Jerry Summers: Scopes Trial Again - Genesis

  • Thursday, August 24, 2023
  • Jerry Summers
Jerry Summers
Jerry Summers

The annual reenactment of Tennessee’s most famous legal trial in Dayton has already taken place on July 14-15, 2023 in the historic courthouse in Rhea county.

Worldwide publicity, books, a movie, and endless legal writings have (and will continue) to be written about the 1925 “trial of the century”.

Very little remains to be written but new emphasis on the legal battle mainly between unsuccessful presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan and trial lawyer Clarence Darrow will resurface in 2025 on the 100th anniversary of the major captivating legal event of that era.

A review of Knoxville News -Sentinel columnist Bert Vincents (B.V.) second book “More of the Best Stories of B.V.- Sage of the Smokies” (Brazos Press- 1970) contains some additional information that may or may not be included in the small museum contained in the basement of the courthouse.

The recollections of F.E. Robinson, Dayton druggist, are worth repeating as they were reported by B.V.:

“It was in Doc’s store that the lawsuit started. Doc has a plaque on top of the table where the boys were sitting around. It reads:

‘At This Table The Scopes Evolution Case Was Started May 5, 1925.”

He laid aside some prescription blanks he was working on, and had me take his best office chair. Then he told me.

Some of the young fellows of the town were sitting around the table drinking pop and sodas. John Scopes was one, along with Dr. George Rappleyes, and Herb and Sue Hicks. The state had passed a law against teaching any theory that denied the divine creation of man, as is taught in the Bible.

SCOPES BECOMES THE ‘GOAT’

Some of the fellows had seen a paragraph in a newspaper that a New York society wanted to test the constitutionality of the law. Walter White, county school superintendent, came in from a game of tennis, and he joined the discussion. Scopes, the science teacher, said he was teaching from a state text book which explained the theory that man came up from a lower level of life. Doc Robinson was handling textbooks as part of his line of merchandise. He got this science book from the shelf. There it was, the theory of evolution!

Well, the boys decided to have a little excitement for Rhea County and Dayton. They’d file suit there. Scopes agreed to be the “goat”, the prosecuted, if he didn’t have to pay, providing he was fined. Doc Robinson guaranteed to pay what fine he got. Sue and Herb agreed to be his lawyers without charge.

So, then and there, they took a warrant for Scopes, and got a constable to serve the warrant. And, then, and there was the hatching of one of the 10 biggest newspaper stories of that year of 1925.

‘But we didn’t know it at the time,’ said Doc Robinson.

‘Not until we began to get long distance telephone calls from all over the country.’

Doc Robinson reached into a drawer beneath his desk, and pulled out a thick book of newspaper clippings he’s saved. He showed me the streamer of headlines in New York papers, and San Francisco, Chicago, and other metropolitan dailies.

‘It was a big story,’ Doc said. ‘And a big thing for Dayton.’

I asked the outcome of the trial.

‘Scopes was convicted,’ he said. ‘The case was appealed, and the conviction upheld, but the fine was remanded. So, I didn’t have to pay the $100 after all.’” (Not exactly correct)

(Unfortunately the drug store went out of business in 1982 but the history of the trial remains!)

* * *

You can reach Jerry Summers at jsummers@summersfirm.com

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