Three Weeks In Dayton


By this time Bryan had risen from the witness chair, and the two old men were glaring at each other. Raulston banged the gavel and adjourned court until the next day, when Bryan hoped to get Darrow on the stand to put him through a similar examination about his agnosticism and try to recoup his losses.

As we lugged typewriters back upstairs we had no idea that we had passed the finale of the trial. In some way during that hot afternoon, with Brian Bell working from the window above, we had managed to piece together more than four columns of newsprint.

Evolutionists went away saying that Darrow had won. Fundamentalists said Bryan had faced the lion and emerged with a whole skin. He still was their hero but with armor awry, helmet battered, and shield bent. Darrow had driven him to the thin edge of nothingness. He had tried to make Bryan appear a bigot and a fool, and Bryan had charged Darrow with being an enemy of Christianity and the Bible. Neither was right, but those two hours had brought Bryan the greatest humiliation of his life, worse than being beaten three times for the Presidency.

On that Monday night Tom Stewart decided the circus must end and prepared for bringing down the curtain. He moved quickly the next morning.

Judge Raulston expunged the record of Bryan’s testimony and put the case in the hands of the jury with the charge that it not consider whether the theory of evolution ran contrary to Genesis but simply answer one question: had Scopes taught the theory?

Both Stewart and Darrow made it clear to the jury that on that question Scopes was guilty, and proceedings were hurried through so quickly that Bryan had no chance to make a parting speech. The jury voted Scopes guilty, and the judge fined him a hundred dollars.

Bryan sat quietly, face grim, lines deeper; he seemed to have aged years overnight.

This was Tuesday. Reporters hurried through their wrap-up stories of the trial, wires were dismantled, tent stakes pulled up, and the circus left Dayton. The drama seemed finished.

On the following Sunday Bryan ate his usual tremendous meal and went in to take a nap. The afternoon was almost gone when Mrs. Bryan decided he had slept long enough and sent a man to wake him. He was dead.

In Dayton life settled back into its familiar pattern. The principal lasting reminder of the trial was Bryan University, a fundamentalist institution that has some five hundred students fifty years later. The two million words sent around the world under the Dayton dateline in 1925 had done little more than make the name a synonym for narrow-mindedness.

Few persons had taken the trouble to note that most of the kooks came from outside Dayton, that the residents were simple, friendly, hospitable, and rich in common sense and homely wisdom. This was the congressional district that produced Cordell Hull, father of the reciprocal trade plan and for eleven years Secretary of State. Hull had been a judge in that same district, and one wonders how he would have handled the Scopes trial.

Largely ignored in practice, the anti-evolution law remained on the books in Tennessee. Time and again efforts at repeal were rejected by fundamentalists.

Inside many churches the struggle between fundamentalists and modernists continued for two generations, promoting political apathy, driving brilliant young people away, and permitting the thrust of social change to pass by unrecognized.

Perhaps this was an even greater tragedy than the humiliation and death of William Jennings Bryan.