The assassination of President John F. Kennedy 50 years ago Friday is cloaked in mysteries. That’s why so many conspiracy theories believed by so many people have flourished down the years. Information is incomplete, motives unexplained, evidence lacking. We write our own narratives to fill in these blanks.
Perhaps the central mystery is how a man who seemed to be a loser could perpetrate such a terrible deed. Lee Harvey Oswald was adrift, largely alone, unfocused, according to the official Warren Commission report. Yet in seconds, he changed the course of history. History is full of preposterous truths – yet no matter. The single gunman theory is one many Americans find hard to accept.
Here are three other central mysteries. Narrow at the beginning, they open to reveal larger questions at the end. Many investigators claim to have solved these and other JFK assassination questions. But given the holes in what we know, there is no accepted story about that November day in Dallas. There are only factions of belief.
Were JFK and Governor Connally hit by the same bullet?
This question is at the heart of the fundamental issue of whether Lee Harvey Oswald could have acted alone.
The Warren Commission concluded that Oswald’s first shot from the Texas School Book Depository wounded Kennedy, in the back of the presidential limo, and Texas Gov. John Connally, who was sitting in front of JFK in a jump seat. This 6.5mm copper-jacketed bullet hit JFK in the back, traveled through his body, and then struck Governor Connally’s chest and wrist, said the commission. It was found on a gurney at Parkland Memorial Hospital upon which Connally had lain.
Could this really have happened? The bullet would have had to swerve in midair to cause the damage ascribed to it by the Warren report. A second shooter from a different angle had to be involved, according to the commission's critics.
In addition, Kennedy and Connally were hit at the same instant, according to the photographic evidence of the famous footage shot by private citizen Abraham Zapruder. Oswald couldn’t have fired fast enough to have hit them with two shots, much less the fatal shot that hit Kennedy in the head seconds later. If a single “magic” bullet didn’t wound the two men in the limo, that’s more evidence that Oswald had help, conspiracy theorists say.
But bullets don’t behave predictably when they reach their targets. JFK and Connally were sitting at different heights, and leaning at different angles. Many have argued that the evidence is consistent with the single bullet theory and there was no “magic” involved at all.
Why did Jack Ruby leave his dog in his car?
This question bears upon the motives of the main players in the drama, and whether an event that was a hinge of history occurred because of a momentary
Dallas strip club owner Jack Ruby loved dogs. Specifically, he loved his dogs, and his favorite was a dachshund named Sheba. Sheba went with him everywhere. On the morning of Nov. 24, 1963, Sheba rode with Ruby when he drove into Dallas on errands.
His main purpose was to wire money to a hard-pressed stripper in his employ, Ruby told the Warren Commission. Leaving Sheba in the car, he parked across from the Western Union office, walked over, and sent the cash. Then he wandered over to nearby Dallas Police headquarters. He was a frequent visitor there, handing out cards to give patrolmen free entrance to his clubs. He testified that at the time he was highly emotional about Kennedy’s death, and that he cried on the drive in when seeing wreaths by the side of the road.
Ruby walked down the ramp to the police garage. It was about 11:20 in the morning, local time. No one bothered him. He saw the crowd gathered to watch Lee Harvey Oswald’s transfer to a nearby county jail. In his own words, on a whim he shot and killed Oswald, forever precluding the chance of the world hearing Oswald’s testimony.
“I had a gun in my right hip pocket, and impulsively, if that is the correct word here, I saw him, and that is all that I can say. And I didn’t care what happened to me,” Ruby told the Warren Commission.
Is the dog in the car a crucial bit of evidence that backs up this assertion? Ruby would never have left Sheba unattended, in this view. He’d have left her at home if he had preplanned his actions. He’d have made some arrangements for her care.
It was some time before police found the car, and the dog, and made arrangements for her to go to animal protection. That’s something Ruby wouldn’t have wanted. But if Ruby acted on a whim, doesn’t that mean he acted alone? No mob backers, no Cuban money.
And if Ruby, why not Oswald? Perhaps Oswald was in despair over his inability to win back his estranged wife. He had long had a rifle in the garage, and the president was passing beneath his work window. On the morning of Nov. 22, perhaps something snapped.
Why was the original JFK autopsy report burned?
This question deals with the destruction of evidence and the gaps in the record that still exist.
In 1992 Congress established a review board to go through still-classified records related to Kennedy’s assassination. The purpose was to see what else could be released to public view. Thousands of new records were released.
But the records did not set everything to rest. In some instances they raised new questions, according to T. Jeremy Gunn, the board’s general counsel.
For instance, Gunn deposed Dr. James Joseph Hughes, one of the lead doctors who performed an autopsy on Kennedy’s body at Bethesda Naval Hospital. Dr. Hughes said he had burned his original handwritten autopsy notes in his fireplace at home. The notes had blood stains on them, said Hughes, and he did not want them to become a terrible object of awe, as Lincoln’s blood-stained chair from Ford’s Theater is today.
Hughes said he made a copy that contained all the same information. Other doctors' autopsy notes weren’t burned. But the autopsy has long been questioned – its methods, its thoroughness, its conclusions. The fact that records were destroyed only feeds those inquiries.
And what about other records? Many have been released, but more remain secret. Reputable estimates put the number of still-secret CIA records dealing with JFK’s murder at about 1,170, according to University of Virginia political scientist Larry Sabato, author of “The Kennedy Half Century.”
“Even a half-century later, we don’t have the complete story of the assassination,” wrote Mr. Sabato in a recent opinion piece for the Washington Post.