Lee Harvey Oswald and Me: One Degree of Separation

As it happens, my inaugural post here at AR coincides with the 50th anniversary of one of my great research obsessions—the assassination of John F. Kennedy. Last name notwithstanding, I am of Irish Catholic heritage, and in my house growing up, the Pope and President Kennedy were held in equal esteem. When the news came that the president had been killed, my mother was devastated. I was six at the time, and while I couldn’t fully comprehend the enormity of the crime, I knew that Mom was upset and I found that unnerving.

In the years that followed, Mom became quite the conspiracy theorist. She consumed all the books by Garrison and the others, and by extension, I likewise became a conspiracy theorist. By the time I was a senior in high school, I knew that there were at least two gunmen and as many as three. I steeped my geeky self in the research, even as I was writing stories on the side. (Look up “babe magnet” in the dictionary. My high school picture is there, labeled, “Not Him.”)

Once I got my acceptance letter to the College of William and Mary in Virginia, and I realized that freshmen had to write a major research project in their first semester, I knew that JFK’s murder would be my topic. Living in the suburbs of Washington, DC, and working a night job in telephone sales, I was in a perfect position to do primary research at the National Archives downtown. In the morning, I would take the bus to Constitution Avenue, and then I would head inside the massive Archives building to the reading room.

This was 1975. The Zapruder Film had still not been seen by anyone outside of official Washington, and the House Select Committee had not yet convened to re-examine the Warren Commission evidence. This was all new territory for me, and I hoped to forge new territory for my future professors.

Here’s how it worked: I would fill out a sheet of paper for what I wanted to look at, whether Warren Commission documents or FBI interviews, or re-enactment photographs, and then I would hand the sheet to a pretty young clerk-lady, and then she would bring my requests to me. It was table service, and as an 18-year-old with braces on my teeth, this was pretty heady stuff. They even called me Mr. Gilstrap. Very, very classy.

After four or five days of taking up space and making copious notes (no photos allowed, and certainly no copiers), I was sitting at my spot at a study table when the cartful of stuff I ordered arrived not with a pretty clerk at the helm, but rather it was pushed by an old guy.

“Mr. Gilstrap,” he said.

I thought I was in trouble. “Yes, sir.”

“You’ve been the source of a lot of curiosity here,” he said. He then went on to introduce himself as Marion Johnson, the curator of the JFK exhibit at the National Archives. He observed that they didn’t often see someone my age being such a dedicated researcher.

I explained to him about the paper I had to write, and about my family’s obsession with all things assassination-related. He seemed interested, and then he said, “Come with me. I think I have some items that you might be interested in.”

I followed him into the bowels of the old building, into a large locked storage room that was under-lit, and stacked floor to ceiling with boxes and file cabinets. “This is all of it,” Mr. Johnson explained. “This is our John F. Kennedy exhibit.”

I don’t remember the place itself well enough to give dimensions, and at the time, I didn’t have a frame of reference, but the room housed a lot of stuff. When he unlocked an area within the storage room that was set off from the rest by a chain link barrier, I knew I was in for something special. Mr. Johnson pulled a wooden case off of a shelf and placed it on a clear spot in an otherwise cluttered table. He donned a pair of cotton gloves and handed me another pair. When the snaps on the box opened and he lifted the cover of the box, I realized right away that I was looking at a Mannlicher-Carcano 6.5 millimeter rifle bearing the serial number C-2766.

That was Oswald’s rifle.

“Can I hold it?” I asked.

“You can lift it,” he said. “That’s all.”

That was plenty. At age 18, I got to hold the rifle that killed John F. Kennedy.

I noticed the .38 caliber pistol that was also in the box. “Is that the gun that killed Tippitt?” I asked. J.D. Tippitt was a Dallas police officer whom Oswald shot to death shortly after the assassination.

“It is,” Mr. Johnson said. “But you can’t touch that one.” It seemed rude to ask why, and to this day, I don’t know why I could hold one but not the other.

From there, Mr. Johnson led me to a smaller room—a double room, really, with a few chairs on my side, and then a second room I was not allowed to enter that was separated from mine by a glass panel. It reminded me of the perp interview room in every cop show.

“Have a seat,” Mr. Johnson said. “You’re going to see something that very few others have seen.”

Within a minute, it became clear that the room on the other side of the glass was a projection booth. The lights dimmed, and then the screen on the far end came to life with the Zapruder film. Now that those few seconds documenting the fatal shots are so ubiquitous, it’s difficult to explain how thrilling—how heart-stoppingly shocking—it was to watch the events unfold in that little room. There’s no sound on the film, and there was no sound in the room—not even the clacking of the 8mm projector, thanks to the glass—as the motorcade swung the turn from Houston Street onto Elm, and then disappeared behind the traffic sign, where a still-unknown stranger opened his umbrella.

When the president’s limousine emerged from behind the sign, I watched his hands rise to his throat, just as they had in the countless stills I had seen of that moment. Jackie looked over, concerned, and then the top of the president’s head vaporized. Having by then seen stills of Frame 313 of the Zapruder film, I knew about the eruption of brain and bone, but those stills had not prepared me for the violence of it in real time.

I had held the gun that inflicted that wound.

I left the Archives impressed yet shaken that afternoon, and I was more fully emboldened to do my research the way it was supposed to be done. I alluded above that I was a telephone salesman during the evenings, hawking the Army Times magazine to people who loved to hang up on salesmen who sounded like they were eighteen years old. I hated that job, but it gave me access to a WATS Line, which was a huge deal back in the day—long distance phone calls to anywhere for very little cost. Extraordinarily little cost to me since I wasn’t paying for the service.

Abusing the largesse of my employer (who subsequently fired me, not that I cared), I was able to find and call the key players from the assassination at their homes, and like the staff at the National Archives, they were each impressed that someone my age would be so dedicated to a research project. Among the people I interviewed for that paper were Admiral J.J. Hume, USN (ret.), who performed JFK’s autopsy, Malcolm Perry, the Emergency Room physician who treated the president when he arrived at Parkland Memorial Hospital, and Cyril Wecht, MD, a forensic pathologist from Pittsburgh, PA, who was a serious critic of the Warren Commission’s processes and conclusions. We’re talking long interviews, here, and not one of them ever lost patience with me—not even Admiral Hume, when I asked him what he thought about the accusations that he had botched the autopsy. His answer to that question, in fact, left an impression on me. He painted a picture of enormous pressure and emotion that I have later come to see as similar to the so-called fog of war. They were, after all, human, and the ravaged body of the president of the United States lay naked on a steel slab. I realized what a horrible moment that must have been for everyone who witnessed the shooting and its aftermath.

By summer’s end in 1975, I had already made good progress on my paper. As I recall, it weighed in at something like thirty pages, and it contained photographs ordered from the National Archives, and the content of the multiple interviews that I had conducted. When my mother read the paper, she was less than pleased by my conclusion that Oswald was the lone gunman—a conclusion I stand by today, and which has been reinforced by every bit of reliable new evidence that has since been released.

When I turned the paper in, I had no idea that it would nearly get me thrown out of college before I finished my first semester. My professor, Mr. Greene, as I recall, did not believe that a college freshman would do that level of research, and he called me in my dormitory to tell me that he was reporting me to the Honor Council. It took nearly three hours on the phone to convince him otherwise, defending every quote that I collected on my own, and every conclusion I drew.

In the end, I got an A.

36 thoughts on “Lee Harvey Oswald and Me: One Degree of Separation

  • Keith Thomson

    Great post, John. So was that THE Zapruder film, as opposed to an 8mm duplicate, made in case the Cubans or Mafia or CIA got to the lone copy?

  • Donna Galanti

    John, what a fantastic tale to launch yourself on AR with and as Thomas said – dang how can we follow this with our puny posts? 🙂 This tale is a novel right here – add someone eager to take you out with your JFK college investigation, forcing you on another investigation on the run, and you’re got your next thriller. I can’t imagine how chilling it was to hold Oswold’s gun that killed JFK. That is a moment to never be forgotten.

  • Thomas Kaufman

    Goddamnit, Gilstrap. Now how are we supposed to make our own puny posts interesting compared to that? Seriously, it’s intriguing and insightful. But anyone who’s read your books expects nothing less. So glad you’re roosting at AR.

  • Colin Summers

    Mr. Gilstrap,

    Your research *now* is not as good as it was *then.* The very first hit on Google for “umbrella man jfk” will tell you the man’s name. (And there’s a great video of Tink Thompson on the NY Times site describing finding out about the umbrella man.)


    • John Gilstrap Post author

      Colin, I let my prejudice show without adequate introduction. A man named Witt stepped forward in the late 70s claiming to be the umbrella man, but I never personally bought his story that he was protesting the actions of JFK’s father because of the elder Kennedy’s support of Chamberlain in the run-up to WWII. It rang a bullshit bell for me, and, last time I checked, the only verification of his identity is his own testimony. To my eye, the identity of the umbrella man remains in doubt. That’s not to suggest that I believe there was a larger conspiracy, only that I don’t like the smell of Witt’s story. Others are free to disagree.

  • Pamela Callow

    Hi John,

    Welcome to AR! Your post is fascinating, and I will share it with my daughter. Her first assignment in her International Baccalaureate History course was to assess all first-hand witness testimony and evidence from JFK’s assassination, and argue for or against the conspiracy theory. After reviewing Zapruder’s film, reading transcripts from witnesses, and reviewing the autopsy and ballistics reports, she came to a similar conclusion: Oswald acted alone. It was a great assignment for the students to see how history can be interpreted through various lenses. You have certainly had an incredible lens to this moment in history.

    • John Gilstrap Post author

      Hi, Pamela. Sounds like your daughter goes to a school that understands the importance of lenses. Now, if only we, as a society, could apply lens therapy to current events, there might be way more talking and way less shouting.

      I think I’m gonna like it here at Algonquin Redux.

  • Mark Greaney

    Seriously terrific post, John, I really enjoyed reading it. Good luck topping it next month!

    I was a bit of an obsessive myself- though without the follow through that you possessed. I came up with my own plan to get the hostages out of Iran when I was twelve. I had it all worked out on graph paper- wish I still had it. I remember a lot of rope ladders and nerve gas. Could’ve worked!

  • Alan Finn

    That is one hell of a story. And a lot to take in as an 18-year-old college freshman.

    I remember seeing the Zapruder film for the first time (17, I think I was) and being shocked by the colors. In my mind, the assassination was a black and white event, so to see it in color like that was jarring. It made the resulting violence — that explosion of brain and bone you mentioned — all the more horrific.

    As for Oswald’s rifle, I’m not sure I would have wanted to touch it, at age 18 or now.

    Terrific post, John. And welcome to AR!

    • John Gilstrap Post author

      Alan, I’ve always grooved on touching pieces of history, whether it was a Minnie ball discovered in the woods around my house, or merely walking that vast expanses of St. Peter’s Basilica or West Minster Abbey. My Kennedy saga came full circle years after this when I was in Dallas on business, staying at the Adolophus Hotel and I went for a walk. I turned the corner, and there I was in Dealy Plaza. That was a rush.

  • John RAmsey Miller

    The reason you should not have wanted to hold the gun is that someday in the future, your prints on said gun might have been analyzed and you could be implicated in the assassination of JFK. Conspiracy theorists of the future would say that an infant was the shooter of either the president or Officer Tippet. Size of prints a problem? No because there’s the time travel or “Looper” theory. So be glad they wouldn’t let you snap those triggers.

    • John Gilstrap Post author

      Come on, Miller, don’t blow my cover. You know I was a runner for the Mob when I was six. Hell, I even lived in New Jersey. Can the dots connect any more directly?

  • Mark Terry

    John, I’ve spent most of this year ghosting a novel about Lee Harvey Oswald (yes, the client’s timing is off) and as a result, have done significantly more research on the subject than I expected to ever do. Although I can see the threads conspiracy theorists see, when you pull on them they don’t go anywhere. I, too, am convinced Oswald acted alone.

    • John Gilstrap Post author

      Mark, the seduction of conspiracy theories is the question that begins, “Yeah, well how do you explain . . .” The vaunted magic bullet turned out not to be so magic once the actual design of the limousine was taken into account. A great 204 documentary film called “Beyond the Magic Bullet” actually reenacted the shot and got the exact wounds that were sustained by the president and Governor Connelly. Here’s the link: http://tinyurl.com/mhr2ywf The conspiracy theories fall apart quickly once physics are applied.

      That said, while I’m convinced that Oswald was the lone shooter, I’ve heard some pretty convincing arguments that the Mob somehow orchestrated it. I’ve not bought into that, but I can’t reject it, either.

      • Kay Kendall

        Of all the conspiracy angles, I also found the mob connection to be the most persuasive. It also helped explain some of the weirdest things that happened AFTER the assassination. All the dead perhaps witnesses come to mind.

        I’m tempted to say that the “magic bullet” diagram blew my mind too (which it did) but that is too gross…so I won’t say it.

      • Mark Terry

        There are a lot of loose mob and CIA connections. George De Mohrenschildt clearly had some CIA background of some sort at some point in his life and Jack Ruby clearly knew some mob figures, and a couple years prior to the shooting had visited Cuba at the invitation of one of them. Mostly they make me murmur, “Interesting,” rather than assume a conspiracy, particularly when you learn what screw-ups Lee Harvey Oswald and Jack Ruby actually were.

      • John Gilstrap Post author

        I’ve invited my good friend Dan Moldea to join this discussion. He’s done a ton of research into the mob connection. I’m hoping he stops by.

        • Dan Moldea

          Thanks, Big John, for the invitation to participate. I agree with Kay that the murder of President Kennedy was a mob hit. During the summer of 1978, I published my first book, The Hoffa Wars, which was excerpted by Playboy. In both the book and the excerpt, I was the first to allege that ex-Teamsters boss Jimmy Hoffa and two Mafia bosses–Carlos Marcello of New Orleans and Santo Trafficante of Tampa–had arranged for and executed the killing. . . . A year after the publication of my book, the U.S. House Select Committee on Assassinations stated that Hoffa, Marcello, and Trafficante had the “motive, means and opportunity” to have engineered the murder. “The mob did it,” declared the committee’s chief counsel G. Robert Blakey. “It’s a historical fact.” . . . Here is the excerpt that appeared in Playboy: http://jfk.hood.edu/Collection/Weisberg%20Subject%20Index%20Files/H%20Disk/Hoffa%20Jimmy/Item%2007.pdf.

  • Becki Davis

    Wow, Mr. Gilstrap, this was an intriguing read. I cannot begin to imagine how it felt to touch that gun. Great post. I have to agree with Kay Kendall.

  • Lil Gluckstern

    This is a remarkable post, and I think you must have a very dedicated student. You deserved your, and I admire you courage in going to the National Archives and getting what you wanted. Very interesting stuff there.

  • Brie

    John, for all these years I had no idea. W&M was considerably easier on me. No first-semester research projects required. I took economics classes that went nowhere, and wrote stories that did likewise.

    I remember seeing President Kennedy inaugurate a Federal facility (a post office, I think) in Texarkana, TX, while I sat on my father’s shoulders when I was one or so years old; and then again, when I was three, watching JFK’s funeral with my grandfather as the only one to keep me company, observing with curiosity and sadness as the President’s children and wife watched the cortege pass.

    Good for you, for prevailing with that Mr. Greene. I don’t remember him – and perhaps he should not be remembered!

    • John Gilstrap Post author

      Hi, Brie. I loved my years at W&M, but in retrospect, they didn’t like me much, did they? It seems nobody wanted me to be inspired to become a writer.

  • Kay Kendall

    Damn, but that’s the most interesting blog post I’ve ever read, ever. An amazing tale, well told. I can’t pretend to having done one percent of your research, but for a while I thought there must’ve been more than Oswald doing the shooting. That spell fell on me in the 80s. Now that I’ve read more about his psychology, Oswald seems to fit so well into our lone white male shooter pattern that I can see how it could have been/probably was only Oswald. But still…
    Anyway, thank you so much for sharing this.

    • John Gilstrap Post author

      Elaine, as I was writing this post it occurred to me that I’ve had opportunities to experience some really remarkable things. I’ve been blessed in so many ways.

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