John T. Scopes: A Summer in Hell and a Career in Petroleum Geology

Historical Highlights

Who was the most famous person you didn’t know was a petroleum geologist?

That would probably be John T. Scopes, of “Monkey Trial” fame.

Scopes was the defendant in the sensational 1925 trial that tested a Tennessee law prohibiting the teaching of the theory of evolution in public schools.

Scopes was born in 1900 in Paducah, Ky., and moved to Salem, Ill. at the age of 17. (Coincidentally, Salem was also the birthplace of William Jennings Bryan, of whom more will follow.) He earned a bachelor’s degree in law at the University of Kentucky, with coursework in science, including a minor in geology.

His first professional job, at the age of 24, was as a high school football coach and math/science teacher in the small Bible Belt town of Dayton, Tenn., some 40 miles north of Chattanooga.

The Butler Act had just been passed by the state legislature to prohibit public schools from teaching the theory of evolution, due to the widespread belief that it denies the biblical account of man’s creation. Religious fundamentalism was ascendant and schools around the United States were under pressure to suppress the discoveries of Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace, as well as later scientific work that provided evidence for the evolution of life from common ancestry.

To test the constitutionality of the Butler Act, the American Civil Liberties Union said it would defend anyone who defied the new law. A civic booster and the ACLU recruited Scopes, who said he was known locally as “an independent thinker,” to be that defendant. He urged his own students to testify against him to a grand jury, which quickly indicted him. Scopes was charged and arrested, though he never actually served time in jail.

In effect, the trial was staged to attract publicity to Dayton, which was struggling economically, as well as to oppose the Butler Act. Scopes later admitted that he was unsure if he really had taught evolution during his stint as a substitute biology teacher, but said, “I furnished the body that was needed to sit in the defendant’s chair.” Eager to test the new law, his motivation was that a science teacher should be free to teach science, not Scripture. Years later he summarized this position, “I did not think the state of Tennessee had any right to keep me from teaching the truth.”

Image Caption

Scopes in Venezuela, 1927. Photo from the Riesenfeld Rare Books Research Center, University of Minnesota Law Library.

Please log in to read the full article

Who was the most famous person you didn’t know was a petroleum geologist?

That would probably be John T. Scopes, of “Monkey Trial” fame.

Scopes was the defendant in the sensational 1925 trial that tested a Tennessee law prohibiting the teaching of the theory of evolution in public schools.

Scopes was born in 1900 in Paducah, Ky., and moved to Salem, Ill. at the age of 17. (Coincidentally, Salem was also the birthplace of William Jennings Bryan, of whom more will follow.) He earned a bachelor’s degree in law at the University of Kentucky, with coursework in science, including a minor in geology.

His first professional job, at the age of 24, was as a high school football coach and math/science teacher in the small Bible Belt town of Dayton, Tenn., some 40 miles north of Chattanooga.

The Butler Act had just been passed by the state legislature to prohibit public schools from teaching the theory of evolution, due to the widespread belief that it denies the biblical account of man’s creation. Religious fundamentalism was ascendant and schools around the United States were under pressure to suppress the discoveries of Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace, as well as later scientific work that provided evidence for the evolution of life from common ancestry.

To test the constitutionality of the Butler Act, the American Civil Liberties Union said it would defend anyone who defied the new law. A civic booster and the ACLU recruited Scopes, who said he was known locally as “an independent thinker,” to be that defendant. He urged his own students to testify against him to a grand jury, which quickly indicted him. Scopes was charged and arrested, though he never actually served time in jail.

In effect, the trial was staged to attract publicity to Dayton, which was struggling economically, as well as to oppose the Butler Act. Scopes later admitted that he was unsure if he really had taught evolution during his stint as a substitute biology teacher, but said, “I furnished the body that was needed to sit in the defendant’s chair.” Eager to test the new law, his motivation was that a science teacher should be free to teach science, not Scripture. Years later he summarized this position, “I did not think the state of Tennessee had any right to keep me from teaching the truth.”

Clash of Titans

In a sweltering, overflowing courtroom, Scopes was convicted in a jury trial that pitted two legal giants of the age against one another. Among other lawyers, fiery Clarence Darrow appeared for the defense, and the great orator, politician and champion of the common man, William Jennings Bryan, argued for the prosecution. The defense brought numerous experts on evolution, including Kirtley F. Mather, a distinguished Harvard petroleum geology professor, but only one was allowed to testify.

Eloquent, agnostic, progressive and passionate, Darrow (1857-1938) was the greatest defense lawyer of his day. He had represented anarchists charged in the Chicago Haymarket Riot of 1886, the socialist Eugene V. Debs who was arrested following the Pullman Strike in 1894, and labor leader William “Big Bill” Haywood, for whom he obtained an acquittal on murder charges. Darrow saved wealthy teenaged thrill killers Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb from the death penalty in 1924. He was a powerful advocate for Scopes, subjecting Bryan to withering questions on the literal interpretation of the Bible.

Bryan (1860-1925), a Nebraska populist and experienced officeholder, was the Democratic nominee for president in 1896, 1900 and 1908, and the only candidate from a single major party to be defeated three times. Dubbed “The Great Commoner,” Bryan dominated his party for two decades, opposing the gold standard, while favoring Prohibition and women’s suffrage. He rejected the teaching of Darwinism because he believed it conflicted with Scripture and because he felt “social Darwinism” led to nationalism, conflict and immorality. Bryan had lobbied for state laws banning the teaching of evolution, and boldly responded to Darrow’s lengthy examination on the veracity of the accounts in Genesis.

H. L. Mencken (1880-1956) was the journalist who coined the phrases “Bible Belt” and “Monkey Trial.” As a reporter, literary critic and world-class curmudgeon, he was called “the Sage of Baltimore,” and became famous for his sarcasm, broad misanthropy and tireless campaign against American provincialism and prudishness. Menken covered the entire trial, leading one of the earliest media circuses. It was the first U.S. trial to be broadcast live, coast-to-coast on the radio.

Scopes never testified, and after eight intense and stifling July days, the jury found him guilty within minutes. He was fined $100 and resigned forever from teaching.

Exhausted, Bryan died five days after the trial ended.

Life After the Monkey Trial

Scopes’ conviction was later overturned on a technicality related to sentencing by the judge, not the jury. The law, however, was upheld as constitutional by the Tennessee Supreme Court.

He immediately enrolled in graduate school in geology at the University of Chicago, through the generosity of Mather and others. Scopes took classes, did glaciology fieldwork in Illinois and worked toward his doctorate until he ran out of money. As a consequence of his role in the Monkey Trial, he was denied a fellowship that would have enabled him to study the origin of oil and gas, as well as complete his degree.

Scopes said he was told, “you can take your atheistic marbles and play elsewhere.”

Scopes accepted a three-year job for Gulf Oil and left for Venezuela in 1927 where, he said, “I would be just another Yankee oil hunter,” instead of the Monkey Trial defendant. He was assigned to work parties in the jungles surrounding Lake Maracaibo and the foothills of the Andes, learning to make maps and take gravity measurements with a torsion balance. Eventually, he was made party chief for Gulf’s subsidiary, Mene Grande.

In a letter to Darrow, he said, “I hate office work and city life.”

The Grip of Notoriety

An insect bite on his hand became infected, and in late 1928 Scopes was hospitalized with dysentery, malaria and blood poisoning. After convalescing on sick leave in the United States, he returned to Venezuela in 1929.

It was at a country club dance in Maracaibo that he met Mildred Walker, “a pretty brown-eyed brunette from South Carolina,” who became his bride the next year.

Gulf instructed Scopes and his party to extend their survey into Colombia, even though the company did not have permission to work there and would be unable to protect them if caught. At the Colombian frontier on the Rio Meta, Scopes concluded, “there was no prize that Gulf Oil could win that was worth the risk of going into a Colombian jail.” He turned the boat around, returned to headquarters in Maracaibo and was promptly fired.

Lacking only his oral examinations and thesis to complete his doctorate, Scopes began collecting data in New Mexico for his dissertation, but was again thwarted by a lack of funds. With the world deep in the Great Depression, and the Scopes family having welcomed their first child in 1932, he needed a job.

“My personal depression ended in the summer of 1933,” Scopes wrote, when he accepted a position as a geologist with United Gas Corporation. United was one of the first great gas transmission companies, and he worked for them in Houston, then in Shreveport, La., until he retired in 1964.

His work focused on gas reserves, appraisals, oilfield economics, taxation, pipeline expansion and regulatory affairs. Scopes testified in Washington, Memphis and Baton Rouge, but never joined AAPG (possibly because he had no geology degree). His 1967 autobiography, “Center of the Storm,” provides the best insights into his role in the trial, but precious little about his career as a geologist in the Gulf Coast.

In those memoirs, Scopes noted that he enjoyed his work at United, despite the 55 to 60-hour weeks, and that he became a “jack-of-all-trades.” He wrote, “Mine was the normal, ordinary work characteristic of any large oil and gas company. There were no highlights and I had the same number and same kind of experiences as anyone else who did that type of work.”

Scopes lived a modest, quiet life after the trial, generally uncomfortable with his youthful fame. “Notoriety never completely releases its victims,” he said. Eventually though, he began speaking about the trial and current events to local groups, and even appeared in Life magazine and on the hit TV show, “To Tell the Truth.”

An award-winning 1955 play, “Inherit the Wind,” used the inspiration of the Monkey Trial to defend intellectual freedom and indirectly denounce the McCarthyism of the day. That hellish summer in Dayton was also the subject of a movie directed by Stanley Kramer and starring Spencer Tracy, as well as several TV adaptations.

When the law was finally repealed in 1967 by the Tennessee legislature, Scopes said simply, “I am very happy.” He died in 1970, survived by his wife and their two sons.

John T. Scopes provides a valuable lesson for our times: the denial of science and the disdain for facts are with us even today. It’s still our job as geoscientists to enlighten the public and speak truth to power.

Matt Silverman would like to thank AAPG member Mary Barrett for her generous archival research in Shreveport.

Comments (4)

Who are the true deniers?
The distasteful inclusion of the word "denier" in the concluding sentence is a not-so-subtle reference to the the many thousands of AAPG members who disagree with the theory of Catastrophic Anthropogenic Warming. In my recently published book "Inconvenient Facts" https://inconvenientfacts.xyz/ I expose the many fallacies being foisted upon the populace concerning the false notion of human-driven warming. This is the real "truth to power" and is used to expose that political science is masquerading as true science. I have been speaking about my findings and my book to large gatherings of Earth scientists, including the most recent Eastern Section meeting and have been met with near universal praise for exposing that the true science deniers are those promoting a flawed and politically driven agenda rather than fact-based approach to the subject. Shame on the AAPG and on the author for stooping to insult so many of their fellow members and scientists. Gregory Wrightstone Author of Inconvenient Facts - the science that Al Gore doesn't want you to know. Pittsburgh, PA
Show more
4/25/2018 2:28:46 PM
John T. Scopes
“John T. Scopes provides a valuable lesson for our times: the denial of science and the disdain for facts are with us even today. It’s still our job as geoscientists to enlighten the public and speak truth to power.” A fine conclusion to the story on John Scopes. Thank you for a great article.
4/14/2018 10:45:26 AM
What do we value?
Hats off to the author. This was a very refreshing contrast to the snow job on climate change I saw recently in these pages. Andrew Chermak
4/12/2018 9:37:46 PM
Scopes
Excellent! Thanks!
4/12/2018 5:39:02 PM

You may also be interested in ...