CONTEXT

July 10, 2010

Trying Darwin

A trial in Dayton, Tennessee, opened on this day in 1925 and it was hot, even for Tennessee.  The case was the state v. John Scopes, a high school teacher who was accused of violating the recently enacted Butler Act, which prohibited the teaching of evolution.

Courthouse where the Scopes trial took place, now a National Historic Landmark.

Scopes’s attorney was Clarence Darrow, the state was represented by William Jennings Bryan.  Very big names at the time – Bryan, a famous orator,  had been a presidential candidate, Darrow was a progressive who represented labor leader Bill Haywood. (Vigorously anti-death penalty, he pled Leopold and Loeb guilty and successfully argued for life sentences for them instead of execution.)

Newspaper and radio reporters swarmed into Dayton and the courtroom was packed every day for three weeks.  It got so hot inside that the judge moved the proceedings out onto the lawn.

You can watch it all in ‘Inherit the Wind,’ a great movie starring Frederic March as Bryan and Spencer Tracy as Darrow.What the movie doesn’t show is how the ACLU urged Scopes to go along with their plan to challenge the Butler Act and how the Baltimore Sun paid his bail.  It was a real media event.

Darrow questions Bryan. Photo by Watson Davis, Managing Editor of Science Service, while he was in Dayton, Courtesy Smithsonian Institution.

Predictably, Scopes was found guilty and fined $100. On appeal, the state Supreme Court set aside the verdict on a technicality.

In 1967, Tennessee was threatened with another lawsuit by a teacher on First Amendment grounds and so the legislature repealed the Butler Act.  Meanwhile, the U.S. Supreme Court heard an Arkansas case on the same issue and in 1968 ruled that a ban on teaching evolution was based on religion and therefore unconstitutional.

And that of course was the end of the debate over the teaching of evolution.

There are some great photographs of the trial – notably on the Smithsonian Institution site -but there is also, surprisingly, some very rare film footage on YouTube.

Lest we forget,  a hailstorm in Rostov, Russia, on this day in 1923 dropped two-pound hailstones, killing 23 people and a number of cows.

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1 Comment »

  1. this is cool

    Comment by ninachat — July 12, 2010 @ 9:57 am | Reply


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