In my first post on the JFK assassination last week (honoring the release of Forward to Camelot: 50th Anniversary Edition, which I co-authored with Kevin Finn), I discussed the events of the assassination itself–that tragic Friday in November 1963 that changed our world.
Today, let’s continue with those events–in which you may begin to see a disturbing pattern:
After the president was pronounced dead, Lyndon Johnson, now the new President, was hustled out of Parkland Hospital under heavy guard and taken back to Air Force One, still on the tarmac at Love Field. He immediately took steps to take the oath of office on the plane, calling an old friend, Judge Sarah Hughes, who lived in Dallas, and asking her to come to Love Field to administer the oath, calling a shell-shocked Bobby Kennedy in Washington to ask for the wording.
Meanwhile, Earl Rose, the County Coroner, was at Parkland Hospital insisting on doing an autopsy on JFK’s body, which was Texas law (it was not yet a federal crime to kill a president, so this was a standard homicide). But JFK’s Secret Service detail and some of his aides were so shocked and angry that they were in no mood to bend to Texas law. Their Commander-in-Chief had just been murdered, and they’d be damned if anyone would touch his body in Texas! Rose was (literally) shoved aside as they called for a local mortuary to deliver a casket. The president’s body was wrapped in a sheet (his blood-soaked clothes had been cut off in the operating room) and placed inside a heavy mahogany coffin. And over Rose’s continued protests (and he was legally in the right), the president’s men took the coffin back to Air Force One, where Jackie Kennedy insisted she would sit with it all the way to Washington. She was disturbed only once; when Sarah Hughes arrived to administer the oath, Lyndon Johnson requested Jackie’s presence at his swearing in. He also requested that photos be taken, and that the ceremony be recorded on tape (which it was). The famous photo of that ceremony (which we mention in Forward to Camelot) showed a solemn Johnson with a pious hand raised, another hand on a book (JFK’s own Catholic missal–prayer book–which was all they could find to use for the oath. We deal with this at length in the novel–it’s the lynch pin of our plot–though in the context of history, it’s a minor point.) Next to him stood Jackie, her eyes staring at nothing, blood still visible on her pink jacket (though Cecil Stoughton, the Army captain who took the photo, did all he could to minimize the bloodstains). It is one of the most haunting images of the day–the new president so eager to be sworn in that he can’t even wait to get back to Washington, insisting that the widow of the dead president witness the moment. Once the ceremony was over and the camera stopped clicking (and one disturbing photo shows LBJ with a big smile), Sarah Hughes left the plane and Air Force One lifted off for Washington. The Kennedy contingent sat with the coffin in the back of the plane, away from the Johnson people, who were hustling along busily at the front.
Back at Dealey Plaza, the site of the shooting, there was chaos. Horrified spectators, some of whom had hit the grass at the sounds of gunfire, were being questioned by police, after many had initially run up the hill now called the Grassy Knoll, hoping to nab a shooter behind the picket fence, where they had heard shots. A motorcycle cop named Marion Baker had run into the seven-story brick building at the corner of Houston and Elm Street, the Texas School Book Depository, looking for a shooter there, and after locating Roy Truly, the superintendent, ran into a young man in the second-floor employee lunchroom, very calm and drinking a coke. The young man was Lee Harvey Oswald, a new employee, and after Baker drew his gun and asked Truly if Oswald worked there and Truly said yes, they left Oswald alone.
Oswald left the building shortly afterward, still alone, and made his way by bus and cab to the rooming house where he was staying temporarily in Oak Cliff, a rundown residential section of Dallas. There he went into his tiny room, changed his shirt and picked up his revolver. His landlady heard a horn honking outside and saw a Dallas police car pulled up at the corner by her house. Oswald left the house and walked several blocks.
Some minutes later, a Dallas police officer named J.D. Tippit was patrolling in his police car near Tenth and Patton, where he stopped a man walking by, who leaned in and conversed with him for a minute through the window. As Tippit got out of the car, the man fired three shots at him, in front of several witnesses. Tippit was dead before he hit the ground. The man ran off. (Here’s where it gets confusing, because while some witnesses saw one man, others saw two, who split up and ran in different directions after the shooting.)
In any case, Oswald was spotted by a shoe salesman some minutes later on Jefferson Boulevard, not far from the site of the Tippit shooting. He was at the Texas Theater, where he did not stop to buy a ticket but just walked in. The shoe salesman called the police, and when the house lights went on in the theater, the salesman pointed out Oswald sitting alone in the audience. After a short scuffle (in which Oswald called frantically to the other people in the theater, “I am not resisting arrest! I am not resisting arrest!”), he was handcuffed, his face bruised, and led outside. He was taken to Dallas police headquarters, where word began to spread that he was the man who had murdered J.D. Tippit and likely, assassinated the president.
But disturbing contradictions were turning up. The Dallas police, all familiar with firearms, had found a weapon at the Texas School Book Depository, a rifle stamped “Mauser”, which all of them knew was a superior German rifle. However, within less than 24 hours, the police were reporting that the weapon found was a cheap, inaccurate Italian rifle, a Mannlicher-Carcano (which the FBI quickly found Oswald had bought by mail order earlier in the year). All trace of the “Mauser”–all mention of it–was suddenly hushed. And when the FBI ran the rifle through their world-class fingerprint lab, they could not find a print.
The witnesses at the Tippit shooting were also problematical. Their description of the gunman (or gunmen) did not come close to fitting Lee Harvey Oswald–though supposedly it was in response to that description that he had been picked up by police. Witnesses said the man firing the gun was short, heavy-set and in his 30’s. Oswald was 24 and very slender. To make matters worse, the cartridges the police found at the Tippit murder scene were made for a pistol. But Oswald owned a revolver, not a pistol. And even more peculiarly, the cartridges didn’t even match each other. Dallas PD Officer Poe, who marked them with his initials for the chain of evidence, could not find his initials on the cartridges he was shown later, which indicates they were not the cartridges recovered at the scene.
Oswald was interrogated at police headquarters for over 12 hours, but not one word was recorded (which meant none of it could be admissible in court later). When he was paraded in front of reporters his demeanor was calm, and instead of proclaiming his great deed in front of the world, he stubbornly maintained that he had not shot anyone and further, that he had nothing against Kennedy. When he was shown some of the evidence seized in a search of the garage where he had stored some of his belongings, he told the police that the photo of him holding a rifle and a pistol and dressed in black was a fake; it was his head pasted on someone else’s body.
Constantly present when Oswald was in public was a Dallas nightclub owner named Jack Ruby, who was well known to the Dallas police and liked to host them at his club, the Carousel. Footage available on YouTube shows Oswald being moved in and out of various rooms at police headquarters, with a man who looks a lot like Jack Ruby never far away.
Kennedy’s body was taken to Bethesda Naval Hospital for an official autopsy, but there too, strange things were happening. Orderlies saw different caskets brought in at different hospital entrances–one the expensive ceremonial coffin bought in Dallas, the other a cheap gray casket. The wrapping of the body was different, and most oddly, the doctors at the autopsy (and all those present in the room) saw an entirely different kind of head wound than the one described by a dozen doctors and nurses who attended Kennedy at Parkland Hospital in Dallas. (Check out David Lifton’s Best Evidence for more information on these strange anomalies, including the alarming possibility that JFK’s body was altered to make the wounds look different and more consistent with a single shooter than multiple shooters.)
The surreal weekend continued, with Oswald paraded in a bizarre police lineup where he was placed with teenage boys, which angered him. Who couldn’t pick him out of that group? (Among those who did was an hysterical woman named Helen Markham, who claimed to have talked to Officer Tippit for 20 minutes after he was shot. Since he was dead on impact, that must have been some conversation.)
On Sunday morning, as the world mourned and the president’s body was lying in state (where a quarter of a million people would file by to pay their respects), newsmen were notified that Oswald was finally going to be moved to the Dallas County Jail. Surrounded by police (and handcuffed to one), Oswald moved forward in the basement of Dallas Police Headquarters, where a car was waiting. TV cameras were rolling; the whole world was watching.
There was a sound of a car horn blaring, and suddenly a man leaped forward and fired. It was Jack Ruby, and that one shot smashed into Oswald’s stomach and dropped him at the scene. He was rushed to Parkland Hospital, where doctors tried to stabilize him, but the effort was hopeless. He was pronounced dead.
The president was dead. A Dallas police officer was dead. The accused assassin was dead, shot on live television in front of millions.
What the hell was going on?
As this is my very first blog post about the JFK assassination–in honor of the publication of my new novel with Kevin Finn, FORWARD TO CAMELOT: 50th Anniversary Edition–I’d like to start at the very beginning in talking about November 22, 1963, the event that lies at the heart of our story.
It’s been 50 years since that sunny November Friday just before Thanksgiving, and many people now walking the earth were not alive then. Many probably don’t want to admit they don’t actually know what happened. The Kennedy assassination is supposed to be a seminal event in American history (and it was). But as with events that had huge impact at the time, those who came after were not as affected (though what began then is going on even more so today). I honestly believe most people of a certain age don’t actually know much of the story beyond the bare fact that President Kennedy was shot in Dallas. So today let me set the scene, bring you into that vanished world and recap the actual crime. And from there, we can talk about the who’s, the why’s, the what’s and the how’s.
After World War II, the period known as the Cold War began (cold because there was no overt fighting by soldiers). The standoff between democracy (represented by the US) and Communism (represented by Russia), was the defining struggle from the late 1940’s to the 1990’s. Russia was our greatest foreign-policy concern, and almost greater than that was the worry that our differences would lead to nuclear war, an option that wasn’t even possible until the US used the atom bomb to end the war with Japan in 1945. There was tremendous covert activity in the intelligence services of the US, Russia and their allies. It was the era of James Bond, the Cold-War spy.
The thorn in our side was Cuba, a tiny island 90 miles from Florida whose dictator, Fidel Castro, swept into power in 1959, sweeping out Batista, a dictator of another kind. Castro promised economic equality to his people, and aligned himself with Russia as a Communist leader. It was important to Russia to have this toehold in the Western Hemisphere, especially one so close to the US. So they were going to support Fidel in any way they could.
All this was very much on the mind of John F. Kennedy, the Senator from Massachusetts who was elected President in November 1960. Kennedy was the youngest man ever elected president (43); his wealthy and ambitious father, Joseph P. Kennedy, had long intended that his son be president. JFK had been a war hero in the Navy during World War II, even though his health was so bad he should have been 4-F. But Kennedy went to Officer’s Candidate School, got an intelligence assignment, then persuaded powerful friends of his father to lie on his behalf to get him INTO active service on the PT boats in the Pacific, where he saved 10 of his men after his boat, PT-109, was sliced in half by a Japanese destroyer on a dark August night.
Kennedy’s fame as the hero of PT-109 and his father’s money propelled him to a seat in the US Congress as Representative from Massachusetts (in the same freshman class with Richard Nixon); six years later he became a US Senator. He married a debutante named Jacqueline Bouvier, and while his health issues were carefully concealed and his family’s PR machine worked overtime to make him look hearty and vigorous, Kennedy suffered debilitating pain every day from a bad back and from Addison’s disease, which almost killed him until he began taking daily cortisone injections.
Jack and Jackie became media darlings (Jackie was the most photographed woman in the world, preceding Princess Diana in that role), and their two young children, Caroline and John Jr., became national favorites.
Still, the Kennedy Administration faced a battery of problems: trying to get rid of Castro secretly (a CIA program called Operation Mongoose); civil-rights unrest; Russia’s insistence on placing nuclear weapons in Cuba, so close to US shores that one strike could wipe out 80 million Americans; and the beginning flutters of what would become the war in Vietnam.
In late August of 1963, Jackie Kennedy gave birth to their son, Patrick Bouvier Kennedy, a child they were anticipating with joy. But Patrick was born with lung problems, and died just a few days later, devastating both parents. Jackie remained in seclusion for several months, trying to recover and spending long hours with her other children.
Meanwhile, the Texas branch of the Democratic Party was having their own problems. There was a lot of in-fighting, and the President decided to do a three-day trip to Texas to help the fractured party mend fences before they began serious campaigning for the 1964 election.
Texas was not Kennedy country, but the first 2 days of the trip went well. Jackie Kennedy made the trip with her husband, the first time she’d traveled with him publicly since Patrick’s death. She was as popular as he was, and the turnout was tremendous to see her. In every city where they stopped, they did a motorcade, with the President and First Lady traveling in an open car.
Dallas, however, was a real worry for the Secret Service. It was much more vocal in its opposition to Kennedy than any other Texas city, and the Secret Service had already cancelled two scheduled trips, in Miami and Chicago, because of threats against the President’s life. Still, they had checked out the city and felt satisfied that the plan they had in place would work.
On Friday, November 22nd, the President spoke at a breakfast meeting in Fort Worth. Jackie joined him, in a pink wool suit and matching pillbox hat, and afterward they flew to Dallas (a very short ride, done only for show), where big crowds greeted them at Love Field Airport. But the atmosphere here was different: there was a nasty ad, “Wanted for Treason”, that ran in the Dallas Morning-News that day, accusing Kennedy of crimes against the US, and though there were still friendly crowds, they were dotted with signs like “Traiter” (sic). It was warm and sunny in Dallas after a rain shower earlier that day.
The President and the First Lady got into the back seat of the presidential limousine, the President on the passenger side of the car. In jump seats ahead of them were Texas Governor John Connally and his wife Nellie, and ahead of them were Roy Kellerman, head of the security for the President’s detail, and Bill Greer, the 54-year-old driver (oldest man on the President’s Secret Service detail). The bubble top which could be used to protect the passengers was removed because the weather had cleared up.
The car drove through the downtown area, turned right onto Houston Street, then slowed down to take a sharp hairpin turn at the corner of Houston and Elm Street. On the northeast side of that corner was a seven-story red-brick building, the Texas School Book Depository. The crowds had thinned out, but there were still dozens of people lining the streets, many with cameras. A dress manufacturer named Abraham Zapruder was standing on a stone pedestal near the sidewalk, filming with his new 8mm movie camera.
As the car started down Elm Street, a curving road leading toward the Stemmons Freeway, gunfire rang out.
To this day, there are still arguments about how many shots there were, where they were fired from, and when and how they hit.
The President was struck in the throat. His hands came up toward his tie. More shots were fired, and the President (who was wearing a brace under his clothes to support his back) slumped down. Governor Connally was hit, too, by a bullet that shattered his wrist and eventually imbedded itself in his thigh. (To the end of his life, the Governor insisted that he and the President were hit by separate bullets.) Connally shouted, “My God, they’re going to kill us all!”, but Nellie Connally, thinking quickly, pulled him down into her lap, out of the range of gunfire, and told him to stay down. The car by this time was almost stopped.
Jackie Kennedy leaned toward her husband, and when she was only a couple of inches away, the final shot blew away part of the President’s skull. He fell onto the seat as Jackie (who never remembered doing this for the rest of her life) jumped onto the back of the car, reaching for something (it was part of her husband’s brain). The blood soaked everything in the car: the entire back seat, the Connallys, the red roses Jackie had been given at Love Field. Jackie herself was so drenched in her husband’s blood that the white gloves she wore retained their shape when she took them off later that night. Secret Service Agent Clint Hill, part of Mrs. Kennedy’s detail, was the only Secret Service agent who moved, jumping off the follow-up car where the Secret Service was stationed and jumping onto the back of the Presidential limousine, pushing her down.
The car sped up (finally) and the motorcade led by Police Chief Jesse Curry scrambled onto the Stemmons Freeway to Parkland Hospital, where the President and the Governor were rushed inside. The Governor was in critical condition but would survive. The President was pronounced dead at 1 pm, Central Standard Time. Cause of death was a massive gunshot wound to his head.
And there began the greatest mystery of the 20th century.