By November 1963, 46-year-old President John F. Kennedy, the youngest elected leader in American history, had been in office for almost three years. He had won admiration for his handling of the Cuban Missile Crisis and brought glamour to the White House but for many he was a divisive and hated figure.
His assassination in Dallas gave birth to hundreds of conspiracy theories that are argued over today. As the 60th anniversary of JFK’s murder approaches, Jonathan Mayo tells the story of the day that shook the world.
Friday, November 22, 1963
President Kennedy is asleep in Suite 850 in the Hotel Texas in Fort Worth. Today he will make two speeches in the city and then fly to Dallas. JFK is in Texas because he needs to win friends in the South — his support for civil rights has severely dented his popularity and the election is just a year away. Also with him on the trip is his Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson.
George Thomas, his valet, knocks on the door to wake Kennedy. ‘Mr President, it’s raining out.’ He hears him stir and reply: ‘That’s too bad.’
JFK’s wife Jackie, 34, is happy that it’s raining, as that means the bubbletop cover will be on the presidential limousine and it’ll keep her hair from blowing about. This trip is Jackie’s first extended appearance in public since losing a baby in August.
President and Mrs. John F. Kennedy smile at the crowds lining their motorcade route in Dallas, Texas, on November 22, 1963. Minutes later the President was assassinated as his car passed through Dealey Plaza
Lee Harvey Oswald holds a Mannlicher-Carcano rifle and newspapers in a backyard
Thirty miles away in Irving, 24-year-old Lee Harvey Oswald kisses his sleeping children, Rachel and June, and says to his wife Marina: ‘I’ve left some money on the bureau. Take it and buy everything you and Junie and Rachel need.’
Oswald was briefly a U.S. Marine, who in 1959 defected to the Soviet Union where he married 19-year-old Marina. Within two years they were back in the U.S. Oswald beats her and so a few months ago Marina left him and moved in with her friend Ruth Paine.
Last night he failed to persuade her to come home to him in Dallas, where he is living temporarily in a boarding house. Oswald dislikes Ruth, but she did help him find his current job as a stockboy at the Texas Book Depository in Dallas.
Oswald takes off his wedding ring and puts it in a china cup then walks to the garage, where he picks up a long paper package containing an Italian World War II rifle.
In his hotel room JFK attaches a large back brace around his middle and ties its laces tightly. He then slips large stretchable bandages up over his hips to support the bottom of his torso. Since he was a teenager Kennedy has suffered from a chronic bad back, which means for much of the time he’s in pain. Sometimes it’s so bad he uses crutches or a walking stick — but never in public.
The speeches in Fort Worth over. Air Force One lands at Love Field on the outskirts of Dallas. In the crowd waiting for the President are people holding placards.
Some say: ‘We love Jack’ but others say, ‘Your a traitor’ (sic) and less concisely, ‘Mr President, because of your socialist tendencies and because of your surrender to communism I hold you in complete contempt’. Earlier, Kennedy warned Jackie they were heading into ‘nut country’.
Oswald was briefly a U.S. Marine, who in 1959 defected to the Soviet Union where he married 19-year-old Marina
The motorcade is travelling through downtown Dallas. In the car with JFK and Jackie are Governor John Connally and his wife Nellie. The sun is shining so the car’s protective bubbletop has been removed.
In the vehicle behind are eight Secret Service agents concerned about the motorcade, as the President has asked them not to ride on the steps of the back of his limousine as they block his view of the crowd. Jackie has her sunglasses on because of the noonday sun but the President asks her to take them off, as they’ll make her look aloof. Marina Oswald is at home watching live TV coverage of the motorcade with Ruth Paine.
The Dallas crowd suddenly surge forward towards the President’s car and driver Bill Greer has to slow down to a crawl, forcing the police motorcyclist on Jackie’s side to drop back. Clint Hill, the agent responsible for the First Lady’s safety, ignores the President’s order and gets on the rear step of the car, crouching as low as he can. He’s concerned that someone might try to grab Jackie or throw something into the car.
Alone on the sixth floor of the Book Depository, Oswald is moving some boxes to the south-east corner, close to a window with an unobstructed view of the motorcade route. He places a box by the window on which to rest his rifle. He only has four bullets.
Onlookers Arnold Rowland and his wife Barbara are standing on the sidewalk opposite the Book Depository. Arnold can see a man at a sixth-floor window holding a rifle. He discusses with his wife whether they should tell the policeman standing near them, but they reckon the man must be a Secret Service agent.
Sitting in front of Jackie Kennedy, Nellie Connally is listening to the President saying: ‘Thank you, thank you, thank you.’
Whenever Jackie waves her white-gloved hand, the crowd goes wild. As the crowds are thinner as they near the end of Main Street, Clint Hill jumps off the back of the President’s limo and heads to the follow-up car.
Nellie Connally turns to Kennedy and says: ‘You certainly can’t say that the people of Dallas haven’t given you a nice welcome.’ ‘No, you certainly can’t,’ he replies. Looking through the telescopic sight on his rifle, Oswald sees the limo emerge from behind a tree and squeezes the trigger.
Jackie thinks the bang is a car that’s backfired. Sparks fly off the pavement behind the limousine. Oswald has missed and so fires again. The second bullet hits the President in the back, passing through his throat and hitting Governor Connally, going through his chest and shattering a rib.
Now travelling backwards, the bullet hits Connally’s wrist and ends up embedded in his left thigh. Connally cries: ‘My God! They are going to kill us all!’ and slumps towards Nellie. Kennedy doesn’t fall — his back brace keeps him upright and so an easy target.
Just 8.4 seconds after his first shot, Oswald fires for a third time and hits the President in the head.
Jackie said later: ‘As I turned and looked at him, I could see a piece of his skull and I remember it was flesh coloured. I remember thinking he just looked as if he had a slight headache. Then he put his hand to his forehead and fell in my lap. And then I just remember falling on him and saying: ‘Oh, no, no, no! Oh, my God, they have shot my husband’.’
Fragments of Kennedy’s head fall at the feet of Press photographer Ike Altgens. Secret Service agent Clint Hill jumps onto the back of the car and sees Jackie crawling towards him, he thinks to catch something that’s falling from the back of the car. He grabs her arm and pushes her back into the seat.
Oswald drops his rifle between some packing cases, puts another box on top to conceal it and heads down the stairs of the depository. Some people are pointing to the railway yard nearby where they think they heard shots and a motorcycle policeman runs, gun in hand, up a grassy knoll towards the tracks.
The Dallas Police Department mug shots of Lee Harvey Oswald following his arrest for possible involvement in the John F. Kennedy assassination
The President’s limo screeches to a halt outside the Emergency Room of Parkland Hospital. The hospital isn’t ready so there is no one outside to help.
Secret Service agents surround the car, some with submachine guns. Kennedy is finally wheeled in on a trolley with Jackie holding his hand. A nurse suggests that she wipe the blood off her clothing. ‘Absolutely not. I want the world to see what Dallas has done to my husband.’
In Trauma Room One, surgeon Dr Malcolm Perry rushes in from the canteen, still chewing his lunch. His first thought is that the President looks taller than he thought he would be; his second is: ‘Here is the most important man in the world’. The President’s face is blue-white and his breathing spasmodic, his eyes are open and staring. Soon there are six doctors trying to keep the President alive.
In the CBS studios in New York, the soap opera As The World Turns is being transmitted live.
Suddenly a caption appears on the screen saying, ‘CBS News Bulletin’, followed by the voice of news anchor Walter Cronkite. ‘In Dallas, Texas, three shots were fired at President Kennedy’s motorcade in downtown Dallas.’ When he finishes, the network cuts to a coffee advertisement.
At Granada Studios in Manchester, Mike Scott, the presenter of Scene At 6.30 breaks the news of the shooting in Dallas. The other regional ITV networks are running the pop show Ready Steady Go! but will later replace their scheduled programmes with news bulletins and recorded music.
A portrait of John F. Kennedy taken in the Oval Office in the White House
The BBC will be criticised because after their announcement of the death of Kennedy, they run The Harry Worth Show and Dr Finlay’s Casebook as normal.
The Dallas Police radio a description of Oswald to their officers: ‘Attention all squads, the suspect in the shooting at Elm and Houston is reported to be an unknown white male, approximately 30; slender build; height five feet, ten inches; weight 165 pounds, reported to be armed with what is thought to be a rifle.’ Oswald is currently in a cab heading to his boarding house.
In downtown Dallas, 24-year-old Englishman John Ravenscroft (later known as DJ John Peel) is reading in the toilets of the Republic National Life Insurance Company where he works. The PA system suddenly comes on, announcing to the staff that the President has been shot.
Ravenscroft had met Kennedy three years before when he came to the city as a presidential candidate. They had chatted about why an Englishman would be working in Dallas, and Kennedy had then posed for a photo. Ravenscroft is shocked to hear his colleagues break into applause when they hear the news of the shooting.
Oswald leaves his boarding house wearing a light grey jacket to cover the .38 Smith & Wesson pistol tucked into the waist of his trousers. Meanwhile at Parkland Hospital, a sheet is pulled over the body of President Kennedy.
The medical team remove the tubes and monitoring equipment, back away from the body and leave the room. Jackie kisses her husband’s feet, stomach and lips and starts to cry.
Police patrolman J.D. Tippit is driving along Tenth Street in Dallas and ahead of him he can see a man walking briskly who matches the description of the assassin.
He pulls over and starts talking to him. Something in their exchange makes Tippit suspicious and he gets out of the car. Oswald pulls out his revolver and shoots the policeman four times in the head and the stomach. As he runs past sisters-in-law Virginia and Barbara Davis, he empties the spent cartridges out of his gun. They can see he is smiling.
On stage at London’s Old Vic, before the start of a National Theatre production of Uncle Vanya, Laurence Olivier asks the audience to join him in singing The Star-Spangled Banner. Three years earlier, Olivier had paid tribute to the new President at JFK’s inaugural gala in Washington.
In Hardy’s Shoe Store in Dallas, the manager Johnny Brewer is listening to news reports about the assassination. A man stops briefly in the entrance of the store and Brewer can see that he looks scared and out of breath.
Suspicious, Brewer follows him to the Texas Theater, a cinema showing a double-bill of Cry Of Battle and War Is Hell. The box office cashier tells Brewer that the man didn’t buy a ticket and she calls the police.
On U.S. television, all adverts have been suspended and for the first time ever, the three networks are broadcasting only live news. On CBS, Cronkite reads some news just handed to him. ‘From Dallas, the flash apparently official, President Kennedy died at one o’clock Central Standard Time — some 38 minutes ago.’
Johnny Brewer is on the stage of the Texas Theater pointing out to four policemen the man he’d seen at his store. They leave the stage, pretending to be interested in two men across the aisle from Oswald. Officer Nick McDonald suddenly turns and orders Oswald to get to his feet, who replies: ‘Well, it’s all over now!’
Oswald lifts his hands in surrender but then punches McDonald between the eyes and pulls out his gun. McDonald grabs it and other cops join in the struggle.
They manage to handcuff Oswald who shouts: ‘Don’t hit me any more! I am not resisting arrest! I know my rights, I want a lawyer!’ As the assassin is led outside to a police car an old woman swats him with her umbrella.
There’s no space on Air Force One for the President’s casket, so four seats and a partition have been removed.
At the foot of the aircraft’s steps, Jackie Kennedy watches the Secret Service agents struggle to get the heavy casket inside. It won’t fit through the rear door, so they break off its handles.
News of the assassination has spread around the globe. Speaking on the BBC, Prime Minister Sir Alec Douglas-Home says President Kennedy died ‘when he bore on his shoulders all the cares and hopes of the world’.
In the Soviet Union, radio and television programmes have been interrupted and solemn organ music is being played.
Twenty-six people are squeezed in the small stateroom of Air Force One, where Lyndon B. Johnson is about to be sworn in as the 36th president of the United States by his old friend Judge Sarah T. Hughes, who’s just been driven at high speed to the aircraft.
Johnson’s aides think he looks a different man — taller and more statesmanlike. Jackie joins them, her husband’s blood is still on her pink suit. Johnson takes her by the hand and guides her to stand next to him.
Photographer Cecil Stoughton arranges the rest of the witnesses for a historic photograph. The ceremony lasts just half a minute, then the new president yells: ‘Now, let’s get airborne!’
Police officers are searching Ruth Paine’s house, where Marina Oswald and her children are lodging. A policeman asks Marina if her husband owns a rifle.
She admits he does and leads the police to the garage where the Oswalds store their belongings. She points to the blanket on the floor where he hides the gun.
A policeman picks up the blanket but there’s nothing in it. Marina gasps.
In the White House, Maud Shaw, the English nanny who looks after the Kennedys’ children, six-year-old Caroline and two-year-old John Jr, is speaking on the phone to Janet Auchincloss, Jackie’s mother, who says: ‘We feel you should be the one to break the news to the children, at least to Caroline.’
Maud replies: ‘Oh no, please don’t ask me to do that.’ Janet says: ‘Please, Miss Shaw, it’s for the best. They trust you. It has to be you.’ Maud says that she will tell Caroline when she puts her to bed that night.
Air Force One has landed at Andrews Air Force Base on the outskirts of Washington. TV cameras are broadcasting live pictures of a chaotic scene.
A bright yellow truck, with a moveable platform designed to load meals onto military planes, is at the rear door of the 707.
The casket is being loaded on to it with difficulty by the Secret Service men, as the platform is two feet below the plane’s rear door. Jackie and JFK’s brother Robert jump down onto it. The platform drops jerkily towards the ground and the official military casket team run towards it but are pushed away by Secret Service men and Kennedy aides who want to be the ones to carry the casket to the waiting ambulance.
The floodlights illuminating Air Force One and the crescent moon hanging in the dark sky make the scene look even more dramatic.
In New York, department stores turn off the lights in their Christmas window displays. The illuminated advertisements in Times Square have been turned off and the cinemas and theatres are all closed. Broadway is dark.
One production due to open in four days, called The Plot To Assassinate The Chase Manhattan Bank will change its name to The Plot Against the Chase Manhattan Bank.
About 20 people are in the morgue of Bethesda Naval Hospital in Washington as the autopsy of President Kennedy begins. The body is wrapped in sheets and the head is heavily bound with bloody bandages and gauze.
The hands are clenched in fists, the eyes and mouth open. In the Dallas Police Department, Lee Harvey Oswald is charged with the murder of Officer Tippit.
A line-up is about to take place in the basement of the police department. Construction worker Howard Brennan, who had a good view of the gunman in the depository, is convinced that the assassination is part of a plot and that if he’s the only witness, he and his family are in great danger.
When Oswald walks into the room Brennan recognises him but says to a Secret Service agent that although he looks most like the man he saw, he can’t make a positive identification.
Brennan, feeling guilty, reassures himself that Oswald will be convicted for the murder of Officer Tippit, so his evidence won’t matter. As Oswald is led through a crowd of reporters, he yells: ‘They’re taking me in because of the fact I visited the Soviet Union. I’m just a patsy!’
Dallas nightclub owner Jack Ruby shut his two clubs this afternoon out of respect for the President. He’s now driving around Dallas to see whether his competitors have done the same.
Ruby has been crying most of the afternoon over the loss of a man he thinks was the greatest that ever lived. In his pocket is a Colt pistol. Lee Harvey Oswald will never stand trial.
Two days later, as he is transferred to jail, Ruby shoots and kills the President’s assassin.
- The Assassination Of JFK: Minute By Minute, by Jonathan Mayo, is published by Short Books on November 9.