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In the mid 1980s, at a party in an Amsterdam canal house, a man who claimed to have been a session musician on a couple of Beatles albums handed me a sheaf of grubby typewritten pages and said: “This’ll change your view of the world.”
The much-photocopied document had a title, “The Skeleton Key to the Gemstone File”, and purported to explain who shot – who really shot – President John F Kennedy in Dallas, Texas on November 22, 1963.
Sixty years on, the question is still being asked, and answered. On Dealey Plaza, the municipal park in downtown Dallas where the fatal bullets were fired, a white-haired hawker of assassination-related literature assures me the shooter was “Black Dog Man”.
He thrusts a magazine at me – “JFK: The case for Conspiracy” – and within a minute is co-opting the assassination into garbled fairytales about “the New World Order,” wind turbines and microchips embedded in our brains.
“Big Brother, they call it,” he concludes affably, offering me a discount on the magazine.
The shooting of the President nearly a lifetime ago is re-inventing itself in the post-truth world of Trump-era America. The myriad conspiracies spawned by the event were the original fake news (my “Gemstone File” pointed the finger at Mafia hitmen hired by Greek shipping magnate Aristotle Onassis) and in 2023 they are finding new currents to swim in.
Many people still feel there was so much smoke that a conspiracy remains likely. But the official finding, of the Warren Commission in 1964, concluded that deluded misfit Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone in shooting Kennedy (from the Texas School Book Depository building on the north-east corner of Dealey Plaza) and that his consequent murder by Jack Ruby, a nightclub owner with Mafia links, was a similarly random act.
This narrative arc, in which the American Dream takes a handful of seconds to curdle to nightmare in the autumn sunshine, is drama enough. And for the visitor to Dallas the extraordinary thing is that the stage on which it played out is intact. If you compare “then” and “now” photos of Dealey Plaza, the only obvious difference is that in 1963 a giant billboard advertising Hertz Rent A Car sat aslant the roof of the book depository.
It is long gone. But in the Plaza itself the sloping lawns, reflecting pools and curved colonnades – completed in 1940 as an elegant “front porch” to the city – are unchanged. They have, however, acquired a grisly fame through specific associations with the ballistic mayhem that unfolded.
For here is the “grassy knoll”, where a second or third shooter may or may not have stationed themselves, the “picket fence” (likewise) and the concrete plinth on which dressmaker Abraham Zapruder balanced precariously to film the presidential motorcade on his 8mm camera, in the process creating the most watched 26 seconds of cine film in US history.
Swarming all over these quasi-mythic locations on the warm October day I visit are the conspiracists touting their magazines and self-published books and the endlessly self-renewing audience they cater for: foreign tourists hooked on the malign glamour of it all and out-of-state Americans seeking their own history.
“It’s surreal to be seeing it with my own eyes,” says Scott Eckert from Philadelphia. For his wife Debbie the Plaza is smaller than she envisioned it from TV footage. Both seem momentarily overwhelmed to finally be here.
We are all sliding our eyes between two points: the sixth-floor corner window of the former book depository from which Oswald allegedly fired the shots, and the yellow cross painted on the centre lane of the highway marking the spot where at 12.30pm Kennedy received the fatal bullet to the head as he sat in the back of the open-top limousine.
The depository houses an excellent museum, the Sixth Floor Museum at Dealey Plaza, dedicated to the assassination. But, like the building itself, it stands aloof from the conspiracy circus down below. The museum’s CEO, British-born Nicola Longford, admits they have to tread “a very very fine line” and in presenting the narrative with meticulous objectivity the museum antagonises some of the conspiracy folk, who dismiss it as a sanitised take on the assassination.
It covers the toxic political atmosphere into which the young Democrat president was stepping – his support for civil rights and perceived softness on “communists” made Kennedy a hate figure for many in conservative-leaning Dallas – and acknowledges that “the questions ‘Why?’ or ‘For or with whom?’ remain unanswered”. But in the end, says Longford, “The power of place is really what people come to see and feel”.
Exhibition displays aside, the building’s sixth floor remains the wood-and-brick warehouse space it was in 1963. Museum visitors (including this one) fall silent when they reach corner window, glassed off to thwart souvenir hunters who were hacking off bits of window frame. The barricade Oswald made of boxes of books has been accurately recreated based on evidentiary photographs.
The line of sight (from the adjacent window) onto the yellow cross painted on the road below is unimpeded, the unimaginable outcome suddenly plausible. The report that broke the news to the world at 12.36pm, by ABC Radio anchor Don Gardiner, plays on an endless loop: “Here is a special bulletin from Dallas, Texas. Three shots were fired at President Kennedy’s motorcade today in downtown Dallas, Texas.”
Other key locations remain in place around the city, opening more trapdoors on touchable history. After I’ve hung 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 neighbourhood where Oswald and his Russian wife Marina lived in the upper floor duplex in the spring of 1963.
It was at this address that Oswald bought by mail order (for $21.45) the Italian bolt-action rifle found in the depository. Beeman leads me round to the back yard and points out the wooden fencing and outside staircase, which form the background to a familiar image of Oswald that he swipes up on his phone.
“When he gets the rifle he’s so excited he gets dressed up and has Marina snap this famous photograph,” says Beeman.
A few blocks away at 1026 N Beckley Ave is the former rooming house where Oswald was renting a tiny room under the name O.H. Lee at the time of the assassination. The current owner is the granddaughter of the woman who ran it then and, using original furniture (including Oswald’s cot-like bedstead), she has recreated the atmosphere of stale air and unasked questions in which Oswald drifted towards his destiny.
Half an hour after the fatal shooting in Dealey Plaza Oswald dropped in to the rooming house to pick up the .38 handgun with which a few minutes later he would murder police patrolman JD Tippit. He was subsequently arrested in the Texas Theatre cinema on Jefferson Blvd and less than 48 hours later was himself fatally shot by Jack Ruby in the basement of Dallas Police HQ on Main Street. (Irony of ironies: the current notice affixed to the basement entrance states that “Weapons are prohibited pursuant to the Texas penal code”.)
Such is the story. But in following it I find myself wanting to rewind to 12.29pm on that Friday in 1963 – when presidents were impossibly youthful and hope was still on the table. Back on Dealey Plaza a woman from Boston tells me how sad it all is, “when these terrible things are still happening”. And it comes to me what we’re all doing here. We’re waiting for the redemption of a different ending.
On the JFK trail in Dallas
The Sixth Floor Museum
The Sixth Floor Museum at Dealey Plaza is open Wed–Sun 10am–5pm, $18. It is featuring a special exhibition, “Two Days In Texas”, to mark the 60th anniversary.
Best DFW Tours offers 3hr guided vehicle tours of JFK sites with access to the rooming house on N Beckley Avenue: from $400 (self-guided tours via a phone link: $24.99).
The Ruth Paine House
The Ruth Paine House in the suburb of Irving is where Oswald’s wife was living, 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. Tues-Sat, $12, by appointment only (email firstname.lastname@example.org).
Juanita Craft House
For a wider take, visit the excellent Juanita Craft House dedicated to a luminary of the civil rights movement in Dallas. Miss Craft had been invited to the lunch at the Trade Mart that the President was due to address after the motorcade. The effect of his assassination on the Black community was devastating. Open by appointment. Do also find time to visit the vibrant neighbourhood of Deep Ellum for great nightlife and murals.
America As You Like It; 020 8742 8299) offers a 13-night Texas Lone Star fly-drive from £1,890 per person, including return flights on American Airlines, car hire and accommodation in Dallas, Austin, San Antonio, Corpus Christi, Houston and Fort Worth. See visitdallas.com for more info on the city.
Nigel Richardson is the author of ‘The Accidental Detectorist: Uncovering an Underground Obsession’, available in paperback from Telegraph Books.