John Scopes
by Doug Linder (2004)
The defense found the ideal defendant in the person of twenty-four-year-old John Thomas Scopes.  Defense lawyer Arthur Garfield Hays said of Dayton’s popular new general science teacher and football coach, “Had we sought to find a defendant to present the issue, we could not improved upon the individual.”  Scopes was clean-cut, cared about teaching and intellectual inquiry, but exhibited no hostility to religion. 

John Scopes credits his English born father, Thomas Scopes, as being the major influence in his life.  In his autobiography Center of the Storm, John described his father as—next to Clarence Darrow—“the best read man I have ever known.”  One account has Thomas Scopes stepping off the boat at Galveston, Texas with four books in his luggage: the Bible, a hymn book, Carlyle’s The French Revolution, and Origin of Species by Charles Darwin. Thomas and his wife, Mary, insisted that their children read literature and philosophy—and quizzed them regularly on their readings.  They were especially proud of their fifth child, John, whom Thomas called “an extraordinary boy.” The politics of Thomas Scopes bent left as he became a railroad machinist, a union activist, pacifist, and a Socialist.  Although reared in the Church of England, Thomas Scopes moved toward agnosticism in his later years. 

When John was eleven, his family moved from Paducah, Kentucky to Danville, Illinois.  Five years later, they moved to the southern Illinois farming community of Salem, where John would graduate from high school.  Coincidentally, the most famous native son of Salem, and a man held in high esteem by Scopes, was William Jennings Bryan.  Scopes called Bryan, “the greatest man produced in the United States since Thomas Jefferson.”

John Scopes came to Dayton, Tennessee after graduating from the University of Kentucky in 1924, when the man who served as Rhea County High School’s principal, football coach, and algebra and physics teacher suddenly resigned in late summer.  In explaining the county’s decision to offer him a job, Scopes modestly explained, “I was the first applicant with proper qualifications to come to the attention of the School Board.”  Students and townspeople liked the boyish-looking and red-haired Scopes, although some frowned on his smoking habit and his dancing.  He attended the local Presbyterian Church—looking more for dates, he later admitted, than religion. 

A date “with a beautiful blonde” at an upcoming church social kept Scopes in Dayton for a few days beyond his originally scheduled departure in May of 1925, at the end of the Rhea County school term.  He was playing tennis one hot afternoon on the town’s tennis court when a small boy approached him.  You’re wanted down at “Doc” Robinson’s drugstore, the boy said. 

One of the enduring debates concerning the Scopes trial revolves around whether Scopes ever actually taught the subject of evolution.   George Rappalyea posed the question, holding up a copy of George W. Hunter’s Civic Biology, at Robinson’s drugstore. “You have been teaching ‘em this book?” he asked. Scopes answered, “Yes,” then went on to explain that, while substituting for the regular biology teacher in April 1925, he had assigned his students Hunter’s chapter on evolution.  Illness the next day, however, kept him home and, to his recollection, no class discussion of the evolution materials ever took place.  Scopes, however, remembered teaching the topic in a general way earlier in the same month to his general science students.


The entire prosecution case in the trial of John Scopes occupies less than two hours of a Wednesday afternoon session of court.  The state calls only four witnesses. School Superintendent Walter White and Fred Robinson both testify that Scopes, in a conversation at Robinson's drug store-soda fountain-book dispensary, admitted having taught evolution.  Howard Morgan, age 14, and Harry "Bud" Shelton, age 17, appear as two eyewitnesses to the crime.

Prosecutor Thomas Stewart calls Morgan, the son of the owner of the Dayton Bank and Trust company (and also owner of the home Clarence Darrow occupies during the trial), as his second witness.  Spectators smile as Morgan, a clean-cut boy wearing white pants and a white shirt, with a tie pulled down and to the side, nervously takes his seat in the witness chair.

A few days earlier, Morgan, having been tracked down by visiting members of the press anxious to know what effect the teaching of evolution might be having on Dayton's young people, eagerly offered his views on the subject.  "I lapped it up," he told one reporter, "all about monkeys and things."

Stewart asks Morgan if "Professor Scopes" ever taught him "anything about evolution."  "Yes sir," the boy replies in a barely audible voice.  "Just state in your own words, Howard, what he taught you and when it was," Stewart requests.  "It was along about the second of April.   He said that the earth was once a hot molten mass, too hot for plant or animal life to exist upon it.  In the sea, the earth cooled off; there was a little germ of one cell organism formed, and this organism kept evolving until it got to be a pretty good-sized animal, and then it came on to be a land animal, and it kept on evolving, and from this was man."  From the defense table, Arthur Garfield Hays offers his congratulations on Morgan's history of life on earth: "Go to the head of the class."  Stewart asks Morgan if Scopes classified "man with reference to other animals."  He had, Morgan says, called humans "mammals."

In his cross-examination, Clarence Darrow focuses his attention on the question of what it meant to be classified a mammal.  "Dogs and horses, monkeys, cows, man, whales: he said all of those were mammals?"  "Yes sir," Morgan answers, "but I don't know about the whales."  Apart from calling man a mammal, Darrow wants to know, "Did he tell you anything else that was wicked?"  Morgan looks at his teacher and smiles.  "No, not that I remember of," he finally answers.  "It has not hurt you any, has it?" Darrow asks, concluding his cross-examination.  "No sir," Morgan answers.  As the courtroom erupts in laughter, Darrow turns to Mrs. Rappalyea, seated behind him, and asks, "Would you believe this is the twentieth century?"

Harry Shelton takes the stand next.  Three years older than Howard, Harry studied evolution in Biology in mid-April, when Scopes substituted for an ill teacher.  Shelton testifies that Scopes reviewed the chapter on evolution in George Hunter's Civic Biology.  He offers little elaboration: "He taught all forms of life begin with a cell."  Darrow questions Shelton only briefly.  He asks, "You didn't leave church when he told you all forms of life begin with a single cell?"  "No sir," Shelton answers.  

His brief part in the drama having been played, Shelton leaves the courtroom with Morgan. A reporter overhears Shelton asking his friend, "Don't you think Bryan is a little narrow-minded?"

Later that day, a visiting reporter interviews mothers of the teenagers.  Howard's mother tells the reporter, "The teaching of evolution hasn't hurt me or my boy.  I don't think any of us here in the mountains have studied evolution enough.  I wish I knew more about it."  Harry's mother expresses a similar view.  "As far as I'm concerned," she says, "they can teach my boy evolution every day of the year."  She adds that the subject threatened little harm because "he had forgotten most of his lessons" and "had to get the book out and study it up" for trial.


Scopes later described the fateful meeting at Robinson’s that led to his agreeing to test the Butler Act as “just a drugstore conversation that got past control.” Many times over the coming months, he would regret having anything to do with the case.  Scopes had hoped to spend the summer selling Fords for a five per cent commission, but with the comings and goings in Dayton, there was little time to make extra money.  Had it not been for his father, who insisted the trial was John’s chance to serve his country, Scopes might have terminated his involvement. 

Defendants, as a general rule, select their own attorneys.  In the Scopes case, however, the ACLU—as the organization that would pay the defense bills—had its own strong ideas about who should defend the teaching of evolution, and those ideas did not include Clarence Darrow.  The ACLU asked Scopes to travel to its headquarters in New York City in early June for several days of meetings to decide the important question of representation. 

Reporters peppered Scopes and his party with questions when they arrived at Pennsylvania Station.  Scopes told the journalists that he did not expect to testify in his upcoming trial because it “would look rather foolish for me to express my opinions, which really don’t amount to much, as to evolution and religion, when I may be able to get able men who are authorities on such subjects to testify for me.”  He expected to be convicted because “it’s pretty hard in Tennessee to find twelve men who wouldn’t want to convict me.” Scopes complained mildly about “the fine mess I got myself into,” but added that he thought the case “an important for everyone in the country.” “All of biology,” Scopes declared, is “basically the story of the evolution of matter and life; I was hired to teach science, and I went ahead and taught it.” In response to a question about his own religious beliefs, Scopes said, “I don’t know if I’m a Christian, …but I believe there is a God.” In any event, he added, his views had not been “contaminated or ruined by studying evolution.”

The next day, after a swim at the Yale Club, Scopes attended a lengthy meeting that, according to him, “mostly amounted to a briefing.”  For the next few days, the meetings “were a rehash of the first meeting.”  Scopes became convinced “the group was stalling.” He also got the distinct impression, he said, that the ACLU was “afraid that I would give them some kind of trouble.”

Scopes filled his spare time with sightseeing, including a trip to the American Museum of Natural History, where he met with the nation’s leading paleontologist and authority on evolution, Dr. Henry Fairfield Osborn.  In 1922, as William Jennings Bryan launched his crusade against evolution, Osborn had invited Bryan to visit the museum and see for himself the fossil evidence supporting evolution.  Bryan replied that he had “no time” for a visit, and mocked Osborn as “a tall professor coming down out of the trees who would push good people not believing in evolution off the sidewalk.”  Although the illness of his wife would keep him from traveling to Dayton, Osborn told Scopes, he freely offered advice about scientific experts the defense should call and promised Scopes that he would seek a testimonial letter from Major Leonard Darwin, the son of Charles Darwin.

Finally, an event that promised some decisions: a luncheon-conference which would be attended by fifteen to twenty leading civil libertarians from Washington, Philadelphia, New York, and Boston.  (Among the attendees: Professor Felix Frankfurter of Harvard (later to be Supreme Court Justice Frankfurter) and Socialist Party leader, Norman Thomas.) Scopes sat next to Dudley Field Malone, a prominent New York international divorce lawyer.  While the two men ate, Malone pushed the case for hiring America’s most famous defense lawyer and his personal friend, Clarence Darrow. 

After ACLU Director Roger Baldwin called the business portion of the program to order, Malone rose to address the group.  Malone announced, “I am authorized by Mr. Clarence Darrow to offer his services as a defense counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union and to this steering committee for the Dayton case.  He will pay all of his expenses and will not accept a fee.  He guarantees to remain as an active counsel until a final decision has been reached.  Speaking for myself, I, Dudley Field Malone, offer you the same proposition.” According to Scopes, “bitter arguments—not discussions”—followed Malone’s announcement.  Speakers worried that Darrow’s outspoken agnosticism, coupled with his controversial defense the year before of two young thrill killers (Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb) made him a poor choice for the Scopes defense.  Other speakers felt the presence in Dayton of this “headline chaser” would “obscure the real issue.”

In the end, however, someone on the steering committee thought to ask John Scopes himself who he might want to represent him.  “I pointed out to the group,” Scopes later recalled, “that if they thought that Darrow would have too much influence on the course of events, then they had forgotten apparently that William Jennings Bryan was himself a well-known figure.”  The headlines were already “playing up” Bryan and his side needed an attention-grabber, too.  Besides, Scopes suggested, speakers concerned about Darrow sensationalizing the case should see Dayton as it was the day he left for New York.  “There was not enough room in that part of Tennessee to accommodate any more medicine men, traveling evangelists, and screwballs than were already there.”  If a carnival atmosphere obscures our real issue then, Scopes concluded, our cause is “lost already.”  “It was going to be a down-in-the-mud fight,” and he wanted “an Indian fighter rather than someone who graduated from the proper military academy.”  Scopes concluded: “I would like to have Darrow and Malone join the battle in our behalf.” 

“The hard core of opposition to Darrow as senior defense counsel died hard,” Scopes reported, but on a vote his offer was accepted—“but just barely.” ACLU Director Baldwin expressed his own displeasure with the Darrow appointment by canceling plans to attend the most famous trial ever handled by the organization he helped found. 

After news that his offer to help defend Scopes had been accepted, Darrow hastened by train from Chicago to New York, where a final banquet was held at the Civic Club.  Darrow sobered the assembled guests with his prediction (not unreasonable in Darwinian terms) that “Man will probably stick around another half million [years], and then give way to something else.”  In the meantime, he said, we should “try to interfere as little as possible with other people, and to cultivate a spirit of tolerance and charity.” Professor Neal invited everyone to Dayton where, he promised, they would find good weather and no mosquitoes.  Scopes also spoke.  He told the crowd that “Education means broadening…If you limit a teacher to only one side of anything the whole country will eventually have only one thought, be one individual.  I believe in teaching every aspect of every problem or theory.” 

From New York, Scopes headed back to Tennessee by way of Washington.  He took time in the nation’s capital to inspect a copy of the Constitution at the Library of Congress, and take in the majesty of the Supreme Court’s marble hearing room, where—it was hoped at the time—his case might someday end up.

On July 7, William Jennings Bryan arrived by train in Dayton, and that evening the Dayton Progressive Club hosted a dinner in his honor. When John Scopes (as “a non-paying deadhead,” to use his own words) met Bryan at the banquet, the Great Commoner recalled an earlier meeting when he delivered the address at John’s commencement in Salem.  “John, we are opposite sides this time.  I hope we will not let that interfere in any way with our relationship,” Bryan told Scopes.  “Mr. Bryan, everyone has the right to think in accordance with the way he sees things and to act accordingly.  Believing differently on some issues should not influence the degree of respect and friendship one has for one another.”  As he took his seat, Bryan replied, “Good, we shall get along fine.” Heeding his doctor’s warning to avoid white bread because of its starch content, Bryan instead loaded his plate with potatoes and heaped sugar into his cup of tea—much to the amusement of Scopes, who took it as a sign of the Great Commoner’s weak understanding of science. Worn out from two nearly all-night drives, Scopes dozed through much of the evening’s speeches.  He barely reacted when Bryan jokingly told the crowd that “capital punishment is not to be inflicted in this case—unfortunately!”

Clarence Darrow arrived the next day.  Scopes, joined by his sixty-five-year-old father down from Paducah, Kentucky, greeted Darrow’s train. Scopes shook hands with his lawyer for the benefit of photographers, and then drove him off to the George Rappalyea’s refurbished Mansion.  To show their impartiality, the Dayton Progressive Club hosted a banquet for Darrow at the Hotel Aqua that was virtually identical—down to the menu—to the one they had hosted the night before for Bryan. 

In the busy two days before the start of his trial, in addition to greeting arriving lawyers and taking daily swims, Scopes showed his father around Dayton.  Thomas Scopes enjoyed the attention.  He told one reporter, “A father just naturally has to stick by his own flesh and blood, ma’am—no matter what they’ve done.”  His embarrassed son, listening to the conversation while seated in his yellow racing car, interjected: “Don’t blow so much, dad.”  Later, the two Scopes family members talked amiably with reporters at Robinson’s drug store.  The elder Scopes was opining that “I can’t think that a man that has read as much and seen as much as the world as Bryan can believe the things he says” when Bryan walked out from behind the prescription counted.  John quickly cut off his father: “Well, Mr. Bryan! I want you to meet my father.” When a photographer rushed to capture the chance meeting Thomas Scopes said, “My wife told me that if I let any of you fellows catch me in a newspaper photograph she’d get a divorce.” 

On the first day of his trial, Scopes appeared in court wearing a blue shirt and a hand-painted bow tie.  He took a seat in the front row between his father and George Rappalyea.  John Washington Butler sat nearby in the same row.  At 9:22 on Friday, July 10, 1925, Judge John Raulston called the case of State vs. John Thomas Scopes.  A grand jury was quickly empaneled and Raulston read the Butler Act that Scopes stood accused of violating.  Then he read the first chapter of Genesis.  He told the jury to “investigate” the charge against Scopes, and if they find a violation of the act, to “promptly return a bill.” 

The fondness of Rhea County students for their new teacher threatened to derail the proceedings.  One young boy told a reporter, “If Scopes doesn’t come back to school, there will be trouble from all the kids,”  and when the time came for three students of Scopes to testify to the grand jury, they were nowhere to be found.  Apparently, they took off for the woods fearing that their testimony might harm their teacher.  It fell to Scopes to track down the fugitives and return them to the courthouse to fulfill their assigned task in Dayton’s great summer drama.  That mission, it turned out, was the last significant role Scopes would play in the trial that bears his name.

Scopes quickly fell into the daily trial routine.  After spending one hot morning in court, Scopes and William Jennings Bryan, Jr. (who Scopes described as a “retiring and pleasant fellow,” and very unlike his famous father) headed out during the noon recess for a quick swim in a natural pool in the eroded limestone of the nearby foothills.  They arrived a few minutes late for the afternoon session.  Arthur Garfield Hays turned to Scopes when he finally took his seat at the defense table: “Where in the hell have you been?”  After Scopes answered, the defense lawyer lectured the young teacher on the importance of punctuality in trials.


Shortly after eleven o’clock on the morning of the last day of the Scopes trial, the jury deliberates its verdict.  There is no question what they will decide.  Defense attorney Clarence Darrow has asked the jury to come back with a verdict of “Guilty” so that the case might be taken to a higher court. After nine minutes, the jury completes its discussion on the courthouse lawn and returns inside to announce its verdict.

The foreman, at the request of John Raulston stands.  “Mr. Foreman, will you tell us whether you have agreed on a verdict?”   The foreman says the jury had reached a verdict.  “What did you find?” Raulston asks.  “We have found for the state, found the defendant guilty,” the foreman answers.

Judge Raulston asks John Scopes to come before him.  He proceeds to pronounce his sentence, fixing his fine at one hundred dollars.  Then, almost as an afterthought, Raulston asks if Scopes wished to say anything “as to why the court should not impose punishment upon you.”  The defendant, coatless and looking rather tired, moves away from his lawyers and looks directly into the eyes of the judge.  “Your Honor,” the young teacher says, “I feel that I have been convicted of violating an unjust statute. I will continue in the future, as I have in the past, to oppose this law in any way I can. Any other action would be in violation of my ideal of academic freedom—that is, to teach the truth as guaranteed in our Constitution of personal and religious freedom. I think the fine is unjust.”


Before leaving town, Kirtley Mather, one of the defense’s scientific experts  and later to become a close friend of paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould, asked Scopes if might be interested in attending graduate school.  Scopes replied that he would be, especially if the opportunity were to study geology at the University of Chicago.  Mather and the other experts organized a committee, headed by former Stanford University president David Starr Jordan, to raise funds for the graduate education of John Scopes.  Within a short period of time, a mimeographed appeal to scientists raised sufficient funds to make Mather’s promise a reality.

With the prospect of a free graduate school education at a prestigious university, Scopes declined the offer—conditioned on Scopes’s willingness to “adhere to the spirit of the evolution law” —to return to Rhea County High for the 1925-26 year.

In the days and weeks following the trial, letters and telegrams poured into Scopes.  One writer offered Scopes a position as the Bishop of a new liberal church; several female writers proposed marriage; fundamentalists asked if they could “save” him.  The mail arrived in such a volume that Dayton had to hire an extra postal officer to deliver it daily in a washtub.  The letters included offers from motion picture companies and lecture promoters, all of which Scopes declined.  He wanted only, he said, “peace and emotional stability.”  He had “too much respect for the issues involved in the trial” to want to make “a quick dollar.”  When the continuing deluge of mail threatened to take over a second room in his rented home, Scopes and two friends “scooped up the letters by double armloads and dumped them in the yard.”  Each of the three men let a match and then watched the mostly unopened mail go up in flames.

When the movie version of Inherit the Wind opened in 1960, producer Stanley Kramer asked Scopes, then a commercial geologist at United Gas in Shreveport, to travel to Dayton to promote the film’s premiere on the 35th anniversary of the trial.  Back—for the first time in over three decades—in the small town that made him famous, Scopes listened as Mayor J. J. Rogers proclaimed Scopes Trial Day and presented him with the key to the city.

Two years later, at age sixty-seven, Scopes finished his memoirs.  That very year a challenge to a state antievolution law finally reached the United States Supreme Court, where the statute would be struck down as violating the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause.  Scopes expressed optimism in his book, Center of the Storm, that, “The day will come when we will not be bothered by Fundamentalists.”  His humility concerning his own role remained:  “I furnished the body that was needed to sit in the defendant’s chair.”  He felt at peace with the fact that his life would forever be defined by a drugstore conversation that got out of hand.  “A man’s fate,” he wrote, “is often stranger than anything the imagination may produce.”