Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Scopes Monkey Trial. . .or how to bring publicity to a small town

I didn't realize until recently, when I read "Evolving in Monkey Town: How a Girl Who Knew All the Answers Learned to Ask the Questions" by Rachel Held Evans, that the Scopes Trial was just a publicity stunt for the small town of Dayton, Tenn.

john scopes trial
Held Evans, who lives in Dayton, summarizes the situation best in her book on pages 51 to 53:
Some say it was Moses' fault for not asking for more details when God told him about creating the heavens and the earth. Others say it was Darwin's fault for writing The Origin of the Species. Some blame the media, others blame the legal system, but most folks in Dayton, Tennessee, have pretty well settled on the fault that it was George Rappleyea's fault that our city will forever be known as Monkey Town.

The whole thing started back in May of 1925, when Rappleyea rushed into Robinson's Drugstore with a plan to 'put Dayton on the map.' A New York native with a thick Yankee accent, horn-rimmed glasses, and a head full of modern ideas, Rappleyea was a bit of an alien in this tiny conservative town in East Tennessee, but most folks liked him.

That fateful morning, he managed to capture the attention of some of the town's most influential citizens, who, in the days of Prohibition, liked to gather around the soda fountain at Robinson's to discuss business. 'Mr. Robinson, you and John Godfrey are always looking for something that will get Dayton a little publicity,' Rappleyea reportedly said. 'I wonder if you have seen the morning paper?' Rappleyea, who managed the struggling coal-mining business in the area, had discovered an advertisement in the Chattanooga Times from the American Civil Liberties Union offering to support any Tennessee schoolteacher willing to challenge the state's new antievolution laws, which forbade the teaching of evolution in public schools.

The evolution-creationism debate had taken center stage in recent years, and it didn't take long for Rappleyea to convince Mr. Robinson and the rest of the drugstore regulars that hosting such a controversial test trial would reap economic benefits for the town of Dayton.

The group decided to call in local schoolteacher John T. Scopes, who they hoped would volunteer as the defendant in the case. Scopes, a quiet and unassuming man, admitted that he may have taught evolution in a biology class at the local high school and, more for idealistic reasons than capitalistic ones, agreed to serve as the defendant in the trial. Local attorney Sue Hicks, a man named after his late mother, agreed to coordinate the prosecution with the assistance of his brother, Herbert. (If this part of the story sounds familiar, it's because Sue Hicks served as the inspiration for Johnny Cash's 'A Boy Named Sue.') With prosecutors and a defendant in place, the Robinson's Drugstore gang had pieced together the publicity stunt they were looking for.

Luckily for them, the trial attracted some bigger names than the Boy Named Sue.
scopes monkey trial
Clarence Darrow, a famous criminal defense lawyer and an outspoken agnostic, volunteered his services for the defense, and William Jennings Bryan, a fundamentalist politician and 'the Great Commoner,' volunteered his services for the prosecution. With these two ideological heavyweights in the ring, the Scopes trial was billed as a showdown between science and religion, 'the trial of the century.'

More than two hundred reporters, from as far away as London, descended on Dayton during that hot summer of 1925. For the first time in history, a radio station broadcast the court proceedings live. Pictures of grinning monkeys sipping soda and holding medicine jars adorned billboards and shop windows across town, and Robinson's Drugstore proudly displayed a banner proclaiming 'Where It All Started.'

Protestors, activists, and preachers made pilgrimages to Dayton, so residents erected a giant platform on the courthouse lawn to accommodate any impromptu lectures or debates. (It was rumored that George Rappleyea actually staged a fistfight there.) People could pay to get their picture made with a live chimpanzee, and the town constable even put a sign on his motorcycle that read 'Monkeyville Police.' A New York Times reporter wrote that 'whatever the deep significance of the trial, if it has any, there is no doubt that it has attracted some of the world's champion freaks.'
So many spectators and press attended the trial that it eventually had to be moved to the courthouse lawn. Dayton eventually faded into obscurity, though. Today the town has a population of approximately 7,200, and the largest manufacturing employer is La-Z-Boy.
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