clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

The Scopes Monkey Trial was one of the greatest publicity stunts ever

The Scopes trial, seen from above.
The Scopes trial, seen from above.
Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Phil Edwards is a senior producer for the Vox video team.

Ninety years ago today, the Scopes Trial was decided in the small town of Dayton, Tennessee. Today the so-called "Monkey Trial" is viewed as a turning point in the battle between evolution and religion in the country's schools. Thanks to plays like Inherit The Wind, we view the proceedings as an earnest and epic battle between two eternally opposed ideals.

But it was also one of the biggest publicity coups of the 20th century, and it turned Dayton into a highly profitable circus. The Scopes trial made the O. J. Simpson trial look downright low-profile.

Dayton, Tennessee, was hungry for publicity — so town leaders convinced John Scopes to take a stand

John T. Scopes in 1925

John T. Scopes in 1925. (Keystone France/Getty Images)

The Tennessee State Library recounts the trial's backstory: In 1925, Tennessee passed the Butler Act, which effectively prohibited the teaching of evolution in publicly funded schools. The American Civil Liberties Union promptly advertised in Chattanooga in search of a teacher who would challenge the act in court.

Local leaders in Dayton, Tennessee, saw their chance: If they could find a teacher who would teach evolution in class, they could host the trial, which was bound to be a national event. The superintendent of the school board, a local store owner, and two local lawyers searched for a teacher who'd help out — eventually finding John Scopes, after the school's regular science teacher turned them down.

Scopes, who regularly taught math and physics, read a chapter of the Tennessee state science textbook, which described evolution (though later on, even Scopes said he wasn't sure how much he'd really taught). He was promptly arrested on May 9, 1925, and the media circus began.

Dayton fought doggedly to keep the trial within its city limits. When Chattanooga tried to take the trial away from Dayton, it set off a panic. As the New York Times reported on May 20, 1925, Dayton citizens actually held a protest and threatened to boycott Chattanooga.

Eventually Dayton was allowed to host the trial, and the little town of 2,500 prepared to put on a show.

The trial secured, Dayton began milking it for publicity

Clarence Darrow outdoors during the trial

Clarence Darrow outdoors during the trial. (NY Daily News/Getty Images)

On May 24, 1925, about a month before the Scopes trial, the Times wrote that Rep. Cordell Hull asked the War Department for tents to house all the expected visitors to Dayton. Plans were made to create a "railroad city" of residential Pullman cars. The Science Association even proposed that the trial be held in a stadium.

The trial itself ended up having thousands of onlookers, in part due to its celebrity litigators: Clarence Darrow argued for Scopes, while William Jennings Bryan argued for the state. Dayton was flooded with visitors, famous faces, and ministers. The Rhea County Courthouse was packed, and the trial occasionally had to be held outdoors due to the heat.

And Dayton got the publicity it was seeking. The New York Times called it the "Evolution Arena" — a town known primarily for its strawberry production had suddenly become a new entertainment capital. Known as "Monkey Town" throughout the country, Dayton capitalized on the influx of visitors and press. New soda shops and restaurants sprang up, charging as much as they could to visitors and members of the media.

And, of course, there were apes. On July 13, 1925, the Times reported on the arrival of various attractions to Dayton. Promoters cruelly labeled — and marketed — one man as "the missing link," and there were chimpanzees, too. Two separate trainers brought chimps to town, and William Jennings Bryan exclaimed, "Wonderful!" when he saw them. Cameramen came along to film the spectacle, including a famous chimp named Joe Mendi. (It's probably worth noting once again, for the record, that despite the "Monkey Town" nickname, chimpanzees aren't monkeys.)

On July 21, the trial was decided, and Scopes was fined (the fee was later overturned on a technicality). But the actual legal proceedings were always secondary to the meeting of the minds and the broader culture war that Dayton courted, fought for, and nurtured into one of the greatest spectacles of the 20th century.

That said, even the small town had to adjust to its new guests: Trainer Zack Miller had trouble finding a hotel that wanted to house the chimpanzee he'd brought to town. He eventually bunked down in a storeroom — there was always room for one more visitor to Dayton.