The story goes that a local old-timer was sitting in front of the Trousdale County courthouse, socializing with a few other fellows, when a car drove up and parked right in front of them.
Cars were nothing new to the men, nor were women drivers, as this slick modern vehicle had.
But the men were all surprised when the young lady got out of the car and was neatly dressed in white blouse and tan slacks — a woman in pants!
The old-timer watched as the young lady entered the courthouse and turned to his friends and muttered, “Well, I’ll be a monkey’s uncle!”
The year was 1945 and a woman on the streets of Hartsville in pants was unheard of.
But let’s not worry about changing fashions. Instead let’s comment on the old-timer’s phrase, ”I’ll be a monkey’s uncle!”
The idea that mankind had a monkey for an ancestor was a controversial idea and one that even today can evoke an argument between men of faith and men of science.
But the State of Tennessee once hosted the attention of the nation and of the world itself in 1925, when a Dayton, Tenn., teacher chanced to teach evolution to his high school biology class.
The result was the infamous “Scopes’ Monkey Trial”.
Now why are we writing about a trial that took place in Dayton?
We are writing about the trial because the gentlemen who started it all was the Trousdale County State Representative to the Tennessee Legislature.
At that time in the 1920s, the State Representative’s position was passed around between Trousdale, Macon and Sumner counties. The counties took turns and in 1925, it was Macon County’s man who held the position. This was an informal agreement among the dominant political party and not any state law or rule.
So it was that from 1923 to 1927, John Washington Butler of Macon County represented our district. He soon made a name for himself when he introduced a piece of legislation now called “The Butler Act.”
Rep. Butler’s bill stated, “…it shall be unlawful for any teacher in any of the Universities… and all other public schools of the State… to teach any theory that denies the Story of Divine Creation of man as taught in the Bible, and to teach instead that man has descended from a lower order of animals.”
The law was controversial from the beginning and the American Civil Liberties Union immediately offered to finance a test case in Tennessee to challenge the constitutionality of the law.
You are probably aware of what happened next.
Looking for publicity for their small town, some businessmen in Dayton got local teacher John Scopes to teach the theory of evolution and publicity is what they got!
Two of the biggest names in American jurisprudence took sides in William Jennings Bryan (who had unsuccessfully run for U.S. president three times) and Clarence Darrow (a celebrated trial lawyer).
In what is commonly called “the Monkey Trial,” over 200 news reporters descended on the small town. Twenty-two telegraph lines were strung up to handle the daily news releases. There were even carnival-trained monkeys performing tricks on the courthouse lawn!
The eight-day trial made headlines around the world.
But it only took the jury nine minutes to deliberate and declare Mr. Scopes guilty. He was fined $100!
We have an article from the Knoxville Journal written a few days after the trial ended. The article quotes William Jennings Bryan as saying, “I will speak at Chattanooga, Knoxville and Nashville at an early date. I will speak at Winchester tomorrow and at Hartsville, home of Senator Butler, author of the anti-evolution law later.”
While he was confused on where the home of Rep. Butler was, it would have been a big event when he came here, thanks to his fame and reputation for defending the Bible against modern theories.
But it didn’t work out. The stress of the trial caused the national celebrity to have a fatal heart attack a week after the trial ended!
And while the name of John Washington Butler may not be familiar to most of us, he started a chain of events that led to what many consider “the trial of the century!”