The Scopes Monkey Trial

Three Four Five Movies and a Play
(Doh!  And a Trial)

Note:   For anyone wishing to quote from this site for school, university, etc. projects, the material should be referenced using the appropriate "part" number(s) and "2nd (extended) edition, 2006"

Important Links:

When Hindsight Doesn't Have the Answers

Taking Liberties

About the Author

How did the trial get it's nickname?

Reading List

Site Map

For play script, movie script and court transcript click here


Myth:  The Scopes "Monkey" Trial, its outcome and its long-term effects are all well known and well understood.

When Hindsight Doesn't Have the Answers

Scopes Goes to Hollywood - Again

Some time ago Frederick Foote, the producer and co-writer of a new film that features the events in Dayton, Tennessee, in 1925, e-mailed me the following message:

Love your trial page.
An upcoming film to watch out for: "alleged."  It gets the story straight but not in a preachy way.
Your site was one of the things that prompted me to pursue a movie about the trial. Thanks!

Since then the film has won awards at several film festivals, including the "Best Actor" award at the Charleston Film Festival which went to Brian Dennehy, for his portrayal of Clarence Darrow.
I've now had a chance to see the film, following it's release on DVD, and I can give an assurance it isn't just another re-hash of Inherit the Wind.  Although the trial plays a central part in the film, the plot line also takes account of the factors that affected the way the trial was reported by the Press through the interaction between H.L. Mencken (Colm Meany) and a young reporter .

In 1925, the same year that Franz Kafka's novel The Trial was first published, this real life case was one of the most unusual trials ever seen in, and during its closing stages outside, a US courtroom.

  • Despite taking place in a small Tennessee town with a population of less than 2000, it attracted the involvement of a three-time Democrat candidate for the presidency of the United States of America, and a Chicago lawyer who, only months before, had successfully saved two brutal child killers from the death penalty - in what had been widely heralded as 'the Trial of the Century'.
  • Though it was apparently concerned with nothing more important than the routine activities of a high school football coach and part-time teacher, it became the first ever American trial to be broadcast live on national radio, and was the subject of tens of thousands of column inches in newspapers all around the world.
  • For the defendant, the outcome, at worst, was a fine of $500, yet thirty years later it was still so famous that it became the starting point for a hit stage play, a Hollywood film and two TV movies.

"It" was, of course, the trial of John Thomas Scopes (below left), better known to posterity as 'The Scopes Monkey Trial',
(For an overview of the trial see this Summary

Photo portrait of John T. Scopes

For an explanation of the nickname for the trial, see Why was it called the 'Monkey' trial?).

Out of all of the unusual features of the event, one stands out from all the rest.  As it said in the summary of a story on the web site, under the headline The Scopes Trial Revisited (accessed September 1999):

The passage of time has obscured one important result from the infamous Scopes "Monkey Trial": No one is sure who won.

A gross exaggeration?  A naive misunderstanding?  Not in this case.
As journalist Rachel Zoll explained, quoting Professor of History and Law, Edward J. Larson, author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning record of the trial: Summer for the Gods:

"Not a single [newspaper] editorial at the time determined it was a decisive event either killing the anti-evolution crusade or a tremendous victory propelling it,"

Taking Liberties

Larson describes (p.225ff) how a popular history of the 1920s - Only Yesterday (1931), by F.L. Allen, editor of Harper's magazine - became the first published commentary in which the Darrow-Bryan confrontation was depicted as a defeat for Bryan and hence a defeat for anti-evolutionism.
1925 Cartoon: 'The Proposition [Man is not related to the monkey] Would Get a Lot of Support If Monkeys Could Vote on It'
In reality, however, Allen was no historian, and his account of the event was seriously flawed.  For example, the teaching of evolution in American schools went rapidly downhill following the Scopes Trial (see
Part 13 for details).  Nevertheless, Allen's erroneous version of the facts was repeated in subsequent books of a similar nature for decades thereafter, eventually finding its way, in the late 1950s, into a college textbook on American history.

Playwrights Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee unintentionally helped to perpetuate the myth with their stage play Inherit the Wind, which went on to be re-written as a major film and two TV movies.

There is, however, an important difference between the two historical 'revisions'.
Where Allen's version of the trial and its aftermath came seriously adrift, as Larson demonstrates, was in his determination to make the facts fit his personal overview of the sociological significance of 20's culture.  What happened thereafter, in the numerous books and articles that repeated the original errors, was that the later authors simply ignored - or weren't even aware of - the unreliability of Allen's version of the events.

However, Inherit the Wind, as we'll see in Part 2, was never in error, as such.  And that is because, like Arthur Miller's pseudo-historical drama, The Crucible (on the surface an account of the Salem witch hunts of the late 17th century), the real life Scopes trial was used as a kind of window through which the authors could examine, and comment on, the nature and effects of McCarthyism (see A Word from the Authors in Part 2 for details).  In short, it was never intended to be an accurate portrayal of the original trial.  There was, however, an additional irony in the choice to use the Scopes trial as a platform from which to mount an attack on the anti-Communist witch hunt of the early 1950's, for the board of the ACLU, from the time of its formation in 1920, through to the "house cleaning" of the early 1940's, was itself dominated by communists and communist sympathisers!

So what really happened at Dayton in July, 1925?
It appears that despite the constant references to it - by virtue of the ongoing confrontation over the teaching of evolution in America's public schools - most people, including many Americans, still have very little idea what really happened.
This must surely be due, at least in part, to the poor quality of the information about the trial taught in many educational organisations, and we can only wonder why some educators still present the play/film to their students as though it were some kind of documentary.

Indeed, as you can see in Part 3 - A Cult of Misinformation, it's quite amazing how widespread the misinformation about the Scopes "Monkey" Trial has become.  Even the Encyclopaedia Britannica got some of its facts wrong on this one.

About the Author

Questions raised by previous visitors to this site include: Who wrote this material, and what qualifications does he or she have for the task?
And very fair questions they are.

To keep it brief, my name is Andrew Bradbury and I'm currently a freelance writer.  I've spent most of my career (since graduating with a degree in social psychology), working in training or education of some kind - I've been a teacher of history in a 6th Form College (that's students aged 16-18 years, approx.), the deputy headmaster (deputy principal) of that same college, and a training manager, trainer and training consultant in the light engineering and IT sectors.
I've had seven books and numerous magazine and newspaper articles published, mainly on IT subjects, plus business skills and NLP (check me out on

As I see it, I have two important qualifications that equip me to be writing about the Scopes Trial, apart from my professional writing abilities.
The first is the fact that I spent nearly ten years as a history tutor in the 6th Form College I mentioned.  The other is not so much what I have as what I don't have.  That is to say, when I decided to research this subject I had none of the preconceptions that most American writers might have.

When I saw the film Inherit the Wind I saw it as pure drama - I had not been brought up believing that it might be related to any real life event.  When I started reading about Clarence Darrow and William Jennings Bryan they were just two figures from history.  I had no pre-formed opinions - favourable or unfavourable - based on the reputation of either man.

I don't remember the Scopes Trial even being mentioned during my time at school or university, so I had no idea that it was thought by some to represent some kind of watershed in the development of American society.  (I did do a course on American history at university, but that covered Turner's Frontier Thesis, which relates to a rather earlier period of time, of course.)

Nor do I have any "baggage" associated with a conflict over the teaching of creationism or evolutionism in schools, because that has never been much of an issue over here.  Indeed, when I was teaching history, the biology textbook used by the college (published by John Murray - original publishers of Darwin's Origin of Species) included a paragraph in the introduction to the effect that the evidence for evolution was open to alternative interpretation - and to the best of my knowledge that was simply taken for granted without assuming that it might opening the floodgates of creationism (and it never has).

Reading List

This is not to say that my views are absolutely objective.  I've studied, and drawn my own conclusions from, a variety of resources, including (in alphabetical order by author):

So, whatever errors or bias you may find here, they do at least have the distinction of being "all my own work," as the saying goes.

If you find any errors, or want to make a comment, you can contact me at:

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 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 "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: 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.
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.



Photo portrait of John T. Scopes