US Senator Joseph McCarthy unleashed an era of suspicion on the American people as he went looking for communists. His trials, both public and behind closed doors, focused on the government as well as Hollywood and the Army. He claimed that he had lists of communists, but failed to produce that list. It wasn’t until the Army-McCarthy hearings in the spring and summer of 1954 that his unfounded hearings were put to rest.
Is Inherit the Wind historically accurate?
One year later the play Inherit the Wind opened. It was supposed to be a critique of the McCarthy era set inside of a re-telling of the Scopes “monkey” trial. In doing so, it got many of the facts wrong. John Scopes never spent any time in jail. He didn’t have a girlfriend, and that girlfriend was not berated on the stand. The townspeople of Dayton, TN were welcoming to both Bryan and Darrow.
To explore this work of art and revisionist history I spoke with the hosts of the Seeing and Believing podcast Kevin McLenithan and Sarah Welch-Larson.
Select differences between the Scopes trial and Inherit the Wind
John Scopes was arrested but never spent time in jail.
He was “arrested” in a soda fountain where the test trial was conceived and not in school.
Scopes later claimed he never taught evolution, which is why he never took the stand in real life.
The entire case was set up as a publicity stunt to bring attention to the town of Dayton, TN. They got the idea when they saw an ad placed by the ACLU.
The character of Rachel did not exist in real life.
The people of Dayton were welcoming to both Darrow and Bryan and Scopes was loved by many. He even spent time swimming with the prosecution between trial sessions.
The moment when Bryan was on trial was held outdoors.
H.L. Mencken was not some loveable curmudgeon. He was an anti-semite and a racist.
Dayton largely did not vote for Bryan when he ran for president.
Bryan died a few days after the trial, not while in the courtroom.
Darrow did not carry a copy of the Bible and Darwin out of the courtroom.
The textbook in question during the trial was clearly pro-eugenics, was sold in the soda fountain, and had been approved by the state textbook committee.
The preachers of the town were kind. The odd sermon given the night of the trial never happened and the script adds a lot of strange things that are not in the Bible.
Bryan wished the law to have no penalty, unlike his stand-in in the movie who hoped for a harsher punishment.
Inherit the Wind (1960 version) starring Spencer Tracy
Summer for the Gods by Edward Larson
Chris’ own visit to the Dayton museum dedicated to the trial
Did William Jennings Bryan kill fundamentalism when he took the stand?
The trial was basically over. The prosecution won. John Scopes was moments away from being convicted of teaching evolution in Dayton, Tennessee. The ACLU and the prosecution had what they wanted. But Clarence Darrow did not. He wanted to make a monkey out of William Jennings Bryan, the famous “fundamentalist”. But how?
Clarence Darrow sets a trap for William Jennings Bryan
Darrow knew that if he turned down the chance to make a closing argument that Bryan would not be able to make one either. That meant that Bryan’s carefully crafted words would never get heard. But he had one more trick up his sleeve. He would call Bryan, the lawyer for the prosecution, to the stand. Imagine that! The case was no longer about the defendant. It was about the lawyers trying to flex.
Bryan took the bait. He got on the stand outdoors next to the Rhea County Courthouse in front of an audience of millions. Darrow, in a masterstroke, hit him over and over with the questions of any village atheist. Did Jonah really get swallowed by a large fish? Did the sun really stand still because Joshua prayed that it would? And Bryan… floundered on live radio.
Inherit the Wind gets the story of the Scopes trial all wrong
This event was made even more famous by the long-running play Inherit the Wind on broadway, which was followed up by a movie adaptation. But the play got it all wrong. Edward Larson, professor at Pepperdine University, and author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning book Summer for the Gods, joins Chris to uncover what really happened on that muggy summer day.
Laws block the teaching of evolution in public schools
Tennessee was the first state in the United States to crack down hard on the teaching of evolution in public schools. Others had dabbled, but Tennessee went all the way. The ACLU wanted to challenge the validity of the case in the courts. In order to do that they needed an educator to teach it, get busted, and be brought to trial.
Dayton, Tennessee’s plan to boost tourism
At the same time, the town of Dayton, TN needed a boost. After the biggest employer closed down it faced serious economic trouble. What if the men of Dayon could manufacture a court case to draw the attention of the nation? They found a young teacher named John Scopes and convinced him to participate in their scheme. They booked Scopes, even though he probably never taught evolution. The ACLU had its case.
William Jennings Bryan’s crusade against Darwin
Soon William Jennings Bryan and Clarence Darrow hopped on board and it went from a publicity stunt to something for the history books. This is the event that some historians (wrongly) point to as the death of Christian fundamentalism in the United States until it was revived by the Moral Majority. One man fighting for the biblical idea of creation and another for godless atheism. But the real history is far more complex.
Edward Larson, professor at Pepperdine University, joins us to discuss the trial and his Pulitzer Prize-winning book “Summer for the Gods”.
Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb were wealthy young men in the early 1920s. They lived in big homes in Chicago and had world-class educations. They were both pushed hard academically, and Richard was sexually abused as a child. Both graduated early from high school and college. The two were an odd pairing. Nathan was quiet and awkward, not particularly handsome. Richard was gregarious and outgoing, good-looking… and a psychopath.
Nathan loved Richard, and the two sometimes had sex with each other. Richard realized he could control Nathan by trading intimacy for criminal activity. They started with typical juvenile delinquent behavior. Soon, though, Richard wanted more. He considered himself a master criminal, someone too smart to get caught.
Nietzsche’s concept of the ubermensch or superman
He and Nathan were exposed to the ideas of Friedrich Nietzsche. Nietzsche wrote that the ultimate purpose of humanity was to evolve into what he called the ubermensch or superman. Leopold and Loeb thought they were that evolved human. Therefore, they should be able to plot and execute the murder of a young boy without ever getting caught.
Only, they were so bad at it that it took very little time to pin it on them. Only the brilliance of Clarence Darrow, the country’s most prominent defense attorney, could save their lives.
In this episode, we’re joined by Candace Fleming. She’s the author of the book Murder Among Friends about the crime.