Showtime in Harpers Ferry: Separating Fact from Fiction in The Good Lord Bird

By Scott Vierick, Historian

In The Good Lord Bird, Ethan Hawke portrays John Brown. Source: Showtime, Library of Congress

Since HAI’s three-part blog series on the story of John Brown, millions of people have tuned into Showtime’s The Good Lord Bird, about Henry “Onion” Shackleford, a fictional formerly enslaved teenager, and his encounters with the legendary and controversial abolitionist John Brown. Featuring a star-studded cast—including Daveed Diggs as Frederick Douglass and Ethan Hawke as Brown—the series has gotten rave reviews, with high praise for the performances, in particular. As a former employee of Harpers Ferry National Historical Park, which preserves the site where Brown made his final stand, I was excited to see how the series played out and how the writers mixed fact with fiction.

After watching all seven episodes, I can safely safe that the miniseries is a rollicking good time, with powerful performances and compelling ideas. As for historical accuracy, the opening title card states it pretty well: “All of this is true. Most of it happened.” There were parts of the series that diverged significantly from historical events, but there were also many moments that rang true and showed that the scriptwriters and the original novel’s author James McBride had done their homework.

Major Spoilers Follow.

Bloody Kansas

We join our cast of characters in Kansas Territory, where Shackleford and his father are enslaved by Dutch Bill, a pro-slavery settler. John Brown launches a botched rescue attempt to free the two that results in the death of Shackleford’s father. Now alone, Shackleford—who Brown calls Onion and thinks is a girl—has no choice but to follow the abolitionist and his company of militia. From there, Shackleford participates in several battles against pro-slavery forces and witnesses the Pottawatomie Creek Massacre. The series accurately highlights the chaotic nature of life on the frontier, as various militia units clashed with each other in often disturbingly violent battles. However, it also suggests that Brown and the other abolitionists who traveled to Kansas, known as Free-Soilers, did so primarily to free enslaved people. In actuality, there were very few enslaved people in Kansas at the time, and while some settlers, like the Browns, opposed slavery for moral reasons, many other Free-Soilers opposed it for economic reasons, fearing that the existence of enslaved labor in Kansas would hurt their own financial prospects.

The series takes several liberties with the depiction of the Pottawatomie Creek Massacre. After raiders sacked the anti-slavery town of Lawrence, Kansas, an enraged Brown led several supporters on a killing spree near Pottawatomie Creek. While the show depicts Brown personally executing James Doyle by decapitation, historians debate whether or not he personally killed anyone during the Pottawatomie Massacre (although most agree that he did mastermind the killings). Furthermore, while The Good Lord Bird depicts Mr. Doyle as the only victim of the massacre (the fate of Doyle’s son is left ambiguous), five people died that night, including Doyle and two of his sons. A third son would have been executed, but Brown spared him after Doyle’s wife pleaded for mercy because of his young age. The show also changes the circumstances of the death of Brown’s son, Frederick. While Brown was killed by the Reverend Martin White, it was as part of the opening stages of the Battle of Osawatomie, rather than as part of a random encounter as the show suggests.

Frederick Douglass

Daveed Diggs and Frederick Douglass. The show accurately points out that Douglass was one of the most photographed Americans of his time. He sought to use his image as a way to combat negative stereotypes of African Americans. Source: Showtime, Library of Congress

When Shackleford meets Frederick Douglass in The Good Lord Bird, he discovers that the famous abolitionist is egotistical, pompous, and openly living with both his wife, Anna Douglass, and his mistress, Ottilie Assing. During their interactions, Douglass and Brown spar on the necessity of using violence to further the abolitionist cause, and Brown questions whether Douglass has grown soft and fearful in the years since he escaped from slavery. While this portrayal of Douglass will no doubt shock some viewers, there are elements of truth to Daveed Diggs’ portrayal. Many historians do believe that Douglass had an affair with Assing, a German journalist who spent summers with the family, and he and Brown did quarrel over Brown’s plan to attack Harpers Ferry during a final, nighttime meeting between the two men (the series depicts their final meeting occurring during the day). At the same time, they had mutual respect and admiration for each other, and Douglass probably never openly called Brown a “lunatic” as he does in the show. The show also downplays the dangers that Douglass faced as a prominent abolitionist. Even though he’d secured his own freedom, Douglass often faced threats from hostile crowds, and when his correspondence with Brown was discovered after the Harpers Ferry Raid, he had to flee the country.

In the series, Shackleford is incredibly critical of Douglass’s refusal to join Brown in his attack on Harpers Ferry, a sentiment shared by many of Douglass’s critics in the aftermath of the raid. Douglass had argued that violence could be an element of the fight against slavery (notably writing an editorial called “the Ballot and the Bullet” shortly before the Harpers Ferry attack), so his refusal to join the attack on Harpers Ferry was viewed by some as a display of hypocrisy or cowardice. Douglass himself wrestled with his decision and noted that while he was willing to lay down his life for the cause, he did not want to throw needlessly throw it away. While Douglass continued to defend his actions in 1859, he later told a crowd during a speech at Harpers Ferry, “I could live for the slave, but he [Brown] could die for him.”

Brown’s Provisional Army

The Good Lord Bird renames John Anthony Copeland as Attucks Copeland, perhaps a reference to Crispus Attucks, an African American killed during the Boston Massacre. The real Copeland referenced Attucks in his letters from jail as he awaited execution (in the series, Copeland dies during the raid). Source: Boyd B. Stutler Collection, West Virginia State Archives

The show also takes liberties in its depiction of the men who accompanied Brown on the raid of Harpers Ferry. Several of Brown’s actual accomplices, like John Cook, OP (Osborne Perry) Anderson, and Dangerfield Newby, are represented. Others, like Attucks Copeland, appear to be based on real people but have had their names changed. Others, like Ottawa Jones—a Native American ally—are completely fictional.

The series also makes some changes to which of Brown’s sons joined him at the Kennedy Farm to prepare for the raid. While the movie portrays sons Jason Brown, Salmon Brown, and John Brown Jr. as joining the effort, the actual army included Owen Brown (who survived), Oliver Brown (killed), and Watson Brown (killed). Although Brown did have sons named Jason, Salmon, and John Jr. (who all fought with him in Kansas), they did not join him at Harpers Ferry. The series also accurately depicts Brown’s daughter, Annie, and daughter-in-law Martha coming to the Kennedy Farm to serve as lookouts. In fact, Annie Brown’s reminiscences of the raid have helped historians understand the actions taken by Brown and his men before the raid. Likewise, nosy neighbor Mrs. Hoffmaster is also real, and her “friendliness” was a constant source of frustration for the plotting raiders. However, it is doubtful that she pieced together all of the details of the plan as she does in the series.

The Raid

The show’s depiction of the raid itself heavily mixes fact and fiction. In the series, Brown and his men arrive in Harpers Ferry and are confronted by Heyward Shepherd, who is prepared to aid Brown but will not let the group pass without a password. Although Shackleford races towards the group shouting the password, he arrives too late. Salmon Brown shoots and kills Shepherd. The next morning, Brown and his men await their new recruits and any opposing militia in the armory engine house. The group is quickly surrounded, and Shackleford organizes an effort to save the raid by kidnapping Colonel Lewis Washington. The kidnapping succeeds but fails to change the tide of the battle. Marines show up that afternoon and JEB Stuart gives Brown an ultimatum: surrender or die. After helping Shackleford escape, the remaining raiders charge the Marines, going out in a blaze of glory that only Brown survives. Shackleford meets up with Bob, a formerly enslaved man from Kansas, and Jason Brown, who had stayed behind, at the Kennedy Farm, and the group makes its way north.

Harpers Ferry National Historical Park from Maryland Heights. The series plays with geography by having Shackleford somehow cross the Shenandoah River (left) multiple times despite the bridge being captured by hostile militia. Source: Harpers Ferry National Historical Park

Historically, the raid did begin at night with the raiders advancing across the railroad bridge and stopping a train. Shepherd, however, was not guarding the bridge and only approached the raiders to investigate why the train had stopped. While the series involves Shepherd in Brown’s plan, there is no documentation attesting to his motives that night. After seizing the arsenal, Brown’s men fanned out to several nearby plantations to gather recruits and capture local slaveholders like Lewis Washington as hostages. The next day, the local militia began to push the raiders back towards the engine house, gradually penning them in (the series makes brief mention of defending the bridge and the rifle works). Several of Brown’s men were mortally wounded during an attempt to strike a truce, but the US Marines were not involved in this effort as they didn’t arrive until later in the evening.

Likewise, when Brown’s son is mortally wounded in the series, Brown holds and comforts him in his final moments. Accounts of the event, however, indicate that, as his mortally wounded son cried out in pain, Brown responded, “If you must die, die like a man.” The conclusion of the raid bears a greater resemblance to the ending of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid than it does to history. After parlaying with Brown, Stuart immediately signaled the Marines to attack. The Marines then broke open the doors using a ladder and killed or captured the remaining raiders. There was no final charge by Brown’s army. Ultimately, Brown and six other raiders would be tried and executed by the Commonwealth of Virginia.

The series features a considerably roomier engine house (left) than the actual structure, seen on the right during a nighttime historical walking tour. Source: Showtime, Harpers Ferry National Historic Park

Brown’s Execution

Sketch of Brown’s hanging. We couldn’t find an image screenshot of the execution scene in The Good Lord Bird, but you can take our word for it that it looks nothing like this. Source: Library of Congress

The series does a great job showing how Brown’s words during his trial helped magnify his story and turn him and the other raiders into martyrs for the abolitionist cause. The trial of the surviving raiders was national news and people all over the country closely followed its course. The series does stumble, however, when it states that Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau only joined the anti-slavery cause after the raid. In fact, both men were already ardent abolitionists. The series also departs from history when Brown is hanged before a group of civilian onlookers in what I’m assuming is the courtyard of the Charles Town jail (which looked nothing like the several story building with large glass windows seen in the series). In actuality, Brown was executed in an open field outside of Charles Town (due to city growth, the execution site today is part of a local resident’s yard on a peaceful street). Furthermore, no civilians were allowed to attend—only military personnel and a few journalists were onsite to bear witness and ward off any last-minute rescue attempts. The series includes some of John Brown’s last words, “This is a beautiful country,” but leaves out the rest: “I did not have the chance to see it before.” (Side note: Brown was right. The area around Harpers Ferry really is beautiful, particularly around the fall).

Final Thoughts

Overall, I enjoyed The Good Lord Bird. Although it takes significant historical liberties, writers did their research and treated the story with respect. In fact, despite the creative changes, the show presents one of the more realistic depictions of the raid, compared to other recreations. There are no cavalry charges or artillery (as seen in Santa Fe Trail), or scenes of the marines chasing Brown through long underground corridors (as seen on the History Channel… for some reason). It was a thrill to see individuals like Dangerfield Newby, Annie Brown, and Heyward Shepherd brought to life on screen, and while Ethan Hawke’s portrayed Brown is more manic than he likely was in reality, I still found his performance deeply affecting. The scene of him sitting alone in his jail cell made me feel as though I was actually looking at John Brown, and was deeply affecting. Ultimately, the show isn’t meant to be a 100% accurate recreation of the Harpers Ferry raid. It’s not John Brown’s story. It’s the story of a young man trying to stay alive while growing from childhood to adulthood, and, in that sense, the series succeeds beautifully. I can definitely recommend The Good Lord Bird… followed by a good biography or a trip to Harpers Ferry.

As a seven-episode series, there was far too much content for us to cover in a single blog post. Have any more pressing questions about The Good Lord Bird’s historical accuracy? Leave a comment for us!

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