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John Scopes in 1925
John Thomas Scopes (August 3, 1900 – October 21, 1970), a teacher in Dayton, Tennesseemarker, was charged on May 5, 1925 with violating Tennesseemarker's Butler Act, which prohibited the teaching of evolution in Tennessee schools. He was tried in a case known as the Scopes Monkey Trial.

Scopes was born and raised in Paducah, Kentuckymarker before moving to Illinois as a teenager. He was a member of the class of 1919 in Salem, Illinoismarker, which is also William Jennings Bryan's home town. After he had earned a law degree at the University of Kentuckymarker in 1924, Scopes moved to Dayton where he took a job as the Rhea County High School's football coach, and occasionally filled in as substitute teacher when regular members of staff were off work.

Scopes' involvement in the so-called 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 willing to act as a defendant.

A group of businessmen in Dayton, Tennessee, led by engineer and geologist George Rappleyea, saw this as an opportunity to get publicity for their town and 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."

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 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.

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 overturned Scopes' conviction on a technicality: the judge had set the fine instead of the jury. The Butler Act remained until 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," (DeCamp p. 435) explaining he had skipped the evolution lesson and his lawyers had coached his students to go on the stand; the Dayton businessmen had assumed he had violated the law. Hutchinson did not file his story until after the Scopes appeal was decided in 1927. Scopes also admitted the truth to the wife of the Universalist minister Charles Francis Potter.

After the trial, Scopes accepted a scholarship for graduate study of geology in 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 was baptized in the Roman 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 Company, for which he studied oil reserves. He worked, first in Houston, Texas and then in Shreveport, Louisiana, until he retired in 1963.


  1. Scopes, p. 60 Center of the Storm
  2. Jerry R. Tompkins, D-Days at Dayton. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1965, pp. 15-16.


  • Scopes, John Thomas, and William Jennings Bryan. 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, 1925. Accessed October 11, 2007
  • Scopes, John Thomas, and James Presley. Center of the Storm; Memoirs of John T. Scopes. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1967. ISBN 0-03-060340-4 Accessed October 11, 2007
  • De Camp, L. Sprague. The Great Monkey Trial. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1968. googlebooks Accessed July 2, 2008
  • Famous Trials in American History: Tennessee vs. John Scopes. Accessed February 13, 2009

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