John Thomas Scopes, a substitute science teacher in Tennessee, was found guilty of teaching evolution in school.

In March 1925 Tennessee governor Austin Peay signed into law the Butler Act, which prohibited teachers in state-funded schools from teaching human evolution as it went against the Biblical account of mankind’s origins. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) soon announced that it was keen to finance a legal test case to challenge the constitutionality of the Butler Act if a teacher was willing to act as the defendant.

George Rappleyea, the manager of the Cumberland Coal and Iron Company in the small Tennessee town of Dayton, believed that a trial of this type could bring valuable publicity to the town. With the support of other local community leaders he approached 24-year-old John T. Scopes. Although Scopes couldn’t recall specifically teaching evolution he did accept that he may have gone through the state-endorsed textbook chapter and chart relating to it. His students were consequently encouraged to testify against him, which led to his indictment on 25 May and the subsequent trial that began on 10 July.

The ‘Monkey Trial’ brought enormous crowds to Dayton where their attention was split between carnival entertainments such as performing chimpanzees on the courthouse lawn, and the numerous preachers who converged on the town to address the crowds.

The trial’s bitter exchanges between the prosecution and defence generated extensive media coverage on both sides of the Atlantic for almost two weeks before Scopes was found guilty and ordered to pay a fine of $100, the minimum amount possible. The Tennessee Supreme Court later overruled the verdict on a technicality, but the Butler Act stayed in place until its repeal in 1967.

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