A pair of ornate, Civil War-era Deringer pistols brought crews with PBS’s “History Detectives” to Frankfort as they explored the story of Maj. John Thompson, the guns’ original owner.
The only shred of evidence found with the Deringers was Thompson’s prisoner of war parole slip from May 1865, one month after the Civil War’s end.
Host Wes Cowan, who grew up 40 miles outside Owensboro, enlisted the help of Tony Curtis, research associate for the Kentucky Historical Society’s Civil War Governors of Kentucky project, to uncover more about Thompson’s role as a Confederate officer during the conflict.
Cowan and Curtis were putting together an episode of “History Detectives” that airs on 9 p.m. Tuesday on KET.
Thompson’s Deringers, given to Dulcie Bomberger of Frederick, Md., by her father after he bought them from an antique dealer, came with a complete case and had been appraised at $30,000 on a Feb. 13 episode of PBS’s “Antiques Roadshow.”
The appraiser said the guns, made in 1845, could be worth more if Bomberger had more information on Thompson, whose name was engraved on the pistols.
Film crews spent a day at the Thomas D. Clark Center for Kentucky History in January, Curtis said. While the entire segment lasts about 20 minutes, Curtis said he spent about 20 hours researching Thompson’s story.
Curtis found that Thompson, a circuit clerk in Owensboro who owned nine slaves, was one of the first Confederate sympathizers to raise a company of soldiers in Kentucky during the war. He was caught behind enemy lines enlisting soldiers in Owensboro in May 1863 and imprisoned at Johnson’s Island near Sandusky, Ohio, until his release two years later.
Thompson was set to face the firing squad before the Confederacy intervened and released a Union officer in exchange for his life.
“There were pretty powerful people writing on his behalf,” Curtis said. “… They finally get him from being shot to being imprisoned for the rest of the war, so he spends the rest of the time as a POW on Johnson’s Island.”
Curtis is eagerly anticipating Tuesday’s premiere and wants to see how his segment fits in the show. “History Detectives” was his first time researching for and appearing on a TV show, and Curtis says he’d gladly lend a hand for similar projects in the future.
“I like doing research like that,” he said. “That’s why I’m in the field as a historian. I think that’s what we (KHS) as an organization offer not only to our members but to all visitors.
“We have resources here – not only artifact collections and manuscript collections, but there’s some expertise here at the historical society as well. It was fun, and I definitely enjoyed it.”
The show centers around Cowan’s research into Thompson, but someone had to bring the man to life. Reenactor Tony Downs, radio section supervisor with the Transportation Cabinet, donned a grey Confederate officer’s uniform and played the role of Thompson.
Downs, of Waddy, said producers on “History Detectives” contacted him through Nicky Hughes, curator of historic sites for the city, in December. Hughes also helped ensure Downs wore the appropriate uniform, the reenactor said.
Downs was an extra in the 1999 movie “Ride with the Devil,” but this is his first experience in a prominent role on camera. While his face won’t appear on the screen, Downs is letting people know about the premiere through Facebook.
“Probably too much,” he said with a chuckle. “… I made an event on Facebook and invited a lot of my friends to remind them. When they first sent me the email saying the date it was going to be airing, I immediately did a status update on Facebook.”
Downs’ segments – from horse riding in fields to writing letters at a desk – were shot on the Old Versailles Road farm of former Auditor of Public Accounts Crit Luallen, whose niece Lucy Blackburn is the show’s supervising producer and recommended the location.
The farm has been the setting of a number of political advertisements throughout the years, so Luallen knew what to expect when filming began.
“I think they moved every stick of furniture in my house when they were through,” Luallen said, laughing. “… It was easy for us because my niece was involved, and she knew all of the participants so it made for a very friendly and collegial experience. We had a good day together.”
Blackburn, who went to Capital Day School and often visits Louisville, says the farm offered a historically accurate locale for the reenactments. Crews also shot scenes at the Franklin County Sportsmen’s Club to show the Deringer’s accuracy problems and Rick’s White Light Diner while Cowan looked up Thompson’s records on his laptop.
“Obviously you wish there could be more footage,” Blackburn said in a phone interview from her New York City office. “It was three days, which translates probably into about 16 hours of actual footage, which goes into 16 minutes, but it just looks beautiful.”