The Monkey Trial

Few topics have proved as enduringly controversial in American history as evolution and the origins of humanity. Darwin’s book, On the Origin of Species, was published back in 1859 when slavery was the main issue dividing Americans. Although his first book only discussed animals, many people quickly grasped what Darwin later made explicit: his theory of evolution applied to people as well. Even today, over 150 years later, the teaching of his theory remains divisive to many people.

It was in response to this perceived threat that in 1924 the state of Tennessee passed the Butler Act, which banned teaching evolution in schools – the first state law of its kind in America. The American Civil Liberties Union almost immediately put out a notice challenging the law and offering to help anyone who would defy it. The stage was set for a great confrontation, and an even greater media frenzy.

Three men pose with a table bearing a sign saying “AT THIS TABLE THE SCOPES EVOLUTION CASE WAS STARTED MAY 5, 1925.” It was supposedly around this table that a few residents of Dayton, eager to boost the town’s economy, had gathered and planned to challenge the law. Smithsonian Institution Archives, Accession 10-042, Image No. 2009-21072

Seeing an ad by the ACLU in a newspaper, some opportunistic businessmen from Dayton, Tennessee, figured if they could arrange to have the trial in Dayton then the town would be packed with visitors and give the local economy a needed boost. They were able to enlist a local teacher, John Thomas Scopes, to help them with their plan. Scopes was a science teacher and football coach with little experience teaching biology – he was not even sure he had ever actually taught evolution in a classroom. Nevertheless, Scopes was opposed to the law and agreed to be indicted for violating the Butler Act. Within a week of the act’s passage, the media apparatus of the entire nation had snapped its attention to Dayton.

Many newspapers and cartoons poked fun at Dayton, Tennessee; a town that no one had previously heard of, but now everyone knew. Evening Star, 7/10/1925. https://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn83045462/1925-07-10/ed-1/seq-1/

Although thousands of miles away from the scene, Alaska’s newspapers turned their attention south too. Every Alaska newspaper with coverage in 1925 digitized for Alaska’s Digital Newspaper Project reported on the Scopes trial with new developments often making front page headlines. An article in Smithsonian Magazine noted that while the plan to bring attention to Dayton had succeeded, the attention was often derisive. This observation is borne out in the scathing articles and cartoons from national papers, and Alaskan newspapers too.

A profile of John Thomas Scopes, carried by the Alaska Daily Empire, 7/10/1925.

The editorials of both the Daily Alaska Empire and the Seward Daily Gateway were harsh in their critique of both the trial and the town that played host to it. In an editorial entitled “Dayton’s Show Proves Nothing,” the editor of the Daily Alaska Empire made his opinion on the spectacle clear:  

“For a few brief days the town enjoyed the notoriety that comes from being carried on the front pages of the newspapers of the nation … It achieved its notoriety, or prominence, depending upon the viewpoint, cheaply.  It basked in the glamor of publicity brought about by a freak law, its violation and the enlistment of famous counsel to conduct the resulting case. “[1]

The editor praised the separation of church and state and compared prosecutor William Jennings Bryan’s anti-evolution efforts to the Ku Klux Klan and its efforts to suppress Jews and Catholics[2].

The Seward Daily Gateway pilloried the trial in an editorial, commenting that “[the trial] is rapidly developing into a farce – a farce which can do no good to the church members prosecuting Scopes and which can prove nothing for or against evolution”[3]. Deriding both the trial officials and jurors, the Gateway criticized Tennessee as “the last state in the union which should attempt to prove [or] disprove scientific subjects,” [4] and pointed out that nobody was upset by botanists changing God’s creations. The Gateway’s editor, while seemingly open to the concept of the evolution, tried to support his point by trotting out a number of racist notions and stereotypes to show that humans might have evolved over time.

William Jennings Bryan, famed orator, politician, and three-time presidential candidate took up the case for the prosecution. Daily Alaska Empire, 7/2/1925.

As historic as the trial was, the editor of the Seward Daily Gateway was not far off in calling it a farce, and the Daily Alaska Empire correctly pointed out that the trial’s outcome was never in doubt; Scopes had admitted to teaching evolution, a point nobody was denying. For all of the pomp and circumstance that came with having the celebrated orator and presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan as the prosecutor and famed criminal defense attorney Clarence Darrow as the defense, the trial was brief and fairly straightforward. The defense attempted to have the Butler Law declared unconstitutional early on, but the judge overruled the motion – thereby removing most suspense about the trial’s eventual result.  

Photo of Clarence Darrow from during the trial

The trial was brief, lasting just a couple of weeks, but far from predictable. It still had plenty of exciting moments to hold the nation’s attention: from the composition of the jury (all church members), controversial opening prayer, and refusal of the court to admit expert testimony from the many scientists who showed up in Dayton eager to help. Perhaps the most astounding moment came when the defense called the prosecutor himself, William Jennings Bryan, to the stand to testify about the bible. The picture of these two renowned Americans, arguing in an open-air court session – the judge had moved the court out of doors on account of the heat – about the bible and evolution, is one of the iconic images from the decade.

Clarence Darrow (standing at right) questions the prosecutor, William Jennings Bryan (sitting at left), during the Scopes Trial. Smithsonian Institution Archives, Record Unit 7091, Science Service Records, Image No. SIA2007-0124

Without a successful challenge against the constitutionality of the law, however, there was little reason for Scopes’ trial to continue. After the judge ruled Bryan could not be called upon as a witness again, the defense saw little point in continuing. Darrow asked that his client be found guilty so that they could appeal the verdict and challenge the law in a higher court. A guilty verdict was duly returned a few minutes later and Scopes was fined $100, which several parties offered to pay. The fine was later voided by a higher court.

Several other states would soon follow Tennessee in passing legislation to ban teaching evolution. Tennessee’s law remained until 1967 when it was repealed by the legislature. It wasn’t until 1968 that the Supreme Court weighed in and unanimously declared these state’s laws were a violation of the First Amendment. Since then, various laws regarding the teaching of evolution and biblical creation have been passed across a number of states – with many of them being struck down and others still under debate – as the argument over how to teach about the origin of humans continues.

As for the persons involved in the case, the nation received a shock when William Jennings Bryan suddenly passed away just five days after the end of the trial. His funeral procession and burial at Arlington would fill the headlines of newspapers as the furor of the Scopes trial subsided. Scopes himself gave up teaching after the trial. He moved to Venezuela several years later to avoid recognition. However, he returned to Dayton in 1960 for the premier of a movie based on the trial.

Dayton, Tennessee, was the butt of many jokes for years after the Scopes Trial. Evening Star, 7/22/1925. https://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn83045462/1925-07-22/ed-1/seq-1/

Dayton’s moment in the sun swiftly came to an end, and the references to it afterward were generally derisive in nature. But despite the barbs and jabs, this small town could boast that for several weeks it held the national spotlight. History’s gaze – often focused on the lights of the big city – still fixes on Dayton, Tennessee in the classrooms of history teachers and the chapters of textbooks across the nation.

Written by Christopher Russell

Edited by Anastasia Tarmann  

Sources cited:

(1)https://www.history.com/topics/native-american-history/native-american-timeline?li_source=LI&li_medium=m2m-rcw-history

(2) Ostler, Jeffrey. Genocide and American Indian History. American History: Oxford Research Encyclopedias. https://doi.org/10.1093/acrefore/9780199329175.013.3. Published online:02 March 2015.

(3) 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre. Tulsa Historical Society and Museum. https://www.tulsahistory.org/exhibit/1921-tulsa-race-massacre/#flexible-content

(4) Sacco and Vanzetti: American Anarchists. https://www.britannica.com/biography/Sacco-and-Vanzetti

Sources used:

John Scopes. PBS. https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/americanexperience/features/monkeytrial-john-scopes/

Scopes Trial. History.com, 6/10/2019. https://www.history.com/topics/roaring-twenties/scopes-trial

Cutlip, Kimbra. The Scopes Trial Redefined Science Journalism and Shaped It to What It Is Today. Smithsonianmag.com, 7/10/2015. https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smithsonian-institution/scopes-trial-redefined-science-journalism-shaped-it-what-it-is-today-180955881/

Adams, Noah. Timeline: Remember the Scopes Monkey Trial. NPR.org, 7/5/2005. https://www.npr.org/2005/07/05/4723956/timeline-remembering-the-scopes-monkey-trial

OpenStax. Transformation and Backlash. Jan 11, 2021. https://cnx.org/contents/MbSsZB9m@11/Transformation-and-Backlash

Newspaper Clippings taken from:

Seward Daily Gateway

Alaska Daily Empire

Evening Star


[1] Alaska Daily Empire, 7/22/1925

[2] Alaska Daily Empire, 7/15/1925

[3] Seward Daily Gateway, 1925-07-11

[4] Ibid

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