Violence Unchained

History professor’s new book tells true story of pre-Civil War violence

Book cover: Flush Times and Fever Dreams
Dr. Joshua Rothman’s book, Flush Times & Fever Dreams, describes an outbreak of violence in 1830s Mississippi that writers for The Daily Beast and UK’s MailOnline have likened to the plot of Quentin Tarantino’s latest film.

Django Unchained’s recent Oscar success has again put a spotlight on the film’s controversial subject matter, which depicts slavery in the pre-Civil War South with a high level of graphic violence.

History professor Dr. Joshua Rothman says that while the violence in the film was obviously designed to shock and entertain, it’s not an unfair depiction of the era.

“The notion that a single person, white or black, could get away with the kind of carnage the character of Django does and get out alive is patently ridiculous,” Rothman says. “That said, enslaved people were vulnerable and subjected to astonishing kinds of violence on a regular basis. The bottom line was that as a system, slavery was predicated on violence and the fear of violence, which meant beatings, whippings, brandings, sexual assault, and rape were standard tools of the regime, used to keep the enslaved in line and to punish those who stepped out of it.”

In his new book Flush Times & Fever Dreams: A Story of Capitalism and Slavery in the Age of Jackson, Rothman investigates an extraordinary true story of such pre-Civil War violence. The book tells the story of Virgil Stewart and his conspiracy theory pamphlet, which proposed that a petty criminal from West Tennessee named John Murrell was planning to launch the largest slave rebellion the South had ever seen. Rothman says the pamphlet became a catalyst for violence throughout the region.

“When some planters in Mississippi became convinced that that insurrection was about to happen in their neighborhood, hysteria ensued,” Rothman explains. “Ultimately, about two dozen black and white men were executed, including many who had been tortured, beaten, and intimidated to extract confessions about the supposed plot and to implicate others.”

Rothman says his interest in this violent period of American history grew out of the story of Murrell and Stewart.  “I stumbled on that, essentially by accident, and it led me to a world where the quest for money, land, and power produced ruthless and relentless violence. It’s not a pretty story. But it’s an important one that’s worth remembering, given how often greed can crowd out basic human decency across time.”