The rebel monument debate comes to my hometown (and another dear to my heart).

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City workers covering up a Confederate memorial in Birmingham

We all know the debate over Confederate monuments has gone white-hot, especially after the events in Charlottesville.

I have weighed in on this debate several times in the last year (and have no stomach for the argument that removal is “erasing history,” as I argued here) and I am firmly on record as favoring contextualization rather than removal, either by placing them in a museum (as the University of Texas did), or leaving them where they are and putting up new signs that explain the reasons the monuments were put up in the first place (like the University of Mississippi did). I also favor counter-monuments that help diversify the history we choose to remember and memorialize.

But above all, I favor letting local communities decide for themselves what they choose or don’t choose to memorialize.

However the events of the last couple of days, and Trump’s stunning reaction to them, started pushing me closer to supporting full removal.

Last night, I emotionally felt pretty much exactly as did CNN’s Van Jones:

But because I have been asked,  I want to weigh-in again on this issue by focusing on part of what Trump said, and specifically on two cities that are very close to my heart: Richmond, Virginia, (where I got my masters degree, worked at its National Battlefield Park, and lived for eight years) and Birmingham, Alabama (my hometown).

Richmond of course, is famous for its beautiful Monument Avenue, featuring enormous and imposing statues of rebel leaders such as Jefferson Davis, JEB Stuart, and Stonewall Jackson.  This summer, city leaders formed a commission to discuss how to best contextualize, but not to remove, the statues.  They held a public hearing to discuss options, and what followed was predictable mass chaos.  The audience seemed to disregard the fact that removal was not on the table, as it turned into a fight over whether to remove the statues or not. Not surprisingly, it quickly turned into a fight over what caused the South to secede. It got ugly. 

I was not there, but I have a friend and fellow historian that was, and based on his emotional and mostly sensible Facebook posting that night, it was an unmitigated disaster that probably only hardened people’s hearts and opinions, frustrating everyone.

After the stunning events of the last few days, Richmond’s mayor has decided that removal IS now on the table, and has instructed the commission to add that option to its deliberations. He made it clear he personally now favors removal. Even more powerful, two great, great grandsons of Stonewall Jackson have called for removal in a powerful plea. 

I can’t say I blame any of them, as my emotional reaction to Charlottesville, as I said above, was also to take all these rebel monuments down.

Yet stepping back from those emotions causes me to feel that of all southern cities, Richmond is probably the one in which it is most important that they stay up.

As the Capital of the Confederacy, (sitting within easy driving distance of some of the war’s most important and preserved battlefields), the city is perhaps the only one that people actually travel to just to see the monuments. (No one is going to New Orleans, or Baltimore, or Nashville, JUST to see rebel memorials).

And from an educational and public history perspective that is a GOOD THING. The city has done an exceptional job over the last decade to create institutions, memorials, and other public education endeavors, telling the WHOLE and diverse story of the Civil War and the Confederacy, and the connection of both to the institution of slavery.

The monuments not only draw people to these educational opportunities, but they themselves are important educational tools for demonstrating how previous generations chose to interpret the Civil War in an effort to promote the “Lost Cause.”

Most rebel monuments were originally placed as means of denying that the South had seceded in order to preserve slavery.  Their purpose was to glorify and distort the causes of the Confederacy’s attempt to break from the United States, painting it as an effort to defend “States Rights.” (Just how successful that effort was has been made all the more clear lately—-that Richmond public hearing, for example).

At the same time, they are monuments to white supremacy and resistance to efforts at racial justice. This chart detailing when most of these monumnts and memorials went up, demonstrates this very effectively. Thus, the erection of the monuments has a history and purpose all their own.

If you want the perfect classroom for exploring the Lost Cause, its meanings, and its successes, there is no better one than standing at the base of the Lee monument, or especially the one of Jefferson Davis. Contextualization in those spots could be a powerful way to educate the public about the white supremacist movements that for so long successfully distorted America’s understanding of the Civil War for their own political agenda. (And which has once again reared its ugly and violent head).

So I favor contextualization in Richmond, and the addition of more monuments that tell a more inclusive story (how about one to the African American troops that played a large role in reclaiming the city for the United States, for example?). Of course the problem is that most people view the monuments as they ride quickly by in cars or tourist buses, and thus I’m not sure how much contextualization signs would be visible and/or effective. This is definitely a problem.

Still, I think this is the right solution for Richmond, and they, above probably all other cities, have the ability to set the model for how these rebel monuments can be used to educate the public about how and why so many people are misinformed about the causes of the Civil War, and how those efforts were tied to resistance to black progress and racial justice.

I hope they get it right.

And then there is my hometown.  I took a lot of pride when it was announced in January that Birmingham’s Civil Rights district was being turned into a national park. The Confederate memorial near this area creates a strong contrast to the newer (and increasing) memorials and interpretive signage marking the pivotal events that occurred in Birmingham, especially those in 1963 that played a prominent role in pushing President Kennedy into proposing the Civil Rights Act. Make no mistake, the new park is preserving an American battlefield for racial justice:

The events in Charlottesville had me feeling that rebel monuments in Birmingham should come down, as they are an insult and black-eye on this historic district. Yet, a local news story may have pushed me back the other way again.

In the wake of what happened in New Orleans, the state of Alabama passed a ridiculous law making it illegal for local communities to remove rebel monuments. The hypocrisy here is amazing, considering that Republicans stand on the principle of power resting in the hands of localized government (a concept I have been mostly sympathetic to most of my life). Of course this is akin to the hypocrisy of Republicans calling for a small federal government that does not involve itself in our lives, and yet wanting one that legislates morality. If there is one thing the Republican party needs right now, it is consistency of principle.

Anyway, the city of Birmingham’s mayor and city council has decided to figure out some way to challenge this law, maybe by removing the statues and fighting it in the courts (I think they would win in the higher courts), or just paying the fine. In the meantime, they have opted for covering up the monuments, first with a tarp, and now with some plywood.

As a result, the state’s attorney general is suing Birmingham for violating “the spirit” of the law. So the battle has been joined. 

What struck me in a local news story, however, was a reporter mentioning that the monument is in the shadow of the places dear to the Civil Rights movement. For instance, the A.G. Gaston motel where Martin Luther King stayed during “Project C” is within a rock’s throw of the rebel monument. Here he and other heroes coordinated their assault on Birmingham’s white supremacist laws and racial injustices, right near a monument to the very forces they sought to destroy. And it was here that dynamite was thrown into the building in an effort to kill these Civil Rights leaders.

Does not the presence of this Lost Cause monument make what King and the hundreds of Civil Rights footsoldiers did in Birmingham even more profound?  Would we not lose part of the story if we move the Confederate monument? Is it not a perfect symbol of everything that the Civil Rights movement fought against and brought to its knees in Birmingham?

Properly interpret that monument, in the context of its purposes and also within the Civil Rights movement, and you’ve got a powerful public education tool. Removal takes that away.

So I stand for leaving it up.

ON THE OTHER HAND, you should read this op-ed by Mississippi State University Professor Anne E. Marshall, who argues that she once stood for contextualization, but has changed her mind after seeing its failure in Louisville, Ky. I can’t say she doesn’t make a lot of sense. Yet I still  think Richmond, as well as Birmingham, are different cases than Louisville—Which only reinforces my conviction that this is best left to case-by-case decisions from within the effected communities.

And then there’s Trump. I am not going to comment on how sad I was to hear our president say that there were good people in a crowd organized by white nationalists. Honestly, I can’t add anything to the outrage that has already been expressed.

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Yet I have been asked by past and present students, as well as friends, about my thoughts on one aspect of what he said. So I’ll comment briefly on that.

Trump, echoing many others, insisted that if we take down a monument to Lee and Jackson because they were slaveholders, this logically would lead us to take down monuments to other slaveholders, many of which were our founding fathers. Where would it end? There goes the Washington Memorial in DC!

Make no mistake: This is a proverbial red-herring that gets repeated over and over again by those who oppose the removal, or even the contextualization, of these monuments.

So let us be clear, despite Trump’s (and Fox News’) claim, the rationale for taking down the monuments is NOT based on the fact that the Confederate leaders were slaveholders. The logic behind taking them down (or contextualizing them) is that these were people who committed an act of treason against the United States to defend the institution of slavery and white supremacy. (In the case of Lee and Jackson, they broke sacred oaths they took when they joined the US military).

Washington and Jefferson and other founding fathers were certainly flawed men, guilty of America’s original sin of slavery (among other things), but they did not commit acts of treason in the name of white supremacy.

Oh, but they were treasonous, you say, because they rebelled against their government by breaking from the British empire.

I have LONG been sick of this argument. Washington and Jefferson rebelled against a government in which they had no representation, which, you know, was kind of the whole point. Don’t we learn in grade school, “no taxation without representation!?” They believed that taxes could only come from institutions in which they were represented (specifically, their own colonial legislatures).

Robert E Lee, on the other hand,  rebelled against a government in which he had representation.  In fact, because of the 3/5ths clause of  the Constitution, southern white men like him were OVERLY represented in that government, which was pretty much the reason the Republican Party was formed in the first place—to bring down this overly-represented and overly-politically powerful “slave power.”

So there is a big difference between Washington and Lee. HUGE difference.

Please do not listen to Trump or anyone else when they insist that taking down rebel monuments would lead to pulling down all monuments to slaveholders or otherwise morally flawed leaders. It just isn’t so.

This is about the Confederacy and its causes. Insisting otherwise, or that the Civil War was not caused by a defense of slavery and white supremacy,  is FAKE NEWS.

Bottom line: I am still for contextualization in Birmingham and Richmond. But if locals in those places and in other cities decide to take them down, I’ll shed no tears for the Confederacy, (unlike the real ones I shed after our so-called president’s response to Charlottesville).

 

 

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Missiles and race riots: It sure is looking a lot like 1962 around here

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Oxford Mississippi, 1962

Ok, put this down as a “hot take,” but as I watch the news reports today from Charlottesville I can’t help recall that the riots in Oxford, Mississippi when James Meredith tried to register to attend the University of Mississippi in the fall of 1962, took place just as Soviet missiles were arriving in Cuba.

History does not repeat itself, but it sure as heck does rhyme sometimes.

Of course one major difference between then and now is that in 1962 we had a president that took decisive action against the racist aggressors in Oxford without blaming “many sides,” or without using a moment when firm language against domestic terrorism was needed, to randomly tout the employment rate.  And we had a leader who stood firm against the Soviets, yet without issuing off-the-cuff school-house bully rhetoric that only inflamed the situation. (And he certainly did not need the Chinese President to tell him to tone it down).

I also can’t think of any klansmen in 1962 claiming they only wanted to fulfill the president’s agenda, as we do today.

And this is coming from someone that is not particularly a fan of the JFK presidency.

Partisanship is probably the wrong stance for any of us to take right now. Objectively, I believe that no matter who won the presidency these debates over the monuments was probably going to lead to this.

Yet, we must face facts. Less than a year into this presidency, we are on the brink of a nuclear war again, and we have Nazis and other white supremacists openly marching in the streets, touting the president’s agenda, and committing acts of domestic terrorism in the name of preserving the legacy of the Confederacy.

It seems like we are going backwards, and you can’t say that historians did not do everything we could to warn that this would happen.

Meanwhile, one of my colleagues at the University of Alabama, Charles P. Clark, made perhaps the best statement about today, simply by posting this picture on Facebook:

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’nuff said.

On Robert E. Lee’s “lost orders” & HBO’s upcoming “Confederate.”

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Photo Illustration from The Daily Beast, depicting Game of Thrones creators David Benioff and D.B. Weiss

Please allow me to weigh-in on a suddenly hot topic:

Like many of you, I am a huge fan of HBO’s Game of Thrones. So the news about its creators working on a new series called Confederate caught my attention, as it did many others. When the news broke that this is what they are working on, a backlash of reactions appeared on social media.

The new show will create an alternate timeline/universe in which the South successfully seceded, and thus slavery has survived into our current time-period.

HBO says:

The story will follow “a broad swath of characters on both sides of the Mason-Dixon Demilitarized Zone — freedom fighters, slave hunters, politicians, abolitionists, journalists, the executives of a slave-holding conglomerate and the families of people in their thrall.”

Put me down on the side of the people who are outraged about this ridiculousness.

Of course the controversy probably has the creators and producers all the more excited about the project, and in their response to the criticisms one producer called the show’s content “weapons-grade material.”

I think a lot of the criticism of the show is a knee-jerk response. Games of Thrones has had a lot of sexual violence, needlessly gratuitous sex and nude scenes, and a lack of diversity. So, many people immediately felt the show’s premise would create an offensive “wish fulfillment” for Alt-right crackpots and/or Neo-Confederates.

I don’t buy that.

It is clear these guys intend to show why it was important that the United States won the war, ended slavery, and preserved the Union. It actually will probably only anger Neo-Confederates to see it theorized that had the South won, slavery would have continued to thrive—as we know that one of the Lost Cause’s main contentions is that not only did the South not secede to defend slavery, but that they would have gotten rid of it on their own. Hogwash

Lord knows I don’t mind anything that annoys the people that still buy the Lost Cause myth.

I further suspect that the show will theorize that had the Union not been preserved, the colossus the United States became in the 20th century would not have been around to turn the tide of two world wars, and triumph in the Cold War (or did we? Hmm).  I’m guessing in this alternate history, Germany wins WWII, and/or that Russian communism has gone global.

And lastly, it is clear that the show’s creators hope that by creating this alternate world, they will be able to explore racial issues in an open and honest way, making it clear how the legacy of slavery in the US still permeates and defines our society. Surely, Neo-Confederates and Alt-right folks won’t find comfort in that.

So I don’t think these guys have in mind some kind of Harry Turtledove-like nonsense. Let’s give them the benefit of the doubt on that.

Yet I am still mad about this, in fact, a bit enraged.

Because this is HBO, and because it’s the creators of Game of Thrones, this show is likely to be pretty good TV, if not great. The studio has enormous resources and a track-record of producing amazing shows. Further, because of the controversy, the audience is likely to be huge.

And THAT is what makes me mad.

Why not use those resources, those talents, and that built-in audience to tell a REAL story about “freedom fighters, slave hunters, politicians, abolitionists, journalists, the executives of a slave-holding conglomerate and the families of people in their thrall” to mass audiences in a quality way?

History has enough amazing, untold stories out there, that I simply cannot understand why we need to create an alternate universe to make the point that it is a good thing that the Confederacy lost, that the Union was preserved, that slavery was ended, and yet that its legacy still shapes and defines the political, social, and cultural fabric of modern America.

As you all know, I am a big champion of Mercy Street, and to a lesser degree Underground. Neither show was cancelled because of a lack of audiences, and in the case of Mercy Street, the funding woes of PBS was the primary culprit.

Keep in mind, we still live in an America in which large numbers of people (probably a majority) still have no clue as to what really caused the Civil War (and/or actively deny the facts) and of what went on during slavery. Doesn’t the current national debate over Rebel monuments and flags tell us that we still need more mass education about what the Confederacy stood for? Why explain that to people within the context of a fantasy world?

Imagine if you can, an alternate realm in which HBO uses its creative talents and resources to produce shows like Mercy Street and Underground, telling stories that are all the more compelling and impactful because they are true, reaching far larger audiences than PBS and WGN combined.

It isn’t like HBO does not already have a very fine track record of producing powerfully engaging history movies and mini-series, and in fact have a much anticipated project in the works based on Harriet Tubman. (What’s taking so long on that?)

Further, the Game of Thrones show-runners admit to being “history nerds” that came up with the idea for this new show after reading Shelby Foote’s description of the “lost orders” before the Battle of Antietam. It got them to thinking about the importance of contingency in historical events, and that led to the show’s concept.

But guess what guys, historians have long been arguing for the importance of contingency, and they do it in the context of solid historical facts. So could you. The “lost orders” story was compelling to you BECAUSE IT REALLY HAPPENED.

In fact, I just talked about the lost orders in my Civil War course this summer, and the class all agreed that you just can’t make stuff like that up. I’m guessing the vast majority of Americans have no clue about it.

So here’s what I am saying: Give us a show set in the late 1850s or during the Civil War, filled with real-life characters—or perhaps even better, in the 1870s during Reconstruction. Do your research and you’ll find a treasure-trove of real life events that you could fictionalize into truly compelling and thought-provoking TV, accomplishing all the goals you have in mind for Confederate, and yet it would be all the more powerful because it’s all so true.

All good historians know that the 19th century is filled with “weapons-grade material” still waiting to be told to mass audiences.

PLEASE go mine those stories and drop this inane idea.

Now I am going to the theater to see the new hit movie,  Dunkirk . . . you know, a true story.

 

Update on the Shaw sword . . . and more questions

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Close-up of Shaw’s sword hilt on the Saint-Gaudens’ memorial (left), and the one newly discovered by the Massachusetts Historical Society (right)

Today the Boston Globe followed up their story of yesterday about Robert Gould Shaw’s sword by posting a time-line and some of the sources that were used to authenticate the relic.

It turns out that the sword Shaw had during the famous Boston parade was not the same one he carried into the Fort Wagner fight. This newly discovered sword was ordered when Shaw took command of the 54th, but did not arrive until the regiment was already in South Carolina—Too late to have been in the parade.

On July 4th, 1863, Shaw wrote to his father that he was sending home his “old sword” now that the new one had arrived. This old sword must have been the one he held during the parade depicted in the memorial standing today on Beacon Hill.

So this opens up new questions!

The Globe story today includes the line: “a replica of [the sword] can be seen on a bronze monument of Shaw and his infantry.” If that is true and not just an inaccurate statement by the paper, the creator of the monument, famed sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens, would have had to have been working with the new sword, not the “old sword” that Shaw actually carried in the parade. Yet just a quick comparison (in the photos above) seems to dispel that.

So what happened to the parade sword? Might it be tucked away in some other family member’s attic?

Further, the Globe story says that in the summer of 1865,  the sword was “reportedly” in the hands of a certain Rebel officer. African American US troops were sent to his home to get the sword, and apparently ransacked the place and found it (the former reb officer wasn’t there). But who was this officer? How did he obtain it? Was he at Fort Wagner and took possession of it immediately off Shaw’s body, or did the thing get passed around?

And then there is the mystery of why the family let it get lost up in an attic. The time-line has a gap of over 150 years when its whereabout are unknown, although it might have hung on a family wall at some point. Who was the family member that relegated it to an attic only to be uncovered in 2017?

Perhaps we will never know the answers.

I’m saddened that this is not the sword Shaw carried in the parade and kissed while seeing his family and new bride for the last time. Now I really want to know where that one is!

Yet this does not detract from the fact that it appears certain this newly discovered sword is the one he used during the Battle of Fort Wagner.

Isn’t this a cool story!??

 

Thinking about the sword of Robert Gould Shaw

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Well, it looks like it is time for another trip to Boston.

The absolutely stunning history news today is that the Massachusetts Historical Society has acquired the sword of Robert Gould Shaw, the first Colonel of the Civil War’s 54th Massachusetts regiment. The institution claims it is the one he was carrying when he was shot down leading his men in their famous attack on Fort Wagner on July 18, 1863.

Wow. Just, wow.

“Put it this way,” Anne Bentley, curator at the Massachusetts Historical Society, said, “as a curator, if you’re lucky, once in a lifetime something this significant crosses your desk. This is my once-in-a-lifetime [moment].”

That isn’t hyperbole, I am confident she means it.

If you’re unfamiliar with the history, the 54th is now perhaps one of the most famous Union regiments of the Civil War thanks to the movie Glory (1989). (Here’s a nice 4 minute video lesson on them from the Civil War Trust and historian Kevin Levin).  I’ve written about how that movie inspired my own career, and I’ve also authored a trilogy about the regiment for the New York Times “Disunion” series.  This article is about their recruitment, this one is on their attack on Fort Wagner (and is also published in this book), and this one details their participation in the Battle of Olustee.

Of course I am the least important of the many historians that have written about the 54th, which was the first African American regiment from a northern state and was recruited at a time when whites assumed that blacks could not be good soldiers. Douglas R. Egerton, for just the most recent example, has an excellent monograph about them and their sister regiment, the 55th Massachusetts.

Still, I can’t let them go and have actually been doing research lately on the immediate press coverage they received in the wake of their attack on Fort Wagner. This is for a book chapter I am currently working on, but it will probably find its way into a bigger project on down the road. The standard line on the 54th Massachusetts is that the men’s determination to prove the humanity of their race (and their rightful claim to citizenship), coupled with Shaw’s disciplined leadership, turned the unit into a particularly fine regiment.  They performed gloriously in the Wagner attack, dispelling the racial assumptions of the times, and thus leading to the recruitment and use of the other black regiments that Lincoln proclaimed to have collectively turned the tide of war.

But how much is that image a product of hindsight and/or selective research? I won’t give away the questions that are driving my research at the moment, but let’s just say I have been reading a lot of contemporary mass media reports of, and responses to, the attack on Fort Wagner and the death of Shaw. Our current bombshell headlines have been competing for my attention over the last two months with those of the summer and fall of 1863.

Which is why this news about Shaw’s sword is even more breathtaking to me at the moment. The story from the Boston Globe leaves so many unanswered questions! Shaw’s body was buried on the sandy battlefield of Morris Island, SC., in an area now underwater (although you can still visit Morris Island by boat from Charleston). The rebels that tossed him into a mass grave with his soldiers saw it as an insult, justified by his leading of black troops. Yet his family resisted all subsequent calls for efforts to find and reclaim his remains, insisting there was no more appropriate and holy burial site than where he lay with his men.

No doubt before he was tossed into the grave, some Reb took his sword as a trophy (and there is some documentation of that happening).  But where did it go from there? What documentation do we have for where it has been and how it wound up in a family attic? All we get from the article is this tantalizing info:

“Bentley said the precise whereabouts of the sword, stolen from Shaw’s body shortly after he was killed . . .  have long been a mystery to historians and Civil War buffs. But in March, three great-grandchildren of Susanna Shaw Minturn, Shaw’s sister, discovered the sword in an attic as they cleaned out the family home.” Further, “through meticulous research, headed by Bentley and staff from the society, they were able to piece together a detailed timeline of what happened to the sword and confirm its authenticity, tracing its roots all the way back to England, where it was forged.”

I cannot wait to discover the details of that story and to see the documentation. Let’s hope it comes out in an article or essay made publicly available online.

UPDATE: A local Boston TV news station aired a story that claims the sword was returned to the family in 1865. Still, I am curious as to what happened to it from the moment it was taken, to the time it was returned (who and how) and then why it was lost after that. Again, many questions to be answered.

All kinds of thoughts swirl in my head when I think about one day seeing that sword on display. Some are romanticized images in my mind’s eye of Shaw leading his men forward into the hellish maelstrom of death that they bravely faced in the name of saving the Union, destroying slavery, and establishing respect for their race.

But the image that is haunting me the most tonight is far away from the battlefield.

As they paraded through the streets of Boston just before embarking for the South, the regiment did so before a large throng of dignitaries, supporters, and curious onlookers. By all reports, the men were incredibly impressive that day, with Shaw striking a particularly fine and memorable figure as he pridefully rode at the head of his men on horseback.

This moment, of course, is the subject of the famous August St. Gaudens memorial which stands on the Boston Commons (you may recall that recently, a vandal broke the sword off the memorial):

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Knowing exactly where his new wife and his family were watching, the young colonel paused before them just long enough to look to the sky . . .  and to raise up and kiss his sword.

It was apparently an awe-inspiring and emotional sight, but one of his sisters recalled that at the very moment he kissed his sword, she had a premonition of his death.

Indeed, Shaw himself had the same ominous forebodings, and his family and new bride never saw him again as he marched off to give his life for the Union, and to the important mission of the 54th Massachusetts.

Man, I can’t wait to see that sword.

 

Update on Jamestown and the new power lines

Update on the power lines that are soon to mar the Jamestown experience:

Dominion power has gotten final approval from the Army Corps of Engineers, and will soon begin construction. They still have one more small hurdle to jump over, but will probably clear it with ease.

I am glad to see from the map below, however, that you won’t actually be able to see the lines while on James Island at the site of the original fort (or at the nearby recreated fort). Nor will you see it while crossing the river on the ferry. This is a BIG relief.

However, the historic view at Carter’s Grove will be obliterated, and the now scenic drive along the James River to Jamestown will be forever changed.

If you have been to the area, you know that part of the charm of the experience of going to Jamestown is the drive to and from the site along the river. Based on the map below, once the Colonial Parkway meets the river, you’ll likely see the massive power lines (even though they will be nearly 4 miles away). And upon your return from Jamestown back to Williamsburg, it should be in view much longer.

Still, I have to say, I am very glad to see this map and wish I had well before now. It definitely mitigates some of the biggest fears I had about the project.

Make no mistake, however, this still stinks, and will be a major blight along the beautiful and historic Colonial Parkway.

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The Beguiled (1971) vs. The Beguiled (2017). Which one is really a Civil War movie? Which one is better?

 

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Nicole Kidman and Colin Farrell in The Beguiled, 2017 (left), and Geraldine Page and Clint Eastwood in The Beguiled, 1971 (right).

Well, I saw Sofia Coppola’s remake of The Beguiled, and despite my skepticism about remakes, I really enjoyed it. Yet because it had been many years since I saw the 1971 original, I decided to watch it again to contrast with the new. Not surprising (at least to me) the original is somewhat better. What is surprising, however, is that I believe it is superior because it handles the Civil War and slavery more effectively than the remake.

Warning: I’m going to have as few spoilers as I can, and I will warn you when a big one is coming, but if you want to go into the movie completely fresh (especially if you have never seen the original) you should probably skip this until you have seen it.

The quick summary of both films (which are based on a 1966 novel) is pretty simple:  During the Civil War, a southern school for girls has been reduced to just five students, a teacher, and a headmistress that all have “no better (or safer) place to go” during the conflict. They take in a wounded Union soldier (Clint Eastwood in the original, Colin Farrell in the remake) discovered suffering in the woods nearby. Despite their initial disdain for the “blue-belly,” he slowly charms the women, igniting jealousies and the pent-up sexual frustrations of all the females of different ages living in the house. As a result, some pretty bad things happen.

Coppola’s remake is quite good, largely because of her undeniable directorial skill, the cinematography and perfect lighting, and the film’s hypnotic pacing.  As with other movies I tend to relish the most, it is not in a hurry to tell its story.  There are lingering shots of scenery, mostly slow, quite moments, and few quick edits. It tells its story with visuals that effectively situate the audience in its time and place.

Yet what I appreciated the most was its use of sound. It does not rely on a musical score to tell the audience how they should feel at any given moment, and this silence makes the film’s house and its inhabitants seem all the more authentic, isolated, and vulnerable. One minor exception is a scene when the movie reaches its dramatic shift in tone, featuring some low orchestral music. Yet even here the music is low volume, only adding to the “slow burn” effect of the film.

Instead, most of the music we hear is generated by the characters. There are two scenes featuring parlor music, the best of which has one of the girls playing the beautiful (and popular at the time) “Lorena” on the harpsichord while the others join in singing. (Hopefully Christian McWhirter, an antebellum and Civil War music scholar, will soon comment on the authenticity of these scenes).

Other than that, most of the sounds we hear come from real life: birds, crickets and frogs,  floorboards creaking in the antebellum mansion, and in one particularly important scene, the sound of buttons ripped off a dress and then skittering across the wooden floor (which is way more erotically intense than any musical score could have ever been).

On the other hand, the original film is weakened by a score that sounds like it came from one of those campy Hammer Studios horror films of the 1950s and 60s, or from an episode of Night Gallery. This does ratchet up the creep factor, but gives the movie a campy feel, playing like a surreal nightmare, or an erotic dream gone bad. Coppola’s soundtrack choices more realistically set her film in the real world.

Further, I went into the remake thinking it would probably just be a hyper-sexualized version for 2017 audiences (and the trailer helps create that impression), yet just the opposite actually turns out to be true. The 1971 film is much more vulgar and lurid,  featuring a partially nude sex scene, a dream sequence with a threesome, and an incestuous storyline told through flashbacks—not to mention much more suggestive dialogue.

Coppola commendably opts for a “less-is-more” approach, never exposing more skin than the soldier’s bare chest and quick shots of female outer thighs.  Yet it is still smoldering stuff (perhaps all the more so because of the restraint—Hollywood, please take note), and the pent-up sexual desires let loose by the soldier’s presence are still what drive the horrific things that happen.

And yet, as a history film, the original is superior. It makes clear it is set during the Vicksburg Campaign (although it is less clear whether the house is in Louisiana or Mississippi). Characters talk about General Grant commanding troops driving toward Vicksburg via Champion’s Hill, both armies are nearby and make appearances, and the ladies are stuck in-between. They keep an ever-watchful eye from the rooftop for troops,  expressing fears that at any moment soldiers might come, take what they have, and rape them.

(I was particularly pleased to hear one young girl indicate she thought Yankees had tails. It is a comical line, but an authentic allegation that Southerners used to demonize Union troops, mainly in an effort to make their enslaved population afraid to run to northern lines).

In the original, the women are clearly vulnerable to the lusts of both armies. In one scene, some Rebel soldiers show up at the house late at night, ostensibly to look in on the girls’ safety, but clearly they have more on their minds. The headmistress (Geraldine Page, in a fine performance) defiantly shoos them away to protect the Union soldier she is harboring, but also the young girls in her charge.  The younger girls don’t understand why they should be afraid of their own Rebel troops, and are told that there are bad men in both armies.

That the film features this scene is all the more remarkable given that at the time it was made, Hollywood’s standard Civil War trope (established by movies like Gone With The Wind) was that of Union troops preying on white southern women while chivalric Rebel soldiers (and even their slaves) tried to protect them.

In contrast, Coppola’s movie is set in Virginia in 1864, which is established by an opening subtitle. The ladies also dutifully keep a rooftop eye out for approaching troops, yet the film never makes clear whether or not the events are playing out during the Overland Campaign. Some vague dialogue suggests this to be the case (you’d have to know your Civil War history to deduce it, however), and based on that assumption the school seems to be somewhere between Fredericksburg and Richmond. Yet this is not clear at all. The war’s specific events do not concern Coppola.

Further, the main armies are nowhere to be found (and besides the Union soldier, no other Yankees). This takes away the realistic dynamic that the isolated women are vulnerable to bad men from either army, and thus reverts us back to the old Hollywood trope of the straggling yankee soldier endangering innocent southern women. As in the original, a few Rebel troops come knocking on the door late one night, but they are not lusty men on the prowl, the headmistress (Nicole Kidman, in an Oscar nomination-worthy performance) provides them food, and they leave after having been a threat to just the hidden Union soldier. Coppola’s choice lessens the precarious situation into which the Civil War has placed these isolated women.

***Ok, this next paragraph has a bigger spoiler, skip it if you want to avoid that.

And while we are on Civil War movie tropes–the original features an amputation scene that is not particularly gory by today’s standards, except in how it brilliantly uses sound. Yes, this gives us the stereotypical amputation-without-complete-sedation scene that mars so many Civil War films, but given that the setting is a seminary with limited resources and not a hospital (or even field hospital), it comes across as realistic and carries the movie’s biggest horrific jolt. In contrast, Coppola skips the actual amputation and all we see is the burial of the limb. This is another choice I feel weakens the remake.

The most important distinction between how these two movies handle the Civil War, however, involves slavery. The 1971 version is far superior, if only because it does not ignore the “peculiar institution.” The only way the remake even acknowledges slavery is when early in the film the Union soldier is told the slaves have all run away. This is realistic, of course, especially since the film is set in 1864. But it robs us of all the racial dynamics of the time and place the story is set.

In the original, one of the well-to-do girls refuses to perform field labor because, she says, it is “nigger work,” openly using such language in front of an enslaved woman still with the seminary.  In Coppola’s movie, the young white girl just works poorly because she is bored, and the enslaved character is missing altogether.

True, the original film is not exactly a model of how to effectively interpret the lives of enslaved women.  However, in a scene between the black woman and the soldier, it is made clear she hides her disdain for slavery from her white owner. The film hints at the war’s bigger issues when the Union soldier tells her that the two of them should be natural allies, to which she expresses doubt that northern soldiers were fighting for blacks, one way or the other—a statement he does not challenge. The exchange rings true, (especially since he is a New York soldier, not an New Englander).

Further, we learn she was in love with a man enslaved on the same plantation, but lost him when he ran away after hearing the master intended to sell him.  Later in the film, we discover through flashback that she was being raped by her master.

Thus in just a few small scenes and moments, the 1971 film touches on the causes of the war, the debatable nature of soldier motivations in regards to slavery, the masks of the enslaved, and the rapes and slave sales that tormented enslaved African Americans and separated them from their loved ones. In a film filled with sinfulness, the antebellum South’s biggest sin of all is not totally ignored, as it is in the remake.

It really is a shame that Coppola took the black character and slavery completely out of her movie (especially since they were in the novel). In 2017, the scenes between the enslaved women and the Union soldier could have been written in a truly impactful way, only adding to the film’s strength. With an already strong female cast, a talented black actress would have taken things up another notch. That a 1971 movie did a better job of  dealing with slavery than a 2017 one is a discredit to Coppola’s film, and I have to agree it thus warrants the criticism it has received on this score.

Still, there was much I loved about Sofia Coppola’s reimagining of the The Beguiled (its atmospheric lighting and sound, beautiful cinematography, and less-is-more approach), and from a film-making point of view it is by far the superior film. Not to mention that this cast (Farrell, Kidman, Kirsten Dunst, Elle Fanning, and the rest of the young girls) is uniformly strong.

(And they don’t have exaggerated and ridiculous southern accents! Praise be! Oh, and unlike in the original they all wear shoes. Not sure why the girls are all running around barefoot in the 1971 version, unless the sight of ankles and feet are supposed to amp up the smoldering Victorian sexuality).

Yet despite the campy feel of the 1971 original, the motivations of every character are much more clear (and the headmistress in particular is a more complex and fleshed out character), slavery is handled better (if only because it is handled at all), and ultimately it is definitely a Civil War film, rather than just a film set during the Civil War. (Despite what historian Gary W. Gallagher maintains in his book, Causes, Won, Lost, and Forgotten).

Why? Well, the best way I can say it without giving too much away is this: In the remake, the Union soldier is ultimately the victim of his own bad decisions, yes, but mainly he falls victim to his emotional response to a traumatic event. In the original, he is definitely a victim of his even more dastardly behavior and reactions, but mainly he is the victim of the perilous position the women are placed into because of the location of troops during the Vicksburg Campaign.

(Oh, and Geraldine Page’s headmistress is one messed up lady. Nicole Kidman’s, not so much.)

See them both! (The original is streaming now on HBO-on-Demand and HBO Go, and is available on Amazon Video).

The magic of Colonial Williamsburg, its restructuring, and “accurate-ish” history

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Ah, the proverbial “magic hour” in Colonial Williamsburg

If you have read much of this blog, you know that I am a big fan of Colonial Williamsburg. Like many people, it is a place with which I have a special connection. I’ve visited untold numbers of times over the last 25+ years, building amazing memories with friends and family. (And have had some of my most memorable dates. It’s a town of many romantic charms).

Its historical area is like a playground for those of us that love history.  In original and restored 18th century buildings, you can talk with first-person interpreters portraying colonial Americans of all classes, genders, and races, be on a jury at a witch trial, talk politics with a founding father or mother, catch an 18th century play,  enjoy a night of tavern drinks, songs, and music, or just enjoy watching the sunset on a peaceful evening in a unique environment.

Yes, much of it is cheesy, but if you “suspend your disbelief” and just embrace it,  you can feel yourself being pulled back in time, and can learn a lot. If you can just let yourself go, its nerdy and goofy fun. My friends all recall the time I got so into the moment that I got into a shouting match with Benedict Arnold! After listening to Patrick Henry rail against Britain’s latest injustice, you’ll be inspired by the fife and drum corps to fall into line and march off to defend our God given rights.

I love the place, and in fact it is one of my biggest passions.

That is why I took a special interest in today’s news that the foundation is making some big changes in order to save itself.

It’s a well-known secret that Colonial Williamsburg creates massive debt each year but keeps itself afloat by drawing on an endowment from the Rockefeller Foundation (which has funded the place since its beginning).  Over time, they have gotten directives to figure out how to reduce the debt they create each year, lowering how much they have to draw on the endowment.  Various things have been tried–restructuring, painful budget cuts, shutting down in January & February, changing their interpretive programming, altering ticketing prices and packaging, increasing their marketing campaigns—but none have solved the problem, and the endowment is rapidly depleting.

The current director has been the most aggressive at attacking the problem, but does so in rather controversial ways. There was that incredibly dumb Super Bowl ad that brought a lot of negative attention. They stopped doing interpretive programming at Historic Jamestown. They started doing Halloween programs more fit for commercial haunted houses and amusement parks (featuring a sea witch and pirate zombies, and a storyline that the director described as “accurate-ish”), and hauled in an ahistorical ice-skating rink at Christmastime (which I kind of like, given that it isn’t really in the heart of the colonial area anyway).

Most distressing, they recently restructured in a way that gutted the number of experienced professional historians working on their interpretations and training.  Native American programming is a thing of the past, and their African American programming/historian coordinator was sent packing.

The effect of this has been very noticeable, and it happened rather quickly. In the past, the interpreters in the buildings and in the streets, as well as the “people of the past” (first-person interpreters) were a fine set of well trained guides that knew their stuff. I enjoyed getting into deep conversations with the first-person interpreters to see just how deep their knowledge was, and I was rarely disappointed. I’ve lobbed some tough questions at them over the years, and they usually handled them quite well. Yet, during my last couple of visits after the restructuring, they have not lived up to those standards. It has become obvious that many have a very surface-level knowledge base, at best.

(Not all, however. There are still many old faces around that know their stuff. The gentlemen portraying Thomas Jefferson and Patrick Henry, for just one example, have been around for a long while, and both are simply amazing at what they do.)

Further, the institute cut ties with the Omohundro Institute of Early American History & Culture, an organization that was publishing and supporting original and important historical research (they still do, just without help from CW). Most recent, former presidential candidate Carly Fiorina was added to the Colonial Williamsburg Board of Trustees, raising eyebrows in many circles.

To me, the best time of day at Colonial Williamsburg is night, when the streets are alive with torchlight and lanterns, and plenty of evening programs. Sadly, the diversity of these programs, their educational value, as well as the acting talent in them, has been reduced noticeably. And I even feel the quality of the food being served in the wonderful colonial taverns has gone down considerably.

And those ticket prices, particularly for a one-day visit, are still WAY too high. How many people show up, see the prices, and decide to just forgo the tickets and the benefits they bring, (such as actually getting to tour the buildings and enjoy the daily programs), to just simply walk the streets? I am guessing it’s a lot.

Please don’t get me wrong. Colonial Williamsburg is still one of my favorite places to be, and there are still some wonderful and highly educational things going on. One of the neat new things they have done lately, for example, involves being active on social media, and posting short, fun, and sometimes live videos.  It’s just that the bar they set in the past is high, and they are not living up to it lately.

The big news today is that they are outsourcing the management of many of their non-interpretive history operations, such as their golf courses, retail stores, and maintenance. It is hoped this means they will be able to focus all energy and the endowment’s financial resources back on their main mission, which is to maintain and interpret the historical area and museums. It is probably a sound decision. (Though I hate to hear that this means the Kimball Theater is closing its doors).

It sounds great that they are going to focus solely once again on their interpretive and educational mission. Yet,  based on the Halloween goofiness, and lack of professional historians experienced as trainers, I am really worried that when this current director starts putting more of his attention on interpretation, it is going to degrade even more rapidly in quality. Will programs become more about the show, than the history?

Will interpretation become “accurate-ish” in the name of providing entertainment?

Along with their press announcement today, Colonial Williamsburg sent out blurbs from local leaders praising the decision. I think they are all probably correct, this was a tough financial call that had to be made to save the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation.

But I also have to wonder, if the foundation did go under, would the National Park Service step in? I have more faith in their abilities and focus on interpretation than I do a businessman making decisions based mainly on financial concerns. Of course it is not like the National Park Service has unlimited funds, so I am not altogether certain how feasible that is. But let us not kid ourselves into believing that if the foundation fails, Colonial Williamsburg and its amazing interpretive resources would just vanish. Someone would take things over, and that might be for the better. I dunno.

Anyway, all this is just my two cents from someone that loves Colonial Williamsburg, has spent a ton of money there over the last 25 years, and who wants to see its quality return to the high standards it set in its glory days.

Perhaps this decision will do that. Time will tell.

Viva Colonial Williamsburg!

On The Beguiled, Hollywood, and the Lost Cause

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UPDATE: I’ve now seen the film, and have a review here comparing it with the original.

We have a new Civil War movie going into wide release on Friday, June 30, and it has generated a ton of buzz after its premiere at Cannes. Director Sofia Coppola’s remake of the 1971 film, The Beguiled (based on a 1966 novel), earned her the Best Director Award at the prestigious film festival, as she becomes only the second woman to win that particular prize. Reviews have also been strong.

If you have seen the original with Clint Eastwood and Geraldine Page (and FYI: if you haven’t, it is streaming this month on HBO GO), you know that the story is very strange, teetering somewhere between a perverse dark comedy, a character study, and horror. Pervading it all is repressed and unleashed sexuality, which is smolderingly handled even in the 1971 version (and includes some shocking incest). It is no masterpiece, but it’s a pretty good movie that will give you the creeps.

My sense is that this new version simply cranks up the sexuality for 2017 audiences, so I am going into it with some skepticism, as I almost always loathe remakes of good movies. Further, Sofia Coppola’s work tends to be hit-or-miss with me, though I did like her other stab at history, the unconventional Marie Antoinette (2006). That film featured Kirsten Dunst, as does this one, and she and the rest of the remake’s stellar cast (Nicole Kidman, Colin Farrell, and Elle Fanning) are getting high praise for their performances, particularly Kidman (based on the previews, if nothing else it sounds like the southern accents were done much better than in most movies). So perhaps it will live up to the hype even for a skeptic like me.

Yet one thing is for sure, the Civil War is not really that much of a component of the film other than the fact that it creates the scenario where a Union soldier has been taken in by a women’s seminary behind rebel lines (Mississippi or Louisiana in the original, Virginia in the remake), where men of a certain age are hard to come by.

Thus don’t expect any battle scenes or another assault on the Lost Cause like we have seen so much of lately from Hollywood (12 Years a Slave, Django Unchained, Lincoln, Free State of Jones, Birth of a Nation, the Roots remake, Underground, Mercy Street. Wow, that is a really impressive lineup in just a few year’s time).  In fact, the most interesting thing about this movie is that it is getting criticism for not including slavery or African Americans in a story set in the South during the Civil War.

The original includes a black female character that helps the wounded Union soldier, but not in a way that accurately reflects the Antebellum and Civil War experiences of enslaved African Americans. Coppola chose to extract the character from her remake (which was a fairly minor role) because “I didn’t want to brush over such an important topic in a light way. Young girls watch my films and this was not the depiction of an African-American character I would want to show them.”

This is a shame, and disregards the fact that she could have radically improved the character from the original. Even just one well-placed and well-written scene involving an enslaved women helping an injured Union soldier could have included very meaningful and insightful dialogue. (Or perhaps also a scene of open defiance toward her masters in light of the nearby presence of Union troops. “Get it yourself! Them days are over, ladies!”)  The fact that young girls watch her films is all the more reason to have included a bit of education about slavery and the Civil War, and to take a swipe, no matter how small, at the Lost Cause.

Look, not all Civil War movies have to include the African American experience or make a statement about slavery and the Confederacy (though they probably should). But aside from what I think was a poor choice by Coppola, what is really interesting to me about the controversy is that it is even a controversy at all. Would that have been the case even a decade ago? I’m not so sure.

Hollywood films are one of the most important reasons why the Lost Cause took root and became deeply engrained in our nation’s collective memory of the Civil War and its causes. In an age in which Rebel monuments are coming down, have we now reached the point where it is unacceptable for a Hollywood movie set during the Civil War to not confront and highlight the Confederacy’s fight to preserve the right to enslave African Americans?

If so, I consider that big progress.

I’ll be seeing the movie this weekend, so I will have more thoughts later. Stay tuned.

 

 

Visiting Lizzie Borden (and getting creeped out).

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The ominous looking house where the infamous Borden Murders went down

A piece on Smithsonian.com reminds us that today is the anniversary of the acquittal of Lizzie Borden in the case of the murder of her father and stepmother.  The article focuses on how she was largely a pariah in her neighborhood after the trial and for the rest of her life.  It is a good short read, so check it out.

You should also check out this essay from last year on We’re History, discussing the little-known fact that in the years after the murder, Lizzie funded an animal rescue shelter, which still reaps financial benefits from the money she left the organization. (I am convinced that one of the things that set her off is that she had a pigeon roost her father hated, leading him to decapitate the animals. Nice guy. That’s enough to piss off any animal lover).

The case is a good window into Gilded Age America. As Steven Cromack points out, “the prosecutors and defense attorneys, representative of the wealthiest Americans, argued over whether wealthy, good-natured, upstanding people are capable of bad behavior. The poor watched bitterly as a rich woman seemed literally to get away with murder. For the nativist residents of Fall River, Lizzie’s actions were the result of immigration, as well as changing demographics and gender norms: Mr. Borden had bought a home in the wrong section of the rapidly changing town and thus, in Lizzie’s eyes, relinquished the family’s status. Feminists would use the trial as a rallying cry for representative juries.”

I visited the Borden house a few years ago with friends because I had long been fascinated by the case. This is due largely to an HBO show called Whodunit: The Greatest Unsolved Mysteries (anyone else remember it?) way back in 1979.  I was just a kid only starting to get interested in history and the case fascinated me, inspiring a trip to the school library to find more about it. Tracking down info about this infamous true crime event was one of my earliest experiences at doing historical research, and was provoked by an HBO show. Ah, just another example of how pop cultural depictions of history can have an inspiring impact. I have no doubt that many of you have similar stories.

Anyway, while on a trip to New England a few years back, I convinced my friends to drive down from Boston to Fall River, Massachusetts, to check out the site of the murder (it was an easy sell).  Unfortunately, we arrived in the late afternoon just as their last tour of the day was leaving.

I was in the final stages of my book’s publication, and discussing some urgent business with my publisher on the telephone just as we arrived. I was only on the phone for a few minutes in the car, but this prevented us from being able to depart with the tour.  Despite being only a few minutes late, we were told that we could not join in.

I would not let it go at that, passionately explaining how I had always been interested in the case, that this was the only day of our trip we could do the tour, we were up from Alabama and had driven all the way from Boston, and would likely never be back in Fall River ever again. The young woman was rather rude, saying that I “must have a crystal ball” and could read the future since I was so sure I’d never be back (can you believe that?). Finally, someone apparently of higher rank came out and said that of course we could join the tour.

We were let in a side door, and instead of just discreetly slipping us in, the employee made a point of interrupting the tour, bringing up the alleged crystal ball, (I kid you not) and asking the guide if we could join in. The most frustrating thing of all was discovering the guide only had two people on his tour (there were four of us).  I can tell you from my years as a park ranger, guides are more than happy to have folks added to a tour when there are such few people on it to begin with.  (Oh, those one or two person tours. Yuck). He gladly welcomed us.

(For years I have been itching to publicly criticize this treatment, so thanks for letting me vent. In retrospect, however, perhaps it was appropriate that we were treated rudely by a young woman at the Borden house!)

The good news is that our guide had just entered the room in which Lizzie’s father was murdered and was only just then discussing it.  So we missed nothing but details about the history of the house prior to the murder. The sofa in the room is not the original one on which Mr. Borden was found (but a perfect replica). We were welcome to sit on it, leading one of my friends to playfully recreate the hatchet murder crime scene. A bit macabre for me. I couldn’t even bring myself to have a seat.

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Nope, I’ll stand, thank you.

We were then led upstairs, and I can tell you this was the first moment when the house really started to freak me out. There is a palpable sense of dread and sadness lingering over it and it became oppressive when walking into the bedroom in which Mrs. Borden was found with her face basically pancaked into the floor with an axe.  The guide vividly described the brutal murder while standing in the spot where the body was found. I was taken aback when he told me I was likely standing exactly where the murderer delivered the first of eighteen blows.

Freaky. Get me out of here!

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Here’s where Mrs. Borden was found next to the bed

The rest of the tour included Mr. Borden’s bedroom, where someone had stolen money from him a year before the murder (a crime the old man accused Lizzie of committing). We also saw the maid’s bedroom. She was outside washing windows during the murders, later testifying that she heard Lizzie laughing upstairs at around 10:30 AM on the day of the butcherings (Mrs. Borden was killed at around 9:30 AM, and Mr. Borden at about 11 AM). However, many speculate that the maid was in on it, or at least the cover up. Honestly, her room (which is in the attic) felt almost as creepy as the murder rooms. We wrapped up the tour in the kitchen where Lizzie was seen burning a blue dress days after the murder.

Our guide did a good job of covering the details of the crime and the evidence (or lack of) presented in the trial. It is often argued that Lizzie was acquitted due to the gender and class dynamics of the Gilded Age, but in fairness, the prosecution’s case was built largely on circumstantial evidence.

But come on, she did it.

(If you are really interested, read her inquest testimony: she’s clearly lying her butt off, but the whole thing was deemed inadmissible in the trial).

Sadly, the employees (at least when we were there) are not exactly professional historians, and I got the sense the place is being run by folks focused on capitalizing on tourists who are more interested in the supernatural than in history. A quick view of their website seems to confirm this assessment, which is a shame.

Further, the gift shop peddles such things as Lizzie Borden bobbleheads (complete with a hatchet in her hand), mugs with the crime scene photos on them, and hatchet keychains.

Still, the house is a treasure trove, and as powerful an experience as it is to visit, I have to wonder how much better served it would be with professional historians interpreting events within the context of what they reveal about the Gilded Age and our fascination with violent true crime.

The Borden home is also now a Bed and Breakfast, and I have no doubt people love getting to sleep in the bedroom where Mrs. Borden was found. As for me, I was creeped out just by my 45 minute tour.

But if you are ever near Fall River, Massachusetts, do yourself a favor and travel down to see the place. Just don’t expect high quality historical interpretation, and for goodness sakes, make sure you are on time for the tour (the last one leaves at three!)

If not, you better have a crystal ball proving you will never be back that way again.