Visiting the site of the Scopes trial

December 23, 1990|By Vince Fitzpatrickand Carol Fitzpatrick

DAYTON, Tenn. -- Picturesque Dayton, Tenn., lying alongside the Tennessee River north of Chattanooga, seems peaceful enough today. Surrounded by trees, the stately Rhea (pronounced "Ray") County Courthouse stands idyllically in the town square.

During the hot summer of 1925, however, this town witnessed the furious trial of John Scopes. A biology teacher at County High School, he taught the theory of evolution, forbidden by state law, and was arrested.

The trial marked "the outstanding media event" of the year. Portions of the proceedings were broadcast nationwide over the radio -- an American first --and more than 200 newspaper and magazine reporters converged upon the town.

William Jennings Bryan, the "Great Commoner" who was nominated three times for the presidency of the United States, prosecuted Scopes. Clarence Darrow, the noted civil libertarian, served as the main defense attorney. H. L. Mencken covered the event for the Baltimore Evening Sun. "To call a man a doubter in these parts," the agnostic snorted, "is to accuse him of cannibalism."

Scopes was convicted and fined $100, a verdict that was subsequently overturned. Bryan died soon after the trial, and 10 years later William Jennings Bryan College was established on a hill above Dayton. In 1960, after the filming of "Inherit the Wind," a play based loosely on the trial, Scopes returned and received a key to the town.

Built in 1890, the courthouse was declared a National Historic Landmark in 1977. The following year, the Scopes Evolution Trial Museum was opened.

Charging no admission, the museum offers an attractive, informative exhibition filled with pictures and other memorabilia. Its first section sets forth the conflict between "Genesis" and Charles Darwin's "Origin of Species," portrays the major principals and captures the frenzied ambience of the 1920s. The second narrates the major events of the trial. The third section, concerned with the press coverage, contains, among many other items, Mencken's column of July 11 in the Evening Sun.

Two flights up from the museum lies the courtroom, still in use. This spacious area -- more than 1,000 spectators packed it daily in 1925 -- is well lit by windows extending almost from floor to ceiling. Today's air conditioning has replaced the palm-leaf fans of yesteryear.

In July 1988, the Scopes trial was re-enacted, with dialogue supplied by the original transcripts. There are plans to to make this annual event, and the courthouse thereby will allow today's visitors to witness, more than 60 years after the event, America's most highly publicized struggle between science and religion.

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