Friday, November 22, 2013

Who Killed Lee Harvey Oswald?

By now, it is acceptable to say that President Kennedy was assassinated by a lone gunman named Lee Harvey Oswald. Thinking otherwise will brand you as a semi-paranoid conspiracy nut, someone who cannot accept reality.

Of course, as the old saw goes, paranoiacs have enemies, too.

Whatever doubt anyone still entertains about Oswald’s being the lone assassin, we know, to a far greater degree of certainty that Jack Ruby murdered Lee Harvey Oswald in a Dallas police station. We know it because we watched it happen in real time on national television.

Nowadays, trendy psychological research suggests that human life is a narrative. Yet, when it comes to the Kennedy assassination we are told that we should not narratize the event.

As for the question of why the conspiracy theories still abound, Adam Gopnik explained several years ago that we cling to them because we cannot believe that a single individual could have perpetrated an act that had such outsized cultural and historical resonance.

Of course, when Leon Czolgosz shot William McKinley in 1901, everyone accepted without much difficulty that Czolgosz was a disgruntled anarchist who believed that, by killing the president he was striking a blow against oppression.

Of course, Czolgosz just walked up to McKinley and shot him. He was perfectly willing to be caught and punished. He did not shoot from a great distance and then try to escape.

The murder of William McKinley, like the murder of Jack Ruby was clearly visible to observers. There was no doubt about the identity of the killer.

Yet, right-thinking people notwithstanding, Kennedy assassination conspiracy theories continue to fascinate because, as John Cassidy argues cogently:

… the official version of events begs questions; in some aspects, it beggars belief.

Of course, the murder of a president is, ipso facto, a political act. Neither Cassidy nor Secretary of State John Kerry shrinks from the fact that Oswald was a left-wing extremist who used to pal around with Fidel Castro’s agents.

All the theorists, being incipient profilers, always add that Oswald was disaffected and disconnected, a born loser who was trying to make a name for himself.

Of course, it is also true that people who want to make a name for themselves are more likely to shoot from close enough range so that there can be no doubt about their responsibility. If you shoot from a great distance and try to escape, you might have something else in mind.

Cassidy describes the assassin:

 Oswald was a withdrawn misanthrope, whose troubled childhood included being diagnosed as a schizoid personality. A leftist activist and one of life’s unhappy searchers, he fits the popular perception of lone nuts, and his training as a marksman in the U.S. Marine Corps suggests he had the wherewithal to shoot accurately.

But, even if we accept that Oswald was the only shooter, the question remains: did he think it up, plan it, know where to be, set it up, act on it without ever having spoken about the plot with another human being?

As Cassidy says, it beggars belief.

John Kerry raised these questions. Cassidy reported on Kerry's doubts:

Oswald was the lone shooter. But why did he do it, and was he maybe put up to it? It is here that the Secretary of State departs from the Warren Commission’s version of events. In an interview with NBC’s Tom Brokaw, Kerry said, “To this day, I have serious doubts that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone.” And, he went on, “I’m not sure if anybody else was involved—I don’t go down that road with respect to the grassy-knoll theory and all that—but I have serious questions about whether they got to the bottom of Lee Harvey Oswald’s time and influence from Cuba and Russia…I think he was inspired somewhere, by something.”

Cassidy continued:

 Almost certainly, we still don’t know all we might about his time in Russia, where he arrived as a defector in 1959; his interest in and support for the Cuban regime after his return to the United States; and his simultaneous links to people active in the anti-Castro movement, some of whom had connections to the mafia. 

Oswald was liked to pro-Castro Cubans and the anti-Castro Cubans. The waters become muddier.

Besides, if Oswald was a disaffected misanthrope yearning for fame, he might have been easily manipulated by others. He might have been instructed to make it appear that he was killing Kennedy to promote Cuban interests in order to throw investigators off the track.

Even if Oswald was a Communist and a Castro sympathizer, it’s difficult to say that either the Soviet Union or Cuba ordered the assassination of President Kennedy.

Either nation, Cuba especially, should have known that if the connection had been discovered it would have been subjected to severe retaliation.

For that reason many conspiracy theorists have blamed the CIA. By their less-than-plausible reasoning, the CIA set up Oswald in order to provoke a wave of anti-Cuban anger that would lead to an invasion and overthrow of the Castro regime.

Also, if the Soviet Union or Cuba had ordered Oswald to murder the president, wouldn’t they have chosen someone whose ties to them were less obvious?

And then there is one giant open question: who was Jack Ruby and why did he murder Oswald?

Cassidy raises the point:

Frankly, I very much doubt that the Soviets, the Cuban government, or the C.I.A. hired Oswald to kill Kennedy. Maybe nobody did. But here’s another question that has always refused to vacate my mind when I’ve been about to close the casebook. If Oswald acted alone, without any outside influence, how and why did Jack Ruby pump a .38 slug into his gut two days later in the basement of the Dallas police headquarters?

He continues:

 And while it’s perhaps not very hard to accept that the first was the work of a deranged individual who wanted to take out his frustrations on the world, register a deadly protest against U.S. foreign policy, or whatever, it’s a good deal tougher to countenance the notion that the shooting of Oswald followed the same script, except that the second lone nut, Ruby, was merely trying to make a name for himself, or was trying to save Jacqueline Kennedy the anguish of going through a trial of Oswald.

The notion that Ruby killed Oswald because he was just another disaffected lunatic or because he wanted to spare Mrs. Kennedy a trial does not pass the credibility test. It feels like nonsense.

Whatever you think of Oswald, Ruby had no real associations with Communism or the radical left. He had no ties to the radical right either. He did have ties to organized crime, however. And, as Cassidy notes, his murder of Oswald more closely resembled an effort to silence a witness, to prevent him from talking:

On the face of it, doesn’t it sound more likely that Ruby, a rakish gambler and strip-joint proprietor with longstanding ties to the criminal underworld, shot Oswald to keep him silent? That’s said to be what some members of the Kennedy family suspected in the immediate aftermath of Oswald’s death, and, fifty years later, it still has some plausibility. It’s hard to see Ruby as the self-sacrificing or altruistic type. A Chicago-born Jewish kid who was in trouble with the law from an early age, he certainly wasn’t a member of the Mafia.

Ruby may not have been a member of the Mafia, but he seems to have had connections. As Cassidy notes, he was neither politically involved, self-sacrificing nor altruistic.

Also, if organized crime had something to do with the assassinations of Kennedy and Oswald they would not have chosen someone who belonged directly to their organization.

The theory has been floating around for decades now. That does not make it wrong, or right.

Cassidy summarizes it:

But the author David E. Scheim demonstrated in his 1988 book, “Contract on America: The Mafia Murder of President John F. Kennedy,” that his contacts with mob figures were a good deal more extensive than had been known previously. For example, Ruby’s sister Eva described Joseph Campisi, a mobbed-up figure in Dallas who ran a steakhouse, as one of his close friends. At one point, Campisi claimed that Ruby visited his restaurant the night before he shot Oswald, but he later retracted this statement.


It’s an established fact that many senior mobsters were furious at the Kennedy brothers because of Robert Kennedy’s assault on their illicit activities, and that F.B.I. wiretaps captured some of them saying things like, “He ought to be whacked.” Of course, it’s a big leap from these tapes to suggest that Scheim is right, and that the mob used Oswald to rub out the President. No evidence of such a plot has ever been produced. 

And yet, do we believe that Jack Ruby conceived and planned the attack entirely on his own, that he never spoke to another human being about it and that neither he (nor members of his family) had anything to gain.

Imagining that Jack Ruby was so grief-stricken over the Kennedy assassination that he decided to take justice into his own hands does not make sense.

[Addendum: In this article Erin McClam outlines the case that New Orleans mob boss, Carlos Marcello ordered the assassination. She mentions Marcello's confession to an informant, also.]


Unknown said...

If the stories of Oswald shooting at people from afar with a BB gun during his younger days in New York are true, then shooting Kennedy from afar fits his MO. His excelling at marksman training also fits his profile of wanting to attack from afar, rather than excelling at hand-to-hand combat.

Until I see evidence to the contrary, I have to side with the lone gunman theory. As the popular saying goes, the simplest explanation is usually the best one (and usually the correct one).

I was 10 years old at the time, and remember that week being both frightening and strange. First Kennedy is killed, then Oswald. Of course you then had to wonder, who will kill Ruby. But the drama ended with Ruby simply dying of cancer. The mystery lingers, however, with conspiracy theorist making millions perpetuating that theory.

The best evidence that Oswald was alone in his murder is the fact that we humans are lousy at keeping secrets. If there was a second shooter, someone probably would have squealed by now.

Stuart Schneiderman said...

I just added a story by Erin McClam that makes the case that Carlos Marcello ordered the assassination. I do not, for my part, believe that we need to posit a second shooter. I believe it doubtful that Oswald could have carried out the plot without any help.

Unknown said...

I was born and raised in New Orleans, and my brother graduated from high school with Joseph Marcello - the son of Carlos.

Did the Marcello family order the hit on JFK? Well, they definitely were enemies. And the Marcello family definitely had the resources to carry out the assassination. If they did order the hit, it's been a well kept secret.

Anonymous said...

I recommend the NOVA episode that aired recently on PBS: "Cold Case: JFK." Using ballistics evidence, physical evidence high-tech analysis and recreations, the program paints a very compelling case for a lone gunman in the man Lee Harvey Oswald. The weapon he used, his location, the location of Kennedy and Connally's wounds, were all compelling factors in the conspiracy theories, and I was satisfied by the explanations. Oswald was a nut, and he worked at the Book Depository. He bought a rifle and shot the most powerful man in the free world.

Here is the link to the NOVA program:

And I thoroughly enjoyed Oliver Stone's "JFK" because I thought it was an excellent piece of storytelling, especially the editing (Stone's greatest strength as a director). But it's just too wacky when translated into reality. The other thing the NOVA program does is offer an excellent explanation of Costner's repetitious, haunting "Back, and to the left" lines in the "JFK" court scene.

Now, as for Jack Ruby, that part of the case has received very little attention. And yes, this is strange. I must confess I haven't paid much attention.

I read Gerald Posner's "Case Closed" book many years ago, and that's when I began to turn away from the conspiracy theories. We'd gone toe-to-toe with the Soviets en route to Cuba, and I'm confident the Soviets and Cubans knew we meant business. If you want to bring the mob into it, then that's something else altogether.

I do believe human beings are capable of doing wonderful and horrible things, on an individual and collective level. Lee Harvey Oswald did something horrible. I cannot imagine what it must've been like for Jackie Kennedy to live through those terrible moments, watching her husband's head blown apart and being with him on the way to the hospital as he died. There are evil people out there, and the denial of evil because of a refusal to recognize the human capacity for it is dreadful.


Anonymous said...

Stuart, I don't quite understand why you think he could not have carried it out alone. He had the means, the capability, and in his twisted mind, the motive. In what way did he need help? Why would he talk to anyone about it? He was a loner and a misfit. With his volatility and general weirdness he does not seem to be a natural candidate to include in a conspiracy.

Stuart Schneiderman said...

According to Ron Rosenbaum, Oswald did mention it at a party in Mexico City.

It's also possible that he was manipulated... considering how vulnerable he was.

And still... what about Jack Ruby?

Anonymous said...


Perhaps I'm a bit more skeptical or disconnected about the topic it's because I was one of two gametes at the time Kennedy was shot. I appreciate that it was an extremely memorable and frightening moment for a lot of people, but we're doing a weird bit of memorializing with all this nutty speculation. Maybe Tinkerbell whispered something compelling in Ruby's ear or a Jimminy Cricket visited Oswald and told him to kill Kennedy. That would make great copy for a the next edition of Disney's UFO Digest, but now it's just another abstraction on top of an abstraction, and so on.

It was a sad day in November 1963. We lost a president to a crazed gunman, who was killed by a crazed gunman 2 days later. We find it difficult to confront the notion of a "little man" taking down the leader of the free world. And that another yahoo would kill an assassin in police custody just 2 days later. Yet those are the definitive facts as they stand. The rest is rank speculation.

The burden of proof is on the conspiracy theorists, and I've heard nothing credible that contradicts the established narrative that Lee Harvey Oswald and Jack Ruby acted alone in their extraordinary crimes. I'm sorry if people think I'm spitting on the grave of a great president, or think I'm an anti-intellectual ostrich who refuses to see the truth. My irritation comes from people who seem to WANT a twistaplot explanation, who cannot accept that this could happen without the CIA, FBI, Mafia, Soviets, Cubans, LBJ, whomever. The bad news for them is that it looks like it did. And, in a complete contradiction of what we know of human nature, no credible person claiming to be involved in the conspiracy has ever come forward or admitted to it on their deathbed. Ruby's final statement was "There was no one else." I'm inclined to believe him.

There are kooky people in this world, and some of them kill people. The JFK conspiracy narratives feature a consistent pattern where all kinds of grandiose people make all kinds of outlandish claims. What I object to is the "news" media's willful suspension of disbelief, and the credibility given to conspiracy buffs who deserve little, if any. No one considers the impact on the audience, where many people take all this stuff and make themselves into seething victims of a gigantic subterfuge or high treason, one where dark, powerful, shadowy forces have destroyed America… that all hope died with President John Fitzgerald Kennedy. This only contributes to the tragic glamor of the Kennedy family, which has been transformed into one of the most grotesque fictions (e.g., "Camelot") ever foisted on the mind of man. I must confess that I've been very irritated with the news coverage the last few days going on and on about the JFK assassination and seemingly intelligent people hinting that there's this grand conspiracy. Rubbish.

What a grandiose comment I've written! I yield back my time… which is now a meaningless formality now that the Democrats have rid the Senate of the filibuster. No bother, let's focus on the Kennedys instead!