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The Scopes Trial

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The Scopes Trial

Clarence Darrow questions William Jennings Bryan during the Scopes Trial

Smithsonian Archive

The Scopes Trial, also known as the Scopes "Monkey" Trial or The State of Tennessee v. Scopes, was a landmark court case in July of 1925 that challenged the teaching of evolution in public schools. It found substitute Biology teacher John Scopes on trial for violating the Butler Act.

While filling in for an ailing Biology teacher in Dayton, Tennessee, Scopes assigned readings about evolution from the state approved textbook, Civic Biology by Hunter. Convinced publicity from a trial this controversial would benefit the whole town, some townsfolk pressured the school officials to press charges against Scopes after he admitted to the teachings at the local drugstore. However, some claim that Scopes himself was set up to the task by groups who wanted The Butler Act repealed and desired a court case as well.

The prosecution team was headed by William Jennings Bryan, three time presidential candidate. The defense was funded by the American Civil Liberties Union, and Clarence Darrow quickly joined the team in order to argue against Bryan.

More than 1000 people showed up for the first day of the trial on July 10, 1925. The town was decked out in banners and had side shows that included chimpanzees. Religious groups handed out free copies of anti-evolution books to the assembled crowd. The crowd eventually got too big for the courthouse, so the proceedings were moved to the courtyard.

The trial was presided over by Judge John T. Raulston, a known staunch Christian conservative who started the trial with a prayer. The jury also seemed stacked against Mr. Scopes, as all 12 jurors were church-going conservative middle aged farmers. The prosecution's opening statement asked the jury to remember the story of Creation in the book of Genesis in the Bible.

The trial lasted a total of 11 days. It included long winded speeches from Bryan and even him being called as a witness and expert on the Bible. Darrow's questioning of Bryan on the stand is known as one of the best exchanges in the history of the United States court system. Darrow's final words were asking the jury to find Scopes guilty so he could appeal to the Supreme Court of Tennessee and get it overturned. That request ended the trial and Bryan did not get his final speech in as planned.

John Scopes was found guilty and fined $100. The Tennessee Supreme Court later overturned the ruling on a technicality. A few days after the Socpes Trial, still in Dayton, Tennessee, William Jennings Bryan died in his sleep.

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