It was a day that a lot of Americans will remember for the rest of their lives. Some can even tell you where they were, what they doing and who they were with the day John Kennedy was shot in Dallas. November 22nd through the 24th were three days that sent America into chaos of sorts.
Like Lincoln 98 years before at Ford’s Theatre in Washington, the hopes of America were shaken by the act of a lone gunman. Like Lincoln, Kennedy was shot in the back of the head, shot on a Friday, shot as his wife was with him and died without recovering. Their lives mirror each other and to an extent, so do the lives of the men that pulled the triggers. Both John Wilkes Booth and Lee Harvey Oswald fled their respective jurisdictions after they did the deed and both wanted to prove a point and both died before they could go to trial and eventually face justice. Both men had egos to the point that they could easily be considered socipaths.
Booth was a Shakespearian actor that was also a supporter of the South. The idea that Lincoln had declared slaves free was something that didn’t agree with him and he thought that killing Lincoln would curry favor with his fellow Southerners. Booth’s actions had the exact opposite and the South would suffer through Reconstruction.
Oswald, a dishonorably discharged Marine sharpshooter, was known as a child to be a problem for truant officers, as well as being withdrawn and temperamental. Later on in his brief life on this Earth, Oswald would eventually quit school and declared himself to be a Marxist and a socalist and at one point was even called “Oswaldskovich” because he espoused pro-Soviet sentiments and he acted on those sentiments when he taught himself Russian while in the Marines.
While Booth performed all over the world and nation, such was not the case for Oswald. He floated around school after school in his young life before somehow settling down in Dallas.
Oswald eventually would live in Russia after the Marines for two years and eventually marry a Russian woman named Marina Prusakova before returning to the United States in 1961. Thinking he would be hailed a hero for returning home, there was no press, no media or ticker tape parade to greet him. After they returned to the United States, with their infant daughter in tow and moved to the Dallas/Fort Worth area, living among Russians that emigrated to the US. While they sympathized with her, they merely tolerated him, regarding Oswlad as rude and arrogant.
Fast forward to March of 1963 in New Orleans, nine months before the shooting. Oswald purchases by mail order a 6.5 mm caliber Carcano rifle by mail-order, using the alias “A. Hidell”, as well as a .38 Smith & Wesson Model 10 revolver by the same method. Oswald was armed to the teeth, in the literal and figurative sense of the word. Still a Marxist to the core, he passed out Fair Play for Cuba leaflets with two hired helpers, this time in front of the International Trade Mart. The incident was filmed by WDSU-the local TV station.
On that fateful November Friday, Oswald went to work at the Texas Book Repository in Dallas. It was along the parade route of President and Mrs. Kennedy. He took careful aim, remembering his Marine marksmanship and fired the three shots that would send him to infamy for all time. He would later be arrested after he killed a police officer in a Dallas neighborhood as he sat in a movie theatre.
Soon after his capture, Oswald encountered reporters in a hallway, declaring, “I didn’t shoot anybody They’ve taken me in because of the fact that I lived in the Soviet Union. I’m just a patsy!” Later, at an arranged press meeting, a reporter asked, “Did you kill the President?” and Oswald-who by that time had been advised of the charge of murdering Tippit but had not yet been arraigned in Kennedy’s death-answered, “No, I have not been charged with that. In fact, nobody has said that to me yet. The first thing I heard about it was when the newspaper reporters in the hall asked me that question.” As he was led from the room the question was called out, “What did you do in Russia?” How did you hurt your eye?”; Oswald answered, “A policeman hit me.”
He asked for legal representation several times while being interrogated, as well as in encounters with reporters. But when representatives of the Dallas Bar Association met with him in his cell on Saturday, he declined their services, saying he wanted to be represented by John Abt, chief counsel to the Communist Party USA or by lawyers associated with the American Civil Liberties Union. Both Oswald and Ruth Paine tried to reach Abt by telephone several times Saturday and Sunday but Abt was away for the weekend. Oswald also declined his brother Robert’s offer on Saturday to obtain a local attorney. That Saturday would be his last day on Earth.
On Sunday, November 24, Oswald was being led through the basement of Dallas Police Headquarters in advance of his transfer to the county jail. At 11:21 a.m., Dallas nightclub operator Jack Ruby stepped from the crowd and shot Oswald in the chest, the round striking several organs, penetrated his stomach and tore his vena cava and aorta. In a twist of irony, Oswald was rushed unconscious to Parkland Memorial Hospital-the same hospital where doctors tried to save President Kennedy’s life two days earlier. Oswald died at 1:07 p.m. An autopsy was performed by the Dallas County Medical Examiner at 2:45 p.m. the same day, with the cause of death in the autopsy report being listed as “hemorrhage secondary to gunshot wound of the chest.” A CBS television camera, there to cover the transfer, was broadcasting live, as millions witnessed the shooting on television as it happened. The event was also captured in several well-known photographs.
Ruby later said he had been distraught over Kennedy’s death and that his motive for killing Oswald was “…saving Mrs. Kennedy the discomfiture of coming back to trial.” Ruby would later be charged with Oswald’s murder. He would be sentenced to death but died in prison of tuberculosis in 1969. Some think that the FBI should have taken Oswald into custody at that point because of the Kennedy shooting. Others argue the opposite. In any case, Oswald’s dead and can’t come back to explain why he did what he did. We can only speculate as to what might have happened.
Two lives that in some ways mirrored each other died by the same means that they used to kill their victims. They both had an agenda differing from normal citizens. Both men were claiming to be heroes, doing something for the greater good, when their actions produced the exact opposite. Nothing good came from their deeds and certainly nothing came from their deaths. They both died before they could face justice. Oswald took, according to some soucres, three shots to do his deed, while Booth needed only one. In the end, Booth would actually live longer than Oswald. Booth would be hunted down by Union troops and killed in a tobacco barn near Bowling Green, Virginia, while Oswald would die at the hands of Jack Ruby the Sunday after he was arrested as he was being led away by Dallas police in front of a television audience that watched in horror.
Booth. Oswald. Two men that were both somewhat unstable emotionally, both with agendas that were contrary to those that wanted to listen to their better angels. Both could easily be considered sociopaths. Both are dead, carrying a place in history that will not praise them as heroes but as villans. They are a part of history, albeit a sad part and their names cannot be removed, even if we wanted to do so.
50 years ago, the world changed and not for the better and became very dark. Kennedy was the light that was going to pierce that darkness. On a November day in Dallas, one bullet tried to destroy Camelot. A lone gunman thought he could get attention by killing a leader, just like John Wilkes Booth did 98 years prior.
In the end, it was America that won.