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Scopes monkey trial stirs emotions 75 years later

DAYTON, Tenn. (BP)–For all intentional purposes, the year 1925 started out fairly quiet in the east Tennessee town of Dayton. But by midsummer, the 500 residents of Dayton would become embroiled in a historic event thanks to a world-class defense attorney, a high school science teacher, a three-time presidential candidate, a movie star monkey and a boy named Sue.

Officially, the case is known as “The State of Tennessee vs. John Thomas Scopes.” But Christians refer to the historic courtroom drama as the Scopes Monkey Trial — when two of the nation’s most skilled orators tackled an issue that stirs debate 75 years later — the origin of life.

For the past 13 years, the people of Dayton have had another compelling interest in the Scopes Monkey Trial — to tell the truth about what really happened during those three simmering weeks of testimony inside the historic Rhea County Courthouse.

“To be honest, no one else was telling what really happened in Dayton during the trial,” said Rick Dye, president of the Dayton Chamber of Commerce. “That’s why we decided to stage the Scopes Trial Play and Festival.”

“The Scopes Trial,” written by local playwright Gale Johnson, is performed annually inside the same courthouse where the original trial was held. Thousands of people from across the country venture to the sleepy southern town to watch the locally produced performance.

In its 13th season, the play is based on actual court transcripts and is performed in the same courtroom that was filled with thunderous oratory as Clarence Darrow, the greatest defense lawyer in the land, matched wits with William Jennings Bryan.

At the center of it all was John Scopes, 24, a likable football coach and science teacher who stood trial for teaching evolution — a new crime under Tennessee law. Scopes believed in Darwin’s evolutionary theory contained in the 1914 textbook then accepted in Tennessee.

The trial lasted three weeks and a jury found Scopes guilty. A judge fined the schoolteacher $100.

With more than 100 newspapermen covering the trial, Dayton became a national joke. Its citizens were labeled hicks, and infamous Baltimore Sun columnist H.L. Mencken called Dayton a “Monkeytown.”

Additional myths surrounding the events that transpired in Dayton came from a major motion picture, “Inherit the Wind.”

Dye called the film a hatchet job. “The events in that movie did not happen in Dayton,” he said. “And that’s one of the main reasons we perform this play. It’s to tell people the truth about what happened here.”

Far from being hicks, the residents of Dayton were quite shrewd. It turns out the people in Dayton were more concerned about making money off the trial than the trial itself.

“The trial was staged,” Dye said. “Everyone knew it. Darrow, Scopes, the local attorneys. And when there was a lull in court action, the locals staged a fistfight in a local barbershop.”

Everyone knew, that is, except for Bryan. “They were concerned that Bryan would find out. He never knew that the courthouse drama was all staged,” Dye said.

The local drugstore hosted a well-known movie star monkey that could drink soda pop, and the hottest drink in town was the “Monkey Fiz.”

Despite the financial incentive, Dye said the events that transpired in Dayton were far-reaching in their national implications.

Still, why does a courthouse drama that occurred 75 years ago still draw nationwide attention?

Dye said Bryan answered that question better than anyone.

“Here has been fought a little case, of little consequence as a case, but the world is interested because it raises an issue that someday will be settled right, whether it is settled on our side or the other side.”

The trial raised issues about the control of local schools, the rights of minorities, the role of religion in public life and, of course, the origin of life.

The Scopes Trial produced several lasting reminders to Dayton — a museum dedicated to the trial and Bryan College, a four-year nondenominational school.

During the trial, Bryan expressed a wish that a school might be established in Dayton to teach from a biblical perspective. Following his July 26, 1925, death, a national memorial association was formed to establish the school.

And about that boy named Sue. He was actually Sue Hicks, a Dayton attorney for the prosecution, named after his mother. He was immortalized in a song by Johnny Cash, “A Boy Named Sue.”

“The Scopes Trial” was filmed this year by The Learning Channel and Public Broadcasting Network. The performance will be aired at a later date.

    About the Author

  • Todd Starnes