Today in 1925: John Scopes arrested for teaching evolution

May 5, 2010

Today in Legal HistoryIt was 85 years ago today that John Scopes, a high school math and science teacher in Dayton, Tennessee, was arrested and charged with teaching evolution – an event that triggered a passionate national debate that continues to this day.

Earlier that year, Tennessee became the first state to ban evolution from its public schools. The newly formed ACLU was eager to challenge the new Tennessee law, and it bought ads in various newspapers promising to provide legal support to anyone accused of breaking it.

One of the ACLU ads caught the attention of George Rappalyea, a businessman and local leader in Dayton. Rappalyea opposed the new law – and equally important, he believed that challenging the law would bring media attention and out-of-town dollars to Dayton, whose population had been dwindling for decades.John Scopes

The plan to plant the trial in Dayton was allegedly hatched with other town leaders in Robinson’s Drug Store, where John Scopes (pictured here) was later summoned. Here’s an account of the exchange from the Famous Trials website*:

Rappalyea said, “John, we’ve been arguing and I said nobody could teach biology without teaching evolution.” Scopes agreed.  “That’s right,” he said, pulling a copy of Hunter’s Civic Biology – the state-approved textbook – from one of the shelves of the drugstore (the store also sold school textbooks). “You’ve been teaching ‘em this book?” Rappalyea asked. [ …] “Then you’ve been violating the law.”

Rappalyea then asked Scopes if he would be willing to serve as a defendant in a test case against the new law, and Scopes (reluctantly) agreed.

The Scopes Trial was billed as the “Trial of the Century” and featured an epic war of words between two of the greatest legal minds of the era, William Jennings Bryan and Clarence Darrow. Reporters and curious citizens flocked to the town from across the country to follow the Scopes “Monkey” Trial, as it came to be known.

While it did bring brief notoriety (and a flood of money) to Dayton during the summer of 1925, the State v. John Scopes case turned out to be inconsequential from a legal perspective. The Tennessee Supreme Court overturned the lower court’s guilty verdict a year later on a minor technicality, and the question wasn’t settled definitively until 1968, when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Epperson v. Arkansas that evolution, and not creationism, belonged in public schools.

*For more on the Scopes trial and insightful accounts of other famous trials from Socrates to Zacarias Moussauoi, see the excellent Famous Trials website, created and maintained by Professor Douglas Linder of the University of Missouri-Kansas City (UMKC) School of Law.