Daily Archives: 07/20/2005

Eighty Years On

It Was 80 Years Ago this month that Clarence Darrow and William Jennings Bryan squared off in the Scopes Monkey Trial in Dayton, Tennessee.

80 years ago today, July 20th, defense attorney Clarence Darrow called prosecutor William Jennings Bryan to the witness stand as an expert in the Bible. The trial was held underneath the trees on the lawn of the Rhea County Courthouse that day because of the heat, and what followed is one of the most memorable confrontations in legal history.

On the seventh day of trial, (Judge) Raulston asked the defense if it had any more evidence. What followed was what the New York Times described as “the most amazing court scene on Anglo-Saxon history.” Hays asked that William Jennings Bryan be called to the stand as an expert on the Bible. Bryan assented, stipulating only that he should have a chance to interrogate the defense lawyers. Bryan, dismissing the concerns of his prosecution colleagues, took a seat on the witness stand, and began fanning himself.

Darrow began his interrogation of Bryan with a quiet question: “You have given considerable study to the Bible, haven’t you, Mr. Bryan?” Bryan replied, “Yes, I have. I have studied the Bible for about fifty years.” Thus began a series of questions designed to undermine a literalist interpretation of the Bible. Bryan was asked about a whale swallowing Jonah, Joshua making the sun stand still, Noah and the great flood, the temptation of Adam in the garden of Eden, and the creation according to Genesis. After initially contending that “everything in the Bible should be accepted as it is given there,” Bryan finally conceded that the words of the Bible should not always be taken literally. In response to Darrow’s relentless questions as to whether the six days of creation, as described in Genesis, were twenty-four hour days, Bryan said “My impression is that they were periods.”

Bryan, who began his testimony calmly, stumbled badly under Darrow’s persistent prodding. At one point the exasperated Bryan said, “I do not think about things I don’t think about.” Darrow asked, “Do you think about the things you do think about?” Bryan responded, to the derisive laughter of spectators, “Well, sometimes.” Both old warriors grew testy as the examination continued. Bryan accused Darrow of attempting to “slur at the Bible.” He said that he would continue to answer Darrow’s impertinent questions because “I want the world to know that this man, who does not believe in God, is trying to use a court in Tennessee–.” Darrow interrupted his witness by saying, “I object to your statement” and to “your fool ideas that no intelligent Christian on earth believes.” After that outburst, Raulston ordered the court adjourned. The next day, Raulston ruled that Bryan could not return to the stand and that his testimony the previous day should be stricken from evidence.

The confrontation between Bryan and Darrow was reported by the press as a defeat for Bryan. According to one historian, “As a man and as a legend, Bryan was destroyed by his testimony that day.” His performance was described as that of “a pitiable, punch drunk warrior.” Darrow, however, has also not escaped criticism. Alan Dershowitz, for example, contended that the celebrated defense attorney “comes off as something of an anti-religious cynic.”

The trial was nearly over. Darrow asked the jury to return a verdict of guilty in order that the case might be appealed to the Tennessee Supreme Court. Under Tennessee law, Bryan was thereby denied the opportunity to deliver a closing speech he had labored over for weeks. The jury complied with Darrow’s request, and Judge Raulston fined him $100.

Six days after the trial, William Jennings Bryan was still in Dayton. After eating an enormous dinner, he lay down to take a nap and died in his sleep. Clarence Darrow was hiking in the Smoky Mountains when word of Bryan’s death reached him. When reporters suggested to him that Bryan died of a broken heart, Darrow said “Broken heart nothing; he died of a busted belly.” In a louder voice he added, “His death is a great loss to the American people.”

This clash of the titans was captured on film and recently published by the Smithsonian Institution Archives, along with a collection of previously unpublished photos of the Scopes Trial.

William Jennings Bryan (seated at left) being interrogated by Clarence Seward Darrow, during the trial of State of Tennessee vs. John Thomas Scopes, July 20, 1925

Thirty years later, a fictionalized account of the trial served as the basis for the play Inherit the Wind, first performed on Broadway in 1955 and later turned into a critically acclaimed 1960 motion picture starring Spencer Tracy.

Eighty years on, and the battle over evolution in the classroom still rages on.