Newly Digitized Images of the Scopes Monkey Trial Reveal the Witnesses

The Smithsonian Institution Archives commemorate the 86th anniversary of The State of Tennessee v. John Scopes with 25 newly digitized portraits

Winterton Conway Curtis
Winterton Conway Curtis (1875-1969) testified on behalf of John T. Scopes during the Scopes Monkey Trial of 1925. Image courtesy of the Smithsonian

The Smithsonian Institution Archives is celebrating the 86th anniversary of the Scopes Monkey Trial this month with the release of 25 newly digitized photographs from the trial. The images depict the scientists who served as evolution experts in defense of teacher John T. Scopes. The cache of images were discovered in the archives in 2005 by independent researcher Marcel C. LaFollette among papers and files donated to the Smithsonian in 1971. This marks the first time the photos have been assembled together on the web and have been added to the Smithsonian Flickr page.

The photographs were taken by Watson Davis, the managing editor of Science Service, an Associated Press-like news organization that produced and published science and technology stories from 1920 to 1963. “Watson Davis and Frank Thone, a writer for Science Service stayed in the “Defense Mansion”—an antebellum home on the outskirts of Dayton used as headquarters by Scopes’ defense team—with the prospective expert witnesses. They took photos of the group as well as individual portraits. This addition to our Scopes Trial set on Flickr represents a rare, complete, grouping of images of the witnesses in one place. We are always looking to add more of our great collections online and the anniversary of the trial offered an occasion to highlight more from the material in our collections documenting the events of July 1925 in Dayton, Tennessee,” says Tammy Peters, Supervisory Archivist with SIA, via e-mail.

July 21, 1925, marked the announcement of the verdict of “The Trial of the Century,” The State of Tennessee vs. Scopes, also referred to as the Scopes Monkey Trial, and the subject of the famous play and film Inherit the Wind. Set in the small Tennessee town located a few miles outside of Chattanooga, high school teacher John T. Scopes was tried for breaking a law that banned the teaching of evolution in the state’s public schools. The arrest and prosecution of the teacher brought fame to Dayton, attracting the attention of lawyer Clarence Darrow and three-time presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan.

Darrow was chosen as lead defense attorney for Scopes with Bryan heading up the prosecution. The result was an eleven-day trial beginning on July 10, that saw the defense team call as witnesses a panel of scholars of the day, including geologist Wilbur Armistead Nelson, anthropologist Fay-Cooper Cole, zoologist Horatio Hackett Newman and zoologist Winterton Conway Curtis.

Curtis, (left) a professor from the University of Missouri and a trustee of the Marine Biological laboratory at Woods Hole, MA, testified on day seven.

On July 21, Scopes was convicted of violating the Tennessee law, a big win for pro-creationist Bryan, who died 5 days later, but the decision would not stand for long as the anti-evolution law was later repealed.

During the trial, Watson Davis, photographed the proceedings while serving as a reporter for the Science Service. Nearly 80 years later Davis’s nitrate negatives were found by LaFollette, who has meticulously worked to identify the subjects and date each of the images. Her 2008 book Reframing Scopes: Journalists, Scientists, and Lost Photographs from the Trial of the Century, highlights these and other images from the trial.

Additionally, the Smithsonian Archives needs your help. A number of the subjects in the photographs are as yet unidentified — can you help them figure out why they are and what their involvement in the trial was? Leave your comments on the “Unidentifed-Scopes Trial” Flickr set with your insight.

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