- The Washington Times - Monday, July 22, 2002

One of the most famous clashes of titans unfolded in Dayton, Tenn., a town of 2,000, in the sweltering July heat of 1925.
It was there that Clarence Darrow and William Jennings Bryan debated creationism and evolution in the world-famous Scopes trial, dubbed the "monkey trial" by Baltimore Sun editor H.L. Mencken.
The 15th annual Scopes Trial Play and Festival, held in the same Rhea County courthouse where nearly 200 photographers, reporters and telegraph operators met to report the news, re-enacts the famous event each year. The re-enactment was performed yesterday and will be performed tonight in Dayton.
In 1925, news of the trial found its way around the world after Chicago radio station WGN reported much of the action in the first live national broadcast of an American trial.
After eight days of testimony, a Dayton jury found John T. Scopes guilty of violating a state law forbidding the teaching of evolution. Scopes was fined $100.
"The media went after William Jennings Bryan for his conservative idea about origins," said Richard M. Cornelius, a retired professor at Bryan College in Dayton and one of the leading historians on the trial. He also found that most journalists missed Bryan's dramatic testimony when he was questioned on the stand by Darrow, who worked with the American Civil Liberties Union to overturn the state law.
As a result of his research, Mr. Cornelius said, he learned that Scopes probably did not violate the law. He had worked as a football and basketball coach and only briefly had substituted for a biology teacher, and he never taught evolution.
Nonetheless, as part of the civic push to get Dayton recognized to stimulate its lagging economy, Scopes agreed to say he taught evolution so he could be charged.
The case might have been a historical footnote were it not for the stentorian personalities of Bryan and Darrow, Mr. Cornelius said.
"Inherit the Wind," the play-turned-film inspired by the case, misrepresented many of the facts and arguments in the Scopes case, yet many Americans regarded this fiction as reality, Mr. Cornelius said. For example, Bryan was portrayed as a well-meaning but dangerous and deranged publicity-seeker. In reality, he was a three-time contender for the U.S. presidency.
Unlike in "Inherit the Wind," police did not arrest Scopes in his classroom. Scopes never dated a minister's daughter who betrayed him to authorities, nor was he reviled by the townspeople.
In fact, when "Inherit the Wind" had its world premiere in Dayton in 1960, Scopes was given the key to the city.
In the movie, Bryan was shown collapsing in the courtroom, but in fact he did not die in the middle of the trial. He died when he was hit by a car five days after the trial's conclusion.

Sign up for Daily Newsletters

Manage Newsletters

Copyright © 2020 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

Please read our comment policy before commenting.


Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide