Charles P. Pierce on the Trial of the Century.
In Dayton, Tennessee, there is proud old courthouse, a wide, church-like red brick building with a single turret on its southern end. There is a clock in the turret. And next to the turret is a gnarled old tree that may well have found its place in the ground long before the city was first settled in 1820 as Smith’s Crossing. For 11 days in July of 1925, this place was the center of the universe.
In March of that year, the Tennessee legislature passed the Butler Act, which forbade the teaching in Tennessee’s schools of any theory that contradicted the divine creation of humankind. Governor Austin Peay signed it, largely to hang onto the support of his snake-handling rural constituency. Apparently, Peay believed nobody would be silly enough to enforce this law. Austin Peay was very wrong. The American Civil Liberties Union found a local teacher in Dayton named John Scopes who was willing to be the ACLU’s test defendant in its challenge to the Butler Act. Scopes was arrested and put on trial in the big brick building. At which point, the world showed up at the Rhea County Courthouse.
Reporters from all over descended on the place. There was a newfangled radio microphone in the courtroom. William Jennings Bryan came to argue the state’s case. Clarence Darrow took up Scopes’ cause. That brought even more attention to the case and the town. As the Smithsonian explains:
The trial, which took place from July 10 through July 21, 1925 (Scopes was charged on May 5 and indicted on May 25), quickly evolved into a philosophical debate between two firebrands about evolution, the Bible and what it means to be human. Radio and newspaper reporters flocked to Dayton; spectators crowded the courthouse; and food vendors, blind minstrels, street preachers and banner-waving fundamentalists fueled the carnival atmosphere. A performing chimpanzee was even employed to entertain the crowd as a mock witness for the defense. Political cartoonists, newspaper journalists and photographers captured the town in all its theatrics.
To be entirely accurate, the city fathers of Dayton did everything they could to promote the trial as a boon to the local economy, including encouraging Scopes in the first place. They succeeded beyond their wildest dreams. H.L. Mencken came to Dayton to immortalize the city as a nest of rubes and bounders. On the eve of the trial, he wrote:
I have been attending the permanent town meeting that goes on in Robinson’s drug store, trying to find out what the town optimists have saved from the wreck. All I can find is a sort of mystical confidence that God will somehow come to the rescue to reward His old and faithful partisans as they deserve—that good will flow eventually out of what now seems to be heavily evil. More specifically, it is believed that settlers will be attracted to the town as to some refuge from the atheism of the great urban Sodoms and Gomorrah.
But will these refugees bring any money with them? Will they buy lots and build houses? Will they light the fires of the cold and silent blast furnace down the railroad tracks? On these points, I regret to report, optimism has to call in theology to aid it. Prayer can accomplish a lot. It can cure diabetes, find lost pocketbooks and retain husbands from beating their wives. But is prayer made any more officious by giving a circus first? Coming to this thought, Dayton begins to sweat.
Mencken and the rest of the reporters gathered for the trial would find relief from the sweltering July heat in the shade of the big tree next to the courthouse. The trial of the century was big business, in every sense, including show business, and everybody wanted a piece.
Big trials have been a staple of American media for as long as there has been an American media. They really were the first form of celebrity journalism. As communications technology improved and accelerated, so did the hunger for the big trial. The 20th century had several Trials of the Century, even if you don’t count the various political investigations and congressional hearings. The Scopes Trial was the Trial of the Century for three whole years, until Bruno Hauptmann was put on trial for kidnapping the infant son of Charles Lindbergh. Cameras became a presence in our courtrooms. Court TV was born. After that, of course, we sailed along until the OJ Simpson trial obsessed the country as a virtual miniseries. And that was before the Internet and social media.
This week, the trial of former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin opened in that city. Chauvin is accused of murdering George Floyd by kneeling on Floyd’s neck for nine minutes while attempting to “subdue” him. The trial was picked up by CNN, MSNBC, and C-SPAN, among other outlets. Like most big trials, the Chauvin trial already has begun to develop its own stars: Donald Williams, the MMA fighter and eyewitness who could give classes in how to testify for the prosecution; Courteney Ross, George Floyd’s companion, who spoke honestly and openly about their shared addiction to opioids, immunizing the victim against the character attacks that are sure to come from the defense.
“We got addicted and tried really hard to break that addiction many times,” Ross testified. “When you know someone who suffers from any type of addiction, you can start to kind of see changes when they’re using again.”
There is no pre-existing celebrity involved in this trial, the way there was in the Simpson and Lindbergh trials. Nor is there a marketing campaign behind a test case, as there was in the Scopes trial. While unquestionably driven by serious public issues—systemic racism in police practices—and while there already is an element of dread in the air regarding the consequences of an acquittal, the Chauvin trial is mainly a view into the dark realities of the American condition. Our society had declared George Floyd expendable. That’s what Derek Chauvin saw when he pulled his cruiser up to the front of Cup Foods: an expendable human being on whose neck he could kneel for nine minutes. That’s the human reality on trial in Minneapolis. It’s not the Trial of the Century. It’s so much more important than that.
On July 25, 1925, it was too damn hot in the courthouse for the trial to continue, so they moved the proceedings to the front lawn, in the shade of the big tree next to the clock tower. (There also was serious concern that the floor of the courtroom might collapse under the weight of the spectators.) It was the pivotal moment, not only of the Scopes trial, but of all the attendant ballyhoo surrounding it. Darrow had been allowed to call Bryan as an “expert witness” on the Bible. (The court had disallowed all of Darrow’s scientific experts right at the beginning.) Bryan, to his everlasting regret, took Darrow’s dare.
This was a confrontation between giants. Darrow already had a monumental legal career, and Bryan had run for president three times and was acclaimed as the most gifted orator of his time. But Darrow was the superior lawyer and, as anyone who’s watched Inherit the Wind, the famous fictionalization of the trial, Darrow took Bryan apart on the stand.
Q: “Do you think the earth was made in six days?”
A: “Not six days of 24 hours … My impression is they were periods …”
Q: “Now, if you call those periods, they may have been a very long time?”
A: “They might have been.”
Q: “The creation might have been going on for a very long time?”
A: “It might have continued for millions of years …”
Never one to miss a chance to pile on, Mencken lit Bryan on fire:
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.
Nobody who’s watched the rise of the modern Christian Right can argue with Mencken’s conclusion. So the reach of the Scopes Trial still stretches through history. The issues are still joined.
There are no giants in the courtroom in Minneapolis. There’s no telling how—or even if—the proceedings will echo through history. Derek Chauvin is accused of murdering George Floyd under the color of law. Whether it will affect any change in the history of American law enforcement is anybody’s guess, but, as a human drama, it has so many small lessons that might be drowned out by the hype. It’s not the trial of the century. It’s far more important than that.
Doonesbury — Don’t know much about history…