Later this month Dayton, Tenn. will host a weekend festival capped off by a dramatization of the trial which engraved this small town's name into the nation's cultural narrative. Exactly 85 years ago today, a Dayton schoolteacher named John C. Scopes went on trial, accused of violating a state law prohibiting the teaching of the theory of evolution.
What came to be known as the "Monkey Trial" (subsequently immortalized by journalist H.L. Mencken), the case was a showdown between progressives and creationists, who wanted to ban the teaching of Charles Darwin's writing about evolution from local schools.
William Jennings Bryan, a three-time candidate for president, led the prosecution. He was pitted against the famous Chicago attorney Clarence Darrow. The trial lived up to the hype, but it ended on a flat note.
Toward the end of the trial, Darrow asked the jury to find Scopes guilty because he intended to appeal the verdict to the state's Supreme Court. The jury complied and Scopes was fined $100.
The following year, Tennessee's Supreme Court reversed the decision on a technicality.
Writing for the majority, the court's chief justice dismissed the case, saying "We see nothing to be gained by prolonging the life of this bizarre case. On the contrary, we think the peace and dignity of the State, which all criminal prosecutions are brought to redress, will be better conserved by the entry of a nolle prosequi herein. Such a course is suggested to the Attorney-General."
But the battle over evolution continues. Only last month, a federal court prevented the Institute for Creation Research's plans to award master's degrees in science education from "a Biblical scientific creationist viewpoint."
Mencken: Homo Neanderthalensis
More about Mencken
Also, check out this clip from a 1996 BBC documentary that focused on a science classroom in Dayton, TN: