A Visit to Monkey Town
Clarence Darrow and William Jennings Bryan chat in court during the Scopes Trial.
If you've watched the film Inherit the Wind, you'll have seen a wonderful cinematic exploration of some of the themes in that trial, but you shouldn't rely on it for historical truth. The truth is much more intriguing. One day in Robinson's drugstore, the town's elders say a commercial opportunity to bring some much-needed cash into Dayton. They persuaded a young teacher to agree to become a guinea pig and announced that the constitutionality of the Butler Act was about to be tested. In fact, we've very little evidence that John Scopes ever taught Darwinian science (he mostly coached sports). But that was merely a detail as America was about to be plunged into its first great culture war.
Scopes was convicted, though the verdict was eventually overturned on a legal technicality. The trial became the first to be nationally-broadcast via the new medium of radio. And Dayton soon became a byword for intellectual intolerance.
Dayton residents today are all too aware of the reputation the town gained in 1925, and many regret the episode entirely -- though most, it would have to be said, are simply uninformed about what actually took place. Dayton's tiny economy benefitted from the two-week trial for about the duration of the media circus, which was very short-lived. Those who concocted the scheme to bring the trial of the century to the town are reported to have regretted their own legal ingenuity before the completion of the court's business. The minimal financial boost was short-lived, but the reputational damage has endured.
Bryan, one of America's best-known politicians at the time (a Democrat, he'd served as Secretary of State and was a two-time presidential nominee), died five days after the trial, while still in Dayton writing a pamphlet about the significance of the case. He was buried in Arlington Cemetary with full military honours. But his final legacy in Dayton itself is Bryan College, founded in 1930 as a Christian university. Today, Bryan is a small liberal arts college with some 800 undergraduates and a full-time faculty of about 50 professors. It employs about 200 local people, and contributes about $35m annually to the Dayton economy.
Outside the courthouse stands a statue of William Jennings Bryan -- the gift of the college on the 75th anniversary of the trial. In the basement of the court you can visit a small museum commemorating the biggest thing that's ever happened in this little town. There you'll find picture boards and artefacts from the event that rocked the Roaring 20s; you buy a copy of the full trial record, or a facsimile of the local newspaper reporting the conviction of the teacher who, we now know, may never have even read any Darwinian evolution, let alone taught It. Walk upstairs and you can sit in the actual seats used by the jury or sit behind the actual desk where Darrow and Bryan piled their science books and Bibles respectively.
The Dayton trial teaches us many things about religious culture wars. Perhaps its greatest lesson is this: it prompts us to dig under the surface of a purported "encounter" between science and religion to find out what was really going on. That's just as true with Dayton and John Scopes as it is with Rome and Galileo.
That said, while I've been visiting Tennessee, the state legislature has passed a new law dubbed by some "The Monkey Bill", which just goes to show that some of the issues in the air at the time of the Scopes trial are still issues for some today.