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TN History for Kids

Scopes Trial Museum

Clarence Darrow during the Scopes Trial
PHOTO: Library of Congress

Dayton, Tennessee, is a quiet town. But there was one summer when it was anything but quiet. A long time ago, in 1925, Dayton was the scene of one of the most famous trials of all time. It is usually referred to as the “Scopes Trial.” And today there is a small museum there that tells you all about what happened.

This is what the trial was about: Way back in 1859 an English scientist named Charles Darwin came out with what is known as “the theory of evolution.” It’s pretty complicated stuff. But among other things, Darwin argued that human beings slowly descended from another species of animals over a long, long period of time – like millions of years. In other words, our ancestors – way, way, way back – might have looked sort of like apes.

Many people didn't, and don't, believe Darwin's theory. They prefer other explanations of the origins of the human race, such as the idea that humans were created by God. In any case, Darwin's theory has been controversial ever since it came out. Vanderbilt University fired a geology professor in the 1870s for believing it, although institutions of higher learning have become more tolerant of such things as the years have gone by. In the spring of 1925, the Tennessee legislature passed a law making it illegal to teach evolution in the public schools. A few weeks later, the American Civil Liberties Union offered to pay the legal expenses of anyone willing to challenge the new law.

Some of the folks in Dayton saw this advertisement and they got to thinking. If there is going to be a trial challenging this law, and it’s going to be big news, then why not have it here? After all, it would be good publicity for the town, and it would help the hotels and restaurants. So these folks convinced John Scopes, a teacher at the local high school, to agree to challenge the law.

Before long, the trial of State of Tennessee v. Scopes was on, and the whole nation was following it. Scopes’ lead attorney was Clarence Darrow of Chicago, Illinois; while the best known attorney for the state was William Jennings Bryan (who had been the Democratic nominee for president three times). National newspapers and radio stations descended on the small town. Dayton's downtown took on a carnival-like atmosphere, with people selling souvenirs and even carrying monkeys with them.

The trial took place in July 1925. It was hot and crowded in the courtroom. While a national radio audience listened on, attorneys Darrow and Bryan focused the trial not on Scopes’ actions, but on evolution itself. It was almost as if Charles Darwin was on trial. At one point, Darrow put Bryan on the stand, asking him questions about the validity of the Bible.

Scopes lost the case and was fined $100. His attorney later appealed to the Tennessee Supreme Court, which threw out his conviction on a technicality.

William Jennings Bryan died only a few days after the Scopes Trial.

The courtroom where the trial took place

All of these events are explained and illustrated at the Scopes Museum, located in the basement of the old courthouse in Dayton. We recommend that you visit and that you take some time to look at the wonderful displays. And after you’ve had a chance to take in the exhibits, take the elevator up to the second floor. You will find that the courtroom looks exactly the way it did way back in 1925. If you sit down on the front row and close your eyes, you might be able to hear Clarence Darrow arguing with William Jennings Bryan.

Several decades later someone wrote a play called Inherit the Wind that was loosely based on the events of that summer. It later became a movie, which you can rent at most video stores.

One warning about Inherit the Wind: The movie does not accurately depict what happened that summer.

It is a great movie, however.

Scopes Trial Museum

The Scopes Trial Museum is in Dayton, which is the county seat of Rhea County.

For more on the Scopes Trial, check out the Tennessee History for Kids video "A Teacher in Trouble."