Blog Post

The true story of a boy named Sue

The following story is excerpted from my book “Forgotten Tales of Tennessee.”

Tennessee drew much attention from the famous Scopes Monkey Trial held in the town of Dayton in 1925. The trial was a initially set up by a group of men, including an attorney named Hicks, to test a law prohibiting teaching evolution in schools and to bring attention to Dayton.

Sue Kerr Hicks/Wikimedia Commons

One of the group that devised the plan for the trial was Sue Kerr Hicks, an attorney born in Madisonville on December 12, 1895. As you might assume, there were few female attorneys in the South in 1925, and Sue was not a female. Hicks was, in fact, a boy named Sue.

And this is how another legend arose from the famous trial, although one known to fewer people.

Hicks, who would later serve as a circuit court judge, was one of the “drugstore conspirators” who were meeting at F.E. Robinson Drugstore in Rhea County when they saw an ad seeking challengers to the law against teaching the Theory of Evolution. They devised the plan to have local teacher and Hicks friend John Scopes admit to teaching evolution and have him arrested. The case would then go to court and draw the publicity needed, they hoped, to have the anti-evolution Butler Act overturned. The men wanted Scopes to be convicted and the case to eventually be heard before the U.S. Supreme Court.

The case went as planned — to a point. Scopes was convicted but the Tennessee Supreme Court upheld the Butler Act in 1927, effectively putting an end to the Scopes case. Also, while the trial did bring attention to Dayton, much of it was negative and the residents were labeled as “backward.”

The act would eventually be repealed in 1967.

But Hicks’ legacy lives on in song. It is believed that Hicks was the inspiration for the song “A Boy Named Sue,” written by author Shel Silverstein and famously recorded by Johnny Cash. Silverstein, who paradoxically drew cartoons for Playboy magazine and wrote best-selling poems for children, was known for writing novelty songs, including “The Cover of The Rolling Stone” and “Boa Constrictor,” a children’s poem set to music and recorded by Cash.

According to lore, Silverstein attended a judicial conference in Gatlinburg at which Hicks was a speaker and, upon hearing Hicks’ name announced, got the idea for the song title. This story has credibility because, after all, how many men named Sue would Silverstein have met in his life? Other than the title, however, the song has little to do with Hicks’s life.

The song refers to a young boy who is taunted because of the name and subsequently becomes a fighter. He spends years searching for the absentee father who named him and, upon finding him, learns that his father named him Sue so he would become tough enough to handle whatever life threw at him.

It is true that Hicks’ name was bestowed upon him by his father, Charles Wesley Hicks.

But Hicks, born into a family of attorneys, was a bookish-looking man who was named for his mother, Susanna Coltharp Hicks, following her death within days of giving birth to her son.

He would also claim that the name did not lead to problems in his life. In 1970, Hicks was quoted in the New York Times: “It is an irony of fate that I have tried over 800 murder cases and thousands of others, but the most publicity has been from the name ‘Sue’ and from the evolution trial.”

Hicks is buried in Haven Memorial Gardens in Madisonville beneath a small marker with his name and that of his wife: Sue K. and Reba B. Hicks. He died in 1980.

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