John T. Scopes

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John T. Scopes
John t scopes.jpg
Scopes in 1925
John Thomas Scopes

(1900-08-03)August 3, 1900
DiedOctober 21, 1970(1970-10-21) (aged 70)
Known forScopes Monkey Trial
Spouse(s)Mildred E. Walker

John Thomas Scopes (August 3, 1900 – October 21, 1970) was a teacher in Dayton, Tennessee, who was charged on May 5, 1925 with violating Tennessee's Butler Act, which prohibited the teaching of human evolution in Tennessee schools. He was tried in a case known as the Scopes Monkey Trial, in which he was found guilty and fined $100 (equivalent to $1,545 in 2021).

Early life[edit]

Scopes was born in 1900 to Thomas Scopes and Mary Alva Brown, who lived on a farm in Paducah, Kentucky. John was the fifth child and only son.[1] The family moved to Danville, Illinois, when he was a teenager. In 1917, he moved to Salem, Illinois, where he was a member of the class of 1919 at Salem High School.[2]

He attended the University of Illinois briefly before leaving for health reasons. He earned a degree at the University of Kentucky in 1924, with a major in law and a minor in geology.[3]

Scopes moved to Dayton where he became the Rhea County High School's football coach, and occasionally served as a substitute teacher.[4]


Scopes' involvement in the so-called Scopes 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 who was willing to act as a defendant.

A band of businessmen in Dayton, Tennessee, led by engineer and geologist George Rappleyea, saw this as an opportunity to get publicity for their town, and they 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. 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."[5]

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 Hicks and Sue K. Hicks, Wallace Haggard, father and son pairings Ben and J. Gordon McKenzie, and William Jennings Bryan and William Jennings Bryan Jr. The elder Bryan had spoken at Scopes' high school commencement, and remembered the defendant was laughing while he was giving the address to the graduating class six years earlier.[6]

The case ended on July 21, 1925, with a guilty verdict, and Scopes was fined $100 (Roughly $1,460 in 2020). 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 the court overturned Scopes's conviction because the judge had set the fine instead of the jury.[7] The Butler Act remained in effect until May 18, 1967, when it was repealed by the Tennessee legislature.

Scopes may have actually been innocent of the crime to which his name is inexorably linked. After the trial, he admitted to reporter William Kinsey Hutchinson, "I didn't violate the law,"[8] explaining that he had skipped the evolution lesson, and that his lawyers had coached his students to go on the stand; the Dayton businessmen had assumed that he had violated the law. Hutchinson did not file his story until after the Scopes appeal was decided in 1927.

In 1955, the trial was made into a play titled Inherit the Wind starring Paul Muni as a character based on Clarence Darrow, and Ed Begley as a character based on William Jennings Bryan. In 1960, a film version of the play starred Spencer Tracy as the Darrow character and Fredric March as the Bryan character.[1]

Both the play and the film engage in literary license with the facts. For example, "Bertram Cates" (the character representing Scopes) is shown being arrested in class, thrown in jail, burned in effigy by frenzied, mean-spirited, and ignorant townspeople, and taunted by a fire-snorting preacher. "Matthew Harrison Brady" (Bryan), an almost comical fanatic, dramatically dies of a "busted belly" while attempting to deliver his summation in a chaotic courtroom. None of that actually happened in Dayton, Tennessee, during the trial.[9]

Life after the trial[edit]

c. 1925

The results of the Scopes Trial affected him professionally and personally. His public image was mocked in animation, cartoons and other media in the following years. Scopes himself retreated from the public eye and focused his attention on his career.

In September 1925, he enrolled in the graduate school of University of Chicago to finish his studies in geology. Evidence of harassment by the press was highlighted by Frank Thorne:[clarification needed] “You may be interested to know that Mr. John T. Scopes of anti-evolution trial fame expects to take up the study of geology as a graduate student of Chicago this fall…Please do what you can to protect him from the importunities of Chicago reporters….He is a modest and unassuming young chap, and has been subjected to a great deal more limelight than he likes.”[10] A year later, the Tennessee Supreme Court decision of 1926 prompted the press to pursue Scopes again. During this time, he wrote to Thorne, “I am tired of fooling with them.”[11]  It is evident that the media attention was affecting Scopes emotionally.

Even worse, the Depression affected his career.  After graduation, he was "barred"[12] from career opportunities in Tennessee, requiring him and his wife to move into his childhood home in Kentucky around 1930.[citation needed]

Having failed in education, Scopes attempted a political career and entered an unsuccessful bid as a candidate of the Socialist Party for a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives in Kentucky's only at-large congressional race in 1932.[13]. In the end, Scopes returned to the oil industry, serving as an oil expert for the United Production Corporation, later known as United Gas Corporation. There, he first worked out of Beeville, Texas, then in the company’s Houston office until 1940, and later in Shreveport, Louisiana, where he stayed until his death. United Gas merged into what was Pennzoil in 1968.[14][15]

Later in his life, the media surrounding Scopes calmed down. Occasionally, he was dragged into the spotlight, such as to attend the 1960 Inherit the Wind premiere, accept the key to the city, and participate in the celebration of John T. Scopes Day.[16]

Scopes and the story of his trial were featured in the first segment of the October 10, 1960, episode of the television game show To Tell the Truth.[17]

In June 1967, Scopes wrote Center of the Storm: Memoirs of John T. Scopes.[18] The Butler Act was repealed that same year.

Personal life and death[edit]

Scopes married Mildred Elizabeth Scopes (née Walker) (1905–1990). Together they had two sons: John Thomas Jr. and William Clement "Bill".[1]

He died on October 21, 1970, of cancer in Shreveport, Louisiana, at the age of 70.[1]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d "Scopes of 'Monkey Trial' Is Dead at 70". New York Times. New York Times. October 23, 1970. Retrieved December 5, 2014.
  2. ^ Manuscripts & Folklife Archives 2013, p. 2.
  3. ^ Leonard & Crainshaw 1997, p. 710.
  4. ^ Wilson 2012, p. 43.
  5. ^ Scopes & Presley 1967, p. 60.
  6. ^ Paxton 2013, p. 104.
  7. ^ See Tenn. Const. art. VI, s. 14; see also, Scopes v. State, 154 Tenn. 105, 289 S.W. 363 (1926)
  8. ^ De Camp 1968, p. 435.
  9. ^ "Notes on Inherit the Wind".
  10. ^ Frank Thorne to Donald Glassman, September 14, 1925, Science Service Record (RU7091), Box 83, Folder I.
  11. ^ J.T. Scopes to Frank Thorne, [no date on letter other than "Sunday" but it was received in the Science Service office on February 8, 1927], Science Service Records (RU7091), Box 90, Folder 5. Scopes was referring to the local chapter house of the Gamma Alpha Graduate Scientific Fraternity. See also John T. Scopes to Kirtley F. Mather, January 24, 1927, Denison University Archives, 12P MI Box 19, K. B. Bork Biography of Kirtley Mather, "Scopes, John T./Scopes Trial."
  12. ^ See, for example, Frank Thorne to Winterton C. Curtis, March 12, 1931, Science Service Records (RU7091), Box 123, Folder 4; and J. Harlen Bretz to Frank Thorne, December 7, 1931, Science Service Records (RU7091), Box 122, Folder 7.
  13. ^ "Scopes of Evolution Frame Seeks Congress Seat," Chicago Daily Tribune, August 13, 1932; "Scopes Names in House Race," Los Angeles Times, August 13, 1932; "'Monkey Trial' Figure Named for Congress," New York Times, August 13, 1932; and "Kentucky Official Majority Is 185,858," Washington Post, November 29, 1932.
  14. ^ Lafollette, Marcel Chotkowskt (2008). Reframing Scopes: Journalists, Scientists, and Lost Photographs from the trial of the Century. Lawrence, Kansas: University Press of Kansas. p. 122.
  15. ^ "The evolution of a petroleum geologist after the Scopes Monkey Trial".
  16. ^ Lafollette, Marcel Chotkowski (2008). Reframing the Scopes: Journalists, Scientists, and Lost Photographs form the Trial of the Century. Lawrence, Kansas: University of Kansas. p. 123.
  17. ^ Archived at Ghostarchive and the Wayback Machine: "To Tell the Truth - John Thomas Scopes, subject of "Inherit The Wind" (Oct 10, 1960)". YouTube.
  18. ^ Scopes & Presley 1967.


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