Eric Norden: The Death of a President, Part Two

(First published in The Minority of One, January 1964, pp.16–23)

Behaviour of the Dallas Police Force

An attack upon the King is considered to be parricide against the State, and the jury and the witnesses and even the judges are the children. It is fit, on that account, that there should be a solemn pause before we rush to judgment.

(Thomas Erskine, in his celebrated defense of Hadfield)

The blackest aspect of the whole fantastic Oswald case is the behavior of the Dallas police force. Police authorities pulled out every stop in their campaign to convince the world that Oswald was the assassin, engaging in a campaign of official smear, innuendo and vilification almost without parallel in Western juridical history. Oswald was denied the elemental civil rights of any prisoner. He was questioned for three days without being permitted the basic rights of legal counsel, while police officials handed out every kind of unsubstantiated allegation of his guilt to a voracious press. When the time came to transfer him to the Dallas county jail he was displayed like a chained animal to press and television photographers and completely unprotected from the assassin’s bullet that cut him down in the heart of Dallas police headquarters. Both his treatment while alive and the circumstances of his death imply the gravest dereliction of duty by Dallas police, if not active police complicity in a premeditated campaign to first defame and then destroy Oswald. Whatever the motives of the Dallas police, they bear a direct, legal responsibility for Oswald’s death.

The question of Oswald’s outrageous treatment by Dallas police authorities does not bear upon his role, either active or passive, in the plot against the President. The almost obscene haste of the police to indict and convict Oswald before the eyes of the world must stand on its own as a shameful page in the annals of American jurisprudence. It is no less reprehensible if caused by the frantic haste of police authorities to get themselves “off the hook” for the President’s death; if motivated by deeper and more sinister motives it may well indicate an organized effort to silence Oswald before he could implicate his accomplices, perhaps in high places.

Dallas Police: Oswald Was Guilty

Though the evidence against Oswald was almost entirely circumstantial, Dallas police did not hesitate from the day of his capture to present his guilt as conclusive and irrefutable. One of the police department’s favorite gambits in its public campaign against Oswald was to stress his alleged leftist political activities as a causative factor in his assault on the President. Bob Considine of the Hearst Headline Service reported one day after the assassination that the Dallas police department “rests its case as of now on these points,” and enumerates a number of points tying Oswald to the murder, concluding with the statement that “In addition to his efforts of several years ago to obtain Soviet citizenship, he has subsequently been active in the Fair Play for Cuba movement and was arrested in New Orleans for passing out Communist literature.” Considine’s dispatch was titled, appropriately enough, “Marksman Castro ‘Red’”. This attempt to substantiate a charge of murder on the basis of the accused’s alleged political beliefs continued up to and beyond Oswald’s own assassination. Within hours of the President’s murder, Captain Will Fritz, head of the Dallas police homicide bureau, who supposedly knew nothing of Oswald before the murder, “identified Oswald as an adherent of the left–wing Fair Play for Cuba Committee.” (New York Times, November 23, 1963.) Dallas Police Chief Jesse Curry quoted Oswald on November 23rd as having told police that he was “a member of the Communist Party” and that he was apparently “proud of being a Communist,” (New York Times, Nov. 24, 1963). The police chief also “disclosed that a substantial amount of Communist literature has been found in Oswald’s room. He did not specify what the literature was.” (New York World–Telegram & Sun, Nov. 23, 1963.)

Oswald’s Communist Associations

The categorical denial of the Communist Party that Oswald had “any association” with the party did not dampen the fervor of Dallas police in dragging red herrings across the trail of the President’s assassination. The campaign continued even after Oswald’s death. On Nov. 26th, Dallas County Assistant District Attorney Bill Alexander announced that police had “uncovered” Communist Party letters mailed to Oswald among his belongings in the rooming house where he lived, “all of them written to Oswald in a warm and friendly way,” according to Alexander. The Assistant District Attorney deepened the sinister implications of the discovery by revealing the incredible fact that, according to Scripps-Howard reporter Seth Kantor, “the letters were written on Communist Party of America stationery.” (New York World–Telegram & Sun, Nov. 26, 1963.) Alexander concluded that the letters proved Oswald to be “an active worker in the Communist cause.” (New York Post, November 27, 1963.) The police throughout seemed more interested in driving red nails through Oswald’s coffin than in uncovering the actual facts of the President’s murder.

Oswald Alone Had Shot the President

From the moment of Oswald’s arrest, the police were frantically anxious to convince public opinion that he, and he alone, had shot the President. The New York Journal–American reported one day after Kennedy’s death, that “there appeared to be no question in the mind of Dallas police that they had their man.” (November 23, 1963.) On November 24, the Journal–American reported that, “in face of an unusual reticence on the part of F.B.I. and Secret Service men to acknowledge that the manhunt for the murderer of Mr. Kennedy is finished, Dallas Police Department Homicide Chief Captain Will Fritz said: ‘This case is cinched.’ … Chief of Police Curry told reporters, ‘This man killed the President … Oswald has shown no intention of making a statement, but there’s no question that he did it.’” According to the Journal–American report, “The alleged assassination weapon has been in Washington at the F.B.I. laboratories since late Friday. Police Chief Curry said tonight he was not concerned by the fact that the F.B.I. had not returned a ballistics report. ‘We understand that it will be favorable when it comes,’ the Chief said.”

The police did not change their line after Oswald’s murder by Jack Ruby. Captain Fritz said on November 24th, “We don’t know of anyone else who was involved in it, and as far as we are concerned the case is closed.” (New York Herald Tribune, November 25. 1963.) According to the New York Times, “Chief of Police Jesse Curry said he felt certain now that Oswald was the President’s murderer.” (Nov. 25, 1963.) United Press International reported on November 25th that “as far as Dallas police were concerned, the Oswald case was closed.” Norman Poirier reported from Dallas to the New York Post on November 25th, that District Attorney Henry Wade “said flatly that the file of evidence against Oswald provided an air–tight case.” Wade added, “I have sent men to the electric chair with less evidence.” (A horrifying thought.)

Reaction to Dallas Police Treatment of Oswald

The incredible assertion that the case against Oswald was closed by his murder and the inexcusable failure of police to protect Oswald within police headquarters, sent a wave of shock through a nation numbed by a surfeit of tragedy. Commented the New York Times in an editorial titled “Spiral of Hate”:

The Dallas authorities, abetted and encouraged by the newspaper, TV and radio press, trampled on every principle of justice in their handling of Lee H. Oswald. It is their sworn duty to protect every prisoner, as well as the community, and to afford each accused person full opportunity for his defense before a properly constituted court. The heinousness of the crime Oswald was alleged to have committed made it doubly important that there be no cloud over the establishment of his guilt … After two days of such pre–findings of guilt, in the electrically emotional atmosphere of a city angered by the President’s assassination and not too many decades removed from the vigilante tradition of the old frontier, the jail transfer was made at high noon and with the widest possible advance announcement. Television and newsreel cameras were set in place and many onlookers assembled to witness every step of the transfer — and its tragic miscarriage. It was an outrageous breach of police responsibility — no matter what the demands of reporters and cameramen may have been — to move Oswald in public under circumstances in which he could so easily have been the victim of attack. The police had even warned hospital officials to stand by against the possibility of an attempt on Oswald’s life.

(November 25, 1963.)

In a moving indictment, Scripps–Howard columnist Richard Starnes wrote on November 26th:

Our credentials as a civilized people stand suspect before the world, of course, but the real depth of the disaster that has befallen us cannot yet be measured. In its 188th year, the republic has fallen upon unspeakably evil days, and great mischief is abroad in the land. It remains to be seen whether more convulsions will rack us before it is over…

The first wave of hysterical public condemnation of Oswald was beginning to be replaced, in some quarters at least, with a sense of shock and doubt.

Legal authorities were among the first to speak out against the treatment of Oswald by Dallas police. On November 27th, the Bar Association of San Francisco decried the role of both the police and news media in prejudging Oswald’s case. The Bar Association issued a statement declaring that “We believe that television, radio and the press must bear a portion of the responsibility which falls primarily on the Dallas law–enforcement officials. Both press media and law–enforcement officials must seek to protect the rights of accused persons against the damage to them, and consequently to our system of justice, which can come from revealing information concerning the accused at times when the revelation might inflame the public.” (New York Times, November 28, 1963.) In a letter to the New York Times, seven teachers of the administration of criminal justice at the Harvard Law School issued a blistering attack against the entire handling of Oswald by Dallas authorities. “From Friday, November 22, through Sunday,” the letter read, “the shocking manner in which our processes of criminal justice are often administered was exhibited to ourselves and to the world … Precisely because the President’s assassination was the ultimate in defiance of law it called for the ultimate in vindication of law. The law enforcement agencies, in permitting virtually unlimited access to the news media, made this impossible. Not only would it have been virtually impossible to impanel a jury which had not formed its own views on those facts which might come before it, but much of the information released, such as statements by Mrs. Oswald, might have been legally inadmissible at trial … For the fact is that justice is incompatible with the notion that police, prosecutors, attorneys, reporters, and cameramen should have an unlimited right to conduct ex parte public trials in the press and on television … the lamentable behavior of the Dallas law enforcement agencies and of the communications media reflect a flaw in ourselves as a society.” (New York Times, December 1, 1963.)

Dallas Police and Jack Ruby

The failure of the Dallas police to give adequate protection to the most valuable prisoner in the world has many significant implications. How was Ruby able to penetrate the extensive security precautions of the Dallas police and get close enough to Oswald to fire the fatal shot? Were the police in league with Ruby to eliminate Oswald? And if so, was it because he was innocent and they had no case that would stand up against him in court, or because he was guilty of at least some degree of involvement in the plot against the President and might implicate the other conspirators? Did Ruby and Oswald know each other? While it is too early to give conclusive answers to any of these questions, certain facts do present themselves.

For one thing, Dallas police were not lax in taking security measures to bar unauthorized persons from the police station. Scripps–Howard correspondent Seth Kantor reported from Dallas on November 25 that “Each of us newsmen had been carefully checked — we showed our credentials — before being allowed into the basement driveway area … the precautions taken by Dallas police appeared to be thorough.” (New York World–Telegram & Sun, November 25, 1963.) Ruby could not just casually have slipped into the police station basement through the cordons of police guards. If he was there, he was there with the knowledge and approval of the police themselves.

Dallas police had every reason to expect an attempt on Oswald’s life. The Police Department had received specific information from federal authorities of death threats against Oswald. Stuart H. Lorry of the New York Herald Tribune reported from Washington that “just two hours before Jack Ruby gunned Lee Harvey Oswald to death in a basement garage in Dallas Police Headquarters, the FBI warned both the police and the sheriff in Dallas of an anonymous threat on the life of the man charged with the assassination of President Kennedy … ‘We passed the information along to the local authorities,’ the [F.B.I.] spokesman said. ‘We don’t know what happened after that.’” (New York Herald Tribune, Nov. 26, 1963.)

Knowing this, why was Oswald not transferred to the county jail at another time, without the knowledge of the press or general public? To insure his safety, he could have been smuggled out of the police station late at night. The decision to transport Oswald to the county jail in an armored car, while ostensibly for his safety, nevertheless exposed him to increased danger because the vehicle’s roof was too high for it to be driven into the basement and Oswald had to walk some distance through the milling crowds of newsmen to reach it. The New York Post’s Dallas correspondent reported on November 25: “Had police used a patrol wagon, this procedure would have eliminated the long walk through the lines of television cameramen and reporters who had been alerted, as had the city, the nation, the world — and Ruby — as to the precise time of Oswald’s appearance.” Even using the armored car, however, the Post pointed out, “Oswald could have been escorted through the basement, not only with guards at his side but walking in front of him as well as behind him.” It appears that through procedures allegedly designed to protect Oswald, the Dallas police did everything possible to expose him to the assassin’s bullet.

Jack Ruby in the Dallas Police HQ Basement

Dallas police argued that Ruby was probably admitted to police headquarters because as a “police buff” he was known and liked by the guards. But, asks the New York Post, “if they knew him well — and they did — they also must have known that he had a temper famous for its violence and that he had been twice arrested on charges of carrying concealed weapons. In circumstances as plainly explosive as these how did police allow entrance to a man who was considered something of a troublesome character and who was, to say the least, not always a model of stability?” (New York Post, November 25, 1963.) It is obvious that Jack Ruby was in the Dallas Police Station basement at the moment of Oswald’s transfer by more than chance.

Jack Ruby’s Motives

What motives did Jack Ruby have for shooting Oswald? The story that he offers, and that seems to find favor with the Dallas police, is that he acted out of personal, “patriotic” passion to avenge the murder of the President and “the suffering of Mrs. Kennedy and the little ones.” Even a brief study of his background renders this version unlikely. A petty hoodlum with ties to Chicago and Los Angeles gangs and a record of union racketeering, he had never before evidenced any noticeable degree of super–patriotism. Despite his professed devotion to President and Mrs. Kennedy, he hadn’t even bothered to witness their motorcade through Dallas. “Patriotic he wasn’t, a police buff he was,” a UPI dispatch of November 25 quoted Herbert C.D. Kelly, once part owner of the Carousel Club in Dallas. According to Kelly, “Ruby wasn’t interested in politics. I doubt that he even voted.” Ruby was about as likely a candidate to “avenge” the assassination of the President as Joe Valachi.

If a patriotic motivation is ruled out, it is still possible that Ruby was seized by a sudden uncontrollable rage when he saw Oswald, and committed his act on the spur of the moment. A study of his actions in the preceding days makes this explanation, too, extremely unlikely. Ruby had showed up at a previous news conference at the police station that followed the killing of the President, almost as if to “case” security measures in the police headquarters. According to a report in the New York World–Telegram & Sun of November 25, “Police are investigating the possibility that Ruby’s movements in the hours following the President’s death could have been planned movements — including a ‘dry run’ early Saturday during the Oswald confrontation with reporters.” Further lessening the possibility that Ruby’s act was unpremeditated is the fact that he came to the police station armed with the murder weapon. (Interestingly enough, a snub–nosed .38 — the same gun with which Oswald was alleged to have killed Patrolman Tippit, and on which no ballistics results have been forthcoming from Washington.)

The most likely explanation is that Ruby killed the accused either because Oswald was innocent of any complicity in the assassination or because Oswald had to be silenced before he could implicate anyone else involved in the murder of the President.

Strength of the Evidence Against Oswald

If Oswald was killed because he was innocent, Ruby could only have been put up to the act by the Dallas police. If they had arrested the wrong man in the panic after their initial failure to protect the President, and then gone far out on a legal limb with statements that he was definitely guilty, one way out for them would be to arrange for the “elimination” of the embarrassing suspect by someone not directly involved with the force — such as loyal “police buff” Jack Ruby. Promises that Jack Ruby would be released on a verdict of temporary insanity would have been easy to make (if not so easy to keep). This explanation of Oswald’s murder is rather unlikely, not because such a plot is beyond the Dallas police (for proof of that, one need only study their actions of the past weeks) but because too many factors point to Oswald’s involvement in some way with the death of the President, if not in the actual role of the assassin at least in a subsidiary capacity. But in the interest of fairness, as well as to dispel some of the public hysteria and hyperbole surrounding Oswald’s part in the death of the President, it is necessary to point out that the evidence against him (all of it circumstantial) is hardly conclusive. In an interview with the New York Journal–American, Emile Zola Berman, the noted trial lawyer, was asked to set forth the challenges that could be made by Oswald’s defense counsel to the charges of the Dallas prosecutor. The Journal–American first presented the evidence against Oswald and then Mr. Berman’s comments:

Evidence :
Ballistic tests prove that the rifle on which Oswald’s fingerprints were found was the weapon that killed President Kennedy.
Comment :
This only proves that he had handled the rifle, not that he killed the President. His fingerprints were on it because the rifle belonged to him. No one can tell whether the fingerprints were recent or a week old. We are not told whether there were other fingerprints on the rifle too. Some other person may have used the rifle to shoot the President and concealed his fingerprints.
Evidence :
His palm prints were on a box in the room of the building where he worked and where the assassin fired.
Comment :
Since he worked in that room it is only natural that his palm prints would be found on boxes and other objects located there. This in no way connects him with the murder.
Evidence :
Serial numbers of the rifle traced it back to Oswald.
Comment :
Conceding that he owned the murder weapon the question is did he use it to kill the President? Mere ownership doesn’t establish that he committed the crime …
Evidence :
Oswald was in the building before and immediately after President Kennedy was killed.
Comment :
Oswald worked in the building. He was identified by the manager of the company he worked for as an employee there. He had a perfect right to be there. This negates any idea that he had sneaked into the building and was there for some nefarious purpose.
Evidence :
He was an expert marksman.
Comment :
This proves that he could have done it. But having the skill to commit a crime doesn’t prove that you did it.
Evidence :
A neighbor who drove Oswald to work on the day of the assassination said that he carried an oblong package. Police say it was the rifle.
Comment :
On what basis do the police make that inference? The neighbor didn’t see what was in the package. It was mere speculation that it contained the rifle.

(New York Journal–American, Nov. 26, 1963.)

Oswald’s Palm Print on the Rifle

In Dallas, the word “evidence” is used rather loosely. On November 24th, Dallas District Attorney Henry Wade said that Oswald’s palm print was found on the murder weapon, but even this was denied by the FBI. The Scripps–Howard correspondent in Dallas reported on Nov. 25 in a dispatch entitled “FBI Disputes DA On A Rifle Palm Print” that “there is a behind–the–scenes rift today between the Federal Bureau of Investigation and Dallas District Attorney Henry Wade … Wade said Oswald’s palm print was found on the metal of the rifle which killed the President. Federal authorities have confided that no reliable print was found on the murder weapon when it was flown to Washington for laboratory study.” According to the Scripps–Howard correspondent, the exploded story of the palm print was “the most conclusive piece of evidence” against Oswald that Wade had presented. (New York World–Telegram & Sun, November 25, 1963.)

Oswald’s Assassination Map

Wade presented a similar bit of “evidence” the same day. He reported that his men had found a map in Oswald’s room marking the route President Kennedy was to take the day he was killed. According to a report in the New York Journal–American, “The map reportedly was in such detail that it charted the path of the bullet which murdered the President.” (November 25, 1963.) But this “map” was soon dispatched to the criminological limbo where so much of Dallas police “evidence” found a final resting place. The first note of discord was reported in a United Press International dispatch from Dallas on November 25, which stated that “some confusion developed over the reported finding of a map in Oswald’s room showing the path of the assassination bullets. Wade said that such a map had been found. The police said they knew nothing about it.” If the Dallas police could not protect the life of the President of the United States, if they allowed his alleged assassin to be slain in their own police headquarters, if they were incapable of observing the most elementary rule of due process, at least they are imaginative.

Did Jack Ruby Know Lee Oswald?

While the possibility that Ruby killed Oswald because the Dallas police knew that only in death could they make their charges against him stick exists and cannot be totally disregarded, it seems more likely that Ruby shot Oswald to seal his lips forever on the actual circumstances of the President’s assassination. While a conclusive link between Oswald and Ruby has not yet been established, there are indications that the two knew each other. An employee of Ruby’s night spot, the Carousel Club, has definitely identified Oswald as being in the club a week before the assassination of Kennedy. The two men lived within blocks of each other in the Oak Cliff suburb of Dallas. And, most significant of all, Mrs. Marguerite Oswald, the accused assassin’s mother, revealed on December 1st that the night before her son’s murder F.B.I. men showed her a photograph of Ruby and asked her to tell whatever she knew of him. The New York Times reported that Mrs. Oswald “insisted that on the night of November 23, about 17 hours before Ruby shot her son, an agent from the Federal Bureau of Investigation showed her Ruby’s photograph.” According to the Times report, “Mrs. Oswald contended that the episode … indicated that the authorities had advance knowledge that Ruby might attempt to kill Oswald.” The F.B.I., according to the Times, “would officially make no comment on Mrs. Oswald’s charge. It was understood, however, that Federal agencies had acknowledged that she had been shown a photograph that night for identification, but spokesmen would not disclose whether it was that of Ruby.” Informed that the F.B.I. would not confirm her account, Mrs. Oswald declared, “I cannot be mistaken. I will never forget that photograph. I will never forget that face.” (New York Times, Dec. 2, 1963.)

Much remains to be known of the relationship between the two men. But what we do know indicates that Oswald was murdered, not in a flush of patriotic fervor or mad rage, but in the cool calculating manner of the professional killer. The bullet that tore into Lee Oswald seems to have been intended not to punish, but to silence, him.

Eric Norden’s Essay

‘The Death of a President’ was first published in The Minority of One in January 1964. The present version is taken from the University of Rhode Island website.

The text has been split into three parts, and has been formatted in correct HTML for easier access by humans and search engines. Headings have been added, and trivial errors in the Shakespeare quotations have been corrected.

Eric Norden went on to interview Jim Garrison in 1967 for Playboy magazine.

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22 November 1963

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