CLARENCE DARROW RECALLS THE SCOPES TRIAL (1925)

 

[The Scopes “Monkey trial” in Dayton, Tennessee, was one of the most famous cases of the 1920s.  The chief attorney for the defense, Clarence Darrow, reflected on it years later in his memoirs.]

 

For years I had been interested in the campaign that culminated in "the Dayton Case." . . . Men and women calling themselves "fundamentalists" had been very actively seeking to control the schools and universities of America. The members of this body claimed to believe that the various books that are bound together and are called "the Bible" are inspired in their every statement; that the whole of these books was virtually written by the Almighty and is in every part literally true....

 

Between the periods of many presiden­tial campaigns, and during the dearth of real issues, Mr. William Jennings Bryan placed himself at the head of this movement.... I had been a close observer of Mr. Bryan's campaigns against knowledge, and I was somewhat acquainted with his­tory and felt that I knew what it meant. I knew how the bill that Mr. Bryan and his organization sponsored was put through, and they had already announced that they would carry the campaign to every state in the Union....

 

I was in New York not long after the arrest of Mr. Scopes, and saw that Mr. Bryan had volunteered to go to Dayton to assist in the prosecution. At once I wanted to go. My object, and my only object, was to focus the attention of the country on the program of Mr. Bryan and the other fundamentalists in America. I knew that education was in danger from, the source that has always hampered it--religious fanaticism. To me it was perfectly clear that the proceedings bore little semblance to a court case, but I realized that there was no limit to the mischief that might be accomplished unless the country was roused to the evil at hand....

 

The bailiff was calling the court to order, “Tennessee versus Scopes.” The judge was sinking into his seat beneath a monster sign, saying, Read your Bible daily.” He had a palm leaf fan in one hand, and in the other the Bible and the statutes. As he laid these down on his desk I won­dered why he thought he would need the statutes. To the end of the trial I did not know....

 

Down below, at a long table, near the judge's bench, sat William Jennings Bryan, wearing as few clothes as possible. So few, indeed, that had he seen some girl so arrayed he would have considered her a bad sort, and straightway turned his head the other way. His shirt sleeves were rolled up as high as they would go, and his soft collar and shirt front were turned away from his neck and breast about as far as any one less modest would venture; not for the fray, but because of the weather. In his hand was the largest palm leaf fan that could be found, apparently, with which he fought off the heat waves-and flies....

 

The courtroom was packed, and still the people crowded together in the hallways, on the staircases; and the yard, too, was filling up. Spectators had come from near and far.  Hot dog booths and fruit peddlers and ice-cream venders and sand­wich sellers had sprung into existence like mushrooms on every corner and every-where between, mingling with the rest, ready to feed the throng. Evangelist tents were propped up at vantage points around the town square, where every night one not knowing what was going on would have thought hordes of howling dervishes were holding forth....

 

When the courtroom was packed just short of bursting apart, it seemed, the judge ordered the doors closed over the sweltering audience, and with great solem­nity and all the dignity possible announced that Brother Twitchell would invoke the Divine blessing. This was new to me, I had practiced law for more than forty years, and had never before heard God called in to referee a court trial….

 

Before the opening of the next session I arose and stated what had happened in the matter, pointed out the character of the case, and made my objection to the court opening the proceedings with prayer. The judge overruled the motion, of course. The people assembled looked as though a thunderbolt had stunned them, and the wrath of the Almighty might be hurled down upon the heads of the de­fense....

 

I made a complete and aggressive openinb of the case. I did this for the reason that we never at any stage intended to make any arguments in the case. We knew that Mr. Bryan was there to make a closing speech about “The Prince of Peace” and the importance of “The Rock of Ages” above the “age of rocks” and that the clos­ing address he meant should thrill the world was doubtless prepared for the press in manifold copies before he left Florida, and that it would be for the consumption and instruction of those who knew nothing about either “The Rock of Ages” or “the age of rocks.” We knew that such of the assembled multitudes as had the capacity to understand would refuse to learn. By not making a closing argument on our side we could cut him out.

 

We realized that a jury drawn from Dayton, Tenn., would not permit a man to commit such a heinous crime as Scopes had been guilty of and allow him to go scot-free. However, there were questions to be argued concerning the meaning of the crowd into the courthouse at any session. The congestion added to the suffocating temperature, and the two policemen were kept busy offsetting the tropical atmos­phere around the judge's sanctified spot. One policeman solaced his own stifled feel­ings with a wad of tobacco that swiftly melted away into a cuspidor at his feet, and the other worked off his pent-up patience on a gob of gum that had the advantage of being of an indestructible brand, so far as could be guessed. Whether he chewed the same flavor as the judge fished out of his mouth and pasted on the underside of his desk every noon after lunch I had no way of knowing. The judge was always a little late coming in, partly because newspaper photographers way-laid him as well as others, and His Honor was a particularly obliging subject….

 

Rumors began to go the round to the effect that there was danger of the floor in the courtroom giving way. The exact origin of this report was never quite made known, but together with that came an-other pretty generally credited to the judge, suggesting that a platform should be built down on the ground and the case continued outdoors. The crowd readily seconded the motion, and no one blamed the judge, for it was his first, and, as it turned out, his last real appearance, ex­cepting for a few vagrant lectures that he attempted on or against "EEvolution" after the trial was over. So we moved down to the courthouse lawn....

 

The jury was given front seats, and right before them was a great sign flaunting let­ters two feet high, where every one could see the magic words: “READ YOUR BIBLE DAILY.” As for the improved accommoda­tions for the audience--well, there were now acres of audience, branching off into the surrounding streets, waiting for the curtain to rise.

 

I began the proceedings by calling at­tention to the flaming instructions to the populace and the jury to "Read your Bible daily” and made a motion, for the sake of getting it into the record, pointing out the very evident purpose of influencing the jury, and asked to have the banner removed. Every one paused in awe at the audacity, but it was not a rainy day so that I was taking no chance with lightning. The judge and all the rest of the prosecu­tion expressed great astonishment at any such motion; Mr. Bryan's voice rose above all the others. However, we stood our ground until the attorneys for the prose­cution . . . consented to the removal of the blessed banner.


The judge had admitted one of our witnesses to give testimony as to the mean­ing of the word “evolution” and to describe the process of it as taught. . . . Then I called Mr. W. J. Bryan as an expert on the meaning of the word “religion.”  At once every lawyer for the prosecution was on his feet objecting to the proceeding. The judge asked me if I considered it im­portant. I reminded him that the statute was based on a conflict between evolution and religion, and that we were entitled to prove the meaning of the words so that the jury could determine whether there was any conflict. Mr. Bryan relieved the situation by saying that he was perfectly willing to take the stand, that he was ready to defend religion anywhere against any infidel.... And of course this left the judge with nothing to decide....

 

Bryan twisted and dodged and floun­dered, to the disgust of the thinking element, and even his own people. That night an amount of copy was sent out that the reporters claimed was unprecedented in court trials. My questions and Bryan’s answers were printed in full, and the story seems to have reached the whole world.

When court adjourned it became evi­dent that the audience had been thinking, and perhaps felt that they had heard something worth while. Much to my surprise, the great gathering began to surge toward me. They seemed to have changed sides in a single afternoon. A friendly crowd followed me toward my home. Mr. Bryan left the grounds practically alone. The peo­ple seemed to feel that he had failed and deserted his cause and his followers when he admitted that the first six days might have been periods of millions of ages long. Mr. Bryan had made himself ridiculous and had contradicted his own faith. I was truly sorry for Mr. Bryan. But I consoled myself by thinking of the years through which he had busied himself tormenting intelligent professors with impudent ques­tions about their faith, and seeking to arouse the ignoramuses and bigots to drive them out of their positions. It is a terrible transgression to intimidate and awe teach­ers with fear of want.

 

The next morning I reached court prepared to continue the examination all that day. The judge convened court down in the yard, and another preacher asked the blessing and guidance of the Almighty. After allowing time for taking pictures, the judge arose; rested one hand on the stat­utes and the other on the Oxford Bible, and said that he had been thinking over the proceedings of the day before and--in spite of Mr. Bryan’s willingness again to take the stand--he believed that the testimony was not relevant, and he had decided to refuse to permit any further examination of Mr. Bryan and should strike the whole of his testimony from the record. Mr. Bryan and his associates forgot to look surprised. It needed no lawyer to grasp that the attorneys for the prosecu­tion could see the effect Mr. Bryan’s answers were having on their case and the public in general, and had concluded that something must be done; so it was arranged that the judge should be there in the morning to relieve them of their dis­tress in court. The ruling of the court was by that time extended to forbid the testi­mony of our scientists as to the meaning of evolution.

 

The court held that the jury had the statute before them and had heard the testimony of the witnesses proving that Scopes had told his pupils that life began in the sea and had gradually evolved to the various forms of life, including man, that now live upon the earth. The State had offered in evidence the first and sec­ond chapters of Genesis, and the jury could judge whether these were in conflict with the teaching of Scopes.