It practically goes without saying that Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained is not “true history.” No German bounty hunter ever teamed up with a slave to kill wanted men and claim the reward for their corpses. No slave turned gunslinger ever rampaged through Mississippi before the Civil War in a gory quest to rescue his wife from a villainous cotton planter. It can scarcely be compared with Spielberg’s Lincoln, which takes some liberties with the historical record, but remains a movie about events that actually happened.
Yet to describe the plot of Django as absurd and outlandish, as many reviewers have done, misses a crucial point. The true history of the Cotton Kingdom before the Civil War was no less bizarre and bloody than anything the movie has to offer. Two new books by excellent historians, Joshua Rothman’s Flush Times & Fever Dreams: A Story of Capitalism and Slavery in the Age of Jackson and Walter Johnson’s River of Dark Dreams: Slavery and Empire in the Cotton Kingdom, reveal that slave owners’ own wild fantasies had deadly practical consequences. (Note: Joshua Rothman is not related to me.)
Mississippi was riding high in 1835. Cotton prices were rising, migrants were flocking in, and the government was selling fertile lands wrested from the Indians to slave-owning planters at exorbitant prices. The slave population was growing, too; soon the state would have a black majority, many of them “sold down the river” from Virginia and Kentucky or forced to march overland from Georgia and the Carolinas to work the new plantations’ vast fields of white gold. Tarantino gets that right, even if the blood he spatters across the bolls comes from the wrong veins.
The cotton boom brought anxieties over social disorder embodied by a man named John Murrell, “the great Western land pirate.” Murrell was a horse thief and slave stealer who swindled his way through the Deep South in the early 1830s. He became a household name after the publication of a sensational pamphlet that placed him at the head of a secret conspiracy to incite a massive slave insurrection across the South on Christmas Day in 1835 and rob all the banks as the country went up in flames. Tarantino’s plot seems tame in comparison to the pulp fiction of Jacksonian America.
The problem was that some people believed it. Not long after the pamphlet appeared, nervous white folks in central Mississippi caught wind of hearsay about an impending slave uprising in their neighborhood. Confessions were whipped out of slaves pegged as suspects, and then they were hanged. Nobody knows how many slaves were killed; the number is probably in the dozens. The slaves’ confessions fingered a few local white men who happened to be notorious in the community for being too friendly to black people.
A self-constituted committee of the area’s best men, “unclothed with the forms of law,” tried the white men on the basis of evidence that could never have been admitted in a real courtroom: the confessions that had been whipped out of slaves who were now dead. But fear and vengeance trumped legal niceties. The committee convicted and hanged five of them—two on the Fourth of July. At least one confessed to being part of the Murrell clan, but another luckless fellow whom the committee called an abolitionist assured his wife on the day before he died, “I can meet my God innocently.”
The hangings had gone on until “dead men were seen literally dangling from the boughs of trees upon every road side; and in numbers almost sufficient, to rival the native Spanish moss of the country.”
Meanwhile, not too far away in Vicksburg, Mississippi, the ritual purification of a society tainted by Murrellism targeted the town’s gamblers. A melee on Independence Day led the town’s respectable people to break up the gaming tables and oust its lowlifes. When a prominent doctor was gunned down during the sweep, a righteous mob seized five desperadoes held responsible for the crime and lynched them. The body count in Mississippi in July 1835 was high even by the standards of an era when mobbing was commonplace and slaves were managed with the whip.
One person who took note of these events was the protagonist of that other movie about slavery, Abraham Lincoln. Three years later, in a speech to the Young Men’s Lyceum of Springfield, Illinois, the obscure state representative condemned Americans’ penchant for taking the law into their own hands. Although Lincoln observed that mobbing was a national habit, he singled out events in St. Louis, where a free man of color, a murderer, had been dragged through the streets and burned to death (“sacrificed” was the word Lincoln used), and Mississippi. There, declaimed Lincoln, the hangings had gone on until “dead men were seen literally dangling from the boughs of trees upon every road side; and in numbers almost sufficient, to rival the native Spanish moss of the country.”
It’s hard to imagine Django and Broomhilda riding off into the sunset and living happily ever after—not with slave patrols surely chasing after them. More likely they would have resembled the defiant couple in Thomas Moran’s 1862 painting Slave Hunt, now on display as part of the Civil War and American Art exhibit at the Smithsonian American Art Museum. Dressed in rags, a man and woman stand ankle-deep in a swamp. The man holds a bloodstained club and knife. A dead dog lies in the water, but two others leap at them. A posse approaches; the end is near.
But the end of slavery was near, too, and soon a Union Army office at Fortress Monroe in Virginia would report that black people were coming in from as far away as Richmond: “the bloodhounds are not there now to hunt them, and they are not afraid.”