IUPUI professor helps PBS series ‘Mercy Street’ accurately portray Civil War hospital drama

Like millions of other viewers, English professor Jane Schultz couldn’t wait to watch the second season of “Mercy Street,” the PBS Civil War-era hospital drama, beginning Jan. 22.

Inspired by real events in Alexandria, Virginia, and based on diaries and letters of hospital staff, the series has the ring of authority. As one of four full-time advisors to “Mercy Street,” Schultz, a literary scholar and cultural historian who has spent nearly 30 years revealing the world of Civil War hospitals and medicine, contributes her extensive knowledge of that period to make it so.

“Mercy Street” is PBS’s first original drama in more than a decade. Nearly 6 million viewers watched the first season’s premiere a year ago.

The series’ producers invited Schultz to come to Richmond, Virginia, where “Mercy Street” hospital scenes are shot. She spent a week and a half last June watching scenes for the second season being filmed in an old girls school that serves as the show’s Mansion House Hospital.

She not only watched, but joined the cast as an extra for one scene.

Jane Schultz in period costume

Jane Schultz in period costume

If the scene isn’t cut, viewers will see Schultz for about 15 seconds in the background, talking to a patient in a wheelchair and then walking away from him.

While the scene is only seconds long, it took three hours for her to be dressed in a corset and hoop skirt and have her hair and makeup done.

Schultz plans to write about the insights that experience gave her into the position of women in the 19th century for the series’ blog. “It gave me a new insight by walking in their shoes, quite literally,” she said.

Schultz wrote six blog posts for the first season and will write six more for the second season. The first six posts are still on the PBS site.

The experience of being on a shooting set was “tremendously fun and interesting,” Schultz said. “I’m a literary scholar, and I’ve worked in many archives and libraries, but I’ve never worked in a place where there was cinematic shooting going on.

“I gained a new respect and fascination for how hard these folks work to put out a quality piece of drama. It just floored me to see the extent to which people focus on the details of production — from what sort of props are sitting in a hospital room to what the color of mud or blood needs to be in a particular situation.

“I was amazed at how much trouble all of the production staff go to, from the camera people to the people who dye the fabrics to look really old and worn to people who are managing wardrobe and hair and makeup and all of that.

“They spare no detail to make it look authentic, and the same thing happens with the script. We debate every nuance because they want it to look real,” Schultz said.

The task confronting “Mercy Street” is to interpret from written text what things looked like during that period. There are some photographs from that era, but the richest field of representation is what people wrote at the time or a few years later, Schultz said: “And from that you have to construct a visual world.”

In one scene, Schultz happened to notice that upper shelves in a room for patients were empty. She talked to the set designer, pointing out that the Civil War hospital would likely have filled the shelves with supplies because hospitals often didn’t have places to put them.

“There were no storerooms, so they had to use every available bit of space to store all the stuff they did have,” she said. “We worked it out, and the next day, there was stuff on those shelves.”

“To see them re-create this world and pay such close attention to making it seem that it’s really that Civil War place is quite wonderful and thrilling,” Schultz said.

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