Friday, December 9, 2011

The Curator’s Corner: A Review of Bill O'Reilly's "Killing Lincoln"

It is estimated that since Abraham Lincoln’s death  approximately 17,000 books have been written on this man—enough books to more than fill a multitude of books shelves.   In that span of time, historians and non-historians have examined nearly every aspect of Lincoln’s life churning out volumes and selling those to a public who has a seemingly inexhaustible fascination for knowing more about our greatest American.    Combine a popular commodity such as like Lincoln, a gripping topic such as assassination, and an author with a household name and the result is the perfect ingredient for a blockbuster.     Perhaps that is what is making the recent release Killing Lincoln from Bill O’Reilly and Martin Dugard (Henry Holt & Co., 2011, 336 pages) a hot conversation piece in historical literary circles.     Indeed, as far as sales, Killing Lincoln is not a disappointment.    At the time of this writing, it is number two on the New York Times bestseller list in the non-fiction category.    Unfortunately, the “non-fiction” ascription is where the book falters. 

On paper, O’Reilly and his partner Dugard don’t just have the names, but also boast impressive enough credentials to produce a historical work.    O’ Reilly—while better known as a FOX News analyst on the highly popular O’Reilly Factor show—is a Harvard-educated former high school teacher with a degree in history.   Dugard is an accomplished writer, having tackled such varied topics as Christoper Columbus and King Tut to the television show Survivor, to his own personal experiences as a runner.    However, those résumés fail to deliver a well-researched and accurate account of the assassination of Abraham Lincoln.     Killing Lincoln is saddled with numerous historical errors, misrepresentations, and half-baked conspiracy theories.

Some of the more egregious errors that O’Reilly and Dugard commit relate to their rehashing of the worn-out and long since debunked conspiracy theory that Secretary of War Edwin Stanton was behind the assassination of Lincoln.    This harks back to the 1937 very flawed Otto Eisenschiml book, Why Was Lincoln Murdered?    Eisenschiml manipulated War Department files to paint Stanton as a co-conspirator in the plot to bring down Lincoln.   Jim Bishop followed that two decades later in his equally appalling The Day Lincoln Was Shot.   Both books have since been sufficiently discredited as myth, with Bishop later even referring to his own book as a “piece of ____.”    William Hanchett, Edward Steers, and Michael Kauffman among others have generally accepted Stanton’s involvement as fallacious.   Yet O’Reilly and Dugard turn to that, without producing any new evidence or research of why that fabricated legend should be accepted.    The duo write that Stanton’s role “continues to intrigue and befuddle scholars,” (p 121) but the only thing that might befuddle scholars is why O’Reilly and Dugard wish to continue to pass this “elaborate theory” as they call it as fact.   If “there are those who believe,” (p. 287) as they write, that Stanton was involved, those people are only O’Reilly and Dugard, and those who unfortunately are duped by reading Killing Lincoln. 

To play into their conspiracy fable, O’Reilly and Dugard play good cop bad cop with several of the key players.   They uphold William Crook of the D.C. Metropolitan Police as “Lincoln’s responsible bodyguard,” as opposed to  John Parker, “Lincoln’s irresponsible bodyguard” (p. 289) who was assigned to guard Lincoln the night he was assassinated but then “abandoned” his station when Lincoln was in the box.   Unfortunately,  further research into the assigned duties of Lincoln’s bodyguards would have led the authors to the reality that different from today’s concept of bodyguards, the only role of the Metropolitan Police then was to escort them from one location to another and not as 24-hour watch.   Thus Parker was certainly not derelict as the authors incorrectly contend.   To the authors’ nearly heroic portrayal of Crook—writing that “his affection for Lincoln is enormous… treating him like a child that must be protected,” (p. 36) historians have long since relied little upon Crook’s embellished accounts.   The account that on the night of the assassination Lincoln relayed to Crook that “other men have been assassinated,” (p. 174) and upon their departure Lincoln said “goodbye” to Crook for the first time instead of the usual “goodnight” (p. 180) makes for the terrific dramatic suspense that O’Reilly and Dugard aim for, but adds little to historical reality and veracity.  

There are several errors to which O’Reilly has charged his critics as being nitpicky.   To be fair, to some extent he might be right asserting this.   Mistakes such as the size of the farm where John Wilkes Booth hid following the assassination was 217 instead of 500; or that the authors refer to the Ford’s Theatre carpenter’s name as Clifford instead of Gifford; or their contention that conspirator Lewis Powell spoke with an Alabama drawl when he was from Florida, are all issues which rile only the historical purists and arguably might border on excessive fault finding.    However, more serious blunders including referring to Lincoln’s office as the Oval Office when the latter was not part of the White House until 50 years later should be known to someone who has covered White House politics as O’Reilly has.    Much more erroneous is the statement that Stanton ran against Lincoln in 1860—when he clearly did not—should not escape even the simplest credible amateur writers of history.  

Perhaps the most damning criticism of the book is the lack of citing.   Not one statement or quotation is cited or credited to any particular source.   The notes in Killing Lincoln resort to a “brief list” (their words) of books they consulted “among others” (again their words).   Not surprisingly the flawed Jim Bishop book is listed one of their sources.     Both writers, one trained in history and the other in writing, should know better and no book should ever qualify as trustworthy and reliable if the authors cannot take the time and effort to document their “research” if in this case one can call it research.

These noted errors aside, Killing Lincoln found immediate criticism even before its September release.    O’Reilly is widely perceived as a polemical, vocal, right-wing political commentator, and not a historian; thus, in advance of its release, speculation rose that the book would be biased and carry a hidden or not-so-hidden political agenda.    Because O’Reilly is who he is, some historians blasted the book before they ever really read it.   Prize-winning historian Eric Foner upon hearing the book was riddled with mistakes commented, “I would not be surprised if there were historical errors as O’Reilly is better known as a TV polemicist than a scholar.”   Surprising to many however, Killing Lincoln is devoid of any obvious political slant.    Sadly, where bias might exist in this case is on the side of historians rather than O’Reilly.   Several years ago, former New York governor Mario Cuomo wrote his discourse Why Lincoln Matters, which in summation argued that if Abraham Lincoln were president today he would be a liberal Democrat and would disagree with the policies of George W. Bush.   The political agenda there was evident, yet many in the historical community either embraced or were strangely silent in criticism of Cuomo.  Such activity bolsters claims by O’Reilly and his defenders that “unbiased” historians are the ones who sometimes exercise political agendas.  

I reserve a little bit of praise for Killing Lincoln.    While I do not recommend it to anyone to read who desires an accurate description of the assassination of Lincoln, I applaud O’Reilly and Dugard for the same reason I applaud Cuomo for his book or Seth Grahame-Smith for Lincoln: Vampire Hunter.    Each of those is seriously flawed in its own way, yet each instigated historical dialogue and appreciation for history in many.    There is no doubt that Killing Lincoln has caused people to talk about Lincoln history.   There is no doubt that Vampire Hunter and Killing Lincoln, while appalling to historians, are successes and have allowed many people previously ignorant to any history to be interested.   And what is so bad as that?   It demonstrates that Abraham Lincoln still matters and still relates to us 150 years later.  Yes, there is a fear that a novice reader might read Killing Lincoln and now accept it as fact errors included.   Or maybe, what is more likely is that the same reader who may never have read a book on historical fiction now will suddenly want to read more.    What is the harm in that?  

Some book of history inspired and eventually yielded a great assassination writer such as James Swanson just as some book did Bill O’Reilly.   My first personal exposure as a youth to Abraham Lincoln was Stefan Lorant’s amazing photo biography, but also Jim Bishop’s faulty but compelling The Day Lincoln Was Shot.    They both turned me on to history, and I my historical journey began, as I read all I could.    Likewise, Killing Lincoln might be that source of inspiration for others.  May it spur more people to reach for the bookshelves and devour much better books on Lincoln’s assassination, or perhaps someday inspire them to add to the 17,000 books out there on Lincoln.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Thank You!

The Lincoln Heritage Museum would like to thank all veterans, current members of the armed forces and their families for their commitment, dedication, and sacrifice for our country. In rememberace of this important day here is a letter President Lincoln wrote to a series of men expressing his gratituted for the soldiers who were fighting for the Union Army during the Civil War:

Messrs. George Opdyke, Jos. Sutherland, Executive Mansion,
Benj. F. Manierre, Prosper M. Wetmore Washington,
and Spencer Kirby, Committee. Dec. 2, 1863.

Yours of the 28th. ult. inviting me to be present at a meeting to be held at the Cooper Institute, on the 3rd. Inst. to promote the raising of volunteers, is received. Nothing would be more grateful to my feelings, or better accord with my judgment than to contribute, if I could, by my presence, or otherwise, to that eminently patriotic object. Nevertheless the now early meeting of congress, together with a temporary illness, render my attendance impossible.

You purpose also to celebrate our Western victories. Freed from apprehension of wounding the just sensibilities of brave soldiers fighting elsewhere, it would be exceedingly agreeable to me to join in a suitable acknowledgment to those of the Great West, with whom I was born, and have passed my life. And it is exceedingly gratifying that a portion lately of the Army of the Potomac, but now serving with the great army of the West, have borne so conspicuous a part in the late brilliant triumphs in Georgia.

Honor to the Soldier, and Sailor everywhere, who bravely bears his country's cause. Honor also to the citizen who cares for his brother in the field, and serves, as he best can, the same cause---honor to him, only less than to him, who braves, for the common good, the storms of heaven and the storms of battle. Your Obt. Servt


[2 December 1863, Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, Vol.7]

Monday, September 12, 2011

Thinking back on 9/11

 Ten years since the attacks on the World Trade Center on September 11th we still remember where we were that day and the lives that were lost. In remembrance of that day the Lincoln Heritage Museum had a “September 11th Commemoration” where memories of that day were shared and those who lost their lives were thought of.  During this commemoration Ms. Vicki Selvaggio an American Airlines flight attendant told her story of that day and Michelle Fletcher shared a poem she wrote on that day. In addition we had Steve Scaife, a member of the St. Andrews Pipe Band perform Amazing Grace in memory of the individuals who lost their lives during the attacks on 9/11. After the program everyone came into the museum and looked at the steel beam from the  World Trade Center, sharing their memories of that day.

When we think about our everyday routine we should include "rolling up our sleeves and getting our hands dirty" in our community, working to make things better everywhere, and, to quote Abraham Lincoln from the Gettysburg Address, "resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain, that this nation under God shall have a new birth of freedom, and that government of the people, by the people, for the people shall not perish from the earth."

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

9/11 Remembrance Program

The Lincoln Heritage Museum will be hosting a 10-year anniversary remembrance of the September 11th attacks on Thursday, September 8, 2011 at the museum, which is located on Lincoln College’s campus in Lincoln, Illinois. The remembrance program is free and open to all ages.   

The program, set to begin at 7 p.m., will feature remarks from Vicki Selvaggio of Springfield, who donated a United Airlines flight attendant’s jacket to the museum in 2002. Selvaggio was wearing the flight attendant’s jacket on layover in New York City on the morning of September 11, 2001. 

The program will also include the music of Steve Scaife, a member of the St. Andrews Pipe Band, who will perform several solemn selections. Michelle Fletcher of Lincoln will read her moving poem that she wrote in honor of the victims of the attacks.  

The Lincoln Heritage Museum is in possession of several historical pieces with relevance to September 11th, most notably a piece of Tower One of the World Trade Center, which was donated to the museum by the City of New York in 2002. The piece from Tower One has attracted numerous visitors since its arrival.

Following the acquisition of the Tower One piece, the John Chan family of Peoria donated to the museum several items related to their son, Chip, who died in Tower One.

New York Governor George Pataki also donated the address which he gave to the New York state legislature following the attacks, which remains the only copy of the address in any public or private hands.   

As a show of solidarity, the Lincoln Cathedral in Lincoln, England sent a letter of sympathy to Lincoln, Illinois. 

Those items on exhibit can be viewed following the program.

For more information, please contact the Lincoln Heritage Museum at 217-732-3155. 

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Capturing A Man's Character

This day in 1860, for a "fifth" and final time, Republican presidential candidate Lincoln poses for Philadelphia, Pennsylvania artist John H. Brown, who is in Springfield, Illinois to paint "on ivory," Lincoln's "miniature likeness." Pennsylvania Supreme Court Justice and Lincoln ally John M. Read commissioned the painting because he was "disgusted with the horrible caricatures of Mr. Lincoln which he had seen." Brown recalled, "[Lincoln's] true character only shines out when in an animated conversation, or when telling an amusing tale, of which he is very fond."

John Henry Brown (1818–1891)
Watercolor on ivory, 1860
National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution
Conserved with funds from the Smithsonian Women’s Committee

Stop by the Lincoln Heriatge Museum today to see other renderings of President Abraham Lincoln.

Fact of the day sources
  • R. Gerald McMurtry, Beardless Portraits of Abraham Lincoln Painted from Life (Fort Wayne, IN: Allen County Historical Society, 1962), 26-35
  • Harold Holzer, Gabor S. Boritt, and Mark E. Neely, Jr., The Lincoln Image: Abraham Lincoln and the Popular Print (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1984), 58, 61
  • Michael Burlingame, With Lincoln in the White House: Letters, Memoranda, and Other Writings of John G. Nicolay, 1860-1865 (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 2000), 4-5
  • Justin G. Turner and Linda Levitt Turner, Mary Todd Lincoln: Her Life and Letters (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1972), 65
  • abraham lincoln to john m. read, 27 August 1860, CW, 4:102.

Monday, August 22, 2011

This day in 1853....

The Illinois Register reports on the incorporation of the town of Lincoln, 30 miles northeast of Springfield on Chicago & Mississippi Railroad. "The town was named by the proprietors of whom our enterprising citizen, Virgil Hickox, is one, in honor of A. Lincoln, esq., the attorney of the Chicago and Mississippi Railroad Company."

Stop by the Lincoln Heritage Museum
 today to view the original town plat of the city of Lincoln, Il!

Thursday, August 18, 2011

A Fair Chance

This day in 1864, President Lincoln speaks to 164th Ohio Regiment. The 164th Ohio Regiment was composed of militia whose 100-day term of service has expired.

Photographer: Mathew B. Brady
Date: January 8, 1864
Place: Washington, DC

"SOLDIERS---You are about to return to your homes and your friends, after having, as I learn, performed in camp a comparatively short term of duty in this great contest. I am greatly obliged to you, and to all who have come forward at the call of their country. I wish it might be more generally and universally understood what the country is now engaged in. We have, as all will agree, a free Government, where every man has a right to be equal with every other man. In this great struggle, this form of Government and every form of human right is endangered if our enemies succeed. There is more involved in this contest than is realized by every one. There is involved in this struggle the question whether your children and my children shall enjoy the privileges we have enjoyed. I say this in order to impress upon you, if you are not already so impressed, that no small matter should divert us from our great purpose. There may be some irregularities in the practical application of our system. It is fair that each man shall pay taxes in exact proportion to the value of his property; but if we should wait before collecting a tax to adjust the taxes upon each man in exact proportion with every other man, we should never collect any tax at all. There may be mistakes made sometimes; things may be done wrong while the officers of the Government do all they can to prevent mistakes. But I beg of you, as citizens of this great Republic, not to let your minds be carried off from the great work we have before us. This struggle is too large for you to be diverted from it by any small matter. When you return to your homes rise up to the height of a generation of men worthy of a free Government, and we will carry out the great work we have commenced. I return to you my sincere thanks, soldiers, for the honor you have done me this afternoon.”

The speech was taken from:
Basler, Roy P., Marion Dolores Pratt, and Lloyd A. Dunlap, eds., The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, 9 vols. Springfield, IL: Abraham Lincoln Association; New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1953.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Museum Day!

Commemorating the 150th Anniversary
of the American Civil War

How did Abraham Lincoln, with little military experience, masterfully coordinate a victory to save the Union?

Hear a special talk from award-winning artist Jim Weren as he provides an informative and profusely illustrated presentation on

“Lincoln: the Commander in Chief”

Saturday, September 24, 2011
at 1:00 pm
Lincoln Heritage Museum
at Lincoln College
Admission is free

For more information, contact Ron Keller at 217-732-3155 or

Lincoln Heritage Museum is participating in
Museum Day, sponsored annually by the
Smithsonian Institute to promote visitor attendance
to America’s greatest museums.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Anne Suttles hired as new assistant director for the Lincoln Heritage Museum

Lincoln College is proud to announce the recent hiring of Anne Suttles as the new assistant director of the Lincoln Heritage Museum in Lincoln, IL. She began August 1.

Suttles, an archival researcher and genealogical historian, most recently partnered with the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Museum and Horace Mann to conduct an institute that focused on Abraham Lincoln for teachers from across the country.   She has interned also with the Illinois State Archive Depository at the University of Illinois at Springfield, and actively worked with the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency in developing educational programs for children and adults for their History Comes Alive program.

Suttles, a central Illinois native, is a graduate of Southern Illinois University in Edwardsville with a major in History and minor in Anthropology.   She earned an M.A. in History, with an emphasis in Public History, from the University of Illinois Springfield.   Living history is of particular interest to Suttles as she has researched and portrayed in first-person several individuals of Abraham Lincoln’s era.   She credits her parents Dennis and Boni Suttles of Chatham, for inculcating her deep appreciation for history.

Suttles is joining the Lincoln Heritage Museum at a crucial time.   She will be part of the core design team in preparing its new space in the Lincoln Center, where the museum will move to in 2013.    Suttles will also be helping to develop and coordinate special events, creating new marketing and educational initiatives, and will assist in grant writing for the museum.   

Lincoln Heritage Museum director Ron Keller said, “Anne brings a tremendous depth of Abraham Lincoln knowledge, having received guidance and instruction from many great Lincoln historians including Wayne Temple, Cullom Davis, and Michael Burlingame.”  Noting her experience, Keller added, “She has worked in public settings and particularly with the Springfield historical and tourism community, and understands tourism and working with the public.    We were immediately attracted to her experience in relation to education and public history, and she will help this museum advance in many different areas.  She also possesses a very engaging personality.   We are very fortunate to have her.”

Of her new position as museum assistant director, Suttles remarked, “The study of Abraham Lincoln has been a part of my life for as long as I can remember, but a personal favorite of mine is the study of local history.  I am very glad that I will be able to combine the two and learn about the community that helped Lincoln become one of the greatest presidents in our nation’s history.”

All are invited to visit the Lincoln Heritage Museum, and to welcome Anne.    The museum is open from 9-4 Monday through Friday and 1-4 on Saturdays.   Admission is free.