The Scopes Monkey Trial
4:   How it All Began

On this page:

The Butler Did It!

... Bryan Didn't

The Drug Store Conspiracy

Choosing Sides

For the Defense

For the Prosecution



Myth:   The Butler Act was a deliberate attack on intellectual freedom.

The Butler Did It!

The foundations for the Scopes trial were formally laid on March 21st, 1925, when the Governor of Tennessee (Austin Peay) put his signature to a piece of state legislation entitled the Butler Act:

The Butler Act


House Bill No. 185
(By Mr. Butler)

AN ACT prohibiting the teaching of the Evolution theory in all the Universities, Normals and all other public schools of Tennessee, which are supported in whole or in part by the public school funds of the State, and to provide penalties for the violations thereof.

Section 1.  Be it enacted by the General Assembly of the State of Tennessee, That it shall be unlawful for any teacher in any the Universities, Normals and all other public schools of the State which are supported in whole or in part by the public school funds of the State, to teach any theory that denies the story of the Divine Creation of man as taught in the Bible, and to teach instead that man has descended from a lower order of animals.

Section 2.  Be it further enacted, That any teacher found guilty of the violation of this Act, shall be guilty of a misdemeanor and upon conviction, shall be fined not less than One Hundred Dollars nor more than than Five Hundred Dollars for each offense.

Section 3.  Be it further enacted, That this Act take effect from and after its passage, the public welfare requiring it.

Passed March 13,1925
W.F. Barry, Speaker of the House of Representatives
L.D. Hill, Speaker of the Senate
Approved March 21, 1925
Austin Peay, Governor.

(Normals were teacher training colleges.)

It may seem, in retrospect, that the Butler Act was a remarkably naive piece of legislation - even in 1925.  We should remember, though, that it was primarily intended to defend Christian beliefs rather than as an attack on science.  According to Governor Peay: "Nobody believes that it is going to be an active statute."  And William Jennings Bryan, who was at the forefront of the fundamentalist crusade over the teaching of evolution in schools, made it abundantly clear that he had no personal desire to banish evolution from the classroom - as long as it was presented as a theory and not as a fact.

It is also worth noting that John Washington Butler, the author of the Act, was far from being a narrow-minded backwoods hick.  He was, in fact, a fairly prosperous tobacco farmer who opposed the teaching of evolution in public schools in accordance with the wishes of an overwhelming majority of those who had voted him into office in 1922 and again in 1924.  Butler himself claimed to have read Darwin's books - including On the Origin of Species - and was perfectly happy to have his two children read them as well.  Hardly the act of a bigot, you might think.

The Act passed through the two houses of the Tennessee legislature with massive majorities.  In the House of Representatives it sailed through on a vote of 75 'for' and only 5 'against'.  The Senate, after a great deal of public discussion and a spirited three hour debate, passed the Act by a majority of 24 votes to to 6.

In the weeks that followed the passing of the Butler Act, officers of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), subsequently backed by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), prepared to fight the new law.  From their point of view this was certainly not a lone event.  Rather it was part of a wide-ranging campaign to banish the teaching of evolutionist ideas from America's classrooms.  (A number of other states already had similar legislation in place or pending.)

Shortly after the Butler Act was ratified the ACLU released, through various Tennessee newspapers, a call for a local teacher, working within the public-funded school system, who would be prepared to go for trial for having violated the law.  The response to the advertisement was almost immediate, but it wasn't from a disaffected school teacher.  On the contrary, it was from a group of prominent Dayton citizens, led by the superintendent of the Sunday School at the local Methodist church.

... Bryan Didn't

It has often been claimed that William Jennings Bryan helped to draft the Butler Act, or at least persuaded Butler to putting the Act up for adoption by the Tennessee legislature as part of a wider ant-evolution crusade.  Not only is this untrue, however, it also misrepresents Bryyan's view on the teaching of evolution in schools.
For a more accurate picture of the situation we only need to look back to 1923, when Bryan did consult with the Florida legislature on the framing of a non-binding resolution, with no penalty attached, which spoke out against the teaching of evolution as a proven fact.

Contrary to the his fictional counterpart, Matthew Harrison Brady, Bryan was well-informed about science, at least as far as it related to evolution as it was understood in 1925.  And although he objected to the teaching that men were descended from some ape-like ancestor on the grounds that it undermined the more "uplifting" version of Man's origins, as described in Genesis, this was certainly not his whole case.
He also regarded the "science" behind evolutionism as being little more than guesswork - which at that time it certainly was (the description of the supposed ancestry of human beings, for example, was highly flawed) - and liable to encourage a brutalistic attitude in society that favoured the "survival of the fittest" attitude found in "social" Darwinism.  He also genuinely believed in the right of the people to determine what should be taught in the schools their taxes paid for.  As he told the West Virginia Legislature, also in 1923:

"The hand that writes the paycheck rukes the school."

Having said all that, Bryan had read Darwin's Origin of Species and The Descent of Man, and was able to quote from them - as he did during the trial.  He most certainly was not against the teaching of the sciences in general, nor even against the teaching of evolution in particular - so long as it was presented as a hypothesis.

Myth:   John Scopes was the unwilling victim of religious bigotry.

The Drug Store Conspiracy

The prime mover in the prosecution of John Scopes was George W. Rappelyea, ex-New Yorker, qualified mining engineer and manager of six coal and iron mines around Dayton owned by the Cumberland Coal Company.  Rappelyea was both a regular churchgoer and an evolutionist, but more importantly he was keen to promote the fortunes of his adopted home town.

It was George Rappelyea who first learned of the ACLU's plan to oppose the Butler Act - offering legal support for any teacher who was prepared to stand trial for teaching evolutionist ideas,  On May 5th, 1925 he gathered together some of the leading citizens of Dayton and put to them his plan for using a trial, and the attendant media attention, as a means of publicising Dayton.  Given that the population of the small mining town had nearly halved during the previous 30 years it hardly required a 'hard sell' approach.

The 'Drug Store Conspirators':   Seated: Hicks, Scopes, White, McKenzie,   Standing: Wilber, Haggard, Morgan, Rappelyea, Hicks and Robinson
The Drug Store Conspirators

The caption beneath this newspaper photograph read as follows:

"How it Started"
Principals of Scopes trial grouped around table in Robinson's Drug Store (specially posed)
Seated - H.E.Hicks, attorney; John T. Scopes; Walter White, Rhea County superintendent of schools; and
County Judge J.G. McKenzie,
Standing - B.M. Wilber, justice of the peace; W.C. Haggard, an attorney; W.E. Morgan; Dr George W.
Rappelyea, chemical engineer, who initiated prosecution of his friend to test the law; S.K. Hicks, attorney
and F.E. Robinson, chairman, Rhea County Board of Education

Having gained tacit agreement for his plan, Rappelyea then went on to recruit John Scopes as the 'sacrificial lamb'.  According to Scopes, Rappelyea arranged a meeting at Robinson's drug store where the conversation went something like this:

Rappelyea: John, we've been arguing and I said nobody could teach biology without teaching evolution
Scopes: (pulling a textbook from a shelf of books on sale in the store)   That's right
Rappelyea: You've been teaching 'em this book?
Scopes: So has every other teacher.  Evolution is explained in Hunter's Civic Biology*, and that's our textbook.
Rappelyea: Then you've been violating the law.  Would you be willing to stand for a test case?  Let's take this thing to court and test the legality of it.  I will swear out a warrant and have you arrested ... That will make a big sensation.  Why not bring a lot of doctors and preachers here?  Let's get H.G. Wells and a lot of big fellows.

(*   For more information on A Civic Biology see Part 7.)

After a certain amount of hesitation Scopes eventually agreed to the plan and Rappelyea sent a telegram to the ACLU to tell them that he'd found their man.  He also swore out a warrant against Scopes, who was actually arrested two days later, on May 7th, on the charge of having contravened the Butler Act.  He was immediately released on bail.
A preliminary hearing on May 10th bound Scopes over pending a Grand Jury hearing on May 25th.  The Grand Jury, who are well aware of the true purpose of the charge against Scopes, handed down an indictment and the trial date was set for July 10th.

Myth:  Clarence Darrow and Dudley Malone were engaged by the ACLU to lead the Defense team.

Choosing Sides

When the 'Drug Store Conspirators' first formed their plan, a number of local figures put themselves forward to act in the court proceedings - local attorneys Herbert and Sue Hicks and Wallace Haggard for the prosecution, and John Neal, (Dean of his own private law school in nearby Knoxville) and another local attorney, Judge John L. Godsey, for the defense.  The publicity surrounding the case quickly drew three-times presidential candidate and arch anti-evolutionist William Jennings Bryan to offer his services to the prosecution team.  This in turn induced leading Chicago attorney, and arch atheist Clarence Darrow to offer his services - pro bono - as defense counsel.  Which seems to have pleased Scopes no end, but not the ACLU.

John Godsey, in the meantime, came close to upsetting the whole applecart when, on June 13th he entered a motion with the court seeking to have the charge against Scopes quashed on the basis that the Butler Act was unconstitutional.  The Drug Store Conspirators, and their supporters, must have breathed a deep sigh of relief when the motion was turned down.

Darrow and Bryan pose for the photographers
Darrow and Bryan pose together for the photographers
(Body language experts will notice some interesting signals in this photo.  Although
Darrow is using his elbows to claim territory, and is giving Bryan "the cold shoulder",
the way he is hunched up, compared with Bryan's much more open. head-on stance,
suggests that, at that moment, Bryan was the more self-confident of the two.)

For the Defense

The announcement by Darrow, along with New York lawyers Dudley Malone and Bainbridge Colby, that they intended to offer their services to the defense team might have seemed like a godsend, to an outsider.  In reality, though, the ACLU didn't want Darrow or Malone anywhere near the defence team, either at the original trial or at the appeal.  But Darrow wasn't particularly concerned with what the ACLU wanted (as he explained in his autobiography, The Story of My Life, he was on a personal crusade against fundamentalists, and that was his sole object in offering his services).  Since the final choice was in the hands of the defendant, Scopes, the ACLU had to like it or back out of the whole affair.  They couldn't even refuse to pay Darrow and Malone's costs because both men had volunteered their services without charge.  (In Darrow's case it is interesting to note that despite his carefully nurtured reputation as the champion of the underdog, this was the one and only time in his professional career that he went so far as to waive his fee.)  Since they couldn't afford the kind of publicity which would have attended a climb down, the ACLU were forced to continue their support of Scopes, despite the presence of Darrow and Malone.

The reason behind the ACLU's thinking was that to suit their ends the trial must appear to be free of any religious, or anti-religious, bias.  On this basis the three leading ACLU figures connected with the case - Associate Director Forrest Bailey, Harvard Law Professor Felix Frankfurter and ACLU General Counsel Walter Nelles - would have preferred to use a true blue WASP (white, Anglo-Saxon Protestant), someone with an unsullied reputation in terms of both the law and religion.  Someone like John W. Davies or Charles Evans Hughes (both former presidential candidates); or Senator Thomas J. Walsh, who had led the investigation into the Teapot Dome Scandal; or Frank P. Walsh, co-Chairman of the War Labour Board during the First World War.

On May 28th, however, John Neal muddied the waters still further by simultaneously announcing that:

  • The defence team would seek to secure the services of John W. Davies (one of the ACLU's preferred candidates), and
  • John Scopes was entitled to choose whoever he liked to serve as his attorneys, and that both he (Neal) and the defendent (Scopes) "greatly desired" to avail themselves of the services of Darrow and Malone.

Not surprisingly, perhaps, Davis ignored the request by Neal, preferring instead to make the rather pointed announcement, on May 30th, that he wouldn't go to Dayton even if  he should be invited to do so.
The barely discreet manouevring continued through to June 6th, when Scopes and Neal travelled to New York to confer with ACLU officials.  Officially the main topic of discussion was trial tactics.  Unofficially Scopes was pressured to reject Darrow and Malone and accept a less controversial defence team.  Scopes, no doubt impressed by Darrow's defence of the child murderers Loeb and Leopold the previous year, remained deaf to all appeals, and on June 8th Forrest Bailey made a statement to the Press specifying that the defence team would consist of Darrow (chief counsel), assisted by Bainbridge Colby, John Neal, Dudley Malone, and another ACLU stalwart, Samuel Rosensohn.

Even then the matter wasn't finally settled.  First, the ACLU tried to tell Malone that he should remain in New York doing research rather than appearing in Dayton.  Malone pointed out that he had clerks to do whatever research was necessary and that he had every intention of joining the defence team in Dayton when the time came.
Colby and Rosensohn were a different matter, however.  Both men retired from the defence and were replaced by Arthur Garfield Hays, another ACLU lawyer and a keen advocate of the ACLU's brand of free speech (of which more will be said later).

The final lineup for the Defense included Clarence Darrow, Dudley Field Malone, John Neal, ACLU representative and defense team manager Arthur Garfield Hays, and local attorney Frank B. McElwee

The Key Members of the Defense Team: Darrow, Malone, Neal and Scopes

Key Members of the Defense Team
Left to right: Darrow, Malone, Neal and Scopes

For the Prosecution

The prosecution team had grown in a similarly haphazard but considerably less acrimonious fashion.

On May 13th, W.B. Riley and other leading members of the WFCA (World's Christian Fundamentals Association), who were meeting in Memphis at the time, sent Bryan a telegram asking him to represent them at the trial.  On the 14th, Sue Hicks, prompted by an enquiry from the Memphis Press regarding the WCFA approach to Bryan, eagerly sent off a letter of his own, in which he assured Bryan that: "We will consider it a great honor to have you with us in the prosecution."
Hicks needn't have worried.  By the time his letter arrived, Bryan had already made a public announcement saying that if the official prosecutor would accept him, he would indeed represent the interests of the WFCA at Scopes' trial.  This, in turn, is generally believed to have been what triggered the entrance of Clarence Darrow into the proceedings.  (Some commentators have suggested that it was actually journalist H.L. Mencken who first heard of Bryan's announcement and subsequently persuaded Darrow to get involved.  However another source claims that Mencken actually made the suggestion at a conference staged in Richmond, Virginia by the American Psychological Association, where Darrow was a speaker - before Bryan became involved - and Darrow dismissed the suggestion on the grounds that he had only just announced his retirement.)
It should be noted, here, that despite a welter of claims to the contrary, Bryan was accepted as one of several assistant prosecutors, and not as "the" prosecuting counsel.

As the 18th judicial district's attorney-general, the role of chief prosecutor fell to Tom Stewart, who presented the case to the grand jury (May 25th), and remained in charge of the prosecution team right through to, and including, Scopes' appeal to the Tennessee Supreme Court in 1926.
In addition to Bryan (and his son, William Jennings Bryan Jnr.), Stewart was assisted by four of the original "Drug Store Conspirators" - Herbert and Sue Hicks, Wallace Haggard and J. Gordon McKenzie - plus Ben McKenzie, Gordon's father and also a retired attorney-general.

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 list of books relevant to this subject, and a short biography of the author.

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 "Drug Store 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: Education After the Scopes Trial
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.

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 uncovered 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.

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