‘It can be personally gratifying for one to have a small cult following of course; but it should be incumbent upon one to avoid—if only for reasons of personal health, safety and future well being—any utterances, movements or actions that might inadvertently incite the fervour of said “cult“, and in so doing possibly expand its constituent membership and solidarity so as to further increase the speed at which said cult is travelling towards one.’ © Anon. 2015
In Brief: In few other areas do the myriad anomalies, peculiarities, contradictions and ironies embedded in The Grand American Narrative rear their ugly heads more frequently and more profoundly than in the U.S. legal system. Without a doubt, the so-called Scopes ‘Monkey Trial’ in Dayton, Tennessee, and the Sacco and Vanzetti Trial in Boston, Massachusetts, during the post Great War ‘era of normalcy’, were two of the most bizarre, extraordinary and notorious of any of the many legal dog ‘n pony shows that America has thrown up. Both events were of seminal cultural, social and political significance at the time and, for a variety of reasons, together and separately, remain so. We will look into the Sacco and Vanzetti Trial in a follow-up piece. But first up, the Scopes ‘Monkey Trial’.
— The Alchemy of Ignorance —
Even those with a passing interest in history would be aware of Charles Darwin‘s Theory of Evolution, whose extraordinarily radical findings about Homo Sap’s primordial origins really set a cat amongst the pigeons, especially amongst those perched in the church steeples.
Indeed it might aptly be titled his Theory of Revolution, as the ‘debate’ such as it is between evolution’s supporters and those proponents of creationism (which has since been rebranded—or euphemised—as “intelligent’ design”), is still very much ‘Johnny Walker’ as we speak.
Which is to say, the most developed, advanced country in the world, [that] more than any other country on the Big Blue Ball arguably has both contributed to and benefitted from scientific discovery and achievement and technological innovation and progress—the former borne out of the Enlightenment and the latter manifesting itself as the Industrial Revolution—also has almost twice as many folk who say they believe in creationism than those who don’t.
As the Americans themselves might say, “go figure!”
The dubious legislative ‘initiative’ that provided the catalyst for the judicial exercise in profoundly preposterous futility that was the Scopes ‘Monkey Trial’ has some interesting parallels in the history of American lawmaking in that it combines undiluted stupidity, wilful ignorance, baseless arrogance and wishful thinking in all but roughly equal measure.
In the great ‘battle’ between modernism and traditionalism raging at the time, the 1925 Butler Act of Tennessee was enacted to ban the teaching of any theory of man’s creation that did not sit with the well-known Biblical version, the idea of which was presumably to prevent any further spiritual impairment, intellectual retardation and moral corruption of Tennessee school children. This involved especially the teaching of Darwinist theory and evolutionary principles.
In the history of ill-considered American legislative initiatives, the Butler Act is up there with the Volstead Act which itself a few years earlier encouraged an enthusiastic do-it-yourself trend exemplified by the legally challenged brewing, fermenting and/or distilling and clandestine purveyance of one’s own manufactured alcoholic beverages in exchange for tax-exempt legal tender. Otherwise known as the Prohibition era.
— No Genesis, All Revelations —
Of course the reverberations from Prohibition are still echoing within the political psyche (war on drugs anyone?), as are the reverberations of the Scopes Trial and the legislation which inspired it (as already noted, “intelligent design” anyone?) And it’s no coincidence both legislative initiatives were inspired by the same Christian fundamentalist, Good Book thumping mindset.
Which is to say, it should come as no surprise that most Prohibitionists were also anti-evolutionists, and, along with other sometime fellow travellers and kindred spirits such as the Ku Klux Klan, were breathing the same recycled, yet still unfiltered, primordial air, which one supposes was in plentiful supply at the time!
From the off the publicity surrounding the trial reached Charles Manson and OJ Simpson levels (for another time), and was driven by the nature of the case as much as it was by the involvement of two of the country’s most famous trial attorneys and recognisable public figures of the era.
These were Clarence Darrow (for the defence) and William Jennings Bryan (the prosecution), the latter having the dubious distinction of being possibly America’s most perpetually optimistic and prolifically unsuccessful presidential candidate.
Darrow for his part had just come off the Leopold-Loeb trial (another infamous legal spectacle of the era; again for another time), and his name was etched in the public consciousness as a result. His penchant for publicity, self-aggrandisement and his celebrity lifestyle underscored this. He had an uncanny instinct for the power and value of public relations, a concept and practice then still in its pioneering stage.
It was during the Era of Normalcy that public relations as we have come to know it was really coming to the fore in America courtesy of the work of Edward Bernays (aka The Father of Spin, and Sigmund Freud’s nephew), a development that doubtless we have all benefitted from greatly and for which we should all be eternally grateful!
This 1925 trial was aptly described by Time magazine at the time as a “cross between a circus and a holy war”. Life magazine—presumably with some insight into Bryan’s own personal fancies and pecuniary status—said he (Bryan) had,
‘…successfully demonstrated by the alchemy of ignorance, hot air may be transmuted into gold, and that the Bible is infallibly inspired except where it differs with him on the question of wine, women, and wealth.’
In Europe especially, it was predictably greeted with a mixture of condescension, ridicule, amusement, bemusement, and head shaking incredulity.
— When the Gods Trembled —
As always, a detour down memory lane is timely at this point. The Butler Act was the first legislative success of the then anti-evolution lobby operating under the auspices of the Anti-Evolution League and various Bible Belt Christian fundamentalist groups, of which there was no shortage at the time (nor now one suspects).
For its part, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) — in league with some citizens in the town of Dayton, Tennessee—spearheaded a no holds barred attempt to challenge the Act before the ink was even dry. They roped in a local, and not entirely unwilling, science teacher named John Scopes who at their behest intentionally and provocatively violated the Act by agreeing to teach his kids the Theory of Evolution outlined in Darwin’s opus On the Origin of Species.
As for the trial, those prototypically American abstractions of celebrity, opportunism, showmanship, notoriety, and self promotion went hand in hand throughout. Indeed, the legal furore sparked by the aforementioned Dayton townsfolk was motivated less by their fervent, lofty desire to challenge the new statute for its own sake than it was by the less lofty ambition to stem the tide of folks departing the town for more attractive climes, with the scheme being concocted in of all places, the local drugstore.
Now history does not record if these folks were ‘inspired’ to do so after indulging in some of the store’s ‘produce’. Either way, one of America’s most infamous and iconic trials was the result of a cheap publicity stunt cooked up in the local drugstore in order to attract “attention”, and presumably give Dayton folks thinking of leaving, second thoughts about ‘abandoning ship’.
By the time it was done and dusted though, doubtless many of the more sensible townsfolk who weren’t contemplating moving before the trial would surely have considered doing so after it out of sheer embarrassment.
All of which is to say, whether this “attention” in the final analysis left most townsfolk with a sense of pride and place is not known, as the city became something of a laughing stock especially amongst those not enamoured of creationism.
Whilst the trial cemented Dayton’s place in the psyche of most Americans at the time and eventually in the firmament of the modern American narrative, it may not have been for reasons the more sober minded townsfolk and their descendants might have fully appreciated nor welcomed.
As for those remaining, one suspects they would’ve sought a measure of solace by imbibing in large, frequent doses of the merchandise from the aforementioned emporium. And as far as the instigators and their motives were concerned, to the extent that the trial attracted this much-desired “publicity”, it worked a treat, well beyond their wildest dreams and even well beyond the borders of the continental United States.
At the same time it underscored the folly, absurdity, inanity and sheer futility of the exercise. It certainly made for good copy at the time, and it would be hard to overstate the significance of the trial and the degree of public attention its proceedings received.
In his 2004 commentary on the trial, Douglas Linder, professor of law at University of Missouri, Kansas City, after noting the “… carnival atmosphere [in] Dayton as the opening of the trial approached…” described the pre-trial milieu:
“….Banners decorated the streets. Lemonade stands were set up. Chimpanzees, said to have been brought to town to testify for the prosecution, performed in a sideshow on Main Street. Anti-Evolution League members sold copies of T. T. (Thomas) Martin’s book Hell and the High School. Holy rollers rolled in the surrounding hills and riverbanks.”
As for Martin himself, he was the head of the aforementioned Anti-Evolution League, and his 1922 book Hell and the High School, attacked evolution and its teaching in schools as “the greatest curse that ever fell upon this earth.”
In Martin’s earnest, presumably heart-felt view this was an even greater sin than the time the evil Hun “lethally contaminated water wells” and “gave poisoned candy to children” during The Great War a few years earlier, one of the early, dubious achievements of the pioneering practitioners of public relations and a narrative explicitly concocted to fuel anti-German fervour in the U.S. prior to her belated entry into that war.
Scopes Monkey Trial Documentary
— American Monkey Good, Other Monkey Bad —
And of the many head-spinning anecdotes that derived from the trial proceedings, the following must have given the Europeans—and to be fair, more sensible, down to earth Americans—much to dine out on forever and a day after.
As one might expect, along with the trial’s main legal argument, much of the public debate and controversy centred around the notional (albeit simplistic), popular premise underpinning evolution theory, that we are ‘descended’ from monkeys or apes. For its part Bryan’s legal attack made much of the suggestion that evolution purported to teach children that Homo Sap was but one of thousands of different types of mammals and rejected the notion that human beings were descended “Not even from American monkeys, but from old world monkeys”!
Now with this thought in mind, there is no record of Bryan himself acknowledging in the trial proceedings—or indeed privately—whether he may have been more comfortable with evolution theory if Darwin had stipulated we had in fact descended from American monkeys, and/or what might have been the purported difference between American and non-American members of the simian genus and how we then might determine which is which.
It is instructive to note here though that history does not record if the prosecution—or anyone else for that matter—ruminated on the fact America itself wasn’t even ‘around’ at the time of man’s purported ‘conversion’ from monkey to ape. (Which in more ways than one would truly make America “exceptional”.)
Mencken himself—arguably America’s sharpest, most acerbic social and political commentator, and preeminent columnist of the era, and who was in Dayton covering the trial for the Baltimore Sun—to the delight of non-believers, heathens, infidels and aficionados of human folly everywhere most of whom were dining out on the proceedings throughout in his regular column. The following summed up The Sage of Baltimore’s attitude towards Christian fundamentalism in general, and the ‘God made man in his own image’ delusion in particular:
‘The human race is so obviously imperfect that man could not possibly have been the creation of an omnipotent God, but—at best—the bungled effort of “an incompetent committee of gods.”‘
Needless to say the uber-cynic’s views did not sit well with many of the local Bible-toting, holy-rolling knuckle-draggers, who at one stage prepared to—in that grand old Southern hospitality tradition—tar and feather him and run him out of town for his heretical commentary, which we might assume was a fundamentalist Christian equivalent of a fatwa.
In any event, Mencken reportedly took this “fatwa” seriously, and hauled his opinionated smart-ass out of town before the trial ended and doubtless just before the mooted tarring and feathering.
Whilst Mencken doubtless had a large cult following at the time, he was fortunate ‘associates’ of the Dayton ‘chapter’ of the “cult” in question weren’t themselves actual members of the Ku Klux Klan as well, as they were a bit tardy in catching up with him and following through on their threat. Presumably the sagacious Sage must have seen the writing on the wall and made a clean getaway back to the safety and security of his beloved, godless Baltimore.
As indicated, the media as was their wont then and now were falling all over themselves to outdo each other in their sensationalist reporting of the trial proceedings. They made much of the decision by Bryan (against the wishes of his prosecution team members) to accept the defence team’s invitation to take the stand personally to testify. This was an almost unprecedented development that left folk in the legal profession incredulous and [in] the general public (and the media especially) in a veritable state of voyeuristic anticipation at what might take place during such an encounter.
As we’ll see, this response was underscored even further once Darrow had begun his inquisition of Bryan, and folks saw where it was likely to lead.
— The Great Commoner Meets the Great Leveller —
Bryan himself was an avid God botherer with a reportedly literal belief in—and extensive knowledge of—the Old Testament Bible and its ‘brief’. This was something that was widely known, and from any angle it was understandable Darrow would seek to leverage this to discredit the former serial presidential candidate, legal icon, and occasional national treasure.
(As an aside it should be noted that because of his faith in the “wisdom of the common people” and the goodwill that such an attitude generated, Bryan was affectionately known as The Great Commoner by the American public. Despite this, the ‘affection’ of said “public” did not quite extend to voting for him in sufficient enough quantities on any of the occasions he selflessly ‘volunteered’ to be their president.)
If the trial by this time was not effectively ‘all over Rover’, it would soon be once Darrow had finished his inquisition of Bryan after taking the stand. This proved to be the highlight of the proceedings that hitherto weren’t short on them, and one suspects Mencken in hindsight might’ve been prepped to be tarred and feathered after all in exchange for the sheer pleasure of actually being there for the denouement.
Under relentless questioning from his opposite number, Bryan tied himself up in knots trying to provide coherent answers to Darrow’s mischievous, cunning line of inquiry regarding the literal interpretation of the Good Book.
(For those readers who have ever braved such an undertaking with your average evolution-denying, creationist embracing Bible-basher, they will appreciate this as an exercise generally fraught with some peril.)
After at first insisting that everything in the Bible should be taken literally, under Darrow’s relentless interrogation Bryan became flustered and angry, and eventually conceded that maybe not all Biblical anecdotes should be interpreted quite so empirically. At this, ‘Count’ Darrow went for the jugular, and the following gives some hint of the increasingly surreal atmosphere the trial proceedings had reached by this time.
Darrow then pushed Bryan hard on the issue of whether the ‘six days of creation’ were actually six discrete 24 hour periods as we might know them today, but he declined to answer it definitively, other than to say they were “periods” (period!), a response that for the purposes at hand had the clarity and utility of toxic industrial sludge. At one point the embattled Bryan said,
‘I do not think about things I don’t think about.’ For his part Darrow responded, ‘Do you think about the things you do think about?’ Bryan replied, ‘Well, sometimes.’
Of course much raucous, derisive laughter ensued from the captivated onlookers, after which Bryan himself was shattered, and must have known the game was up. From this point Darrow asked the jury to return a guilty verdict so he could appeal the case in the state’s Supreme Court. The jury complied with his request, and the trial judge fined Scopes—who by this time had become something of an irrelevancy to the proceedings—one hundred dollars.
However, this decision was based on a minor technicality—whether or not the fine should have been set by the jury or the judge. It was not based on the constitutional grounds that Darrow had hoped for, as that outcome would bring about a possible repeal of the Act. This after all was the primary objective of those on the side of the defence as well as the perpetrators of the whole saga, and surely must have represented a less than satisfying, if not indeed hollow, victory.
— Monkey Gone to Heaven, Heathen Gone to Hell —
Interestingly, for his part and presumably as a loyal foot soldier for the Almighty’s earthly cause, Bryan went to his eternal reward about a week later when he unexpectedly died in his sleep.
It’s unknown if his sudden demise may have been triggered partly from the knowledge that an otherwise distinguished career would have been sadly blighted by his ill-judged decision to participate in this fatuous spectacle. Either way it’s hard to see how he would’ve died a happy camper as a result.
And if he expected his “eternal reward” to provide him some measure of bliss, he no doubt would’ve been sorely disenchanted upon finally arriving in paradise only to find it populated by primates of all shapes and sizes as well; this would especially be the case if none of said “primates” were Americans and that they—ahem, heaven forbid—outnumbered the heathens. Considering that human evolution unfolded over millions of years, and not the last four thousand or so (give or take a decade or three), the Law of Averages would tell us this is likely to be the case, on both counts!
In any event, at the appeal stage, rather than send the case back for further action, the Tennessee Supreme Court dismissed it outright. In what must rank as one of the most rational, sensible, clear-eyed and level headed decisions in US legal history, in dismissing it, the Court in its wisdom summed up the state of affairs regarding the events with this: ‘Nothing is to be gained by prolonging the life of this bizarre case.’
And whilst many will argue this belated logic might have been better applied within the legal fraternity before the case even went to trial (or even within the state legislature prior to Butler’s drafting and enactment), it would have denied us all one of the most entertaining, riveting and self-revelatory judicial dog ‘n pony shows ever to rear its head in or out of the Era of Normalcy. And for this also we should be especially grateful.
According to Linder, whilst the trial did not “end the debate” over the teaching of evolution at the time (oh that were the case), it did represent something of a “setback” for the pro-creation forces, who appeared to be on something of a roll prior to the case. Of around fifteen U.S. states with anti-evolution legislation in the pipeline in 1925, only two of these—Mississippi and Arkansas—eventually passed laws restricting the teaching of evolution, with presumably the rest of them thinking twice about pushing the anti-evolution envelope after Dayton.
And of course the Anti-Evolution League’s Great Guardian Bryan was now no longer on the right side of the grass, the so-called Great Commoner having met the Great Leveller after using up all his designated supply of oxygen. And it’s fair to say he may have done their cause more harm than good.
Notwithstanding all of this, to this day, there is almost as much argument about who ‘won’ and who ‘lost’ the trial as there is about whether creationism should or should not be taught in American schools. So in this sense the trial did not effect any great change in the mindset of a country that has always worn its God-fearin’, Bible-hugging, Christian heart on its sleeve.
But there can be no mistaking this was one event in the overarching Grand American Narrative that at the time and ever since, was/is likely to prompt one to recall that hoary old sentiment, only in America!
And as evidenced by the ‘intelligent design’ crowd’s indefatigable efforts to get their ‘theories’ up and running and upfront in the education programs of American schools even now, metaphorically speaking at least, it would appear that the ‘Monkey’ is, in a sense, still ‘on trial’ in America.
None of us can be certain though if said primate today is an American monkey, an old world monkey, or for that matter, an old world monkey’s uncle twice removed. Either way, given the precedent set by the trial itself all those years ago, the Monkey better have a damn good lawyer, or a jury of his true peers. Or both!
And one would still be left wondering what a temporarily resurrected Mencken—a man clearly with an opinion on everything and who wasn’t afraid to use it even at risk of being tarred and feathered on his way to eternal damnation—would make of it all. This, not to mention Charlie Darwin himself, the original ‘Monkey’s Uncle’, the man who started it all!
‘Landsakes and tarnation Cletus, if only that Darwin fella had kept his damned fool theories to himself’.