Three Weeks In Dayton

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During the weekend many newsmen, including Mencken, left Dayton believing that the trial was finished except for a wrap-up of details on Monday. They knew the gist of the scientific affidavits would be handled by the press associations.

I remember the three days of July 18–20 as the most arduous and uncomfortable of the trial. Our staff received a pile of lengthy papers in affidavit form from anthropologists, divinity teachers, education experts, geologists, preachers, linguists, psychologists, and zoologists. Their language was technical and abstruse. Each statement had to be reduced in length to a thousand words or so, with language simplified for the average reader.

All through Dayton typewriters clattered as reporters tried to wrench meaning from the complex grammar in which the scientists had clothed their beliefs about evolution and religion. The A.P. team hacked away in the heat for hours on end, moving the finished product over our special wire from the courthouse. Sometime during the weekend there was a night thunderstorm. I remember taking a batch of copy to the courthouse for transmission when the thunder, echoing through the valley, was so loud that the telegraph operator and I could hardly hear each other. Lightning in great, vivid flashes glared in the courtroom and lighted the lawn.

When the abstracts of scientific testimony appeared in newspapers, they filled more than four pages of newsprint.

After the work we sank into double beds on sheets that might have been warmed by a stove and lay as far apart as we could, each man sleeping in a puddle of perspiration. All through that stay in Dayton nothing ever seemed to dry. Fresh shirts were stuck to the body before noon. Pajamas were as moist at night as when removed in the morning. Antiperspirants were not on the market, and talcum quickly became a gooey mess. On long campaign trips a few years later train porters would start burning incense in press cars after the second day; we had no such luxury in Dayton.

When the trial opened again on Monday, the reporters went to the courthouse expecting a dreary day of routine proceedings. None dreamed that the day would produce high drama.

Over the weekend Judge Raulston had thought about Darrow’s behavior of Friday, and His Honor walked into the courtroom with a firm step and a stern face. As the first order of business he cited Darrow for contempt and fixed bail at five thousand dollars. Then he agreed that the affidavits of experts might be read into the record for the use of a higher court, and the defense spent the morning reading them.

During the noon recess defense attorneys talked Darrow into apologizing to the court, and he did this—grudgingly. The judge accepted the gesture, and the two shook hands.

At this point word came to the judge that the weight of the crowd in the courtroom was causing the plaster to fall from the ceiling below. It was feared that the building might collapse. Raulston ordered a recess and said the court would reassemble below on a platform that had been used by an evangelist.

This presented a problem for press-association reporters whose wires were installed in the courtroom. Ray Clapper for United Press, Bill Hutchinson, and I tucked our typewriters under our arms and sprinted down the steps. Along the way I grabbed a box someone had left in the hall; it would make a typewriter stand. Ray and I got seats side by side on a backless wooden bench. Hutch sat a couple of rows in front of us. Other reporters with notebooks or pads of yellow copy paper crowded below along the edge of the platform.

In the middle of the platform a chair had been placed for the judge. At the far end was another for witnesses, and at our end was a confused mixture of defense and prosecution attorneys. I wondered how I would be able to get copy to the wires in the courtroom above. When I looked up, I saw Brian Bell and Pete Lipsey in a window, Brian gesturing for me to keep the story moving.

As court resumed the crowd pressed forward. Some, standing in the sun, fanned themselves with straw hats. There was a little shade on the platform, just enough to cover the judge’s chair. For lesser folk there was only the broiling sun.

It was at this point that Bryan demanded the right to testify. Here was his chance to defend his position against those he regarded as baiters of Christianity. Somewhat ponderously he crossed the platform and sat down, turning to face the spectators rather than the judge. There were cheers from the crowd, and all stretched forward expectantly.

Thus began one of the most famous court confrontations in American history: Darrow the agnostic versus Bryan the fundamentalist.

The two had known each other for years. Indeed, Darrow had been a delegate to that Chicago convention in 1896 when Bryan made his “cross-of-gold” speech. Both had been young men then; in 1925 Darrow was sixty-eight and Bryan sixty-five. Through the intervening years both had often worked the same side of the street, Darrow as lawyer for the poor, Bryan as their politician.