At AAAS Seminar, Long-Lost Photos Shed New Light on Scopes Trial
Unpublished photograph from 1925 Tennessee vs. John Scopes "Monkey Trial" found in the Smithsonian Archives. Pictured: 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.
Eighty years to the day after the climactic event of the famous Scopes "Monkey Trial," an independent historian gave an engaging account of the trial at a 20 July AAAS seminar, illustrated with unpublished photos of the courtroom participants and the community of Dayton, Tenn.
Marcel LaFollette, a historian who has been studying the coverage of the trial by a pioneering team of science journalists, found the long-forgotten images in the Smithsonian Institution Archives in Washington.
The nitrate negatives had been donated to the Smithsonian in 1971 as part of some 267 cubic feet of materials relating to Science Service, an organization founded in 1921 to promote the dissemination of information about science in the media.
LaFollette, who discovered the photo collection in June 2004, said that she did "dance around the room" when she realized what she had found. The collection of about 60 photos includes informal portraits of trial participants and the locale in which they gathered during the steamy summer of 1925. In the trial, John Thomas Scopes, a high school science teacher in Dayton, was convicted of teaching evolution, which had been outlawed earlier that year by Tennessee's Butler Act.
Among the images is a set of rare photographs of William Jennings Bryan, the three-time presidential candidate who joined the prosecution team, being questioned by prominent defense attorney Clarence Darrow on 20 July 1925. The trial had been moved outside that day because of the heat, LaFollette said, and most of the 200 reporters who descended on Dayton had already left town. The defense team pulled a surprise, calling Bryan to the stand as an expert on the Bible.
Darrow, hunched forward "like a raptor," as LaFollette put it, asked Bryan questions aimed at undermining a literalist interpretation of the Bible, including about Joshua making the sun stand still and about the whale that swallowed Jonah. The exchanges between Bryan and Darrow were often testy, according to news accounts. The next day, the judge ruled that Bryan's testimony should be stricken from the record as irrelevant to the case being tried.
The newly discovered photos were taken by Watson Davis, the Science Service managing editor who covered the trial. According to LaFollette, Davis and Science Service had a direct role in arranging for scientists to testify on behalf of Scopes, a role that would be considered journalistically unethical today. But LaFollette said Davis and his colleague Frank Thone were dedicated to an accurate account of the science of evolution and saw the trial as an opportunity to help educate the public.
They had the help of George Washington Rappleyea, a transplanted New Yorker who lived in Dayton and managed a local coal company. Rappleyea, the chief architect of the trial, also was a "stringer," or part-time correspondent, for Science Service.
Unpublished photograph from 1925 Tennessee vs. John Scopes "Monkey Trial" found in the Smithsonian Archives. Pictured: John Thomas Scopes (left) and George Washington Rappleyea (right), Dayton, Tennessee, June 1925. Watson Davis stopped in Dayton June 4-5, 1925, on his way to the West Coast in order to meet Scopes, Rappleyea, and some of the lawyers involved on both sides of the case.
In a meeting at F. E. Robinson's Drug Store, it was Rappleyea who convinced a group of Dayton businessmen to sponsor a test case of the Butler Act. They hoped the trial would bring money and publicity to their community. Scopes agreed to be the defendant. Rappleyea, described by one observer as "an untidy little person with rather ill-tended teeth," had a keen intellect, according to LaFollette, and was a born publicist and promoter. He proved to be the perfect partner for the Science Service reporters.
When the Scopes defense team moved into an 18-room Victorian mansion on the outskirts of town, Davis and Thone joined them and had access to strategy sessions.
Davis photographed not only the trial participants, but also places of interest in the community. Some of the most intriguing photos show a group of fundamentalist Holy Rollers holding a service beside a local stream. Davis and Thone took an almost anthropological interest in the customs of rural Tennessee, LaFollette said.
While both the prosecution and defense sought to portray the Scopes trial as a titanic clash between good and evil, the judge excluded virtually all testimony on the science of evolution. The case was decided on the narrow grounds of whether Scopes had violated the law. After the dramatic confrontation between Darrow and Bryan, Darrow asked the jury to return a guilty verdict so he could appeal the case to a higher court. The jury complied and the judge fined Scopes $100. A year later, the Tennessee Supreme Court reversed the Dayton decision on a technicality.
In the end, LaFollette said, the trial coverage was generally good for science and also was a boon for the fledgling discipline of science reporting. Science Service helped get many of the statements by scientists who had wanted to testify on Scopes' behalf into the nation's newspapers, she said.
The seminar at AAAS was sponsored by the Washington Science Policy Alliance in cooperation with the AAAS Dialogue on Science, Ethics and Religion program. John M. Braverman, a visiting professor of biology at Georgetown, served as discussant and noted that it still remains to be seen whether giving the public accurate information on scienceas Science Service sought to do with its reporting in Daytonwill alone ultimately change minds of those who criticize evolution.
Braverman, a Jesuit scholastic who is preparing for the priesthood, criticized efforts in some states and school districts to downgrade the scientific authority of evolution by requiring teachers to describe it as "just a theory." Scientists consider it a well-supported description of the natural world. Braverman said that if he were called to testify at a modern version of the Scopes trial, he would discuss the strong evidence for evolution that has been emerging through the comparative study of the genetic blueprints of various organisms.
View some of the photos here.
22 July 2005