Jerry Summers: Dayton Had Fleeting Fame From 1925 Scopes Trial

Monday, July 26, 2021 - by Jerry Summers
Jerry Summers
Jerry Summers

On July 21, 1925, Judge J.T. Raulston fined teacher John T. Scopes in the amount of $100 in violation of the provision of the Tennessee Constitution that prohibited the assessment of any fine over $50 unless it had been imposed by a jury of 12 persons in the historic battle over evolution in the Circuit Court of Rhea County in Dayton. 

The all-male jury had mostly sat in the jury room from July 10-21 while renowned litigators William Jennings Bryan (prosecution) and Clarence Darrow (defense) and local lawyers from the area presented experts and argued about the merits of the theories for and against teaching the Tennessee law under the statute in Chapter 27 of the Public Acts of 1925, known as the Anti-Evolution Act. 

None of the experts were heard by the jury and after brief testimony by some students and Scopes that the subject prohibited by the recently enacted statue of the Tennessee legislature had been briefly taught in the public high school, the jury reached a guilty verdict.

What was supposed to be a test case that had been touted as the “World’s Most Famous Court Trial” never reached the United States or Tennessee Supreme Courts on the determinative issue of the constitutionality of the statute because of Judge Raulston imposing a $100 fine.

Over 40,000 persons allegedly came to view and participate in the media circus that also became known as the “Scopes Monkey Trial.” The result anticipated by the local group of citizens that had decided to bring a test case while meeting in Robinson’s Drug Store in downtown Dayton was different than expected. 

The idea of an economic boom to bring the rural farming community out of the pre-Depression era was only temporary. 

Although Dayton and Rhea County are thriving in 2021, no subsequent event has occurred to replace its 12 days of state, national, and international moments of fame. 

The historical furor died when the local attorney who was responsible for handling the appeal of the case, John Neal, failed to timely file the necessary procedural steps and the Tennessee Supreme Court and United States Supreme Court declined any further review. Neal would spend much of his life trying to get state and federal courts to correct his mistake and grant a new trial.  

Finally, the U.S. Supreme Court declared unconstitutional any law barring the teaching of evolution in public schools and the unenforced Tennessee Anti-Evolution Act was removed from the state statutes. 

Dayton and Rhea County have survived and emerged as growing communities in 2021 in spite of its notoriety in 1925 that would today be big a attraction on both CNN and Fox News!

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Jerry Summers

(If you have additional information about one of Mr. Summers' articles or have suggestions or ideas about a future Chattanooga area historical piece, please contact Mr. Summers at jsummers@summersfirm.com)


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