This Day In History: Monkey Trial
Welcome to the THIS DAY IN HISTORY newsletter
from THE HISTORY CHANNEL
July 10: General Interest
1925 : Monkey Trial begins
In Dayton, Tennessee, the so-called "Monkey Trial" begins
Thomas Scopes, a young high school science teacher, accused of
teaching evolution in violation of a Tennessee state law.
The law, which had been passed in March, made it a misdemeanor
punishable by fine to "teach any theory that denies the story of
Divine Creation of man as taught in the Bible, and to teach
that man has descended from a lower order of animals." With
businessman George Rappalyea, Scopes had conspired to get charged
this violation, and after his arrest the pair enlisted the aid of
American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) to organize a defense.
of this coordinated attack on Christian fundamentalism, William
Jennings Bryan, the three-time Democratic presidential candidate and
fundamentalist hero, volunteered to assist the prosecution. Soon
after, the great attorney Clarence Darrow agreed to join the ACLU
the defense, and the stage was set for one of the most famous
in U.S. history.
On July 10, the Monkey Trial got underway, and within a few days
hordes of spectators and reporters had descended on Dayton as
preachers set up revival tents along the city's main street to
the faithful stirred up. Inside the Rhea County Courthouse, the
defense suffered early setbacks when Judge John Raulston ruled
their attempt to prove the law unconstitutional and then refused
end his practice of opening each day's proceeding with prayer.
Outside, Dayton took on a carnival-like atmosphere as an exhibit
featuring two chimpanzees and a supposed "missing link"
town, and vendors sold Bibles, toy monkeys, hot dogs, and
The missing link was in fact Jo Viens of Burlington, Vermont, a
51-year-old man who was of short stature and possessed a receding
forehead and a protruding jaw. One of the chimpanzees--named Joe
Mendi--wore a plaid suit, a brown fedora, and white spats, and
entertained Dayton's citizens by monkeying around on the
In the courtroom, Judge Raulston destroyed the defense's strategy
ruling that expert scientific testimony on evolution was
inadmissible--on the grounds that it was Scopes who was on trial,
the law he had violated. The next day, Raulston ordered the trial
moved to the courthouse lawn, fearing that the weight of the crowd
inside was in danger of collapsing the floor.
In front of several thousand spectators in the open air, Darrow
changed his tactics and as his sole witness called Bryan in an
to discredit his literal interpretation of the Bible. In a
examination, Bryan was subjected to severe ridicule and forced to
ignorant and contradictory statements to the amusement of the
On July 21, in his closing speech, Darrow asked the jury to return
verdict of guilty in order that the case might be appealed. Under
Tennessee law, Bryan was thereby denied the opportunity to deliver
closing speech he had been preparing for weeks. After eight minutes
deliberation, the jury returned with a guilty verdict, and
ordered Scopes to pay a fine of $100, the minimum the law allowed.
Although Bryan had won the case, he had been publicly humiliated
his fundamentalist beliefs had been disgraced. Five days later, on
July 26, he lay down for a Sunday afternoon nap and never woke up.
In 1927, the Tennessee Supreme Court overturned the Monkey Trial
verdict on a technicality but left the constitutional issues
unresolved until 1968, when the U.S. Supreme Court overturned a
similar Arkansas law on the grounds that it violated the First
1850 : Millard Fillmore sworn in as president