Although John Scopes and his famous “Monkey Trial” strongly influenced the ongoing evolution-creationism controversy, relatively little is known about Scopes’s post-trial life. Moreover, many questions about his trial remain unanswered (e.g., did he actually teach evolution in Dayton?). This paper answers these questions with new information from a previously ignored source – his family and friends.
In the summer of 1924, recent University of Kentucky graduate John Thomas Scopes (1900–1970) had two job offers to begin his career as a teacher. Scopes chose the offer to teach and coach in Dayton, Tennessee, because Dayton was a small community and he “didn’t want to get into deep water” (Shelton & Smith, 1979, 25:35–49). Within a year, however, Scopes was convicted of teaching human evolution, his teaching career was over, and he had become one of the most famous criminal defendants in American history.
“In every instance, Scopes’s family members were talkative, helpful, generous with their time, and surprised that I had found them.”
Although the Scopes Trial (Figure 1) – which the Associated Press describes as one of the top 100 events of the 20th century (Associated Press, 2019; see also History Lists, 2019) – has been studied intensively by biologists, sociologists, and legal scholars alike, relatively few people have investigated what John Scopes did after his trial and year (i.e., 1924–1925) in Dayton. Scopes gave few interviews, and most accounts of his life simply say that he went to graduate school, became a geologist, shunned the press, and did little to promote himself or exploit his accidental fame for the rest of his life. According to virtually all public documents, archives, museum collections, and other written records, these accounts seem accurate. Although Scopes’s trial was accompanied by unprecedented amounts of hype, he remains an enigma; as historian Todd Hatton noted, Scopes “is the one player in the Monkey Trial that most people know the least about” (Hatton, 2015, 2:03). Even Scopes’s and James Presley’s excellent Center of the Storm: Memoirs of John T. Scopes (Scopes & Presley, 1967) overlooked many aspects of Scopes’s life (e.g., his running for Congress after his trial). As Presley noted recently, “John didn’t have anything to be eagerly shared…. He cooperated fully with me, but it didn’t occur to him to spend time thinking up events for me…. [H]e said the court reporter couldn’t catch it all and on at least one occasion John looked at the recorder and saw him watching transfixed like everyone else” (Presley, 2019).
Scopes’s reluctance to talk about his experiences has produced much speculation about the many unanswered questions regarding his trial and life. For example, Scopes never testified during his trial, and therefore was never asked (under oath) if he actually taught evolution to his students (i.e., broke the law) while he was substitute teaching in Dayton. Did Scopes really teach evolution? If so, what did he teach? Was he interested in evolution? Why did he remain silent in the 1960s when Susan Epperson challenged the constitutionality of an anti-evolution law? What happened in graduate school? How did he get started in the oil industry in Venezuela, and why did he quit his job there? Scopes ran for Congress as a socialist when he was young, but did he remain a socialist for the rest of his life? Why didn’t he use his undergraduate degree (in law) to become a teacher or lawyer? And how – if at all – could these and other questions be answered now, almost a century after Scopes’s trial, and more than half a century after his death?
Neglected Sources of Information: John Scopes’s Family & Friends
Virtually none of the many books and articles about Scopes and his famous trial – not even his autobiography, Center of the Storm: Memoirs of John T. Scopes (Scopes & Presley, 1967) – mention, quote, or cite Scopes’s family and friends as sources of information. What did John Scopes tell them? What did they ask him about his trial, and what did he say? Especially overlooked sources of information have been John and Mildred Scopes’s two sons, John T. Scopes Jr. (b. 1932) and the late William C. “Bill” Scopes (1936–2016; Figures 2 and 3). I assumed that Scopes’s sons and other relatives had never been included in books and articles because they, like John Scopes, were reluctant to talk to about their famous ancestor. I was wrong.
During the past decade, I’ve met multiple times with John Jr. and Bill Scopes (Figures 2 and 3), their spouses, John Scopes’s many great-grandnieces, and several of John Scopes’s other relatives and friends (Moore, 2019). I’ve attended family reunions, heard countless stories, examined scrapbooks, and learned much new information about John Scopes and his trial. In every instance, Scopes’s family members were talkative, helpful, generous with their time, and surprised that I had found them. For example, John Jr., Bill Scopes, and Bill’s late wife, Jackie Pegues Scopes (1943–2018), told me that I was only the second researcher to ever meet with them.
John Scopes’s family and friends answered questions about which many people have speculated since Scopes’s famous trial. In what follows, quotations are attributed to specific people, and I’ve summarized other comments without quotation marks. For the questions discussed below, their answers were consistent, informative, and at times alternatingly inspiring and sad.
When you were growing up, what did your father tell you about his famous trial?
Bill: “He didn’t talk about it.”
John Jr.: “Nothing. He never brought it up.”
Jackie: “I never heard Mr. Scopes say a word about it. Not one…. My father is who told me about the Scopes Trial…. Bill never told me about his father’s trial, and I didn’t ask.”
Did you ever ask him about his trial?
Bill: “Yes, especially around the time that [the 1960 movie] Inherit the Wind came out [Figure 4]. He answered questions, but didn’t say much else. It just wasn’t a big thing to him.”
John Jr.: “No. It wasn’t important to him…. When articles came out about his trial, he didn’t read them. He didn’t care.”
Notes: Both of John Scopes’s sons learned about their father’s trial when they were in college, Bill in a sociology class and John Jr. in an English class. They both learned much more in 1967 when their father gave them his first two copies of Center of the Storm. Late in his life, John spoke only briefly to his sons about his trial. Both boys said their father would talk briefly with them about the trial if asked, but he volunteered relatively little information. With them as with other people, his answers were often “yes” or “no.” Presley noted that reporters were often befuddled by Scopes’s short, simple, and forthright answers; one reporter told Presley that Scopes was “the frankest interview I’ve ever gotten.”
What prompted your father to write his memoirs?
Bill: “He was looking for something to do.”
John Jr.: “He had retired and was bored. He wanted something to do.”
Notes: In late 1958, Scopes was living in Shreveport, Louisiana, when James Presley – then a reporter for the Shreveport Times – met him at a late-night party. Five years later, Presley again contacted Scopes, telling him, “Your story needs to be told.” Scopes had dozens of offers to cowrite his autobiography, but he chose Presley because he liked him and believed that “every young man needs a good start.” Center of the Storm, a regional bestseller that went through four printings, was Presley’s first book.
When you were growing up, did you know that your father was famous?
Bill: “No. Reporters and high school kids doing reports would occasionally call our house, but he wouldn’t talk much with them. He was polite, but didn’t talk much with them. I didn’t think anything of it.”
John Jr.: “No…. Clarence Darrow came to visit us [in 1937] when we lived in Houston. I was too young to remember anything that was said, but I remember seeing a picture of Darrow and my father in the newspaper [i.e., The Houston Chronicle].”
Jackie: “The first time I went to Shreveport to meet Bill’s mother and father, I didn’t know that Bill’s father was the Scopes. Bill hadn’t mentioned it…. There was never any mention of any of that…. My parents asked me if Bill’s father was ‘The Monkey Scopes.’ I told them ‘no and don’t you ask him.’ My boss [O. C. Brown, at whose Baton Rouge law firm Jackie first met Bill] called Bill ‘Monkey Man’…. Mr. Scopes was intimidating…. He was always reading, drinking, or smoking.”
In his book, your father said that he “wasn’t sure that [he] had taught evolution” in Dayton (Scopes & Presley, 1967, p. 59–60). Did his recollection later change? Did your father ever tell you whether he taught evolution in Dayton?
Bill: “He never taught it.”
John Jr.: “He said he read a little from the textbook about it to the class.”
Notes: During an interview in 1979, Lela V Scopes (John’s older sister) claimed that John told her that he read “a paragraph or two” from the course textbook to his students (Shelton & Smith, 1979, 27:22). The exam that John Scopes gave his students after his two weeks of substitute teaching included no questions about evolution (Moore & McComas, 2016, p. 32).
In 1924, just before being hired at Dayton, your father graduated from the University of Kentucky. Did he ever talk about his college experiences?
John Jr.: “He picked classes based on professors, not on degree-plans. He ended up with a hodge-podge of courses and got a degree in law…. Like his father and Darrow, he read a lot. He was a voracious reader.”
Bill: “He said he liked college. He was very bright. His IQ was 167.”
Note: Like her famous brother, Lela Scopes also chose her courses based on professors, not on degree-plans (Shelton & Smith, 1979, 23:26).
Did your father ever talk about his experiences in graduate school?
Bill: “He went to graduate school in Chicago after his trial. He liked his courses and the work, but said that the press hounded him. He didn’t like that.”
Notes: John Scopes attended the University of Chicago’s Graduate School of Arts, Literature and Science from autumn 1925 to spring 1927, and from autumn 1930 to winter 1931. During this time, Scopes was among the 23 members of Kappa Epsilon Pi recognized for their “excellence in geological work.” However, contrary to several published reports, Scopes never received a graduate degree (Creviston, 2019).
At Dayton, your father’s primary job was coaching. Did he ever coach any of your sports teams when you were growing up?
John Jr.: “No. He followed sports, but he never coached us.”
When you were young, did your father display any mementos from Dayton or his trial in your home?
Bill and John Jr.: “No.”
Notes: John and his wife Mildred kept scrapbooks filled with photos, letters, and cards, including a birthday card from his coworkers in Venezuela, where he worked after his trial (Figure 5; see also Moore & McComas, 2016, p. 106). He brought back from South America and elsewhere “a wheelbarrow load” of rocks that were kept in the basement of their neighbor in Paducah. One of the few trial-related items that Scopes kept was the letter from Darrow to Scopes informing him that his conviction had been overturned, thereby ending Darrow’s hoped-for appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court (John Jr. has that letter, as well as the key to the city given to Scopes in 1960 by Dayton on the 35th anniversary of the trial; see Moore & McComas, 2016, p. 109). Scopes’s office displayed no mementos from his trial; as Presley noted, “I think he would have felt foolish to have displayed mementos of the Dayton trial in either office or home. That wouldn’t have been like him. [The trial] happened. He had had a small part in it (as he saw it) and it was in the past” (Presley, 2019).
Why did he quit his job with Gulf Oil in Venezuela?
John Jr.: “He was fired when he wouldn’t go to Colombia and spy for them.”
Note: After Scopes returned to Paducah, he described himself as “a private in the army of the unemployed.” During this time, Scopes ran for Congress as a socialist because he believed that capitalism would soon collapse. He later worked with regulatory agencies and estimated the monthly oil reserves that could be used to supply the military.
Your father earned an undergraduate degree in law and he enjoyed teaching. Why did he not pursue law or teaching?
John Jr.: “He didn’t have much money and didn’t want to do the apprenticeship required to become a lawyer…. He was afraid that if he became a lawyer, he would always be compared with Darrow, and he couldn’t take that pressure.”
Bill: “He believed that if he became a teacher, he’d always be remembered as the ‘Monkey Teacher,’ and he didn’t want that…. He didn’t want to be in Darrow’s or anyone else’s shadow.”
Your father believed that the issues in his trial were important, but that he had played only a minor role in the proceedings. What did he think when prominent scientists such as Henry Fairfield Osborn praised him and dedicated books to him (e.g., Osborn, 1925, p. iii)?
John Jr.: “Not much. He wasn’t very impressed. He never believed that he did anything special.”
Bill: “He didn’t want or like the spotlight. He knew that his trial wasn’t about him.”
George Rappleyea [see Figure 1], who instigated your father’s trial, spent a year [1948–1949] in prison in Texarkana, Texas, just 75 miles from where your father lived in Shreveport. Did your father ever visit him?
Bill and John Jr.: “No.”
In his later years, what did your father say about people in the trial?
Bill: “Not much…. He really admired Darrow…. He just didn’t talk about those things.”
John Jr.: “He respected Darrow, but thought Malone was the star of the trial. He told me that it was Malone, not Darrow, who crucified Bryan at the trial.”
Did your father ever introduce you to anyone who participated in his trial?
Bill and Jackie: “No.”
John Jr.: “I met Clarence Darrow when I was a child when he came to visit my family in Houston. And I met someone whose father played on the football team that my father coached in Dayton. But no, that was it. I never met anyone else [from the trial].”
Your father ran for Congress as a socialist (Moore, 2016a, pp. 79, 118). Given the growing popularity of socialism in the United States, would your father support politicians such as Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren?
John Jr.: “No. He was a socialist when he was young, but became very conservative when he could think for himself. In 1968, he supported George Wallace.”
Notes: Scopes never mentioned his brief political career to Presley because, Presley noted, Scopes “hadn’t thought it of interest … or importance” (Presley, 2019). Presley suspects that Scopes ran as a socialist to support Norman Mattoon Thomas (1884–1968), a friend of Scopes’s father and six-time (beginning in 1928) presidential candidate for the Socialist Party of America. Thomas was a founder of the National Civil Liberties Bureau, the precursor of the ACLU (which helped defend Scopes in Dayton). Scopes’s father, who also ran for public office as a socialist in 1900 and 1904 (Paducah Sun, 1901; Evening Star, 1904), knew and hosted socialist and union organizer Eugene Debs, whom Clarence Darrow defended in 1894. In 1964, Scopes supported Barry Goldwater because “he thought [Goldwater] was an honest man.” As Goldwater had claimed in 1963, Scopes told reporters in 1967 (i.e., while promoting Center of the Storm) that the United States would be better off if it “sawed off the Eastern seaboard and let it gently float out to sea” (Presley, 2019).
Was your father religious?
Bill: “No. He was raised Catholic by his mother, but he was agnostic. His wedding was in a Catholic church to please mother…. Near the end of his life, a Catholic priest came to see him. He told the priest that ‘You don’t have to do this for me, but if my wife sent you, then come on in.’ He respected mother’s beliefs.”
Note: John’s sister Lela also described John as an agnostic (Shelton & Smith, 1979, 7:58).
When the movie Inherit the Wind came out, did he take you to see it?
John Jr.: “No, but I met [Jerome] Lawrence and [Robert E.] Lee [the playwrights] in Chicago with Aunt Lela. I also saw it in Dayton and New York…. My father said that ‘[Frederic] March was Bryan, and [Spencer] Tracy was Tracy.’”
Jackie: “We never saw it in a theater. However, Bill, Deborah [Bill and Jackie’s daughter], and I went to Dayton in 1972 or 1973 as a spur-of-the-moment thing and saw the movie…. We did not identify ourselves when we were there.”
Notes: John and Mildred were given tickets for the New York premier of Inherit the Wind, but they gave the tickets to John Jr. The film, adapted from a play of the same name, fictionalizes the story of the “Monkey Trial.” March plays Matthew Harrison Brady (loosely based on William Jennings Bryan) and Tracy plays Henry Drummond (loosely based on Clarence Darrow).
Did your father ever study or talk about evolution?
Bill: “No. Never.”
John Jr.: “No. My father didn’t know anything about evolution and didn’t care anything about it. He was interested in people being able to teach and learn new things. He couldn’t have cared less about evolution.”
Your father enjoyed a productive career in geology. Did he talk to you about how he got started in the oil business?
Bill: “He was hired to work in an oil field near Maracaibo, Venezuela, which is where he met mother [Mildred Walker]. He liked that his coworkers considered him a geologist and didn’t pester him about his trial.”
Many sources claim that your father never did much to promote himself after his trial. When you were growing up, was that true?
John Jr.: “By the early 1960s, he was bored and burned-out with his job. He promoted the movie [Inherit the Wind] and book [Center of the Storm]. I think he did a few appearances related to the movie. He told me that he never read the script that they sent him; he just signed off on it and sent it in.”
Notes: Although Scopes’s editor, Jerry Tompkins, noted that Scopes “did not live in his past” (Moore, 2016c, 12:40), Scopes spent much time in his final years promoting himself and Center of the Storm (Figure 6). When Center of the Storm appeared in 1967, Scopes told Presley, “I’ll do whatever you, Blanche [Gregory, Presley’s and Scopes’s agent], and the publisher want” (Presley, 2019). He went on promotional tours (sometimes with Presley) that included stops in New York, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, Texas, and California. He returned to Dayton at least three times (Figure 6). He appeared on television programs such as The Dick Cavett Show (1967), The Mike Douglas Show (1967), The Today Show (1967), The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson (1967), and The Merv Griffin Show (1967). In 1960 he traveled to promote the movie Inherit the Wind, and his appearance that year on the game show To Tell the Truth (CBS TV, 1960) included a surprise ending involving contestants named Darrow and Bryan (Figure 7). He also spoke on several college campuses, including at the University of Kentucky (his alma mater, on Pre-Law Day, February 13, 1970) and at George Peabody College for Teachers (now a part of Vanderbilt University, on April 1, 1970; Moore, 2016a, p. 81). A speech at George Peabody College for Teachers was his last public appearance (Moore & McComas, 2016, p. 122).
You and your brother enjoyed successful careers. What was your home life like when you were growing up? To what do you attribute your success?
John Jr.: “The credit goes to Aunt Ethel and Aunt Lela…. My parents pawned us off on them…. Ethel and Lela saved [me and Bill].”
Bill: “My aunts…. Despite her trouble in Paducah, Aunt Lela held no grudge, never said anything bad about Paducah or the experience, and even moved back [to Paducah] later…. For a few years, my parents weren’t in the picture that much … [They] drank a lot. My mother was the meanest bitch I’ve ever known…. My first job was with United Gas, the same company that employed my father. We worked in different departments…. We drove to work together.”
Jackie: “When Bill asked me to marry him, he asked only three things of me: Don’t yell at me, don’t throw things at me, and don’t hit me like my mother did. He told me that his mother did things that he couldn’t talk about…. Bill and his brother revered Lela.”
Notes: For three of the years that John and Mildred battled alcoholism while living in Shreveport, Bill and John Jr. lived with Ethel Elizabeth Scopes Clark (1889–1982) in Paducah, Kentucky, or with Lela V Scopes (1896–1989) in Winnetka, Illinois. During this time (i.e., when John Jr. was in grades 9–11, and Bill in grades 5–7), the boys saw their father “once in a while,” and their mother even less (e.g., one year, when the boys were living in Winnetka with Lela, they saw their father once, and their mother not at all). John Jr. said that he “couldn’t connect” with his father, and both boys described themselves as “distant” from their parents (e.g., John did not attend Bill’s wedding), but they revered Lela and Ethel. After their three years living with the two aunts, neither Bill nor John wanted to return to their parents’ home in Shreveport; as John Jr. said, “We were happy with Ethel and Lela. I didn’t want to go back [to Shreveport].”
Presley met several times with Scopes in the mid-1960s while working on their book. Although he “never saw John incapacitated,” he often saw him “feeling good,” and Scopes described his first encounter with Presley as occurring at “a party where we got drunk together in Shreveport” (Moore, 2016c, 25:04). Bill lamented his mother’s excessive drinking; John Jr. described his father as “a happy drunk” and his mother as “an angry drunk.” On two different occasions, John Jr. told me that his mother often “was sick and went away,” and when she came home, “she and my father celebrated by drinking.” Scopes’s great-grandniece Lisa Rennegarbe admitted that “it was common knowledge in the family that Uncle J.T. had a drinking problem.”
Scopes liked to write. He wrote the preface to Center of the Storm, but Presley wrote the rest of the book. When Presley (2019) brought up the matter of a dedication page for the book, Scopes said he “didn’t see a need for one.” (Center of the Storm is the only one of Presley’s books without such a page.) When he died, Scopes was contemplating writing another book with Presley.
Why do you think John Scopes remained silent when you [Susan Epperson] challenged the constitutionality of a law similar to the one used to convict him?
Susan Epperson: “He told me that he was behind what we had done, but knew that if he spoke out or showed up at my trial it would detract from what we were doing. He agreed with everything we had done. He also said that reporters had offered to pay his way to my trial (on April 1, 1966), but he did not want to contribute to a circus-like atmosphere” (see also Moore, 2016c, 1:08, 1:10, 1:45; Moore & McComas, 2016, p. 120).
Other Friends & Relatives
John Scopes never spoke directly about his trial with any of his great-grandnieces, who all referred to him as Uncle J.T. However, they all heard about the trial from their family.
Lisa Rennegarbe: “It was seldom discussed…. It was not a positive thing for our family…. We were all proud of Uncle J.T. We were not embarrassed about it at all; we backed Uncle J.T., but sometimes we just got tired of defending what he did…. Our family [in Paducah] got cards and letters [about Scopes and his trial] for years after the trial.”
Nancy Rose: “His trial was never discussed much. It was not a good thing for our family…. [but] we were proud that he was part of our family.”
Susan Brooks: “We are proud of what Uncle J.T. did…. We simply had to adjust to the disapproval and suspicion by some in the community…. Even today when the trial is discussed, it is not uncommon for family members … to begin a discussion with phrases like ‘The Scopes are not atheists,’ as a way to remove the perceived ideological distance between them and us.”
Note: Susan Brooks, her family, and her relatives endured several negative incidents related to John Scopes being their relative (Moore, 2020).
Most of Scopes’s great-grandnieces were too young to appreciate or ask their famous relative about what had happened in Dayton. However, Lisa Rennegarbe “realized Uncle J.T. was famous one day when I was walking through the living room and saw on the evening news that he had died. That’s when I realized that he was a big deal. A really big deal.” More than 40 years after his trial, Scopes was still getting an average of one letter per day about it (Moore, 1998, p. 642).