Of all the places you’d expect to find Bill O’Reilly’s “Killing Lincoln: The Shocking Assassination That Changed America Forever,” Ford’s Theatre, the site of the dreadful act, should rank at the top. But you’d do better to search for the history bestseller on Amazon.com, because you won’t find it at the theater’s store.
For a history of the assassination — an “unsanitized and uncompromising . . . no spin American story,” as O’Reilly and coauthor Martin Dugard put it, “Killing Lincoln” suffers from factual errors and a lack of documentation, according to a study conducted by Rae Emerson, the deputy superintendent of Ford’s Theatre National Historic Site, which is a unit of the National Park Service. Emerson’s review recommended that the book not be sold at Ford Theatre’s store.
While the National Park Service does not carry “Killing Lincoln” in the theater’s basement museum bookstore, Ford’s Theatre Society, which operates Ford’s Theatre in partnership with the park service, sells the book in its gift shop in the ground-floor lobby.
“We decided several weeks ago to carry Bill O’Reilly’s book ‘Killing Lincoln’ in the Ford’s Theatre Society gift shop,” said Paul R. Tetreault, director of Ford’s Theatre Society. “While we understand the National Park Service’s concerns about the book, we decided to let our visitors judge the book themselves.”
Henry Holt, the publisher of “Killing Lincoln,” said it was not able to provide comment. O’Reilly did not respond to a request for comment.
Other Lincoln experts also say they have found inaccuracies in the book. In a review published in the November issue of “North & South — The Official Magazine of the Civil War Society,” historian Edward Steers Jr. cites several instances where the book strays from documented history. He then asks: “If the authors made mistakes in names, places, and events, what else did they get wrong? How can the reader rely on anything that appears in ‘Killing Lincoln’?”
By taking on Lincoln, O’Reilly and Dugard have set themselves up for avid scrutiny. Few presidents, indeed few subjects, are as voluminously researched and fought over as Lincoln. Steers notes that more than 16,000 books and articles have been written about Lincoln, with more than 125 volumes on the assassination. He adds that only eight of the assassination books were written by professional historians.
Eric Foner, a history professor at Columbia University who has written about the Civil War, Lincoln and the South for 40 years, said that he had not read “Killing Lincoln,” but added in an e-mail, “Many people outside the academy have written about Lincoln and the assassination, but all sorts of unproven theories about it abound and one would hope that any writer would make use of all the relevant sources (and avoid historical errors).”
“Killing Lincoln” has no footnotes. An afterword on sources lists “books, websites, and other archived information.” But to Steers, the list leaves out important primary documents.
“The authors have chosen to write a story based . . . [on] a few dozen secondary books that range from excellent to positively dreadful . . . [with] no vetting . . . treating them as equal,” Steers writes.
Among the criteria that earn a book a place in the Ford’s Theatre store are that it is “historically accurate . . . has relevant citations [and uses] primary resources with documentation,” Emerson notes in her report.
Some of the errors that experts have pointed out in “Killing Lincoln” are minor. According to Steers, the authors misidentified theater owner John Ford’s chief carpenter as James J. Clifford; his name was James J. Gifford. Emerson says the book was wrong about the number of times the play “Our American Cousin” was performed at Ford’s Theatre before Lincoln saw it on that fateful night. In the O’Reilly-Dugard account, there were eight previous performances; in fact, there were seven.
Also, the farm of Samuel Mudd, the doctor who was convicted of conspiring in the assassination, was 217 acres, according to Steers, not 500 acres as O’Reilly and Dugard write. O’Reilly and Dugard place Lincoln in the Oval Office, a feature of the White House that didn’t exist until 1909, during the Taft administration.
What most irks Steers is the book’s portrait of conspirator Mary Surratt. O’Reilly and Dugard write that when she wasn’t on trial, she had to wear a padded hood that disfigured her and made her claustrophobic; that she was “sick and trapped” in a cell that was “barely hospitable” aboard the monitor Montauk; and that she had “a haunted, bloated appearance” because of the experience. To which Steers replies: “None of this is true. Mary Surratt was never shackled or hooded at any time. She was never imprisoned aboard the Montauk. . . . This mischaracterization of Mary Surratt is unfortunate, and helps to perpetuate the myth of her innocence and her brutal treatment at the hands of the Federal government.”
Since its September release, “Killing Lincoln” has been atop bestseller lists. And soon after its publication, O’Reilly signed a contract to write two more books, one of which will be another presidential history.
For all his criticisms, Steers praises the narrative as a “pleasant read.” He seems more disappointed than indignant over its failings. “Had the authors done their homework and made use of the available sources of primary documents, they would have written a book much closer to actual facts. They missed a golden opportunity.”
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