An Overview of the Assassination of JFK

In the summer of 1963 President John F. Kennedy contacted Ralph Yarborough and asked him what could be done to help the image of the president in the state. Yarborough apparently told Kennedy “the best thing he could do was to bring Jackie to Texas and let all those women see her”. Kennedy had won Texas by only a small margin in the presidential election of 1960. It was believed that this victory was mainly due to the campaigning of his running-mate, Lyndon B. Johnson, who was the dominant political figure in Texas at the time. Kennedy believed that he needed to win Texas in 1964 if he was to be re-elected as president.

On 22nd November, 1963, President John F. Kennedy arrived in Dallas. It was decided that Kennedy and his party, including his wife, Jacqueline Kennedy, Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson, Governor John Connally and Senator Ralph Yarborough, would travel in a procession of cars through the business district of Dallas. A pilot car and several motorcycles rode ahead of the presidential limousine. As well as Kennedy the limousine included his wife, John Connally, his wife Nellie, Roy Kellerman, head of the Secret Service at the White House and the driver, William Greer. The next car carried eight Secret Service Agents. This was followed by a car containing Lyndon Johnson and Ralph Yarborough.

John F. Kennedy
John F. Kennedy, John Connally and Jacqueline Kennedy in the presidential limousine.

Abraham Zapruder decided to film the Kennedy motorcade. He later explained to Wesley J. Liebeler about the background to the filming. "I didn't have my camera but my secretary (Lillian Rogers) asked me why I don't have it and I told her I wouldn't have a chance even to see the President and somehow she urged me and I went home and got my camera." According to Jim Marrs: "Zapruder made a fourteen-mile round trip drive home to pick up his camera. By the time he returned, crowds were already gathering to watch the motorcade." Zapruder later recalled: "I was trying to pick a space from where to take those pictures and I tried one place and it was on a narrow ledge and I couldn't balance myself very much. I tried another place and that had some obstruction of signs or whatever it was there and finally I found a place farther down near the underpass that was a square of concrete I don't know what you call it maybe about 4 feet high."

At about 12.30 p.m. the presidential limousine entered Elm Street. Soon afterwards shots rang out. William Greer was driving the limousine. Several witnesses said that Greer stopped the car after the first shot was fired. This included Jean Hill, who was the closest witness to the car when Kennedy was hot: According to Hill "the motorcade came to almost a halt at the time the shots rang out". James Chaney (one of the four Presidential motorcyclists) - stated that the limousine "after the shooting, from the time the first shot rang out, the car stopped completely, pulled to the left and stopped." Mary Woodward, a journalist with the Dallas Morning News wrote: "Instead of speeding up the car, the car came to a halt... after the first shot".

Kenneth O'Donnell (special assistant to Kennedy), who was riding in the motorcade, later wrote: "If the Secret Service men in the front had reacted quicker to the first two shots at the President's car, if the driver had stepped on the gas before instead of after the fatal third shot was fired, would President Kennedy be alive today? He added "Greer had been remorseful all day, feeling that he could have saved President Kennedy's life by swerving the car or speeding suddenly after the first shots."

William Manchester claims that Greer told Jackie Kennedy at Parkland Hospital: "Oh, Mrs. Kennedy, oh my God, oh my God. I didn't mean to do it, I didn't hear, I should have swerved the car, I couldn't help it. Oh, Mrs. Kennedy, as soon as I saw it I swerved. If only I'd seen it in time!" Senator Ralph Yarborough, who was riding with Lyndon B. Johnson, was highly critical of the actions of Greer: "When the noise of the shot was heard, the motorcade slowed to what seemed to me a complete stop... After the third shot was fired, but only after the third shot was fired, the cavalcade speeded up, gained speed rapidly, and roared away to the Parkland Hospital... The cars all stopped... 'I don't want to hurt anyone's feelings but for the protection of future Presidents, they (the Secret Service) should be trained to take off when a shot is fired."

John F. Kennedy
The Zapruder Film showing the first shot hitting John F. Kennedy.

Jean Hill and her friend, Mary Moorman, who was taking Polaroid pictures of the motorcade, were only a few feet away from President Kennedy when he was shot. Hill and Moorman thought the shots had come from behind her on the grassy knoll and as soon as the firing stopped they ran towards the wooden fence in an attempt to find the gunman. However, they were detained by two secret service men. After searching the two women they confiscated the picture of the assassination. Hill gave a statement to the police where she stated: "Mary Moorman started to take a picture. We were looking at the president and Jackie in the back seat... Just as the president looked up two shots rang out and I saw the president grab his chest and fell forward across Jackie's lap... There was an instant pause between two shots and the motorcade seemingly halted for an instant. Three or four more shots rang out and the motorcade sped away."

John F. Kennedy was hit by bullets that hit him in the head and the left shoulder. Another bullet hit John Connally in the back. Nellie Connally, who was sitting next to her husband in the presidential limousine, always maintained that two bullets struck Kennedy and a third hit her husband. "The first sound, the first shot, I heard, and turned and looked right into the President's face. He was clutching his throat, and just slumped down. He Just had a - a look of nothingness on his face. He-he didn't say anything. But that was the first shot. The second shot, that hit John - well, of course, I could see him covered with - with blood, and his - his reaction to a second shot. The third shot, even though I didn't see the President, I felt the matter all over me, and I could see it all over the car." John Connally agreed with his wife: "Beyond any question, and I'll never change my opinion, the first bullet did not hit me. The second bullet did hit me. The third bullet did not hit me." As the Warren Commission concluded there also was a bullet that missed the car entirely. Some conspiracy theorists argue that if three bullets struck the men, as the Connallys insisted, and a fourth missed, then there must have been a second gunman because no one person could have fired four rounds from Oswald's bolt-action rifle so quickly.

Clint J. Hill rode on the running board of the Secret Service car immediately behind the presidential car. After the first shot was fired Hill ran forward: "I jumped onto the left rear step of the Presidential automobile. Mrs. Kennedy shouted, "They've shot his head off," then turned and raised out of her seat as if she were reaching to her right rear toward the back of the car for something that had blown out. I forced her back into her seat and placed my body above President and Mrs. Kennedy."

Gordon Arnold was home on leave on 22nd November, 1963, and decided to take his movie camera to Dealey Plaza in order to film the visit of President John F. Kennedy. While walking by the Grassy Knoll he was stopped by a man claiming to be a member of the Secret Service. He later told Jim Marrs: "I was walking along behind this picket fence when a man in a light-colored suit came up to me and said I shouldn't be up there. I was young and cocky and I said, "Why not?" And he showed me a badge and said he was with the Secret Service and that he didn't want anyone up there. I said all right and started walking back along the fence. I could feel that he was following me and we had a few more words. I walked around to the front of the fence and found a little mound of dirt to stand on to see the motorcade." Arnold claimed that the first shot was fired from behind him. After the firing had finished, Arnold claimed that a policeman with a gun forced him to hand over the film in his camera.

S. M. Holland was looking at the motorcade from the overpass in Dealey Plaza. He later told CBS television: "Just about the time that the parade turned on Elm Street, about where that truck is - that bus is now, there was a shot came from up-the upper end of the street. I couldn't say then, at that time, that it came from the Book Depository book store. But I knew that it came from the other end of the street, and the President slumped over forward like that and tried to raise his hand up. And Governor Connally, sitting in front of him on the right side of the car, tried to turn to his right and he was sitting so close to the door that he couldn't make it that-a-way, and he turned back like that with his arm out to the left. And about that time, the second shot was fired and it knocked him over forward and he slumped to the right, and I guess his wife pulled him over in her lap because he fell over in her lap. And about that time, there was a third report that wasn't nearly as loud as the two previous reports. It came from that picket fence, and then there was a fourth report. The third and the fourth reports was almost simultaneously. But, the third report wasn't nearly as loud as the two previous reports or the fourth report. And I glanced over underneath that green tree and you see a - a little puff of smoke. It looked like a puff of steam or cigarette smoke. And the smoke was about - oh, eight or ten feet off the ground, and about fifteen feet this side of that tree."

Ed Hoffman stood on the shoulder of the Stemmons Expressway in Dallas when Kennedy was assassinated. The deaf-and-dumb witness claimed he saw a man with a rifle moments after the shots were fired. He later described how a man wearing a dark suit and tie, with an overcoat, ran west along the wooden fence with a rifle and tossed it to a second man who was dressed like a railroad worker. The second man then disassembled the rifle and put it in a soft brown bag. Hoffman immediately tried to alert the Secret Service agents about what he had seen. However, unable to understand what he was trying to say, he was threatened with a machine-gun (believed to have been George Hickey). He then attempted to tell his story to a Dallas policeman (believed to be Earle Brown). Unable to understand him, Brown waved him away.

Abraham Zapruder told Wesley J. Liebeler: "I heard the first shot and I saw the President lean over and grab himself like this (holding his left chest area)... I thought I heard two (shots), it could be three, because to my estimation I thought he was hit on the second - I really don't know. The whole thing that has been transpiring - it was very upsetting and as you see I got a little better all the time and this came up again and it to me looked like the second shot, but I don't know. I never even heard a third shot."

Detective Roger Dean Craig was on duty in Dallas on 22nd November, 1963. "Suddenly the motorcade approached and President Kennedy was smiling and waving and for a moment I relaxed and fell into the happy mood the President was displaying. The car turned the corner onto Houston Street. I was still looking at the rest of the people in the party. I was soon to be shocked back into reality. The President had passed and was turning west on Elm Street... as if there were no people, no cars, the only thing in my world at that moment was a rifle shot! I bolted toward Houston Street. I was fifteen steps from the corner - before I reached it two more shots had been fired.... I turned and saw a white male in his twenties running down the grassy knoll from the direction of the Texas School Book Depository Building. A light green Rambler station wagon was coming slowly west on Elm Street. The driver of the station wagon was a husky looking Latin, with dark wavy hair, wearing a tan wind-breaker type jacket. He was looking up at the man running toward him. He pulled over to the north curb and picked up the man coming down the hill. I tried to cross Elm Street to stop them and find out who they were. The traffic was too heavy and I was unable to reach them. They drove away going west on Elm Street. In addition to noting that these two men were in an obvious hurry, I realized they were the only ones not running to the scene."

Lee Bowers was working in a high tower overlooking the Dealey Plaza in Dallas. Bowers reported seeing two men standing near the picket fence on the Grassy Knoll. He added: "These men were the only two strangers in the area. The others were workers whom I knew." Bowers said the two men were there while the shots were fired. Mark Lane interviewed Bowers for his book Rush to Judgment (1966): "At the time of the shooting, in the vicinity of where the two men I have described were, there was a flash of light or, as far as I am concerned, something I could not identify, but there was something which occurred which caught my eye in this immediate area on the embankment. Now, what this was, I could not state at that time and at this time I could not identify it, other than there was some unusual occurrence - a flash of light or smoke or something which caused me to feel like something out of the ordinary had occurred there."

Howard L. Brennan was standing at the corner of Houston and Elm facing the Texas Book Depository in Dealey Plaza when President John F. Kennedy was assassinated. Brennan claims he saw Lee Harvey Oswald at the window of the 6th Floor. He later recalled: "My first instinct was to look back up to that man on the sixth floor... By now the motorcade was beginning to speed up and in only a couple of seconds the President's car had disappeared under the triple underpass. To my amazement the man still stood there in the window! He didn't appear to be rushed. There was no particular emotion visible on his face except for a slight smirk. It was a look of satisfaction, as if he had accomplished what he had set out to do."

At 1.16 p.m. Officer J. D. Tippit approached a man, later identified as Lee Harvey Oswald, walking along East 10th Street. Domingo Benavides, later testified that after a short conversation, Oswald pulled out a hand gun and fired four shots at Tippit. However, Acquilla Clemons, who was sitting on a porch of a house close by, claimed that there were two men involved in the attack on Tippit. Another witness, Frank Wright, also claimed that Tippit was shot by two men.

Helen Markham also saw the killing. However, she described the killer as being short and somewhat on the heavy side, with slightly bushy hair." Later, Markham identified Oswald in a police lineup, but this was after she had seen his photograph on television. Warren Reynolds did not see the shooting but saw the gunman running from the scene of the crime. He claimed that the man was not Oswald. After he survived an attempt to kill him, he changed his mind and identified Oswald as the man he had seen.

John Brewer was manager of Hardy's Shoe Store in Oak Cliff. After hearing a news flash that J. D. Tippit had been shot nearby, he saw a man acting strangely outside the shop: "The police cars were racing up and down Jefferson with their sirens blasting and it appeared to me that this guy was hiding from them. He waited until there was a break in the activity and then he headed west until he got to the Texas Theatre." Brewer went into the theatre and spoke to Warren Burroughs, the assistant manager. Burroughs had seen him enter the balcony of the theatre. When the police arrived Brewer accompanied the officers into the cinema where he pointed out the man he had seen acting in a suspicious manner. After a brief struggle Lee Harvey Oswald was arrested.

During his interrogation by the Dallas Police Oswald requested the services of John Abt. He is recorded as saying: "I want that attorney in New York, Mr. Abt. I don't know him personally but I know about a case that he handled some years ago, where he represented the people who had violated the Smith Act... I don't know him personally, but that is the attorney I want... If I can't get him, then I may get the American Civil Liberties Union to send me an attorney." However, Abt was on holiday in Connecticut and later told reporters that he had received no request either from Oswald or from anyone on his behalf to represent him.

John Will Fritz was put in charge of his interrogation. Oswald was interrogated for a total of approximately 12 hours between 2:30 p.m. on Friday, November 22, 1963, and 11:15 a. m. on Sunday, November 24, 1963. There were no stenographic or tape recordings of these interviews. Fritz did not get a confession from Oswald but became convinced of his guilt and just before midnight he formally charged him with the president's murder. Oswald denied he had been involved in the killing of Kennedy. He also told newsmen on the night of the assassination he was a "patsy" (a term used by the Mafia to describe someone set up to take the punishment for a crime they did not commit).

The police soon found out that Oswald worked at the Texas School Book Depository. They also discovered his palm print on the Mannlicher-Carcano rifle that was found earlier that day. Other evidence emerged that suggested that Oswald had been involved in the killing of Kennedy. Oswald's hand prints were found on the book cartons and the brown paper bag. Charles Givens, a fellow worker, testified that he saw Oswald on the sixth floor at 11.55 a.m. Another witness, Howard Brennan, claimed he saw Oswald holding a rifle at the sixth floor window.

The police also discovered that the Mannlicher-Carcano rifle was purchased under the name A. Hiddell. When he was arrested, the police found that Oswald was carrying a forged identity card bearing the name Alek Hiddell. The rifle had been sent by the mail order company from Chicago to P.O. Box 2915, Dallas, Texas. The Post Office box belonged to Oswald.

On 24th November, 1963, Jesse Curry decided to transfer Lee Harvey Oswald to the county jail. Will Fritz placed George Butler in immediate charge of the transfer. Ike Pappas, a journalist working for WNEW Radio in Maryland was one of the hundred people watching Oswald being led through the basement of police headquarters. “I noted out of the corner of my eye, this black streak went right across my front and leaned in and, pop, there was an explosion. And I felt the impact of the air from the explosion of the gun on my body.... And then I said to myself, if you never say anything ever again into a microphone, you must say it now. This is history.” The gunman was quickly arrested by police officers. Oswald died soon afterwards. The man who killed him was later identified as being Jack Ruby.

The shooting of Lee Harvey Oswald
The shooting of Lee Harvey Oswald

After the death of John F. Kennedy, his deputy, Lyndon B. Johnson, was appointed president. He immediately set up a commission to "ascertain, evaluate and report upon the facts relating to the assassination of the late President John F. Kennedy." The seven man commission was headed by Chief Justice Earl Warren and included Gerald Ford, Allen W. Dulles, John J. McCloy, Richard B. Russell, John S. Cooper and Thomas H. Boggs.

Larry Craford testified before the Warren Commission that on 23rd November, 1963, he went with Jack Ruby and George Senator to photograph an "Impeach Earl Warren" billboard in Dallas. Ruby said he wanted to photograph the billboard because of its similarity to an anti-Kennedy advert that appeared in newspapers on the day of the assassination. This information created some interest as it had not been mentioned before by either Ruby or Senator.

Ruby told Earl Warren that he would "come clean" if he was moved from Dallas and allowed to testify in Washington. He told Warren "my life is in danger here". He added: "I want to tell the truth, and I can't tell it here." Warren refused to have Ruby moved and so he refused to tell what he knew about the assassination of John F. Kennedy.

During his trial Jack Ruby claimed he had killed Lee Harvey Oswald because he "couldn't bear the idea of the President's widow being subjected to testifying at the trial of Oswald". Later he changed his mind claiming that his lawyer, Tom Howard, had put him up to saying it. He now pleaded guilty by reason of insanity. On March 14, 1964, the jury convicted Jack Ruby of killing Oswald and sentenced him to death. Ruby's conviction was later overturned, but he died from cancer on 3rd January, 1967, while waiting for a new trial.

Primary Sources

(1) Hugh Aynesworth, JFK: Breaking the News (2003)

Liberal Ralph Yarborough, for example, detested centrists such as Connally and Johnson - and with some reason. The governor and the vice president were never seen doing the senator any favors. Just the opposite. On this trip they seemed determined to put Yarborough in his place.

Connally was scheduled to host a private reception for JFK at the governor's mansion in Austin that Friday night: Yarborough was absent from the guest list.

Yarborough's response to that snub: "I want everybody to join hands in harmony for the greatest welcome to the President and Mrs. Kennedy in the history of Texas." Then: "Governor Connally is so terribly uneducated governmentally, how could you expect anything else?"

On Thursday afternoon in Houston, Yarborough had defied Kennedy by refusing to ride in the same car with LBJ. He chose instead to be seen with Congressman Albert Thomas. In San Antonio that morning, Secret Service Agent Rufus Youngblood was gently nudging the senator toward Johnson's limo when Yarborough saw Congressman Henry Gonzalez, a political blood brother, and bolted toward him. "Can I ride with you, Henry?" he asked.

That evening, employees at Houston's Rice Hotel heard JFK and LBJ arguing over Yarborough in the presidential suite. Kennedy reportedly informed Johnson in strong terms that he felt Yarborough-who had much better poll numbers in Texas than Kennedy-was being mistreated, and the president was unhappy about that.

(2) William Manchester, The Death of a President (1967)

There was a sudden, sharp, shattering sound. Various individuals heard it differently. Jacqueline Kennedy believed it was a motorcycle noise. Curry was under the impression that someone had fired a railroad torpedo. Ronald Fischer and Bob Edwards, assuming that it was a backfire, chuckled. Most of the hunters in the motorcade - Sorrels, Connally, Yarborough, Gonzalez, Albert Thomas - instinctively identified it as rifle fire.

But the White House Detail was confused. Their experience in outdoor shooting was limited to two qualification courses a year on a range in Washington's National Arboretum. There they heard only their own weapons, and they were unaccustomed to the bizarre effects that are created when small-arms fire echoes among unfamiliar structures - in this case, the buildings of Dealey Plaza. Emory Roberts recognized Oswald's first shot as a shot. So did Youngblood, whose alert response may have saved Lyndon Johnson's life. They were exceptions. The men in Halfback were bewildered. They glanced around uncertainly. Lawson, Kellerman, Greer, Ready, and Hill all thought that a firecracker had been exploded. The fact that this was a common reaction is no mitigation. It was the responsibility of James J. Rowley, Chief of the Secret Service, and Jerry Behn, Head of the White House Detail, to see that their agents were trained to cope with precisely this sort of emergency. They were supposed to be picked men, honed to a matchless edge. It was comprehensible that Roy Truly should dismiss the first shot as a cherry bomb. It was even fathomable that Patrolman James M. Chaney, mounted on a motorcycle six feet from the Lincoln, should think that another machine had backfired. Chaney was an ordinary policeman, not a Presidential bodyguard. The protection of the Chief Executive, on the other hand, was the profession of Secret Service agents. They existed for no other reason. Apart from Clint Hill - and perhaps Jack Ready, who started to step off the right running board and was ordered back by Roberts - the behaviour of the men in the follow-up car was unresponsive. Even more tragic was the perplexity of Roy Kellerman, the ranking agent in Dallas, and Bill Greer, who was under Kellerman's supervision. Kellerman and Greer were in a position to take swift evasive action, and for five terrible seconds they were immobilized.