The 5 Biggest Mistakes in Bill O'Reilly's "Killing" Series

Bill O'Reilly
Bill O'Reilly. Larry Busacca

With nearly 8 millions copies of his Killing series (Killing Lincoln, Killing Jesus, Killing Kennedy, Killing Patton, Killing Reagan, and Killing the Rising Sun) sold, Bill O’Reilly is firmly established as not only a popular host of a TV show, but one of the most popular amateur historians being published today. There’s no denying that O’Reilly has a knack for getting folks to read about subjects they probably slept through in high school.

Unfortunately, O’Reilly has also garnered a reputation for sloppy writing and a lack of fact-checking in his book, co-written with Martin Dugard. While the mistakes, which range from the minor (referring to Ronald Reagan as “Ron Jr.,” or using the word “furls” when he meant “furrows”) to the sort listed below, haven’t slowed down his book sales, they have hurt his legacy as the thinking man’s conservative. What’s worse is that most of these mistakes could have been easily avoided with just a bit more due diligence. One would think that with his sales O’Reilly could afford a few serious scholars to review his work, but over the course of his books, O’Reilly has offered up some howlers—and these are the five most egregious.

O’Reilly is nothing if not unpredictable. Not only does he occasionally surprise viewers of his show with admittances of error or even unexpectedly liberal views, he also has demonstrated a distinct talent for finding the unexpected choices. His book Killing Jesus is a prime example: No one else would have thought of investigating Jesus’ death as if it was an episode of CSI: Bible Studies. There’s so much we don’t know about Jesus and his life, making it a brilliant choice for subject matter.

The problem isn’t with the choice of Jesus—even non-Christians might find a figure who had such a profound impact on history interesting to read about—it’s with O’Reilly’s simplistic acceptance of Roman historians at their word. Anyone with even the briefest exposure to actual historical study knows that Roman historians were usually more like gossip columnists than scholars. They often crafted their “histories” in order to impugn or elevate dead emperors, to prosecute revenge campaigns sponsored by rich patrons, or to propagandize Rome’s greatness. O’Reilly often simply repeats what these dubious sources wrote, with no indication he understands the complexities involved in confirming the information within.

O’Reilly also often chooses to report sensational details as fact without checking too hard, sort of the way your drunk uncle will repeat things he heard on TV as pure fact without checking into it.

Killing Lincoln reads like a thriller, and O’Reilly really does manage to make one of the most familiar crimes in American history seem exciting and interesting—but often at the expense of numerous small facts. One pretty big mistake though is in his depiction of Mary Surratt, a co-conspirator with John Wilkes Boothe in the assassination, and famously the first woman to be executed in the United States. O’Reilly claims in the book that Surratt was treated abominably, forced to wear a padded hood that marked her face and drove her insane from claustrophobia, and that she was chained up in a cell on board a ship, all while intimating that she was falsely accused. This misstatement of facts is used to support O’Reilly’s vague insinuations that Lincoln’s assassination was in part countenanced if not planned by forces within his own government—something else never proved.

Also in Killing Lincoln, O’Reilly undermines his whole argument that he’s a learned historian with one of those mistakes people who haven’t actually read an original source often make: He repeatedly refers to Lincoln holding meetings in the “Oval Office.” The only problem is that the Oval Office didn’t exist until the Taft Administration built it in 1909, nearly fifty years after Lincoln’s death.

O’Reilly really tears into thriller territory again with Killing Reagan, which speculates—largely without evidence—that Ronald Reagan never truly recovered from his near-death after the attempted assassination in 1981. O’Reilly offers plenty of anecdotal evidence that Reagan’s capacity was sharply diminished—and claims pretty brazenly that many in his administration contemplated invoking the 25th Amendment, which allows for the removal of a president who has become unfit or infirm. Not only is there zero evidence this happened, many members of Reagan’s inner circle and White House staff have stated it is simply not true.

Perhaps the oddest conspiracy theory that O’Reilly passes off as fact comes in Killing Patton, where O’Reilly makes a case that General Patton, widely regarded as a military genius at least in part responsible for the success of the invasion of German-occupied Europe at the end of World War II, was assassinated.

O’Reilly’s theory is that Patton—who wanted to continue fighting after Germany surrendered because he saw in the Soviet Union an even bigger threat—was killed by Joseph Stalin. According to O’Reilly (and literally no one else), Patton was going to convince President Truman and the U.S. Congress to reject the cozy peace that eventually allowed the U.S.S.R. to set up its “Iron Curtain” of client states, and Stalin had him killed to stop this from happening.

Of course, Patton had been in a car wreck, was paralyzed, and none of his doctors was at all surprised when he passed away in his sleep a few days later. There’s absolutely no reason to think he was murdered—or that the Russians, even if they were worried about his intentions, would feel the need to when he was clearly on death’s door.

Grain of Salt

Bill O’Reilly writes exciting, fun books that make history fun for a lot of folks who aren’t otherwise captivated by it. But you should always take what he writes with a grain of salt—and do your own research.
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Somers, Jeffrey. "The 5 Biggest Mistakes in Bill O'Reilly's "Killing" Series." ThoughtCo, Mar. 22, 2017, thoughtco.com/5-biggest-mistakes-in-bill-o-reilly-s-killing-series-4134685. Somers, Jeffrey. (2017, March 22). The 5 Biggest Mistakes in Bill O'Reilly's "Killing" Series. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/5-biggest-mistakes-in-bill-o-reilly-s-killing-series-4134685 Somers, Jeffrey. "The 5 Biggest Mistakes in Bill O'Reilly's "Killing" Series." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/5-biggest-mistakes-in-bill-o-reilly-s-killing-series-4134685 (accessed November 22, 2017).