Monkey Business on Main Street


“Primates”, “Morons”, and “Hillbillies”—these were just some of the colorful endearments journalist H.L Mencken showered on the citizens of Dayton, Tennessee while serving as America’s eyes and ears in this small town during the legendary Scopes Monkey Trial.  Yet, despite these disparaging labels, there is one thing nobody , including Mencken, could deny: the people of Dayton were not just savvy business people; they were decades ahead of their time. They did not need the O.J. Simpson trial to know that one sure fire way to bring people into town and boost their sagging economy was to host “The Trial of the Century”.

            The plot was hatched by a group of Dayton’s leading businessmen while sitting around a table at Robinson’s drugstore, the social center of town. The ACLU had been buying ads in newspapers across the state trying to recruit a teacher to challenge the Butler Act, a new law forbidding anyone to teach “any theory that denies the story of the Divine Creation of man as taught in the Bible.” Anyone found guilty of teaching that man was descended from “a lower order of animal” would be fined $100.00. In truth, the law was merely symbolic since every textbook in the state already addressed Darwin’s theory, but these town elders saw an opportunity to garner some much needed national publicity by arresting one of their teachers for violating this Act and then reaping the financial rewards of the media circus that would surely descend on the town once the trial began. The only problem: who to arrest?

            John Scopes, they decided, was the perfect candidate. He was a biology teacher at the local high school and an amiable character who might be willing to help the town out. Quickly, they summoned him to the drugstore, cutting short his game of tennis, and proposed their plan. Although he could not recall teaching evolution, he decided to go along with the scheme. Not only did he believe in Darwin’s theory, but, more importantly, one of the businessmen at the table was the president of the school board, and Scopes wanted to do his boss a favor.

            The scheme, of course, worked. Dayton’s hotels were soon spilling over with reporters from all over the world, and, as a bonus, the controversy attracted two celebrity lawyers as well. Two time Democratic presidential nominee and staunch anti-evolutionist William Jennings Bryan charged into town to lead the prosecution followed shortly after by famed Chicago attorney Clarence Darrow who had volunteered to argue the defense. Although colleagues at one time,  a chasm had formed between the two as Bryan’s religious beliefs—most notably that the theory of evolution was responsible for all the wrongs in the modern world—trumped his progressive political ideas. Darrow had been looking for an opportunity to publicly challenge Bryan, and Dayton’s courthouse seemed the perfect venue.   

            The trial ironically came to a climax on the seventh day when Darrow, forbidden by the judge to call expert testimony from scientists in support of evolution, took the unorthodox step of calling Bryan to the stand as an expert on the Bible. If he couldn’t prove evolution, he would force Bryan to admit that his overly literal reading of the book of Genesis was absurd. Questions about the likelihood that the earth was really created in seven days or that the female sex was truly fashioned from Adam ’s rib escalated into a furious argument that culminated with a logically trapped Bryan pounding his fist on the stand, exclaiming, “I am simply trying to protect the word of God against the greatest atheist or agnostic in the United States!” Despite his abysmal performance, however, Bryan won the case, but not without a cost. Five days later, after enduring thousands of ridiculing words in the world press and eating an enormous dinner, he died in his sleep.

            In the end, all was for naught for both the town of Dayton and the anti-evolution movement. After the trial, the Tennessee Supreme Court overturned the Butler Act, and, for all its effort, Dayton was left no more economically prosperous than it was before—except, of course, for a courthouse now considered an historical landmark.    


Dan Tarker