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