Thursday, 30 August 2012

The Evolutionary Escapade of the Tennessee Teacher

                       John Washington Butler was a farmer from Tennessee, who was also a State Representative and head of the World's Christian Fundamentals Association. Alarmed by newspaper reports that children were denying the literal truth of the Bible after being taught evolutionary theory in science lessons, he introduced legislation that forbade teaching 
“… 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.” 
The Butler Act became effective in the state of Tennessee from March 21st 1925, and quickly came to the attention of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), which offered to support anyone prosecuted under the Act. George Rappelyea, a mining engineer from Dayton, Tennessee, together with Walter White, county superintendent of schools, and Sue K Hicks, a local attorney (and, incidentally, a man – his name may have inspired the song ‘A Boy Named Sue’), hatched a plot to bring a test case to court, hoping the resultant publicity would bring much-needed revenue to the town of Dayton. 

John Thomas Scopes

They persuaded a local supply teacher, John Thomas Scopes, who was a sports coach and sometimes covered maths and science classes, to plead guilty to teaching evolution in a high school class, not least because the required text-book in Tennessee classrooms, Civic Biology by G W Hunter, included a chapter on evolution, thereby necessitating teachers to break the law. Scopes, although initially reticent, soon became an enthusiastic participant in the case and incriminated himself, being arrested (but never detained) and charged for teaching evolution, in violation of The Butler Act, to a high school class on April 24th 1925. 

William Jennings Bryan

Both prosecution and defence teams set about recruiting members – the prosecution included the brothers (and friends of Scopes) Herbert and Sue Hicks, Tom Stewart (later a US Senator) and William Jennings Bryan (known as The Great Commoner, he was a three-times Democratic presidential nominee, former Secretary of State and fervent Presbyterian). 

Clarence Darrow

For the defence were Clarence Darrow, Arthur Hays and Dudley Malone. The trial, in the court of Judge John T Raulston, began on July 10th 1925, and became famous across the world as reporters descended on Dayton to cover the case, which became popularly known as ‘The Scopes Monkey Trial’ (so named by H L Mencken). Dayton attracted preachers, lawyers, students, politicians and academics and its streets began to resemble a media circus, with food stalls, souvenir salesmen and sideshows, by far exceeding the expectations of Rappelyea and his associates. A banner, hanging on the side of the courthouse read ‘Read Your Bible Daily.’ 

Bethlehem Globe July 10th 1925

As the first session began, Judge Raulston quoted from The Butler Act and the book of Genesis, and warned the jury that they were trying Scopes for violating the Act, and not the merits of the Act itself. Darrow’s intention was for Scopes to be found guilty, so that he could appeal the decision to a higher court, and throughout the trial he clashed with Judge Raulston, whom he considered to be biased against his client. Such was the crush in the courtroom that Raulston, fearing for the safety of the floor, and with the temperature reaching in excess of one hundred degrees, he moved the proceedings outside. 

Bryan called four witnesses on the first two days, students who confirmed that Scopes had taught evolution on the day in question (although it seems that Scopes was not in the school on that day…) and the prosecution rested its case. Darrow tried to have the case quashed on the grounds that the Butler Act was unconstitutional, but Raulston ruled that this argument was inadmissible, so Darrow changed tack. He tried to have twelve expert witnesses – academics and theologians – called but again Raulston blocked him, although he allowed their written testimonies to be admitted, largely in anticipation of future appeals. 

Darrow (left) and Bryan

In another twist, Darrow called Bryan to the stand – the two had once been friends but over time a deep antagonism had developed between them – and Darrow said he only took the case because “…for years, I've wanted to put Bryan in his place as a bigot.” Darrow spent two hours cross-examining Bryan, probing at his knowledge of, and belief in, the Bible – were Adam and Eve the first humans, where did Cain’s wife come from, did all languages stem from the Tower of Babel, was Jonah really swallowed by a whale, was the world created in six days? Bryan began by stating his unswerving belief in the literal truth of the Bible, but as the questioning continued he began to admit that some things were not to be taken literally – ‘Ye are the Salt of the Earth’ didn’t really mean that people were actually made out of salt, and the six days of creation were not actually six lots of twenty-four hours but “My impression is they were periods [that] might have continued for millions of years.” Darrow’s trap was sprung and Bryan had walked right in; his unswerving belief was not quite as literal as he had claimed. 

Dayton 1925

Then, in a master move, Darrow demanded an immediate verdict, without offering a closing statement for the defence. Under Tennessee state law, this prevented Bryan from making a corresponding statement for the prosecution – something that Bryan had intended to use to deliver his grandiloquent summing up, which he had spent the previous seven weeks writing and practicing, an hour-and-a-half-long closing argument that he hoped would be “… the mountain peak of my life's effort.”   

Judge Raulston and family  - (not related to monkeys, allegedly).

On July 25th 1925, the jury took nine minutes to find Scopes guilty, and Judge Raulston imposed a fine of $100. An appeal was launched, which overturned the original verdict on a technicality – for fines in excess of $50, the jury and not the judge should have decided on the amount – but Darrow’s hopes of taking the case further were crushed when the Chief Justice of Tennessee nullified Scopes’s indictment and threw the case (which he called ‘bizarre’) out of court. 

In April 1967, Tennessee repealed the Butler Act, over forty years after the Scopes trial. 

Five days after the end of the trial, William Jennings Bryan took a post-prandial Sunday afternoon nap from which he didn’t wake up, succumbing to the diabetes that had troubled him for years, which created a leadership vacuum in the fundamentalist camp that remained largely unfilled. 

Scopes was offered a further contract at Dayton High School, on condition that he did not teach evolution again, but he declined and took up a graduate scholarship at the University of Chicago, where he qualified as geologist, going on to work for the United Gas Company. He died in 1970, aged 70. 

Darrow, who had already announced his intention to retire before he took the Scopes case, withdrew from legal practice (apart from the Massie trial in 1931), and died in 1938 from pulmonary heart disease. He is regarded as one of the greatest American civil libertarians. 

The debate about evolution continues in America, and from time to time threatens to break out here in Britain. Suffice it to say that Charles Darwin appears on our money, in recognition of his remarkable contribution to mankind.

Two Pound coin

Ten Pound note

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