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Every last scoundrel in sight is a Christian.  I begin to realize what life must have been in Judea 1925 years ago.  No wonder the Romans finally bumped off the son of Joseph. 

-H.L. Mencken at the Scopes Trial.

College sophomores, fundamentalists, and zoologists still enjoy arguing over whether or not humans descended from apes.  Indeed, the teaching of evolution has led millions of god-fearing parents to home-school their children and avoid vacationing in the Galapagos Islands.  To good Baptists, Methodists, and Pentecostals, the question that loomed large during the Scopes’ trial in 1925 hasn’t changed much. 

In July of that year Clarence Darrow, famous defense attorney and avowed agnostic, lined up against William Jennings Bryan, three time presidential candidate and three-time loser.   Newspapermen overran the local hotels while hucksters and ministers sold their wares on the street.   WGN radio broadcast the event live and nationwide, and even the cynic and satirist H.L. Mencken showed up for the greatest show in Dayton, Tennessee.

At the center of this controversy lay a law banning the teaching of evolution in Tennessee schools.  Lawmakers had passed it to make everybody feel good.  They didn’t expect anyone to enforce it, nor did they want them to.  Besides, the state’s approved biology textbook—George Hunter’s Civic Biology—was based on evolutionary theory. 

One might guess that an over zealous religious organization, or a minister trying to make a name for him or herself, had started the proverbial ball rolling.  A good guess, perhaps, but wrong.  In fact, a few of Dayton’s elite citizens dreamed the whole scheme up to bolster a sagging economy.  Really.  They believed a trial would provide a little free publicity to their little burg (reporters had a difficult time finding Dayton on the map).  John Scopes, a teacher who wasn’t even sure he’d ever taught evolutionary theory, agreed to go along with them.  They had him arrested, and the papers picked up the story.  When Darrow and Bryan signed on, the town knew it had struck the mother load.

What followed was a three-ring event worthy of any modern day media phenomena one could name.   Jokes, songs, and souvenirs captured the moment, while a chimp named John Mendi made an appearance each day in a new suit.  Signs read “Where Will You Spend Eternity?” and “Sweetheart, Come to Jesus.”  Sandwich shops, hotdog stands, and lemonade counters crowded the streets.  Sitting outside the courthouse, many cooled themselves with fans donated by a toothpaste company that included the catchy slogan, “Do Your Gums Bleed?”    

Beneath the merriment, however, lay a deeper split in the psyche of the nation.  Many outside the South read Mencken’s indictment of Tennessee and laughed hardily.  It was the 1920’s, for Christ’s sake, and the jazz age had arrived.   Pressing questions of the era included—should women smoke & wear short skirts?  How can one trick Calvin Coolidge into saying more than three words at a time?  And where’s the nearest speakeasy?  The South wasn’t too sure about the 20th century, much less the flappers and Hollywood.   Many found solace in the fundamentalist movement.   “What it really amounted to..,” wrote Geoffrey Perrett, “was a sad, distorted protest against the modern world, with its industrial disciplines, its lonely cities, and its economy of hard cash.”  The trial did a great job of highlighting these differences. 

While the trial failed to settle whether or not humans had descended from apes, it did have repercussions for several of its key figures.  It sealed Darrow’s reputation as the best defense lawyer in land while it cast a shadow over Bryan’s thirty years of public service.   Bryan also had the misfortune to die a week after the trial.  H.L. Mencken survived the hostile Christians of Dayton to skewer others, though his enemies claimed that he eventually got what was coming to him—in the next world.  Scopes relocated to Chicago where he received a masters in geology that in turn led to a job as a petroleum engineer in Venezuela.  And John Mendi?  Well, no one knows for sure, but rumor has it that he did his best to defend his primate forbearers against having any connection to the people who descended upon Dayton, Tennessee in 1925.

Ronnie D. Lankford, Jr.

American Experience’s Monkey Trial will air on February 17 at 9:PM.To find out more about the program, go to: