50 years later, N.O. still central to JFK assassination

As the birthplace of Lee Harvey Oswald and the site of DA Jim Garrison’s infamous investigation, New Orleans has become the ‘other city’ in the story of the Nov. 22, 1963, assassination of President John F. Kennedy.

Fifty years after the murder of the young, charismatic president, New Orleans remains tied to the story.

The lives, associations and movements of a few people who lived here remain grist for the un-refereed wiki-inquest that half a century later still churns away, contesting every data point surrounding the assassination, with no end in sight.

In 1964, the Warren Commission concluded that Lee Harvey Oswald, alone, killed Kennedy, as the president rode through Dallas in an open limousine with his wife, Jacqueline.

But that conclusion is widely derided.

A follow-up investigation in 1978 by the House Select Committee on Assassinations, which confirmed Oswald’s role as the shooter but suggested the “high probability” of another gunman, is contested as well.

“I believe that 50 years later we still don’t know the whole truth to the Kennedy assassination,” said Michael Kurtz, a professor of history at Southeastern Louisiana University, who for nearly 40 years has taught a course on the assassination.

“I tell my kids, ‘I don’t know who killed JFK,’ ” he said. “I wish I did.”

Birthplace of Oswald, conspiracy theories

New Orleans, first and foremost, remains tied to the crime as Oswald’s birthplace.

Secondarily, it is the stage on which Garrison for two years commanded world attention as he sought unsuccessfully to demonstrate that French Quarter preservationist Clay Shaw conspired with Oswald and others to plan Kennedy’s death.

And for Americans under age 35, the definitive assassination narrative may still be Oliver Stone’s 1991 film “JFK,” a mainstream Hollywood vehicle filmed in New Orleans. Stone celebrated Garrison as a hero contending with vaguely identified dark forces, and he spun ambitious conspiracy theories that matched Garrison’s own.

Shortly after Stone’s movie, the Gallup organization found that the percentage of single-assassin skeptics had jumped from 52 percent shortly after the crime to 77 percent.

It’s at 59 percent now, according to a poll conducted in April by the Associated Press and GfK, a German market research organization.

Such enduring uncertainties about what happened in Dallas on Nov. 22, 1963, blossomed the moment Oswald was killed inside Dallas police headquarters by nightclub owner Jack Ruby.

Oswald had lived an unstable childhood in the Upper 9th Ward, Covington and the French Quarter as his single mother fitfully shuttled herself and her three children around the country.

His schools, the former Covington Elementary, the old Beauregard Junior High and Warren Easton High, are familiar to tens of thousands. Warren Easton was his 11th school.

At 23, Oswald, by then a former Marine and former Russian defector, returned to New Orleans with a pregnant Russian wife and daughter. They lived in a run-down apartment at 4905 Magazine St. the summer before the assassination.

Twice that summer, Oswald drew public notice.

In August 1963, in shirtsleeves and a thin tie, Oswald handed out pro-Castro leaflets in downtown New Orleans on Canal Street near St. Charles Avenue.

That provoked a confrontation with three anti-Castro Cubans. There was a scuffle, then arrests.

Oswald spent a night in jail and was fined $10. The following week he reappeared with his leaflets in front of the International Trade Mart at the corner of Camp and Common streets, this time attracting a television news photographer, who recorded it for posterity.

A few weeks later, having sent his wife and daughter ahead, Oswald skipped out on his rent and quietly left New Orleans. It was Sept. 25, 1963. His last act here, according to the Warren Commission: cashing a $33 unemployment check at a Winn-Dixie near his apartment.

Nine weeks later, Kennedy was dead.

Ten months after that, the Warren Commission concluded that Oswald, unaided by conspirators, killed Kennedy with three rifle shots from the sixth floor of the Texas School Book Depository.

But the commission had barely submitted its report when the first questions were raised.

In the years that followed, a small band of doubters turned into an army of amateur and professional investigators churning out book after book attacking the Warren Commission’s findings from every angle.

Dozens of assassination scenarios have been proffered: Oswald was embittered and alone; Oswald was a framed dupe; it was a mob hit; it was a hit by Fidel Castro; it was a hit by anti-Castro Cubans angered by Kennedy’s abandonment of the Bay of Pigs invasion; it was a “homosexual thrill killing” (an early theory Garrison reportedly confided to writer James Phelan). There was triangulation of fire; there was another shooter on the grassy knoll at Dealey Plaza; there was a shooter in a manhole. There were impostor Oswalds. Kennedy’s body was tampered with to alter the forensics.

But no challenge was as spectacular as Garrison’s 1967 announcement that he had actually solved the Kennedy assassination and located a New Orleans-based conspiracy.

All that remained, Garrison said, shortly after the news broke, were arrests and presentation of proof at trial.

But in the end, the case was a flop.

Case of ‘new logic’

In early 1967, Garrison, mercurial, brilliant and wildly unpredictable, had been in office for five years.

He had generated enormous publicity with a series of photogenic but inconsequential Bourbon Street nightclub raids, followed by public feuds with the judges of Criminal District Court.

He accused some judges of trying to wreck his administration and actually indicted one, J. Bernard Cocke, for malfeasance. Garrison tried the case personally. Cocke was acquitted.

But in late 1966 and early 1967, Garrison went uncharacteristically quiet, reporter Rosemary James recalled. “We figured something was going on.”

Another reporter, Jack Dempsey, was picking up vague courthouse rumors about a Kennedy assassination investigation.

A third reporter, David Snyder, found the tell-tale expenses listed in a little-known judicial fund open to public inspection.

Five days after the story broke, David Ferrie, a part-time flight instructor, charter pilot and investigator, was found dead of natural causes in his home on Louisiana Avenue Parkway.

Garrison announced that he had been about to arrest Ferrie as a conspirator. A week later, he ordered the arrest of Shaw.

It was a case, he said, in which investigators had to learn a new logic, in which “black is white and white is black.”

As the temperature of the story rose, Garrison foreswore the usual prosecutorial reticence. He discussed his developing case in several venues, including a detailed Playboy magazine interview and an appearance on Johnny Carson’s “Tonight Show.”

In Playboy, for instance, Garrison asserted that Kennedy’s killers included former employees of the CIA involved in its anti-Castro underground activities. He said the CIA assigned Oswald a “baby sitter” in New Orleans and then produced an Oswald impostor in Dallas.

At the five-week trial in early 1969, however, none of that came forward.

Rather, Garrison made a more limited case: that Oswald, Ferrie and Shaw, allegedly under the alias Clem Bertrand, had discussed killing Kennedy at a New Orleans party.

The trial itself was a kind of trauma. Jurors and the public saw what may have been the first public viewing of the unedited Zapruder home movie of the assassination, including the gruesome frames in which a bullet exploded the president’s skull.

But Garrison’s witnesses fell apart under cross-examination by Shaw’s lawyers, F. Irvin Dymond and Edward Wegmann — most spectacularly when a New York bookkeeper named Charles Spiesel, who testified to overhearing the plot, told defense lawyers he had been frequently hypnotized against his will by New York police, and often fingerprinted his daughter when she arrived home to be sure she was the same person who had left.

The jury took less than an hour to acquit Shaw. But he was crippled financially.

The trial was both an outrage and a carnival, James said. An outrage in that it wrecked the remaining years of Shaw’s life — he would die five years later — and a carnival for the sheer spectacle of the event.

“I thought it was a terrible tragedy for Clay Shaw,” James said. “But I also thought it was a tragedy for the public, for New Orleans, which was being fed a line of malarkey by someone they had elected.”

It was also a tragedy for Garrison, she said: “He had several screws loose and he was always a little nutty and flamboyant, but he really, really went around the bend on this.”

The Garrison trial also for years damaged the work of more serious critics of the Warren Commission.

Wrote Anthony Summers, author of “Not in Your Lifetime”: “What angers investigators about … Jim Garrison is that his cockeyed caper in 1967 was more than an abuse of the justice system. It was an abuse of history, and — more than any other single factor — [responsible] in discrediting … genuine researchers for a full decade, a decade in which witnesses died, and evidence was further obscured.”

Kurtz, the history professor, similarly describes the Garrison probe as a “fiasco,” although not so serious as to poison the legitimacy of continuing inquiry into the crime.

Kurtz believes that Garrison’s probe was useful in one sense: It forced the federal government to openly resist subpoenas for information, resistance that he believes strongly suggests a motive for a cover-up.

“Garrison performed a service in that sense, by bringing out things that were covered up,” Kurtz said.

“But he went overboard. He let publicity get to his head.”