Now we look at some of the reasons why the Warren Commission’s conclusion — that Lee Harvey Oswald killed JFK, acting alone, not part of any conspiracy (a.k.a. the “Lone Gunman” theory) — is so hotly disputed.
I cannot begin to cover every conspiracy theory possibility out there. As I said in a previous post, there are literally thousands of books out there about the assassination. I’ve already covered this particular “mystery” in greater depth than I’m likely to cover most of them, but here’s a few things to get you started on your own research if you’re interested.
The “Magic Bullet”
The Commission concluded that Oswald fired three shots from the Book Depository. One of them (either the first fired or second fired) missed. Of the two which hit, the first one did quite a lot of damage:
- it entered the President’s upper back;
- emerged through his throat;
- continued forward and slightly downward into the Governor’s back;
- where it destroyed part of his rib;
- then emerged from his chest (collapsing his lung in the process);
- then broke his wrist,
- and finally embedded itself in his thigh, where it remained until dislodged and found at Parkland Hospital.
The second bullet which hit, which was the third one fired, struck the President in the back of his head and — there is no nice way to put it — blew his brains out.
This is called the “single bullet theory” by its supporters, not because it was the only bullet Oswald fired, but because so many wounds were caused by a single bullet. Its detractors call it instead the “magic bullet theory” because they doubt that one bullet could achieve such a series of wounds, and furthermore that the bullet found at Parkland is “pristine”; even if it could cause so many wounds, it would have to be in much worse condition.
Detractors of the theory have sometimes argued that the bullet would somehow have to change trajectory between Kennedy and Connally in order to make the hits, but this is based on the misconception that Connally’s seat was at the same height as Kennedy’s and directly in front of him in the car. It was not. It was lower, and positioned further inboard (to their left), and this makes the “magic” trajectory a reasonably straight line from the sixth floor window through both men.
Another point to be made is that Oswald was presumably not trying to pull off such a ridiculously effective shot. The men had to be sitting just right, complete with Connally having his arm in front of his chest holding his hat (which it was) in order for the bullet to hit his wrist after leaving his chest.
Is the “magic” shot even possible? I hate to cite a television show as evidence that something happened, but perhaps we can cite it as evidence that something is possible. In 2004 the Discovery Channel aired an episode of Unsolved History called “JFK — Beyond the Magic Bullet”. They recreated the assassination as thoroughly as possible, using modern ballistic gel and “bone” materials to simulate both Kennedy and Connally, made as precisely as they could in the shape and size of both men, in the position they seemed to be when the bullet was fired based upon Abraham Zapruder’s home movie of the assassination … and the single bullet shot was reproduced almost exactly. So it seems that it was indeed possible.
Ruby and Oswald
Many (certainly not all) conspiracy theorists presume that Jack Ruby was part of the conspiracy, and his job was to kill Oswald to keep him from confessing and revealing the conspiracy to authorities. This invites a question, however: why didn’t anyone show up to then silence Ruby?
The Ruby/Oswald theories become more problematic when you know that Ruby was present in the room when Oswald was shown to the assembled press late Friday night. (There are photographs which show him there.) We know Ruby was capable of killing Oswald in front of witnesses, and be apprehended in the process, because that’s exactly what he did on Sunday morning. Yet he had the opportunity to do so on Friday night — again, in front of witnesses, but that didn’t stop him on Sunday! — and he didn’t take it. If he’s supposed to silence Oswald, why leave him alive for roughly 36 more hours, during which Oswald can talk?
Ruby was definitely a somewhat shady character. He owned nightclubs (complete with striptease performances), and he was something of a “groupie” or “hanger-on” of the police. He told his employees that if they ever charged a Dallas policeman for drinks, food, or otherwise, they could start looking for a new job because they were done. He wanted the police to have the run of his clubs. In turn, he seemed to be more or less able to come and go at the police department.
Additionally, Ruby died of lung cancer complications only a few years after he killed Oswald. Conspiracy theorists may claim that he knew he was dying, and he didn’t have much to lose. He never married and had no kids. So if you were going to find someone to kill Oswald, Ruby may have been a reasonable choice.
The Grassy Knoll and the Head Snap
If you’ve heard anything about the JFK assassination you’ve probably heard of the “grassy knoll.” This is a little low hill, covered with grass, which was ahead of the Presidential car as it passed the Book Depository. There was a wooden fence at the top of the knoll.
If the President was shot from the front, the likely position of the gunman is usually thought to be from the grassy knoll, possibly standing behind its fence. The Warren Commission and HSCA concluded the President was shot from the back, from the Depository.
It has been argued that Frame #313 of Abraham Zapruder’s film of the assassination, the frame in which the President’s skull explodes, shows Kennedy’s head to have moved slightly back relative to the previous frame. Conspiracy theorists argue that a bullet to the front of his head — probably fired from the grassy knoll — would produce this by pushing his head back. Conspiracy debunkers point out that in such a traumatic injury, the muscles might jerk in such a way as to pull the head back a bit, and furthermore, Newton’s Third Law (equal and opposite reaction) suggests that if so much of the President’s brain and skull exploded forward (as is visible in the frame), then the opposite reaction would have pushed his head backwards.
The Dictabelt Recording
So why did the House Select Committee on Assassinations conclude there was a conspiracy?
One of the police officers present in Dealey Plaza had his radio microphone stuck in the “on” position starting about 1 minute before the shots were fired, and it remained open for about 5 and a half minutes. This in itself is suspicious to someone, I’m sure; however, it means sounds from Dealey Plaza were recorded as the assassination happened.
There is a series of “impulse patterns” on the Dictabelt recording which are supposed to correspond to gunshots and their associated echoes. The problem is, there are supposedly four such patterns, not the three which would match Oswald’s three shots from the Depository.
You can learn a lot about this recording elsewhere, but the analysis has been heavily discredited. Some of the problems are:
- The DPD officer, H. B. McLain, who testified that he did have his microphone stuck open disputes that the recording could be from his motorcycle. Notably, he believes the engine sound matches a three-wheeler, not his two-wheeler.
- There is no crowd noise on the recording, despite it being heard on other recordings of police activity during those moments.
- Sirens are not heard on the recording until two minutes after the impulses, yet McLain rode with the Presidential car to Parkland Hospital with his sirens blaring within seconds of the assassination.
- Furthermore, the sirens on the recording are modified by the Doppler effect, suggesting the sirens are moving relative to the recording, but the receiver on the motorcycle would not have moved relative to the sirens, which also came from the motorcycle.
- About a minute after the four impulses, someone is heard whistling a tune, which seems incongruous given all of the above context.
There have been many subsequent analyses made since the HSCA report, including by the FBI, the National Academy of Sciences, independent researchers, and even CourtTV. It seems like each analysis contradicts the previous one.
The Three Tramps
Shortly after the assassination, three apparently transient men were arrested nearby and photographed by reporters. The men were questioned, and released four days later. Numerous conspiracy theorists have seized upon this, trying to identify the men as various nefarious figures whom they want to pin as conspirators. Some of these include:
- Charles Harrison (father of actor Woody Harrison), who was convicted of other murders for hire
- E. Howard Hunt and Frank Sturgis, two of Nixon’s Watergate burglars
- Fred Crisman, who was one of the witnesses to the Maury Island UFO Incident, widely regarded as a hoax
The Garrison Investigation (Oliver Stone’s Source)
Oliver Stone’s movie JFK stars Kevin Costner as Jim Garrison, the District Attorney for New Orleans from 1962 to 1973. In 1966, Garrison received a tip that a man called David Ferrie, who was acquainted with Oswald from Civil Air Patrol, was involved in a conspiracy to kill JFK. This eventually led to the prosecution of local businessman Clay Shaw; however, the jury acquitted Shaw less than one hour after they were sent to deliberate.
Garrison’s key witness was Perry Russo, who claimed that he was at a party in which David Ferrie, a man called “Clem Bertrand” who turned out to be Clay Shaw, and Oswald (introduced to him as “Leon Oswald”) were discussing killing the President.
It was revealed that Garrison’s methods for grilling his witnesses included hypnosis and “truth serum”, which led to speculation that their testimony was (intentionally or not) “implanted” during questioning.
When Stone made JFK in 1991, he based it largely on Garrison’s 1988 work On the Trail of the Assassins, and cast Garrison himself, in a touch of irony, as Earl Warren.
So who did it?
Conspiracy theorists generally argue the conspirators were one or more of the following groups, with various motives:
- the FBI, because of JFK and RFK’s distaste for J. Edgar Hoover
- the CIA, because of their hatred of that agency
- agents of or loyal to Fidel Castro, for JFK’s attempt to overthrow Castro (the Bay of Pigs)
- Cuban exiles opposed to Castro, for JFK’s failure to overthrow Castro
- agents of the Soviet Union, particularly the KGB, who wanted to destabilize the West
- the Mafia or other elements of organized crime in America, because of the Kennedy administrations efforts to combat the mob
- Lyndon B. Johnson, seeking to eliminate the man who was his rival in 1960 and become President himself
- Southern Democrats opposed to JFK’s interest in the civil rights movement
Winston Churchill is famous for saying of democracy: “Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.” I feel similarly about the Lone Gunman theory. It is the worst theory of the JFK assassination … except for all the others.
I would love a conspiracy theory about JFK’s death to be true. More than one author has observed that there is a problem of “proportionality”; Oswald, a 24-year-old ex-Marine and disillusioned Marxist, who had a failing marriage and desperately wanted to be famous (he titled his diary of his visit to the Soviet Union the Historical Diary), in short, a loser, killed Kennedy, causing who knows what sort of changes to ripple through history. What if Kennedy had lived and been re-elected in 1964? Would he have ended the War in Vietnam sooner? What would it have done for civil rights? What would have happened to Bobby Kennedy’s own Presidential aspirations (and lifespan)?
It doesn’t feel right that this pathetic man Oswald did so much to change the world all by himself. Yet I personally haven’t seen evidence that compels me to say otherwise. I remain open to it, but at the end of the day, call me a “sheep” or whatever, but as of this writing, in October 2017, I believe the Lone Gunman theory.