This week marks the 89th anniversary of the Scopes “Monkey” Trial, held in Dayton, Tennessee. Today, we remain fascinated with this and other high-profile trials, perhaps because—despite much evidence to the contrary—we need to believe that sometimes justice prevails, truth wins, the bad guys get their due. I’ve written novels about two of these famous trials, and although they took place just ten years apart, generated a great deal of media attention, and are still used as examples in our best laws schools, they differed in significant ways.
Whereas the Lindbergh baby kidnapping trial lasted six long weeks the winter of 1935, included a murder victim (Charles Lindbergh’s 20-month-old son, “little Charlie”), an accused man (Bruno Richard Hauptmann), and a laundry list of circumstantial evidence, the Scopes Evolution trial was almost purely a tactical, intellectual, and often emotional debate between William Jennings Bryan (a fiery orator and three-time presidential candidate), and Clarence Darrow, the most successful trial lawyer in the country.
The “defendant,” John T. Scopes, was a young, first-year H.S. teacher and a football coach, who agreed to be arrested (a formality, he was never actually detained) so that the Butler Act, a Tennessee law which forbade the teaching of “any theory that denies the story of divine creation as taught by the Bible and to teach instead that man was descended from a lower order of animals” could be challenged in a courtroom.
The job of a novelist is as much about making decisions (Who will tell the story? Will there be more than one narrator? How much back story will I provide? What are the ages, genders and occupations of my fictional characters? Will the real/ historical characters speak and/or interact with the fictional ones? etc.) as it is about crafting language.
Even though Ringside 1925: Views from the Scopes Trial was published in 2008, I often find myself riffling through my research notes and files, still fascinated by the “crime” of teaching science, the media frenzy that surrounded that hot, smoky courtroom, and the consistently inconsistent nature of the word “justice.”
Are you fascinated by famous cases, too? Which ones and why? Leave a comment below–and in the meantime, enjoy these links: