A Defense Expert's Impressions of the Scopes Trial
from D-Days at Dayton: Fundamentalism vs Evolution at Dayton, Tennessee
by Winterton C. Curtis (1956)

W. C. Curtis at the Scopes Trial

Note:  Winterton C. Curtis, a zoologist at the University of Missouri, was one of the defense experts brought to Dayton to testify.  Although blocked from testifying by Judge Raulston's ruling that the expert testimony would be irrelevant, Curtis said in his affidavit that evolution should be defined as the doctrine of how things have changed in the past, and how they are changing in the present. Curtis claimed that the doctrine of evolution could be divided into three categories: cosmic, geologic, and organic and that evolution is a necessary instrument in the search for answers to important cosmological, geological, and biological questions....In his autobiographical notes, Curtis reflected on the days he spent in Dayton for the Scopes trial:

With my background of participations in the controversy it was natural that I should be called in 1925 as one of the expert witnesses in the famous trial of John T. Scopes as a violator of the Tennessee law prohibiting the teaching of Evolution.  In response to a telegram from the American Civil Liberties Union, I reached Dayton in time for my evening meal of Monday, July 13.  The trial had opened the preceding Friday, after which the court had adjourned for the weekend.

I was met at the station by one of my fellow scientists and driven through the town to the house where we were to be quartered.  The business section surrounding the courthouse was alive with people, natives and visitors, and ablaze with banners or orthodoxy, such as: “Read Your Bible” –“Prepare to meet Thy God” –“Repent or Be Damned.”  Dayton was more like a town prepared for a Billy Sunday revival than for a court trail.  Above all, the town was overflowing with “Foreigners: come to see the show, every room for rent was taken and vacant second floors of store buildings were filled with cots.  I recall being in one of these lofts occupied by newspapermen.  A cold-water faucet over a sink at the back near the outside stairs and a privy in the backyard were the only toilet facilities for the 25 or 30 reporters who slept on the close-packed cots.

Quarters for the visiting scientists and for a few of the privileged newspapermen had been provided in a large house at the edge of town that had been the home of a local magnate but had stood unoccupied for years.  Acting for the American Civil Liberties Union, Dr. George Rappleyea, the Datyon citizen who had been most active in promoting the trial, had got the plumbing working again, had assembled furniture, dishes, and linen, and had employed servants so that we were comfortably housed and fed, even through the plumbing failed us more than once.

After breakfast each morning we were driven to the courthouse; at noon we returned for lunch at the “Mansion”, as we called it, and were driven again to the town for the afternoon court.  At night the lawyers dined with us and we would sit about the table, after it was cleared, talking over the events of the day and discussing the plans for the day following.  It was here that I got my close-ups of the lawyers for the defense.

Clarence Darrow was, of course, the “front” for our side; but it was evident that Arthur Garfield Hayes was the manager.  Dudley Field Malone impressed me as more of a politician than a lawyer, although he made some very effective speeches.  John Randolph Neal, the Tennessee lawyer, was evidently a man of caliber and principle.  For the prosecution William Jennings Bryan and his son were the only “foreign” lawyers in attendance.  Among the local defense lawyers I remember vividly one “General” Ben McKenzie who professed love at first sight for Darrow, and whose words “We have done crossed the Rubicon,” made newspaper headlines.

Here, there, and everywhere was the ubiquitous Dr. Rappleyea, who with Scopes had initiated the test case at Dayton.  He was a whole entertainment committee in one man and seemed a very competent fellow, whether the problem was one of meeting the press, finding one more sleeping room in town, or getting the sewer working again at the “Mansion.”  I’ve often wondered what became of him and his charming young wife, who like to ride horseback with her husband through the hills surrounding Dayton.

The judge John T. Raulston, seemed to enjoy himself tremendously as the commanding figure in a trial which was attracting world-wide interest.  His deference to Mr. Bryan was obvious, and we felt that his decisions day by day were too much in favor of the prosecution; but now 30 years later, as I read the stenographic record of the trial, it seems to me that he was not so partial as we thought.  He was acting according to his lights as well as his prejudices.  If it was for him the greatest responsibility of his legal career, who can blame him for being pleased to have his photograph taken repeatedly.  On one occasion, he stopped court until a camera man who had fallen from a stepladder could get himself perched again for his shot.

John T. Scopes might well have seemed more than pleased with himself as the center, of attraction; instead he was the acme of modesty.  No man could have conducted himself better under the limelight.  He impressed us as modest and without conceit thought always ready to do his part.  I thought of Scopes, when, in 1927, Charles A. Lindbergh stopped from his plane at the airport of Paris, and, not realizing that a crowd awaited him, introduced himself by saying, “I am Charles Lindbergh and I have flown the Atlantic."  John T. Scopes at Dayton was that kind of man.

Reporters were present in such numbers that I could well believe the statement they numbered more than 200 and that never before had there been so many reporters present at any trial.  Notable among them was H. L. Mencken, who had made himself so odious to the orthodox by his scathing criticisms of the Fundamentalist Crusade and its Crusaders.  As no seats were reserved for the expert witnesses we sat in the press chairs.  Many times I sat next to Mencken.  He resisted my attempts at conversation, but I got the flavor of the man from listening to his talk with other reporters.

The courtroom audience impressed me as honest country folk in jeans and calico.  “Boobs" perhaps, as judged by Mencken, and holding all the prejudices of backwoods Christian orthodoxy, but nevertheless a significant section of the backbone of democracy in the U.S.A.  They came to see their idol “the Great Commoner” and champion of the people meet the challenge to their faith.  They left bewildered but with their beliefs unchanged despite the manhandling of their idol by the “Infidel” from Chicago....

Scopes Trial Homepage