Book Review: “Killing Lincoln” by Bill O’Reilly and Martin Dugard

Book review: “No Night Without Stars” by Andre Norton
November 19, 2011
God’s voice in a scratching sound? an itch?
November 29, 2011
Show all

Book Review: “Killing Lincoln” by Bill O’Reilly and Martin Dugard

You’d never know from reading “Killing Lincoln” that Bill O’Reilly is a conservative political commentator.

O’Reilly, the host of The O’Reilly Factor on the Fox News Channel, doesn’t use this story of the assassination of Abraham Lincoln by John Wilkes Booth on April 14, 1865, to push any particular political agenda. The account that he and his co-author, Martin Dugard, have written doesn’t draw any parallels to modern-day America.

Instead, their aim is to make “Killing Lincoln” a thriller, as O’Reilly says in a Note to Readers at the beginning of the book, and also “a no spin American story.”

As I’ve said, there is no political spin to the book. But there is a story-telling spin.

Like a series of writers over the past century, O’Reilly and Dugard have opted to make “Killing Lincoln” as sensational a story as possible — as opposed to trying to make it as accurate as possible.

Historians who are striving for accuracy weigh multiple sources. They try, to the best of their ability, to determine which statements and accounts are likely to be truthful and which aren’t.

For instance, eyewitness reports, by their nature, tend to be muddled to begin with. But those given at the time of the event are much more trustworthy than those given 30 or 40 years later. Also coming into play in weighing these statements are such factors as the presence or absence of corroborating documents, the inner consistency of the report and how it fits with or goes against other statements by the witness and by other witnesses.

Less interested in accuracy

By contrast, there are writers who are much less interested in accuracy. They want to tell a compelling story — one that will be fun, exciting and easy for readers to digest. One that will sell a lot of copies.

So, they tend to grab and use any shocking, melodramatic and lurid statement or account without worrying about the veracity of the source. They tend to write in a way that gives the impression that every “fact” in their text is fully accepted by historians as a fact, even if it isn’t.

And they tend to fictionalize.

This push for the sensational isn’t a problem when the book is published as a novel. Then, the reader knows that the writer isn’t pretending that everything in the book is factual, prove-able.

But fiction isn’t a big seller nowadays. What sells is a true story because, well, it’s true. People trust that a “true story” — a non-fiction story — is true. That it’s based in reality, not in the imagination. It has more weight than a story that’s been thought up.

The poster child for this sort of fictionalized non-fiction is the 2003 book “The Devil in the White City” by Erik Larson.

This is the approach that O’Reilly and Dugard have taken in “Killing Lincoln.”

Stressing the sensational

In his important 1983 history “The Lincoln Murder Conspiracies,” William Hanchett, a professional historian, writes:

Through the years since 1865, politicians first and then writers have jumped to conclusions, presented assumptions as facts, and succumbed to the temptation of proving hypotheses by distorting the evidence. Especially since the 1930s, writers have stressed the sensational and, in order to arouse the interests of readers, have not scrupled against making outrageous suggestions, telling brazen lies, and committing outright hoaxes. In addition, errors of fact — significant and insignificant — have been repeated over and over again until they have been generally accepted as truths.

I don’t think O’Reilly and Dugard are telling “brazen lies” or hoaxing their readers. But they aren’t above repeating wild conjecture.

In his highly respected 2001 book, “Blood on the Moon: The Assassination of Abraham Lincoln,” Edward Steers, Jr. writes:

The most persistent of all the many myths associated with Lincoln’s assassination is the myth first promulgated by Otto Eisenschiml, an organic chemist, published an account of Lincoln’s assassination that was the first to put forward the theory that [Secretary of War Edwin] Stanton was behind Lincoln’s murder. By carefully manipulating the data and using titillating innuendo, Eisenschiml caught the imagination of a conspiracy-prone public. For the next sixty years Eisenschiml’s false theories remained a prominent part of the Lincoln story. Today they form the major basis for the television industry’s “documentary” reports on Lincoln’s death.

No historian concerned about accuracy takes the Stanton-as-head-conspirator idea seriously. But O’Reilly and Dugard trot it for its shock value:

The connection between [Lafayette] Baker, Booth, and Stanton continues to intrigue and befuddle scholars. Why was Baker, a spy, paid an exorbitant amount for his services? And why did John Wilkes Booth secure a healthy payment from the same company?

Clues such as this point to Stanton’s involvement, but no concrete connection has ever been proven. Circumstantially, he was involved. Secretary Stanton employed Baker, who was in regular contact with [John] Surratt and Booth. Some historians believe that Stanton fired Baker as a cover and that the two remained in close contact.

Or so the elaborate theory goes.

Factual?

This is a powerful charge to make — that the Secretary of War was behind the killing of Lincoln. If O’Reilly and Dugard believe it to be true, why don’t they write more about it? They repeat these suspicions later in “Killing Lincoln” but, as in these paragraphs, just as a passing reference.

If they don’t believe it to be true, why even mention it?

To my mind, this is a key example of the sloppiness of their approach to telling the story of Lincoln’s assassination. It’s sensational to suggest that Stanton was a villain, so they throw it in. They’re not worried about whether it’s accurate or not.

Another example of sloppiness is the slipshod way the co-authors deal with simple facts.

For instance, on page 131, they state, “Photographs of his [U.S. Grant’s] bearded, expressionless face have been on the front pages of newspapers for more than a year.” However, the first use of a photograph in a newspaper wasn’t until 1880.

Three paragraphs below that, O’Reilly and Dugard say that Grant met with Lincoln in the Oval Office. But there was no Oval Office in the White House until 1909.

On page 201, while describing the attack on Secretary of State William Seward, they say on one line that he was guarded by Sgt. George Robinson. But, on the next line, they refer to the guard as Private Robinson.

Such glaring mistakes aren’t fatal flaws. But they send a message that the authors weren’t all that worried about accuracy when they were writing the book.

Another aspect of the sloppiness of “Killing Lincoln” is the failure of O’Reilly and Dugard to provide source notes to show readers where they got their facts. (They have a Notes section, but that simply lists various books they consulted.)

For this reason, it’s difficult to know if events or situations presented in the book are based on some document or something a witness wrote or said.

For instance, on page 91, O’Reilly and Dugard write that, four days before the assassination, Booth went to a pistol range to practice shooting with a .44-caliber Deringer.

I’m not Lincoln expert, but I’ve read a lot about him and about the assassination and Booth. I’ve never seen anything to indicate that Booth went to a shooting range on April 10. That’s a very interesting factoid.

But is it a fact?

Unanswerable question

That’s an unanswerable question for two reasons. The co-authors don’t provide notes so there’s no way for me to look up the source of the reference and, as a reader, weigh for myself its trustworthiness.

The other reason: O’Reilly and Dugard do a lot of fictionalizing in “Killing Lincoln.” But they don’t indicate what they’re making up and what they’re getting from the historical record.

In this case, it’s clear that, even if there is some mention of Booth going to the pistol range on April 10, the co-authors are making up at least some of what they write about this moment.

He fires.

Booth scrutinizes the target. Satisfied, he reloads his single-shot .44-caliber Deringer. His mood is a mixture of rage and despondence….

Booth fires his last shot, slides the Deringer into his pocket, and storms out the door, only to once again find the streets full of inebriated revelers. Outranged, he steps into a tavern and knocks back a drink. John Wilkes Booth thinks hard about what comes next. “Our cause being almost lost, something decisive and great must be done,” he tells himself.

What Booth says to himself

First of all, I highly doubt anyone, including Booth, wrote about the specific actions that Booth may have taken at the shooting range, such as storming out the door. O’Reilly and Dugard seem to have imagined how it might have gone.

Even more significant is their decision to tell what Booth is thinking at these moments— how he’s rageful and despondent, and what he says to himself.

They do this throughout the book. They tell the reader what Booth is thinking, what he is feeling. And not only Booth. Lincoln, too. On page 174, they write:

At the War Department, Lincoln once again invites Stanton and telegraph chief Major Thomas Eckert, the man who can break fireplace pokers over his arms, to attend Our American Cousin that night. Both men turn him down once again. Lincoln is upset at their rejection, but he doesn’t show it outwardly.

I’m sorry, but there is no way that O’Reilly and Dugard can know how Lincoln felt, especially if he didn’t “show it outwardly.”

Okay, the usual defense for this sort of fictionalizing is that (a) it’s harmless and (b) it must have or could have happened the way the writers have presented it.

Yes, if there is some historical record showing that Booth went to a pistol range on April 10, it’s possible, maybe likely, that he was filled with anger. But the co-authors don’t know that. They can’t know that.

Sure, Lincoln may have been upset after being turned down by Stanton and Eckert. It’s possible. But O’Reilly and Dugard have no way of knowing that.

So, in a book supposedly built on facts, O’Reilly and Dugard are making up a lot of stuff. To such an extent that a better title might have been “Killing Lincoln: How It Must Have, Or Could Have Happened.”

Not harmless

And making stuff up like this isn’t harmless.

Because there is so much in the pages of “Killing Lincoln” that’s created out of thin air and because there are no notes to indicate sources, how can the reader know if something is based on the historical record or was conjured up in the imaginations of O’Reilly and Dugard?

On page 29, for example, they state that Booth and his secret fiancé Lucy Lambert Hale checked into the Aquidneck House hotel in Newport, R.I., on April 4, registering as “J.W. Booth and Lady.” And, that afternoon, they made love.

The lack of source notes means the reader can’t tell how O’Reilly and Dugard know Booth checked into that hotel that day. And can’t tell how they know that Hale was the “Lady” with him.

The reader can pretty much figure out that O’Reilly and Dugard are guessing about the lovemaking.

The pernicious aspect of this sensational approach to writing about the past is that it’s fairly easy to write a gripping, page-turner of a story about some historic event if you don’t limit yourself to the facts and don’t worry about accuracy.

At a disadvantage

Historians who are striving to be precise and meticulous find themselves at a disadvantage. Their work can seem dry and slow when compared to the free-wheeling, thrilling text of a book like “Killing Lincoln.”

Historians who have accuracy and truth as top priorities can’t put themselves into Booth’s head because no one knows what Booth was thinking at any particular moment, except what he might have written in a letter or a diary.

They can’t put themselves into Lincoln’s head except by reading something he wrote.

They can’t describe events for which there is no historical record.

Their job has much to do with nuance and interpretation. At the heart of their work is a recognition that it’s impossible to know or tell the full story. The study of history is always messy. There are always loose ends. There are always unknowns.

O’Reilly and Dugard aren’t shackled by such considerations.

There are a million copies of their book in print.

Patrick T. Reardon
11.29.11

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *