Scopes and Evolution Lost the Monkey Trial, But Modernity Won

Modernity triumphed when Darrow took on Bryan, but fundamentalism has not gone away.


John Aloysius Farrell is a contributing editor at U.S. News & World Report and is the author of Tip O'Neill and the Democratic Century and an upcoming biography of defense attorney Clarence Darrow.

Henry Mencken left town.

The trial wasn't over, but Judge John Raulston had banned the testimony of the troupe of scientists who had come to Tennessee to defend Charles Darwin's theory of evolution. If Clarence Darrow could not put scientists on the stand, how could his side possibly win? What witnesses could they call? "Darrow has lost," Mencken wrote. "The main battle is over, with Genesis completely triumphant." So Mencken, the ferocious iconoclast who had transformed the case of The State of Tennessee vs. John Thomas Scopes into a national frolic—the Monkey Trial—packed and left.

And missed the greatest story of his life.

It was July 1925. The streets of little Dayton were jammed with flivvers; the sidewalks with grifters and Bible-waving preachers. Children were delighted by the showmen with trained chimps, and adults by a pair of blind minstrels, singing spirituals. Hucksters sold fried chicken sandwiches and watermelon, and an infinite variety of monkey knick-knacks. Dozens of reporters were on hand, from all the big-city papers. Many slept on cots (and shared the single outhouse) at Bailey's hardware store, which they filled with the clacks and dings of typewriters. Wires were strung from the courthouse and two dozen telegraph operators moved 400,000 words a day. Microphones were set to broadcast the proceedings by radio: an American first.

There was more at stake than John Scopes and the eighth grade biology class he taught. Modernity was on trial. The advances of recent decades—the airplane, the car, the telephone, and the radio—were no longer novelties. They were serving as accelerants, shrinking time and distance. And in war, when mixed with more insidious invention, they had brought slaughter.

Darwin and his like offered disconcerting propositions: Sigmund Freud with his excuses for aberrant human behavior; the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, who sought to take man "beyond good and evil," and physicist Albert Einstein, who shattered the notion of absolute truths. A "Roaring" decade was rocking America with its jazz joints, short skirts, and speakeasies.

Reaction came in the guise of Fundamentalism. From the precarious farms of the Cumberland ridges, the pious folk arrived in their buggies—women in gingham and men in slouched felt hats and overalls—to swear to the power of the Book, the faith of their fathers, and the majesty of William Jennings Bryan.

Bryan was a legend—a three-time presidential candidate who had seized the Democratic nomination with a single speech in 1896. He was horrified by the World War, and traced German militarism to the teachings of Darwin and Nietzsche. "Science has proven itself an evil genius," he said. At 65, Bryan's once vibrant baritone was diminished. But he still had the fight of a snapping turtle, a species which, with the dome of his forehead, beak nose, and broad mouth, he somewhat resembled. It would be, Bryan prophesized, "a duel to the death."

From its inception, the trial was a stunt. The town's civic leaders had gathered at a table in Robinson's Drug Store and hatched a scheme to win drowsy Dayton some attention. Scopes agreed to take the fall. Bryan signed on with the prosecution, spurring Darrow to join the defense.

Bryan had stepped from the train like a figure out of Kipling, wearing a pith helmet. Darrow arrived in a straw skimmer and, of course, his galluses, which he used as props—to snap with emphasis, or to anchor his thumbs during emblematic shrugs. He was 68, but there were signs of the younger man—Lincolnesque, with piercing eyes and mighty cheekbones. In a storied career, he had fought hard for individual liberties, and underdogs.

The key issue was, from the first, the expert witnesses. The two sides bickered for a week. Then came Raulston's ruling.

That Sunday, Darrow joined co-counsel Arthur Garfield Hays and Harvard geologist Kirtley Mather at the old mansion that served as defense headquarters. The lawyers had Mather play the role of Bryan, and quizzed him about Adam's rib, Jonah and the whale, and other tales.