The Scopes Trial

Darrow's Eloquent Appeal
Wasted on Ears That Heed
Only Bryan, Says Mencken
by H.L. Mencken

(The Baltimore Evening Sun, July 14, 1925)

Dayton, Tenn., July 14. -- The net effect of Clarence Darrow's great speech yesterday seems to be precisely the same as if he had bawled it up a rainspout in the interior of Afghanistan. That is, locally, upon the process against the infidel Scopes, upon the so-called minds of these fundamentalists of upland Tennessee. You have but a dim notion of it who have only read it. It was not designed for reading, but for hearing. The clanging of it was as important as the logic. It rose like a wind and ended like a flourish of bugles. The very judge on the bench, toward the end of it, began to look uneasy. But the morons in the audience, when it was over, simply hissed it.

During the whole time of its delivery the old mountebank, Bryan, sat tight-lipped and unmoved. There is, of course, no reason why it should have shaken him. He has those hill billies locked up in his pen and he knows it. His brand is on them. He is at home among them. Since his earliest days, indeed, his chief strength has been among the folk of remote hills and forlorn and lonely farms. Now with his political aspirations all gone to pot, he turns to them for religious consolations. They understand his peculiar imbecilities. His nonsense is their ideal of sense. When he deluges them with his theological bilge they rejoice like pilgrims disporting in the river Jordan.

The town whisper is that the local attorney-general, Stewart, is not a fundamentalist, and hence has no stomach for his job. It seems not improbable. He is a man of evident education, and his argument yesterday was confined very strictly to the constitutional points -- the argument of a competent and conscientious lawyer, and to me, at least very persuasive.

But Stewart, after all, is a foreigner here, almost as much so as Darrow or Hays or Malone. He is doing his job and that is all. The real animus of the prosecution centers in Bryan. He is the plaintiff and prosecutor. The local lawyers are simply bottle-holders for him. He will win the case, not by academic appeals to law and precedent, but by direct and powerful appeals to the immemorial fears and superstitions of man. It is no wonder that he is hot against Scopes. Five years of Scopes and even these mountaineers would begin to laugh at Bryan. Ten years and they would ride him out of town on a rail, with one Baptist parson in front of him and another behind.

But there will be no ten years of Scopes, nor five years, nor even one year.

Such brash young fellows, debauched by the enlightenment, must be disposed of before they become dangerous, and Bryan is here, with his tight lips and hard eyes, to see that this one is disposed of. The talk of the lawyers, even the magnificent talk of Darrow, is so much idle wind music. The case will not be decided by logic, nor even by eloquence. It will be decided by counting noses -- and for every nose in these hills that has ever thrust itself into any book save the Bible there are a hundred adorned with the brass ring of Bryan. These are his people. They understand him when he speaks in tongues. The same dark face that is in his own eyes is in theirs, too. They feel with him, and they relish him.

I sincerely hope that the nobility and gentry of the lowlands will not make the colossal mistake of viewing this trial of Scopes as a trivial farce. Full of rustic japes and in bad taste, it is, to be sure, somewhat comic on the surface. One laughs to see lawyers sweat. The jury, marched down Broadway, would set New York by the ears. But all of that is only skin deep.

Deeper down there are the beginnings of a struggle that may go on to melodrama of the first caliber, and when the curtain falls at least all the laughter may be coming from the yokels. You probably laughed at the prohibitionists, say, back in 1914. Well, don't make the same error twice.

As I have said, Bryan understands these peasants, and they understand him. He is a bit mangey and flea-bitten, but no means ready for his harp. He may last five years, ten years or even longer. What he may accomplish in that time, seen here at close range, looms up immensely larger than it appears to a city man five hundred miles away. The fellow is full of such bitter, implacable hatreds that they radiate from him like heat from a stove. He hates the learning that he cannot grasp. He hates those who sneer at him. He hates, in general, all who stand apart from his own pathetic commonness. And the yokels hate with him, some of them almost as bitterly as he does himself. They are willing and eager to follow him -- and he has already given them a taste of blood.

Darrow's peroration yesterday was interrupted by Judge Raulston, but the force of it got into the air nevertheless. This year it is a misdemeanor for a country school teacher to flout the archaic nonsense of Genesis. Next year it will be a felony. The year after the net will be spread wider. Pedagogues, after all, are small game; there are larger birds to snare -- larger and juicier. Bryan has his fishy eye on them. He will fetch them if his mind lasts, and the lamp holds out to burn. No man with a mouth like that ever lets go. Nor ever lacks followers.

Tennessee is bearing the brunt of the first attack simply because the civilized minority, down here, is extraordinarily pusillanimous.

I have met no educated man who is not ashamed of the ridicule that has fallen upon the State, and I have met none, save only judge Neal, who had the courage to speak out while it was yet time. No Tennessee counsel of any importance came into the case until yesterday and then they came in stepping very softly as if taking a brief for sense were a dangerous matter. When Bryan did his first rampaging here all these men were silent.

They had known for years what was going on in the hills. They knew what the country preachers were preaching -- what degraded nonsense was being rammed and hammered into yokel skulls. But they were afraid to go out against the imposture while it was in the making, and when any outsider denounced it they fell upon him violently as an enemy of Tennessee.

Now Tennessee is paying for that poltroonery. The State is smiling and beautiful, and of late it has begun to be rich. I know of no American city that is set in more lovely scenery than Chattanooga, or that has more charming homes. The civilized minority is as large here, I believe, as anywhere else.

It has made a city of splendid material comforts and kept it in order. But it has neglected in the past the unpleasant business of following what was going on in the cross roads Little Bethels.

The Baptist preachers ranted unchallenged.

Their buffooneries were mistaken for humor. Now the clowns turn out to be armed, and have begun to shoot.

In his argument yesterday judge Neal had to admit pathetically that it was hopeless to fight for a repeal of the anti-evolution law. The Legislature of Tennessee, like the Legislature of every other American state, is made up of cheap job-seekers and ignoramuses.

The Governor of the State is a politician ten times cheaper and trashier. It is vain to look for relief from such men. If the State is to be saved at all, it must be saved by the courts. For one, I have little hope of relief in that direction, despite Hays' logic and Darrow's eloquence. Constitutions, in America, no longer mean what they say. To mention the Bill of Rights is to be damned as a Red.

The rabble is in the saddle, and down here it makes its first campaign under a general beside whom Wat Tylor seems like a wart beside the Matterhorn.




The Scopes Trial

Law and Freedom, Mencken Discovers,
Yield Place to Holy Writ
in Rhea County
by H.L. Mencken

(The Baltimore Evening Sun, July 15, 1925)

Dayton, Tenn., July 15. -- The cops have come up from Chattanooga to help save Dayton from the devil. Darrow, Malone and Hays, of course, are immune to constabulary process, despite their obscene attack upon prayer. But all other atheists and anarchists now have public notice they must shut up forthwith and stay shut so long as they pollute this bright, shining, buckle of the Bible belt with their presence. Only one avowed infidel has ventured to make a public address. The Chattanooga police nabbed him instantly, and he is now under surveillance in a hotel. Let him but drop one of his impious tracts from his window and he will be transferred to the town hoose-gow.

The Constitution of Tennessee, as everyone knows, puts free speech among the most sacred rights of the citizen. More, I am informed by eminent Chattanooga counsel, that there is no State law denying it -- that is, for persons not pedagogues. But the cops of Chattanooga, like their brethren elsewhere, do not let constitutions stand in the way of their exercise of their lawful duty. The captain in charge of the squad now on watch told me frankly yesterday that he was not going to let any infidels discharge their damnable nonsense upon the town. I asked him what charge he would lay against them if they flouted him. He said he would jail them for disturbing the peace.

"But suppose," I asked him, "a prisoner is actually not disturbing the peace. Suppose he is simply saying his say in a quiet and orderly manner."

"I'll arrest him anyhow," said the cop.

"Even if no one complains of him?"

"I'll complain myself."

"Under what law precisely?"

"We don't need no law for them kind of people."

It sounded like New York in the old days, before Mayor Gaynor took the constitution out of cold storage and began to belabor the gendarmerie with it. The captain admitted freely that speaking in the streets was not disturbing the peace so long as the speaker stuck to orthodox Christian doctrine as it is understood by the local exegetes.

A preacher of any sect that admits the literal authenticity of Genesis is free to gather a crowd at any time and talk all he wants. More, he may engage in a disputation with any other expert. I have heard at least a hundred such discussions, and some of them have been very acrimonious. But the instant a speaker utters a word against divine revelation he begins to disturb the peace and is liable to immediate arrest and confinement in the calaboose beside the railroad tracks.

Such is criminal law in Rhea county as interpreted by the uniformed and freely sweating agents. As I have said, there are legal authorities in Chattanooga who dissent sharply, and even argue that the cops are a set of numbskulls and ought to be locked up as public nuisances. But one need not live a long, incandescent week in the Bible belt to know that jurisprudence becomes a new science as one crosses the border. Here the ordinary statutes are reinforced by Holy Writ, and whenever there is a conflict Holy Writ takes precedence.

Judge Raulston himself has decided, in effect, that in a trial for heresy it is perfectly fair and proper to begin proceedings with a prayer for the confutation and salvation of the defendant. On lower levels, and especially in the depths where policemen do their thinking, the doctrine is even more frankly stated. Before laying Christians by the heels the cops must formulate definite charges against them. They must be accused of something specifically unlawful and there must be witnesses to the act. But infidels are fera naturae, and any cop is free to bag at sight and to hold them in durance at his pleasure.

To the same category, it appears, belong political and economic radicals. News came the other day to Pastor T.T. Martin, who is holding a continuous anti-evolution convention in the town, that a party of I.W.W.'s, their pockets full of Russian gold, had started out from Cincinnati to assassinate him. A bit later came word they would bump off Bryan after they had finished Martin, and then set fire to the town churches. Martin first warned Bryan and then complained to the police. The latter were instantly agog. Guards were posted at strategic centers and a watch was kept upon all strangers of a sinister appearance. But the I.W.W.'s were not caught. Yesterday Pastor Martin told me that he had news that they had gone back to Cincinnati to perfect the plot. He posts audiences at every meeting. If the Reds return they will be scotched.

Arthur Garfield Hays, who is not only one of the counsel for the infidel Scopes but also agent and attorney of the notorious American Civil Liberties Union in New York, is planning to hold a free speech meeting on the Courthouse lawn and so make a test of the law against disturbing the peace as it is interpreted by the polizei. Hays will be well advertised if he carries out this subversive intention. It is hot enough in the courtroom in the glare of a thousand fundamentalist eyes; in the town jail he would sweat to death.

Rhea county is very hospitable and, judged by Bible belt standards, very tolerant. The Dayton Babbitts gave a banquet to Darrow, despite the danger from lightning, meteors and earthquakes. Even Malone is treated politely, though the very horned cattle in the fields know that he is a Catholic and in constant communication with the Pope. But liberty is one thing and license is quite another. Within the bounds of Genesis the utmost play of opinion is permitted and even encouraged. An evangelist with a new scheme for getting into Heaven can get a crowd in two minutes. But once a speaker admits a doubt, however cautiously, he is handed over to the secular arm.

Two Unitarian clergymen are prowling around the town looking for a chance to discharge their "hellish heresies." One of them is Potter, of New York; the other is Birckhead, of Kansas City. So far they have not made any progress. Potter induced one of the local Methodist parsons to give him a hearing, but the congregation protested and the next day the parson had to resign his charge. The Methodists, as I have previously reported, are regarded almost as infidels in Rhea county. Their doctrines, which seem somewhat severe in Baltimore, especially to persons who love a merry life, are here viewed as loose to the point of indecency. The four Methodists on the jury are suspected of being against hanging Scopes, at least without a fair trial. The State tried to get rid of one of them even after he had been passed; his neighbors had come in from his village with news that he had a banjo concealed in his house and was known to read the Literary Digest.

The other Unitarian clergyman, Dr. Birckhead, is not actually domiciled in the town, but is encamped, with his wife and child, on the road outside. He is on an automobile tour and stopped off here to see if a chance offered to spread his "poisons." So far he has found none.

Yesterday afternoon a Jewish rabbi from Nashville also showed up, Marks by name. He offered to read and expound Genesis in Hebrew, but found no takers. The Holy Rollers hereabout, when they are seized by the gift of tongues, avoid Hebrew, apparently as a result of Ku Klux influence. Their favorite among all the sacred dialects is Hittite. It sounds to the infidel like a series of college yells.

Judge Raulston's decision yesterday afternoon in the matter of Hays' motion was a masterpiece of unconscious humor. The press stand, in fact, thought he was trying to be jocose deliberately and let off a guffaw that might have gone far if the roar of applause had not choked it off. Hays presented a petition in the name of the two Unitarians, the rabbi and several other theological "reds," praying that in selecting clergymen to open the court with prayer hereafter he choose fundamentalists and anti-fundamentalists alternately. The petition was couched in terms that greatly shocked and enraged the prosecution. When the judge announced that he would leave the nomination of chaplains to the Pastors' Association of the town there was the gust of mirth aforesaid, followed by howls of approval. The Pastors' Association of Dayton is composed of fundamentalists so powerfully orthodox that beside them such a fellow as Dr. John Roach Straton would seem an Ingersoll.

The witnesses of the defense, all of them heretics, began to reach town yesterday and are all quartered at what is called the Mansion, an ancient and empty house outside the town limits, now crudely furnished with iron cots, spittoons, playing cards and the other camp equipment of scientists. Few, if any, of these witnesses will ever get a chance to outrage the jury with their blasphemies, but they are of much interest to the townspeople. The common belief is that they will be blown up with one mighty blast when the verdict of the twelve men, tried and true, is brought in, and Darrow, Malone, Hays and Neal with them. The country people avoid the Mansion. It is foolish to take unnecessary chances. Going into the courtroom, with Darrow standing there shamelessly and openly challenging the wrath of God, is risk enough.

The case promises to drag into next week. The prosecution is fighting desperately and taking every advantage of its superior knowledge of the quirks of local procedure. The defense is heating up and there are few exchanges of courtroom amenities. There will be a lot of oratory before it is all over and some loud and raucous bawling otherwise, and maybe more than one challenge to step outside. The cards seem to be stacked against poor Scopes, but there may be a joker in the pack. Four of the jurymen, as everyone knows, are Methodists, and a Methodist down here belongs to the extreme wing of liberals. Beyond him lie only the justly and incurably damned.

What if one of those Methodists, sweating under the dreadful pressure of fundamentalist influence, jumps into the air, cracks his heels together and gives a defiant yell? What if the jury is hung? It will be a good joke on the fundamentalists if it happens, and an even better joke on the defense.




The Scopes Trial

Mencken Declares Strictly Fair Trial
Is Beyond Ken of Tennessee Fundamentalists
by H.L. Mencken

(The Baltimore Evening Sun, July 16, 1925)

Dayton, Tenn., July 16. -- Two things ought to be understood clearly by heathen Northerners who follow the great cause of the State of Tennessee against the infidel Scopes. One is that the old mountebank, Bryan, is no longer thought of as a mere politician and jobseeker in these Godly regions, but has become converted into a great sacerdotal figure, half man and half archangel -- in brief, a sort of fundamentalist pope. The other is that the fundamentalist mind, running in a single rut for fifty years, is now quite unable to comprehend dissent from its basic superstitions, or to grant any common honesty, or even any decency, to those who reject them.

The latter fact explains some of the most astonishing singularities of the present trial -- that is, singularities to one accustomed to more austere procedures. In the average Northern jurisdiction much of what is going on here would be almost unthinkable. Try to imagine a trial going on in a town in which anyone is free to denounce the defendant's case publicly and no one is free to argue for it in the same way -- a trial in a courthouse placarded with handbills set up by his opponents -- a trial before a jury of men who have been roweled and hammered by those opponents for years, and have never heard a clear and fair statement of his answer.

But this is not all. It seems impossible, but it is nevertheless a fact that public opinion in Dayton sees no impropriety in the fact that the case was opened with prayer by a clergyman known by everyone to be against Scopes and by no means shy about making the fact clear. Nor by the fact that Bryan, the actual complainant, has been preparing the ground for the prosecution for months. Nor by the fact that, though he is one of the attorneys of record in the case, he is also present in the character of a public evangelist and that throngs go to hear him whenever he speaks, including even the sitting judge.

I do not allege here that there is any disposition to resort to lynch law. On the contrary, I believe that there is every intent to give Scopes a fair trial, as a fair trial is understood among fundamentalists. All I desire to show is that all the primary assumptions are immovably against him -- that it is a sheer impossibility for nine-tenths of those he faces to see any merit whatever in his position. He is not simply one who has committed a misdemeanor against the peace and dignity of the State, he is also the agent of a heresy almost too hellish to be stated by reputable men. Such reputable men recognize their lawful duty to treat him humanely and even politely, but they also recognize their superior duty to make it plain that they are against his heresy and believe absolutely in the wisdom and virtue of his prosecutors.

In view of the fact that everyone here looks for the jury to bring in a verdict of guilty, it might be expected that the prosecution would show a considerable amiability and allow the defense a rather free plan. Instead, it is contesting every point very vigorously and taking every advantage of its greatly superior familiarity with local procedure. There is, in fact, a considerable heat in the trial. Bryan and the local lawyers for the State sit glaring at the defense all day and even the Attorney General, A.T. Stewart, who is supposed to have secret doubts about fundamentalism, has shown such pugnacity that it has already brought him to forced apologies.

The high point of yesterday's proceedings was reached with the appearance of Dr. Maynard M. Metcalfe, of the Johns Hopkins. The doctor is a somewhat chubby man of bland mien, and during the first part of his testimony, with the jury present, the prosecution apparently viewed him with great equanimity. But the instant he was asked a question bearing directly upon the case at bar there was a flurry in the Bryan pen and Stewart was on his feet with protests. Another question followed, with more and hotter protests. The judge then excluded the jury and the show began.

What ensued was, on the surface, a harmless enough dialogue between Dr. Metcalfe and Darrow, but underneath there was very tense drama. At the first question Bryan came out from behind the State's table and planted himself directly in front of Dr. Metcalfe, and not ten feet away. The two McKenzies followed, with young Sue Hicks at their heels.

Then began one of the clearest, most succinct and withal most eloquent presentations of the case for the evolutionists that I have ever heard. The doctor was never at a loss for a word, and his ideas flowed freely and smoothly. Darrow steered him magnificently. A word or two and he was howling down the wind. Another and he hauled up to discharge a broadside. There was no cocksureness in him. Instead he was rather cautious and deprecatory and sometimes he halted and confessed his ignorance. But what he got over before he finished was a superb counterblast to the fundamentalist buncombe. The jury, at least, in theory heard nothing of it, but it went whooping into the radio and it went banging into the face of Bryan.

Bryan sat silent throughout the whole scene, his gaze fixed immovably on the witness. Now and then his face darkened and his eyes flashed, but he never uttered a sound. It was, to him, a string of blasphemies out of the devil's mass -- a dreadful series of assaults upon the only true religion. The old gladiator faced his real enemy at last. Here was a sworn agent and attorney of the science he hates and fears -- a well-fed, well-mannered spokesman of the knowledge he abominates. Somehow he reminded me pathetically of the old Holy Roller I heard last week -- the mountain pastor who damned education as a mocking and a corruption. Bryan, too, is afraid of it, for wherever it spreads his trade begins to fall off, and wherever it flourishes he is only a poor clown.

But not to these fundamentalists of the hills. Not to yokels he now turns to for consolation in his old age, with the scars of defeat and disaster all over him. To these simple folk, as I have said, he is a prophet of the imperial line -- a lineal successor to Moses and Abraham. The barbaric cosmogony that he believes in seems as reasonable to them as it does to him. They share his peasant-like suspicion of all book learning that a plow hand cannot grasp. They believe with him that men who know too much should be seized by the secular arm and put down by force. They dream as he does of a world unanimously sure of Heaven and unanimously idiotic on this earth.

This old buzzard, having failed to raise the mob against its rulers, now prepares to raise it against its teachers. He can never be the peasants' President, but there is still a chance to be the peasants' Pope. He leads a new crusade, his bald head glistening, his face streaming with sweat, his chest heaving beneath his rumpled alpaca coat. One somehow pities him, despite his so palpable imbecilities. It is a tragedy, indeed, to begin life as a hero and to end it as a buffoon. But let no one, laughing at him, underestimate the magic that lies in his black, malignant eye, his frayed but still eloquent voice. He can shake and inflame these poor ignoramuses as no other man among us can shake and inflame them, and he is desperately eager to order the charge.

In Tennessee he is drilling his army. The big battles, he believes, will be fought elsewhere.