John T. Scopes

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John T. Scopes
John t scopes.jpg
Born John Thomas Scopes
(1900-08-03)August 3, 1900
Paducah, Kentucky
Died October 21, 1970(1970-10-21) (aged 70)
Shreveport, Louisiana
Cause of death Cancer
Known for Scopes Monkey Trial
Spouse(s) Mildred E. Walker (Née) Scopes
Children 2
  • Thomas Scopes
  • Mary Alva Brown (Née) Scopes
  • Irene Scopes Metzger
  • Lela V. Scopes

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 evolution in Tennessee schools. He was tried in a case known as the Scopes Trial, in which he was found guilty and fined $100.

Early life

Scopes was born in 1900 to Thomas Scopes and Mary Alva Brown on a farm in Paducah, Kentucky, 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 for a short time 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 took a job as the Rhea County High School's football coach and occasionally filled in as a substitute teacher when regular members of the staff were off work.[4]


Scopes's 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, 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."[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. Bryan, Senior, 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.[6]

The case ended on July 21, 1925, with a guilty verdict, and Scopes was fined $100. 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 Scopes 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 Clarence Darrow and Ed Begley as William Jennings Bryan and in 1960, a feature film titled the same name as the play starring Spencer Tracy and Fredric March.[1]

Both the play and the film engages in literary license with the facts and should not be relied upon as a historical document. For example, Scopes (Bertram Cates) is shown being arrested in class, thrown in jail, burned in effigy, and taunted by a fire-snorting preacher. William Jennings Bryan (Matthew Harrison Brady) is portrayed as an almost comical fanatic who dramatically dies of a "busted belly" while attempting to deliver his summation in a chaotic courtroom. The townspeople are shown as frenzied, mean-spirited, and ignorant. None of that happened in Dayton, Tennessee during the actual trial.[9]

Later years

After the trial, Scopes accepted a scholarship for graduate study in geology at the University of Chicago. He then did geological field work in Venezuela for Gulf Oil of South America. There he met and married his wife, Mildred, and he was baptized into the Catholic Church. In 1930, he returned to the University of Chicago for a third year of graduate study. After two years without professional employment, he took a position as a geologist with the United Gas Corporation, for which he studied oil reserves. He worked, in Houston, Texas then in Shreveport, Louisiana, until he retired in 1963.[10] In June 1967, Scopes wrote Center of the Storm: Memoirs of John T. Scopes.[11]

Personal life and death

Scopes married Mildred Elizabeth Scopes (née Walker) (1905–1990).[12] 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][13]

See also


  1. ^ a b c d "Scopes of 'Monkey Trial' Is Dead at 70". New York Times. New York Times: The New York Times Company. 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. ^
  10. ^ Tompkins 1965, pp. 15–16.
  11. ^ Scopes, John T.; Presley, James (1967). Center of the Storm: Memoirs of John T. Scopes (1st ed.). New York City: Henry Holt and Company. ISBN 978-0030603402. 
  12. ^ Mildred E. Walker Scopes at Find a Grave
  13. ^ John Thomas Scopes, Sr at Find a Grave


Further reading

  • Bryan, William Jennings; Darrow, Clarence; Scopes, John Thomas (1925). The World's Most Famous Court Trial, Tennessee Evolution Case; A Complete Stenographic Report of the Famous Court Test of the Tennessee Anti-Evolution Act, at Dayton, July 10 to 21, 1925, Including Speeches and Arguments of Attorneys. Cincinnati: National Book Company. Retrieved October 11, 2007. 
  • "Famous Trials in American History: Tennessee vs. John Scopes". Retrieved February 13, 2009. 

External links

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