Reaping the Whirlwind

Inherit the Wind

Adapted from Tornado in a Junkyard by James Perloff.

This July marked the 75th anniversary of what was perhaps the most famous court case of the 20th century: the 1925 Scopes "monkey trial." John Scopes, a schoolteacher from Dayton, Tennessee, was charged with violating the Butler Act, which forbade teaching that man had descended from lower life forms.

The Butler Act, which did not prohibit teaching other aspects of evolution, was not controversial when it passed the Tennessee legislature.

Perhaps nothing has advanced evolution's cause so effectively as Inherit the Wind, a supposed portrayal of this famous trial. The most common impression about the monkey trial is that Clarence Darrow humiliated William Jennings Bryan in cross-examination, scoring a powerful blow for evolution against religious fundamentalism.

Inherit the Wind enjoyed a record three-year run on Broadway and was subsequently made into an Academy Award-nominated film starring Spencer Tracy and Frederic March. A total of three film versions have been made and screened countless times to students as "educational" material. But few people have ever read the actual trial transcript, which is radically different from the movie. Even the original playwrights, Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee, acknowledged that their work was "not history."1

Leading Scopes's defense was Clarence Darrow (movie: Henry Drummond), the most famous criminal attorney of his day. Assisting the prosecution was William Jennings Bryan (movie: Matthew Harrison Brady), former U.S. Secretary of State and three-time Democratic Party presidential candidate.

Fact or Fiction?

In the Spencer Tracy version of the movie, the film opens as a grim town minister gathers with other prudish-looking residents of Hillsboro (real-life Dayton), Tennessee. Ominous music contrasts against the hymn, "Give Me That Old Time Religion." The citizens march to the local high school, where young Bert Cates (John Scopes) is teaching evolution using Darwin's Descent of Man. The town bigots arrest Cates on the spot.

Cates is portrayed as a man who grew up in Hillsboro, where neighborhood children would come to his house to peer through his microscope. In real life, John Scopes was not from Dayton and he was not a biology teacher. He taught math, coached football, and had briefly substituted for the regular biology teacher. Scopes was recruited by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) to challenge Tennessee's Butler Act. He probably never even taught evolution or Darwin. 

Scopes wrote in his autobiography, Center of the Storm: "To tell the truth, I wasn't sure I had taught evolution. 2 ...Darrow had been afraid for me to go on the stand. Darrow realized that I was not a science teacher and he was afraid that if I were put on the stand I would be asked if I actually taught biology." 3

Scopes also wrote about his students, who were called as witnesses at the trial: "If the boys had got their review of evolution from me, I was unaware of it. I didn't remember teaching it."4

The movie version lands Cates (Scopes) in jail, but in real life Scopes never spent a moment in jail. Furthermore, there was no bad blood between Scopes and Dayton's people. The entire affair was an amicably arranged public show.

The ACLU had been running ads in Tennessee newspapers, offering to pay expenses for any teacher who would volunteer to participate in a court challenge to the new law. George Rappleyea, manager of a mining company, noticed the ad and convinced local businessmen that such a trial would put Dayton on the map, which it did, and hopefully lift its sagging economy.

The men approached Scopes and asked if he would agree to say he had violated the law and be served with a warrant.5 They were so eager to have the trial that when they learned Chattanooga was trying to get its own court case going, Daytonians threatened to boycott Chattanooga merchants, and Scope's indictment was accelerated.6

Everything happened with Scopes's consent. John Scopes did believe in evolution. However, his trial was not instigated by witch-hunting fundamentalists, but by the ACLU, which not only paid the defense's costs, but offered to pay the prosecution's as well (an offer subsequently declined).

In the movie, Henry Drummond is Cates's (Scopes's) sole attorney, portrayed as the underdog fighting the system-represented by the state, Brady (Bryan), and a bigoted judge. In real life, Clarence Darrow brought a team of lawyers to Dayton, including ACLU heavyweight, Arthur Garfield Hays.

In the movie, Brady is an ignorant bigot opposed to all science. He says: "The way of scientism is the way of darkness." In real life, Bryan was a member of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. What he really said about science during the trial was: "Give science a fact and it is not only invincible, but of incalculable service to man."7

In the movie, Brady is completely unfamiliar with Darwin's works. In real life, Bryan quoted Darwin extensively, in both the courtroom and his own writings. In the movie, the prosecution objects when the defense tries to introduce Darwin's books as evidence. The bigoted judge agrees and excludes them. But in reality, not only were Darwin's books allowed as evidence, but Bryan himself introduced them.

In one of the movie's worst misrepresentations, the judge disallows any testimony from eminent scientists whom Drummond (Darrow) has brought to the trial. The judge declares that "zoology" (which he can barely pronounce) and other scientific topics are "irrelevant to the case."

In reality, after a zoologist testified at length, the prosecution correctly protested that testimony by Darrow's experts was irrelevant to the legal question (had Scopes violated the Butler Act?). Judge John T. Raulston agreed. However, Darrow argued that if the judge heard more scientific testimony, he would realize he was wrong. The court consented to hear more.

Bryan recognized that the atheistic Darrow was orchestrating this parade of witnesses for the purpose of promoting evolution - the trial was being broadcast by radio across the nation, and reported in all the newspapers. So Bryan requested permission to cross-examine Darrow's experts if they took the stand.

But Darrow realized Bryan would ask his experts tough, unanswerable questions about evolution like, "Where are the missing links?" Even worse, he might ask if they were atheists, which some could not deny without perjuring themselves. All this would spoil Darrow's evolutionary showcase.

Therefore, Darrow decided to have his witnesses submit affidavits for submission to an appeals court, thus avoiding any risk of cross-examination. Darrow was allowed the whole weekend, during which eight scientists dictated 60,000 words to stenographers. 8 Copies were given to the press and excerpts were read aloud in the courtroom.

Far from being excluded, the testimony of Darrow's witnesses occupies 54 pages of trial transcript. The decision to stay off the stand, and submit only written affidavits, was not made by a bigoted judge but by the defense itself, in an effort to escape cross-examination. The ploy worked. Ironically, most of the evolutionary "evidence" Darrow's experts presented - Piltdown Man, vestigial ("useless") organs, embryonic recapitulation - are theories that have been thrown on the trash heap of discredited evolutionary ideas.

In the movie, Cates (Scopes) and Drummond (Darrow) hang on pins and needles waiting for the jury's decision. When a "guilty" verdict is read, gloom falls on the defendant and his brave attorney as bigotry and ignorance win the day. In real life, there was no suspense. On the last day of the trial, defense attorney Darrow himself changed Scopes's plea to "guilty."

The reason for this lies in Darrow's famous interrogation of William Jennings Bryan, for which the trial is primarily remembered. It is commonly believed that Darrow trounced Bryan, and that evolution thus trounced fundamentalism. But in real life it didn't happen that way.

A bitter atheistic critic of Christianity, Darrow had crafted most of his questions about the Bible years earlier. He had long yearned to debate Bryan on this, and the night before the cross-examination, he rehearsed his questions with Kitley Mather, one of his academic witnesses.9

Did Darrow win his confrontation with Bryan? Yes, but not nearly as convincingly as in the movie, and he succeeded for one reason. When a trial witness is interrogated, he may only answer the questions asked. Furthermore, he may not ask any questions himself. Thus Darrow totally controlled the exchange; Bryan could only assume the defensive - answering questions, asking none.

Why, then, did Bryan consent to the interrogation? First, because Darrow had baited him by publicly branding him a coward who would not dare test his views on the witness stand. But there was a more significant reason why Bryan agreed. Bryan believed that, afterwards, he would have the opportunity to question Darrow on evolution. This was important since he had been denied cross-examination of Darrow's "experts." Darrow strung Bryan along, letting him believe this would happen, but Darrow apparently had no intention of going on the stand!

In the movie interrogation, Brady (Bryan) is a Biblical literalist:

Drummond: You believe that every word written in this book should be taken literally?
Brady: Everything in the Bible should be accepted, exactly as it is given there.

In real life, we discover Bryan's answer was lifted out of context:

Darrow: Do you claim that everything in the Bible should be literally interpreted?
Bryan: I believe everything in the Bible should be accepted as it is given there; some of the Bible is given illustratively. For instance, "Ye are the salt of the earth." I would not insist that man was actually salt, or that he had flesh of salt, but it is used in the sense of salt as saving God's people.10

In the movie, Drummond asks Brady how old the Earth is:

Brady: A fine Biblical scholar, Bishop Ussher, has determined for us the exact date and hour of the Creation. It occurred in the year 4004 B.C.
Drummond: Well, uh, that's Bishop Ussher's opinion.
Brady: It is not an opinion. It is a literal fact, which the good Bishop arrived at through careful computation of the ages of the prophets as set down in the Old Testament. In fact, he determined that the Lord began the Creation on the 23rd of October, 4004 B.C. at, uh, at 9:00 A.M.
Drummond: That Eastern Standard Time?

In real life, here's what was said:

Q: Mr. Bryan, could you tell me how old the earth is?
A: No, sir, I couldn't.
Q: Could you come anywhere near it?
A: I wouldn't attempt to. I could possibly come as near as the scientists do, but I had rather be more accurate before I give a guess.11

In the movie, under the intense interrogation, Brady begins cracking up. Finally, even after being dismissed as a witness, all he can do is frantically shout the names of the books of the Bible. The fundamentalists in the courtroom are visibly disillusioned and angry with their hero.

In real life, nothing remotely resembling this occurred. Darrow did score some points, and Bryan was eager to reciprocate by examining Darrow on evolution. However, the next day, Bryan sat stunned as Darrow changed Scopes's plea from "not guilty" to "guilty," thus ending the trial and precluding Bryan from conducting a counter-interrogation.

The trial had never been about John Scopes's guilt or innocence. Its purpose had been to disseminate Darwinism and assail fundamentalism. Darrow accomplished both. He got his witnesses' testimonies into the record without having them cross-examined, roughed up Bryan on the Bible, and prevented Bryan from reciprocating with a counter-interrogation about evolution. Give Darrow credit - he was a great tactician.

Scopes was fined $100, the minimum under Tennessee law, but was never required to pay; the Tennessee Supreme Court later disallowed it on a technicality.

Inherit the Wind grossly distorted the Scopes trial to advance an agenda. It asserted that John Scopes was convicted due to lack of a fair trial and falsely claims that all evidence supporting his case was disallowed. But that's exactly what Inherit the Wind did. It showed the audience one side of the story-and a fabricated one at that! Although Inherit the Wind depicted William Jennings Bryan, the people of Tennessee, and Biblical Christians as ignorant bigots, it is the film itself that is steeped in bigotry.

James Perloff is author of the outstanding book Tornado in a Junkyard, which examines in depth the issues surrounding the evolution/creation debate. This book may be ordered at (800)628-7640.


  1. Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee, Inherit the Wind, Bantam, New York, 1955; (reprint, 1960), page preceding Act One.
  2. John T. Scopes and James Presley, Center of the Storm , Holt, Rinehart and Winston, New York, 1967, p.60.
  3. Ibid., pp.187-88.
  4. Ibid., p.134.
  5. Ibid., p.60.
  6. Edward J. Larson, Summer for the Gods: The Scopes Trial and America's Continuing Debate Over Science and Religion , Basic Books, New York, 1997, p.96.
  7. "The World's Most Famous Court Trial", Bryan College, Dayton, TN, 1990 (hereinafter referred to as "Transcript,") p.322.
  8. Larson, p.184.
  9. Larson, pp.182-83.
  10. Transcript, p.285.
  11. Transcript, p. 296.