On Friday 22nd November 1963, John F Kennedy, the thirty-fifth president of the United States of America, was assassinated at 12.30 pm local time in Dallas, Texas. The event was to shock the world and go on to be etched in the memories of future generations, mainly due to the amateur film footage that recorded the tragic incident at the time. Kennedy was fatally wounded by several contested gunshots as he rode in a presidential motorcade in Dealey Plaza, Dallas. He was the fourth president to be assassinated and one of the country’s most popular.
An investigation into the murder revealed ten months later that the assassin was Lee Harvey Oswald. However, in 1976 a further investigation carried out by the House Select Committee on Assassinations, concluded that the President had been assassinated ‘probably as a result due to conspiracy’. “The murder of one of America’s most glamorous and inspiring leaders is still a contentious issue even forty years after the tragic event.” J F Kennedy, like all presidents, was not without his enemies. The Democratic Party leader’s liberal stance certainly agitated the ultra-conservatives both within the political arena and conservative factions within American society. Kennedy’s social reforms and anti-war position did not go down well with the right-wing, religious fraternity of the country.
This was also a volatile time with the Civil Rights Movement challenging racial discrimination and protests against US military involvement in Vietnam. One major critic of Kennedy’s liberal policies was an organisation known as The John Birch Society. The JBS, an ultra conservative and religious organisation, was founded in 1958 to counter what it saw as a threat to the status quo of federal government and was particularly concerned about communist infiltration. Kennedy’s views on the Vietnam War had riled the JBS and its members who were ardently anti-socialist, anti-leftist and virulently supported free-enterprise. The JBS even opposed the Civil Rights Movement on the grounds that they believed it was supported by the American Communist Party. Throughout Kennedy’s presidential campaign and on the day he toured Dallas, various groups demonstrated and handed out fliers accusing him of treason, mainly for conspiring with communists.
The day before Kennedy was killed a handbill criticising the President on the above issues was also distributed. On the actual day of the assassination a paid advert by the JBS, proselytising similar accusations, was published in the local press. John F Kennedy’s tour of Dallas began on 20th November 1963. He had chosen to visit the Texas state to help raise funds for his Democratic Party presidential campaign for the upcoming 1964 election. He ignored warnings of possible disturbances and threats to his life and on 22nd November chose to take a motorcade through Dallas city centre. Ironically, the president had discussed the possibility of a sniper attack with his security team that very morning.
The president’s motorcade route was worked out with precision by both the Dallas police and the Secret Service. But rather oddly, Winston Lawson of the Secret Service, put in a request to the Dallas force that they refrain from assigning homicide detectives to follow behind the president’s vehicle. It was later implied after the assassination that had these safeguards been put in place, Kennedy may have survived the attack. Certainly a bullet-proof vehicle would have helped shield the president, but in 1963 there were no presidential cars with bullet-proof tops. A 1961 Lincoln Continental, open top limousine was chosen to take the president, Jacqueline Kennedy, Texas Governor John Connally and his wife Nellie, on the short tour. Kennedy’s planned route was to travel from Love Field airport in a motorcade through downtown Dallas where he would give a speech at the Dallas Trade Mart. Despite a handful of protests the main journey went without incident.
On the way Kennedy stopped to shake hands with Catholic nuns and school children, but as his vehicle turned onto Main Street, a man launched himself in front of the limousine. He was soon overpowered by a Secret Agent. It was 12.29 pm local time when the motorcade entered Dealey Plaza. Kennedy’s limousine approached the Texas School Book Depository head on and then made a 120-degree turn in front of the building, which was now less than 65 feet away.
According to witnesses, shots rang out shortly after the limousine made the turn from Houston onto Elm Street. There was hardly any reaction from the crowd as most people believed they were hearing a firecracker or car exhaust backfiring. The shooting lasted between six to twenty four seconds. While this occurred the president’s vehicle slowed down from 13 mph to 9 mph before gathering speed to make a speedy exit from the danger zone. The incident was caught on 8 mm film by Abraham Zapruder, whose footage has now gone down in history, and was examined extensively during trials to determine how the president was killed. Zapruder, along with other citizens, some with film cameras, were standing in the nearby vicinity or on the now much referred to ‘grassy knoll’.
Many witnesses claimed they heard three gunshots being fired. As soon as the shooting began, Agent Clint Hill who was riding in a car immediately behind the president jumped up and ran towards his vehicle. He quickly climbed onto the trunk in order to protect the president and the First Lady, Jacqueline Kennedy. As Hill held onto a small handrail at the back of the presidential car, he saw a bullet strike the president’s head. During the ensuing chaos the driver sped up causing Hill to jump on to the back of the car as it sped away towards an underpass. Zapruder’s film shows a clearly distressed Mrs Kennedy clambering back towards the trunk.
It was rumoured that she had been trying to retrieve a part of the president’s skull or brain, but this is now known to be untrue. Hill crawled over to her and guided the First Lady back into her seat as he shielded both her and the president as the vehicle sped to Parkland Memorial Hospital. Governor Connally had been hit in the back, chest, wrist and left thigh but he survived. At the time he was hit Nellie Connally, his wife, pulled the Governor onto her lap. The resulting posture helped close his front chest wound and helped save his life. James Tague, a spectator who witnessed the assassination, received a minor wound to his right cheek when he was standing less than 300 feet from where Kennedy was hit.
It was assumed that his injury was caused by debris that shot up when a bullet hit the curb. The news of Kennedy's death shocked the world. A hero and symbol of hope for millions around the world had been cruelly and inexplicably taken from them.
Memorial services were held worldwide and a day of national mourning for a state funeral was arranged for Monday, 25th November 1963.
20th November 1963 J F Kennedy begins party presidential campaign in Dallas22nd November 1963 JF Kennedy assassinated while driving in motorcade down Elm St, Dallas, USA24th November 1963 Jack Ruby shoots and kills Oswald Harvey in basement of Dallas police headquarters29th November 1963 The Warren Commission is set up to investigate the assassination9th December 1963 FBI reports to Warren Commission its findings that three bullets were fired by OswaldSeptember 1964 Warren Commission concludes that Lee Harvey Oswald was lone assassin who shot J F Kennedy with three bullets1981 Michael Eddowes, a British writer, and Marina Oswald have Lee Harvey Oswald’s body exhumed
Before Lee Harvey Oswald was assassinated himself by Jack Ruby, he had told Secret Agents that he was a ‘patsy’ and had nothing to do with killing of the president or officer Tippit.The Warren Commission was initiated by President Lyndon B Johnson. It was established on 29th November 1963 to investigate the assassination. It concluded that Lee Harvey Oswald had acted alone in killing John F Kennedy. The findings have since been found controversial.The FBI was the first authority to complete an official investigation. On 9th December 1963, it issued a report to the Warren Commission stating that only three bullets were fired by Oswald during the assassination; that the first shot hit President Kennedy, the second shot hit Governor Connally, and the third shot hit Kennedy in the head, killing him.However, the House Select Committee on Assassinations (HSCA) concluded that four shots had been fired during the assassination of the president.The Warren Commission agreed with the FBI investigation that only three shots were fired, but disagreed with the FBI report on which shots hit Kennedy and which hit Governor Connally.To this day there is still a great deal of contention concerning why New Orleans DA Jim Garrison was convinced that businessman Clay Shaw, a respected liberal and popular local figure, who had been decorated for his war efforts, was the mastermind behind the plot to kill President Kennedy.Garrison’s contentious belief, which is supported by Oliver Stone’s 1991 movie ‘JFK’, stated that Clay Laverne Shaw was the same man as Clay Bertrand, a bisexual man who had been seen with Oswald and another man David Ferrie, and heard plotting to kill the president. Shaw, who had an impeccable war record but was a noted liberal, also happened to be a gay man. Garrison was convinced that he and Bertrand were the same and that Shaw was the main mastermind behind the assassination.
Garrison called Perry Russo, an insurance salesman, as his main witness to testify against Clay Shaw. Despite the huge media attention, Shaw’s popularity, particularly in New Orleans proved galling to Garrison who some critics believed targeted Shaw due to a homophobic agenda.One aspect that Garrison focused on about Shaw was the fact that he had set up the International Trade Mart where, coincidentally, Oswald had stood and handed out leaflets.Eventually Shaw's attorneys discredited Perry Russo's story, particularly as his testimonies appeared inconsistent. Shaw was acquitted much to the annoyance of Garrison, who later wrote a book ‘On The Trail of the Assassins’ which film director Oliver Stone used as his template for his controversial 1991 movie.Clay Shaw himself later spoke on the subject of conspiracy.“I only know I had no part in any plot. But I do feel many people believe in a conspiracy, because when death comes to the figure of a prince, as it did to Kennedy, struck down in his prime, it should come under a panoply of great tragedy with all the resulting high court intrigue - almost something out of Shakespeare - not from some poor little psychotic loser crouched with a mail-order rifle behind a stack of cardboard boxes in a warehouse."The Second Shooter Theory One contentious theory was there were at least one or two shooters behind a picket fence atop a small sloping hill looking towards Dealey Plaza. A number of witnesses reported seeing a flash of light or a puff of smoke from behind the fence along with hearing shots from that direction. The theory has not been proved conclusively.The Single Bullet TheoryThis theory purported that the same bullet that hit Kennedy also caused all of Governor Connally's wounds. This single bullet then backed out of Connally's left thigh and was found on a stretcher in the hospital. Known as the ‘Single Bullet Theory’ or the ‘Magic Bullet Theory’, some ballistic evidence has suggested that such a bullet trajectory was possible, but this point is a source of much debate.The Double Agent TheoryIn October 1981 Oswald's body was exhumed with the co-operation of his former wife Marina. She and British writer Michael Eddowes sought to prove a thesis explored in his book, ‘Khrushchev Killed Kennedy’ published in 1975 both in the United Kingdom and America. The premise of the book rested on the theory that during Oswald's stay in the Soviet Union, he was swapped with a Soviet double named Alek, who was a member of a KGB assassination squad.Eddowes claimed that this Soviet double killed Kennedy and that the corpse buried in 1963 in the Shannon Rose Hill Memorial Park cemetery did not have a scar that resulted from surgery conducted on Oswald years before. Unfortunately Oswald's body was in too advanced a state of decomposition for forensic examination to take place.The assassination of JFK brought about a slew of conspiracy theories, ranging from the plausible to fantasy ridden speculations. Some have even suggested that Kennedy’s brain was substituted for another in order to prevent the truth of how he was killed on that fateful day from ever being revealed.In late September 1964, after a 10-month investigation, The Warren Commission reported that it could not find any persuasive evidence of a domestic or foreign conspiracy involving any other person(s), group(s), or country(ies) and that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone in the murder of Kennedy. The commission also concluded that only three bullets were fired during the assassination, and that Lee Harvey Oswald fired all three bullets from the Texas School Book Depository behind the motorcade.The Commission also criticised weaknesses in security, which has resulted in greatly increased security whenever the president travels. The supporting documents for the Warren Commission Report are not due to be released until 2017.
Immediately after the shots had fired out and the presidential motorcade sped away, a man in the Texas School Book Depository, second-floor lunchroom was confronted by an armed Dallas policeman who had raced into the building. The man in question, Lee Harvey Oswald, was to become associated with Kennedy’s assassination for all time.Twenty-four-year-old Oswald was identified by the superintendent of the building before being released. He then calmly bought a coke from a vending machine and left the building and into Elm Street.The Warren Commission, which later investigated all aspects of the assassination, convened that Oswald had shot the president from the sixth floor window of the depository building and then hidden an eight pound, 1938, Mannlicher-Carcano, 6.5 mm rifle with power scope.It was claimed that Oswald, immediately after shooting the president, then hid the gun before he took the descending lift and was confronted by the police officer. The gun was later found standing upright by Dallas police, around 1.22 pm, a good 20 minutes after Oswald had already returned to his boarding house.During this time, the crime scene was searched by police, detectives and witnesses, all around the grassy knoll, parking lot and railroad yard. Interestingly, the area had not been sealed off immediately after the shooting and photographs show vehicles still driving down Elm Street only nine minutes after the assassination.Oswald’s landlady testified that he was standing waiting for a bus around 1.04 pm. He then continued walking some distance and missed a Greyhound bus that was heading for Mexico. At 1.15 pm, 13 people witnessed Oswald either shooting dead Police Officer JD Tippet, or running away from the scene of the crime. Another witness then observed Oswald hiding from police cars and surreptitiously entering the Texas Theatre movie house.Dallas police arrived outside the cinema at 1.40 pm. Inside patrons noted that Oswald had moved around the auditorium sitting next to different people. Two dozen policemen carried out the arrest. By now word about the president’s murder had reached the general population and an angry crowd gathered outside the cinema as Oswald was bundled out. As some yelled for his death, Oswald replied that he was a victim of police brutality.At 7.05 pm and 11.36 pm respectively, Lee Harvey Oswald was charged with the murder of police officer J.D.Tippit and President Kennedy. He denied he had anything to do with the killings.Doctors at Parkland Hospital had worked frantically to save the president’s life but at 1.00 pm, after all the heart activity had ceased, he was pronounced dead.At 2.38 pm on Air Force One, Lyndon Johnson, in the presence of a blood stained Mrs Kennedy, was sworn in by as the 36th President of the United States of America. When the aeroplane arrived back in Washington, Jacqueline Kennedy stepped off still wearing her stained pink suit. She refused to remove her blood spattered attire until the early hours of the morning, saying to witnesses, “Let them see what they have done”.Oswald was held at Dallas Police headquarters for interrogation. The room where he was questioned was swarming with FBI agents, Secret Agents and detectives. The suspect denied everything.Oswald never reached trial, for just two days after the president’s assassination he was himself shot and killed in front of millions of television viewers.Jack Ruby, a nightclub owner, self publicist and associate of the underworld, came to international attention when he gunned down Oswald on Sunday, 24th November, at 11.21 am.Oswald was in the process of been transferred by car from police headquarters to a nearby jail when Ruby suddenly stepped out and aiming a Cobra 38, shot Oswald fatally, as television cameras were broadcasting the scene.On being arrested Ruby, who had changed his surname from Rubenstein, told witnesses that he killed Oswald to show that ‘Jews have guts’ and to help Dallas ‘redeem’ itself in the eyes of the public.Many theories have been mulled over regarding possible motivations. The main ones being that Ruby was put up to do the job by mafia mobsters or by certain figures who did not want Oswald to testify. Neither theory has ever been proved. What is a known fact is that Ruby had close ties to many Dallas police officers who frequented his nightclubs.Ruby was found guilty of ‘murder with malice’ and sentenced to death. However, his lawyers successfully managed to apply for a re-trial on the basis that their client should have been tried outside Dallas. While the retrial was in process, Ruby fell ill and died of a pulmonary embolism on 3rd January 1967. Before he passed away he declared that he had not been part of a conspiracy or involved with others, regarding his shooting of Oswald, despite previously making claims to the Warren Commission that he and his family were in danger of their lives.Lee Harvey Oswald had a history of volatile behaviour and an unsettled upbringing. Before the age of 18, he had lived in 22 different residences and attended 12 different schools. As a teenager, he threatened his sister-in-law with a knife and punched his mother. This violent behaviour, coupled with his truancy from school, led to him undergoing psychiatric treatment. The 14-year-old Oswald was described as having a "personality pattern disturbance with schizoid features and passive-aggressive tendencies".Noted for his poor spelling and writing abilities, which may have been a consequence of his erratic schooling, he nonetheless developed a voracious appetite for book reading and boasted that he was better educated than most around him. By the time he was 15, he was a self-declared Marxist. Despite his political beliefs, Oswald joined the Marines, where he was ridiculed and ostracised by his fellow comrades for his Soviet sympathies. He was even nicknamed Oswaldskovich.In October 1959, Oswald, who had taught himself rudimentary Russian, went to the USSR after obtaining a student visa by submitting fictional applications to foreign universities. Once there he renounced his American citizenship and declared that he wanted to live and stay in the Soviet Union.Expecting to be able to study at Moscow University he was instead sent to Minsk where he took up a manual occupation in a factory that made electronics. Oswald enjoyed his life for a while, particularly as he was given a rent-subsidised apartment and managed to develop a network of friends and dated women. However, after a fellow worker and girlfriend turned down a marriage proposal, he became more disillusioned with Russia, declaring that its version of Marxism was a perversion.People who knew him at the time recollect that he comprehended little, appeared immature and was also dull company. Soon afterwards he married 19-year-old Marina Alexandrovna. They had a young daughter.Life became more difficult for Oswald and his relationship with Marina deteriorated to the point where she would belittle him in front of Russian friends. Finally the Russian authorities agreed to grant exit visas for Oswald and Marina, particularly after it had been discovered that Oswald had made a pipe bomb which he discarded once he realised he was under surveillance.Back in New Orleans, the petulant and now increasingly malcontent Oswald became more abusive and refused to teach Marina the English language. It is also alleged that he began to beat her. Eventually Marina and her infant daughter left him.After a series of laborious jobs and getting fired for various offences, Oswald’s desperation to be a ‘somebody’ appeared to get out of control when he decided to assassinate General Edwin Walker, a member of the right wing John Birch Society and ardent anti-communist.After buying several firearms via mail order and also taking pictures of Walker’s home, Oswald planned the assassination for the 10th April, 1963. He wrote about his plans and left a note for Marina in case he was caught.Despite destroying most of his plan notes, Marina kept the personal letter. Oswald’s attempt to kill Walker failed when he shot at the General through a window. At the time, the police had no idea who was involved in the attempted assassination until they retrieved the note and photographs during investigations after Kennedy’s murder.Although the bullet fired at General Walker was too badly damaged to run conclusive ballistics studies, tests later proved the bullet was from the same cartridge manufacturer as the two which later struck Kennedy.Following the assassination failure, Oswald turned his preoccupations to Fidel Castro and Cuba seeing them as the last bastion and representation of pure Marxism. He soon became a pro-Castro vocalist and was even invited on a radio programme to debate Cold War issues.Oswald, now known for his pro-Cuba and socialist views, was privately filmed passing out fliers in front of the International Trade Mart with two volunteers he had hired for $2 at the unemployment office.When Oswald returned to Dallas he found a temporary job at the Texas School Book Depository, where he allegedly shot Kennedy from a sixth floor window of the building.It was during investigations after Kennedy’s murder that New Orleans District Attorney Jim Garrison went to great pains to link Oswald to wealthy local businessman Clay Shaw, a former president of the International Trade Mart.Garrison was convinced that Shaw, Oswald and another accomplice were responsible for the plotting and death of the President.
The Key Figures
John Fitzgerald Kennedy - Thirty-fifth President of the United States. Assassinated 22nd November 1963Jacqueline Kennedy - Wife and First LadyTexas Governor John Connally and his wife Nellie ConnallyJames Tague - Bystander hit by debris from a bulletPolice Officer JD Tippet - Shot and killed by Lee Harvey OswaldLee Harvey Oswald - Alleged Assassin who shot J F Kennedy and a police officerMarina Alexandrovna - Oswald’s Russian wifeAbraham Zapruder - Filmed assassination with his 8mm cameraJack Ruby - Nightclub owner who shot and killed Lee Harvey OswaldJim Garrison - New Orleans District Attorney who carried out investigationsClay Laverne Shaw - Popular businessman and conspiracy suspectDavid Ferrie - Accused conspirator along with Shaw. Died before investigationsPerry Russo - Garrison’s key witness against Shaw