The Scopes "Monkey Trial" Revisited: Mencken and the Editorial Art of Edmund Duffy

By Harrison, S. L. | Journal of American Culture (Malden, MA), Winter 1994 | Go to article overview

The Scopes "Monkey Trial" Revisited: Mencken and the Editorial Art of Edmund Duffy


Harrison, S. L., Journal of American Culture (Malden, MA)


The era known as the Roaring Twenties, because of Chicago gangsters, Prohibition and bathtub gin, is notable for its influence on American culture. Those kaleidoscope years left a legacy of contemporary icons--Bill Tilden, Babe Ruth and Bobby Jones, the genius of George Gershwin and the romance of Jerome Kern's "Show Boat," as well as legends like Jolson, Fanny Brice and Will Rogers. Major social forces emerged--network radio, vote for women and the rise of Wall Street--with significant repercussions on behavior. The 1920s was "an era of wonderful nonsense" with speakeasies, flappers and flag-pole sitters; the rich panorama is captured in Frederick Lewis Allen's Only Yesterday.

The Twenties witnessed an outpouring of national sentiment: adulation for aviation's "Lone Eagle," Charles Lindbergh, first to solo from New York to Paris, and outrage over the unfolding scandals in President Warren G. Harding's administration and the graft and corruption of Teapot Dome. Courtroom drama provided a common thread through those tumultuous years; gaudy trials held millions of Americans in rapt attention. The infamous Palmer raids, that netted 2,000 arrests in one day, and enforcement of the Volstead Act provided continuing fare. The conviction of anarchists Sacco and Vanzetti, victims of the big Red Scare, prompted protests. in the streets. And the nation first shocked by the horror of the Leopold-Loeb trial was later titillated by the Hall-Mills murder case.

Time tends to romanticize memories, however. The brutalities of Al Capone assume heroic proportions; people remember the daring of Lucky Lindy and forget the America Firster who openly backed the Nazi war machine. Similarly, one trial now enshrined in myth as a battle for religion was a great deal more.

At mid-decade of the 1920s one courtroom saga riveted the attention of the entire nation--the "Monkey Trial," a contest that purportedly pitted the forces of Darwin's scientific evolution against the basic religious beliefs of Christian Fundamentalists (Ginger). The defendant was John T. Scopes, a 24-year-old high school biology teacher (Scopes and Presley). In reality, the Scopes trial was a scheme, dreamed up by people who hoped to bring business to a small town, aided by those who saw political opportunity beckon and manipulated by the press to capitalize on the event.

The Scopes trial was dominated by a number of prominent figures who reduced Scopes to a minor role. Arguably, one of the most influential involved in that contest was H.L. Mencken, Baltimore newspaperman and editor of The American Mercury (Manchester, Disturber 137-56). Mencken, little-remembered by the general public today, was described by Walter Lippmann as "the most powerful influence on this whole generation of educated people" (Nolte 167). Mencken contrived to shape the course and events of the Scopes trial in a manner that transcends the role of a newsman reporting events.

When Mencken, nationally known writer for The Sun of Baltimore, led that newspaper's delegation to cover the Scopes trial in Dayton, Tennessee, in 1925, he spearheaded a distinguished group of reporters. The Sunpapers' staff was divided into two teams, from two competing but jointly owned newspapers (Johnson et al. 378-79). Mencken himself represented The Evening Sun, the paper that he was instrumental in forming, where he held forth on its editorial pages; another was Henry M. Hyde, a member of the staff since 1920 after coming board from the Chicago Tribune. Frank R. Kent reported for the morning Sun. He later won lasting fame as author of The Great Game of Politics, the book, taken from the title of his influential front-page political column, read for generations for its inside-Washington reporting on the President on down. Another member of that delegation, however, the youngest (only a year older than Scopes) and least-known, was the new editorial-page cartoonist for The Sun, Edmund Duffy. His graphic artwork played a significant role in the public's perception of the trial proceedings reported in the pages of The Sun, then one of America's most influential newspapers. …

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