Mencken week, day 6

Some of Mencken’s best journalism was his reportage for the Baltimore Evening Sun on the Scopes “Monkey Trial” in Dayton, Tennessee. Mencken didn’t even pretend to be objective. This excerpt, about dueling speeches between prosecuting attorney William Jennings Bryan and defense attorney Dudley Fields Malone, was published on July 7, 1925.

Malone was put up to follow and dispose of Bryan, and he achieved the business magnificently. I doubt that any louder speech has ever been heard in a court of law since the days of Gog and Magog. It roared out of the open windows like the sound of artillery practice, and alarmed the moonshiners and catamounts on distant peaks. Trains thundering by on the nearby railroad sounded faint and far away and when, toward the end, a table covered with standing and gaping journalists gave way with a crash, the noise seemed, by contrast, to be no more than a pizzicato chord upon a viola da gamba. The yokels outside stuffed their Bibles into the loud-speaker horns and yielded themselves joyously to the impact of the original. In brief, Malone was in good voice. It was a great day for Ireland. And for the defense. For Malone not only out-yelled Bryan, he also plainly out-generaled and out-argued him. His speech, indeed, was one of the best presentations of the case against the fundamentalist rubbish that I have ever heard.

It was simple in structure, it was clear in reasoning, and at its high points it was overwhelmingly eloquent. It was not long, but it covered the whole ground and it let off many a gaudy skyrocket, and so it conquered even the fundamentalists. At its end they gave it a tremendous cheer — a cheer at least four times as hearty as that given to Bryan. For these rustics delight in speechifying, and know when it is good. The devil’s logic cannot fetch them, but they are not above taking a voluptuous pleasure in his lascivious phrases.

The whole speech was addressed to Bryan, and he sat through it in his usual posture, with his palm-leaf fan flapping energetically and his hard, cruel mouth shut tight. The old boy grows more and more pathetic. He has aged greatly during the past few years and begins to look elderly and enfeebled. All that remains of his old fire is now in his black eyes. They glitter like dark gems, and in their glitter there is immense and yet futile malignancy. That is all that is left of the Peerless Leader of thirty years ago. Once he had one leg in the White House and the nation trembled under his roars. Now he is a tinpot pope in the coca-cola belt and a brother to the forlorn pastors who belabor half-wits in galvanized iron tabernacles behind the railroad yards. His own speech was a grotesque performance and downright touching in its imbecility. Its climax came when he launched into a furious denunciation of the doctrine that man is a mammal. It seemed a sheer impossibility that any literate man should stand up in public and discharge any such nonsense. Yet the poor old fellow did it. Darrow stared incredulous. Malone sat with his mouth wide open.

You can find all of Mencken’s reports on the trial here.

Clarence Darow (l) and William Jennings Bryan at Dayton. It was hot, ergo Bryan’s fan. The judge also allowed the lawyers to remove their coats.


  1. gravelinspector
    Posted May 24, 2012 at 4:22 am | Permalink

    It seemed a sheer impossibility that any literate man should stand up in public and discharge any such nonsense.

    That sounds depressingly true, still, today.

  2. Posted May 24, 2012 at 4:57 am | Permalink

    Now this is sheer bloody poetry!

    Loved this:

    All that remains of his old fire is now in his black eyes. They glitter like dark gems, and in their glitter there is immense and yet futile malignancy.

    That could be a personification of religion… 


    • TJR
      Posted May 24, 2012 at 6:00 am | Permalink

      Is he describing Murdoch at the Leveson inquiry?

  3. gbjames
    Posted May 24, 2012 at 5:43 am | Permalink


  4. JonLynnHarvey
    Posted May 24, 2012 at 9:18 am | Permalink

    William Jennings Bryan had been earlier an important political progressive, a champion of labor, and opponent of the gold standard, so his opposition to evolution is that much more disconcerting.

  5. ossicle
    Posted May 24, 2012 at 10:14 am | Permalink

    For those interested, Malone’s full speech is here:

    Nice long coverage of the trial here, btw:

  6. ossicle
    Posted May 24, 2012 at 10:32 am | Permalink

    BTW, I’m too dumb to figure out how to email Gerry, but have been wanting to point out this evolution article on Cracked. Every little bit helps, I figure!

  7. MadScientist
    Posted May 24, 2012 at 3:04 pm | Permalink

    Unfortunately a miracle happened and god won. However, some good did come of it, no thanks to god.

  8. Posted May 24, 2012 at 7:56 pm | Permalink

    Jerry, thanks for posting these!! It disturbs me to see how much more cowardly journalism have become in the last decade or two. I think there would be blood if a journalist today regularly published such reports in major newspapers in the US.

  9. Posted May 25, 2012 at 2:50 am | Permalink

    I have been enthralled with excellent selection of Mencken quotes. The have inspired 3 new cheeky poems and this is my versecomment today:

    The Dubious Witness

    The dubious witness in a court of law
    is tested for veracity
    with no allowance given for
    any obvious incapacity

    No witness is allowed to claim
    a truth that spread through rumour
    so pledging oath’s on a spurious book
    is not my sense of humour

  10. Mary - Canada
    Posted May 25, 2012 at 8:48 am | Permalink

    Brilliant writer.

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