In the mid-1980s, at a party in a canal house in Amsterdam, a man who claimed to be a session musician on a couple of Beatles albums handed me some grimy typewritten pages and said: “This will change your view of the story. world.”
The much-photocopied document was titled “The Skeleton Key to the Gemstone File”, and purported to explain who fired – who Seriously shot – President John F Kennedy in Dallas, Texas on November 22, 1963.
Sixty years later, the question is still being asked, and answered. On Dealey Plaza, the city park in downtown Dallas where the fatal shots were fired, a white hawk of assassination literature declares the shooter to be “Black Dog Man.”
He flips through a magazine in me – “JFK: The case for Conspiracy” – and within minutes the assassination is co-opted into grim tales of the “New World Order,” wind turbines and microchips embedded in our brains.
“Big Brother, they call it,” he said cheerfully, offering me a discount on the magazine.
The shooting of the President nearly a lifetime ago is reinventing itself in the post-truth world of Trump-era America. The many conspiracies spawned by the event were the original fake news (my “Gemstone File” pointed the finger at Mafia hitmen employed by the Greek shipping magnate Aristotle Onassis) and in 2023 new streams are being discovered have them to swim in.
Many people feel that there has been so much smoke that there must be a conspiracy. But the official decision of the Warren Commission in 1964 came to the conclusion that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone in the shooting of Kennedy (from the Texas School Book Depository building on the northeast corner of Dealey Plaza) and that Jack Ruby was responsible for his murder. , a nightclub owner with Mafia connections, same random act.
Drama is enough, in which the American Dream takes a few seconds to spend a nightmare in the autumn sunlight. And for the visitor to Dallas the unusual thing is that the stage he played on is intact. If you compare “then” and “now” photos of Dealey Plaza, the only obvious difference is that in 1963 a giant Hertz Rent A Car billboard sat on the roof of the bookstore.
It is long gone. But in the Plaza itself the sloping lawns, featuring pools and curved colonnades – completed in 1940 as an elegant “front porch” to the city – remain unchanged. However, they have gained notoriety because of specific links to the resulting ballistic crisis.
For here is the “grass hill”, where the second or third shooter may or may not have been located, the “picket fence” (the same) and the concrete plinth on which gunman Abraham Zapruder precariously balanced to presidential motorcade filmed on 8mm. camera, creating the most watched 26 seconds of race footage in US history.
Among these semi-mythical places on the hot October day I visit are the conspirators making their self-published magazines and books and the relentlessly self-renewing audiences they serve: foreign tourists involved in the morbid glamor of high life. Americans of the state in search of their own history.
“It’s surreal to see it with my own eyes,” says Scott Eckert of Philadelphia. For his wife Debbie the Plaza is smaller than she imagined it from TV movies. Both seem overwhelmed right now to finally be here.
We are all shifting our eyes between two points: the corner window on the sixth floor of the former book depository from which Oswald allegedly fired the shots, and the yellow cross painted on the center lane of the highway marking the spot where Kennedy was found at 12.30 p.m. the fatal bullet to the head while sitting in the back of the open-top limousine.
The depot has an excellent museum, the Sixth Floor Museum at Dealey Plaza, dedicated to the assassination. But, like the building itself, it stands apart from the circus of conspiracies below. The museum’s CEO, British-born Nicola Longford, admits that they have to cross a “very fine line” and in presenting the story with meticulous objectivity the museum opposes some of the conspiracy theorists, who dismiss it as a sanitary measure for the assassination.
He covers the toxic political atmosphere the young Democratic president was stepping into — his support for civil rights and perceived softness on “Communists” made him hated by many in conservative Dallas — and admits that “ the questions ‘Why?’ or ‘For or with whom?’ still no answer”. But in the end, says Longford, “It’s really the power of place that people come to see and feel”.
Exhibitions aside, the sixth floor of the building is still the wood and brick warehouse space it was in 1963. Museum visitors (including this one) do not fall silent when they reach the corner window, glassed to to thwart souvenir hunters who were drifting window pieces. frame. The Oswald barricade is made of book boxes accurately recreated based on evidentiary photographs.
The line of sight (from the nearby window) to the yellow cross painted on the road below is unobstructed, and the result can suddenly be imagined. The report that broke the news to the world at 12.36pm, by ABC Radio anchor Don Gardiner, plays on an endless loop: “This is a special bulletin from Dallas, Texas. Three shots were fired at President Kennedy’s motorcade today in downtown Dallas, Texas.”
Other key sites remain in place throughout the city, opening more doors to a history of contact. After hanging out in Dealey Plaza, local guide Scott Beeman drives me to a cream clapboard house (currently unoccupied) at 214 W Neely St in the Oak Cliff neighborhood where Oswald and his wife Marina lived in Russia in the one-story duplex superior in the house. spring of 1963.
It was at this address that Oswald purchased through the mail (for $21.45) the Italian bolt action rifle found in the cache. Beeman leads me to the back yard and points out the wooden fence and outside stairs, which form the background of a familiar image of Oswald that he swipes up on his phone.
“When he gets the rifle he’s so excited he gets all dressed up and Marina takes this famous photo,” says Beeman.
A few blocks away at 1026 N Beckley Ave is the former rooming house where Oswald was renting a small room under the name OH Lee at the time of the assassination. The current owner is the granddaughter of the woman who ran it at the time and, using original furniture (including props like Oswald’s cot), she has created an atmosphere of vintage air and unasked questions. in which Oswald moved towards his destiny.
Half an hour after the fatal shooting in Dealey Plaza Oswald dropped into the rooming house to pick up the .38 handgun and a few minutes later he would murder police patrolman JD Tippit. He was later arrested at the Texas Theater movie theater on Jefferson Blvd and less than 48 hours later Jack Ruby fatally shot himself in the basement of Dallas Police Headquarters on Main Street. (irony of irony: the current notice taped to the basement entrance says “Weapons are Prohibited Pursuant to the Texas Penal Code”.)
That’s the story. But while following it I feel like I want to rewind to 12.29pm on that Friday in 1963 – when the presidents were extremely young and hope was still on the table. Back on Dealey Plaza a woman from Boston tells me how sad it is, “when these terrible things are still happening”. And it comes to me what we are all doing here. We are waiting for another ending to redeem.
On the JFK trail in Dallas
Sixth Floor Museum
The Sixth Floor Museum at Dealey Plaza is open Wednesday through Sunday 10am–5pm, $18. It is a special exhibition, “Two Days In Texas”, to celebrate 60 years.
Best DFW Tours offers 3-hour guided vehicle tours of JFK sites with access to the rooming house on N Beckley Avenue: from $400 (self-guided tours via phone connection: $24.99).
Ruth Paine’s house
Oswald’s wife lived in the Ruth Paine House in the suburb of Irving, where he kept the rifle and where he spent the night before the assassination. Now a museum, it has been painstakingly recreated as it was in 1963. Tuesday-Saturday, $12, by appointment only (e-mail email@example.com).
Juanita’s Craft House
For a broader look, visit the state-of-the-art Juanita Craft House dedicated to illuminating the civil rights movement in Dallas. Miss Craft was invited to the luncheon at the Trade Mart where the President was to address after the motorcade. The effect of his assassination on the Black community was devastating. Open by appointment. Also find time to visit the vibrant Deep Ellum neighborhood for great nightlife and murals.
America As You Own It; 020 8742 8299). See visitdallas.com for more information about the city.
Nigel Richardson is the author of ‘The Accidental Detectorist: Uncovering an Underground Obsession’, available in paperback from Telegraph Books.