The Scopes Monkey Trial Was a Historic Debate Over Evolution … And a Publicity Ploy


After a Tennessee law banned the teaching of evolution in public schools, a group of locals in a small Tennessee town decided to put up a fight. Topical Press Agency/Hulton Archive/Getty Images
After a Tennessee law banned the teaching of evolution in public schools, a group of locals in a small Tennessee town decided to put up a fight. Topical Press Agency/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Every circus needs a monkey. And in 1925, tiny Dayton, Tennessee — whose population was less than 1,800 — really wanted a circus. All the town had to do was convince a young teacher to get arrested for teaching evolution, create a huge national spectacle out of his trial, and voila: The monkeys came to them!

As hosts Holly Frey and Tracy V. Wilson explain in an episode of Stuff You Missed in History Class, the Scopes Trial wasn't all scientific crusaders and evangelists. It turns out that a few civic leaders in little Dayton thought the trial would be a great way to drum up some revenue and jumpstart the town's economy.

But before we talk about the hatching of the plan to put Dayton on the map, here's a rundown of the legal basis of the trial. In March 1925, Tennessee Governor Austin Peay signed the Butler Act into law. The act prohibited any teaching that denied Creationism or that claimed man descended from a "lower order of animals" (essentially, any teaching of evolution in publicly funded Tennessee schools).

After the Butler Act was passed, the American Civil Liberties Union put an ad in a Chattanooga newspaper asking for a teacher to be part of a test case against the anti-evolution law. Reading the ad in a drugstore, some local leaders (including the school superintendent and a couple of attorneys) proposed testing the case in Dayton. But their suggestion was a little more racket than righteous: They thought the trial might just revive the town's floundering economy by bringing in tourism, media and publicity.

So, they convinced 24-year-old football coach and sometimes-science teacher John Thomas Scopes to test the case. By May, Scopes was indicted for violating the law while teaching biology classes.

John Scopes sits at a courtroom table with his father and attorneys Dudley Field Malone and Arthur Garfield Hays during the trial.
John Scopes sits at a courtroom table with his father and attorneys Dudley Field Malone and Arthur Garfield Hays during the trial.
Bettmann/Getty Images

And the town's citizens weren't messing around; they went nuts preparing for the trial. Between Scopes' May indictment and the start of the trial in July, Dayton built a tourist camp, made courthouse improvements for an expected overflow crowd, improved media accessibility with camera platforms and radio hookups and even created a Scopes Trial Entertainment Committee. And yup, real apes showed up to amuse the crowds.

But now think — the trial hadn't even begun yet. Join Tracy and Holly in this episode of Stuff You Missed in History Class as they recount how the drama unfolded in the courtroom during what's considered one of the biggest trials of the 20th century.