Whatever Happened to Scopes?

John T. Scopes

The shocking truth is that Scopes was, if not exactly fired, then at least let go. Before the trial in July 1925, as the controversy over the first legal test of Tennessee’s Butler Act was making headlines across the country and around the world, Scopes was asked by school officials to disavow any belief in evolution. In response, Scopes refused, expressing agnosticism about evolution. Scopes added that everybody ought to have the right to study the topic. According to contemporary reports, the school officials then declined to renew the contract under which Scopes was employed, although a later memoir by a sibling suggests that Scopes decided not to seek re-employment with the school. In any case, the incident was widely reported in the newspapers. Impressed by Scopes’s courage, the head of a private girls’ school in Tarrytown, New York, offered Scopes a job teaching mathematics. And off to Tarrytown she went.

Yes, she. You didn’t think that I was talking about John T. Scopes (1900–1975), did you? Not at all. I was talking about Lela V. Scopes (1896–1989), the youngest of John’s four sisters. In his memoir Center of the Storm (1967), John Scopes relates that after two years teaching in Tarrytown, Lela went to teach in Winnetka, Illinois, where she taught in the public schools until she retired in 1956, adding, “As far as I know, the trial had no other effect upon my family than Sis’s decision at Paducah.” But Paducah, Kentucky—where Scopes was born and was buried—wasn’t especially hospitable to teachers sympathetic to evolution, at least according to Maynard Shipley, who reported in The War on Modern Science (1927) that in June 1926, two teachers in the Tilghman High School in Paducah were similarly refused reappointment for teaching evolution. Both were eventually reinstated, in one case because of a protest from the parents of her students.

As for John T. Scopes, he wasn’t fired. Far from it. In fact, the president of the Dayton school board offered to renew his employment after the trial. But Scopes never planned to continue teaching in Dayton indefinitely. His original plan was to teach in Dayton until he had enough money to enable him to study law. In the wake of the trial, he was inundated with offers to capitalize on his fame:

Some telegrams and letters stated precisely the amounts I could earn for personal appearances or the use of my name. Other offers suggested there were no limits to what I could make. I could “shoot the moon.” ... There was an offer of $50,000, for instance, to lecture on evolution from vaudeville stages; I swiftly rejected it. It would have put me on exhibit, which I was determined to avoid at all costs. There was also the fact that I didn’t know enough about evolution to lecture on it; this didn’t bother the promoters. I suddenly had a taste of what happens in America to a young man who skyrockets to spectacular fame or notoriety.

Eventually, he burnt a huge mound of his post-trial mail, mostly unread, on the assumption that there was nothing worth reading in it. He was determined to pursue his education, but on his own terms: aided by a scholarship fund organized by the expert witnesses for the defense in the trial (whose testimony, of course, was unheard, Judge Raulston having deemed it to be irrelevant to the case).

Scopes was intending to enter law school. But the dean of the law school at the University of Kentucky inadvertently dissuaded him from doing so by saying that Scopes could be a second Darrow. While Scopes held Darrow in great esteem, saying that he “had a greater influence on my life than any other man I have known,” he realized that he didn’t want to become “another William Jennings Bryan, Jr., walking in the shadow of another man’s fame.” (The younger Bryan aided his father in prosecuting Scopes, but was friendly with the defendant outside the courtroom, often taking swims with him as relief from the sweltering July weather.) Instead, he decided to pursue graduate work in geology, which had fascinated him during his college days. He enrolled in the Ph.D. program in geology at the University of Chicago, in part because of its sterling reputation and in part because of its proximity to Paducah.

Yet the trial continued to haunt him. As the appeal of the verdict to the Tennessee Supreme Court took place, he was pestered by reporters for interviews on “the same old subject.” In January 1927, the court reversed the judgment on a technicality: Judge Raulston imposed the fine, whereas the jury should have done so. The state attorney general declined to prosecute Scopes again, leaving the Butler Law intact and unchallenged. “It hardly mattered to me,” Scopes wrote. “I was too busy in graduate school to take any part in legal maneuvering and, besides, it seemed to me that the trial at Dayton had probably accomplished as much as any legal restating could do.” Even so, Scopes’s notoriety persisted. Later in the year, he was recommended for a graduate fellowship, which he was eventually denied: the president of the university administering the fellowship advised him to “take your atheistic marbles and play elsewhere.”

Short on funds, Scopes indeed looked elsewhere. Leaving graduate school, he worked for Gulf Oil of South America for three years, mainly in Venezuela, where he married Mildred Walker in 1930. To please his bride, he was received into the Roman Catholic Church, but he remained agnostic. The couple eventually had two children, John and William. Returning to the University of Chicago in 1930, he began work on his dissertation, but was prevented from completing it by financial woes. He subsequently worked as a geologist for the United Production Corporation, later the United Gas Corporation, from 1933 to 1964. “Mine was the normal, ordinary work characteristic of any large oil and gas company,” he summarized. “There were no high lights and I had the same number and the same kind of experiences as anyone else who did that type of work.” He tried to ignore requests for interviews and information about the trial.

It wasn’t until 1960, when he reluctantly agreed to help to publicize the Hollywood version of Inherit the Wind, that Scopes began to discuss the trial in public again. The film premiered in Dayton, and Scopes attended, not having been in the town since 1931. “Teachers still had to sign a pledge that they wouldn’t teach evolution,” he resignedly observed. Later, he contributed a memoir of the trial to Jerry R. Tompkins’s collection D-Days at Dayton: Reflections on the Scopes Trial (1965) and, with the aid of the journalist James Presley, composed his autobiography. Center of the Storm is credited with helping to convince the Tennessee legislature to repeal, in 1967, the Butler Act, under which Scopes was prosecuted. The following year, the Supreme Court struck down Arkansas’s antievolution law as unconstitutional. Scopes told the Associated Press, “I guess you could say I’m very happy about the decision.” He died in Shreveport, Louisiana, in 1970.

Glenn Branch
Short Bio

Glenn Branch is Deputy Director of NCSE.