David Whitley heads to Dealey Plaza in Dallas to try and get his head round the mystery of John F Kennedy’s assassination.

November 22nd, 1963
Whether it’s there as a piece of deliciously dark humour or not, the sign outside Dallas’ Sixth Floor Museum is a fabulous case of shutting the stable door after the horse has bolted. It is, it seems, prohibited to bring firearms into the building that used to be the Texas School Book Depository.  This building, of course, had its moment of infamy back in 1963. On November 22nd of that year, President John F Kennedy was murdered in Dallas as his motorcade drove towards an official lunch function.Within 90 minutes of the shooting, Lee Harvey Oswald – who worked at the Book Depository – was arrested. A gun bearing his fingerprints, the bullets from which matched those that supposedly shot the president, was found on the sixth floor of the building. By a window, his ‘sniper’s nest’ was quickly discovered. Oswald never stood trial, however. Just 47 hours later, he was shot dead by Dallas nightclub owner Jack Ruby as the television cameras rolled. Since then, a whole range of evidence, pseudo-evidence, conspiracy theories and cover-up accusations have emerged. Nearly 50 years later, no-one really knows who shot JFK – or, more to the point, who arranged the shooting. 

Dealey Plaza and the Sixth Floor Museum
A couple of things instantly strike as you walk around Dealey Plaza. First is that the memorials there are to other people, and were in place way before 1963. The second is that the traffic on Houston Street goes the opposite way to the route of Kennedy’s motorcade. On Elm Street, which dips down towards a railroad underpass, there are two white crosses. These are unofficial, but supposedly mark the spots where the bullets – first to the throat and then to the head – hit. Up behind it is a grassy bank that leads to a sprawling memorial to Dallas’ founding father on one side and a wooden fence on the other. 

On November 22nd, 1963, a chap called Abraham Zapruder was stood on the memorial wall. Zapruder filmed the infamous amateur footage that captured the killing. We don’t know who, if anyone, was on the grassy bank (hey, let’s call it ‘The Grassy Knoll’ shall we?) or behind the fence. The Sixth Floor Museum is, predictably, on the sixth floor of the Book Depository. The ‘sniper’s nest’ has been recreated by the far window. Annoyingly, you can’t get in and check the exact angles from there yourself, but you can get close by looking through the adjoining window. One thing is immediately obvious – it would have been a lot easier to get the headshot whilst Kennedy was coming down Houston Street. However, given that JFK was in the back of the limo, the view may have been obscured by the windshield and the other passengers.

It would have taken an excellent shot to hit the president from where the second white cross is on Elm Street – but by no means impossible. The museum does a decent job of explaining the events of that day. It’s the little details that fascinate – the speed with which Lyndon Johnson was sworn in as the new president aboard Air Force One, the coming of the rolling news era, the accounts of the reporters and witnesses that are usually left out of the story. I particularly like the irony of Kennedy having a motorcade at his funeral. Importantly, if a little too briefly, it also goes into the various conspiracy theories.

The theories
The Warren Commission, which was set up to investigate afterwards, came to the conclusion that Lee Harvey Oswald was a disgruntled loner acting by himself. This is the simple, boring explanation. And usually, in such cases, the simple, boring explanation is the true one. It’s not as much fun to believe it, and thus people come up with better stories which fit our desire for a more exciting narrative. This time, however, the simple explanation is clearly not the truth. For whatever reasons (and the theorists come up with plenty), the Warren Commission is clearly wrong. That’s not just me getting excitable – a House Select Committee report in 1979 said there was a 95% chance that there was some sort of conspiracy, and probably a second gunman.

And he, it is widely believed, was either on the grassy knoll or hiding behind the wooden fence on top of it. Going over there is a weird experience, not least because you’ll have conspiracy theorists trying to hand out leaflets and tell you what *really* happened. I managed to stumble across Robert Groden, a self-described expert on photo manipulation and a technical advisor on Oliver Stone’s JFK movie. He’s pretty much a professional conspiracy theorist, but he does appear to have compelling evidence. In his booklet, he has a series of pretty convincing photos which have been ‘colorized’ to make them clearer. Amongst them are the missing still – frame 313 – from the Zapruder film, which shows the president’s head exploding, and some shots from the autopsy. What’s not entirely convincing is where these photos come from – this is not explained. And if the colour has been manipulated, what else has? The conclusions are less hard to question, however, once you watch the Zapruder film. The fatal shot almost certainly didn’t come from behind. Standing on the knoll, the angle is right, and it’s a relatively easy shot. The first shot – the one that hit Kennedy in the throat – is blocked by trees, however.

I left Dealey Plaza with far more questions than answers. There was almost certainly a conspiracy, there was almost certainly a cover up and almost certainly more than one gunman. But the more fantastical theories involving Oswald’s complete innocence, illuminati bankers, various branches of government, the CIA, Russians, Cubans and Mary Poppins just don’t seem to fit. If that many people were involved, some would have let the cat out of the bag by now. There’s too much money in it not to. If I had to pick, it would be organized crime, perhaps in liaison with a couple of people on the mob payroll within the CIA. But it does have to be remembered that cover-ups are not always about hiding guilt – they can also be about hiding incompetence, protecting witnesses (possibly to unrelated events) and burying information about schemes that never came to fruition. I don’t know who shot JFK. I doubt that many – if any – people genuinely do. But the mystery surrounding it gets more fascinating the further you delve into it, and Dallas is the logical place to start.