Henry Louis “H.L.” Mencken, an American journalist, was born Sep. 12, 1880. Mencken wrote for the Baltimore Sun for most of his working life, and he was noted for authoring a study of the U.S. version of English, called The American Language (1919), but he is best known in scientific circles for his daily coverage of the Scopes Trial in Dayton, Tennessee, in the summer of 1925. It was Mencken who dubbed the proceedings “The Monkey Trial,” and who every day wrote a long column for the Sun in which he took aim at Christian Fundamentalists, small-town judges, William Jennings Bryan, and Southerners in general. He marveled at a setting in which a pastor, the principal critic of John Scopes, would be allowed to open the court proceedings with a prayer, and he admired the energy of Clarence Darrow, whose efforts he likened to shouting up a drain spout in Afghanistan.
Mencken was particularly hard on Bryan, whom he called a “vulgar and common man…ignorant, bigoted, self-seeking” —and this was in an obituary column, written on the occasion of Bryan’s death 5 days after the end of the trial. To read Mencken’s columns in sequence is to witness hard-boiled, two-fisted journalism at its best, a kind of writing that has long since disappeared from American newspapers, which might explain why American newspapers themselves are disappearing. You can read extracts of these columns at the UMKC School of Law’s Scopes Trial website, with links to the full columns at the end.
Mencken’s role in the Scopes Trial has been well served by cinematic portrayals; in the original film version of Inherit the Wind (1960), he was played by a wonderfully sardonic Gene Kelly; in the 1988 version, by Darren McGavin; and in the 1999 remake, by Beau Bridges. But it is hard to beat Gene Kelly, with or without his tap shoes.
The images above show: Mencken at his news desk; a view of the trial in progress, with Darrow standing and Mencken at the far left, indicated by an arrow; the famous day, July 20, 1925, when the trial moved outdoors to escape the heat and Darrow questioned Bryan, who volunteered to be an expert witness on the Bible; and Gene Kelly portraying Mencken, with Spencer Tracy as Clarence Darrow.
Dr. William B. Ashworth, Jr., Consultant for the History of Science, Linda Hall Library and Associate Professor, Department of History, University of Missouri-Kansas City. Comments or corrections are welcome; please direct to firstname.lastname@example.org.