The Trial of the Century? Not OJ. Not the Manson gang.

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By Jackie Watts, Menckeniana Editor

The State of Tennessee v. Scopes, which began on July 10, 1925, was the first trial subjected to the massive burden of worldwide attention. Before the formation of any of America’s three major broadcast networks, Chicago’s WGN Radio transmitted the trial to a huge, at least in those days, national audience.

John T. Scopes

Journalists from around the world descended on little Dayton, Tenn., a town of about 1,800 citizens, to cover the story of a schoolteacher on trial for teaching the theory of evolution.

The schoolteacher was John T. Scopes, science instructor and football coach at Rhea County High School. He volunteered to defy Tennessee’s recently passed Butler Act, which forbade the teaching of evolution in state schools—despite the fact that the state-approved textbook, Hunter’s Civic Biology, was an evolution text.

The civic leaders of Dayton recruited Scopes because they were alarmed at the civil-liberties implications of the new law, but also because they figured that a big, showy trial would be good for Dayton’s flagging economy.

Tennessee v. Scopes had all the earmarks of a Trial of the Century—celebrity prosecutor (William Jennings Bryan), celebrity defense attorney (Clarence Darrow), a befuddled judge (The Hon. John T. Raulston), and a huge cohort of celebrity journalists.

Chief among the celebrities at the Scopes trial was Henry Louis Mencken, “The Sage of Baltimore,” a nationally celebrated columnist and critic who parked his typewriter at Baltimore’s Evening Sun. Though Mencken had a huge following in the United States, the Scopes trial would spread his fame worldwide.

H.L. Mencken

To cover the Scopes trial, Mencken set up in a boarding house near Chattanooga with his typewriter and four bottles of Scotch he brought from Baltimore. (It was Prohibition, and who knew if there was a liquor to be found in a conservative state like Tennessee? It turned out that there was a ready supply of moonshine, but why sip ‘shine when you have Scotch?)

Mencken caught the tone of the trial immediately in his dispatches to Baltimore. At first he dubbed it “the Trial of the Infidel Scopes” and later, the title that stuck, “the Monkey Trial.” He predicted on Day One, during jury selection, that Scopes would not receive a fair trial: “Impossibility of Obtaining Fair Jury Insures Scopes’ Conviction, Says Mencken,” was the headline of his second column. His third: “Mencken Likens Trial to a Religious Orgy, with Defendant a Beelzebub.”

You get the picture.

Sure enough, Scopes was convicted after a nine-minute jury deliberation. Raulston fined him the maximum—$100, which was paid cheerfully by the Baltimore Evening Sun. A year later, the Tennessee Supreme Court overturned the conviction on a technicality, ruling that the fine should have been set by the jury, not the judge. Then the court dismissed the case, stating “Nothing is to be gained by prolonging the life of this bizarre case.”
Mencken’s lively, scathing, sardonic accounts of the trial have kept it alive, however. These days little Dayton, Tenn. holds a festival on the anniversary of the trial’s opening.

The Enoch Pratt Free Library has the largest and most important collection of Mencken material in the world. It is a magnet for Mencken scholars and fans. Visit the H.L. Mencken Room at the Central Branch to see his books, typewriter, and portrait. If you make an appointment with the curator, you may even be able to view the vast collection still in storage. You can also explore the digital Mencken Collection on the Maryland Digital Cultural Heritage Website.

Read more about the Scopes Trial in books from the Pratt Catalog.

Scopes Trial
Tennessee v. John T. Scopes Trial: Outdoor proceedings on July 20, 1925, showing William Jennings Bryan and Clarence Darrow. From the Smithsonian Institution collection of Scopes Trial Images.

Jacqueline Watts has enjoyed a 30-year career in local and community journalism. She recently finished a 22-year stint at the Baltimore Guide, where she served as editor and columnist. She began her position as Editor at Menckeniana in July, 2012.

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