Jerry Summers: John R. Neal - Scopes Eccentric Lawyer

Monday, October 14, 2019 - by Jerry Summers
Jerry Summers
Jerry Summers

The history of the prosecution case of State of Tennessee versus John R. Scopes in 1925 for teaching the Theory of Evolution in the high school in Rhea County, Tennessee has been well documented in both fact and fiction.  

The out-of-presence of the jury cross-examination of fundamentalist Christian William Jennings Bryan by atheist defense lawyer Clarence Darrow is part of legal history as depicted in the film Inherit the Wind starring Spencer Tracy, Frederick March and Gene Kelly.  Clarence Darrow was brought into the case by attorney John R. Neal, an eccentric lawyer, legislator, and ex-law professor at the University of Tennessee College of Law at Knoxville. 

Who was John R. Neal? 

John R. Neal was born on September 17, 1876, at Rhea Springs near Dayton, Tn.  He received an A.B. degree from the University of Tennessee in 1893 and a law degree from Vanderbilt University in 1896. Dr. Neal also received a Ph.D. in History in 1899 and would move to Denver, Co., and taught law at the University of Denver. 

In 1906 he was elected to the Tennessee House of Representatives and in 1908 was elected to the Tennessee Senate but was defeated in the Senate primary in 1910 after making enemies with Tennessee’s governor and fellow Democrats. 

Dr. Neal joined the faculty of the University of Tennessee College of Law at Knoxville as a part time professor and later went on staff full time in 1917.  His tenure at the law school was filled with controversy with the dean of the law school which would eventually lead to the termination of Dr. Neal and six other professors from the faculty which became known as the “Slaughter of the Ph.D.’s” in 1923.

Dr. Neal’s tardiness and not showing up for roll call, an unorthodox method of grading students wherein he automatically gave each a grade of 95 irrespective of their performance in class, and deviation from the designated law text books all contributed to his removal from the faculty.  One of Dr. Neal’s colleagues who was also terminated, Jesse Sprowls, claimed that he was removed from the law school faculty based on his teaching the Theory of Evolution which allegedly incurred the disfavor of Dean Malcolm McDermott. Dr. Neal rose to the defense of Sprowls and became one of the fired seven instructors. 

Dr. Neal’s unusual hygiene habits of rarely taking a bath, sleeping in his suits, and appearing disheveled would eventually get him banned from a public cafeteria and kicked out of his hotel room because he refused to clean or allow hotel staff to sanitize his room. 

When the Butler Act (prohibition of teaching evolution) passed the Tennessee Legislature in 1923 six creative Dayton residents (including John Scopes) gathered in the famous meeting at Robinson Drug Store and decided to attempt to bring a test case attacking the Butler Act as being unconstitutional.  Although history has described the Scopes Trial as primarily a religious battle between fundamentalists and agnostics, it is generally accepted that the main reason was to improve the economic climate of Dayton and Rhea County. 

When Dr. Neal learned of the proposed lawsuit he volunteered his services and later got the famous trial lawyer Clarence Darrow to join the defense team to attack the evolution statute.  An ACLU attorney and others were added as co-counsel. 

When Mr. Darrow arrived in Dayton he and Dr. Neal quickly had a difference of opinion as to trial strategy. Dr. Neal, who was still angry over his firing at the University of Tennessee, wanted to try the case as a defense of the rights of teachers, while Mr. Darrow wanted the trial to be an indictment of religious intolerance.  Both attempted to get the other kicked off the case but would eventually agree to try the case together. 

The trial lasted eight days but very little actual testimony was presented to the jury.  Two young students testified about the teaching of evolution by Mr. Scopes, but Mr. Scopes may not have actually taught the subject as he was primarily the coach of the athletics teams and was only substituting for the religious teacher who was on vacation.  Both students would later admit that Mr. Scopes had coached them on how to testify against him.  

Mr. Scopes had volunteered to be the defendant to test the evolution theory and the carnival show began which resulted in national and international coverage.  This included the first radio broadcasting of a national trial by WGN in Chicago. 

Dr. Neal’s role in the trial primarily consisted in him filing and arguing a motion to quash (dismiss) the indictment as being unconstitutional.  After the famous trial was over, Mr. Scopes was found guilty in nine minutes as Mr. Darrow had urged the jury to find the young man guilty in order that the case could be appealed to the Tennessee Supreme Court and United States Supreme Court. 

The jury had found Mr. Scopes guilty but assessed no fine and the trial judge, John T. Raulston, assessed one in the amount of $100.00 which violated the Tennessee constitutional provision that “all fines in excess of $50.00 had to be set by a jury.” 

Dr. Neal was given the responsibility of preparing the appeal to the Tennessee Supreme Court but he missed the deadline to file the transcript and record of the trial which ultimately would result in the case being dismissed on that technicality and no appeal was therefore available in the United States Supreme Court.  Nevertheless, Dr. Neal attempted several times unsuccessfully to file the case in federal court in Chattanooga. 

The case was sent back to Dayton but the economic boom was over and the adverse publicity image created by the trial resulted in the prosecution dismissing the case.  

After the trial Dr. Neal was a perennial candidate for public office, running for United States Senator 18 times, for governor of Tennessee nine times, and once for the House of Representatives.  His last unsuccessful race was in 1954 when he ran for governor against Frank G. Clement. 

A fuller review of his life reveals that he was always a strong advocate for liberal causes.  Perhaps his biggest contribution was his consistent advocacy for government control of the Tennessee River which ultimately led to the creation of the Tennessee Valley Authority. 

He died on November 23, 1959, at the age of 83 and is buried in the Ault Cemetery in Roane County, Tn. 

* * *

Jerry Summers can be reached at jsummers@summersfirm.com



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