The Scopes Monkey Trial

On this page:

We "tweek" to teach a larger point!

More Record Holders

Driving Strong Men Mad

What Can Happen If You Don't Check Your Sources

In the Back Seat of a Car???

Playing With Words

Guess Again

Even Britannica

By Act of Congress



3:   A Cult of Misinformation

The UNauthorized Version

I honestly cannot remember ever coming across so many inaccuracies as I have during the time I spent researching the details of the Scopes Trial.  In many cases they are relatively trivial, in some cases they look very much like they could be simple typing errors.  But some of them are not only fundamental, they are on points which you might think even the most inexperienced researcher could have cleared up in a matter of minutes.  Not only that, these mistakes appear in places you would least expect to find them (or am I being naive?) - a website run by an assistant principal who has had input into the curriculum for schools in the New York area, a book by a Professor of anthropology, a website by a department head at a university in Tennessee, in the Encyclopaedia Britannica, and in a publication of the United States Congress.

I should explain, at this point, that I did not go looking for these mistakes.  They all turned up in places where I was expecting to find accurate, reliable information.  I list them here for two reasons:

  1. To demonstrate just how carefully one needs to filter information on this topic.  Because for some reason which I can only guess at, misinformation seems alnmost to be the rule rather than the exception.
  2. To highlight the strange double-standard that seems to apply to teaching in America on the subjects of the Scopes Trial (history) and Inherit the Wind (English Literature).
    Whilst both subjects are widely taught, and presumably in a manner that implies that they are subjects worthy of careful study, it turns out that a number of educators, at all levels of the education system, are either passing on misinformation because they don't know that it's misinformation; or in some cases (and I'm going by some of the e-mails I've received), educators are passing on misinformation even though they know that's what they're doing, because they just don't care.

Anyway, here's the evidence I've accumulated over the last few years.  I leave it to you, the reader, to decide how serious the situation is.

"Tweeking" to "teach a larger point"!

If ever there was any doubt that the subject of the Scopes Trial is subject to deliberate misrepresentation within parts of the American education system, here is the evidence:

On September 22nd, 2005, I came across a description of the Scopes Trial on the website of the Social Studies Help Center (  To say it is inaccurate is an understatement.  For example:

Not surprisingly, a link at the end of this article to "a more in depth summary of the Scopes Monkey Trial" directs the user to a rather confused essay on the University of Virginia website which gets even the end date of the trial wrong.

What is particularly significant about this description is that it appears on a website run by someone who is not only a teacher but is also an Assistant Principal.  This is from his "bio" on the Social Studies Help Center website:

"I am thirty seven years old and have been teaching for 15 years.  As of this writing I am one of the Assistant Principals at Schreiber High School in Port Washington.  From 2002 to 2004 I was an AP at Northport High School and from 2000 to 2002 I was the Chairperson of Social Studies at Herricks High School on Long Island, New York.  I also had the pleasure of serving the New York State Council of the Social Studies as Chairperson of the Technology Committee.  Serving as Chair and being involved in curriculum development was gratifying."

Even more significant is the response I got when I e-mailed the site owner pointing out some of the errors listed above:

"... Thanks for the input. At first
glance I know that much of your commentary is correct. Remember, this is
specifically designed as a high school site for a particular class.
Sometimes we "tweek" to teach a larger point. (Yes... I'm somewhat
uncomfortable with that but it is reality!)"

Since this is a public site, the "particular class" is presumably any history class in the category identified on the site's home page:

Social Studies help for 11th grade American History and 12th grade Economics and AP Government.

What isn't so clear is how the inclusion of so many inaccuracies could be dismissed as mere "tweeking," or how - in this case - the "tweeking" could possibly serve to "teach a larger point" - other than giving the students who read it, and the teachers who use it, a seriously distorted view of the facts concerning the Scopes Trial.

UPDATE 2008:

  1. As of March 8th, 2008, the misinformation above is still online.
  2. It has, however, changed its address.  The URL for this page is now
  3. Moreover, the site also appears to have been left to stagnate since "2/14/06"

An Error in Times Breeds...

Of course the errors and myths surrounding the Scopes Trial aren't only a recent phenomenon - they started right back at the time of the trial.  The issue of TIME magazine for August 3rd, 1925, for example, in an article entitled The Great Trial, informed its readers that:

"Judge Raulston, having denied the defense an injunction against Teacher Scopes' indictment on the ground that the state anti-Evolution law was quite unconstitutional, and having further refused to admit scientific evidence (save as affidavits in the record to instruct higher courts) by which the defense would have sought to disprove Scopes' misdemeanor through 'reconciling' the Biblical with the scientific account of creation, there remained to the trial nothing but the bald testimony of two schoolboys that Scopes had 'taught Evolution'."
(Accessible online, at the time of writing (April 14, 2006) at:,10987,1090585,00.html?internalid=ACA)

Just how. or why, the (unnamed) writer of the article would make such a basic mistake less than two weeks after the trial ended defies explanation.  Yet "mistake" is the kindest interpretation we can put on this piece of misinformation, for in reality:

  1. The prosecution called four witnesses, not two;
  2. Whilst the evidence of the two students was barely sufficient to prove the point, the evidence of the other two witnesses was far more significant:
  3. Before the first student (Harry Morgan) gave evidence School Superintendant Walter White took the stand.  Included in his testimony was the statement that Scopes had admitted to teaching evolution;
  4. After the second student, Harry Shelton had given evidence, Frank Robinson, drug store owner and Chairman of the School Board took the stand.  Robinson's testimony included details of the text book Civic Biology, used at the High School, plus Robinson's firsthand account, on the witness stand, of the scene at the drug store when the ACLU's offer was originally discussed:
    "Scopes said that any teacher in the state who was teaching Hunter's Biology was violating the law; that science teachers could not teach Hunter's Biology without violating the law. ... Dr. Rappelyea ... [asked] if he had taught this in regard to evolution, since this law was passed.  He said: yes, I reviewed the book."

More Record Holders

One of the most outlandish descriptions of the Scopes Trial - from a respected publishing house and a supposedly authoritative source - can be found in a book entitled Tracking Fossil Man (1970), written by Sharon S. and Thomas W. McKern.  Thomas W. McKern was Dr. Thomas McKern, Professor of Anthropology at the University of Kansas when the book was written and published, and editor of Readings in Physical Anthropology.  Sharon McKern was Dr. McKern's wife, a freelance writer and a consultant on osteological identification for the University of Kansas.  Fairly impressive credentials, you might think, and surely two such academically-oriented authors would be able to get their facts right on such a well-documented subject.
But you'd be wrong.  Very wrong.

Firstly, the McKerns pull off an amazing piece of time warping in which Darwin appears to have presented his ideas to the world in the early 20th century instead of just over halfway through the 19th century:

"American religious leaders were horrified by Darwin's revolutionary ideas.  Conservative Protestants, spurred on by the purest of religious motives, paused in their fight against 'demon rum' to deal with this new menace from abroad.  Aimee McPherson, preaching on the West Coast, presided at torch-lit rallies where 'monkey teachers' were hanged in effigy."
(Tracking Fossil Man, pages 4-5. Italics added for emphasis.)

This "new" menace?
Darwin's Origin of Species was first published in 1859.  Aimee Semple McPherson wasn't even born until 1890, eight years after Darwin's death!

The explanation of how Scopes allegedly violated the Butler Act is only exceeded in it's bizarre inaccuracy by the Dr. John D. Morris version (which we'll come to a little later):

"In 1925, a Dayton, Tennessee, high school senior asked his physics teacher about evolution.  The teacher, John Thomas Scopes, recklessly explained the theory in a few brief sentences and found himself in jail for his trouble, quickly indicted for unlawfully having taught evolutionary theory."
(Tracking Fossil Man, page 5. Italics added for emphasis.)

The mind boggles at comprehensive nature of the errors packed into those two sentences!

  1. Scopes was indeed a part time physics teacher, and maths teacher, and chemistry teacher, and football coach, and occasional substitute teacher.  But why on earth would any student ask his or her physics teacher about evolution?  Isn't that a question for the biology teacher?
    In reality no student "asked ... about evolution" - Scopes was substituting for the usual biology teacher at the time he supposedly broke the law.
    And most important of all, after the trial Scopes denied ever teaching evolution - so the story is mythical in every respect.
  2. Far from acting "recklessly", according to the scenario worked out by the Drug Store Conspirators Scopes was using the standard biology textbook for state schools in Tennessee - Hunter's Civic Biology - when the alleged misdemeanour occurred.
  3. The implication that Scopes was arrested, charged and indicted "quickly" is absolutely ludicrous.  He allegedly broke the law on April 24th, but wasn't arrested and charged until May 7th.  It was another 2 days (May 9th) before Scopes went before a preliminary hearing which upheld the charge and bound him over on a $1,000 bond.
    Likewise the indictment was not confirmed until May 25th, when Judge John Raulston called a specially convened sitting of the Dayton grand jury (which would not otherwise have been due until August) in order to get things moving and fend off the threat that Chattanooga might provide the venue for a test case.  An indictment was handed down, and Raulston ordered that the Rhea County court be convened on July 10th to hear the case.
  4. By the same token, Scopes categorically did not "[find] himself in jail" at any time in the proceedings.  After George Rappelyea, with Scopes' agreement, swore out a complaint, Scopes was "arrested" and charged with having taught the theory of evolution on April 24th.  He was released immediately.
    From then on Scopes remained at liberty, even during the trial, except for the times when he was actually appearing in court.

And that's not the end of it by any means.  The McKerns continue with a string of errors, the next of which completely misrepresents the reason why the "Monkey Trial" took place:

"For the anti-evolutionists (mainly good-intentioned Christians of various denominations who believed that Darwinian theory contradicted the word of God as related in the Holy Scriptures), the Scopes trial seemed an excellent opportunity to crush, once and for all, the evolutionary forces."
(Tracking Fossil Man, page 5.)

Who on earth are the McKerns referring to?
The ACLU wanted a case to establish, as they saw it, the unconstitutional nature of a ban on the teaching of evolutionist theory
The "Drugstore Conspirators" of Dayton wanted to bring the trial to their town to garner publicity and, they hoped, regenerate the town's declining fortunes
The prosecution team wanted to try the case on the specific and very limited question of whether or not Scopes had violated the Butler Act
So who's left?
Only Clarence Darrow who, in complete contradiction of the McKern's assertion, wanted to use the trial to "crush, once and for all," the anti-evolutionary forces!

Next the McKerns inform us that:

"[The anti-evolutionists] named, as commander-in chief for the prosecution, no less fervent a champion than William Jennings Bryan, perhaps the nation's greatest orator."
(Tracking Fossil Man, page 5. Italics added for emphasis.)

Wrong.  Bryan offered his services to the prosecution team, and he and his son, William Jennings Bryan Jnr. were accepted as assistant prosecutors.

"Throughout a long, hot July, these men argued the case under the most extraordinary circumstances ..."
(Tracking Fossil Man, page 5. Italics added for emphasis.)

Wrong.  The trial started on the morning of July 10th, and ended at lunchtime on July 21st.  That's just 12 days, or 8 if you ignore the two weekends, out of the traditional 31 days in the month of July.

"... Darrow, unable to get his prepared scientific evidence before the court, announced that he would call Bryan as a defense witness ..."
(Tracking Fossil Man, page 6. Italics added for emphasis.)

Wrong and wrong.  The "scientific evidence" was indeed placed before the court (though not before the jury), but almost entirely in the form of affidavits.  And it was Arthur Hays, not Darrow, who requested that Bryan be called as a witness by the Defense, and he did it on the same day that the "expert testimony" had been presented to the court.  In fact the McKerns' account is taken almost word for word from the script of Inherit the Wind on this point.

"Throughout the afternoon, and again the following morning, Darrow goaded his opponent, hoping to entangle him in a trap of logic."
(Tracking Fossil Man, page 6. Italics added for emphasis.)

Wrong again.  Darrow's questioning took place on the afternoon of July 20th only. and the session lasted only two hours, or thereabouts.  It's quite probable that both men would have liked to continue, but on the morning of the 21st, the last day of the trial, Judge Raulston announced that he believed he'd been wrong in allowing Bryan to be called as a witness, and that the questions put by Darrow were irrelevant to the question of "whether or not Mr. Scopes had taught that man descended from a lower order of animal."  He then gave an instruction that the entire session should be "expunged" from the court record.

The next three fragments form a single, continuous sequence in the McKern's book:

"Bryan ... [r]eluctantly admitting under oath ..."
(Tracking Fossil Man, page 6. Italics added for emphasis.)

Wrong.  According to the court transcript:

  The Court - Do you want Mr. Bryan sworn?
  Mr. Darrow - No.
  Mr. Bryan - I can make affirmation; I can say "So help me God, I will tell the truth."
  Mr. Darrow - No, I take it you will tell the truth.


"Bryan ... [r]eluctantly admitting ... that some events in Biblical history must be taken as fable, he insisted nevertheless upon a literal acceptance of other events. ..."
(Tracking Fossil Man, page 6.)

Wrong.  Bryan did not "reluctantly admit" anything, so far as we can tell from the trial transcript.  The following exchange took place, near the start of the confrontation between Bryan and Darrow:

  Q [Darrow] - Do you claim that everything in the Bible should be literally interpreted?
  A [Bryan] - I believe everything in the Bible should be accepted as it is given there; some of the Bible is given illustratively.  For instance: "Ye are the salt of the earth." I would not insist that man was actually salt, or that he had flesh of salt, but it is used in the sense of salt as saving God's people.

In other words, Bryan was a "fundamentalist" but not the rigid "literalist" that Darrow (and the McKerns) were trying to suggest.

" ... [Bryan] retreated again and again from Darrow's questions, taking refuge in his faith.
'The Bible states it,' he'd reply. 'It must be so.' "
(Tracking Fossil Man, pages 6-7.)

Wrong, yet again.  Not once did Bryan say the words which the McKerns present as though it were a direct quote.  What he did say, in various ways throughout the confrontation, went something like this:

  Q [Darrow] - Do you believe Joshua made the sun stand still?
  A [Bryan] - I believe what the Bible says. ...

This was after Bryan had explained his views on whether the Bible should be taken literally in all respects, and that looks, to me, like a straightforward answer to the question rather than any kind of "retreat".

It would be heartening to think that this travesty by the McKerns was a one-off event.  Unhappily it isn't.  Their book may contain the highest number of errors in the smallest space, but it this tendency to settle for misinformation rather than accuracy really does seem to be the general rule, as far as the Scopes trial is concerned.

Driving Strong Men Mad

Take this heading from the home page of the University of Virginia's Scope's Trial/Inherit the Wind website:

The Scopes 'Monkey Trial' - July 10, 1925 - July 25, 1925

In fact the Scopes Trial ended on Tuesday, July 21st, not on Saturday, July 25th, and it is difficult to imagine how the people who created these pages could have overlooked such a basic mistake (one of several errors on the site).

Having said that, the Virginia site does appear to be the result of a student project, an excuse which certainly cannot be extended to subject of a radio interview in March 1999.
The interviewee is Ron Eades, a law professor from the University of Louisville in Kentucky, the interviewer is Susanna Lobez, an Australian barrister, and the interview was broadcast on ABC Radio National in Australia (the complete transcript is available online at  The incorrect statements are in italics:

Q - "Why was Scopes arrested and prosecuted?"
A - "... The people of Deighton [sic], Tennessee, some of the merchants and city leaders ... talked to a local high school teacher and football coach and he agreed he would teach a little evolution and get himself arrested ..."
(Wrong - Scopes agreed to stand trial for something he had, allegedly, already done.)

Q - "So what makes the trial so significant then?"
A - "Well, I think the thing that makes it significant is at the time it was tried, it became the trial of the century. ... The American Civil Liberties Union hired Clarence Darrow ... The State of Tennessee hired William Jennings Bryant [sic] to represent the State of Tennessee as the prosecution."
(Wrong, wrong and wrong again.  Both men volunteered their services.  Moreover, whilst Darrow certainly dominated the defense team, local lawyer John Neal was technically the chief counsel for the defense.  Likewise Attorney-General Tom Srewart lead the prosecution, and Bryan was an assistant prosecutor.)
And anyway, how does Eades' answer explain why the trial was "significant"?

Q - "How long did the trial go on?"
A - "Well, the trial only lasted a couple of days."
(Wrong - the trial ran over twelve days, including two weekends - so 8 days of court activity.)

Q - "What happened as a result of that appeal?"
A - "... There was a statute that required that all fines be set by the jury, and so the Tennessee Supreme Court reversed the case on a minor technicality and held that [Scopes] was not guilty based upon the fact that the wrong procedure was used. ... It would not be until the 1950s that the United States Supreme Court would review a similar statute from Arkansas and finally declare such prohibitions were unconstitutional."
(Wrong, wrong and wrong - again.  The statute in question said that all fines over $50 should be set by the jury.  The Tennessee Supreme Court did reverse the judgement, because Judge Raulston had set the amount of the fine - but they did NOT find Scopes "not guilty".  And the Arkansas decision came in November, 1968.)

What Can Happen If You Don't Check Your Sources

Coming closer to home, how about these comments in an online article by Dr Charles Frost, Director of the Department of Social Work at the Middle Tennessee State University (available online at  Errors are again shown in italics:

"George Rappelyea, a thirty one year old mining engineer, was talking to his friend Thomas Scopes, a twenty-four-year-old high school science teacher, at Robinson's drug store on the main street of Dayton, Tennessee.  The conversation turned to the new anti-evolution law, whereupon Rappelyea suggested that Scopes teach the forbidden subject to his biology class, thereby securing for Dayton the honor of being the site of the inevitable test case."

Sorry, Professor Frost, Scopes was primarily (according to Scopes himself) a sports coach who also taught some algebra, chemistry and physics - but not biology.  And the conversation didn't "turn" to the subject of the anti-evolution law - Rappelyea specifically asked Scopes to come to the drugstore in order to find out if Scopes would be willing to stand trial.  And this was in regard to a lesson or lessons that Scopes had allegedly already taught (remember the charge specified April 24th).  There was no question of Scopes going off and teaching evolution to justify his prosecution after the conversation had taken place.  And finally, since Scopes wasn't a biology teacher, he obviously didn't have a biology class.  The class Scopes had allegedly taught about evolution was one normally supervised by the school's Principal.  Scopes merely substituted for a few days whilst the Principal was absent due to a bout of illness.

In fact Scopes had graduated from the University of Kentucky immediately before taking the job in Dayton - with a B.A. (Batchelor of Arts) degree, majoring in law.  He had attended an eclectic mix of courses including:

"... educational psychology, philosophy, law, sociology, geology and even mathematics and zoology ..."
(Center of the Storm, Scopes and Presley, 1967.  Holt, Rinehart and Winston, New York.
page 29)

It is not clear, from his own account, whether Scopes took any classes that actually dealt with evolution - on the zoology course, for example.
He does, however tell us that he finally majored in law, but only because, as he entered his senior year at university:

"... it became clear that law was the only subject in which I had enough hours to enable me to complete a degree in one year ..." (Center of the Storm, Scopes and Presley, op. cit.
page 30)

A little later in this somewhat confused description, Dr Frost states that:

"Arthur Garfield Hays and Dudley Field Malone were sent by the ACLU to Dayton"

On the contrary, as we shall see in Part 4, whilst Hays was indeed working for the ACLU, Malone was a volunteer, and a very unwelcome volunteer at that.  Indeed, senior officers of the ACLU made strenuous efforts to get Malone to stay in New York, but to no avail.

Not surprisingly, perhaps, Dr Frost also trips up when it comes to that famous confrontation between Bryan and Darrow.
(I say "not surprisingly", because the professor is, in the main, simply repeating an account based on some of the most common misconceptions regarding the Scopes Trial.  This next blooper is, however, a new one on me.)
According to Frost:

"Toward the end of the trial, after Bryan had suggested himself as an expert witness, Judge Raulston allowed Darrow to cross-examine Bryan on Bryan's qualifications."

Bryan "suggested himself as an expert witness"?  No, Dr. Frost, he most certainly did not. Why would he do such a thing when it was the Prosecution team, his own team, who saw no need for expert witnesses?
And the comment that Darrow was "cross-examining" Bryan is a trifle ambiguous for anyone not fully acquainted with the trial.

Bryan was never called to give testimony on behalf of the prosecution, for the reason just given.  The whole idea of calling Bryan as a witness was a manoeuvre cooked up by Darrow over the course of the preceding weekend.  It was clearly a major surprise to everyone in the courtroom, except the defense lawyers, when Arthur Garfield Hays called Bryan to the stand on that final afternoon.  It is true, however, that the prosection lawyers made several protests to the judge, during the Bryan-Darrow confrontation, that Darrow was "cross-examining" the witness.  That is to say, they accused Darrow of treating Bryan as though he were a prosecution witness.
Darrow, in reply, claimed that Bryan was a "hostile witness" and that he was therefore entitled to cross-examine him.

Equally predictably, Dr Frost's comment on the result of the appeal to the Tennessee Supreme Court is equally ambiguous:

"The Tennessee Supreme Court reversed the conviction on technicalities."

That phrase "reversed the conviction" can be misleading for anyone not familiar with legal jargon, and has led a number of commentators to claim that the Tennessee Supreme Court found Scopes "Not Guilty".
It is true, of course that the Supreme Court reversed the judge's decision, but this was not the same as finding Scopes innocent.  Rather they reset the situation as though the trial had never taken place.  This meant that Scopes could have been tried all over again, on precisely the same charge - though for once the lawyers, at the suggestion of the Supreme Court, decided it was better to let sleeping dogs lie.  (For more details see Part 10:  The Appeal.)
Also there was, of course, only one technicality, not several.  The jury alone should have set the amount of the fine.

But let's not be too critical of poor Professor Frost.  After all, he was, he tells me, merely quoting from the work of the late Irving Younger.
The Professional Education Group, Inc. is just one of the many organisations who still market audio and video tapes by Dr. Younger, and on one occasion he edited a 56 page booklet of Clarence Darrow's Cross-Examination of William Jennings Bryan in Tennessee vs. John Thomas Scopes for this company.  According to the The Professional Education Group, Inc. website, Younger was a Professor of Law at the University of Minnesota Law School at Minneapolis, and a partner with the prestigious Washington D.C. law firm of Williams & Connolly.  Professor Frost must surely be forgiven for not realising that such a well-established figure could make such a pig's ear of his account of these particular events.

Another biographer, Robert Cherney (Professor of History at San Francisco State University), seems to be another person who fails to get even basic details correct.  Thus, in his book A Righteous Cause: The Life of William Jennings Bryan, we find the following errors in single paragraph:

  • Cherny claims that "attorneys for the prosecution" invited Bryan to join the prosecution team
  • He then misses the first word off the WCFA's name, calling them "the Christian Fundamentals Association"
  • And far more significantly, he writes:
    "By April 5, several leading citizens of Dayton convinced John Scopes to stand as defendent,"

In fact only one person from the prosecution team wrote to Bryan - Sue Hicks - and that was unofficial since Hicks himself was only a volunteer member of the team.  Apart from which Bryan had already agreed to represent the interests of the WCFA at the trial, if the official prosecutor (Tom Stewart) agreed.

We might also note that the whole discussion regarding Scopes' part in the "drugstore conspiracy" was sewn up in a single discussion lasting less than half an hour (see The Drugstore Conspiracy for details).  We might note that this discussion did not take place until May 4, 1925.  And we might note that Scopes was charged with a crime he allegedly committed on April 24, 1925 - a whole 19 days after Cherny says Scopes had already agreed to stand trial.

All in all one is forced to wonder what the heck a professor of history, who is presumably very well aware of the need for meticulous accuracy in his writing, was using as his source material?

In the Back Seat of a Car???

Nor do creationists exactly cover themselves in glory.  The website of the Institute for Creation Research, for example, includes an article entitled Did the Evolutionists Present a Good Case at the Scopes Trial?, by the ICR President, John D. Morris, Ph.D.  In its latter stages the article makes some useful and relevant comments about the trial, but in the first two paragraphs we find these startlingly inaccurate claims:

"John Scopes, on trial for teaching evolution (contrary to Tennessee law), didn't actually do so until after the charges had been filed.  Then he did so in the back seat of a car, just to be sure he had committed the proper crime.
The newly formed ACLU, supposedly defending Scopes, had in reality recruited him and set the whole thing up."

Sorry, Dr Morris, but this is pure baloney!
If Scopes ever taught evolution, which now seems very doubtful, (see
Part 11), he did it a few weeks before he was charged with breaking the law in question, apparently during a period when the school principal was absent due to illness (on May 7th he was charged with having committed an offence on April 24th).
As to teaching evolution in the back of a car, this part of the story is a misrepresentation of a story I have seen in a couple of places, but have been unable to either verify or disprove with any confidence.
Scopes was charged with teaching evolution in a public school whilst fulfilling his duties as a state employee.  So there is no way that teaching evolution "in the back seat of a car" would come within the remit of the the Butler Act and ensure that "he had committed the proper crime".

There is a story, however, that on the day of the first Grand Jury hearing (May 25, 1925), Scopes coached an unspecified number of his students in the back of a taxi (presumably outside the courthouse?), prior to the hearing, in order to ensure that their testimony would help to get him indicted.
It seems like someone at the ICR got hold of a garbled version of the story and wrote it up or passed it on without bothering to check their facts.  Because whether the story is true or not, this certainly wasn't the teaching episode for which John Scopes was arrested and charged.

Nor was Scopes "recruited" by the ACLU, at least not directly.  Scopes was actually talked into putting himself up for trial by a mining engineer called George Rappelyea.  The ACLU were certainly looking for the opportunity to stage a test case, but it wasn't they who recruited Scopes, and once he had agreed to be charged he frequently and diametrically opposed the ACLU's wishes on how the trial should be handled.
All of these points are dealt with in detail on this website.

Playing With Words

The next example of misrepresentation could be found, at the time of writing, on a website run by Professor Douglas Linder of the University of Missouri-Kansas City Law School.  Here is the offending passage, I will compare the information therein with the contents of the trial transcript and leave you to decide whether my criticism is justified:

"After initially contending that "everything in the Bible should be accepted as it is given there," Bryan finally concedes that the words of the Bible should not always be taken literally."

So what should we understand by the phrase "finally concedes"?
Given that Darrow's questioning of Bryan is said to have lasted for about two hours, if Bryan said "I believe everything in the Bible should be accepted as it is given there" about four or five minutes after the session started, how long do you imagine it was before he said "...some parts of the Bible are given illustratively."  In other words, that "the Bible should not always be taken literally," as Professor Linder puts it?
An hour and a half?  No.
An hour?  No.
Half an hour?  No.
Fifteen minutes?  No.
Five minutes?  No, still far too long!
To repeat the quote featured in the section on the McKerns, here's how long it really took Bryan to "finally [concede]" the question of the literal interpretation of the Bible - about as long as it takes to draw breath:

Darrow - Do you claim that everything in the Bible should be literally interpreted?
Bryan - I believe that everything in the Bible should be accepted as it is given there; some of the Bible is given illustratively.  For instance: "Ye are the salt of the earth."  I would not insist that man was actually salt, or that he had flesh of salt, but it is used in the sense of salt as saving God's people.
(Italics added for emphasis)

That's it.  That's just how long it took Bryan to make that "concession," as Linder chooses to call it.
Other than in the sense that it was the "final" part of a single statement there is no basis that I can see for the statement that Bryan "finally concedes" this point, and Linder's choice of phrasing looks to me like a completely unfounded attempt to justify the claim that Darrow manouevred Bryan into making statements he didn't want to make.
The next part of the quote continues in the same strain:

"In response to Darrow's relentless questions as to whether the six days of creation, as described in Genesis, were twenty-four hour days, Bryan says 'My impression is that they were periods.'"
(At the time of writing, July 23rd, 2005, these two quotes appear as consecutive sentences on this page:

This time the question is: "How many questions do you think would qualify as 'relentless questions'?
Dozens?  No.
Tens?  No.
Half a dozen?  No.
How about two questions?  No, still one too many.
Here's what happened according to the trial transcript:

Darrow - Would you say that the earth was only 4,000 years old?
Bryan - Oh, no; I think it is much older than that.
Darrow - How much?
Bryan - I couldn't say.
Darrow - Do you say whether the Bible itself says it is older than that?
Bryan - I don't think the Bible says itself whether it is older or not.
Darrow - Do you think the earth was made in six days?
Bryan - Not six days of twenty-four hours.

This time the misrepresentation is of an altogether greater order of subtlty.
The exact words Professor Linder quotes - "My impression is that they were periods" - really does come after Darrow has asked a number of questions about the 'days of creation.'  The misrepresentation comes in Linder's omission of the fact that Bryan answered the question openly, honestly and above all immediately, the first time it was put to him earlier in the session.  In fact he actually states that he does not think the "days" were 24 hour days before Darrow gets a chance to ask him!  He might even have gone on to give his more detailed answer when the question was first asked had not Tom Stewart chosen that moment to intervene with an objection to Darrow's line of questioning.

The overall point, I believe, is that Darrow's interrogation of Bryan - despite the pro-Darrow reporting in the Press - was a pretty poor performance, and can only be made to look like the accomplished performance of "America's greatest trial lawyer" if it is carefully edited to create that impression.
(For a more detailed description of the confrontation see
Part 9:   Bryan and Darrow)

Guess Again

Perhaps the most common error is one we've already touched on - the widespread, yet erroneous, assumption that William Jennings Bryan, being a public figure of national renown, was "the" prosecutor, or chief prosecutor, at the Scopes trial.  To give just two more examples, the online facility The Great American History Fact-Finder run by publishers Houghton Mifflin, a company which produces educational textbooks and software, states that:

"Bryan was the prosecuting attorney at the Scopes trial in 1925"

Likewise WordNet (v.1.7.1 (2001)), owned by Princeton University, makes the even more direct claim that:

"Scopes was prosecuted by William Jennings Bryan"

And perhaps most remarkably, this from Dr R.M. Cornelius, Professor Emeritus of Englisgh at Bryan College, Dayton, who acted as a consultant for the History Channel film-makers on a program about the Scopes Trial in the series "Ten Days that Unexpectedly Changed America."  In 2006, Dr Cornelius received "an Award of Merit from the American Association for State and Local History (AASLH) in recognition of his 40 years of educating the public about the Scopes Evolution Trial." (see
And yet Dr Cornelius is just one more academic who perpetuates the Bryan as chief prosecutor myth:

"The prosecution was headed by William Jennings Bryan"

Now Bryan was certainly a member of the prosecution team, but he was not the prosecutor-in-chief, he did not head the prosecution team, he did not lead it, he was not "the" prosecuting attorney, and he had nothing to do with instigating the prosecution of Scopes.
In fact Bryan was from out of State and in any case had not been active as a lawyer for something like 30 years!  Why on earth would the Tennessee authorities select him to lead the prosecution?
The truth of the matter is that the prosecution team was lead by Thomas A. "Tom" Stewart, Attorney-General for the 18th judicial district.  And unlike the defense team, there was never any question as to who was really in charge.

Nor did Bryan, who was actually perfectly happy to see evolution discussed in schools - so long as it was presented as a theory rather than as a fact - have anything to do with initiating the prosecution.
In reality, the original "complaint" against Scopes was signed by George Rappelyea.  When the case came before the Dayton grand jury on May 25th, however, the role of plaintiff passed to Walter White, the county superintendent for schools (and another of the "drug store conspirators").

Even Britannica

With all that in mind, it is almost touching to note that this is one subject where even that most prestigious font of all wisdom - the Encyclopaedia Britannica - can't get it's facts right.

According to its online article about the Scopes Trial (at, and repeated on the CD-ROM version of the encyclopaedia:

"William Jennings Bryan ... led for the prosecution"
Wrong.  Bryan was only an assistant prosecutor.

"On appeal, the state supreme court ... acquitted Scopes ..."
Wrong again.  Scopes was never acquitted.

"... the state supreme court ... acquitted Scopes on the technicality that he had been fined excessively."
I don't think so!  Judge Raulston fined Scopes the minimum allowed under the law.  The technicality was that the jury should have set the amount of the fine.

By Act of Congress

And lastly, at the time of writing (April 3rd, 2005) it appears that even the Biographical Directory of the United States Congress, 1774-Present has suffered the "Scopes Trial curse."  For on the (web) page devoted to "BRYAN, William Jennings, (1860 - 1925)" (see we find the statement that Bryan:

"... died while attending court in Dayton, Tenn., July 26, 1925 ..."

The date of Bryan's death is correct, but July 26th was, of course, the Sunday following Tuesday, July 21st, the day on which the Scopes trial actually ended.
But the point of mentioning this at all is not that someone made a mistake - these things happen - but the nature of the mistake.  For the simple fact is that the account in the Biographical Directory seems, like so much of the misinformation surrounding the trial, to have been taken from the script of Inherit the Wind - where Matthew Harrison Brady does indeed collapse and die on the courtroom floor - rather than from any genuine, reliable historical source.

The Scopes "Monkey" Trial Site Map

A brief description of the Scopes Trial - the original proceedings, the effective fictionalising of the event in F.L. Allen's book Only Yesterday, and the confusion surrounding the play Inherit the Wind.  Also a brief biography of the author and a short list of relevant resources used during the building of this site.

Part 1: Summary
A short history of the events leading up to the Scopes Trial, the trial itself, and what happened afterwards.  Includes lists of the lawyers, witnesses, jurors, etc. involved in the Scopes Trial.  Explains why it was called the "Monkey" trial.

Part 2: Inherit the Wind
Looks at the real story behind the writing of the play Inherit the Wind, and some of the key differences between the play and the actual trial.  Explains where the title came from, and what it signifies.

Part 3: A Cult of Misinformation
The Scopes Trial has been the subject of a mountain of misinformation from the time of the trial through to the present day.  The members of this "cult" include not just journalists and authors but also lawyers, university professors, the Encyclopaedia Britannica and even the Library of Congress.  This section shows why the real life events are so widely misunderstood today.

Part 4: How it Began
Discusses the Butler Act (the basis for the charge against John Scopes), the action of the ACLU, the "Drugstore Conspiracy" which led to the trial being staged in Dayton, and how the two sets of lawyers were selected - or in some cases selected themselves.  This section includes the names of all of the lawyers on both sides.

Part 5: The Experts - and Others
Details of the expert witnesses due to give evidence for the defense - and two potential witnesses, one of whom did make an appearance (Piltdown Man), and one who didn't (Nebraska Man).

Part 6: The Expert Evidence
Arthur Hays claimed that the expert witnesses would deal only in "facts."  This section discusses specific items of "expert testimony" in the light of that claim and subsequent discoveries.

Part 7: Hunter's Civic Biology
Details of the true nature of the contents of Hunter's textbook A Civic Biology.

Part 8: The Trial - Part 1     In preparation
A timeline of the main events of the trial on a day-by-day basis.

Part 9: The Trial - Part 2
A detailed evaluation of the confrontation between Darrow and Bryan on the afternoon of day 7, with numerous quotes from the trial transcript and elsewhere.

Part 10: The Appeal
Many people know that the Tennessee Supreme Court overturned the original result of the trial, but why?  Was John Scopes found "not guilty"?  What reasons did the Supreme Court give for their decision?
And what the heck is a nolle prosequi anyway?

Part 11: Was Scopes Guilty?
Another remarkable feature of the Scopes Trial was the number of lies involved - the biggest of which centers on the likelihood that the defense lawyers deliberately concealed the fact that Scopes was genuinely "not guilty."

Part 12: 80 Years of Evolution and Species
(Under Construction.  Additional material will be added.  Existing material may be subject to further editing.)
In Part 6 we looked at the kind of "evidence" offered by the expert witnesses.  In this section we look specifically at the meaning of terms such as "evolution" and "species" in 1925 and 2006.

Part 13: The Aftermath
This section describes what happened to the teaching of evolutionary theory in American schools after the trial; and what Americans believe about the teaching of evolutionism and creationism today.
Also, the shock results of a poll in the UK.

Part 14: Clarence Darrow - Attorney for the Damned?
Whilst the ACLU triggered the Scopes Trial, and the "drugstore conspirators" brought it to Dayton, the guiding force behind the events during the trial itself was Clarence Darrow.  This section looks at what motivated Darrow to essentially hi-jack the ACLU campaign and use it for his own ends.

Part 15: The Significance of the Scopes Trial
This section considers some of the many clashes in American society in the 1920s and considers whether they were genuine clashes, and if they were, what influence the Scopes Trial had an on any of them.
It also reveals what will be, for many people, surprising new information about the role of the University of Chicago in American culture at that time discovered by Professor of the History of Science, Edward Davis.

Part 16: The Play, the Movie and the Trial
(Under Construction.  Additional material will be added.  Existing material may be subject to further editing.)
A detailed examination of the differences between the play and first film version of Inherit the Wind, and the real life Scopes Trial.

Part 20: Links and Resources
A list of websites and books related to the Scopes Trial, including the trial transcript and the script of Inherit the Wind.

You can contact the author of this web site at: