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Emancipation: History vs. Hollywood


Will Smith
Born: September 25, 1968
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA

Peter (aka Gordon)
Birthplace: USA

Historical Accuracy (Q&A):

Was the slave Peter brutally whipped by the plantation's overseer?

Yes. The Emancipation true story reveals that during his medical examination, runaway slave Peter stated that he was whipped "two months before Christmas" in 1892 by the plantation's overseer, Artayou Carrier, when his master, Capt. John Lyons, was not present. In the film, the overseer is renamed Jim Fassel and portrayed by Ben Foster. Aside from brutally whipping Peter, nearly everything about Ben Foster's character is imagined. In real life, according to Peter, Artayou Carrier was relieved of his position as overseer after John Lyons saw what he had done to Peter.

"My master come after I was whipped; saw me in bed; he discharged the overseer," said Peter.

Ben Foster portrays overseer Jim Fassel in the movie.

A few historians have suggested that the uncommon name "Artayou" might have been a slave's name or the mispronounced name of a slave who was acting as an overseer, which wasn't uncommon on large plantations. A slave promoted by his master to the role of overseer was called a "driver." Some plantations had both a white overseer and a black driver. Whether that was the case on John and Bridget Lyons' plantation is unknown and the suggestion that the overseer, Artayou Carrier, was a slave is merely speculation.

Did Peter spend two months in bed recovering from the whipping?

Yes, and he also said that while he was in bed recovering, he went "sort of crazy" and "tried to shoot everybody." It's possible that his wounds became infected and he was hallucinating from a fever, which might explain his strange behavior. Whipped Peter said that he didn't remember attempting to shoot everyone, but the others told him it happened. They also told him he burned up all his clothes. "I never was this way (crazy) before," he said. "I don't know what make me come that way (crazy)." He also said that he couldn't remember the flogging. Given the severity of the trauma displayed in the Whipped Peter photo, it's also possible PTSD played a part in his inability to remember.

The real Peter's scarred back (left) was photographed after he escaped and arrived in Baton Rouge. Will Smith (right) recreates the Scourged Back photo in the Emancipation movie.

Did Peter the Slave have a wife and children?

From what Peter was quoted as saying during his medical examination in Baton Rouge just prior to enlisting in the Union Army, we know that the real Peter had a wife. However, his only mention of her is when he states that he was told he tried to shoot her when he was acting crazy during his lengthy recovery after being severely whipped by the plantation's overseer, Artayou Carrier. In the Emancipation movie, his wife is named Dodienne and is portrayed by Charmaine Bingwa. An Emancipation fact-check reveals that her actual name is unknown. Peter's children in the movie are fictional. It is unknown whether the real Peter had children. They are not mentioned in what he was quoted as saying in Baton Rouge, nor are children mentioned in the 1863 Harper's Weekly article.

Charmaine Bingwa (right) portrays Peter's wife in the movie.

Did Peter escape from John Lyons' plantation?

Yes. In researching how accurate is Emancipation, we learned that Whipped Peter escaped from the 3,000-acre Louisiana cotton plantation of John and Bridget Lyons, who kept him and 37 other slaves at the time of the 1860 census. The Lyons plantation was located in St. Landry Parish along the west bank of the Atchafalaya River. John Lyons (portrayed by Timothy Hutton) is conflated to be "Senator John Lyons" in the Emancipation movie, but in real life, Peter is quoted as referring to him as "Capt. John Lyon", with the 's' being accidentally omitted.

The document below lists the slaves held by the 11 slave owners in St. Landry Parish, Louisiana during the 1860 census. Highlighted in yellow is a listing of John Lyons' 38 slaves, which likely included Peter and his wife. Click to enlarge the document.

In yellow above are the 38 slave inhabitants on John Lyons' plantation at the time of the 1860 census. Peter is likely among those listed. Click to enlarge the document.

Did Peter rub his body with onions to throw the bloodhounds off his scent?

Yes, at least that's what he's described as having done in the July 4, 1863 Harper's Weekly article, which states that he was chased "for days and nights" through the swamps and bayous by his master and several of his master's neighbors. To throw their pack of bloodhounds off his trail, he took onions with him when he escaped from John Lyons' plantation in St. Landry Parish, Louisiana. "After crossing each creek or swamp he rubbed his body freely with these onions, and thus, no doubt, frequently threw the dogs off the scent." In the movie, the dogs are not bloodhounds and appear more vicious, thus heightening the danger runaway slave Peter (Will Smith) faces as he escapes.

How long did it take Peter to make it from the plantation to the Union Army in Baton Rouge?

The Emancipation true story confirms that prior to locating Union soldiers of the XIX Corps who were stationed in Baton Rouge, Peter spent ten days fleeing through the swamps and bayous, making his way more than 40 miles from John Lyons' plantation on the eastern side of St. Landry Parish between what is today Krotz Springs and Melville. According to the Harper's Weekly article, his clothes were tattered and he was covered in mud and dirt. This is very similar to how Will Smith's character looks when he arrives in Baton Rouge in the movie.

Did Peter almost get eaten by an alligator?

In the movie, Will Smith's character uses a log to fend off an alligator in the swamp. In conducting the Emancipation fact-check, we discovered that this moment is entirely fictional. While alligators would have certainly been a threat as the real Peter was escaping through the Louisiana swamps and bayous, there is no record of him encountering one.

Does Will Smith's character look like the real Peter?

To some degree, yes. As indicated above, the appearance of Will Smith's character was based on the escaped slave in the widely circulated "Whipped Peter" photos taken in Baton Rouge, Louisiana on April 2, 1863 while Peter was undergoing a medical examination. Will Smith's Peter in the Emancipation movie on Apple TV+ shares similar facial hair and keloid scarring on his back.

The runaway slave in the image below has been referred to as "Gordon." However, the inked description on the back of the photo merely reads, "Contraband that marched 40 miles to get to our lines." Despite possible differences in facial hair and bone structure with the man in the Scourged Back photos, historians have accepted that Gordon and Peter are the same person.

Peter (aka Gordon) is reportedly in the photo on the left as he looked when he arrived at the Union lines in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Will Smith portrays the slave Peter in the Apple TV+ movie.

Was the escaped slave's real name Peter?

The filmmakers chose to use the name Peter because this was the name used in widely circulated photos of his scourged back, some of which included his own words on the opposite side in which he described his whipping and escape. A July 4, 1863 Harper's Weekly article published three months after the Whipped Peter photos were taken refers to him as "Gordon." While most historians have accepted the Harper's article as accurate, it's likely that Gordon and Peter are two different people and Vincent Colyer fabricated the narrative told in the Harper's article.

For instance, the Whipped Peter photos show a man with significant facial hair at his chin, while the other two illustrations of Gordon in the Harper's article appear to show a man with little facial hair and what appears to be a different skull and facial structure. Furthermore, the article includes unverifiable details that Peter was not quoted as giving in the account he provided during his medical examination. The Harper's article says that he "escaped from his master in Mississippi," but the man who posed for the Scourged Back photo several months earlier, named Peter, said that he had fled Capt. John Lyons plantation, which was in Louisiana. In addition, Peter had said that he was whipped two months before Christmas but the Harper's article says that Gordon was whipped on Christmas day.

There is a small possibility that Peter was the name given to him by his master and he later decided to take the name Gordon as a free man, although there's no evidence to suggest this was the case.

Did the photos of Whipped Peter's back help to turn the tide of the American Civil War?

Yes. Reportedly produced by New Orleans-based photographers William D. McPherson and his partner Mr. Oliver, the photos of the shocking keloid scars on Peter's back became some of the most widely circulated photos of slavery during the Civil War and remain some of the most significant and disturbing examples of the inhumanity and injustice of the practice. Prior to the distribution of the image as a carte-de-visite photograph (a photograph mounted on a piece of card the size of a visiting card) and its publication (as an illustration) in the July 4, 1863 Harper's Weekly article, Northerners were largely uninformed with regard to the brutality of slavery.

Photos of Peter revealing his scarred back were reportedly taken on April 2, 1863 in Baton Rouge by New Orleans-based photographers William D. McPherson and his associate Mr. Oliver.

The photos of Peter the Slave's scars helped to galvanize support for emancipation and the Union war effort, which had been waning after devastating defeats at Fredericksburg in December 1862 and Chancellorsville in early May 1863. Many Northerners had begun to think the war was unwinnable and questioned whether they should remain in the fight. The Scourged Back photo helped to increase support for strengthening the Union Army through conscription and inspired free blacks to enlist in the fight. In some ways, the photo did for the North during the Civil War what the photograph of Emmett Till's body did for the region during the Civil Rights Movement nearly a century later.

Was it common for slaves to suffer the level of brutality that Peter endured?

Yes. Other slavery movies based on true stories have shown similar levels of violence against captive black men and women. This includes 12 Years a Slave. Perhaps what's different about Emancipation is that photographic evidence exists of the brutality the film depicts. It's difficult to look at but even harder to ignore. A question that people began to wonder at the time the photo was taken was how widespread was this type of brutality. One way we know that this type of brutality was common is because Union surgeons who inspected former slaves as they enlisted observed similar scarring on hundreds of other slaves.

In writing to his brother in the city, a black surgeon of the First Louisiana regiment enclosed a photograph of Peter's scarred back, stating, "I send you the picture of a slave as he appears after a whipping. I have seen, during the period I have been inspecting men for my own and other regiments, hundreds of such sights—so they are not new to me; but it may be new to you. If you know of anyone who talks about the humane manner in which the slaves are treated, please show them this picture. It is a lecture in itself." -The Liberator, June 1863

Was Peter captured by the Confederates while serving in the Union Army?

Yes, at least according to the July 4, 1863 Harper's Weekly article, which states that while serving in the Union Army in Louisiana as a guide, he was "taken prisoner by the rebels." He was tied up, beaten, and left for dead, only to come to life and escape to the Union lines. The abolitionist newspaper The Liberator stated that as a sergeant in the Second Louisiana Native Guards, he fought "gallantly" at the Siege of Port Hudson in May 1863, the Union's final assault to recapture the Mississippi River.

The illustration above of what is believed to be Peter in his Union uniform after enlisting in Baton Rouge appeared in the July 1863 Harper's Weekly article and was titled "Gordon in his uniform as a U.S. soldier."

Did the real Peter make it back to his wife?

In exploring the Emancipation true story, we discovered that the historical record of the real Peter after his time in the Union Army is unknown. It was never confirmed whether he survived the Civil War and reconnected with his wife.

Overall, how accurate is Emancipation?

The Will Smith movie mainly fictionalizes its story around what Peter the Slave was quoted as saying when he sat for his medical examination on April 2, 1863 in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. It was then that several photos of him were taken that highlighted his scourged back. His brief remarks are displayed below as they were published on the back of some of the photos at the time.

Peter the Slave's statement he gave during his medical examination. As in the image above, the statement was mounted on the back of some of the carte-de-visite photographs of Peter's scarred back that were widely distributed.

The film also assumes that the less reliable July 4, 1863 Harper's Weekly article is factual, drawing from the story the article tells of Gordon's escape through the swamps and his subsequent enlistment in the Union Army. While that article appears to be referring to Peter by the name "Gordon," it was published three months after Peter sat for his medical examination and includes details that he was not quoted as having said at the time. Still, in showcasing an illustration of Whipped Peter's scarred back and including an extract from a letter in The New York Times that detailed the brutal treatment of slaves, the widely read Harper's Weekly article played a pivotal role in changing the attitudes of Northerners with regard to emancipation and the war effort. The movie's treatment of it as being largely accurate is in line with how many historians have viewed it. You can read the article below (click to enlarge).

Above is the July 4, 1863 Harper's Weekly article (click to enlarge) that mentions the escaped slave Gordon. The three illustrations are supposedly all based on actual photos, including Peter when he arrived at the Union lines (left), under medical examination (center), and after he joined the Union Army (right).

As you can see from what the runaway slave Peter said during his medical examination and what was published in the Harper's Weekly article (both displayed above), there's hardly enough to fill a two-hour movie. Screenwriter Bill Collage used creative license to fill in the many gaps, especially with regard to Peter's children and the details of his escape. Most of the characters are heavily (or entirely) fictionalized. While it's not hard to point out how little in Emancipation is based on a true story, the fabrication was necessary in order for Peter's story to be told as a fully fleshed-out feature film. It expands upon what little historical record there is in order to introduce Peter to audiences and to remind us of the horrors of slavery. In some ways, it attempts to do for slavery what Schindler's List did for the holocaust, it keeps our eyes open to the past so that we can better guard against repeating it.