Remembering and honoring John Thomas Scopes

The other day, my friend Mary Matthews called from Nashville with a lot of news, lot of great talk.

And she told me about an August 3 piece in Nashville’s hometown paper, The Tennessean, about John Thomas Scopes, one of my life-long heroes and heretic gods.

Had I read Scopes’s autobiography, Mary asked? Which prompted, I’m afraid, a excited and long-ish burst from me about Scopes, his memoir, the situation, the trial…all the stuff I knew and embraced with love. I did pause at some point to say, “Oh dear, I’m sorry — I’ll bet all of this is in the Tennessean.” And indeed most of it is.

This is the time of year when those of us who worship heretics do think about Scopes, because the Scopes trial was held in Dayton, Tennessee’s Rhea County Courthouse, starting in July, 1925. And Dayton has habitually made an annual performance of the actual trial, with Dayton citizens getting into the sweaty spirit in 1925 get-ups.

Frank Daniels III, the writer of the Tennessean piece, gets a lot of colorful, intimate tidbits into his article, although — given my experience in Dayton, when I wrote about the trial for the New York Times, I’m a tiny bit suspicious that he’s taking a slightly fundamentalist point of view that downplays Scopes, while also minimizing the enormous impact and importance of the trial on American life, legislation and history through our own time. And he’s off on a couple of facts.

But that’s probably just me. After all, I was in Dayton over several days and learned that the only place I could buy the entire trial transcript (a read as dramatic and often as funny as the play drawn from it, Inherit The Wind) was at William Jennings Bryan College, dryly described by the woman who owned the beautiful old inn where I stayed — a lifelong Dayton resident who actually attended high school in the same place Scopes taught — as, “Oh, yeah,” she said, “the Cult.”

And what sort of an education does Bryan College offer? Well, someone else told me, it turns out missionaries and church organists.

You can read my piece about the Scopes trial, At the True ‘Trial of the Century,’ published in the New York Times, here.

My own intimate tidbit: I made my second visit to Dayton during the O.J. Simpson trial. I had turned down an invitation from the man I worked for, one of O.J.’s lawyers, to attend the California trial, because I was going to be attending, so to speak, the Scopes trial, the real Trial of the Century.

When I was in the courthouse basement, a place that used to be the jail (and still displays a cell or two) but is now a funky, sort of endearing, home-made Scopes Trial museum, a middle-age couple from maybe Georgia (the accent), were looking over the wall displays, photo and odd little artifacts. They got to a photo mural that covered almost one wall. Somewhere on it, there was in large letters the information that the Scopes trial lasted a coincidentally biblical six days (after which Darrow rested and Bryan collapsed and died).

The Southern woman read this info and drawled to her husband,”Well, that was a lot shorter than O.J.’s.”

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