Looking for John Washington Butler and Finding Johnny Cash

2 Jun

The Scopes Monkey Trial is one of my favorite topics to discuss with students, and it ranks high for several reasons. First, it took place in Tennessee, and it is important for them to know that not all important events happen in faraway places. Second, it was a debate between religion and science, and that debate continues ninety years later. Third, it is an interesting story with interesting people.

When we talk about the trial, a few people tend to stand out. William Jennings Bryan had been a leader in the Democratic Party for thirty years and saw this as one last fight for ordinary citizens. Clarence Darrow was the most famous lawyer in the country and also viewed himself as a defender of the people. John Scopes was a high school teacher and coach who agreed to a publicity stunt and ended up with his name in the history books.

Of course, a lot of other people played important roles, and I try to talk about as many as possible. However, there is one person who played a vital role who tends to get skimmed over.

A lot of time is spent on the Butler Act, the law that banned the teaching of evolution, but little time is spent on its author, John Washington Butler. I know from an episode of American Experience that he was a member of the Tennessee legislature and that he represented the counties of Macon, Sumner and Trousdale, all of which are just across the Cumberland River from where I am sitting. However, that is about it.

With that in mind, I went looking for John Washington Butler. First, I wanted a picture of him and found it at findagrave.com.Butler

Then, I did what I tell my students not to do. I went to Wikipedia and found an article that was three sentences long. Obviously, that did not provide much information. However, there is one thing useful about Wikipedia. The sources at the bottom of the articles can be valuable.

Butler’s page has two links. The first is an entry by Jeanette Keith in The Tennessee Encyclopedia of History and Culture. It is a short sketch of the man and provides some insight into why he pushed for the ban on teaching evolution. I know this is a good place to find information because I wrote an article about a local sportswriter for the online encyclopedia.

The second source links to an article by Doug Linder for the University of Missouri-Kansas City School of Law. It goes into great detail about Butler’s life and political career. It also describes the morning when Butler wrote the bill in his home.

My problem is that I do not know where the writer got this information. There are a few notes, but they do not provide much help. Also, there is another issue that may have been an accident but may also lead to questions about this article. When describing the trial, the following is written.

Sue Hicks, a local member of the prosecution team, ridicules the defense claim of unconstitutionality. It is “perfectly ridiculous to say,” Hicks says, “that a teacher…can go in and teach any kind of doctrine he wants.” What if, she wondered, a teacher hired to teach arithmetic decided he would rather teach architecture?

I highlighted the pronoun because Sue Hicks was a man. Legend states that he was the inspiration for “A Boy Named Sue” by Johnny Cash. The story goes that the writer, Shel Silverstein, attended a speech by Hicks and was inspired to write the song.

That is an interesting story, but it has gotten me off subject. After my search for John Washington Butler, I know more than when I started. I know what he looks like. I know some things about his life and his career. However, I do not know as much as the Internet would like for me to believe.


6 Responses to “Looking for John Washington Butler and Finding Johnny Cash”

  1. Andrew Petcher June 2, 2015 at 16:04 #

    I love the internet, a single post can open up new avenues and give a memory nudge. This post reminded me of the Hartlepool Monkeyhangers – According to local folklore, the term originates from an incident in which a monkey was hanged in Hartlepool, England. During the Napoleonic Wars when a French ship was wrecked off the coast and the only survivor was a monkey wearing a French uniform. On finding the monkey, some locals decided to hold an impromptu trial on the beach; since the monkey was unable to answer their questions and because they had seen neither a monkey nor a Frenchman before, they concluded that the monkey was in fact a French spy!

    • Rick June 2, 2015 at 18:00 #

      That’s a great story. Who knew that Frenchmen and monkeys were the same thing?

  2. Marilyn Armstrong June 2, 2015 at 17:46 #

    Have you seen the original “Inherit the Wind” with Spencer Tracy and Frederick March? It is one of the all time great movies. The movie’s script is largely taken directly from the actual Scopes trial transcript. All those amazing speeches by Tracy and March were REALLY given in the courtroom. I’ve read the transcripts, as well as H.L Mencken’s recounting of his experience (in the movie, he’s the reporter played by Gene Kelly) — and I’ve read Darrow’s memoirs on too. You’d think we’d have settled this issue by now, wouldn’t you?

    • Rick June 2, 2015 at 18:03 #

      That’s the amazing thing. We are still fighting about it. I’ve seen that movie. I think it’s time to make another one.

      • Marilyn Armstrong June 2, 2015 at 18:23 #

        They did make a remake which would have been okay, except the original was much better. Garry used to show this one in class when he was subbing at the high school This and “On The Waterfront.” They really liked it. And him.

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