A Witness at the Scopes Trial

Scientific American has re-published an article from 50 years ago, which first appeared in their January 1959 issue: A Witness at the Scopes Trial. The author is one of the trial witnesses, Fay-Cooper Cole. Here are some excerpts:

“This is Clarence Darrow,” said the voice at the other end of the wire, “I suppose you have been reading the papers, so you know Bryan and his outfit are prosecuting that young fellow Scopes. Well, Malone, Colby and I have put ourselves in a mess by offering to defend. We don’t know much about evolution. We don’t know whom to call as witnesses. But we do know we are fighting your battle for academic freedom. We need the help of you fellows at the University, so I am asking three of you to come to my office to help lay plans.”

Now that’s a good beginning! Then he provides some backfill:

[T]hree lawyers met in New York City for a conference on some business matters. They were Clarence Darrow, controversialist and defender of unpopular causes; Bainbridge Colby, an eminent corporation lawyer and, like Bryan, a former Secretary of State; and Dudley Field Malone, a leading Catholic layman and a fashionable barrister. Their conversation turned to the Tennessee situation. One said: “It is a shame. That poor teacher, who probably doesn’t know what it is all about, is to be sacrificed by the Fundamentalists.” Another said: “Someone ought to do something about it. ” The third replied: “Why don’t we?” Through the American Civil Liberties Union they offered to defend young Scopes. Their offer was accepted.

This was real news! Bryan, three times candidate for the presidency of the U. S., the great Fundamentalist leader and orator, on one side. On the other, three of the nation’s most famous lawyers, including Darrow, master jurypleader. The papers were full of the story.

Let’s read on:

Little happened on the first day of the trial beyond the selection of the jury. A panel was offered, and Darrow accepted it without change after a casual examination. But he did bring out the fact that 11 jurors were Fundamentalist church members. All admitted that they knew little about science or evolution. One said that the only Darwin he had ever heard about ran a local notion store. One could not read or write.

Darrow accepted that jury? Talk about over-confidence! We continue:

The court opened on Monday with a prayer in which a local clergyman urged God to preserve his sacred word against attack. It was a scarcely veiled plea to the jury.

Thinks weren’t looking good for John Scopes. Here’s more:

That afternoon Darrow pressed for dismissal with an eloquent attack on ignorance and bigotry. Coatless in the sweltering courtroom, tugging at his suspenders, he paced up and down, firing shot after shot at the Prosecution. He stressed the danger to freedom of press, church and school if men like Bryan could impose their opinions and interpretations on the law of the land. “The fires of bigotry and hate are being lighted,” he said. “This is as bold an attempt to destroy learning as was ever made in the Middle Ages. . . . The statute says you cannot teach anything in conflict with the Bible.” He argued that in the U. S. there are over 500 churches and sects which differ over certain passages of the-Bible. If the law were to prevail, Scopes would have to be familiar with the whole Bible and all its interpretations; among all the warring sects, he would have to know which one was right in order not to commit a crime.

Darrow said: “Your Honor, my client is here because ignorance and bigotry are rampant, and that is a mighty strong combination . … If today you can make teaching of evolution in the public schools a crime, tomorrow you can make it a crime to teach it in the private schools. At the next session of the Legislature you can ban books and newspapers. You can set Catholic against Protestant, and Protestant against Protestant, when you try to foist your own religion upon the minds of men. If you can do the one, you can do the other. After a while, Your Honor, we will find ourselves marching backward to the glorious days of the 16th century when bigots lighted the fagots to burn men who dared to bring any intelligence and enlightenment to the human mind.”

Darrow and the defense team retired to an abandoned “haunted house ” which they rented and fixed up as quarters for the trial, because no one in town would take them in.

That night, as we gathered in our haunted house for a conference, a terrific storm swept the town. When a brilliant flash of lightning struck nearby, Darrow said: “Boys, if lightning strikes this house tonight … “

We can’t excerpt any more. You ought to click over and read the whole thing. Wait, we have to give you the ending:

Some time after the trial I was summoned to the office of Frederick Woodward, acting president of the University. He handed me a long document, a series of resolutions from a Southern Baptist conference. They took the University to task for the part members of its faculty had taken in the trial, taking note of the University’s strong Baptist origins. They voiced objections to Professors Judd, Newman and Mathews, but reserved the real condemnation for me the witness on human evolution. I was “a snake in the grass corrupting the youth of a nation,” and so on, concluding with “and we have been investigating Professor Cole still further, and we find that he is not even a Baptist.”

I began to laugh, but the president said: “This is no laughing matter. You are a rather new man here, but already we have more demands for your removal than anv other man who has been on our faculty. These resolutions are typical and were considered of such importance that they were read yesterday at the meeting of the Board of Trustees.” “Yes,” I replied. “And what did they do?” He reached across his desk and handed me a piece of paper. They had raised my salary.

Now go to Scientific American and read it all.

Copyright © 2008. The Sensuous Curmudgeon. All rights reserved.

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One response to “A Witness at the Scopes Trial

  1. mightyfrijoles

    What, they didn’t take a poll? You can’t do anything without taking a poll? No focus groups?

    I’m appalled.