Inherit the Wind: The Movie and the Reality
Jerome Lawrence and Robert Edwin Lee wrote a stage play, “Inherit the Wind” in 1955. The play was based on Scopes Monkey Trial but the intent of the play was to take a swipe at the investigations of possible “un-American” activities in the 1950s. Stanly Kramer produced and directed the film “Inherit the Wind” based on the play. There were three made for television remakes of the move. The original movie is the most memorable and this article will cover the movie and the actual events surrounding the trial of The State of Tennessee vs. John Thomas Scopes, in July 1925. There are spoilers.
He that troubleth his own house shall inherit the wind: and the fool shall be servant to the wise of heart.— Proverbs 11:29 - King James Version
Inherit the Wind
The movie opens with Leslie Uggams singing “That Old Time Religion”. The song in interspaced with a menacing soundtrack. Some men in suits meet on the street. It’s reminiscent of the Westerns where there is an imminent showdown. The men, led by Reverend Jeremiah Brown (Claude Akins), enter a classroom. The entrance is reminiscent of Gestapo entering in war movies. Bertram T. Cates (Dick York) acknowledges the “visitors” and begins his lesson on evolution. A reporter takes a picture of the constable arresting Bertram T. Cates. Newspapers throughout the country report the incident. The publicity has the town fathers divided. Some want the town to hold its ground. Others want the town to drop the charges lest the town be seen as a laughing stock. When the town fathers learn, three-time presidential candidate Matthew Harrison Brady (Fredric March) volunteered to come into town and assist in the prosecution, they believe the trial could bring tourists to the town.
Brady came into town with much fanfare and was given the ceremonial title of “Colonel”. A newspaper employs noted trial attorney Henry Drummond (Spencer Tracy) to defend Cates. The newspaper also sends cynical reporter E. K. Hornbeck (Gene Kelly) to cover the trial. Hornbeck thinks little of the town and religion. Brady and Drummond were once friends and Drummond supported him twice in Brady’s runs for president.
Many of the people in the courtroom had fans to cool themselves. They were supplied by a funeral home that had its name emblazoned on the fans. During the pre-trial motions Drummond objects to Brady being referred to as “Colonel”. They solve the issue by making Brady a “temporary” honorary colonel. Reverend Brown leads a rally the night before the trial. Reverend Brown publicly condemns his daughter, Rachel (Donna Anderson), because of her love for Bertram Cates. Brady intervenes in Rachel’s behalf. He quotes Proverbs 11:29 which makes the Reverend relent and gives the movie its title. Rachel tells Brady why Cates turned away from the church.
In court Brady calls Rachel as a prosecution witness. Brady forces Rachel to explain how a boy drowned and Cates turned away from the church because Reverend Brown said the boy was condemned to Hell because his father (Noah Berry Jr.) didn’t have him Baptized. Rachel breaks down on the witness stand. Cates refuses to let Drummond cross examine Rachel.
Drummond attempts to call six scientists to testify but they are all deemed irrelevant to the case. Drummond goes off on a tirade and gets charged with contempt of court. The farther of the boy who drowned posts bond for Drummond.
That night a crowd of people with signs, torches, and a burning effigy march to the jailhouse where Cates was held. The crowd sings the “Glory Hallelujah Chorus” with the lyrics, “We’ll hang Bert Cates to a sour apple tree.” Someone throws a bottle at the jailhouse bars. The crowd then marches to the hotel where Drummond is staying. They change the lyrics to “We’ll hang Henry Drummond to a sour apple tree.” Hornbeck, wearing a Ku Klux Klan type hood, comes to Drummond’s room. He makes a series of snide remarks about the crowd and humanity in general. When Drummond quips he needs a miracle, Hornbeck tosses him a Bible and sarcastically says, “Here’s a whole book full of them.” Drummond hold the Bible and smiles.
The next day Drummond apologies for what he said in the previous court session. He surprises the court by calling Brady as a witness. Brady willingly takes the stand. Brady gets much support, and laughs, from the audience with hit witty quips. Brady makes a fool out of himself. Brady is shouting out the books of the Bible in the order of how they are listed in the Bible when the judge adjourns the court. His strongest supporters are dismayed at his dismal performance.
The next day a radio station has a microphone in the courtroom. Brady had a speech prepared for the court. The radio announcer describes the tension in the court. The jury renders a guilty verdict. The judge fines Cates $100. Brady objects to the judge’s leniency. Drummond proclaims Cates will launch an appeal. The court adjourns. Brady attempts to deliver his speech into the microphone. The radio announcer takes away the microphone. Brady tries to deliver his speech but no one is listening. Brady drops dead. The movie ends with Drummond taking “The Bible” and “On the Origin of Species” as Leslie Uggams sings the “Battle Hymn of the Republic”.[i]
[i] The movie referred to Charles Darwin’s book at “The Origin of the Species”.
Scopes Monkey Trial
On March 25, 1925 Tennessee governor Austin Peay signed into law Tennessee Code Annotated Title 49 Section 1922. This law was known as The Butler Act after State Representative John Washington Butler who introduced the Bill. The law stated[i]:
- That it shall be unlawful for any teacher in any of the Universities, Normals and all other public schools of the State which are supported in whole or in part by the public school funds of the State, to teach any theory that denies the story of the Divine Creation of man as taught in the Bible, and to teach instead that man has descended from a lower order of animals.
- That any teacher found guilty of the violation of this Act, shall be guilty of a misdemeanor and upon conviction, shall be fined not less than $100 nor more than $500 for each offense.
The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) sent out a press release offering to challenge the Butler Act.[ii] In Dayton, Tennessee George Rappleyea believe taking the ACLU offer would bring publicity to Dayton. He convinced Walter White, the country superintendent of schools, and attorney Sue K. Hicks to take up the offer. They asked John T. Scopes if he would go along with the scheme. Scopes primarily taught physics and math. He sometimes taught biology but wasn’t sure he ever taught evolution. The syllabus required teaching biology from Hunter’s Civic Biology (1914). The book only devoted a few pages to evolution. Scopes agreed to go along with the plan. Scopes was neither jailed nor required to post bond. Newspapers throughout Tennessee condemned Dayton for their publicity stunt.
Three-time Democratic presidential nominee and anti-evolution activist William Jennings Bryan volunteered to present for the prosecution. Bryan served as a colonel in the Spanish-American War. He was known for his fiery orations and was called “The Boy Orator of the Platte”. He campaigned for peace, prohibition, and suffrage. He was a staunch opponent of teaching evolution.[iii]
George Rappleyea asked famed atheist author H.G. Wells to join the defense team. Wells declined the offer reasoning he had no legal training. Journalist H.L. Mencken suggested famed attorney Clarence Darrow should join the defense team. Darrow initially declined but changed his mind when he learned Bryan would be on the prosecution team. Bryan and Darrow had a history of debating in the press and public the issues of evolution and Biblical fundamentalism.[iv] Bryan and Darrow were both at the end of their careers. The State of Tennessee gave Bryan and Darrow the honorary title of colonel.
A minister would open each session with a prayer. On the third day Darrow objected to the opening prayer. The judge, John T. Raulston, overruled Darrow’s objection. On the 4th day a petition from a group of representatives from Unitarian, Jewish, and Congregationalist churches was presented in court asking that the opening prayer be said by clergymen from non-fundamentalist churches. Judge Raulston said he would ask the pastors’ association to choose a man to conduct the prayer. Judge Raulston said he would have no or say into whom the association chooses.
The people in attendance applauded a statement Bryan made. Judge Raulston warned those in attendance he “cannot tolerate any expression of feelings on the issues in this case at all in the presence of the jury.”
Dr. Maynard M. Metcalf, a zoologist, testified for the defense without the jury present. William Jennings Bryan Jr., son of famed William Jennings Bryan, sited precedence against having a parade of expert witnesses. Bryan Jr. stated:
If a man testifies as to a fact his testimony may be met, or contradicted by other facts. If he testifies falsely, he can be punished for perjury. But if a man gives a false opinion there is no way that you can contradict him. There is no way he can be punished. There has scarcely been a trial in recent years where the material issues have been testified to by experts, but that the public has again been convinced of the utter futility of that testimony.[v]
Bryan Jr. pointed out Darrow in the Loeb trial; “characterized one of the experts there used, as a purveyor of perjury.”[vi]
William Jennings Bryan spoke first on the afternoon of the trial’s 5th day. Bryan had not practiced law in 28 years. Among his statements to frame the issues were:
- “The question is, can a minority in their state come in and compel a teacher to teach that the Bible is not true and make the parents of these children pay the expenses of the teacher to tell their children what these people believe is false and dangerous?”
- “It doesn’t matter anything about who ordered these books. The law supersedes all boards of education for the legislature is the supreme court on this subject from which there is no appeal.”
- “Your honor, I want to show you that we have evidence enough here, we do not need any experts to come in here and tell us about this thing. Here we have Mr. Hunter. Mr. Hunter is the author of this biology and this is the man who wrote the book. Mr. Scopes was teaching,”
- Bryan quoted Darrow’s statement in the Loeb-Leopold Case: “I will guarantee that you can go down to the University of Chicago today, into its big library and find over 1,000 volumes of Nietzsche, and I am sure I speak moderately. If this boy is to blame for this, where did he get it? Is there any blame attached because somebody took Nietzsche’s philosophy seriously and fashioned his life on it? And there is no question in this case but what is true. Then who is to blame? The university would be more to blame than he is. The scholars of the world would be more to blame than he is. The publishers of the world, and Nietzsche’s books are published by one of the biggest publishers in the world, are more to blame than he. Your honor, it is hardly fair to hang a 19-year-old boy for the philosophy that was taught him at the university.”
On the proceeding’s sixth day Judge Raulston ruled since the law was specific and easily understood “the evidence of experts would shed no light on the issues.” Judge Raulston, without objection from prosecutor, General Stewart, allowed the experts to submit affidavits. Bryan asked if they would be entitled to cross-examine the expert witnesses. Judge Raulston said they were entitled if the witnesses go on the stand. Darrow vehemently objected to any cross-examination of expert witnesses.
On the seventh day Judge Raulston cleared the jury from the court then sited Darrow for contempt for Darrow’s statements the previous day. Judge Raulston set the bond at $5,000 and Attorney Frank Spurlock of Chattanooga posted the bond. Darrow apologized to the court and Judge Raulston forgave him.
The defense submitted statements by theologians and scientists. Darrow objected to a sign, which would face the jury, that read “Read Your Bible”. The prosecution disagreed among themselves if the sign should be removed. Judge Raulston listened to both sides then ordered the sign be removed before the jury entered.
Bryan and Darrow had made a gentleman’s agreement that they would put each other on the stand. Bryan took the stand on the trial’s 7th day. Darrow brought up the book of Jonah which states Jonah was swallowed by a big fish. Darrow pointed out the New Testament says a whale swallowed Jonah.[vii] Darrow asked if Bryan believed “the big fish was made to swallow Jonah?” Bryan refused to speculate. Bryan claimed of Darrow of having “a definition of fact that includes imagination.” Darrow retorted that Bryan had “a definition that excludes everything but imagination.”
Darrow asked: “Do you believe Joshua made the Sun stand still?” Bryan answered: “I believe what the Bible says. I suppose you mean the Earth stood still?” Darrow retorted “I don’t know. I am talking about the Bible now.” Darrow questioned if whoever inspired the Book of Joshua “believed that the Sun went around the Earth?” Bryan responded: “I believe it was inspired by the Almighty, and He may have used language that could be understood at that time. Instead of using language that could not be understood until Darrow was born.”
Darrow asked: “Don’t you believe that in order to lengthen the day it would have been construed that the Earth stood still?”
Bryan answered: “I would not attempt to say what would have been necessary but I know this, that I can take a glass of water that would fall to the ground without the strength of my hand and to the extent of the glass of water I can overcome the law of gravitation and lift it up. Whereas without my hand it would fall to the ground. If my puny hand can overcome the law of gravitation, the most universally understood, to that extent, I would not set power to the hand of Almighty God that made the universe.”
Darrow went into talking about the repercussions if the Earth were to stop rotating on its axis. He asked, “Don’t you know it would have been converted into a molten mass of matter?” Bryan retorted, “You testify to that when you get on the stand. I will give you a chance.”
Darrow brought up the date of the Earth’s creation at 4004 B.C.E. to which Bryan responded: “That has been the estimate of a man that is accepted today. I would not say it is accurate.” This led the Yogi Berra type exchange:[viii]
Bryan – “I do not think about things I don’t think about.”
Darrow – “Do you think about things you think about?”
Bryan – “Well, sometimes.”
Darrow asked Bryan if he knew anything about Buddhism. Bryan said he did. Bryan brought up some contrasts between Buddhism and Christianity. Darrow accused Bryan of making speeches.
When Darrow asked Bryan, “Do you think the Earth was made in six days?” Bryan answered, “Not six days of 24 hours.”
Bryan’s last statement on the stand was:
Your honor, I think I can shorten this testimony. The only purpose Mr. Darrow has is to slur at the Bible, but I will answer it all at once, and I have no objection in the world. I want the world to know that this man, who does not believe in God, is trying to use a court in Tennessee to slur at it and while it will require time, I am willing to take it.
I object to your statement. I exempting you on your fool ideas that no intelligent Christian on Earth believes.
The court recessed and the next day Judge Raulston struck Bryan’s testimony. Darrow asked the court to instruct the jury to find Scopes guilty. This precluded Mr. Darrow from being called to the stand by Bryan. Judge Raulston fined Scopes $100. Bryan and Darrow both gave conciliatory speeches that explained the case’s importance.
[i] Law.umkc.edu, https://web.archive.org/web/20090520091924/http://www.law.umkc.edu/faculty/projects/ftrials/scopes/tennstat.htm#, last accessed 10/6/19.
[ii] History Online, Scopes Trial, https://www.history.com/topics/roaring-twenties/scopes-trial, last accessed 10/6/19.
[iii] History Online, William Jennings Bryan, https://www.history.com/topics/us-politics/william-jennings-bryan, last accessed 10/6/19.
[iv] History Online, Scopes Trial, https://www.history.com/topics/roaring-twenties/scopes-trial, last accessed 10/6/19.
[v] Tennessee Evolution Trial, Fifth Say’s Proceedings, http://moses.law.umn.edu/darrow/documents/Scopes%205th%20day.pdf, last accessed 10/13/19.
[vi] Tennessee Evolution Trial, Fifth Say’s Proceedings, http://moses.law.umn.edu/darrow/documents/Scopes%205th%20day.pdf, last accessed 10/13/19.
[vii] The reference is Matthew 12:40. Jesus Christ said “whale”. This it in the King James Version.
[viii] Yogi Berra was a famed baseball player and manager who was also famed for making statements that initially made no sense but made good sense after some thought.
...the highest type of all, the Caucasians, represented by the civilized white inhabitants of Europe and America— Hunter’s Civic Biology (1914) - Page 196
Epilogue and Observations
The trial ended on July 21. Bryan delivered some speeches in Tennessee. He attended a church service on Sunday, July 25. Later that day he died in his sleep in Dayton. The cause of death was diabetes mellitus.[i]
On appeal the Tennessee Supreme Court ruled:[ii]
- The wording of the Butler Act was sufficiently clear.
- Tennessee has the right to determine the content of school lessons.
- The “Cherish Science” clause in Tennessee’s constitution was “too vague to be enforced by any court”.
- The Butler Act did not violate the “Religious Preference clause of the Constitution”.
- The motives for passing the Butler Act is irrelevant.
The state overturned the conviction because the judge set the fine and by law “fine in excess of $50 must be accessed by a jury.”[iii]
Tennessee repealed the Butler Act in 1967.[iv] Other states with similar restrictions followed suit.
One of the premises of Williams Jennings Bryan is that science has been wrong in the past so why should it be taught as absolute fact? The book at the center of the controversy, Hunter’s Civic Biology (1914), gives evidence to Bryan’s premise. The book’s chapter on evolution ended by stating "...the highest type of all, the Caucasians, represented by the civilized white inhabitants of Europe and America."[v]
[i] Creation.com, William Jennings Bryan: American tyrant … or hero? By Effie Munday, https://creation.com/william-jennings-bryan, last accessed 10/26/19.
[ii] Honest Abe’s NLP Emporium by Andy Bradbury, http://www.bradburyac.mistral.co.uk/tennes10.html, last accessed 10/26/19.
[iii] Honest Abe’s NLP Emporium by Andy Bradbury, http://www.bradburyac.mistral.co.uk/tennes10.html, last accessed 10/26/19.
[iv] Grabiner, J.V. and Miller, P.D., Effects of the Scopes Trial, Science, New Series, Vol 185. No 4154 (September 6, 1974), pp. 832-837.
[v] Hunter’s Civic Biology (1914), P.196.
What do you think of a movie that accuratly depicts the events surrounding the Scopes Monkey Trial?
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2019 Robert Sacchi