I’ve written about H. L. Mencken’s mendacity at the Scopes trial in two previous posts (here and here). In today’s post, I’m going to drop one more bombshell, which will, I hope, drive the final nail in the coffin of Mencken’s credibility as an accurate reporter on the trial.
My bombshell is actually a letter written by a reporter named Nunnally Johnson, who covered the Scopes trial for the Brooklyn Daily Eagle and later became a successful Hollywood screenwriter. Thirty years after the trial, he passed on his recollections in a letter to theater publicist Arthur Cantor, dated March 8, 1955 (courtesy of the Billy Rose Theatre Collection):
Dear Mr. Cantor,
I covered a lot of different stories, from murders to labor investigations, during my years on papers in New York but the Scopes trial, which I covered for the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, was without question the best and most memorable. I can’t say that I think it had any particular effect on history but it was certainly remarkably characteristic of its time.
For the newspapermen it was a lark on a monstrous scale. Few of them could take it too seriously. As you probably know, it was instigated and promoted by a newspaper, and the outcome was inevitable. Scopes knew this and was agreeable to the conviction from the start. The truth was, he had admittedly violated a law, and the purpose of his trial was to tell the world of the existence of this somewhat absurd law.
The law which Mr. Johnson is alluding to here was the Tennessee Butler Act of 1925 (Tenn. HB 185, 1925), which did not outlaw the teaching of evolution in State schools, but prohibited only the teaching that man had evolved, or any other theory denying that man was created by God as recorded in Genesis:
That it shall be unlawful for any teacher in any of the Universities, Normals and all other public schools of the State which are supported in whole or in part by the public school funds of the State, to teach any theory that denies the Story of the Divine Creation of man as taught in the Bible, and to teach instead that man has descended from a lower order of animals.
The Butler Act additionally outlined that an offending teacher would be guilty of a misdemeanor (not a serious crime – h/t Barry Arrington) and fined between $100 and $500 for each offense. As I pointed out in my earlier post, Mencken’s mendacity at the Scopes trial, William Jennings Bryan was not the author of the Butler Act; moreover, he actually opposed the fine it imposed on teachers breaking the law, believing (correctly) that it would only serve to create “martyrs” for the cause of evolution. Finally, Bryan was quite willing to tolerate human evolution being discussed in science classrooms, so long as it was presented only as a hypothesis.
And now for the bombshell!
Nunnally Johnson’s letter continues:
But there was one bit of enlightenment for the sophisticated metropolitan newspapermen. Being admirably cultivated fellows, they were all of course Evolutionists and looked down with contempt on the local Fundamentalists. But some of us soon learned that there were still further levels of intelligence. The Fundamentalists had a group they looked down on too. The objects of their contempt were the members of something called the Church of God, who assembled under a great oak tree in the country near Dayton, babbled in tongues, and whose first and firmest belief was that the world was flat. The fundamentalists shook their heads sadly over these ignoramuses.
I remember very little of what I wrote about the trial, though I covered it from the beginning through Darrow’s assassination of William Jennings Bryan. The stories, I assume, can be got from the Eagle files, if they should be of any use to you.
I wish the play great luck. The editorial is extraordinary. I hope it can be interpreted, in the perspective of time, so that some sense can be made out of it. I doubt I will be able to attend the opening. But thank you very much for the invitation.
Very truly yours,
What, you may ask, does this have to do with H. L. Mencken? Quite a lot. In his reporting on the Scopes trial, Mencken went out of his way to depict the people of Dayton as “flat-earthers” (yes, he actually called them that) in his last report before the end of the Scopes trial, titled, Tennessee in the Frying Pan” (July 20, 1925):
Dayton, of course, is only a ninth-rate country town, and so its agonies are of relatively little interest to the world. Its pastors, I daresay, will be able to console it, and if they fail there is always the old mountebank, Bryan, to give a hand. Faith cannot only move mountains; it can also soothe the distressed spirits of mountaineers. The Daytonians, unshaken by Darrow’s ribaldries, still believe. They believe that they are not mammals. They believe, on Bryan’s word, that they know more than all the men of science of Christendom. They believe, on the authority of Genesis, that the earth is flat and that witches still infest it. They believe, finally and especially, that all who doubt these great facts of revelation will go to hell. So they are consoled.
In this passage, Mencken equates the beliefs of the people of Dayton with the beliefs of a fringe group that met in the countryside, outside the town, even though he (like many other reporters covering the trial) knew full well that the people of Dayton actually looked down upon these flat-earthers, and that Bryan himself believed that the Earth was millions of years old and was also open to the idea that plants and animals may have evolved. But hey, anything for the sake of a good story, right?
In the above passage, and in another report, titled Malone the Victor, Even Though Court Sides With Opponents, says Mencken (July 17, 1925), Mencken also mendaciously attributed to Bryan the statement that man is not a mammal, when in fact Bryan said nothing of the sort, as I demonstrated in my post, Mencken’s mendacity at the Scopes trial (see my earlier post, Part Four). What Bryan did object to was the portrayal of man in Hunter’s Civic Biology as an unexceptional mammal, “so indistinguishable among the mammals that they leave him there with thirty-four hundred and ninety-nine other [species of] mammals.” I might add that Bryan, far from being an uneducated man, was very well-educated for his time, with a B.A., an M.A., an LL.B. and at least seven honorary doctorates. Mencken, by contrast, never obtained a university degree.
In her acclaimed biography, Mencken: The American Iconoclast(Oxford University Press, 2005; paperback, 2007), Marion Elizabeth Rodgers freely acknowledges that Mencken distorted the facts in his coverage of the Scopes trial:
In an effort to prove to Mencken and the other journalists that their reporting was biased, that within those same hills there also existed educated circuit preachers, drugstore owner Fred Robinson made a special effort to introduce out-of-state reporters to a highly educated minister. The New York Times subsequently wrote in amazement of the Tennessee mountain man who had, along with his old clothes and polished boots, a scholar’s knowledge of Greek and Hebrew as well as Darwin’s Origin of Species. But to Robinson’s dismay, “Mencken kept with the hillbilly story of the Holy Rollers. ” (p. 278)
….”I have met no educated man who is not ashamed of the ridicule that has fallen upon the state,” reflected Mencken. The civilized minority had known for years what was going on in the hills, wrote Mencken: “They knew what country preachers [had] rammed and hammered into yokel skulls.” Now Tennessee was paying the price. (p. 281)
In spite of the trial’s lack of dignity, the columnist asked that his readers “not make the colossal mistake” of viewing it as “a trivial farce.” But the next American who finds himself with an idle million on his hands, Mencken proposed, should dedicate it to civilizing Tennessee, “a sort of Holy Land for imbeciles.” (p. 282)
On pages 287-288, Rodgers continues:
What disturbed the local townspeople of Dayton most was to be portrayed as religious fanatics. While many of the population admitted to being conservative Christians, the residents disliked being described as mountaineers. Two who fell into this category were college graduates from northern Pennsylvania. Others gave interviews, only to find that their speech had been liberally sprinkled in print with words like “hain’t ” and “sech. ”
“Some of the newspaper correspondents attending the trial have apparently lost no opportunity for exaggeration if not downright misrepresentation,” complained the Chattanooga Times. It was noted that in their thirst for local color, “they have seized upon the most narrow, ignorant, backward aspects of the community and harped upon them as though they were representative… Such writing is obviously unfair and unjust and beneath the ethics of anybody who adheres to an enlightened code of intellectual honesty. ”
Locally, much of the unfairness was blamed on Mencken. To this day, Mencken’s name is mentioned in Dayton with contempt; in 1925, he was anointed “the stinker.” (“Mr. Mencken did not degenerate from an ape,” one local said, “but from an ass.”) It was not, as Mencken supposed, his description of the Holy Roller meeting that caused the most fury, but his caricatures of the “Babbitts” and “backward” locals, “hillbillies,” “yaps,” “yokels,” “peasants” and mountaineers from the hills of East Tennessee that infuriated citizens who prided themselves on their intelligence…
“In a way it was Mencken’s show,” John Scopes recalled in 1967. “In the public mind today, a mention of the Dayton trial more likely evokes Mencken than it does me. His biting commentary on the Bible Belt and the trial itself was one of the highlights of the entire event.” Yet even Scopes disagreed with Mencken’s portrayal of the Dayton townsfolk as “morons”; many were his friends. Looking back at the trial years later, Scopes dismissed Mencken as “a sensationalist.” (pp. 287-288)
So there you have it. Even John T. Scopes, the hero of the Scopes trial, thought Mencken’s coverage of the trial was cheap and sensationalistic. And Marion Elizabeth Rodgers, the author of what has been called the definitive biography of Mencken, admits that he falsely portrayed the people of Dayton, Tennessee, as religious fanatics.
After these lies, can anyone trust what H. L. Mencken wrote on the Scopes trial?
My other articles on the Scopes trial can be accessed here: