Reframing Scopes

Journalists, Scientists, and Lost Photographs from the Trial of the Century

Marcel Chotkowski LaFollette

The plight of John T. Scopes dominated headlines for weeks, but behind the scenes of the famous "Monkey Trial" were other dramas hidden from public view. Now a serendipitous discovery has opened a new window on the "Trial of the Century," enabling modern readers to comprehend more completely the tensions that gripped a Tennessee community—and the nation—in 1925.

Historian Marcel LaFollette was combing through unprocessed records at the Smithsonian when she found a cache of more than sixty never-before-published photographs taken at the Scopes trial. Her research on these photos sheds new light on the proceedings, as well as on the journalists and scientists who gathered for this epic confrontation between science and tradition.

“LaFollette does a fine job of using the pictures to open up many different stories of the trial. . . . She intelligently introduces many issues—journalistic objectivity, the religious preferences of the scientists, the objectifying gaze of the journalists on the local holiness religious practices, and the failed aspirations for economic rebirth in Dayton—without getting too far from the images or losing general readers.

—Reports of the National Center for Science Education

“A fine book that shows us a side of a much-studied historical event that has been rendered invisible by historical forces. . . . the photographs are accompanied by a clearly written text with some novel insights drawn from LaFollette’s extensive knowledge of science popularization and the history of science journalism. . . . A valuable contribution to our understanding of an important historical event that has been much misrepresented in popular culture. It is also thoroughly enjoyable reading.

—Quarterly Review of Biology
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Deftly integrating text and illustrations, LaFollette takes readers behind the scenes to witness the trial from the perspective of science writers Watson Davis and Frank Thone, who had come to cover the trial but became informal liaisons between defense attorneys and the scientific community. The two journalist-photographers observed visitors and events and even befriended John Scopes in the years following the trial. Their impressions offer new views of Clarence Darrow and William Jennings Bryan and reveal the role of fascinating characters like George Washington Rappleyea, the cocky promoter who saw the trial as a way to bring publicity, tourists, and new business to Dayton.

These photos—trial witnesses and visiting celebrities, an outdoor baptism service, defiant ministers assembled in front of a Dayton church—help ground the Scopes trial in southern religion and culture and relate it to a time and place on the cusp of change. The notes of Davis and Thone preserve keen observations of personalities and events, while letters between Scopes and the two reporters in the years after the trial help illuminate the character of an ordinary young man thrust into extraordinary circumstances.

LaFollette weaves an engaging story of friendship, newly minted coalitions between scientists and journalists, and acts of goodwill in the midst of turmoil. The Scopes trial remains the consummate metaphor for cultural combat between science and religion. Reframing Scopes enables us to understand better the passions that swept one small town and came to divide the nation.

About the Author

Marcel Chotkowski LaFollette is a historian who lives in Washington, D.C. Her books include Stealing into Print: Fraud, Plagiarism, and Misconduct in Scientific Publishing and Making Science Our Own: Public Images of Science, 1910-1955.