Is This Book Worth Reading?

Ford’s Theatre National Historic Site in Washington, D.C. has decided not to sell the bestselling book, Killing Lincoln by Bill O’Reilly and Martin Dugard.  The decision was made following a thorough review of the book by Deputy Superintendent, Rae Emerson.  I don’t have any problem with the NPS making such a decision; in fact, I applaud it.  The NPS review is included in the Salon article for your consideration.  When I posted the article to the Civil War Memory page one of my readers responded that she had canceled her order for it.  That got me thinking.  Let me be clear, there are plenty of mistakes in this book, but I still wonder whether they render the book unreadable.

The most glaring mistake, in my mind, comes at chapter 39.  What follows is taken from the report:

Chapter 39: “Booth’s second act of preparation that afternoon was using a pen knife to carve a very small peephole in the back wall of the state box. Now he looks through the hole to get a better view of the president.”

Fact comment:

“Despite all attempts to prove, without success, that the hole in the door to box 7 was bored by Booth that same afternoon, a recent letter from Frank Ford of New York City (to Olszewski, April 13, 1962) may clarify the fact. In part, his letter states:

As I told you on your visit here in New York, I say again and unequivocally that John Wilkes Booth did not bore the hole in the door leading to the box President Lincoln occupied the night of the assassination, April 14, 1865  . . .

The hole was bored by my father, Harry Clay Ford, or rather on his orders, and was bored for the very simple reason it would allow the guard, on Parker, easy opportunity whenever he so desired to look into the box rather than to open the inner door to check on the presidential party . . ..

The rest seem to me to be minor mistakes.  Of course, part of the problem is that we have no idea what sources were consulted or how they were evaluated.  Again, this is not meant in any way as an endorsement of the book.  That said, I have to wonder: Does the NPS carry out such a thorough review for every title in their store or is this a special case given the book’s popularity?  Will we not find minor mistakes and some sloppy writing in some of these other titles that the NPS has for sale?  What about the kids books?  I can certainly recommend a short list of books on Lincoln’s assassination that are more carefully written and entertaining, but it’s not clear to me where that leaves us with O’Reilly’s book.  Any thoughts?

26 comments add yours

  1. Kevin,

    If you read the latest North and South, Edward Steers Jr., has a detailed explanation of what’s wrong with O’Reilly’s book. I’m glad Ford’s Theater isn’t carrying it.


    • I am interested in whether there are any broad interpretive mistakes in the book. Does Steers say anything about this?

  2. I understand the True Southrons are boycotting the book as well, because O’Reilly apparently holds Lincoln in high regard. Poor Papa Bear can’t catch a break.

    • He would have been on much safer ground with a book on Jefferson Davis even though he went as far – if not further – in bringing about the kind of government that the Southrons level as a criticism against Lincoln. Ignorance is bliss. 🙂

  3. That the NPS would be so scrupulous regarding Civil War books in its National Battlefield Visitor Center bookstores.

  4. Kevin,

    I would say the biggest interpretive issue is O’Reilly’s attempt to resurrect the Otto Eisenschiml canard that Edwin M. Stanton was involved. But I also don’t think that it’s necessary to find larger interpretive issues to make the case that the book has little historical value.

    The story of Lincoln’ s murder is so well-known in the public mind that I think this is the case of death by a thousand pin-pricks. Little errors when put together call into question the accuracy and value of the work as a whole. It’s not like he has Lincoln shot by a ray gun by a space alien, but rather the sum of all the minor errors gives it very little value. I’m speaking here as one who has studied, presented papers and published on Lincoln’s assassination, so I admit that those “little errors” bug me more than most, especially given the possibilities that O’Reilly had in bringing this story to the masses. Of the tens of thousands of books on Lincoln, Ed points out that there are only around 125 on the assassination, and only 8 are written by professional historians. Most of the works, written by amateurs, aren’t worth the paper they’re printed on. I recently read a book that claimed Andrew Johnson issued passes to Booth and David Herold which allowed them to cross the Navy Yard bridge. The book was self-published and was atrocious. If the NPS had chosen to sell a book like this, which was full of inaccuracies, it would have brought their competence into question as far as their ability to ferret out trash.

    Of course, those who like O’Reilly are reading the book simply because he wrote it, or because they don’t want to take the time to read a more valuable book like Ed’s or Mike Kauffman’s. They see “O’Reilly” and, because of their pre-determined views of him, think it must be OK. As to whether the NPS reviews all of the books submitted for sale, I would have to think they must go through some type of vetting process. The sheer number of new books that come out on Lincoln makes it impossible for the NPS to carry every book available. If O’Reilly’s book took the space which might be better served by having a more factually accurate account on the shelves, I think that’s a small price to pay for someone who has already sold over a million copies and has a much larger platform which will allow him to sell more this Christmas.

    Will be interesting to hear the “conspiracy” theorists on why the book isn’t for sale at Ford’s.


    • I don’t necessarily disagree with anything you’ve written here, but I still am left wondering what is the worst that can happen as a result of reading it. I have no doubt that most of the people who are reading it are fans of his show. OK. The NPS at Gettysburg sells a fairly large number of books by small publishers. I wouldn’t doubt that a few of them contain a nice short list of mistakes about the battle and broader campaign. As problematic as the book is I just don’t see it as such a big deal if someone chooses to read it.

      • Kevin,

        You wrote “I still am left wondering what is the worst that can happen as a result of reading it.”

        Ask that same question about a book promoting the Black Confederate Myth which has no footnotes or endnotes or has citations which have been previously published and proven wrong.

        As I see it, whether the subject is Lincoln and his assassination or the true status of African slaves in a war fought to keep them subjugated, we owe it to their memory to tell the story as accurately as is humanly possible. To do otherwise not only does them a disservice, in my view it cheapens the meaning of history.


        • Good point, but my problem with the BC narrative has much more to do with the broader interpretive errors than with the silly factual mistakes. That is why I asked.

          • Kevin,

            Of course I don’t necessarily disagree with your point, but the BCM is far richer in interpretive issues than Lincoln’s assassination is. The facts are that on April 14, 1865, he was shot in the back of the head, and he died the next morning. His assassin was captured 12 days later. The only real interpretative issue I could see would be the level of involvement by the Confederate government and whether or not Booth believed that by killing Lincoln, Andrew Johnson and William Seward that he would have thrown the country into chaos which would have given the Confederacy an opportunity to fight on. Since Eisenschiml’s theory was hammered by William Hanchett, there’s really little more. I’ve often wondered if the relative paucity of interpretive questions might be one explanation for academic historians ignoring Lincoln’s murder, because it doesn’t lend itself to any “big picture” issues. Mark Neely believed that one reason James Randall and other academics ignored the assassination was because the details were carried out by obscure men who went on to lead obscure lives when great social movements and the people behind them were of more interest to historians.

            That’s why getting the details right, even minute ones, means more to me than the larger picture.


  5. There is no right to be carried in bookstores on sites under NPS jurisdiction. In a lot of facilities, the bookstore space is limited. Rightly or wrongly, many visitors take a book being on sale as being the equivalent of the Vatican imprimatur on a religious work. (Remember the ruckus when the Grand Canyon bookstore was found to be carrying a creationist work on the Grand Canyon by a long-time volunteer?). This is especially true of works associated with the events that occurred on the site in general and those with a high emotional impact in particular. The NPS appears to have become stricter on quality in recent years. At GNMP some years back, they finally stopped carrying the Mark Nesbitt’s ghost tour books (it didn’t hurt that the field was expanding and other authors/publishers were demanding that their ghost books, etc. be carried if Nesbitt’s continued to be) Not being carried at Ford’s Theater doesn’t seem to be hurting Reilly’s sales. Of course, there have been reports that the appearance of other works on the NYT best seller list is due to right wing organizations buying them in mass quantities and selling them at discount or giving them as prizes to members.

    • Margaret,

      Please keep in mind that I am not really questioning the NPS’s decision not to sell O’Reilly’s book.

  6. I tend to agree that the mistakes they noted seem relatively minor and not necessarily damning of the book overall and I think your conclusion that some of this has to do with how poorly sourced the book is.

    And while I’m here, I might make a plug for my favorite book on the assassination…Michael Kauffman’s _American Brutus_. Fantastic book, well written, great story telling.

    • well damn, this ground has already been well covered. that’ll teach me to post quickly before looking to see who’s said what. sorry to not add anything of substance to the discussion…

  7. My problem with the O’Reilly book isn’t that there’s anything necessarily wrong with it, but rather that it’s basically superfluous. It doesn’t really add anything to our knowledge of the assassination, and there are already a number of up-to-date and accessible books on the subject for interested laymen, and those books are more thoroughly researched and documented to boot. This one will make O’Reilly a lot of money and prompt people to read about the assassination who wouldn’t have otherwise, and that’s about it.


  8. I read in one of the reviews that this work is not footnoted or endnoted, and the cites/bibliography amount to one page.

    Other than fiction or children’s books, is there any reason a basic criteria for works to be carried in a USG-sponsored book store should have the basic scholarly requirements?

    Granted, even these can be faked, but still – polemics should not be carried in USG facilities.

    The GPO has significant requirements for attribution and citation; they even have their own style book – seems like that would be a simple way to sieve submittals. If Mr. O’Reilly et al can not master the GPO style guide, or Chicago, the work should not be carried.


    • I read in one of the reviews that this work is not footnoted or endnoted, and the cites/bibliography amount to one page.

      How many books can we say that about? My guess is that many books sold by the NPS do not follow the GPO style guide. I have no idea what that is.

      • What can I say, other than that I’m a Puritan at heart?

        Seriously, I think it speaks to the difference between scholarly works and non-scholarly ones, and why not set the bar high? If a work is not footnoted or endnoted, and is not a (fact-based) children’s work, why sell it at a NPS bookstore? The NPS mission includes education, and non-scholarly works are not educational – they are fiction at best, polemics at worse.

        No cites and no peer review/scholarly rigor, no shelf space.

        • There is no disagreement here. I completely agree with the NPS decision, though I have not read the book. I just wonder whether Bill’O is catching more flack owing to his personality and politics.

  9. Let’s not forget there is a co-author involved in this affair as well. That makes me wonder how much of this book is actually O’Reilly’s and how much is from Martin Dugard. Dugard is a reality show/Hollywood/entertainment business author and fact checking isn’t something highly prized in that sector. Actually, I would say facts which conflict with potential sales and gossip are ignored for that industry.
    From what I’ve read this is O’Reilly’s first attempt at a historical book. Hopefully he will learn from the episode. I would have no problem with any history book he wrote if it was factually based and not more of a conspiracy theory rehash which is what this book seems to be.

  10. I wonder how many people visiting Ford’s Theater who don’t purchase books would pick up a copy of O’Reilly’s book because of his name? Is it worth a few minor mistakes to potentially educate a larger population?

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