A Review Essay that Appeared in North & South Magazine
By Ed Steers

No sensible historian today would think that the assassination of
Abraham Lincoln was anything less than one of the more catastrophic events
in American history. If Abraham Lincoln is the one president that every
schoolchild can readily recognize in an era when many are not sure who
Franklin Roosevelt or Harry Truman were, John Wilkes Booth ranks a close
second in universal recognition. Booth’s fame, if fame is the right word, is
only because he murdered America’s greatest icon. And yet, Lincoln¹’s
assassination seems to have slipped in the narrow crack between the end of
the Civil War and the Reconstruction period that followed it. Most writers
have simply described Lincoln¹s murder rather than explain it.
Of the 125-plus books that have been written on Lincoln’s assassination,
only eight are written by professional historians. This raises two
questions. First, why have professional historians shunned Lincoln’s murder?
And second, does it matter? The answer to the first question is not clear.
Over 16,000 books and articles have been written about Lincoln ranging from
the ridiculous (Lincoln’s Doctor’s Dog) to the sublime (How Lincoln Prayed).
Historians have probed every aspect of Lincoln’s life from his personal
finances to his sexual preferences. Their absence from writing on his
assassination remains unclear, especially in light of their seeming
insatiable appetite for every other aspect of his life. As to the second
question, a careful read through the ten dozen books written by amateur or
non-professional historians suggests the story has suffered considerably in
the hands of the amateur.

In her most recent book, “Dangerous Games: The Uses and Abuses of History,”
Canadian historian, Margaret Macmillan (“Paris 1919″ and “Nixon in China”)
laments what she perceives as a failure on the part of professionally
trained historians to write for public consumption, “It is particularly
unfortunate that just as history is becoming more important in our public
discussions, professional historians have largely been abandoning the field
to amateurs.”

While this is certainly true in the case of Lincoln’s assassination it has
not precluded the publication of works of first-rate quality. It has,
unfortunately cluttered the field with books of poor quality and dubious
conspiracy theories that belong in the fiction section. It presents a
confusing aspect of history to the average reader who is not equipped to
separate fact from fiction.

Lincoln’s assassination has been described as the result of a mentally
deranged actor, on the orders of Pope Pius IX and his Jesuit lackeys, as a
result of a conspiracy by members of Lincoln’s own party including his own
secretary of war Edwin Stanton, and as a final desperate attempt by
Confederate leaders to win independence by killing Lincoln when victory on
the battlefield became impossible. Some authors have gone so far as to claim
that Booth was never killed but escaped making his way to Enid, Oklahoma or
Guwahati, India where he died years later.

In the latest effort, television celebrity Bill O’Reilly and his co-author
Martin Dugard have entered the fray boldly claiming to cut through the
tangle of conspiracy theories and give their readers the “unsanitized and
uncompromising” version of “a no spin American story.”  Sadly, they do not.
Killing Lincoln falls short of its promise in several ways. It falls
somewhere between an authoritative account and strange fiction. The book is
a pleasant read. It is well written and flows from beginning to end rather
nicely. But that is not enough for an event so important to American
history. The authors have chosen to write a story based what others have
written rather reconstruct the events by using the primary documents and
records of the period as any historian would do. In the authors own words
they draw their information from a few dozen secondary books. These books
range from excellent to positively dreadful. There seems to be no vetting of
the secondary works they rely on treating all of them as equal. They are

The book contains no endnotes even though the authors end their work with a
section titled “Notes.” These notes are simply a listing of previously
published books the reader is encouraged to read or browse for more
information on a particular subject mentioned in the text – two of my own
books are listed. Conspicuously absent from the short list of books are
several volumes that contain the primary documents that directly pertain to
the assassination, the individuals charged with carrying it out, and the
trial and its aftermath. That these books were  not consulted by the authors
is a serious failing, and quite frankly, inexcusable.

Within a few a few days of Lincoln’s murder Secretary of War Edwin Stanton
selected Judge Advocate General of the Army Joseph Holt to head the
prosecution of those accused of Lincoln¹s murder. Stanton and Holt then
selected Colonel Henry L. Burnett to gather the evidence Holt and his
assistant, John A. Bingham, would use in the trial of the conspirators.
Burnett and his staff diligently collected 5,004 documents, which they
carefully sifted through and organized into an evidence file (National
Archives Record Administration, Record Group 153, Microcopy-599, reels 1-7).
The University of Illinois Press has published this evidence file along with
modern annotation as a single volume (William Edwards and Edward Steers,
Jr., eds., “The Lincoln Assassination. The Evidence” (Urbana, IL: University
of Illinois Press, 2009). In like manner, the military trial of the
conspirators was recorded verbatim by the competent Benn Pitman and his
staff of court recorders. The final trial transcript has been published
together with the informative commentary of nine expert historians (Edward
Steers, Jr. ed., “The Trial” (Lexington, KY: University Press of Kentucky,
2003). Stanton also selected Major General John F. Hartranft to oversee the
daily physical and medical care of the accused conspirators before, during,
and after their trial and sentencing. Hartranft kept a letterbook in which
he made a daily record of the prisoners oversight including their meals,
medical examinations, personal hygiene, and visitations. This letterbook,
along with modern annotation by the editors, was published as a single
volume (Edward Steers, Jr. and Harold Holzer, eds., “The Lincoln
Assassination Conspirators. Their Confinement and Execution, as Recorded in
the Letterbook of John Frederick Hartranft,” Baton Rouge, LA: Louisiana
State University Press, 2009). And last, the Congress established a special
committee to adjudicate the distribution of the $105,000 reward money
offered for the capture of certain conspirators. The committee received
hundreds of affidavits and supporting documentation from dozens of
individuals seeking a share of the money. This file is located in the
National Archives as part of Record Group 94, Records of the Adjutant
General¹s Office, Microcopy-619, reels 455-458. As with the other files
described above, this invaluable collection has been published as a CD-ROM
by William Edwards (William C. Edwards, M-619 “The Lincoln Assassination
Reward Files,” 2008) and is easily obtainable for a modest price (Surratt
House Museum).

This material represents virtually all of the primary documentary record of
the assassination, and is readily available for anyone wishing to research
every aspect of the assassination all for less than $200. It is inexcusable
not to avail oneself of this essential record in researching and writing
about this important event in our nation¹s history. By their own words, the
authors relied on the writing of previous authors, and in doing so
perpetuated some of the gross errors and myths found in those writings.

“Killing Lincoln” contains numerous errors of people, places, and events.
For example: they refer to James J. Clifford, John Ford’s chief carpenter.
The man’s name is Gifford, and he was Ford’s architect who redesigned and
oversaw the reconstruction of Ford’s theatre following the 1862 fire that
gutted the theater.  He later served as Ford¹s chief carpenter.

At another point, the authors have George Atzerodt, the man assigned to kill
vice president Andrew Johnson, drinking with (Washington) Naylor shortly
before the assigned hour of Atzerodt¹s attack. Washington Naylor owned the
stables where Atzerodt and David Herold rented their horses. Atzerodt did
not meet with or drink with Naylor before the assigned hour. He drank with
John Fletcher, the stable manager, and it was John Fletcher who later told
the Metropolitan police and 22nd Army Corps detectives that Herold (and
presumably Atzerodt) had fled over the Navy Yard Bridge into southern

During the morning cabinet meeting on April 14, the authors state that
secretary of war Edwin Stanton was absent from the meeting. According to
Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles, he was not only present, but made a
major presentation to the cabinet and General Grant reading his plan for

In describing the sensational murder of Philip Barton Key, son of Francis
Scott Key, by Congressman Dan Sickles (later Major General Dan Sickles of
Gettysburg notoriety) the authors state, “the congressman shot his
mistresses husband.” The congressman (Dan Sickles) shot his wife’s (Teresa
Bagioli Sickles) lover (Philip Barton Key), not his mistress’s husband. The
subsequent trial became a national sensation where Sickles attorney, Edwin
Stanton, used the temporary insanity for the first time in American

Lewis Powell, the man assigned to kill secretary of state William Seward,
did not speak with “an Alabama drawl.” He was from Florida and no one today
knows what he sounded like.

The authors write that George Atzerodt took a stage into Maryland at the
time of his escape. He took a stage to the picket post at Military Road
(within the District of Columbia) where he changed over to the market wagon
of William Gaither, and road into Maryland just north of Rockville.
Dr. Samuel Mudd’s farm consisted of 217 acres, not 500 acres, and his
father, Henry Lowe Mudd, owned farm.

Booth and Herold spent five days in hiding in the pine thicket not six as
the authors claim. This is another example of not examining the primary
documents. Booth carried with him a small memorandum book, which he used as
a diary or journal. In it he drew a small calendar making annotations in the
blocks for certain days. For Thursday, April 20, he wrote “POTO,” and in the
block for Saturday, April 22, he again wrote “POTO,” indicating he and
Herold first attempted to cross the Potomac River on Thursday, and tried
again on Saturday. They spent Friday hiding at the farm of John J. Hughes
owned by Peregrine Davis. A simple review of Booth’s diary would have led
the authors to this conclusion.

Perhaps most egregious error or misrepresentation is the authors description
of Mary Surratt. 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 was true. Mary Surratt was never
shackled or hooded at any time from her arrest to her hanging. She was never
imprisoned aboard the “Montauk,” but taken to the Carroll Annex of the Old
Capitol Prison before being transferred to the women¹s section of the
Federal Penitentiary at the Washington Arsenal. Here she was eventually
moved to a small, private room adjoining the trial room, and her daughter
Anna was allowed to stay with her and care for her. Mary was provided with a
bed, rocking chair, reading material, and a priest. Mary did suffer from
what some believe was endometriosis, a rare disease in women resulting in
pelvic pain.  She was examined twice daily by an army surgeon and treated
and every effort was made to see to her comfort throughout her
incarceration. She was permitted visitors including her attorneys, John
Brophy (her neighbor), and Father Francis Boyle, her priest in Washington
who administered to her spiritual needs. General Hartranft describes all of
this in detail in his letterbook.  This mischaracterization of Mary Surratt
is unfortunate, and only helps to perpetuate the myth of her innocence and
her brutal treatment at the hands of the Federal government. All a myth.

Mary’s son, John Surratt, did not flee to Montreal where “he followed the
news of his mother’s trial and execution.” He fled from Elmira, New York
first to Coburg in Canada and eventually wound up in St. Liboire, Canada
where he stayed at father Charles Boucher¹s rectory throughout the trial and
execution of his mother. He did visit Montreal on a few occasions briefly
but always returned to St. Liboire.

During the early hours of their escape from Washington the authors write
that,”It was the actor’s leg that made them detour to Mudd’s house.
Otherwise they would have reached the Potomac River by sunrise.” The
distance from Ford’s Theatre to the Potomac River was just over fifty miles.
Traveling at a good pace without stopping, it would have taken Booth and
Herold at least ten hours to reach the river. This would place them at the
Potomac sometime between 8:30 and 9:00 am. Sunrise on Saturday, April 15,
was at 5:31 am. The two fugitives would have spent at least three to three
and a half hours traveling in daylight through territory teeming with Union
troops. That is why Booth had previously made arrangements to stop over at
Mudd¹s house. According to George Atzerodt, Booth had sent provisions to
Mudd¹s two weeks before to be picked up during the escape to Richmond. When
Booth was stopped at the Navy Yard Bridge and asked where he was headed, he
replied, “Beantown.” Beantown was the neighborhood where Mudd lived. These
facts only add to the weight against Mudd and show that he and Booth were
conspirators from early on in Booth’s plot. All of this is described in
detail (with endnotes) in four of the books I wrote – one specically devoted
to Mudd (“His Name Is Still Mudd”). A simple reading of the literature along
with a look at the Naval Observatory tables would have made this obvious to
the authors.

In their Afterword, the authors bring up the strange conspiracy theory put
forward by authors Leonard Guttridge and Ray Neff and detailed in the book
“Dark Union.”  This is the old tired theory that Stanton along with other
prominent politicians and financiers in the North secretly engineered
Lincoln¹s assassination. As part of the theory, Booth escaped capture at the
Garrett farm and eventually made his way to Guwahati, India where he died 1n
1883. Included as a part of this conspiracy theory eighteen pages are
mysteriously missing from Booth’s diary; eighteen pages that explain the
conspiracy and name names including Stanton and head of the National
Detective Police, Lafayette Baker. Again, this absurd theory has been
exposed as nonsense in several reputable books including one of mine that
the authors recommend in their “Notes.”

At one point the authors dredge up another myth involving the head of the
“Secret Police,” Lafayette Baker, presumably linking him directly with
Booth. According to the authors, both Baker and Booth received large sums of
money from a “Canadian outfit known as the J.J. Chaffey Company” (Baker
allegedly received $150,000 and Booth $15,000).  This presumably explains
the money Booth mysteriously had when he left Canada in October 1864. The
authors write, “To this day, no one has discovered why the J.J. Chaffey
Company paid Lafayette Baker and John Wilkes Booth for anything.” The reason
no one has discovered why is because it never happened. An examination of
the original ledger book of James and John Chaffey now housed in the Indiana
State Library in Terre Haute shows entries only for the years 1831-1838. It
did not exist in 1865. There are no documents for this company during the
time of Civil War. This tired myth has been effectively demolished by any
number of historians and is as dead as Booth himself.

In their Afterword, the authors also dredge up the “Stanton did it” myth
once again writing, “Did he have any part in the assassination of Abraham
Lincoln? To this day there are those who believe he did. But nothing has
ever been proved.” That Stanton had nothing to do with Lincoln’s murder has
been proven time and again, and by competent historians through competent
research. Volumes have been written on the subject putting it to rest. It is
an enormous disservice to Stanton who was a patriot of the highest quality
and a man who loved Lincoln, and was loved by Lincoln. That one hundred and
forty-six years after Lincoln¹s death anyone should continue to suggest that
Stanton was anything other than a patriot who worked tirelessly with Lincoln
to save the Union is a travesty to a great American.

To their credit the authors point out that the great body of historians have
dismissed Neff’s theories as well as the alleged missing eighteen pages from
Booth’s diary.  Why then bring it up? Why leave the impression with so many
readers that there might be something to the theories? Mr. O’Reilly assures
us in his introduction that his book is “a no spin American story.” To drag
out the Stanton conspiracy nonsense only damages his effort. Had the authors
done a normal literature search they would have discovered several treatises
refuting all of these claims. The authors would have done better to leave
this part of the story buried where it belongs.

If all of the above sounds like nit-picking, consider this. If the authors
made mistakes in names and places, and events, what else did they get wrong?
How can the reader rely on anything that appears in “Killing Lincoln?” This
is unfortunate because of the wonderful opportunity O’Reilly and Dugard had
to bring the story of Lincoln¹s killing up to date. There are over 16,000
books and articles written under the bibliographic heading of Lincoln. Of
these 125-plus are written on Lincoln’s assassination. The justification for
yet another book on Lincoln¹s murder should include new information or a
reevaluation from another perspective. In any event, any new work should at
the very least cause the reader to think anew this tragic event.
Unfortunately, Killing Lincoln offers nothing new and fails to explain what
we already know.

Bill O’Reilly has an audience available to him that none of the rest of have
in telling this dramatic and historically important story. This is a good
thing. The authors had an opportunity to tell why Lincoln was murdered, not
just how, and they failed. Most people know how Lincoln was killed. Very few
know why. The involvement of the Confederate Secret Service stationed in
Canada, the close involvement of the Confederate mail line running through
southern Maryland exploited by Booth, the roll of Dr. Mudd and Mary Surratt,
and perhaps most important, why Booth decided to include Johnson, Seward,
and Grant in his murderous plot?

Killing Lincoln is not a bad read. No doubt it will land on the “New York
Times” Best Seller list despite its shortcomings. Had the authors done their
homework more thoroughly and made use of the available sources of primary
documents, they would have written a book much closer to the actual facts
and enlightened a public eager to learn more about this tragic event.
Sadly, they missed a golden opportunity.

Ed Steers

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