Book Review: Killing Lincoln

I just finished reading, Killing Lincoln: The Shocking Assassination that Changed America Forever by Bill O'Reilly and Martin Dugard. I wasn’t disappointed. This book is a well written story describing the days ending the Civil War, those leading to President Abraham Lincoln’s assassination by John Wilkes Booth, and the events thereafter. The chapters detail the attempted escape of all individuals involved in President Lincoln’s assassination, as well as the long term outcomes of many players involved in Lincoln’s final days.

After reading the first section of the book, I started writing down more prominent thoughts and observations I wanted to share.

The authors repeatedly point out the number of times President Lincoln could have been killed in earlier situations. Similarly, they quote many figures with such fears. Quotes are provided emphasizing the mindset of significant persons in these events. It’s outstanding that these quotes and details have been placed together in this book making it into a great historical record.

As I read, I wondered how the authors knew so many details about the events that transpired before and after President Lincoln’s death. It’s details like how an impromptu parade slowed Lincoln’s progress to Ford’s Theater for the play, the names and sequence of callers seeking the President’s time, or specific lines referring to the Lincoln’s when they arrive at the play at Ford’s Theater. Some of the items have historical significance. For example, the fact that Lincoln’s body guard (John Parker) left his post at the theater to drink rather than guard the President in the balcony the night he was shot.

Considering the scrutiny that Bill O’Reilly would likely receive if anything were inaccurate in this history, I feel confident that the details are valid. The last few pages of the book have references to sources used in the main sections of the book.

The book describes President Lincoln gazing out into the audience a few times before John Wilkes Booth shot him. I can’t help but wonder if he knew in those last few moments that his life was over. Maybe he did, considering the many threats on his life. But after the shot hit his head, for whatever amount of consciousness he maintained, I’m sure he could no longer deny his fate.

Reading the events of President Lincoln’s death interested me. Surrounded by doctors, great effort was made to document President Lincoln’s passing including the rate at which he quit breathing and heart rate dropped.

President Lincoln’s brain was damaged, but it is unknown how aware he was of his surroundings. I hope it was a fast painless passing, rather than slow. It makes me sad to read about life draining out of him and the chance he might have known.

The book describes a horrible sound coming from President Lincoln’s lungs when Mary Todd Lincoln (his wife) touches him for the last time. This seems to indicate he was somewhat aware of what was happening. Or it is just a spooky coincidence.

John Wilkes Booth’s obsession with killing President Lincoln is manifest by his willingness to hurt others who were his friends in order to get his mania appeased. For instance, in order to make his escape he slashed his knife at William Withers, Jr., a theatrical friend whom he had drinks with only hours earlier in the day. Also, Booth kicks and hits with a knife, a boy named Peanut John, who was taking care of Booth’s horse outside Ford’s Theater. Peanut John was hoping for some form of gratuity for his service.

The book reports that 87 men drown searching for John Wilkes Booth and David Herold (co-conspirator in attempted assassination of Secretary of State William H. Seward the same night, who met up with Booth in Maryland trying to escape) in the swamps of Maryland. Wow! I’m surprised not much attention is given to this reported fact.

Much evidence suggests Secretary of War, Edwin Stanton was somehow connected to President Lincoln’s death. For example, John Wilkes Booth’s diary has 18 missing pages after being in Stanton’s possession for two years.

President Lincoln’s son Robert Todd Lincoln spent the afternoon before his father’s assassination with Booth’s girlfriend Lucy Lambert Hale studying Spanish. It is coincidental that he was later an eye witness to President Garfield’s assassination in 1881.

A unique side story discussed at the end of the book concerns Major Henry Reed Rathbone who was in the state box with Lincoln at Ford’s Theater. He was cut in the arm by John Wilkes Booth after Lincoln was shot. Major Rathbone later married his date – Clara Harris, who was with him and the Lincolns on the balcony at Ford’s Theater. Sometime thereafter Rathbone killed Clara Harris with a knife after going insane.

I recommend reading Killing Lincoln: The Shocking Assassination that Changed America Forever for its historical education. It is easy reading. I am recommending my teenage daughter read it this summer while school is out. I look forward to reading Killing Kennedy: The End of Camelot, Killing Patton: The Strange Death of World War II's Most Audacious General, and Killing Jesus, by the same authors.

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