Saturday Morning Ethics Warm-Up, July 10, 2021: Remembering The Unethical And Bizarre”Monkey Trial”


Ooooh, it’s Clarence Darrow time again, and as I will show in another post shortly, this has serious, and underappreciated current day relevance.

For on this date in Dayton, Tennessee, the so-called Scopes Monkey Trial began in 1925, not only one of the most famous trials in U.S. history, but also one of the most misrepresented, misunderstood and, frankly, silly trials as well. John Thomas Scopes, a young high school science teacher, was accused of teaching evolution in violation of a new Tennessee state law which made it a misdemeanor punishable by fine 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.” Town officials persuaded Scopes to volunteer to get arrested for the offense, not so much to challenge the law but because alocal businessman figured out that it would put Dayton on the map. His plot succeeded beyond his wildest dreams. The American Civil Liberties Unio—-yes, they once cared about the First Amendment—announced it would defend Scopes, and hired an aging but famous Clarence Darrow to do the job, which included making sure his client was convicted, so they could appeal the verdict to the U.S. Supreme Court, where even a monkey judge would know that the Tennessee anti-evolution law was a blatant First Amendment violation.

William Jennings Bryan, the three-time Democratic presidential candidate who was seeking his fourth shot at the White House, volunteered to assist the prosecution in his guise as a fundamentalist Everyman. The Monkey Trial got underway with in-person coverage by renowned cynic H.L. Mencken and hoards of other reporters. Parts of the trial were broadcast nationally over the radio, an all-time first. Preachers set up revival tents along the city’s main street; venders sold Bibles, hot dogs and souvenirs like monkey dolls and fans to tourists. A carnival “exhibit” featuring two chimpanzees and a “missing link” opened in town: the alleged “Monkey Man” was 51-year-old Jo Viens, who was short, had a receding forehead, and whose jaw protruded like an ape. One of the chimpanzees wore a plaid suit, a brown fedora, and white spats, and periodically was allowed to run around on the courthouse lawn.

To recap, the “trial” was based on a contrived “crime” committed with the cooperation of authorities, and the defense was to make sure Scopes was convicted, not acquitted. But things got even more Bizarro World-like. At one point, Scopes told Darrow that a substitute teacher, not him, had actually taught the Darwin class, and Darrow told the teacher to shut the hell up about that rather crucial detail. When Judge John Raulston ruled that expert scientific testimony on evolution would be inadmissible, Darrow decided that his sole expert witness would be Bryan, one of the prosecutors. (No, this had never happened before and has never happened since.). Raulston ordered the trial moved to the courthouse lawn for this spectacle, fearing that the weight of the spectators and reporters inside would cause the courthouse floor to collapse.

Darrow treated Bryan as a hostile witness, though they knew each other, were both political progressives, and were both doing what they loved best, performing in front of a crowd. Popular legend holds that Darrow made a monkey out of Bryan, which was how the famous play (“Inherit the Wind”) based on the trial and its many TV and movie versions portrayed the showdown, but reading the transcript tells a different story. Bryan’s answers were cagey and clever, but he had a big problem: he knew his answers were being broadcast to potential voters who were not fundamentalists, yet he couldn’t afford to alienate the Bible-Beating jury. Darrow had no such dilemma: remember, he wanted to alienate the jury, and knew that if Bryan insisted that the Bible was literally true, “The Great Commoner” would end his political career (though it was almost certainly over anyway.) . Thus Bryan argued, for example, that God explained things in the Bible in ways that could be understood by the people of the time. For example, God obviously knew that the Earth moved around the sun, and not the other way around, but HE just said, in the Bible, that the sun “stopped,” so as not to confuse the faithful.

The weirdness got worse: in his closing speech, Darrow asked the jury to return a verdict of guilty in order that the case might be appealed. I’m pretty sure this is an abuse of process and wildly unethical: isn’t a request to be found guilty indistinguishable from a guilty plea? This tactic did have a mean consequence for poor Bryan: under Tennessee law, the admission of guilt meant Bryan couldn’t deliver the grand closing speech he had been preparing for weeks. It took eight minutes for the jury to return with a guilty verdict—why did Darrow feel he had to ask for a verdict that was pre-ordained, other than to deny Bryan his big finale?— and Raulston ordered Scopes to pay a fine of $100, the minimum the law allowed.

After all of this, the ACLU’s scheme still failed: the Tennessee Supreme Court overturned the Scopes verdict, but on a procedural technicality, so the case never got to the U.S. Supreme Court at all. The constitutional issue was officially unresolved until SCOTUS overturned a similar Arkansas law.

Can you guess why this fiasco has special relevance in 2021?

Watch this space!

6 thoughts on “Saturday Morning Ethics Warm-Up, July 10, 2021: Remembering The Unethical And Bizarre”Monkey Trial”

  1. Inherit the Wind wasn’t my first college-level play, but it was the first I auditioned for. (I’d been a replacement for an actor who dropped out earlier in that same summer season.)
    I knew the play wasn’t exactly true to the facts. I didn’t know by how much.

    • Read “Summer of the Gods” by historian Ed Larson, which focuses on the differences. He interviewed Lawrence and Lee as part of his research.

      My first role in a straight play was as E.K Hornbeck of the “Baltimore Herald, the Mencken character. Everyone in my high school thought it was type-casting.

      • Thanks for the recommendation!
        I really wanted Hornbeck, but I was just out of high school, competing against much more mature, experienced (and quite likely more talented) actors. I played Esterbrook, the radio reporter for WGN. One of the hardest roles I ever played, because I was facing the audience throughout the trial scenes but had only a handful of lines; as I recall, all of them were “on the air.” So knowing how to react to what was happening was really difficult, especially since the director quite reasonably concentrated on Drummond (Darrow), Brady (Bryant), and Hornbeck.

  2. As with the Scopes Monkey Trial, we are seeing the same corruption of Constitution and law with CRT. Darwinism was and is a theory. Never mentioned is that Critical Race Theory is a THEORY and all that it means. CRT in general teaches that history is about power, not virtue. CRT has found its moment as the conscience of a wounded nation, and the history it cites is not entirely false. But instead of building our nation a shared house, CRT desires to tear the house down, to be replaced with—what?

    For those of us who have traveled the world, what Progressives offer is a social-justice utopia that looks a lot like Marxist redistribution.

    I wonder if the proponents of CRT considered the practical result of trashing the country we share? Of teaching children that there’s nothing remarkable, or even redeemable, about our constitutional government? Is it possible the dispirited youth we witness today have lost hope partly because of the hopelessness they’re taught to feel about their own nation?

    Perhaps CRT had a legitimate purpose when it was introduced in the 1970s by various legal scholars, including Derrick Bell, a Black civil rights lawyer who taught at Harvard Law School, and others as they began to examine how the law and legal system served the interests of the wealthy and powerful at the expense of others. That purpose has long been thrown over for a much more nefarious one today.

  3. Growing up only about 35 miles from Dayton, I have been there many times and still enjoy driving across the Tennessee River to visit. The Rhea County courthouse in which the trial was held is still partially in use, there is a museum dedicated to the trial in the basement, and one can visit the second-floor courtroom where it happened. Statues of Bryan and Darrow can be found on the grounds outside.
    The town hosts the annual Tennessee Strawberry Festival in July (coming up in a couple of weeks) which began in 1947, and most related festivities center around the courthouse square.
    I learned about the trial in fifth grade and actually saw the TV movie remake before the film classic, when I was about twelve. My dad was familiar with the facts and explained where the play and movies differed from actual events.

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