On Mercy Street, Drama Bumps into History

Posted by Michael Getler on

From time to time, over the years, I’ve written about a single viewer who writes to raise an interesting editorial challenge to a program on PBS. That situation unfolded again recently when a viewer in Chicago, K. Hutchinson, wrote to me about the finale of “Mercy Street,” the six-part mini-series that concluded on Feb. 21.

Mercy Street was the first new made-in-the-USA dramatic series – in contrast to dozens of British productions – to be produced for PBS in more than a decade. It was described in promotional material this way: “Inspired by real people and events, Mercy Street goes beyond the front lines of the Civil War and into the chaotic world of the Mansion House Hospital in Union-occupied Alexandria, Virginia.”

Since its debut on Jan. 17, I’ve received only a handful of critical emails about the production and most of those focused on what these viewers felt was an excessive amount of gore; lingering close-ups of amputations and other surgeries performed without anesthesia and reflecting the state of medical technique at the time.

Hutchinson’s letter deals with that as well but is primarily focused on a historical challenge that, at the time, had also attracted my attention, and I thought that portions of the viewer’s emails and the response from the producers made for a good and informative exchange about historical drama and historical fact that struck me as worthy of sharing.

What follows, in parts, is Hutchinson’s challenge, the producer’s response, the viewer’s reaction and some brief thoughts of mine.

Hutchinson’s Critique:

Your “Mercy Street” civil war miniseries is not up to the standards I’ve come to expect of PBS. It’s not only historically inaccurate in many places, it is sensationalist and irresponsible. I realize it’s a medical setting, but the surgical scenes are unnecessarily and gratuitously gory and graphic. Even “ER,” which pushed the boundaries of medical dramas, did not need to be so gruesome to be effective. I don’t think we need to see every detail of an amputation…

The worst for me…was the series finale, which depicted a preposterous plot by some of the characters to blow up Lincoln when he visited the hospital, which was masterminded by John Wilkes Booth. A blog entry written by one of the producers explained how the episode was inspired by an 1862 newspaper report about a rumor of a thwarted Confederate plot to blow up a military hospital, combined with reports that Lincoln used to visit military hospitals in northern Virginia, combined with rumors that John Wilkes Booth was a member of the Knights of the Golden Circle. What???

The whole scenario depicted in this episode is so ridiculous that it’s hardly fathomable it’s on PBS. John Wilkes Booth was not involved in violent activities or plots to harm President Lincoln at the time this episode takes place, although he may have been involved in Confederate espionage. I think that when you use a real-life, historical figure in a scripted drama – especially if you’re PBS – you have a responsibility to try not to distort and sensationalize history. A lot of viewers won’t understand that this is a fictional storyline using a nonfiction figure, but instead will think it really happened. The blog explanation by the producer is completely unsatisfactory and absurd…It’s completely irresponsible, especially when the show and its website make pretensions about being historical and educational and “rooted in research.”

The Producers Respond:

MERCY STREET is set in a Civil War hospital, which it is definitely a challenging world for a modern viewer, even though one of our co-executive producers has noted that “ER” included much more vivid medical scenes. Amputation was the primary surgical procedure at the time, and we felt it was dramatically necessary to make that experience as visceral as possible to help contemporary audiences understand the incredible challenges everyday people endured in this era and setting. The scene is not for everyone, but war is ugly and we felt it was important not to sanitize it. After reviewing the program, PBS gave it a rating of TV-14 and included an advisory at the beginning of each episode to let viewers know that the program might be hard for some people to watch.

Regarding your other points, it is certainly true that MERCY STREET is not a documentary. The series is made stronger by being inspired by real events and characters, but it is first and foremost a drama. In this, MERCY STREET follows in the tradition of many fact-based works of fiction, from novels to television series and movies. During the writing process, our creative team collaborated with prominent historical experts, who served as advisors. These advisors specialize not only in the Civil War, but also within specific areas, including U.S. Women’s History, Family History, Southern History, African American Studies, Medical History and Military History. In addition, we offered a wide array of resources on the series web site to allow viewers to learn more about the era in which MERCY STREET takes place.

Historical records make it clear that many wished, and even planned, to assassinate President Lincoln. The gunpowder plot is an imagined version of such an attempt, engineered by characters who had a known animosity to Lincoln, one of whom ultimately killed him.

Booth is documented to have started planning to kill Lincoln in 1864 – for our series, we imagined that he encouraged a plan to do it in 1862 – probably not factual, but not outside the spirit of the times and what was to come in later years. Booth is hardly a crucial element of this story, and serves really as an emissary of a plot he very likely would have approved of.

Frank Stringfellow is reputed to have been associated with Mary Surratt (a Booth accomplice) and to have stayed at the Surratt tavern, a hotbed of Confederate insurgency, in the weeks prior to the actual assassination of Lincoln. It is reported that she helped Frank sneak away on April 1, thirteen days prior to her helping Booth kill Lincoln (whom Stringfellow had also been working on a plan to kidnap!)

From the extensive research we did to prepare this series, we know there was a rumored plot to blow up the Mansion House, and that Lincoln frequently visited local hospitals. We also know there had been at least one plot to kill Lincoln prior to 1862. So we – as dramatists – postulated that scenario for the "diabolical plot.” In order to tell that story we used our characters, (Stringfellow), and added Booth for some color and context…Our goal is to spark curiosity about Civil War history and send viewers back to the history books to dig for themselves.

Hutchinson Not Satisfied:

I appreciate the time and effort that went into drafting this very detailed and specific response to my comments. Unfortunately, it has not convinced me…I think that when you “tweak” historical events with regard to dates and persons for dramatic effect, you have an obligation to include a disclaimer to the viewer to that effect, along the lines of the disclaimer for the graphic content. Maybe you included one but I just missed it. Call me an historical purist, I guess. I'm grateful that Mercy Street is not my sole source of information about the Civil War period.

My Thoughts

As the ombudsman, I, too, appreciated “the time and effort that went into drafting this very detailed and specific response” from the producer, as Hutchinson put it. That’s why I thought the exchange, which provided insights into how historical dramas get put together and how narratives get shaped in that process for dramatic impact, was worthy of posting.

But as a viewer, and on a personal level, I, too, was brought to the edge of my chair when the character of John Wilkes Booth was introduced into the narrative, set in 1862, three years before he actually did assassinate the president. My reaction was more "Whoa!!!" than "What???"

I’ve read my share of Civil War books but I had not heard of Wilkes’ involvement in such a plan to blow up the hospital during a presidential visit. So rather than adding drama, in my case it proved to be distracting because that’s what I was wondering about as the series moved to its highpoint and drew to a close.

Mercy Street was a very high-quality and very well-acted production, and clearly a great deal of research went into it to provide authenticity to go along with the drama. But I do think it is risky – and in my case, at least, distracting – to take a figure of such known, factual prominence in American history – John Wilkes Booth – and place him in a plot and place that virtually no one will recognize or have heard of.

A 'Nearly Flawless' New Series...

That was the headline on a review of Mercy Street on the History News Network by historian Kevin M. Levin. He wrote: “The only disappointment in an otherwise flawless production is the choice to end the first season with a plot to assassinate Mr. and Mrs. Lincoln during a hospital visit. It is true that Lincoln spent a good deal of time visiting with the wounded in area hospitals, but this particular plot reveals John Wilkes Booth as its mastermind. There are a number of problems. First, anyone with even a cursory understanding of the war knows that Lincoln is going to survive until the very end of the war. More specifically, at this very moment, Lincoln was traveling to Virginia to visit with his general to discuss strategy and Booth was on a theater tour in various Northern cities. Booth's plans to kidnap and/or assassinate the president would not materialize until well into 1864. The problem is not with the historical license that is exercised with this plot twist, but that it is entirely unnecessary. It serves merely as a distraction from the development of each character and the maintenance of the hospital.”

More Thoughts...

I would not agree with Hutchinson’s characterization of the blog post written by co-creator and Executive Producer Lisa Q. Wolfinger. I thought it was quite candid and informative about the thought-process surrounding the storyline. She wrote, in part: “The Mansion House diabolical gunpowder plot gave us a perfect framework rooted in history. Did we take some artistic license by weaving all of these elements together? Absolutely, but we were playing with coincidence rather than simply fabricating a sensationalist tale out of thin air. The remarkable thing about our diabolical plot scenario is how plausible it is.”

But that begs the question of how many people, after watching the series on screen, go to the accompanying online material.

Posted on March 7, 2016 at 4:23 p.m.

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As ombudsman, Michael Getler serves as an independent internal critic within PBS. He reviews commentary and criticism from viewers and seeks to ensure that PBS upholds its own standards of editorial integrity. Read More >
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