Thursday, November 15, 2012

Bringing History to Life: "Lincoln," "The Conspirator," and the Logan County Courthouse

Updated March 10,  2023
Abraham Lincoln,  like George Washington,  has risen to mythological proportions,  almost as a character in a storybook.  But we know he was a real man,  and like all real people,  he was far from perfect.  But he was also a man of his time,  meaning he mostly subscribed to the etiquette,  fashion,  and thought process of his day,  though there are those who would like to place him akin to us here in the 21st century  (the same as some have attempted to do with Abigail Adams,  who was truly a woman of her own time as well).  So finding our 16th President as a normal 19th century human,  as depicted in the movie release of 2012,  "Lincoln,"  was refreshing. 
Now,  for the locals of the metro-Detroit area,  there is also a little something that is very special pertaining to Mr.  Lincoln that is in our own backyard .
Read on,  here,  to find out what it is and to see how one man from our past can be seemingly brought back to life.

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When the 2012 movie about Abraham Lincoln starring Daniel Day Lewis and Sally Field was released all those years ago,  a number of my reenacting friends and I saw it at the theater on its date of release while wearing our period clothing.  Yeah,  but that's what some of us reenactors like to do  (18 of us on this trip!)  - I guess it just kind of adds to the entire experience of historical movie watching.  Sort of like  "you are there."
Like I said,  we can seem a little bit off.
But then,  all the best people are!
And we all tended to agree with the reviewers and gave it two thumbs up.  It was done in a very real manner - true to history.  And I'm here to tell you for this movie they went the extra mile,  for some of what I read and heard really made me stand up and take notice:   it had to do with the sound effects.  To help make this movie come alive,  the film makers actually used original sounds to give it that note and tone of  realism.  For instance,  the pocket watch Daniel Day-Lewis  (as Lincoln)  has is a prop.  But the ticking you hear coming from it is not.  That's because the sound man,  Ben Burtt,  recorded the faint  tick tick tick  from one of the actual time pieces Abraham Lincoln owned.
But that's not all...
The ringing of the steeple bell from St. John's Episcopal Church,  of which our 16th President attended often,  is heard as well,  along with the sound of the church floor boards - the very same that Lincoln walked upon over 150 years ago - with the wearing of period shoes and walking across the floor,  all the while recording the sound being made.  Ben Burtt even went as far as to record what it sounded like when Lincoln sat down and stood up from his pew!
But there's still more:
In the executive office of the White House,  there is a clock that's been there since the time of Andrew Jackson,  and the sound of that clock is used in many office scenes in the movie.  Other sound effects from the White House include door latches being latched as well as the opening & closing and the knocking upon those original doors - the very same that were there when Lincoln occupied the building.
But the  capper  may be having the opportunity to hear the squeaks from the springs of the original carriage that took the President and his wife to the Ford Theater on the evening of April 14,  1865.
Now,  as for the movie itself...
A scene from "Lincoln" is very well done;  it is not the typical Lincoln movie you've seen previously.  It is an intense drama mainly about the passing of the 13th Amendment - did I say intense? - and everything about it lent to a strong taste of authenticity.  Daniel Day-Lewis,  Sally Field,  Tommy Lee Jones,  and the other actors did an amazing and realistic job portraying men and women from history.  As far as I could tell,  the clothing and fashions were generally well-done  (though there are some who always feel the need to complain here,  because,  you know,  they feel it makes them seem smarter lolol),  and the sets were exceptional - very authentic.  Add the real deal sound effects and you have one top-notch flick  (except for the unnecessary cursing at one point,  which a Lincoln scholar had told me there is no record of Lincoln saying the F-bomb.  Thankfully,  it only happens once,  but well,  they just gotta get that  "he's like us"  21st century attitude thrown in).  Daniel Day-Lewis’s  portrayal of Lincoln is very exceptional;  all of the mannerisms I've read on the man and of his contemporaries were here.  But the best part of this movie,  to me,  was they didn't deify Lincoln and make him out to be some god-like mythological creature.  They,  instead,  show him as a regular man of his time,  they show the whys and wherefores of those who didn't like the man,  and spoke of his own questionable  'trampling'  of the Constitution  (as many of our contemporary Presidents are also accused of).  They also show him as one who believed strongly in his case and cause.  It was as balanced as I have seen of the man yet on film,  and for Hollywood that is commendable.
Logan County Courthouse from 1840 where Lincoln once practiced law
It's these little things like sound-effect details that bring history to life for me,  whether in a movie or while at a museum or even at reenactments.  But guess what?  I have been lucky enough to have heard the same sounds that Lincoln heard as well;  inside of  historic Greenfield Village is an original courthouse - an actual building! - where Mr. Lincoln once practiced law in the 1840's.  Wanting a building that was associated with our 16th President,  Henry Ford found a forgotten and dilapidated structure that was,  in 1929,  being used as a private residence,  and since the folks in Lincoln,  Illinois  (formerly known as Postville)  had no means  (or,  seemingly,  intentions)  to restore this historic building,  Ford took it upon himself to do so.
But when the residents of  the town heard of Mr. Ford's purchasing the building,  they suddenly became interested in it and tried to legally prevent him from removing it to Dearborn,  Michigan for his Greenfield Village.  One columnist from a local paper stated at the time:  Because the city of Lincoln did not realize its heritage,  the building has been kept up by a private citizen.  Henry Ford entered the scene and purchased the building to move to his historic museum at Dearborn,  Michigan.  He plans to tear it down and rebuild it in Michigan,  but when he does,  Illinois loses another famous homesite, not through fire,  but through the inaction of its own people.
The structure was quickly taken down and shipped to Michigan,  and then re-erected in time for the opening of Greenfield Village in the fall of 1929.  Ford spared no expense restoring this structure:  even the original plaster was preserved,  having it reground with new plaster and included in the restoration.
Beautifully restored as our 16th President would have seen it.
The newspaper columnist continued:  Residents of Lincoln ignored the old building as a bit of Americana until the late Henry Ford,  in 1929,  bought it for his collection of memorabilia.  Other organizations had chances to salvage the building but none took action.  Not until the building was gone did they sense the historical significance of the building.
My opinion?  Thank God Henry Ford did save this building,  whether he removed it from its original location or not,  for there is not another  original  like it anywhere else in the world.  And who knows what outcome would have beheld this historical gem had Ford not taken action?

So,  as research has shown,  as a young attorney,  Abraham Lincoln once practiced law in this walnut clapboard building,  which was built in Postville  (now Lincoln),  Illinois in 1840.  Being a circuit-riding lawyer,  Mr. Lincoln would travel upon his horse to the tiny country towns within a certain perimeter - Lincoln and the other handful of circuit riding lawyer companions with him covered the Eighth Judicial Circuit which covered something like 11,000 square miles - and they would follow Judge David Davis to the courthouses of the towns.
A sketch of Lincoln at the courthouse
in 1841.

Court was in session only twice a year,  and could be a raucous affair in the first three quarters of the 19th century.  It was quite entertaining for the folks sitting on the hard wood benches or peeking through the windows  (which were usually opened due to the heat from all of the bodies inside).  In fact,  it was quite entertaining for the country townsfolk,  for this was about the only time a small town could have some real big-time excitement.  People from all around the neighboring communities would travel to the court building to be enthralled by the legal battles at hand;  I liken it to a modern-day courtroom television drama that are always so popular.  Of course,  the local businesses always had red-letter days during the time the court was in session as well.
So it was at one of the Civil War Remembrance reenactment held annually at Greenfield Village  (every Memorial Day Weekend)  that I came up with an idea;
since the Village was now swarming with mid-19th century folk,  all dressed in their period finery,  what a great opportunity to recreate what it may have looked like having the townsfolk await court cases at the courthouse!  So I organized this little photo opp,  asking permission beforehand so there would be no problem.  For my poses,  I tried to follow the etiquette of the 19th century and have the men sit in the front seats while the women would have to sit toward the rear and sides,  and sometimes even peer through the open windows or doorway.
Oh,  the air was filled with excitement!  It wasn't too difficult for me to find willing participants to help out in my little 1860s courtroom photography session.
And the next few images show the variety of townsfolk awaiting for the proceedings to begin,  just as would have been the case in the 19th century:
I'm sorry,  ma'am,  but the front seats are reserved for the gentlemen.
Nope---the judge had not arrived  just yet - - -
Many of us arrived early and began to awaiting for the judge,  the lawyers,  
and jury to arrive.
Oh,  and the defendants, too.

Court was in session only twice a year,  and could be a raucous affair during the
19th century.  It actually was quite entertaining for the folks sitting on the hard
wood benches or peeking through the windows  (which were usually opened
due to the heat from all of the bodies inside). 

In fact,  it added quite a bit of excitement for the country townsfolk,  for this 
was about the only time a small town could have some real big-time entertainment.
(Many thanks to the presenter who was working inside the courthouse for taking this picture!)

Of course, the local businesses always had red-letter days during 
the time the court was in session as well.
Even tin-type photographers.
In the picture below are the ladies in the above photo as they looked in their tin-type
  (yes,  this is an actual tin-type taken with a period camera):

Turned out wonderful!
(From the blog of The Henry Ford):  An original feature,  long absent from the courtroom,  has made a return in time for the Civil War Remembrance weekend:  the bar now stands again.  Using the original set of wooden spindles,  Greenfield Village has re-created their interpretation of what the rail,  or the bar, that divided the courtroom may have looked like in the 1840s.  By referencing images of other early 19th century courtrooms,  and studying architectural features represented in Greenfield Village,  a typical design was created.
This middle gate was not yet installed when we took our reenacting picture,
but was put in place not too long after.
So now we have a little bit of an idea of what it could have looked like back in the day.

Inside the 1840 Logan County Courthouse. Notice the clock and cabinet:
they once belonged to Lincoln
Some of the furnishings in this building,  as you can see in the photos above and below,   are original Lincoln associated pieces:  the John Birge wall clock,  the empire chairs,  and the swivel-top card table with brass paw feet are from Lincoln's Springfield home.  Also,  the walnut corner cupboard was made by Abraham and his father.
The resonance of my period shoes as I stepped on the very same floorboards as Lincoln himself did while inside this courthouse has always intrigued me.  I,  too,  have experienced the sound of the past.
In fact,  I sort of  encouraged  it!
Can you just see (and hear) Mr. Lincoln as a lawyer in this room, stepping heavily
upon the boards? 
I can...
There's another very-well-done move about Abraham Lincoln,  The Conspirator,  which also went the extra mile to bring authentic history to life.
As is written on Amazon:
In the wake of Abraham Lincoln’s assassination,  seven men and one woman are arrested and charged with conspiring to kill the President,  Vice President,  and Secretary of State.  The lone woman charged,  Mary Surratt  (Robin Wright),  42,  owns a boarding house where John Wilkes Booth  (Toby Kebbell),  26,  and others met and planned the simultaneous attacks.  Against the ominous backdrop of post-Civil War Washington,  newly-minted lawyer Frederick Aiken  (James McAvoy),  a 28-year-old Union war hero,  reluctantly agrees to defend Surratt before a military tribunal.  Aiken realizes his client may be innocent and that she is being used as bait and hostage in order to capture the only conspirator to have escaped a massive manhunt,  her own son,  John  (Johnny Simmons).  As the nation turns against her,  Surratt is forced to rely on Aiken to uncover the truth and save her life.  From director Robert Redford,  "The Conspirator"  is a riveting thriller that tells a powerful story about America then and now.
A scene from "The Conspirator"
And,  from the Conspirator  website:
In the production,  great pains were taken to recreate the look and feel of 1865.  The characters and events featured in the film were exhaustively researched by our entire team.  Screenwriter James Solomon and historical researcher Melissa Jacobson pored over hundreds of books,  courtroom transcripts,  and other primary documents to ensure that the film was as accurate as possible.  Jacobson even created a historical  “bible”  that was distributed to the entire team during pre-production.  In addition,  our consulting historians provided pages of notes that were integrated into the script and were on hand for any questions that may have arisen during the shoot.  The facts surrounding the case we explore in  "The Conspirator,"  I believe they’re all historically accurate.  They were drawn from the National Archives and transcripts from the trial and other sources.  The writer,  Jim Solomon,  had worked on the script for something like 15 years and was meticulous about his research.  We also hired historians to vet the script but history doesn’t record every single moment,  every conversation or thought.   So you have to take some dramatic license and fill in those gaps,  and do that in a true and dramatic way.  
Robert Redford started his career as a painter and was very interested in the work of both Rembrandt and Vermeer as examples of the use of light and shadow for the movie.  Add to that, the dust created by dirt streets,  wood-burning fires,  and the ubiquitous cigar and pipe smoke,  and the result is the shafts of light and shadow treatment that many people have noticed in the film.
Pretty amazing, eh?
This is exactly what I look for in movies.
Now,  watch these two movies back to back,  for it is a rare find to see as accurate a depiction of  such historical events put to film.  I simply cannot recommend them enough.
And don't look for action heroes...they're not here - - 
What do you mean,  "why are you dressed like that?"
Why, we're here to see  "Lincoln,"  can't you tell?
The wearing of period clothing while watching,  even at a modern movie theater, 
accents the experience for a few of us, as it almost always does.
Yes,  I became so excited upon hearing of the attention to detail that Spielberg included in his  "Lincoln"  movie:  sound,  sets,  scripts...and then the minute details Robert Redford included in his  "The Conspirator."
It's those small details - the so-called insignificant things - in these movies that bring them to life,  for sometimes,  that's where real history can be found.
Bringing the past to life is not very popular these days by many,  which is unfortunate.  I fear the future of the past is in precarious hands,  for if we only rely on one certain group of people to write,  explain, and approve  our past,  our history is in deep trouble and will be lost to the ages.  It's happened before.  Let's now be fair...and accurate on all accounts.  
Let's not allow this to happen.  Again.

Until next time, see you in time.

To read about another movie...well,  docu-drama  (which plays more like a movie)...that is immersed in historical accuracy,  click HERE

You can find the movies I highly recommend -
The Conspirator
at (click the movie name, for it's the link)

And to read about the chair that Abraham Lincoln was sitting in when he was shot by John Wilkes Booth, and of its whereabouts today, please click HERE

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1 comment:

Gina @ VictorianWannaBe said...

Hi Ken! I am so excited about seeing the Lincoln movie. I meant to check our theaters before getting on my blog and forgot. Thanks for sharing what you know about the sound effects. That's great and I think dressing in your period clothing to see the movie sounds like so much fun! I'm sure you all will get the looks but have fun anyway! :)