History on the Box Vlog: Lucy Worsley’s ‘Six Wives’

This is our first ever History on the Box vlog! We have a very special debate about Lucy Worsley’s ‘Six Wives’ programme, which aired on BBC One in December 2016. The motion for the debate is that ‘Lucy Worsley’s “Six Wives” is an effective and innovative approach to popular history’.

Liz Round is arguing for the motion. Liz is an AHRC Midlands 3 Cities funded PhD student in the Centre for English Local History at the University of Leicester. Her research explores clergy-lay relationships in seventeenth-century Herefordshire.

Katie Bridger is arguing against the motion. Katie is a PhD student in the Centre for English Local History at the University of Leicester. Her thesis is entitled ‘Expression and the landscape: the Leicestershire gentry, c.1460-c.1540’.

Enjoy! And let us know what you think…

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History on the Box – 2017 Preview

Here is a brief preview of things to look out for on the blog in 2017 (I know, it’s almost mid-February already! What’s going on?)

More reviews

Last year we had range of great reviews of historical documentaries and dramas. Drawing on their expertise as PhD researchers, our reviewers provide insight into a range of historical topics: the Mayflower, opium consumption in nineteenth century Britain, family history in Australia and the American civil rights movement.

This year we can look forward to more fantastic reviews from a range of perspectives. We will be showcasing some of the talented researchers at the University of Leicester and offering an analysis of some of the new ways in which history is represented on television.

Video debate/discussion

Moving beyond our traditional written review format, we will also be looking to experiment with new ways of engaging with historical programming. Specifically, in March, we will be doing a vlog debate/discussion (debate or discussion depending how it turns out!) on Six Wives with Lucy Worsley. This documentary series makes use of ‘dramatic reconstruction’ to try and tell the story of Henry VII’s wives in a new way. In the series Worsley takes on the role of a ‘time traveller’ who views the events first hand.

We will be discussing the value of this different approach to historical documentary. Does Worsley’s time travelling presence help viewers to better connect with the historical subjects or does it distract from the historical events? At the heart of this discussion will be the question of how to balance entertainment and public interest with thorough historical scholarship? What should the relationship between academics and historical programming be like?

In a world where the analysis of momentous contemporary political events – such as Brexit, Trump or the Syrian refugee crisis – rests on an understanding of history, these questions are more pressing than ever!

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The Mayflower Pilgrims: Behind the Myth

First aired: 27 November 2016, 8pm

Genre: Documentary / History

Broadcaster: BBC Two

BOB URL: https://learningonscreen.ac.uk/ondemand/index.php/prog/0DE5542D?bcast=123000878

Reviewer: Liz Round

This programme purports to show the truth behind the myth of the Mayflower, the ship that took a group of colonists from Plymouth to Massachusetts in America in 1620. The Mayflower and her colonists are heralded by many in America as the pilgrim fathers of their nation, and the highpoint of the Mayflower story for most Americans will be that of Thanksgiving. It is perhaps no accident that this programme was shown just a day after Thanksgiving was held in America.

The programme begins in England, describing the conditions under which a young lad, William Bradford, was living – how he lost his family, and then fell ill with a condition that left him bedbound for several months, and during that time, he turned to his bible. After he regained his health, he fell in with a nearby Godly religious group. The programme gives a short explanation of how this group’s opinions and religious beliefs differed from those around them, and why this was a problem, both for them and the authorities in England. The decision was eventually taken to fully separate from the Church of England and in 1607 the group moved to Leiden, in the Netherlands, where they could worship freely. They stayed there for 13 years, but by 1618, the impending war (what would become the thirty years war) led the group to seek an additional move – this time, to the New World. None of them were rich but eventually they found someone willing to underwrite the cost of establishing a new colony. The Mayflower was hired and equipped, and then the group left Plymouth, England on 6 September 1620. They landed in America two months later, just in time for a harsh winter that killed half the pilgrims. Despite this, the group survived and thrived.


Much of the programme is viewed through the eyes of William Bradford. It is he who became the second Governor of the new colony in 1621, and he who wrote the key text, Of Plimoth Plantation in 1651. Much of the programme features an actor playing Bradford speaking parts of this document, sometimes while we see the document itself, which is very readable to modern eyes. The existence of one other document is hinted at, very briefly, when discussing thanksgiving, which was not recorded by Bradford, but by an Edward Winslow. At that point we have a brief glimpse of a printed text. This seems to suggest that the history of Plimoth plantation is based on just one or two sources, which is not quite correct, although Bradford’s text certainly remains the key one. What was hinted at as ‘Edward Winslow’s book was a document written by several people, including William Bradford and Edward Winslow, and was published in London in 1622, called A Relation or Journal of the Beginning and Proceedings of the English Plantation settled at Plimoth in New England, more commonly known as Mourt’s Relation. There are other documents too. In some ways Mourt’s Relation may be the better source as it was published more immediately – Bradford’s document being written 30 years later. But perhaps part of the reason for the programme’s intense focus on Of Plimoth’s Plantation rather than Mourt’s Relation was simply that Bradford’s writing reads so very well – poetic, almost lyrical in places, and acted with great aplomb by Roger Rees.


Although this programme is primarily concerned with relaying the story of the Mayflower Pilgrims, and specifically that of William Bradford, in the process it supplies the non-historian with a partial glimpse as to how historians interrogate texts. It discusses the provenance of Bradford’s book, for example, how it was lost, seized by the British in the ‘Revolutionary Wars’ and taken to England. In 1855 it was rediscovered in the library of the Bishop of London, then returned to America where it was widely published. The programme also discusses some of the reasons that Bradford wrote his text, what can be learned both from what he wrote, and did not write – such as the tragic death of his first wife, which is reduced to a footnote in the text.

As a history documentary that does not have a connection with the royal or twentieth century history that seems to saturate historical television programming, this programme is very welcome. That it is also a programme that strongly features (and shows) the key primary source is even more to be admired. Some serious money has been spent on the dramatic reconstructions, which was well done – nothing struck me as being jarringly out of place – and which used the modern reconstructions of the Mayflower II and the Plimoth Plantation. I would have welcomed a little more exploration as to the reasons that the group left England and then their lives in Holland, and perhaps a little more on the Strangers (the term the group used for those on the Mayflower who were not Separatists) but the programme makers were clearly focused on their American audience. This was betrayed by their use of the term ‘Revolutionary War’, rather than the more usual British term ‘American War of Independence’. A minor point, but one that startled me.

Where the programme does fall down is in its title – it refers to a myth, but does not really discuss what this myth may be. The basic facts of the Mayflower and the Plimoth Plantation are not in dispute, not a myth, and I’m not sure they’ve ever been regarded as such. It could possibly be in reference to modern day stories that are told about thanksgiving, but while the programme alluded very briefly to this, it did not dwell on it and made no real attempt to dispel it.

Perhaps the most salient point came at the beginning of the programme, where Pauline Croft, a historian, explained that really, of all the people who moved to the Americas, these were a very small group of ‘religious nutters’ and no-one would have been surprised if they had sank into obscurity. The ‘fact that they founded the world’s greatest democracy throws retrospective lustre’, is a good way of putting it (0:04:30). There were, of course, many other groups of people moving to the Americas at the time for a range of reasons. In focusing on just one small group of people with very specific – contemporaries would have said extreme – religious motives, perhaps the USA is unwisely re-emphasising that extremity. But this is a minor quibble; as a student of seventeenth-century English history, I very much enjoyed this glimpse at seventeenth-century American history instead. I would highly recommend it to anyone wanting to know more about either.

Liz Round is an AHRC M3C-funded History PhD student in the Centre for English Local History at the University of Leicester and the University of Nottingham. Her research explores clergy-lay relationships in seventeenth-century Herefordshire. For more information, click here.

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The Secret Life of Books: Confessions of an English Opium Eater

First Aired: November, 2015

Genre: Documentary

Broadcaster: BBC Four

URL: https://learningonscreen.ac.uk/ondemand/index.php/prog/0B5B4263?bcast=116769230

Reviewer: Jamie Banks

Presented by the thoroughly enigmatic John Cooper Clarke, this episode of The Secret Life of Books charts the history and wider cultural significance of Thomas De Quincey’s Confessions of an English Opium Eater. As Clarke notes, Confessions served as perhaps the ‘first recreational depiction of drug use’. Consequently, Clarke suggests that Confessions provided the indirect inspiration for work such as Burroughs’ Junkie, Baudelaire’s Artificial Paradises, and Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. De Quincey’s Confessions was akin to a modern tabloid sex scandal, seducing and titillating Georgian society upon its publication. Originally published as two magazine articles in 1821, before swiftly being republished in full the following year, Confessions provided a semi-factual account of De Quincey’s 20 years of experience consuming opium. More specifically, the book details what Clarke calls, in a rather cavalier fashion, De Quincey’s “addiction” to laudanum (a tincture of opium dissolved in alcohol). The episode offers a comprehensive history of the life of both De Quincey and his Confessions, charting the author’s meteoric rise and fall from a homeless teen in London, to a literary sensation, and then back down to an embittered and broken one-hit-wonder.

On the one hand, Clarke’s life history of Confessions is to be commended for offering a thoroughly watchable, and for the most part accurate, depiction of the place of opium in Georgian England. What struck me most about Clarke’s exploration of the wider context of De Quincey’s work, is the even-handedness with which he approaches the place of opium in nineteenth century British society. In the current cultural climate, where drugs are demonised by politicians and the press, the episode provides a useful reminder that drugs such as opium were once freely available and largely unregulated. As Clarke notes, opium and its derivatives were everywhere in the nineteenth century, being ‘as cheap, legal and ubiquitous as aspirin’, indeed often cheaper than ale or spirits. But what makes Clarke’s approach to this controversial fact so commendable is that he neither tries to demonise or valorise it, presenting it simply as the way life once was.


Slightly less commendable, however, is Clarke’s rather limited acknowledgement of the far reaching impact which Confessions had on contemporary attitudes to opium use in Britain. While Clarke acknowledges that moralists such as the Family Oracle of Health decried De Quincey’s book as a ‘wild, romancing’ account of opium use, he otherwise fails to present just how fundamental De Quincey’s experiences later became in the British cultural psyche. As Foxcroft’s excellent work on evolving attitudes to addiction indicates, it was high profile cases such as those of De Quincey and the Earl of Mar, who accidentally poisoned himself after a lengthy history of opium use, which helped to transform British attitudes to the open availability of opiates. Beyond the immediate ramifications of the book in the 1820s and 1830s, De Quincey’s Confessions continued to serve as foundational to British perceptions of opium use. As late as the 1920s, one British doctor admitted before the Royal Society of Tropical Medicine that my “knowledge of the opium evil was based … on the works of De Quincey and Coleridge, and their fellows.” While I would never expect a television documentary to go into as thorough depth as I have here, Clarke should have at least indicated that Confessions continued to have a far reaching impact on attitudes towards opium use well into the twentieth century.

Finally, my main contention with the documentary is Clarke’s indiscriminate description of De Quincey as an opium ‘addict’. While by modern standards it might seem incontestable that De Quincey was indeed ‘addicted’ to laudanum, this fails to acknowledge that addiction itself is a historically contingent idea that increasingly came into the fore during the Victorian era. Within the episode, Clarke oscillates between describing De Quincey as being ‘dependent’ on drugs, to being a full blown opium ‘addict’. What makes this irksome is that Robert Morrison, a historian who has written a book about Confessions, acknowledges during the show that ‘you don’t get notions of addiction until later in the nineteenth century’. Thus, Clarke’s description of De Quincey as an opium ‘addict’, and even on one occasion a ‘dope fiend’, is problematic in two regards. Firstly, De Quincey himself, and even Georgian society at large, would not have seen Confessions as the work of an opium ‘addict’. This is because the term itself was yet to come into existence. Furthermore, to describe De Quincey as an ‘addict’ fails to acknowledge the close entanglement of a set of specifically moral values that emerged around drug use in the Victorian era. These values essentially made drug users into ‘addicts’, based upon the view of a seeming innate moral deficiency on the users part. Thus, while this episode of The Secret Life of Books is to be applauded for its thoughtful history of both De Quincey and opium use in Britain, it is somewhat lacking in its characterisation of De Quincey as an opium ‘addict’. It might also have offered a much greater acknowledgement of Confessions’ wider reaching impact on British attitudes to opium use.

Jamie Banks is an AHRC M3C-funded History PhD student at the University of Leicester and the University of Nottingham. His research explores the relationship between British Imperialism, Indian labour migration, and opium use in colonies across the Indian Ocean. For more information, click here.

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A Secret History of my Family: Gadbury Sisters

First aired: 2016

Genre: Documentary

Broadcaster: BBC Two

URL: https://learningonscreen.ac.uk/ondemand/index.php/prog/0C24B5C4?bcast=121216552

Reviewer: Katherine Roscoe

This hour-long documentary takes an unusual approach to tell its story. Rather than relying on historians and archivists ‘talking heads’, it’s narrated by descendants. It tells the story of the three Gadbury sisters: Caroline, Sarah and Mary Ann, who roamed East London in gangs of child pickpockets in the 1830s. When the youngest sister Mary Anne was caught smuggling 20 yards of linen under her skirts from a haberdashery shop: she was arrested along with her accomplice sister, Caroline. Not long after, the eldest sister, Sarah was also arrested for theft. Sarah and Caroline were sentenced to transportation to different colonies in Australia: Van Diemen’s Land (now Tasmania) and New South Wales respectively. Their linen-smuggling sister, Mary Anne, on the other, received only six months in prison, probably because she had less prior offences than her elder sisters. From here the narrative splits to follow the life-stories of each sibling, and the lives of their respective lines of descendants.

The story is not just told by descendants. They become active protagonists in it as they reflect on their feelings towards their convict ancestry. From the start of transportation to the late-twentieth century, convicts and their descendants tried to hide their unlawful past: changing their names, destroying records and keeping it secret from friends and family. Caroline’s ancestor admits that he did not know growing up that he was descended from a convict, and Sarah’s ancestor describes being bullied on the playground with taunts of ‘convict’. In this sense, it is indeed the titular ‘Secret History of My Family’. Since the 1970s, there has been a huge shift in attitudes towards convict ancestry, driven by and reinforced by family historians and genealogists (now numbering 4 million in Australia and 9 million in the UK). Where convict records were formerly restricted, digitisation and databasing of convict records mean you can now trace a convict from their trial, to prison or hulks, on the voyage and up till they earn their ticket-of-leave in Australia (through websites like: Old Bailey Online, Ancestry.com, Founders and Survivors, Convict Records). This has its own set of ethical issues: discovering an ancestor who was transported for petty theft (as the Gadbury sisters, and indeed the majority of Australian convicts were) is much more palatable than those who were convicted of sexual assault or violent crimes.


 The Australian convict descendants are not just accepting of their felonious roots, they are proud of them. The documentary opens with actors portraying juvenile convicts in interviews conducted by the criminologist William Miles as he attempted to theorise if criminality was inherited from parent to child. The Australian descendants of Sarah and Caroline Gadbury also place a strong emphasis on inherited traits. But instead they see their convict ancestors as particularly resilient, innovative and strong-willed. Sarah Gadbury’s misdemeanours against her employer after being assigned as a convict servant in Van Diemen’s Land is taken by her ancestors as an inter-generational legacy, saying: ‘Her personality has flowed through the family to make us who we are…her strength is running through my veins, my blood’. In stark contrast, the descendants of Mary Ann, who remained in the vicinity of Shoreditch, take pride in generations of lawfulness. The Wardleys stress that Mary never re-offended after her six-month stint in prison, and that her descendants also steered clear of crime. Her great-great-great grandson says of his (grand)children: ‘All around ‘em, their mates getting nicked…not one of them, ever ended up in court. Through one person going straight and altering her life, made my life’.

The idea that psychological values – whether resilience or lawfulness – are inherited are common tropes of popular history documentaries. Programmes like Who Do You Think You Are? imply that genealogies are essential parts of our identity, even if we have not been aware of them. The vast and detailed record-sets relating to convict transportation (that were described above) have enabled academics to research what the inter-generational legacies of conviction are. The records for convicts like Sarah who were transported to Van Diemen’s Land were the most detailed for a population anywhere in the world in the nineteenth century. Registers include convicts’ place of birth, details of conviction, past employment, literacy and – most richly of all – physical characteristics including weight, height, eye and hair colour, complexion and tattoos. Research projects like Founders and Survivors and Digital Panopticon trace the economic opportunities and biometric impact of being transported to Australia versus people that stayed behind. When a society is made up only of convicts, the opportunity to own land and fill numerous jobs are given to people who had been trapped in cycles of poverty at home: within a few decades their diets and living conditions outstripped their counterparts in Britain, resulting in taller and healthier children. As the programme traces the family-trees of each sister it becomes clear that inter-generational effect falls broadly in favour of those that were transported. The programme calls the Australian penal colony ‘a great social experiment’ and encourages us to see the effects of historical events as they reverberate across generations.

 Katherine Roscoe is a Postgraduate Researcher for the Carceral Archipelago Project at the University of Leicester. The project aims to map and understand transportation on a global scale. For more information, click here.

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London: A Tale of Two Cities with Dan Cruickshank

First aired: 2012

Genre: Documentary

Broadcaster: BBC Four

URL: https://learningonscreen.ac.uk/ondemand/index.php/prog/02A44088?bcast=122439585#

Reviewer: Liz Round

This programme offers to explore London through a comparison of two different written accounts of the city, one from 1598 (John Stow’s Survey of London), the other from 1720 (John Strype’s Survey of London), and in this respect, it achieves its aim – exploring London on a thematic basis, striving to chronologically explain the success of London as a trading metropolis in the seventeenth century. Indeed, this is explicitly stated at the beginning as Dan Cruickshank, the presenter, explains the difference in Stow and Strype’s perspective of the Thames. Stow regarded the Thames defensively, but for Strype, it offered trading opportunities – a gateway to the world – that meant by the end of the century, some three-quarters of England’s commerce with the world was conducted through London. The programme explores the growth of that trade; the shipyards and the prostitution that moved from Southwark to the East End; the growth of market gardens and the resulting substantial increase in population; the growth of west London; the impact of the civil war on London and the rise of the coffee house; the great plague, followed by the Great Fire; and the beginnings of immigration and London‘s growth from the labour of skilled migrants. The substantial events of the seventeenth century are covered; merely hinted on in some cases, but always with a London-centric focus.


John Stow, Survey of London (1598)

As a local historian, much of this programme speaks to me. Part of the Leicester approach to local history involves using landscape awareness – visiting places – to better understand the documentary evidence, and Cruickshank was certainly doing that, and taking the viewer along with him. For example, the part where he explains how the steps down to the entrance of the Church of St. Olaves (in Hart Street) were built because the churchyard was swollen with the bodies of over 300 plague victims from 1665. This is driven home when he sits on the bottom step – the top step is almost of a height with his head, demonstrating more than any documentary source could have said, the horror of the plague for Londoners. Another part of the Leicester approach – reference to maps and topography – is used too with the frequent references to maps of London, showing how the city grew over the 122 years separating the two surveys. This helps those who are not so familiar with London to orientate themselves as well as contextualising the larger city from the location being discussed at the time.

Cruickshank doesn’t just restrict the programme to the surveys of Strype and Stow, however. Watching this programme as a historian, it seems in many respects, to give a little bit of an insight into the work of a historian: not in the sense of wandering the streets and looking meaningfully into cameras (which almost all television historian presenters seem to do) but in the sense of working with documentary sources, and sometimes, bringing newly discovered sources to wider historical awareness. This is alluded to when Cruickshank discusses the discovery and importance of Roger Morrice’s Entring book, and refers to Morrice as ‘the first investigative journalist’, who was working for a small group of opposition politicians, gathering gossip and information for them. His manuscript had gone unnoticed until 1999, partly because it had been regarded as a religious specialist work and partly because parts of it were written in a shorthand code. Cruickshank’s discussion with Professor Mark Goldie, where he explains the importance of the source for social and cultural London, and the difficulties of deciphering and transcribing the text, will echo with any historian that has spent time transcribing manuscripts of any date.

One part of a historian’s craft that was not shown was that of questioning the sources. Indeed, that did not seem to happen at all, nor were the motives of either Stow or Strype for writing this survey discussed, other than a brief reference to Strype’s work being an extension, a revision of Stow’s. Both Stow and Stripe omitted information from their Surveys: there is no mention of the theatre or Shakespeare in Stow, for example. In addition, what was not mentioned by Cruickshank, at all, was that after the 1598 edition of Stow, it was expanded five times in the first half of the seventeenth century, with extensions being written by Stow’s friend Anthony Munday in 1618 and 1633. Indeed, when Strype came to revise the work in 1720, he was unable to tell the difference between Stow and Munday and had to include a conflated version of Stow/Munday in his own text, adding his own, clearly identified words to that original text. Although much of the fine detail of this need not have been included in the programme, it could have added to the background of the two sources if it had at least been mentioned – something as simple as the fact that it had been reprinted, revised (by others), and extended in the 122 years between the two, would have sufficed.


John Strype, Survey of London (1720)

That said, the overriding impression that I come away with, is that there was almost too much information for one programme. Perhaps the production company, or the BBC, was not confident of the success of this kind of programme – very much bottom-up history, devoid of the elements that normally ensure the success of a history programme (such as monarchy of some kind). Had the programme been extended, split into two or even three parts, then it would have allowed for greater discussion of the background of the two men, the sources themselves, and more background to the general history of the period. In the programme, certain references felt rushed, thrown away – at one point it seemed to suggest that  Cruickshank was about to explore the fortifications of the city in the civil war, for example, but instead, it turned out to be a segue into the increase of pamphlets and mass media. This feels a bit like a missed opportunity to explore more of ordinary seventeenth-century London, away from the power at Westminster, and as such, rather a shame.

Liz Round is an AHRC M3C-funded History PhD student in the Centre for English Local History at the University of Leicester and the University of Nottingham. Her research explores clergy-lay relationships in seventeenth-century Herefordshire. For more information, click here.


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The FBI Files: The True Story of Mississippi Burning

First aired: 1999

Genre: Documentary

Broadcaster: Quest

BOB URL: https://learningonscreen.ac.uk/ondemand/index.php/prog/000C38CC?bcast=122681672#

Reviewer: Bradley Phipps

On the night of 21st June 1964, three civil rights workers – James Chaney (a black Mississipian), Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner (both white and from New York) – disappeared in Neshoba County, Mississippi. The men were part of the Freedom Summer project, which sought to challenge racist restrictions on voting in Mississippi. The trio were victims of a lynching, and it was found that a conspiracy to kill the men had been hatched in cooperation between the local Ku Klux Klan and Deputy Sheriff Cecil Price. The trio of civil rights activists were arrested by Price before being released from the station and pursued by the Deputy Sheriff in his patrol car alongside other Klan members. The group then murdered the three men before disposing of their bodies in an earthen dam. The murder of these three men has become one of the most well-remembered and infamous incidents of white supremacist violence, and was the subject of the 1988 film ‘Mississippi Burning’.

The FBI Files: The True Story of Mississippi Burning seeks to tell the story of the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s (FBI) efforts to find the bodies of the three murdered men and subsequently and to bring the perpetrators to justice. The documentary relies particularly upon reconstructions of events and also makes use of interviews – primarily with three FBI agents who were involved on the case – but also occasional brief snippets of an interview conducted with Bob Moses, an African American civil rights activist who played a central role in the Freedom Summer project.


The documentary is particularly successful in demonstrating that racist violence did not exist merely on the margins of society, but also had support from those in positions of power and authority – in this instance, Deputy Sheriff Price, who conspired with other Klan members, played a key role in their murder by abusing his position of authority by using his legitimacy as a police officer to enable the lynch mob. Similarly, the documentary is effective in demonstrating the barriers to successfully prosecuting those responsible for the lynching, which was made more difficult by the fact that murder was a crime requiring prosecution at a state rather than federal level, and that juries in Mississippi remained resistant to convicting white men of lynchings. The issue of racism in the police and bias in the judicial system continues to be a relevant and contentious discussion to this day, with increasing attention being given to the number of African Americans killed by police and the issue of ingrained racism in the judicial system. The fact that Edgar Killen, the Klan recruiter who masterminded the lynching, was not successfully prosecuted until 2005 – 41 years after the murders – provides just one example of the ongoing limitations of the judicial system in situations such as this.

Also highly interesting – particularly in light of my own area of research – was the mention given to the role of the wives of Klan members who, growing weary of FBI investigations of their husbands and seeking to protect their children, began to give information to the FBI agents about the Klan and its activities. This was an  interesting snippet which alluded to the fact that segregationist activity did not occur in an all-male vacuum, but was also influenced by female family members. However, more could have been made of this angle and a more detailed exploration of the role of these women would have benefited the documentary. In particular, it would have been interesting to uncover to what extent they knew about the planned lynching before it was committed, and indeed what role, if any, they played in Klan activities. Though recent literature has begun to uncover the role of women in the Klan and in the defence of racial segregation and white supremacy more broadly, still not enough is known about their activities and influence, and this was a missed opportunity to contribute to that knowledge.


The viewer may be left with the false impression from this documentary that racism manifested itself only in the brutality of overt violence. In truth, white supremacy took many forms, including the White Citizens’ Councils, a network of segregationist groups which generally sought to portray themselves as respectable and morally-upstanding and tended to apply more subtle methods than overt violence, such as economic reprisals against African American activists. A brief exploration of the wider field of white resistance during the period, especially given that these murders took place in Mississippi, the heartland of white resistance, would have helped to place the murders in context and have aided understanding of the challenges faced by the FBI investigation rather than effectively viewing the lynching in isolation.

A key weakness of the documentary is brought about by its premise, in that it focuses solely on the FBI investigation of the murders. Though effective at detailing the events and the FBI’s investigation, the programme fails to provide the context necessary to better understand the murders, such as the political climate at the time. At times, this lack of context was jarring and seemed to undermine with the narration. For instance, the narrator asserts that ‘racists drew the line at murdering white people’, and as such ‘the FBI no longer seemed like the enemy’ to many white individuals in Neshoba County, Mississippi. However, all 19 of the men who were charged in connection with the lynching made bail, leaving the viewer to ponder the question of whether the men had assistance in paying their bail, and if so, from whom this assistance came. Additionally, the documentary’s narrow focus on the heroism of the (white) FBI agents is detrimental to providing a full narrative of events. A more detailed analysis – perhaps by speaking to civil rights activists, white segregationists, and Neshoba citizens, would have potentially helped to provide a better portrayal of how the racially-motivated murders were viewed in the county. Much as the 1988 film ‘Mississippi Burning’ has been accused by critics of having a ‘white saviour’ narrative, the same criticism could be made of this documentary.

Pic 3.png

The narrow focus on the FBI also brings about a potential conflict of interest. It resulted in a documentary which lionises the FBI, overlooking the claims of critics of the Bureau, who have charged it with being ineffective at investigating incidents of white supremacist violence during the period. Indeed, we know that J. Edgar Hoover, head of the FBI from 1935 until 1972, was sceptical of the Civil Rights Movement, believing it to be disruptive and radical, and that that the FBI took little action to protect civil rights activists and investigate racist violence – a fact which is alluded to by the documentary’s reference to the discovery of the bodies of other black lynching victims during the search for the three civil rights workers. Two of these bodies were the remains of black students who had been lynched the previous month. The lynchings of these two students – like many other lynchings – had not been investigated by the FBI, and this begs the question of why the disappearance of Chaney, Goodman, and Schwerner was different – and indeed why their deaths have been remembered and memorialised so thoroughly, in contrast to the victims of numerous other lynchings? If the FBI was as effective, meticulous, and dedicated to investigating this lynching as portrayed in this documentary, then the reason for this should have been explored, perhaps in the context of the public’s reaction to the murders and the pressure on Hoover and his Bureau to act, and whether the fact that two of the victims were white played a role. Instead, Agent Sullivan’s testimony that Hoover immediately took decisive action after the men went missing is allowed to stand without challenge or context. As such, the documentary’s reliance upon FBI cooperation somewhat undermines its balance and its ability to give a fair and critical appraisal of events. Despite this, the documentary does provide an intriguing glimpse into the investigation of this brutal lynching, and reveals the myriad challenges in bringing justice for the victims and the frustrations of an imperfect justice system.

Though the documentary acknowledges that ‘the hatred that split the nation was not so easily eradicated’, it also attempts to portray the murders – and Mississippi itself – as an aberration. Bob Moses’ assertion in the interview featured in the documentary that ‘Mississippi has become like every other state in the country’ seems intended to be celebratory of the progress made since the lynching. But when viewing this documentary today – 17 years after it was first broadcast – in the shadow of present-day racial divisions in the United States, including the resilience of racial segregation; the resurgence of Ku Klux Klan groups; racial bias in policing; and the continuing use of racial rhetoric in politics, one is left to wonder whether such optimism was premature.

Bradley Phipps is an AHRC M3C-funded History PhD student at the University of Leicester and the University of Nottingham. His research explores the role of gender in the White Citizens’ Councils, a network of groups which formed to resist racial integration in the United States. For more information, click here.

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