Two hundred and five years ago, on February 12, 1809, in Hardin County, Kentucky, a man, who many consider to be the greatest American President that ever lived, was born. That man was the sixteenth President of the United States, Abraham Lincoln. From humble beginnings of being born in a log cabin on “Sinking Spring Farm,” Lincoln, who had a sparse education, aspired to greater heights than just working farm land, splitting rails for fences, and being a shop keeper. He soaked up knowledge wherever he could find it, especially in books, recognizing the power of the written word at a very early age.
During his lifetime he served as a captain during the Black Hawk War, was a member of the Illinois legislature for eight years, put in a number of years at the practice of law, was the founder of the Republican Party, was elected President in 1860 and re-elected in 1864. Lincoln was responsible for The Emancipation Proclamation, which on January 1, 1863, granted immediate freedom to all slaves. In November of that same year he authored and read aloud, during the dedication ceremony for the National Cemetery at Gettysburg, “The Gettysburg Address,” on the battleground site in Pennsylvania, where one of the most important, decisive and bloodiest battles of the Civil War took place. The address connected the call for equality, originally stated in the Declaration of Independence, to the countless sacrifices that were made during the Civil War in order to preserve the union and guarantee freedom for all. Next to the Declaration of Independence, and the Constitution, The Gettysburg Address is arguably the most famous of American historical writings. In addition, his is one of the four faces of American Presidents, along with George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Theodore Roosevelt, that are carved into the side of Mount Rushmore in South Dakota. Sadly, President Lincoln’s life was cut short at the hands of John Wilkes Booth, who assassinated Lincoln at Ford’s Theater on April 14, 1865, while the President was attending a showing of the play “Our American Cousin.”
What I wrote in the preceding paragraphs was meant just to provide some very brief background information on President Lincoln’s life and achievements. Countless books, documentaries, and a fair number of films deal with Lincoln the individual, or a portion of his life. There are certain periods of history and individuals I do find fascinating, and Abraham Lincoln is certainly one such person. I wanted to write a blog about him to commemorate his birthday, but couldn’t decide what to cover. I have already read a great many bloggers’ takes on the Steven Spielberg directed film “Lincoln,” for which Daniel Day Lewis won a much deserved Oscar for Best Actor. The idea to do this blog also came too late for me to sit down and read and review one of the highly regarded biographies written about Lincoln . . . but then it came to me. I could re-watch, one of my favorite episodes from the original “Twilight Zone” series, titled “Back There.” The episode, while it never features an appearance by an actor portraying Lincoln, does raise interesting questions regarding time travel, as well as dealing with one man’s attempt to thwart the assassination.
Originally airing on January 13, 1961, the season 2 “Twilight Zone” episode “Back There” was directed by David Orrick McDearmon, (Peter Gunn) and written by the creator of the series, Rod Serling. The show begins at the Potomac Club in Washington, D.C. There are four men sitting at a table playing cards, while being served drinks by a man named William (Bartlett Robinson); the date is April 14, 1961. A conversation is already in progress. One of the men asks Pete Corrigan “What’s your point?” Corrigan is played by Russell Johnson, who most people know as the professor from the television show “Gilligan’s Island.” Corrigan’s response foreshadows what the episode will be dealing with: “That if it were possible for a person to go back in time there would be nothing in the world to prevent them from altering the course of history. Is that it?” The other gentleman refers to the stock market crash of October 1929, and how if Corrigan could travel in time to the day before the crash, he could prevent any financial damage from happening to him. Corrigan is quick to respond, that perhaps by doing so, he would be the catalyst which set the whole stock market crash in motion in the first place. Corrigan’s argument is that the stock market crash is a fixed date in history and it cannot be changed. The other man is dismissive of Corrigan’s point; after which Corrigan removes himself from the theoretical discussion, and bids good night to his fellow card players. Before leaving the club, William accidently bumps into him, spilling coffee on his suit jacket.
Time travel, probably due to both the length of the episode, as well as the budget for television shows of the era, is not shown in any sort of fantastical way. Corrigan does travel back in time to the night of Lincoln’s assassination, but how he arrives there is never explained; it being the “Twilight Zone,” as opposed to a big budget full length film, or a television show of today, I personally don’t consider it a big deal.
Once Corrigan steps outside the club, he begins to experience sharp pains in his head, as the scene fades in and out of focus. When he regains a bit of his composure, he notices his clothes are different, the electric light that sat outside the club is now a gas lit lamp, and people are no longer driving cars, but are traveling by horse and carriage. Making his mind up to return home, he runs to what he believes is his house, which is located a short distance from the club. Once there he notices there is a sign outside the door for a room to rent, and he begins pounding on the door. He is greeted by Mrs. Landers (Jean Inness), who is none too pleased by his actions. Confused and disoriented, he talks to Mrs. Landers about how he used to live in the house; and that it was the oldest house in the district. She is very dismissive of him, feeling he is playing games with her. However, once he inquires as to the availability of a room to rent and lets her know he is a professional man, an engineer, she is more receptive. Coming down the stairs of the house is a Northern Army Lieutenant (Lew Brown) with his wife (Carol Rossen). The two are off to the theater to see the play “Our American Cousin,” at that moment everything clicks for Corrigan, and he sets off to save President Lincoln’s life.
For his efforts he is knocked on the head by the manager of the theater, taken into custody by D.C. police, and brought in front of the Police Sergeant (Paul Hartman). The Sergeant orders Corrigan to be locked up, to sleep off what he feels is his apparent drunkenness. As he is taken to his cell, Corrigan is still pleading with anyone who will listen as to where and who will shoot the president. One lone patrolman (James Lydon) believes perhaps there is validity to Corrigan’s story, and tries to convince the Sergeant that more of a police presence is needed at Ford’s Theater to protect the President, for which his Sergeant ridicules him.
Almost immediately afterward, a well dressed gentleman by the name of Jonathan Wellington, (John Lasell), arrives at the police station, and spins a story about wanting to help Corrigan. Wellington feels bad because he thinks Corrigan is perhaps a military man who has not gotten over the trauma of battle, or so he tells the desk Sergeant. Corrigan is released into Wellington’s custody, and taken to his house. After pouring Corrigan a glass of wine, Wellington begins to question him as to how he knows that the President is going to be shot that evening, and the identity of the killer. Did he have a premonition? Shortly thereafter, Corrigan feels light headed. He wipes at his forehead with a handkerchief given to him by Wellington, and passes out.
When Corrigan comes out of his stupor, the same policeman who believed that perhaps he was telling the truth arrives at Wellington’s house. According to the maid (Nora Marlowe) who lets the patrolman in, there never was a Jonathan Wellington, because Jonathan Wellington, in actuality, was John Wilkes Booth. Corrigan is terribly distraught, for if they had only listened to him, President Lincoln’s life would have been saved, and history altered forever.
Corrigan returns to the Potomac Club, and is greeted at the door by a man, who is not William, but another attendant, who asks Corrigan if he forgot something. Corrigan is again confused, and asks for William, and is surprised when he finds out there never has been a William who worked at the club. He is further confounded by the fact that, according to the attendant, he only left a mere moment earlier. Returning to the table, he is greeted by his card playing friends, but there is now an additional player at the table, a man named William . . . the same man, who had served the card players drinks at the beginning of the episode, and spilled coffee on Corrigan before he left the club the first time.
The discussion has changed from the theoretical possibilities of time travel to the best way of acquiring wealth. William talks about how he inherited his fortune from his great grandfather, who on the night of President Lincoln’s assassination, ran all over town trying to warn people and get the President extra protection. William informs his friends that no one knew how his great grandfather came about the information, but that also no one ever forgot his efforts to save the President’s life. He received a series of promotions, which included becoming the chief of police, gained access to the wheelers and dealers of the time period, and amassed a fortune. Corrigan knows the truth, but he is smart enough to keep his mouth shut. He does have one piece of concrete evidence clutched in his hand that makes him feel his experience was not all in his imagination – the handkerchief with the initials JWB that came back through time with him.
What I have always found interesting about this episode is that Corrigan’s attitude shifts so dramatically from the opening, to when he travels back in time. He was steadfast in his beliefs that once a date of significant importance is set in history, that it cannot be changed. When faced with the possibility of being able to save President Lincoln’s life, however, he forgets his own beliefs on the subject, and attempts to do just that. Would any of us have acted differently? If time travel is one day possible, can historical tragedies be averted, and what would be the consequences if they were? If major events are, as Corrigan initially surmised, indelibly marked in the annals of time and cannot be changed, to my way of thinking, this episode indicates that if time travel were indeed possible, even though a time traveler could not change a major event, his presence could forever change lives. As in this episode, Corrigan’s presence forever changed the life of William’s great grandfather and his bloodline.