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Twenty-five Years Ago

June 2024
2min read

Rush to Judgment

May’s Esquire offered a review of twenty-five alternative theories grown up around the assassination of President Kennedy since the Warren Commission’s report, bringing the total to sixty scenarios in all.

The review ranged from the Warren Commission member Arlen Specter’s suggestion that original autopsy pictures had been destroyed to arguments over alleged puffs of smoke, ricocheted bullet fragments, and differing numbers of shots fired on that terrible afternoon (the historian William Manchester, the late President’s biographer, claimed there had been two shots despite some hundred witnesses in Dallas who heard three).

Wilder scenarios spun by Mark Lane and seconded by Norman Mailer asserted Jack Ruby was “injected with cancer” while in jail, and a UCLA engineer advanced the imaginative theory that multiple assassins had retreated into tunnels dug beneath the famous “grassy knoll” following the shooting. The editor of Prevention magazine recalled that witnesses saw Oswald holding a Coke bottle later that day and suggested that such a “sugar drunkard” could not be held “responsible for this action.” (A variation on this argument would help defend San Francisco councilman Harvey Milk’s accused assassin more than a decade later.) The quickie conspiracy book was an established best-seller item by 1967, with writers such as Lane and Harold Weisberg the captains of this new cottage industry.

But the most spectacular theory belonged to the New Orleans district attorney Jim Garrison, not because his charges of conspiracy to kill the President made a wider sweep than the others but because he actually brought someone to trial. In early May, with his case against a New Orleans businessman named Clay Shaw just heating up, Garrison announced grandiloquently that he was investigating the CIA and FBI for withholding evidence. Shaw, a respected native of New Orleans and recipient of the Bronze Star, had admired and voted for Kennedy. Nevertheless, he was arrested on March 1 for allegedly conspiring with David W. Ferrie, also of New Orleans, and Lee Harvey Oswald in September 1963 to murder the President. Garrison believed that Oswald’s avowed Marxism (though it dated at least to letters written when he was fifteen years old) was in reality a cover for his rightist, anti-Castro sponsors, who were vexed by Kennedy’s cooling attitude toward Cuba after the disastrous Bay of Pigs invasion. He also believed that David Ferrie’s “duck hunting” excursion to Houston on the day of the assassination was a cover for a day trip into Dallas to oversee Kennedy’s murder.

The district attorney’s office had arrived at Shaw as a suspect chiefly because of his first name, his address, and the fact that he spoke Spanish. Dean Andrews, Jr., a talkative New Orleans attorney, had already become well known for telling the Warren Commission that a mysterious man named Clay Bertrand had telephoned him the day after the assassination to ask him to represent Oswald. Andrews described Clay Bertrand (whom he had allegedly seen once) as six feet one or two inches but later, in his court deposition, as about five feet eight inches. Garrison arrested the six-foot-four Clay Shaw on the basis of what would have been a spectacularly unimaginative alias and because he lived in the French Quarter and spoke Spanish, like the dubious Bertrand. Bertrand—and, therefore, Shaw—was also bisexual, Andrews added, “What they call a swinging cat.” The only trouble with the connection drawn by Garrison was that Andrews would not second it in court and refused to say whether Shaw and Bertrand were the same.

Garrison’s suspicion that Ferrie had aided the now-dead Oswald became news on February 17,1967; when Ferrie died of a cerebral hemorrhage four days later, Garrison accused Clay Shaw of having conspired with the two dead men as well as with various shadowy Cubans. (At no time while Ferrie and Shaw were both alive did the district attorney confront them with each other.)

After a trial filled with ever-widening charges, homosexual innuendo, and old Southern politicking from the district attorney, Shaw was acquitted in 1969. At the time, an NBC documentary asserted that Garrison had bribed two witnesses and attempted to plant evidence in Shaw’s house. Andrews admitted to inventing one of the supposed Cuban conspirators: Manuel Garcia Gonzalez, who Garrison had claimed in April 1967 was the true assassin.

“I only know I had no part in any plot,” said Shaw when it was over. “But I do feel many people believe in a conspiracy, because when death comes to the figure of a prince, as it did to Kennedy, struck down in his prime, it should come under a panoply of great tragedy with all the resulting high court intrigue … not from some poor little psychotic loser crouched with a mail-order rifle behind a stack of cardboard boxes in a warehouse.”

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