October 29, 2007

From Scopes to Dover-6: The Scopes trial conspiracy

(For previous posts in this series, see here.)

Although Inherit the Wind, the original play and film based on the events of the Scopes trial, was made as a drama, it would have been more accurate to portray the actual events leading up to and through the trial as a comedy.

Right from the beginning, rather than being a bitter adversarial contest between science and religion, the whole prosecution and trial was staged by the local civic leaders of the sleepy little town of Dayton, Tennessee as mainly a public relations exercise, with both prosecution and defense sides working together to create a show trial and thereby benefit the town by increasing its visibility because of the resulting publicity.

When word got around that the ACLU had issued a press release to the Tennessee newspapers looking for someone willing to test the Tennessee law barring the teaching of evolution, Dayton resident George Rappleyea, who personally opposed the anti-evolution law, saw the opportunity to make the sleepy town of Dayton get national headlines and publicity. He felt that this ACLU challenge gave Dayton the chance to hold a trial with well-known figures that would draw the national media and tourists to the city, leading to an economic boom. So he and other enterprising entrepreneurs set about planning to create such a trial. Working with Fred Robinson (a local businessman and also chair of the county school board), the school superintendent (who supported the Butler Act prohibiting the teaching of evolution), two city attorneys who agreed to prosecute the case, and a local attorney to handle the defense, they put all the ingredients into place. (Summer for the Gods, Edward J. Larson, 1997, p. 89-91)

All they needed now was someone to charge with breaking the law. They did not want anyone's life or career to be harmed by being charged in what was essentially a show trial created for publicity. The team looked around for a suitable candidate to accuse and found one in 24-year old John T. Scopes, a general science instructor and part-time football coach. Although he was not the regular biology teacher, he made a good candidate because he was single, not a local, had no ties to the region, no intention of staying permanently in Dayton, and thus had little to lose from the case. This made him preferable to the regular biology teacher, who was married and was also the school principal and thus would have had a lot more at stake.

In the film, Scopes was arrested in his classroom by grim-faced city leaders while teaching his class about evolution, and then flung into jail where he had to stay until the trial. While there, he had to listen to hostile citizens marching around the jail carrying banners and chanting slogans vilifying him, flinging bottles through his cell windows, and seeing himself burned in effigy, while in the evening the clergyman preached fiery sermons condemning him to hell for his evil act of teaching evolution.

In reality, Scopes was a cheerful co-conspirator in the staged trial. The chummy nature of the whole proceeding is illustrated by the fact that all these friendly discussions took place in the local drugstore owned by the school board chair. The prosecutor, who happened to be Scopes' close friend, said he would be willing to prosecute Scopes as long as Scopes didn't mind. (Even during the heat of the trial, the prosecutors and the defendant went for a swim in a pond during a lunch recess.) Scopes was invited to these discussions and asked whether he would be willing to be prosecuted. Scopes believed in evolution and disagreed with the law so he said he was willing to go along. The group then called over the waiting justice of the peace to swear out a warrant for Scopes, and the waiting constable served him the warrant immediately. Rather than being hauled off to jail, Scopes then went off to play tennis while the others set the publicity machine in motion by wiring the state's newspapers with the news that they had charged someone with violating the Butler Act. (Larson, p. 91)

The little secret behind the trial was it was never firmly established that Scopes had even taught evolution at all and thus actually violated the law. He himself could not definitely recall teaching that particular topic. He never took the stand in his defense and thus was not forced to swear under oath on this issue. He and his students also seemed hazy on the entire concept of evolution. But everyone, including Scopes, decided to go along with the idea that he had taught it in order that the trial could take place. Since Scopes had filled in occasionally when the regular biology teacher was absent, and had used the assigned textbook that included a section on human evolution, this was enough for the friendly gang of conspirators to decide that they could reasonably charge him with violating the law. During the later grand jury proceedings, Scopes even had to urge his reluctant students to testify against him and coached them on how to answer in order that the grand jury would have grounds to indict him. (Larson, p. 108)

Thus from the beginning, the normal antagonism that characterizes the two opposing sides in highly charged trials was absent. It was said that the ACLU, eager to have a test case on the freedom of speech in the classroom, even volunteered to pay the expenses of the prosecution, but the offer was declined. The generosity was not all on one side. Anti-evolutionist William Jennings Bryan had not even wanted a penalty provision inserted in the law since he only wanted to make a point about what should be taught, and did not want to actually harm anyone, financially or otherwise. In fact, Bryan later offered, if Scopes were to be found guilty, to pay the fine himself (unlike in the film, where an outraged Bryan wanted an even stiffer sentence meted out). Everyone fully expected Scopes to be found guilty and even the defense wanted such a verdict so that the case could be appealed to the higher courts and the constitutional issues fully addressed.

The Scopes trial in Dayton was to be merely the first step in a case that was supposed to have much broader implications.

POST SCRIPT: The Chasers ask what should be done about Iraq

In a comment to the previous post, Nicole expressed incredulity that anyone could be oblivious to the infamous history of tattooing people of particular groups for identification purposes. Alas, such people do exist. There are many people out there who not only have no idea of the basic elements of history or current affairs or geography, they also have no empathy at all for people who are not like them, which leads them to say the most outrageous things.

The Chasers regularly exploit this dangerous combination of ignorance and bigotry for humorous purposes.


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What strikes me about those interviews is that people who are way out of their depth, knowledge-wise, seem to be generally agreeable so as to hide their ignorance. I think this is less scandalous than a pandemic of deliberate evil, but maybe not by much...

Posted by Erin on October 29, 2007 10:06 AM

I am with Mano and Nicole on this issue. However, let us not ignore the other side of the issue. The other side presents ignorant people too; people who would likely support labeling a certain people, people who would justify the finishing of non-believers.

Posted by Cleveland Desi on October 30, 2007 07:40 AM