Through the 50 years since the JFK assassination robbed Americans of any semblance of political innocence, questions have persisted about that man and why he opened and pumped his umbrella in the moments before the president was shot. Was the hoisting of the umbrella a signal? Was the umbrella itself a weapon? Did the man know Lee Harvey Oswald?
The explanation from the man himself, coming 15 years later in congressional testimony before the House Select Committee on Assassinations, has not put to rest all suspicions (as is the case with so many other facets of the JFK assassination). Today, 6 in 10 Americans do not believe the official version of what happened – specifically, that Oswald acted alone. Novelist John Updike was once prompted to write that confusion about Umbrella Man hangs over the assassination, dangling around “history’s neck like a fetish.”
“In all of Dallas, there appears to be exactly one person standing under an open black umbrella. And that person is standing where the shots begin to rain into the limousine,” Josiah “Tink” Thompson, author of “Six Seconds in Dallas,” says in a 2011 documentary short by filmmaker Errol Morris. “Can anyone come up with a nonsinister explanation for this? Hmm?”
Louie Steven Witt, aka Umbrella Man, offered one to Congress when he voluntarily came forward to testify – and a peculiar one it was. In his 1978 testimony, he said he had known nothing about the controversy surrounding his rain gear. The umbrella had indeed been intended to convey a message, Mr. Witt told lawmakers, but to Kennedy himself, not to any co-conspirators in an assassination plot. He called his actions that day "a bad joke."
But the photos and film footage of Umbrella Man's actions seem to many to defy explanation – and so they interpret the images themselves.
“One theory is that the assassins wanted Kennedy to know (in his final seconds) exactly why he was being killed,” writes blogger Croft Randle. “The umbrella symbolized Kennedy’s … refusal to provide a covering ‘umbrella’ of air support during the CIA’s failed Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba. The term had been widely used and the significance of the raised umbrella would have instantly been understood by Kennedy.”
In director Oliver Stone’s 1991 movie, “JFK,” the Umbrella Man is a signal man. Fox News commentator Bill O’Reilly cut his reportorial teeth on the Umbrella Man story.
Mr. Witt, in front of Congress, was asked specifically whether the umbrella was equipped with a shooting mechanism that could launch a flechette. He answered no. Indeed, he brought what he said was the same umbrella to the hearing to demonstrate that it was just an average black umbrella.
When one congressman suggested that Witt thought of himself as a “cool cat,” he replied, "I can assure you I was not all that cool. I think one of my reactions was knowing that I was there with this stupid umbrella and heckling the president."
"I would have to describe it as kind of like a bad joke that had gone sour, or a practical joke you pulled on someone that had gone sour."
The umbrella, Witt explained, was a visual protest, not of Kennedy’s policies, but of the backing that JFK's father, Joseph P. Kennedy Sr., gave to Britain's umbrella-toting Neville Chamberlain and his appeasement policies toward the Nazis in the late 1930s.
“In a coffee break conversation, someone had mentioned that the umbrella was a sore spot with the Kennedy family,” Witt told lawmakers. “Being a conservative-type fellow, I sort of placed him in the liberal camp and I was just going to kind of do a little heckling.”
Asked whether he had anything to add, Witt said, “If the 'Guinness Book of World Records' had a category for people doing the wrong thing at the wrong time in the wrong place, I would be No. 1 in that position with not even a close runner-up.”
An innocent explanation, but is it true? Mr. Thompson, interviewed in the Errol Morris documentary, calls the explanation “just wacky enough it has to be true.”
Others say there’s no definitive proof that Witt was in fact the Umbrella Man. He fit the image: tall, thin, white. He was a 53-year-old Dallas warehouse manager, according to an AP story at the time he gave his testimony. Since that day, little is known of what became of Witt. He would be 88 now.
For some, the Umbrella Man has become a cautionary tale about America’s search for truth and meaning from the assassination, a search that itself has become a sort of societal addiction, in which facts, historical research, and theories continue to clash. For Dallas Observer columnist Jim Schutze, the investigation itself can muddy understanding, as when a mundane detail – a lone man with an umbrella on a sunny Dallas morning, for instance – becomes, as Mr. Schutze wrote recently, a "trap door" that leads to a "quantum universe of weirdness."
Believe what you will, but this much is true: No umbrellas are allowed in Dealey Plaza during Friday's public commemoration of the assassination.