Sunday, October 23, 2016
  • Friday, Mar. 25, 2016
New TV segments tell of fateful twists that changed history
In this undated image provided by the History Channel, Elizabeth Shapiro, left, and Wayne Knight perform in the "King Louis XIV" episode of the television production "The Crossroads of History." (History Channel via AP)
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You've probably never heard of John Frederick Parker, but he lives on in infamy as the thirsty bodyguard who left Ford's Theatre - and President Lincoln's side - to get a drink at the bar across the street.

If Parker hadn't bailed on Lincoln during intermission, would assassin John Wilkes Booth have managed to fire the fatal shot?

Such seemingly innocuous moments are examined in "Crossroads of History," a new series airing Thursdays at 11:30 p.m. EDT as part of the History Channel's "Night Class."

"Moments like that are so insane to me," said creator Elizabeth Shapiro, who grew up near Boston. "It's been easy to find the humor in these moments because the characters involved are so deliciously unaware of how significant their place in history is about to be."

Another infamous coincidence that got the Shapiro treatment dates from the Civil War era. The Union was losing the war against the Confederacy. But the tide turned when Union soldier Barton W. Mitchell, walking around Best Farm in Maryland, found three cigars wrapped in a piece of paper that would later become known as Special Order 191.

"It really was 99 percent that the Confederates were going to win," Shapiro said. "Then this amazing thing happened."

The paper contained Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee's detailed instructions for his army's next moves. After gaining the intelligence, the Union scored a victory at the Battle of Antietam, known as the bloodiest day in American history and a turning point in the war.

Shapiro, a Chelsea, Massachusetts, native now living in Los Angeles, said the inspiration to create "Crossroads of History" stemmed from a skit she wrote about the young Adolf Hitler's rejections from art school.

"No one could know this at the time, but the fate of the 20th century had been sealed," she said.

Shapiro grabbed some fellow comedy friends who helped film the skit. Then she started working on an expanded series.

"There's no shortage of these moments," she said.

Women's suffrage, for example, which it turns out almost didn't happen in 1920.

Harry Burn, a first term congressman in Tennessee, is known for casting the deciding vote in favor of the 19th Amendment. But before the amendment could become law, 36 states needed to pass it. Burn was squarely opposed - that is, until a letter from his mother arrived advising him to change positions. Because of that vote from an obedient son, Tennessee became the decisive 36th state to ratify.

"Crossroads of History" premiered on Feb. 25 and runs through June.

"We have to be careful with what we do in the world because the actions of one moron can completely send the world spinning in the wrong direction," Shapiro said.