Inherit the Myth?

By Benen, Steve | Church & State, July 2000 | Go to article overview

Inherit the Myth?


Benen, Steve, Church & State


How The Movie Version Of The Scopes Trial Monkeyed With The Facts

In one of the first scenes of the 1960 movie, Inherit the Wind, Bertram Cates, a character based on John T. Scopes, explains to his fiancee from a county jail why he must teach his students evolution and why he refuses to back down.

"Tell them they can let my body out of jail if I lock up my mind?" Cates asks. "Could you stand that?"

His impassioned plea for understanding gives the audience a clear awareness of the struggle the real Scopes was forced to endure. There's only one problem with the scene: It never happened.

Scopes issued no plea for empathy, there was no fiancee and the real Scopes was never arrested. In fact, the popular film that was nominated for four Academy Awards and has helped shape the American understanding of the "Scopes Monkey Trial" for decades is an inadequate reflection of history.

In Hollywood's version of the case, dialogue was created, locations of events were altered, the names of people and places were changed and some characters were invented while actual participants disappeared.

Regardless, the real story of the Scopes trial needed little exaggeration as a dramatic episode in American history. The events that unfolded over 11 days in mid-July 1925 were spectacular enough to earn their status as the "Trial of the Century."

In his Pulitzer Prize-winning book, Summer for the Gods, Edward J. Larson details the accurate account of the famous trial.

The story started in January, when the Tennessee legislature passed a law prohibiting the teaching of "any theory that denies the story of the Divine Creation of man as taught in the Bible." Immediately after it was signed into law, the American Civil Liberties Union offered legal representation to any teacher charged under the statute.

At the time, Dayton, Tenn., was a small town with a struggling economy and a population that had dwindled to 1,800. George W. Rappleyea, who managed mines in the area, saw mention of the ACLU's offer in a local newspaper and determined that what Dayton needed was some publicity. With all of the national attention surrounding the legislature's passage of an anti-evolution bill, he figured a trial ought to generate at least as much interest.

Rappleyea met with local school officials and convinced them of the benefits that a trial could generate. He and his friends then asked Scopes if he'd mind doing them a favor.

The film version of the Scopes trial shows the young teacher in class, explaining natural selection to a classroom of interested teenagers. County prosecutors and the local minister stand in the back of the room and when Scopes begins to discuss Charles Darwin, he is promptly taken into custody.

The truth was less exciting. Scopes told Rappleyea he wasn't sure if he ever actually taught the chapter on biological evolution. (The 24-year-old teacher later had to prompt his students on what to say in order to secure his own indictment.) Nevertheless, he acknowledged that he taught from the science text and agreed to allow himself to be used for a challenge to Tennessee's new law. The same meeting saw a local justice of the peace issue a warrant and Scopes get charged. Scopes, instead of going to jail, went to play tennis. With that, one of the most successful publicity stunts of the 20th century was set in motion.

The trial itself generated an incredible amount of media attention in large part because of the prominent lawyers on each side. For the prosecution, William Jennings Bryan, a celebrated religious leader and the Democratic nominee for President in 1896 and 1900, volunteered to take up the cause. For the defense, Clarence Darrow, at the time the most well known defense attorney in the nation, enlisted.

The trial was played out it what Scopes would later describe as "man-killing" heat. Mid-July in Tennessee routinely saw 100-degree days that summer, and the courthouse did not have working air-conditioning. …

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