AN AMERICAN TRAGEDY
History, after all, is the memory of a nation.
—John F. Kennedy, 1917-1963
He moved west along Main Street in an open convertible, basking in the late-autumn Dallas sunshine, smiling his movie-star smile and waving to the cheering lunch-hour crowds. President John F. Kennedy had come to Texas to reconcile feuding Democrats and make a speech at the Dallas Trade Mart. Beside him sat his glamorous wife, Jacqueline. Ahead of them on the jump seats were their hosts—Texas governor John Connally and his wife, Nellie. At 12:29 p.m., the motorcade turned north off Main onto Houston Street. Nellie Connally, raising her voice over the noise of the crowd and the police motorcycles, said: “Mr. President, you can’t say Dallas doesn’t love you.” At 12:30 p.m., as the procession swung around Dealey Plaza towards the Stemmons Freeway on-ramp, shots were fired from a sixth-floor window of the nearby Texas School Book Depository. The president was hit and so was Connally. A Secret Service agent flung himself protectively over the slumping Kennedy and stayed there, sprawled on the convertible’s rear deck, as the motorcade sped to Parkland Memorial Hospital. There, Kennedy was pronounced dead at 1 p.m.
Around the world, the news of America’s fourth presidential assassination in a century froze millions in disbe
lief and seemed almost to suspend reality. Crowds stood vigil at U.S. embassies in Europe, Asia and Latin America. In the United States and Canada, people in thousands of shops, factories and offices quit working and gathered around radios and TV sets. Tears ran down the face of CBS anchorman Walter Cronkite and viewers cried with him. Prime Minister Lester Pearson offered condolences and prepared to join global dignitaries in Washington for the funeral. The leader of the free world was dead, Camelot had vanished in the crack of a rifle shot and, for a shaken America, the grieving had only just begun. Ahead lay the murders of Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King, the appalling torment of Vietnam, Kent State, riots and burning cities.
For the Dallas police, there was no time for mourning. An hour and 15 minutes after Kennedy was pronounced dead, they barged into a movie theatre showing War is Hell and arrested a luckless one-time defector to the Soviet Union called Lee Flarvey Oswald, wanted for the fatal shooting moments before of patrolman J. D. Tippit. When police retraced Oswald’s flight from the book depository where he worked, they decided they had Kennedy’s assassin as well. But less than 48 hours later, Jack Ruby, a small-time hoodlum and strip-club owner, shot and killed Oswald in the basement of Dallas City Hall. Convicted and sentenced to death, Ruby died in jail of cancer. In September, 1964, the Warren Commission concluded that Oswald, acting alone, had killed both Kennedy and Tippit and had not known Ruby.
But as the years passed, millions of Americans grew profoundly
skeptical. Some 200 books, dozens of TV documentaries and the blockbuster 1991 movie JFK have alleged conspiracies or coverups:
Oswald was not the only shooter; Oswald was a scapegoat; Oswald was in the pay of Cuba’s Castro, the CIA, the FBI, the Pentagon, the Mafia, the Soviets, left-wingers, right-wingers;
Oswald was not really Oswald but a shadowy somebody else; Ruby, who claimed to be Jacqueline Kennedy’s avenger, was really hired by the people who hired Oswald and did not want him to testify. Repeated official denials and rebuttals have not discouraged the conspiracy theorists or reduced public fascina-
ing the Secret Service nervous, but the people were reaching over the fence to shake his hand, to touch him, and he was reaching out to them.”
Shortly after the presidential motorcade left for downtown Dallas, Ewell was on the freeway heading back to his office when Dallas Police Chief Jesse Curry sped past in the opposite direction. “Then, I saw the open Kennedy limousine and I knew something was out of order because there was this man stretched across the turtle deck.” At police headquarters, a detective hurried past him to a waiting patrol car. “I said, ‘Gerry, what the hell’s going on?’ His exact words were, ‘Some son of a bitch just shot Kennedy.’ I jumped in the back seat and went with them.”
The schoolbook building was like a disturbed anthill, Ewell says in his flat Texas drawl. “There were squad cars and cops everywhere, cops still training shotguns up at the windows. A few minutes later,
THIRTY YEARS LATER, JFK’S ASSASSINATION LIVES ON IN MEMORY
Gerry leaned out of the window on the sixth floor and said, “Well, we know what he had for lunch—fried chicken.’ You know what? All this time, I’m not sure just what the hell I’m doing. I’m not taking any notes, I’m just kinda, you know, in a twilight.”
When word came that a policeman had been shot in the city’s Oak Cliff district, Ewell joined police who were tracking his assailant. “So I end up in the Texas Theatre when they catch him. As I looked over the balcony railing, it was at that moment that the cops reached Lee Harvey. When he tried to shoot one of them, there was a scuffle and they fell
tion. The murder of John Kennedy has become America’s greatest ever whodunit, its origins preserved in the memories of those who were in Dallas that fateful day.
By 10 a.m., hundreds of people had gathered along the chain-link security fence at Love Field in a light rain, hoping to catch a glimpse of the Kennedys. Moments before Air Force One came into view, the rain stopped and as the plane landed, the sun came out.
“I still to this day remember Jackie getting off that plane,” says Jim Ewell, then The Dallas Morning News police reporter and now the public relations spokesman for the Dallas County Sheriffs Department. “Kennedy went up to the fence, and I’m sure it was mak-
between the seats and the rest of the cops rushed up and piled in. I will always remember that somebody was trying to poke the barrel of a shotgun down among all the heads and arms and shoulders of those cops fighting Lee Harvey.”
Henry Wade, former FBI agent and Second World War U.S. navy veteran, was Dallas County district attorney from 1950 to 1987 and, by 1963, had successfully prosecuted 25 murder cases. Now 79, he has been a widower for six years, has switched from smoking tobacco to chewing it and is counsel to a law firm in north Dallas. He was in the crowd awaiting Kennedy at the Dallas Trade Mart when word came that the president and governor Connally, a longtime friend, had been shot.
At about 5 p.m., he went to Parkland hospital where he sat for a time with Nellie Connally while her husband underwent surgery. “Then,
I went home,” Wade recalls, “and shortly after, I
got a call from Cliff Carter, who was a righthand man of [vice-president Lyndon] Johnson’s and he said it’s come over the television that y’all are going to claim the Russians conspired to kill the president. I said I didn’t know where that came from because as far as I knew we had no evidence that there were any Russians involved. Johnson apparently was hung up on that and was scared to death the Russians were going to release the atomic bomb.”
At Carter’s insistence, Wade drove to police headquarters at city hall to meet Oswald. “I asked him if he had a lawyer,” Wade says. “He said he did and named a New York City lawyer prominent in the civil liberties movement who called back and said that he did not know Oswald and had no intention of representing him. Oswald was defiant. I asked him questions about where he was at the time of the shooting. He answered practically everything
with ‘I want a lawyer’ and ‘Police brutality.’ ” Henry Wade believes he could have won a conviction and that Oswald would have been sentenced to death. But death, as it turned out, was imminent.
Jim Leavelle is 73 and comes from a village called Detroit in Red River County, Texas. “I think my wife married me because she thought I’d take her to the big city,” he chuckles. Their children grown and long gone, they live beside Lake Ray Hubbard in the Dallas suburb of Garland. In 1963, Leavelle was a Dallas police detective and on Sunday, Nov. 24, was about to become one of the most widely recognized players in the assassination drama.
That morning, police were preparing to transfer Oswald from the city hall police lockup to the better-equipped and more secure cells at the Dallas County Courthouse across
town. Chief Curry, angered by rumors that Oswald had been beaten, was determined to move him publicly so that the TV cameras would display him undamaged. Shortly after 11 a.m., Secret Service, FBI and other law enforcement agents had finished questioning Oswald.
“He had two different sweaters there and he said he wanted the black one, a pullover, so we let him put it on,” Leavelle says. “I put two sets of handcuffs on him, one set on both his wrists and then I handcuffed his right arm to my left. I was kind of kidding him. I said, ‘Well, Lee, if
anybody shoots at you, I hope they’re as good a shot as you are.’ He kind of laughed, the only time I saw him smile or laugh when he was in custody. He said, ‘Aw, ain’t nobody going to shoot at me. You’re just being overdramatic or something.’ I said, Well, if anybody does
shoot at you, you know what to do.’ And he said, The captain said to follow you so I’ll go wherever you go.’ I said, ‘In that case, you’ll be on the ground pretty quick if anyone starts shooting.’ ”
Oswald and Leavelle, wearing a pale gray Stetson and his only Neiman Marcus suit, rode the elevator from the third floor to the basement and walked along a short corridor to the parking garage.
“All the floodlights from the TV cameras came on and we were blinded momentarily, couldn’t see a thing,” Leavelle recalls. “Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Ruby standing there with a gun at his side. About that same instant, he made two short steps and doubleactioned that .38 into Oswald’s stomach. I had Oswald by the belt in addition to being handcuffed to him, and I tried to jerk him behind me but all I succeeded in doing was turning his body a little bit so that instead of hitting him dead centre, it hit him about four inches to the left of the navel.”
Leavelle grabbed Ruby with his free hand and shoved him backward. Other policemen seized both the gun and Ruby. An ambulance took Oswald to Parkland hospital, where he was put in the same emergency operating room that had received Kennedy, and Dr. Malcolm Perry, part of the team that had tried to save the president, operated in vain on the accused assassin. At 1:07 p.m., Oswald was pronounced dead.
Leavelle had had enough of televised police work. The next day, Monday the 25th, he whisked Ruby from City Hall to the county courthouse without telling even his lieutenant—“and he got huffy about that.”
Ruby was badly frightened. “On the way down in the elevator,” Leavelle remembers, “he was wanting to wear my hat and my coat and everything because he was afraid somebody was going to shoot him. I said, ‘Jack, you ain’t worth killin’, nobody’s going to shoot you.’ Then, I said, Tn all the years I’ve known you, you’ve never done anything to hurt the police, but you didn’t do us any favor on this.’ And he said, ‘All I wanted to do was be a hero.’ He’d
figured we’d charge him with murder but the grand jury would say, ‘Jack, that’s a bad thing you done shootin’ Oswald, but since he needed killin’ anyhow, we going to excuse you this time but don’t do it again.’ And he could stand at the front door of his club and people would come from far and wide to shake the hand of the man who shot the assassin.”
That same day, while kings, emperors and prime ministers bowed their heads in homage to the memory of a murdered president at Arlington National Cemetery near Washington, Lee Harvey Oswald was buried in Rose Hill Cemetery at Arlington, Texas, between Dallas and Fort Worth. There were five mourners— Oswald’s wife, Marina, his brother Robert, his mother and his two infant children. The Rev. Louis Saunders, secretary of the Fort Worth District Council of Churches, says that he had called five different clergymen to perform the service but all had made excuses. Saunders, who had not conducted a funeral service in eight years, nervously recited scripture from memory: “The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want: he maketh me to lie down in green pastures. . . .” Now 84, retired and living in Dallas, Saunders says that he eventually got more than 1,000 letters and postcards, only one of them critical.
But Lee Harvey Oswald did not stay buried. In 1981, British author Michael Eddowes, who had written a book contending that the body in the Arlington grave was that of a Soviet spy, got a court order for exhumation. Fort Worth funeral director Paul Groody, who had put Oswald into the ground 18 years before, returned to dig him up.
Now 74, Groody says that he found somebody had been there ahead of him. The steelreinforced concrete vault containing the casket had been broken, probably when it fell while being lifted from the grave, Groody surmises. In any event, he delivered the body to the Baylor Medical Center in Dallas where, two years later, a pathologist confirmed that the teeth were indeed those of Lee Harvey Oswald.
However, says Groody, the body he collected from Parkland hospital in 1963 had undergone an autopsy that included a craniotomy— opening the skull. “But when we dug him up,” he says, “I didn’t see any evidence that the skull had been autopsied.”
“You think the guy wasn’t Oswald?”
“Yup, I’m kind of convinced of that.”
“So what did they do, replace the teeth?” “Replaced the head. Somebody went in, changed heads and put the head of the real Lee Harvey in there.”
“So who did you originally bury?”
“Some guy who was groomed to look like him, but remember, it’s only a dumb old undertaker talkin’.”
For years after Kennedy’s murder, Dallas was reviled across America. Some newspaper stories called it “Murder City” and dwelled on its crime and violence and loony right-wing extremists. People from Dallas told tales of being refused service in other cities if they mentioned where they were from. “You know what I think cured that?” says Henry Wade. “When they killed Bobby Kennedy in Los Angeles and Martin Luther King in Memphis. People began thinking, ‘Why, this can happen in any city.’ ”
On the drive in from the airport, the city’s soaring, sculpted skyline—made famous by the Dallas TV series—appears suddenly in the distance, like a mirage on the north Texas plain. But it is more a colossal monument to fading oil-fed prosperity than to progress—Dallas is a troubled community. As happened in other big U.S. cities following desegregation, most of the white
population fled to the suburbs; in 100 square blocks of
downtown, there are, by and large, only office buildings and hotels. No shops, no movie houses, no grocers, no department stores, only one apartment building. “There’s
a lot of racial strife—more so,
I would say, than in the late Sixties,” says Darwin Payne, a journalism professor at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. “There’s a lot of fear about what’s happening.
Dallas, for years, felt it was immune to all the problems of the big cities of the East.
But now, we have all the problems and I can’t see a turnaround.”
No matter where the future takes the 152-year-old city on the Trinity River, it will never quite shake its past. In the history of high-level murder
and intrigue, Dealey Plaza has joined the senate steps of Caesar’s Rome, the Ford Theatre of Lincoln’s Washington, the streets of Archduke Ferdinand’s Sarajevo. And the tourists come to stare at the grassy knoll and the triple underpass, to take pictures of the old Texas School Book Depository—now the Dallas County Administration Building.
On the sixth floor, there is a broadloomed museum called simply The Sixth Floor. There are huge wallmounted photographs of the Kennedys in Washington, in Berlin, in Dallas, driving, waving, smiling. In the gloom, people watch videos of the fateful motorcade, of the president’s 1961 inaugural address (“Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country. . . .”). The comer containing the window from which Oswald is said to have fired the fatal shots has been boxed off behind glass, and people stare at the original bare wooden floor inside.
Downstairs, a tasteful souvenir shop sells a huge assortment of books about Kennedy and the assassination, plastic-wrapped front pages of 1963 newspapers, and audio and video tapes—JFK in Ireland; JFK: The Day the Nation Cried; Camelot: The Kennedy Years.
Outside, there is a metal plaque on the front of the building that reads, in part: “On Nov. 22,1963, the building gained national notoriety when Lee Harvey Oswald allegedly shot and killed president John F. Kennedy from a sixth-floor window as the presidential motorcade passed the site.” Over the years, the word “allegedly” has been underlined by repeated gouging. □