piece suits.

At the trial Darrow, an agnostic, railed against the new law, saying it made "the Bible the yardstick to measure every man's intellect." But the judge refused to allow expert testimony from scientists Darrow had planned to call. Desperate, he played one last card, calling Bryan himself to the stand. Bryan told the judge, "They did not come here to try this case. They came here to try...religion. I am here to defend it."

After two hours of verbal jousting that left Bryan exhausted, the judge halted the proceedings and the next day ordered Bryan's testimony expunged, saying it shed no new light on the issue at hand. With that, Darrow threw in the towel and—counting on winning a later appeal—asked the jury to find his client guilty. The judge and jury obliged, and Scopes was fined $100. "Your honor," said the teacher in his only speech, "I feel that I have been convicted of violating an unjust statute." (Two years later a higher court reversed the verdict.)

Bryan's victory celebration would be shortlived. Five days after the trial, he delivered the opening prayer at a local church, then ate lunch and took a nap. He never woke up. Darrow argued several more cases before his death in 1938. Scopes, inspired by the scientists he had met at his trial, studied geology at the University of Chicago. He worked as a petroleum engineer in Venezuela—where he met his wife—and later in Louisiana, content to lead a private life. "I knew," he wrote in his 1967 memoir, "I would not live happily in a spotlight."

Thomas Fields-Meyer
Kelly Williams in Dayton

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