When the “Monkey Trial” Stars
Came to St. Petersburg

I recently had occasion to watch Stanley Kramer’s 1960 classic film Inherit the Wind, about the 1925 Scopes “Monkey Trial.” Frederic March plays William Jennings Bryan, defending the Tennessee law prohibiting the teaching of evolution in public schools. Spencer Tracey plays Clarence Darrow, defending the high school teacher John T. Scopes, who is charged with violating the law. Bryan, known as the “Great Commoner,” was a three-time presidential candidate on the Democratic ticket and served for two years as Woodrow Wilson’s Secretary of State. Darrow was perhaps the most famous trial lawyer of the time.

Clarence Darrow and William Jennings Bryan sitting together at the Scopes Monkey Trial

This summer marks the 97th anniversary of that historic trial, one that has surprising St. Petersburg connections. Both Darrow and Bryan were visitors to St. Petersburg at one time or another. Bryan, who was originally from Nebraska, later became a Florida resident and was active in state politics. He is reported to have first visited St. Petersburg as the guest of real estate broker, and later mayor, Noel Mitchell around 1907 or 1908. Mitchell tried to get Bryan to make St. Petersburg his home, but the Commoner elected to live in Miami instead, where he also was an elder in the First Presbyterian Church and active in the church nationally. During his visits to St. Pete, Bryan was banqueted at the Detroit and Floronton Hotels. The Detroit is St. Pete’s first building and a protected city landmark; The Floronton was demolished a few years ago.

Clarence Darrow, at the Scopes trial, was America’s most famous trial lawyer in the 1920s. He visited St. Petersburg on several occasions, once speaking to a huge crowd at Williams Park.

Darrow visited St. Petersburg several times, on one occasion speaking at Williams Park where a crowd of several thousand turned out to hear him. In 1931, he addressed the local bar association and engaged in a debate on Prohibition with State Senator Don McMullen in Tampa.

During the 1920s, Christian fundamentalists argued that the texts of the Bible were literal fact, while “Modernists” advocated that the texts were subject to interpretation. At the center of this debate was the theory of evolution, as put forth principally by Charles Darwin. At its core, Darwin’s theory held that species of organisms arise and develop through the natural selection of small, inherited variations that increase the individual’s ability to compete and reproduce over millions of years. The theory came to be misstated that people derived from monkeys, rather than a common, early human ancestor.

In 1925, Tennessee outlawed the teaching of evolution in public schools either as fact or theory. It was declared unlawful “to teach any theory that denies the story of the Devine Creation of man as taught in the Bible, and to teach instead that man has descended from a lower order of animals.” This action actually went beyond Bryan’s personal position, which did not prohibit the teaching of evolution as theory.

“John Thomas Scopes” by Henry Major, 1925, pencil on paper, from the National Portrait Gallery

The Tennessee law was soon challenged as a violation of academic freedom. John T. Scopes, a high school coach and biology teacher in the small town of Dayton, Tennessee, was asked to stand as defendant in testing the constitutionality of the law. Bryan was asked to join in support of the law along with other counsel. Darrow served as co-counsel for Scopes’ defense. The defense did not deny that Scopes taught evolution – using a state-approved textbook that included brief explanations of evolution and Darwin’s role in its development – but argued that teaching evolution did not necessarily involve denying the divine creation of man. The judge denied a defense request to call expert witnesses on the issue, but written versions of their testimony were permitted. Darrow then called Bryan himself as an expert witness on the Bible, and Bryan surprisingly agreed to testify.

Darrow asked Bryan if the accounts of Jonah being swallowed by a whale and Joshua commanding the sun to stand still were to be taken literally. Bryan asserted in the affirmative, although he changed the story of the sun revolving around the earth. Asked about the age of life on earth, Bryan asserted that only fish and those aboard Noah’s ark were older than 2348 B.C., the assumed date of the Great Flood. But when Darrow asked if Bryan believed the earth was made in six days, Bryan replied, “Not six days of twenty-four hours.” He went on to say it was not important whether God made the earth in six days or in “six years or in six million years or in six hundred million years.” This was a startling statement for one defending a literal reading of the Bible. The judge ordered Bryan’s testimony to be stricken, and Scopes was found guilty and fined $100 (approximately $1,500 today).

John T. Scopes was a high school coach & teacher who challenged the 1925 Tennessee law banning the teaching of human evolution.

How the Scopes Trial was perceived in St. Petersburg is of course mirrored in the local papers, notably what was then called the St. Petersburg Daily Times, predecessor of the Tampa Bay Times. William L. Straub was the Times great editor and wrote many of the paper’s editorials. While the Times, like papers across the country, splashed the Scopes Trial across its front pages and reported developments in detail, we have not been able to find a Straub editorial addressing this clash between fundamentalism and evolution. However, there are numerous, lengthy columns entitled “Today’s Feature” on the opinion page written by a mysterious “Sigma Chi.” It turns out that Sigma Chi was a Presbyterian minister by the name of Dr. David Dwight Bigger, who wrote for the Times for 17 years starting out as a sportswriter and evolving into an opinion columnist on local, national, and world affairs. He followed the 11-day trial closely and wrote several columns about it. His accounts, written in the folksy style of Mark Twain, Bret Harte, and Artemus Ward are engaging:

“It is in the air – a bug – folks are breathing evolution, smelling evolution, seeing evolution – and land sakes! – only the totally deaf are to be felicitated on not hearing the echoes of the strife with reference to evolution… Seems like the varmint evolution had gripped the whole American nation by the ears – and won’t let go.” Commenting on Bryan and his noted oratorical abilities, Sigma Chi wrote, “Now he’s up to his amplifying throat in an altercation with reference to the determination of fundamentalism or modernism as a theological proposition.” Regarding Scopes, he wrote, “The big frog in the evolution puddle is not Bryan, not Darrow, not the presiding judge, not Darwin, not evolution nor the monkey – it is the Schoolmaster Scopes.” He took a sympathetic view of Scopes, noting that he taught “what he found in his books, as were authoritatively in use in the little school in which he was pedagoging.”

William Jennings Bryan defended the state of Tennessee’s ban on teaching evolution in the Scopes Monkey Trial. St. Petersburg real estate broker and mayor Noel Mitchell tried to entice Bryan to make his home in St. Petersburg.

Sigma Chi lampoons Darrow, summarizing his account of the evolution of man: “You had to go back millions and billions of years… Nothing there was then except oceans and oceans of non-descript slime that fairly reeked with inert legs and arms and noses and ears and toes and fingers – and yapping mouth, all in the knock-down, unassembled, unmobilized, unattached in relation, unwatchfully waiting for an unconscious opportunity to get together and be something.” On the last day of the trial, but before hearing the verdict, Sigma Chi states his conclusion: “But this may be said, that like as not folks who believe in a creating God may be caused to think a trifle deeper than they have been thinking with reference to the methods the creating Divinity employed in doing what He did – don’t you think so? We really believe [when] it comes down to brass tacks that there can be no antagonism between revealed religion and true science – but not everything that is palmed off for science.”

Will Michaels is the former Director of the St. Petersburg Museum of History and the author of The Making of St. Petersburg and The Hidden History of St. Petersburg.