The Mysterious Bard of Sangamo: Early Illinois poet brought to life in new video production
Illinois State Historical Society
John Hancock, a well-traveled, heart-broken poet, arrived in Springfield in the summer of 1831. His journey began in Cornwall, England, in the late 18th century, with stops in Italy, France, London (where he studied law), and Canada before his arrival in the Sangamo Country, where he secured a job selling whisky and sundries in Jacob Capps’ Grocery. According to ISHS director John Hallwas, professor emeritus of history and English at Western Illinois University and a Medievalist who has written more than 20 books about Illinois history and culture, Hancock was the finest poet in the Midwest in the 1830s, a writer of exceptional depth who wanted to capture the Prairie experience in verse. He succeeded admirably. Hallwas’ book, The Poetry of H: Lost Poet of Lincoln’s Springfield (Ellis Press, 1982), is the basis for his new play, The Mysterious Bard of Sangamo, which was recorded this past summer and is now available for viewing at https://vimeo.com/626671152/daae07f0cc.
The 55-minute play stars Victor Holstein as John Hancock and was filmed in Springfield at the Elijah Iles House and various other locations in the county. Holstein, originally from Springfield, is a Chicago actor with television and film credits with Chicago MD, Chicago PD, Other People’s Children, and Good Genes. More recently he has accepted an understudy role at the prestigious Steppenwolf Theater.
The play is set in 1833, when Hancock was a storekeeper in Jabez Capps’ Grocery. Hancock is known to have written and published more than 70 poems in the Sangamo Journal and its successor, the Illinois State Journal, and it is these poems that are the foundation of Hallwas’ script. When The Poetry of H was first published, Hallwas was unable to identify Hancock by name, as the poet signed his work only with the initial “H.” It took several years of research in Springfield and in London before Hallwas nailed down Hancock’s identity. “I finally found his name in a newspaper ad for the grocery, published in the Sangamo Journal,” Hallwas said. He had been looking for poems, not ads.
The play is a commemoration of the 200th anniversary of Sangamon County, established in the fall of 1821, and takes place over the course of a day. Hancock engages with the audience as if he were visiting with them in his store, telling stories—mostly in poetry—of early Springfield, including the arrival of the steamboat Talisman, the Black Hawk War of 1832, the winter of the deep snow, and the fledging city’s ongoing battle with the local temperance society. In the play’s second act, Hancock gets introspective, talking about his childhood in the land of King Arthur, the death of his sweetheart, and the meaning of life on the frontier.
The video was shot by Crowdson Creative’s videographers Brian Crowdson and Ren Nickerson, who did most of the editing in their Springfield studio. The video will be screened at Springfield’s Lincoln Library, 321 S. 7th Street, on Tuesday, November 16 at 5:30 p.m., but seating will be limited due to COVID 19 restrictions for public spaces. The showing is sponsored by the Sangamon County Historical Society, which gave the ISHS a grant for $750 to help complete the project.