How Historically Accurate Is The Series The Good Lord Bird?

"The Good Lord Bird" is an historical miniseries about abolitionist John Brown (played by Ethan Hawke, above) and his 1859 raid at Harpers Ferry, according to Showtime. But how true to history is it? The show is based on an award-winning novel of the same name by author James McBride. The novel follows a fictional character named Henry Shackleford, or Onion (played by Joshua Caleb Johnson), an enslaved youngster whom Brown befriends, Bustle explained. Shackleford obviously never existed, but many of the events he observes and the people with whom he interacts on the show are true to history.

The show incorporates many historical details, but alters them slightly to fit the story, as Slate pointed out. Shackleford, for example, is owned by a Kansas tavern keeper named "Dutch" Henry Sherman. Sherman was a real person who did support slavery, though there is no record of him owning a slave who went on to join Brown. The series also depicts Brown keeping a pet squirrel for 17 years, and in one scene, talking to a rabbit. While the rabbit may be invented, Brown was an animal lover who did, as a child, mourn the death of a bobtail squirrel he had tamed.

The final episode of "The Good Lord Bird" depicts John Brown's ill-fated raid on Harpers Ferry, Virginia, according to The New York Times. In real life, Brown and his men attempted to raid the U.S. armory in the town and set off a slave revolt, but they were stopped by pro-slavery locals and eventually the U.S. Marines, Bustle explained.

Harpers Ferry: fact or fiction?

Brown was captured, tried, and hanged for treason. Most of what is depicted in the show about the purpose of the raid and how it took place does follow the historical record, The New York Times said. However, there were some small divergences. 

The show depicts four of Brown's sons joining the raid, when in reality only three participated, and two of them were different sons than those shown on-screen. It also alters the real character of rail porter Heyward Shepherd. In the show, he is dramatized as the Rail Man, who helps recruit Black Americans for the attack. In real life, he was an innocent bystander who was killed by accident during the raid. The script also takes liberties with the character of abolitionist John Cook. In reality, he was sent ahead to gather information before the raid, but the show largely invents how his efforts lead to the plot being discovered early, forcing Brown and his men to attack before they are ready.

Finally, the show fudges Brown's last words. The script has him say, "What a beautiful country" right before his death, according to Slate. In reality, by some accounts Brown is reported to have remarked, "This is a beautiful country. I never had the pleasure of seeing it before," while being transported to the gallows. His actual last words are not known, according to The New York Times.