Today in History

Today in History: May 5

It certainly is most absurd, the fact can never be!
My great grand daddy never was a monkey up a tree!

Grace Carleton,
 "Too Thin; or, Darwin's Little Joke"

Cover of sheet music
Too Thin; or, Darwin's Little Joke,
Grace Carleton, words; O'Rangoutang, music, 1874.
Music for the Nation: American Sheet Music, 1820-1860 & 1870-1885

The Darwin Club
The Darwin Club,
Rea Irvin, artist, March 18, 1915.
Prints & Photographs Online Catalog

On May 5, 1925, high school science teacher John Scopes was arrested for teaching evolution in one of Tennessee's public schools. Scopes had agreed to act as defendant in a case intended to test Tennessee's new law prohibiting the teaching of evolution in its public schools. On May 4, the day before Scopes's arrest, the Chatanooga Times had run an ad in which the American Civil Liberties Union (external link) offered to pay the legal fees of a Tennessee teacher who was willing to act as a defendant in a test case. Several Dayton residents hatched a plot at a local drugstore. They hoped that a trial of this type would bring much needed publicity to the tiny town of Dayton.

Clarence Darrow and Judge Raulston
Defending Lawyer and Judge of Scopes Trial,
Clarence Darrow seated with Judge John F. Raulston, July 12, 1925.
Prints & Photographs Online Catalog

The men enlisted several local attorneys and one easy-going teacher who believed in academic freedom and in Charles Darwin's theory of evolution which states that all organisms developed from earlier forms through a process of natural selection. While volumes of scientific evidence support the theory of evolution, many felt that it contradicted the story of creation as described in the Bible and thus did not want evolution taught in schools.

The trial pitted famous labor and criminal defense attorney Clarence Darrow against former senator and secretary of state William Jennings Bryan, who worked for the prosecution. The trial was such a media circus that, on the seventh day in the courtroom, the judge felt compelled to move the proceedings outdoors under a tent due to the unbearable heat and for fear that the weight of all the spectators and reporters would cause the floor to cave in.

Scopes Trial Lawyers
Scopes Trial Lawyers, William Jennings Bryan and Clarence Darrow in courtroom during Scopes trial, 1925.
Prints & Photographs Online Catalog

As Judge John T. Raulston incrementally disallowed the use of the trial as a forum on the merits or validity of Darwin's theory, the trial swiftly drew to a close. The jury took only nine minutes to return a verdict of guilty. After all, Scopes had admitted all along that he had, in fact, taught evolution. As the trial came to a close, reporter and critic H.L. Mencken explained to readers of the Baltimore Sun and the American Mercury:

All that remains of the great cause of the State of Tennessee against the infidel Scopes is the formal business of bumping off the defendant. There may be some legal jousting on Monday and some gaudy oratory on Tuesday, but the main battle is over, with Genesis completely triumphant. Judge Raulston finished the benign business yesterday morning by leaping with soft judicial hosannas into the arms of the prosecution.

When the defense appealed the verdict, the Tennessee State Supreme Court acquitted Scopes on a technicality but upheld the constitutionality of the state law. Not until 1967 did Tennessee lawmakers overturn the law, finally allowing teachers to teach evolution. The trial did bring Dayton, Tennessee a great deal of publicity, mostly comprised of reinforcements of a stereotype of the south as an intellectual backwater, certainly not the type Daytonians had hoped to attract.

Cartoon of a man in a bath
My First Real Bath: Gee! Ain't it Great!

Cartoon illustrating evolution
Evolution in Tennessee

Clifford Kennedy Berryman, 1925.
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Cinco de Mayo

Mexican Catholic Church
Mexican Catholic Church,
Deming, New Mexico, circa 1910-1919.
The Northern Great Plains, 1880-1920: Photographs from the Fred Hultstrand and F.A. Pazandak Photograph Collections

Mexican troops under General Ignacio Zaragoza successfully defended the town of Puebla on May 5, 1862, temporarily halting France's efforts to establish a puppet regime in Mexico. With the U.S. absorbed by the Civil War, Emperor Napoleon III hoped to create a French sphere of influence in Latin America. The victory is commemorated as a national holiday in Mexico.

The Mexican victory at Puebla was short-lived. French reinforcements seized the town in March 1863. The following June, Maximilian, younger brother of Emperor Franz Josef of Austria and a member of the Hapsburg dynasty, was crowned emperor of Mexico. He remained in power until 1867, when Napoleon III abandoned his Mexican adventure and withdrew his troops.

In the United States, Cinco de Mayo has become an occasion to celebrate Hispanic culture. Fairs commemorating the day feature singing, dancing, food, and other amusements, and provide a means of sharing a rich and diverse culture.

Mexican girl
Mexican Girl, Deming, New Mexico, circa 1910-1919.
The South Texas Border, 1900-1920: Photographs from the Robert Runyon Collection

Learn more about the history of Hispanic America: