John T. Scopes

John Thomas Scopes (August 3, 1900 – October 21, 1970), a teacher in Dayton, Tennessee, was charged on May 25, 1925 with violating Tennessee’s Butler Act, which prohibited the teaching of evolution in Tennessee schools. He was in court in a case known as the Scopes Trial.

Scopes was born and raised in Paducah, Kentucky, but as a teenager attended Danville High School in Danville, Illinois (Danville High was also the first school he taught at shortly before he moved to Dayton). Scopes was a member of the class of 1919 in Salem, Illinois, which is also William Jennings Bryan’s home town. After he had gained a law degree at the University of Kentucky in 1924, Scopes moved to Dayton where he took a job as the Rhea County High School’s football coach, and occasionally filled in as substitute teacher when regular members of staff were off work.

Scopes’ involvement in the so-called Monkey Trial came about after the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) announced that it would finance a test case challenging the constitutionality of the Butler Act if they could find a Tennessee teacher willing to act as a defendant.

A group of businessmen in Dayton, Tennessee, led by engineer and geologist George Rappleyea, saw this as an opportunity to get publicity for their town and approached Scopes. Rappleyea pointed out that while the Butler Act prohibited the teaching of human evolution, the state required teachers to use the assigned textbook, Hunter’s Civic Biology (1914), which included a chapter on evolution. Rappleyea argued that teachers were essentially required to break the law. When asked about the test case Scopes was initially reluctant to get involved, but after some discussion he told the group gathered in Robinson’s Drugstore, “If you can prove that I’ve taught evolution and that I can qualify as a defendant, then I’ll be willing to stand trial.”

By the time the trial had begun, the defense team included Clarence Darrow, Dudley Field Malone, John Neal, Arthur Garfield Hays and Frank McElwee. The prosecution team, led by Tom Stewart, included brothers Herbert and Sue Hicks, Wallace Haggard, and father and son pairings Ben and J. Gordon McKenzie and William Jennings Bryan and William Jennings Bryan Jr. Bryan had spoken at Scopes’ high school commencement and remembered the defendant laughing while he was giving the address to the graduating class six years earlier.

The case ended with a guilty verdict, and Scopes was fined $100, which Bryan and the ACLU offered to pay. The case was appealed to the Tennessee Supreme Court. In a 3-1 decision written by Chief Justice Grafton Green the Butler Act was held to be constitutional, but overturned Scopes’ conviction on a technicality: the judge had set the fine instead of the jury. The Butler Act remained until 1967 when it was repealed by the Tennessee legislature.