William Jennings Bryan died 78 years ago today, July 26, 1925. One time senator and even presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan famously dropped over dead just days after the Pyrrhic victory of being the winning prosecutor in the infamous Scopes Monkey Trial.
This was detailed in slightly fictionalized form in Inherit the Wind. Bryan’s doppleganger in the movie rates as one of my top movie villains.
Now, this guy was just shit, another hack demagogue politician. I wouldn’t notice much less write about him. One little accomplishment, however, partly redeems his life: his death inspired HL Mencken to write an obituary that might be the most beautifully caustic obit ever written, which concludes:
Bryan was a vulgar and common man, a cad undiluted. He was ignorant, bigoted, self-seeking, blatant and dishonest. His career brought him in contact with the first men of his time; he preferred the company of rustic ignoramuses. It was hard to believe, watching him at Dayton, that he had traveled, that he had been received in civilized societies, that he had been a high officer of state. He seemed only a poor clod like those around him, deluded by a childish theology, full of an almost pathological hatred of all learning, all human dignity, all beauty, all fine and noble things. He was a peasant come home to the dung-pile. Imagine a gentleman, and you have imagined everything that he was not.
I would like get it down that cold someday.
Of course, hearing of the arrest in Tennessee, Mencken famously hooked the accused up with a fancy shyster, and personally rushed south to cover the trial/mock the rednecks. Gene Kelly played his character in the movie.
Sparking all that is an above average accomplishment for someone of Bryan’s ilk, even if it was unintentional. This sudden death bit did graciously give Mencken a good punchline for the whole Scopes thing. That’s one worthwhile achievement.