Glenn Branch's picture

Bryan’s Missing Witness, Part 1

William Jennings Bryan (1902)

Not so long ago, I was talking about Winterton Curtis, a professor of zoology at the University of Missouri, who was one of the expert witnesses prepared to testify for the defense in the Scopes trial. He didn’t in fact testify, because Judge Raulston, presiding over the trial, decided that the defense expert witnesses would not be allowed to do so. In his history of the trial Summer for the Gods (1997), Edward J. Larson writes, “He clearly wanted to hear the experts but felt pressure from state leaders who, fearing that such testimony would heap further ridicule on Tennessee and its law, pointedly had declared that the trial should be brief.” Their testimony is available nevertheless. For the purpose of creating a record for appellate review, they were allowed to submit written affidavits or read prepared statements into the record. You can read all of these documents in The World’s Most Famous Court Trial (1925).

But what about the prosecution’s expert witnesses? Publicly, as Larson explains, the prosecution was going to rest its case on the legislature’s right to micromanage the curriculum. William Jennings Bryan (seen above) wrote to his colleague Sue Hicks, “The right of the people speaking through the legislature, to control the schools which they create and support is the real issue as I see it” (emphasis in original). (Hicks, by the way, apparently was the original Boy Named Sue. Later in his life, he gave a talk at a judicial conference attended by Shel Silverstein, who was struck by his name and used it in his song, which was a hit for Johnny Cash in 1969. Hicks was in fact named for his mother, who died from complications shortly after giving birth to him.) “Privately, however,” Larson continues, “Bryan hoped to discredit the theory of evolution through expert testimony.” And it was he who was in charge of finding the experts.

But Bryan didn’t have a whole lot of luck. George McCready Price, the flood geologist whose views were based on his readings of scripture and the writings of the Seventh-Day Adventist prophetess Ellen Gould White, was unavailable (because lecturing in England) and unenthusiastic: “in this case,” he told Bryan, “it is not a time to argue about the scientific or unscientific character of evolution theory, but to show its utterly divisive and ‘sectarian’ character, and its essentially anti-Christian implications and tendencies.” Larson notes that with one exception, no scientific expert approached by Bryan wanted to participate in the trial; the exception, Howard A. Kelly, a gynecology and obstetrics professor at Johns Hopkins University, was willing to testify only against human evolution, as incompatible with Christianity. Bryan demurred, regarding Kelly’s reservations as unhelpful for the strategy of the prosecution.

Incidentally, the fundamentalist Kelly and the acidulous H. L. Mencken were acquainted, even friendly, although their relationship was vexed. They were at odds on practically every social issue of the day. While covering the Scopes trial for the Baltimore Sun, Mencken made a point of teasing Kelly in print:

Dr. Kelly should come down here and make his dreams real. He will find a people who not only accept the Bible as an infallible handbook of history, geology, biology, and celestial physics, but who also practice its moral precepts—at all events, up to the limits of human capacity. It would be hard to imagine a more moral town than Dayton. … I propose that Dr. Kelly be sent here for sixty days, preferably in the heat of summer. He will return to Baltimore yelling for a carboy of Pilsner and eager to master the saxophone. His soul perhaps will be lost, but he will be a merry and happy man.

(I quote Mencken from Charles Stewart Roberts’s 2010 article “H. L. Mencken and the Four Doctors: Osler, Halsted, Welch, and Kelly,” which provides a nice account of his relationship with four important medical professors at Johns Hopkins.) Imagine what Mencken would have said about Kelly if he had actually testified against Scopes!

Kelly and Price are the only potential scientific expert witnesses for the prosecution mentioned by Larson, but Ronald L. Numbers in The Creationists (1992) mentions a few additional candidates: S. James Bole, a professor of biology at Wheaton College, who in the 1920s “stood virtually alone as a creationist with advanced training in biology”; Louis T. More, a physicist at the University of Cincinnati and author of The Dogma of Evolution (1925); and Alfred Watterson McCann, “a muckraking Catholic journalist” and author of the marvelously titled God—Or Gorilla: How the Monkey Theory of Evolution Exposes Its Own Methods, Refutes Its Own Principles, Denies Its Own Inferences, Disproves Its Own Case (1922). In a footnote, Numbers adds three: Charles B. McMullen, a philosopher at Centre College in Kentucky; Francis Perry Dunnington, a professor of chemistry at the University of Virginia; and “Henry F. Lutz, an unidentified resident of Cincinnati.”

Unidentified, perhaps, but not unidentifiable! I don’t know why Lutz’s name stayed in my memory, but a few years ago, I encountered it in a different context, remembered that Lutz was relevant to the Scopes trial, and started to collect information about him. Lutz was perhaps best known during his life for his autobiographical book To Infidelity and Back (1911), which is available on-line. Lutz relates that as a teenager with unanswered religious questions, he endured “years of agony on the sea of rationalism,” driven from Christianity to Unitarianism and thence to rationalism and thence even to “materialism and absurdity,” from which he was saved by the unlikely instrument of John Stuart Mill’s  A System of Logic, which helped him to realize “we must follow truth learned by experience and observation, irrespective of rationalism.” Lutz explains, “It was thus that I found my way back to Christ as my Lord and Saviour.”

Not all of To Infidelity and Back is about Lutz’s own religious journey; he seems to have included a few of his sermons and pamphlets for good measure. Thus there are chapters extolling phrenology, discussing the need for charity in dealing with those who disagree with us, investigating the biblical basis for baptism (he plumps for immersion over sprinkling), articulating the organization of the primitive church, and so on and so forth. What’s conspicuously absent is any mention of evolution. Darwin’s name is not present in the book, and although “Alfred Russell [sic] Wallace, one of the greatest of scientists” is quoted, it’s on account of his endorsement of phrenology. (“In the coming century,” Wallace predicted in 1898, “phrenology will assuredly attain general acceptance.”) “Biology,” “design,” “creator” are all absent. So why would Bryan have thought that Lutz would be a useful expert witness for the Scopes trial? I’ll suggest a partial answer in part 2.