Three Weeks In Dayton

PrintPrintEmailEmailOn a sunny morning in June, 1925, William Jennings Bryan put his famous appetite on display before a young reporter and two lawyers in the dining room of the old Piedmont Hotel on Peachtree Street in Atlanta. They watched with wide eyes as he showed why knives and forks had been invented.

Bryan did away with a Florida grapefruit, double orders of hot cakes, sausage, eggs, and enough coffee to float a small canoe. Even the waiter showed some concern as the piles of food disappeared. None of us could know that within six weeks Bryan would pay a fatal price for that fabulous appetite.

Nor did we know that his extraordinary hunger went back to childhood, when he stuffed his pockets with bread, and that in these later years he carried radishes with him, either in pockets or in a bag, to have a bite with him when the craving struck. Yet he had been a temperance advocate all his life and did not drink or smoke.

At one time Bryan had worked off calories with campaigns and lectures. By 1925, however, the wear and tear of the years was beginning to show. His stomach muscles sagged, and his midriff bulged. Only a fringe of hair was left around the lower regions of his head, and its dome glistened in the early morning light. A determined chin was thrust forward below thin lips and a mouth so wide that when he was young, friends said he could whisper in his own ear.

On this day Bryan was in good spirits, about to engage in what he regarded as an important event in his life. He had come to Atlanta to confer with lawyers engaged in the prosecution of John Thomas Scopes for teaching evolution in Tennessee public schools. The Dayton trial was only three weeks away, and Bryan was a giant preparing for battle against the forces of evil.

Three times a Presidential candidate, former Secretary of State, noted lecturer, Bryan had turned from politics to become a champion of religion. He had a Bible class in Miami that drew thousands, his religious dissertations were widely published, and he preached the horrors of evolution and the wonders of Florida wherever he went.

When Bryan folded his napkin and settled back, he said the hypothesis that linked man to lower life obscured God and weakened the virtues that depended upon the religious ties between God and man. He believed the Dayton trial would bring a showdown between religion and science. Then he went off to legal conferences after admitting that he had not tried a case in court since 1897.

After the event the Scopes evolution trial would be called many things and depicted in various ways: as a publicity circus for a small town in a peaceful valley, a display of southern ignorance and bigotry, a trial of fundamentalist beliefs, and a legal challenge against restriction of a child’s right to be taught and to learn. It may have been all of these things, but it also was more.

The controversy grew easily out of the same cultural soil that produced the Prohibition amendment. Fundamentalists reasoned that if drinking habits could be controlled by law, so might patterns of thought. The principal front for their drive was the World’s Christian Fundamentals Association, founded by a Baptist pastor in Minneapolis in 1918. Bryan became associated with it a few years later and was soon a prime leader in the effort to prevent evolutionary teaching. He urged legislatures to outlaw such teaching in public schools and proposed that non-Christians be barred from instructing in colleges. Under this pressure Florida and Tennessee yielded, Oklahoma deleted evolution from textbooks, and Delaware ordered Bible reading in public schools.

Sensing a lynch-mob mood in a period in which the Ku Klux Klan was thriving in both North and South, intellectuals braced for a fight. Many, like Clarence Darrow, feared the nation was moving toward church domination.

When the Tennessee law became effective at the end of March, 1925, the American Civil Liberties Union began searching for a man and a place to provide a test of the statute. Almost immediately George W. Rappleyea, a transplanted New Yorker with the leaping mind of a Madison Avenue advertising man, came up with a plan for John Thomas Scopes to serve as defendant in such a case at Dayton.

Scopes, athletic coach for Central High School, was never too certain he had taught evolution. After he became involved, he had to bone up on the subject. His field of teaching had been mathematics, chemistry, and physics, but he occasionally presided over a biology class when the regular teacher was ill.

After he agreed to be in the test case, however, there was no backing down. Four days later he was arraigned and held under a thousand-dollar bond for the August meeting of the grand jury.