David Edgerley Gates
I had another subject in mind, but then I spotted this coming up on Turner Classic Movies. I couldn't let it slip past unnoticed.
The Prisoner of Shark Island is a lesser-known John Ford, from 1936. It came out after The Lost Patrol and The Informer, and the three pictures he made with Will Rogers. Ford was already established, in other words. He'd won his first directing Oscar for The Informer. At this point, he probably didn't have to take work he didn't want to, and he didn't suffer much interference. He made Shark Island by choice. Ford said more than once, "It's a job of work," meaning he did what he did for a living, but it's plain his heart was in it.
Shark Island is about Dr. Samuel Mudd, who gets caught up in the conspiracy panic that followed Lincoln's assassination. There was, in fact, a plot, targeting Secretary of State Seward and Vice President Johnson as well as Lincoln, but only John Wilkes Booth got his part right. The others made a hash of it. This didn't keep
four of them from being hanged. Booth himself was shot and killed eleven days after Lincoln's death, but his first night on the run he stopped at a local Maryland doctor's - Dr. Mudd - and the doctor set his broken leg. This was enough to buy Mudd a treason conviction and a life sentence. Was he involved? It's never been established, but Shark Island plays on your sympathies, the innocent man being framed, justice denied.
Let's get the two most serious weak points out of the way. First off, Warner Baxter plays the lead. Big in the silents, made the transition to talkies, but a little overwrought. Admittedly, the acting style goes with the period, and you can get past it. It's a lot harder to get past the second thing, which dates even more badly, and that's the racism. I never thought of Ford as being particularly racist - although a fair number of American Indians might disagree with me - and while he's of course a product of his times, and Hollywood has historically been disrespectful of black people (along with the Chinese, and Mexicans, and plenty of others), Ford is often subversive with his black characters. Stepin Fetchit, in Steamboat Round the Bend, plays it very sly and saucy. His relationship with Will Rogers could be described as two bickering old ladies, Lucy and Ethel. Unhappily, the same can't be said of Ernest Whitman as Buck in Shark Island. Still, it strikes me as an extremely difficult part for a black actor to play without falling into
caricature, and Buck comes perilously close. The real problem is that these attitudes aren't peripheral, they're built into the narrative structure. Buck isn't just comic relief. He's integral to the story, he's a major piece of the action, and he has to walk a very fine line between pretending to Tom it up and demeaning himself. I'm a white guy. I can't step into Ernest Whitman's shoes, or get inside his skin. Maybe he simply figured it was a job of work. I'd like to think he did the best he could by a part that didn't give him much wiggle room - and I wish I could say the script or the director helped him make up for it. Not.
How about what's right with the picture? For openers, Bert Glennon's cinematography. It's the first of eight movies he made with Ford (including Drums Along the Mohawk, Ford's first color feature), and it has one of the most breathtaking pulled-focus shots I've ever seen. Ford's known for not calling attention to himself, or using obtrusive effects. He seems to prefer a static frame, but he moves the camera when he wants to. You see plenty of mobility in his tracking shots. I don't remember a single example of zoom, though. Ford's camera is always the human POV. When he breaks stride, it's doubly startling.
Here's the set-up for the defining moment. Booth slips through the door into the back of Lincoln's box at the theater. You hear the laugh line from the play on-stage, "You sockdologizing old man-trap." Booth shoots the president, and jumps from the box to the stage, but his foot gets tangled in the flag draped from the box. He calls out, "Sic semper tyrannis," and limps off. Lincoln, mortally wounded, is slumped back in his chair. The camera holds. It's a medium shot, Lincoln's upper body and shoulders, his face in three-quarter profile. A curtain falls across, in front of his face. It's lace or embroidery, so you still see Lincoln behind it, slightly blurred. Then he comes into focus, but the embroidered curtain creates a pointillist effect, fragmenting his image, breaking it down into dots, like an engraving. Your eye needs to catch up, and reconstruct him. In that one brief image, Lincoln passes from life into history, leaving a retinal memory. It happens while you're watching.
I first saw Prisoner of Shark Island late one night on a UHF channel, just a programmer they used to fill a time slot. It was some years later that I got to see it in a theater, a Ford revival series at the Orson Welles Cinema in Cambridge - a labor of love, they actually screened something like forty of his pictures over a couple of weeks, and I didn't miss too many. Shark Island drew a capacity crowd, a lot of them film students who hadn't seen it before, and more than a few who were unacquainted with Ford except for the big-ticket movies. Shark Island starts out on a note of low comedy, a joke about the number of kids Buck has, with its obvious racial slant, and Buck asking his mule what the mule thinks, which isn't any too subtle, either. Remember, we're talking about wiseass college kids here, everybody goofing and groaning and poking fun at the picture's dated political attitudes, and when Booth slinks on-screen, practically twirling his mustaches, you've still got people laughing at the exaggerated histrionics of it all. But then. Booth steps forward. He shoots Lincoln. Lincoln sinks back. The curtain falls. Everybody in that movie theater went dead silent. Literally. There wasn't a murmur. Not an embarrassed giggle, not even a gasp. Nothing but absolute, stunned shock.
Okay, the gravity of the event. And maybe these kids were of an age to remember the Kennedy assassination. But there's more to it. Because after Lincoln's murder, the movie goes on to show the courts-martial. You heard that right. The conspirators were tried by military tribunal and without constitutional protections. We see them hooded and shackled during the trial. We see them hanged. The hysteria isn't soft-pedaled, and if the Grassy Knoll is any part of your vocabulary, you feel a familiar dread.
I don't think Shark Island is supposed to be taken as some kind of allegory about the Red Scare or the rise of Fascism or anything like. It's meant to be a rousing yarn, and no more. There is a shark-infested moat, too, but since we're in the Dry Tortugas, that's gilding the lily. And the Yellow Fever epidemic, and the mutiny, no reason to doubt. Dr. Mudd was later pardoned. Whether he was in on the plot has never been decided one way or the other.
TCM is showing The Prisoner of Shark Island on Tuesday, January 31st, at 10:45 PM. Program your DVR's. It's also available on the Ford at Fox boxed DVD set, a collection of Ford's pictures that gives good weight for the money.
25 January 2017
14 February 2016
by Leigh Lundin
Abe Lincoln: rail splitter, a riverboat crewman, an inventor, a country lawyer, a congressman, a poet, a president, the great emancipator… and murder mystery author.
Tomorrow is Presidents Day in celebration of our great presidents, Abraham Lincoln (12 Feb), George Washington (22 Feb), and in some states, Thomas Jefferson (13 Apr). To honor them, SleuthSayers brings you a murder mystery written by our 16th president. (Bet you didn’t see that coming.)
We normally picture the lawyerish Lincoln involved in contracts and torts, bailments and agreements, the dry essence of civil law. The man also practised criminal law. He’s particularly recognized for winning what became known as the Almanac Case, in which he looked up the position of the moon in lunar tables to discredit a witness.
Lincoln defended one of three brothers accused of murder. His client didn’t pay him, so Honest Abe monetized the experience in a different way… by selling a story about it. Fortunately, he went on to other pursuits and the rest, as they say, is history.
Unlike traditional murder mysteries, the story doesn’t contain the customary dénouement. It’s written as a puzzling happenstance without a true resolution. Some contend Wilkie Collins’ charming 1873 novella, The Dead Alive (a.k.a John Jago’s Ghost) suggests a solution for Lincoln’s story, but in fact Collins based his tale on another American true crime story known as the Boorn Brothers murder case.
- In April 1846, The Quincy Whig published Lincoln’s story under the title “A Remarkable Case of Arrest for Murder.”
- In March 1952, Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine retitled and republished the story as “The Trailor Murder Mystery.”
Now from the Presidential files…
The Trailor Murder Mystery
A Remarkable Case of Arrest for Murderby Abraham Lincoln
In the year 1841, there resided, at different points in the State of Illinois, three brothers by the name of Trailor. Their Christian names were William, Henry and Archibald. Archibald resided at Springfield, then as now the seat of Government of the State. He was a sober, retiring, and industrious man, of about thirty years of age; a carpenter by trade, and a bachelor, boarding with his partner in business — a Mr. Myers. Henry, a year or two older, was a man of like retiring and industrious habits; had a family, and resided with it on a farm, at Clary’s Grove, about twenty miles distant from Springfield in a north-westerly direction. — William, still older, and with similar habits, resided on a farm in Warren county, distant from Springfield something more than a hundred miles in the same north-westerly direction. He was a widower, with several children.In the neighborhood of William’s residence, there was, and had been for several years, a man by the name of Fisher, who was somewhat above the age of fifty; had no family, and no settled home; but who boarded and lodged a while here and a while there, with persons for whom he did little jobs of work. His habits were remarkably economical, so that an impression got about that he had accumulated a considerable amount of money.In the latter part of May, in the year mentioned, William formed the purpose of visiting his brothers at Clary’s Grove and Springfield; and Fisher, at the time having his temporary residence at his house, resolved to accompany him. They set out together in a buggy with a single horse. On Sunday evening they reached Henry’s residence, and stayed over night. On Monday morning, being the first Monday of June, they started on to Springfield, Henry accompanying them on horseback. They reached town about noon, met Archibald, went with him to his boarding house, and there took up their lodgings for the time they should remain.After dinner, the three Trailors and Fisher left the boarding house in company, for the avowed purpose of spending the evening together in looking about the town. At supper, the Trailors had all returned, but Fisher was missing, and some inquiry was made about him. After supper, the Trailors went out professedly in search of him. One by one they returned, the last coming in after late tea time, and each stating that he had been unable to discover anything of Fisher.The next day, both before and after breakfast, they went professedly in search again, and returned at noon, still unsuccessful. Dinner again being had, William and Henry expressed a determination to give up the search, and start for their homes. This was remonstrated against by some of the boarders about the house, on the ground that Fisher was somewhere in the vicinity, and would be left without any conveyance, as he and William had come in the same buggy. The remonstrance was disregarded, and they departed for their homes respectively.Up to this time, the knowledge of Fisher’s mysterious disappearance had spread very little beyond the few boarders at Myers’, and excited no considerable interest. After the lapse of three or four days, Henry returned to Springfield, for the ostensible purpose of making further search for Fisher. Procuring some of the boarders, he, together with them and Archibald, spent another day in ineffectual search, when it was again abandoned, and he returned home.No general interest was yet excited.On the Friday, week after Fisher’s disappearance, the Postmaster at Springfield received a letter from the Postmaster nearest William’s residence, in Warren county, stating that William had returned home without Fisher, and was saying, rather boastfully, that Fisher was dead, and had willed him his money, and that he had got about fifteen hundred dollars by it. The letter further stated that William’s story and conduct seemed strange, and desired the Postmaster at Springfield to ascertain and write what was the truth in the matter.The Postmaster at Springfield made the letter public, and at once, excitement became universal and intense. Springfield, at that time, had a population of about 3 500, with a city organization. The Attorney General of the State resided there. A purpose was forthwith formed to ferret out the mystery, in putting which into execution, the Mayor of the city and the Attorney General took the lead. To make search for, and, if possible, find the body of the man supposed to be murdered, was resolved on as the first step.In pursuance of this, men were formed into large parties, and marched abreast, in all directions, so as to let no inch of ground in the vicinity remain unsearched. Examinations were made of cellars, wells, and pits of all descriptions, where it was thought possible the body might be concealed. All the fresh, or tolerably fresh graves in the graveyard, were pried into, and dead horses and dead dogs were disinterred, where, in some instances, they had been buried by their partial masters.This search, as has appeared, commenced on Friday. It continued until Saturday afternoon without success, when it was determined to dispatch officers to arrest William and Henry, at their residences, respectively. The officers started on Sunday morning; meanwhile, the search for the body was continued, and rumors got afloat of the Trailors having passed, at different times and places, several gold pieces, which were readily supposed to have belonged to Fisher.On Monday, the officers sent for Henry, having arrested him, arrived with him. The Mayor and Attorney Gen’l took charge of him, and set their wits to work to elicit a discovery from him. He denied, and denied, and persisted in denying.They still plied him in every conceivable way, till Wednesday, when, protesting his own innocence, he stated that his brothers, William and Archibald, had murdered Fisher; that they had killed him, without his (Henry’s) knowledge at the time, and made a temporary concealment of his body; that, immediately preceding his and William’s departure from Springfield for home, on Tuesday, the day after Fisher’s disappearance, William and Archibald communicated the fact to him, and engaged his assistance in making a permanent concealment of the body; that, at the time he and William left professedly for home, they did not take the road directly, but, meandering their way through the streets, entered the woods at the North West of the city, two or three hundred yards to the right of where the road they should have travelled, entered them; that, penetrating the woods some few hundred yards, they halted and Archibald came a somewhat different route, on foot, and joined them; that William and Archibald then stationed him (Henry) on an old and disused road that ran near by, as a sentinel, to give warning of the approach of any intruder; that William and Archibald then removed the buggy to the edge of a dense brush thicket, about forty yards distant from his (Henry’s) position, where, leaving the buggy, they entered the thicket, and in a few minutes returned with the body, and placed it in the buggy; that from his station he could and did distinctly see that the object placed in the buggy was a dead man, of the general appearance and size of Fisher; that William and Archibald then moved off with the buggy in the direction of Hickox’s mill pond, and after an absence of half an hour, returned, saying they had put him in a safe place; that Archibald then left for town, and he and William found their way to the road, and made for their homes.At this disclosure, all lingering credulity was broken down, and excitement rose to an almost inconceivable height. Up to this time, the well-known character of Archibald had repelled and put down all suspicions as to him. Till then, those who were ready to swear that a murder had been committed, were almost as confident that Archibald had had no part in it. But now, he was seized and thrown into jail; and indeed, his personal security rendered it by no means objectionable to him.And now came the search for the brush thicket, and the search of the mill pond. The thicket was found, and the buggy tracks at the point indicated. At a point within the thicket, the signs of a struggle were discovered, and a trail from thence to the buggy track was traced. In attempting to follow the track of the buggy from the thicket, it was found to proceed in the direction of the mill pond, but could not be traced all the way. At the pond, however, it was found that a buggy had been backed down to, and partially into the water’s edge.Search was now to be made in the pond; and it was made in every imaginable way. Hundreds and hundreds were engaged in raking, fishing, and draining. After much fruitless effort in this way, on Thursday morning the mill dam was cut down, and the water of the pond partially drawn off, and the same processes of search again gone through with.About noon of this day, the officer sent for William, returned having him in custody; and a man calling himself Dr. Gilmore, came in company with them. It seems that the officer arrested William at his own house, early in the day on Tuesday, and started to Springfield with him; that after dark awhile, they reached Lewiston, in Fulton county, where they stopped for the night; that late in the night this Dr. Gilmore arrived, stating that Fisher was alive at his house, and that he had followed on to give the information, so that William might be released without further trouble; that the officer, distrusting Dr. Gilmore, refused to release William, but brought him on to Springfield, and the Dr. accompanied them.On reaching Springfield, the Dr. reasserted that Fisher was alive, and at his house. At this, the multitude for a time, were utterly confounded. Gilmore’s story was communicated to Henry Trailor, who without faltering, reaffirmed his own story about Fisher’s murder. Henry’s adherence to his own story was communicated to the crowd, and at once the idea started, and became nearly, if not quite universal, that Gilmore was a confederate of the Trailors, and had invented the tale he was telling, to secure their release and escape.Excitement was again at its zenith.About three o’clock the same evening, Myers, Archibald’s partner, started with a two-horse carriage, for the purpose of ascertaining whether Fisher was alive, as stated by Gilmore, and if so, of bringing him back to Springfield with him.On Friday a legal examination was gone into before two Justices, on the charge of murder against William and Archibald. Henry was introduced as a witness by the prosecution, and on oath re-affirmed his statements, as heretofore detailed, and at the end of which he bore a thorough and rigid cross-examination without faltering or exposure. The prosecution also proved, by a respectable lady, that on the Monday evening of Fisher’s disappearance, she saw Archibald, whom she well knew, and another man whom she did not then know, but whom she believed at the time of testifying to be William, (then present,) and still another, answering the description of Fisher, all enter the timber at the North West of town, (the point indicated by Henry,) and after one or two hours, saw William and Archibald return without Fisher.Several other witnesses testified, that on Tuesday, at the time William and Henry professedly gave up the search for Fisher’s body, and started for home, they did not take the road directly, but did go into the woods, as stated by Henry. By others, also, it was proved, that since Fisher’s disappearance, William and Archibald had passed rather an unusual number of gold pieces. The statements heretofore made about the thicket, the signs of a struggle, the buggy tracks, &c., were fully proven by numerous witnesses.At this the prosecution rested.Dr. Gilmore was then introduced by the defendants. He stated that he resided in Warren county, about seven miles distant from William’s residence; that on the morning of William’s arrest, he was out from home, and heard of the arrest, and of its being on a charge of the murder of Fisher; that on returning to his own house, he found Fisher there; that Fisher was in very feeble health, and could give no rational account as to where he had been during his absence; that he (Gilmore) then started in pursuit of the officer, as before stated; and that he should have taken Fisher with him, only that the state of his health did not permit. Gilmore also stated that he had known Fisher for several years, and that he had understood he was subject to temporary derangement of mind, owing to an injury about his head received in early life.There was about Dr. Gilmore so much of the air and manner of truth, that his statement prevailed in the minds of the audience and of the court, and the Trailors were discharged, although they attempted no explanation of the circumstances proven by the other witnesses.On the next Monday, Myers arrived in Springfield, bringing with him the now famed Fisher, in full life and proper person.Thus ended this strange affair and while it is readily conceived that a writer of novels could bring a story to a more perfect climax, it may well be doubted whether a stranger affair ever really occurred. Much of the matter remains in mystery to this day. The going into the woods with Fisher, and returning without him, by the Trailors; their going into the woods at the same place the next day, after they professed to have given up the search; the signs of a struggle in the thicket, the buggy tracks at the edge of it; and the location of the thicket, and the signs about it, corresponding precisely with Henry’s story, are circumstances that have never been explained. William and Archibald have both died since — William in less than a year, and Archibald in about two years after the supposed murder. Henry is still living, but never speaks of the subject.It is not the object of the writer of this to enter into the many curious speculations that might be indulged upon the facts of this narrative; yet he can scarcely forbear a remark upon what would, almost certainly, have been the fate of William and Archibald, had Fisher not been found alive. It seems he had wandered away in mental derangement, and, had he died in this condition, and his body been found in the vicinity, it is difficult to conceive what could have saved the Trailors from the consequence of having murdered him. Or, if he had died, and his body never found, the case against them would have been quite as bad, for, although it is a principle of law that a conviction for murder shall not be had, unless the body of the deceased be discovered, it is to be remembered, that Henry testified that he saw Fisher’s dead body.