George Rappalyea
by Doug Linder (2004)

George Rappalyea looked out of place in Dayton, Tennessee, a quiet town of 1,800 nestled in the Cumberland Mountains of southeastern Tennessee.  The Chattanooga Times described the energetic thirty-one year old chemical and mining engineer as “a stranger to the south and southern ways.”  He appeared Jewish, though his ancestry was French.  He was short, with brown eyes, horned-rimmed glasses, olive complexion, and bushy, black hair.  He spoke with a New York accent, a product of having grown up on Third Avenue in New York City where, as a boy, Rappalyea sold papers at the entrance to the Times Square subway station. 

An unfortunate encounter with a copperhead while surveying a Tennessee farm led to Rappalyea’s decision to settle in Dayton in 1922.  He married Ova Corvin, the charming nurse who tended to his bite.  Ova took great pleasure, according to an expert scientist who came to Tennessee for the Scopes trial, in riding horseback with her husband in the hills surrounding Dayton. Ova’s brother operated a grocery store in Dayton and helped land Rappalyea a job as manager of the bankrupt Cumberland Coal and Iron Company.  Under his supervision, men cut up furnaces and mining machinery for scrap and, from time to time, dug a little coal.

Although he’d not previously been a regular churchgoer, Rappalyea began attending a Methodist church in Dayton.  The church’s young modernist minister, Howard Byrd, convinced Rappalyea that evolution presented no conflict with Christianity, as properly understood.  Byrd baptized Rappalyea and made him superintendant of the Sunday school at Five Points Methodist Church.

Rappalyea traces his resolve to fight the new Butler Act to the funeral of an six-year-old boy, the son of one of his workers, who had been killed in the family Ford by the Southern Railroad’s oncoming Royal Palm Express.  The fundamentalist preacher, standing over the small coffin, told Rappalyea and other funeral attendees that the poor young boy was doomed to the “flames of hell” because he had never been baptized.   After the service, Rappalyea questioned the minister, accusing him of “torturing” the already anguished mother of the dead boy.  The minister replied that couldn’t “lie” for anybody; it was his “duty to preach the word of God.”  Rappalyea, still seething, told the minister, “If your conscience won’t let you think of anything that will bring a little comfort to that poor creature, shut up!” A few days later, when news came that the anti-evolution bill had become law, Rappalyea, retelling the story said, “I made up my mind I’d show this same bunch, the Fundamentalists, to the world.”  Rappalyea’s resolve strengthened when he took a boat trip, hosted by a strict Fundamentalist, soon after the boy’s funeral on the Tennessee River.  “All of them kidded me.  I couldn’t even argue with my host, but I told the others I would get even.”   

Rappalyea blew off some steam by writing a letter critical of the Butler Act to the Chattanooga Times, but he saw his real chance to challenge the new law when, while sitting in his office at the coal yard, he spotted a story in that same paper.  The story in the May 4th edition quoted an American Civil Liberties Union chairperson, Professor Charles Skinner, as saying the organization was “looking for a Tennessee teacher who is willing to accept our services in testing this law in the courts.”  Rappalyea trotted off to Fred E. Robinson’s fountain and drugstore, the favorite gathering spot for the town’s movers and shakers.  Rappalyea asked Robinson, who doubled as the chairman of the Rhea County school board, whether he’d seen the ACLU ad in the morning paper.  He said that he hadn’t.  Rappalyea then described his plan to test the Butler Act in Dayton’s own Rhea County Courthouse.  He’d need a teacher to volunteer to serve as a defendant in the test case, of course, and if he could find one, he’d contact the ACLU in New York. 

Rappalyea’s idea found considerable support among Dayton’s elite, many of whom saw the test case as providing a potential boost to the town’s recently troubled economy.  Robinson said he liked the plan.  School Superintendent Walter White, who had a more positive view of the antievolution law, was skeptical, but came around to the idea.  Local attorney John Godsey offered to defend.  Sue and Herbert Hicks, Dayton’s two young city attorneys, agreed to prosecute, if a willing teaching could be found.  Sensing sufficient local support for his project, Rappalyea called the ACLU, which promised to honor its advertised pledge.

Fred Robinson asked a high school student, who happened to be enjoying a soda at the drugstore’s fountain, to locate and bring back John Scopes, the twenty-four-year- old general science instructor and football coach at the high school.  The student found Scopes on a nearby tennis court.  After Scopes showed up at Robinson’s and took a seat , Rappalyea asked the young teacher, “John, we’ve been arguing, and I said that nobody could teach biology without teaching evolution.”  “That’s right,” Scopes answered.  He added that the book he used, Hunter’s A Civic Biology, included a unit on the subject.  Conveniently, Robinson’s drugstore also sold textbooks, and a copy of A Civic Biology was hastily retrieved and examined.  Scopes told Rappalyea and the other men that used the book while filling in for the principal, the school’s regular biology teacher, during his recent illness.  “Then you’ve been violating the law,” Robinson concluded.  Robinson then asked Scopes whether he’d “be willing to stand for a test case.”  Rappalyea urged Scopes to agree, and he did. 

Rappalyea announced he’d swear out the warrant for the “arrest” of Scopes and then proceeded to wire the ACLU in New York.  “WIRE ME COLLECT IF YOU WISH TO COOPERATE AND ARREST WILL FOLLOW,” the telegram concluded. A few days later, after receiving in a reply telegram the ACLU’s promise of financial support, Rappalyea spotted a deputy sheriff walking the street in front of Robinson’s.  He rushed out to hand him the warrant demanding the arrest of Scopes, and the legal machinery that would produce America’s strangest and most enduring trial was set in motion.

 Rappalyea had his own idea about who should serve on the Scopes defense team.  His first choice was writer H. G. Wells, author of the science fiction classic War of the Worlds.  Rappalyea told reporters, “I am sure that in the interest of science Mr. Wells will consent.”  Wells, in London, dismissed the idea saying, “I have never heard of Dayton.” Rappalyea also mentioned philosopher John Dewey as a possible candidate to defend Scopes, but that idea never took either.  Several other notable attorneys, however, soon jumped in to offer their services.  John Randolph Neal, an eccentric University of Tennessee law professor volunteered first, followed by America’s most famous defense attorney, Clarence Darrow, and a international divorce lawyer, Dudley Field Malone. 

Rappalyea expressed serious misgivings about Darrow, fearing that Darrow, a well-known agnostic, would turn the trial into an attack on religion rather, than as he favored, a debate on whether a modernist view of Christianity could be reconciled with the theory of evolution.  “Dr. Neal accepted Darrow’s help in this case, “ Rappalyea said, “I wish he had not.”


On the lawn outside the Rhea County Courthouse, Darrow continues his harsh examination of William Jennings Bryan.  He identifies one miracle after another in the Bible, and demands to know whether Bryan believed each miracle actually happened.  Did Joshua make the sun stand still?  Did a whale really swallow Jonah?  Did God really confuse the tongues of those arrogant enough to build the Tower of Babel?  Was Eve “literally made out of Adam’s rib”? 

The exchanges become increasingly testy.  Bryan accuses Darrow of calling the spectators in the bleachers “yokels.”  Darrow angrily replies, “I have never called them yokels.”  Bryan insists, “Those are the people you insult” with your charges of ignorance and bigotry.  Darrow responds, “You insult every man of science and learning in the world because he does not believe in your fool religion.”  Judge Raulston jumps in, “I will not stand for that!” (t, 288)

Minutes later, Attorney General Stewart rises to object to the merciless examination.  “What is the purpose of this examination?” Bryan offers his opinion: “The purpose is to cast ridicule on every body who believes in the Bible.”  Darrow follows with his answer to Stewart’s question: “We have the purpose of preventing bigots and ignoramuses from controlling the education of the United States—and you know it.”  (t, 299)

Bryan decides to explain his decision to take the stand.  “I am simply trying to protect the word of God against the greatest atheist or agnostic in the United States.”  The crowd erupts in loud applause, before Bryan can continue.  “I am not afraid to get on the stand in front of him and let him do his worst.  I want the world to know.”  The crowd responds again with prolonged applause.  Darrow turns to the crowd and says, “I wish I could get a picture of these clackers.”  (t, 299)

The face-off in the hot sun of the courtyard continues.  Bryan repeatedly takes a handkerchief to wipe the sweat off his brow.  Darrow asks Bryan whether the reason snakes crawl on their belly was because a snake in the Garden of Eden tempted Eve with an apple.  Bryan says, “I believe that.”  Darrow asks how snakes walked before the apple incident: “Do you know whether he walked on his tail or not?”  Bryan, to laughter in the audience, replies, “No, sir. I have no way to know.” 

As Darrow moves on to his next miracle, relating to the ending of the Great Flood, Bryan blasts back at Darrow.  “I want the world to know that this man, who does not believe in a God, is trying to use a court in Tennesseee to slur at [the Bible].”  Darrow breaks in, “I object to that.”  He tries to shout down his adversary, “I object to your statement. I am exempting you on your fool ideas that no intelligent Christian on earth believes.”  (t, 303-04)

Judge Raulston has had enough.  He adjourns court.


Reports of a possible competing Butler Act prosecution, this one of a Chattanooga teacher, precipitated an urgent meeting of Rappalyea and other Dayton trial boosters.  Most Daytonians at the gathering expressed outrage that the nearby large city would try to deprive them of their moment in the national spotlight.  Prosecutor Sue Hicks called the move by Chattanooga prosecutors “dirty tactics.”  When Rappalyea stood to express his disgust with the events in Chattanooga, he was rushed Thurlow Reed, who ran a barbershop across the street from Dayton’s main hotel.  Yelling, “You can’t call my family monkeys!” Reed bit the seemingly surprised Rappalyea on the hand before others in attendance pulled the barber off.   Papers loved the story.  Later, however, Rappalyea revealed the fight was a staged event, designed to publicize the coming trial.  

In late May, Rappalyea, in a speech to his Five Points Methodist Episcopal congregation, announced that—in view of his leading role in the upcoming trial--he intended to resign his position as superintendent of the Sunday School.  Church members did not urge him to reconsider.  Before the trial began, Rappalyea’s own minister, Howard Byrd, also offered his resignation.  Byrd became upset when church trustees told him they would “lock him out of his own church” if we followed through with his announced plan to let a Unitarian minister from New York speak from the church pulpit. Urged to reconsider, Byrd refused saying, “No, not after this.  I didn’t know they were so narrow-minded.”

As stage manager of the Scopes trial, Rappalyea make countless arrangements.   Fixing up an abandoned eighteen-room house, called by locals “The Mansion,” occupied much of his time.  Many townspeople believed the frame house, yellow with brown trim set on a little hill and shaded by large trees, to be haunted.  The Mansion was the largest house in Dayton and the only one capable of housing all of the defense’s scientific experts.  About a mile from town, it also had the benefit of relative seclusion––considered a very good thing in the heated atmosphere surrounding the trial.  A few short weeks before the start of the trial, the house stood without screens, without furniture, without electricity, and without a usable plumbing system.  But Rappalyea got it ready.  He arranged for screens to be fixed, for sewer hook ups, and hired servants.  He carried in iron cots, Japanese mats, tables, chairs, spittoons, and lots of candles.


The last day of the Scopes trial, and both William Jennings Bryan and Clarence Darrow have given their final remarks to the crowd at the Rhea County Courthouse.  Judge Raulston asks if anyone else would like to be heard.  George Rappalyea rises from his front row seat and answers, “Yes, your honor.”

Rappalyea remarks that it has been said that, “Big movements make big men, but this the case of the reverse, where big men have made big movements.”  He thanks William Jennings Bryan for “relieving me of the embarrassing position I was in as the original prosecutor, and carrying through what he thought was right despite the criticisms that he has had.”  Turning in the direction of the Great Commoner, Rappalyea bows his head slightly and says, “Mr. Bryan, I thank you.” (t, 317)


Five days later, Bryan died of a heart attack.  Rappalyea told ACLU officials in New York, “The death of Bryan swept away any victory we might have gained before the people of Tennessee.  I am the only modernist that now remains in Dayton.” 

Some people blamed Rappalyea for Bryan’s sudden death.  A man he considered a friend surprised him by asking, “You killed a good man like Bryan; who else have you killed lately?”  A reporter warned Dayton that he might get shot.  Rappalyea took the first opportunity to leave Dayton, a job offer at an investment company in Mobile.  Later he became vice president of a boat building company in New Orleans, before finally settling in Miami