Second expert trashes O'Reilly's Lincoln book

A reviewer says the Fox host's bestselling Lincoln assassination history is plagued by factual errors

Published November 12, 2011 5:35PM (EST)


On Friday I wrote about the decision of Ford's Theatre not to offer Bill O'Reilly's bestselling new book on the Lincoln assassination at its bookstore because an expert National Park Service reviewer found the work to be riddled with factual errors.

Now, in a review in a leading Civil War magazine, a second expert has flunked O'Reilly's "Killing Lincoln," calling it "somewhere between an authoritative account and strange fiction."

The review (which is not online) appears in the November issue of North & South, the official magazine of the Civil War Society.

"The narrative contains numerous errors of people, place, and events," writes reviewer Edward Steers Jr., author of more than five books on the Lincoln assassination. He goes on to list about 10 errors of fact in "Killing Lincoln," which O'Reilly co-authored with Martin Dugard and which has been atop bestseller lists for weeks.

A farm where John Wilkes Booth hid after the killing was not 500 acres, as O'Reilly says. It was 217 acres, according to the review.

O'Reilly refers to John Ford's chief carpenter as John J. Clifford. In fact, according to the review, his name was Gifford.

"Lewis Powell, the man assigned to kill secretary of state William Seward, did not speak with 'an Alabama drawl.' He was from Florida," the review notes.

Steers adds that one entire passage of the book about co-conspirator Mary Surratt is flat-out untrue:

The authors write that she was forced to wear a padded hood when not on trial, and that she was imprisoned in a cell aboard the monitor Montauk, which was "barely habitable." She suffered from "claustrophobia and disfigurement caused by the hood," and was "barely tended to by her captors." "Sick and trapped in this filthy cell, Mary Surratt took on a haunted, bloated appearance." None of this is true. Mary Surratt was never shackled or hooded at any time. She was never imprisoned aboard the Montauk, but taken to the Carroll Annex of the Old Capitol Prison before being transferred to the women's section of the Federal Penitentiary at the Washington's Arsenal.   

Concludes Steers:

"If all of the above sounds like nitpicking, consider this. 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'?"

I've asked O'Reilly's publisher, Henry Holt, for comment, and I will update this post if I hear back.

By Justin Elliott

Justin Elliott is a reporter for ProPublica. You can follow him on Twitter @ElliottJustin

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