Salvos Dallas Killers Club

How JFK got shot

Nicholson Baker

There were three horrible public executions in 1963. The first came in February, when the prime minister of Iraq, Abdul Karim Qassem, was shot by members of the Ba’ath party, to which the United States had furnished money and training. A film clip of Qassem’s corpse, held up by the hair, was shown on Iraqi television. “We came to power on a CIA train,” said one of the Ba’athist revolutionaries; the CIA’s Near East division chief later boasted, “We really had the Ts crossed on what was happening.”

The second execution came in early November 1963: the president of Vietnam, Ngo Dinh Diem, was shot in the back of the head and stabbed with a bayonet, in a coup that was encouraged and monitored by the United States. President Kennedy was shocked at the news of Diem’s gruesome murder. “I feel we must bear a good deal of responsibility for it,” he said. “I should never have given my consent to it.” But Kennedy sent a congratulatory cable to Henry Cabot Lodge Jr., the ambassador to South Vietnam, who had been in the thick of the action. “With renewed appreciation for a fine job,” he wrote.

The third execution came, of course, later that month, on November 22. I was six when it happened. I wasn’t in school because we were moving to a new house with an ivy-covered tree in front. My mother told me that somebody had tried to kill the president, who was at the hospital. I asked how, and she said that a bullet had hit the president’s head, probably injuring his brain. She used the word “brain.” I asked why, and she said she didn’t know. I sat on a patch of carpeting in an empty room, believing that the president would still get better, because doctors are good and wounds heal. A little while later I learned that no, the president was dead.

Since that day, till very recently, I’ve avoided thinking about this third assassination. Any time I saw the words “Lee Harvey Oswald” or “grassy knoll” or “Jack Ruby,” my mind quickly skipped away to other things. I didn’t go to see Oliver Stone’s JFK when it came out, and I didn’t read DeLillo’s Libra, or Gaeton Fonzi’s The Last Investigation, or Posner’s Case Closed, or any of the dozens of mass-market paperbacks—many of them with lurid black covers and red titles—that I saw reviewed, blamed, praised.

But eventually you have to face up to it somehow: a famous, smiling, waving New Englander, wearing a striped, monogrammed shirt, sitting in a long blue Lincoln Continental next to his smiling, waving wife, has his head blown open during a Texas parade. How could it happen? He was a good-looking person, with an attractive family and an incredible plume of hair, and although he wasn’t a very effective or even, at times, a very well-intentioned president—he increased the number of thermonuclear warheads, more than doubled the budget for chemical and biological weapons, tripled the draft, nearly got us into an end-time war with Russia, and sent troops, napalm, and crop defoliants into Vietnam—some of his speeches were, even so, noble and true and ringingly delivered and permanently inspiring. He was a star; they loved him in Europe. And then suddenly he was just a dead, naked man in a hospital, staring fixedly upward, with a dark hole in his neck. Autopsy doctors were poking their fingers in his wounds and taking pictures and measuring, and burning their notes afterward and changing their stories. “I was trying to hold his hair on,” Jacqueline Kennedy told the Warren Commission when they asked her to describe her experience in the limousine. She saw, she said, a wedge-shaped piece of his skull: “I remember it was flesh colored with little ridges at the top.” The president, the motorcade he rode in, the whole country, had been, to use a postmortem word, “avulsed”—blasted inside out.

Who or what brought this appalling crime into being? Was it a mentally unstable ex-Marine and lapsed Russophile named Oswald, aiming down at the back of Kennedy’s head through leafy foliage from the book depository, all by himself, with no help? Many bystanders and eyewitnesses—including Jean Hill, whose interview was broadcast on NBC about a half an hour after the shooting, and Kennedy advisers Kenny O’Donnell and Dave Powers, who rode in the presidential motorcade—didn’t think so: hearing the cluster of shots, they looked first toward a little slope on the north side of Dealey Plaza, and not back at the alleged sniper’s window.

A young surgeon at Parkland Memorial Hospital, Charles Crenshaw, who watched Kennedy’s blood and brains drip into a kick bucket in Trauma Room 1, also knew immediately that the president had been fatally wounded from a location toward the front of the limousine, not from behind it. “I know trauma, especially to the head,” Crenshaw writes in JFK Has Been Shot, published in 1992, republished with updates in 2013. “Had I been allowed to testify, I would have told them”—that is, the members of the Warren Commission—“that there is absolutely no doubt in my mind that the bullet that killed President Kennedy was shot from the grassy knoll area.”

No, the convergent gunfire leads one to conclude that the shooting had to have been a group effort of some kind, a preplanned, coordinated crossfire: a conspiracy. But if it was a group effort, what affiliation united the participants? Did the CIA and its hypermilitaristic confederates—Cold Warrior bitter-enders—engineer it? That’s what Mark Lane, James DiEugenio, Gerald McKnight, and many other sincere, brave, long-time students of the assassination believe. “Kennedy was removed from office by powerful and irrational forces who opposed his revisionist Cuba policy,” writes McKnight in Breach of Trust, a closely researched book about the blind spots and truth-twistings of the Warren Commission. James Douglass argues that Kennedy was killed by “the Unspeakable”—a term from Thomas Merton that Douglass uses to describe a loose confederacy of nefarious plotters who opposed Kennedy’s “turn” towards reconciliatory back-channel negotiation. “Because JFK chose peace on earth at the height of the Cold War, he was executed,” Douglass writes.

This is the message, also, of Oliver Stone’s artful, fictionalized epic JFK: Kennedy shied away from the invasion of Cuba, he wanted us out of Vietnam, he wouldn’t bow to the military-industrial combine, and none of that was acceptable to the hard-liners who surrounded him—so they had him killed. “The war is the biggest business in America, worth $80 billion a year,” Kevin Costner says, in JFK’s big closing speech. “President Kennedy was murdered by a conspiracy that was planned in advance at the highest levels of our government, and it was carried out by fanatical and disciplined cold warriors in the Pentagon and CIA’s covert-operation apparatus.”

The president, the motorcade he rode in, the whole country, had been avulsed—blasted inside out.

Well, there’s no question that the CIA was and is an invasive weed, an eyes-only historical horror show that has, through plausibly deniable covert action, brought generations of instability and carnage into the world. There is no question, either, that under presidents Truman, Eisenhower, and Kennedy, the CIA’s string of pre-Dallas coups d’état—in Africa, in the Middle East, in Southeast Asia, in Latin America—contributed to an international climate of political upheaval and bad karma that made Kennedy’s own violent death a more conceivable outcome. There’s also no question that the CIA enlisted mobsters to kill Castro—Richard Bissell, who did the enlisting, later conceded that it was “a great mistake to involve the Mafia in an assassination attempt”—and no question that the CIA’s leading lights have, for fifty years, distorted and limited the available public record of the Kennedy assassination, doing whatever they could to distance the agency from its demonstrable interest in the accused killer, Oswald. It’s also true, I think, that there were some CIA extremists, fans of “executive action,” including William Harvey and, perhaps, James Jesus Angleton, that orchid-growing Anubis of spookitude, who were secretly relieved that Kennedy was shot, and may even have known in advance that he was probably going to die down south. (“I don’t want to sober up today,” Harvey reportedly told a colleague in Rome. “This is the day the goddamned president is gonna get himself killed!” Harvey also was heard to say: “This was bound to happen, and it’s probably good that it did.”) We are in debt to the CIA-blamers for their five decades of work, often in the face of choreographed media smears. They have brought us closer to the truth. But, having now read less than one-tenth of one percent of the available books on the subject, I believe, with full consciousness that I’m only a newcomer, that they’re barking up the wrong conspiracy. I think it was basically a Mafia hit: Kennedy’s death wouldn’t have happened without Carlos Marcello.

The best, saddest, fairest assassination book I’ve read, David Talbot’s Brothers, provides an important beginning clue. Robert Kennedy, who was closer to his brother and knew more about his many enraged detractors than anyone else, told a friend that the Mafia was principally responsible for what happened November 22. In public, for the five years that remained of his life, Bobby Kennedy made no criticisms of the nine-hundred-page Warren Report, which pinned the murder on a solo killer, a “nut” (per Hoover) and “general misanthropic fella” (per Warren Committee member Richard Russell) who had dreams of eternal fame. Attorney general Kennedy said, when reporters asked, that he had no intention of reading the report, but he endorsed it in writing and stood by it. Yet on the very night of the assassination, as Bobby began his descent into a near-catatonic depression, he called one of his organized-crime experts in Chicago and asked him to find out whether the Mafia was involved. And once, when friend and speechwriter Richard Goodwin (who had worked closely with JFK) asked Bobby what he really thought, Bobby replied, “If anyone was involved it was organized crime.”

To Arthur Schlesinger, Bobby was (according to biographer Jack Newfield) even more specific, ascribing the murder to “that guy in New Orleans”—meaning Carlos Marcello, the squat, tough, smart, wealthy mobster and tomato salesman who controlled slot machines, jukebox concessions, narcotics shipments, strip clubs, bookie networks, and other miscellaneous underworldy activities in Louisiana, in Mississippi, and, through his Texas emissary Joe Civello, in Dallas. In the early sixties, the syndicate run by Marcello and his brothers made more money than General Motors; the Marcellos owned judges, police departments, and FBI bureau chiefs. And when somebody failed to honor a debt, they killed him, or they killed someone close to him.

According to an FBI informant, Carlos Marcello confessed to the assassination. Some years before he died in 1993, Marcello said—as revealed by Lamar Waldron in three confusingly thorough books, the latest and best of which is The Hidden History of the JFK Assassination—“Yeah, I had the little son of a bitch killed,” meaning President Kennedy. “I’m sorry I couldn’t have done it myself.” As for Jack Ruby, the irascible strip-club proprietor and minor Marcello operative who silenced Lee Harvey Oswald in the Dallas police station, Bobby Kennedy exclaimed, on looking over the record of Ruby’s pre-assassination phone calls, “The list was almost a duplicate of the people I called before the Rackets Committee.” And then in 1968, Bobby Kennedy himself, having just won the California primary, was shot to death in a hotel kitchen in Los Angeles by an anti-Zionist cipher with gambling debts who had been employed as a groom at the Santa Anita racetrack. The racetrack was controlled by Carlos Marcello’s friend Mickey Cohen. The mob’s palmprints were, it seems, all over the war on the Kennedy brothers. Senator John Kennedy, during the labor-racketeering hearings in 1959, said, “If they’re crooks, we don’t wound them, we kill them.” Ronald Goldfarb, who worked for Bobby Kennedy’s justice department, wrote in 1995, “There is a haunting credibility to the theory that our organized crime drive prompted a plan to strike back at the Kennedy brothers.”

Lamar Waldron’s Hidden History is a primary source for a soon-to-be-produced movie, with Robert De Niro reportedly signed to play Marcello and Leonardo DiCaprio in the part of jailhouse informant Jack Van Laningham. Other new books that offer the Mafia-did-it view are Mark Shaw’s The Poison Patriarch—which contains an interesting theory about Ruby’s celebrity lawyer, Melvin Belli, and fingers “Marcello in collusion with Trafficante, while Hoffa cheered from the sidelines”—and Stefano Vaccara’s Carlos Marcello: The Man Behind the JFK Assassination, which has just been translated. “Dallas was a political assassination because it was a Mafia murder,” writes Vaccara, an authority on the Sicilian Mafia. “The Mafia went ahead with the hit once it understood that the power structure or the ‘establishment’ would not be displeased by the possibility.” Burton Hersh, in his astute and effortlessly well-written Bobby and J. Edgar, a revised version of which appeared in 2013, calls the Warren Commission Report a “sloppily executed magic trick, a government-sponsored attempt to stuff a giant wardrobe of incongruous information into a pitifully small valise.” Carlos Marcello, Hersh is convinced, was “the organizing personality behind the murder of John Kennedy.”

All these books were published last year—the fiftieth anniversary of the assassination. But the notion that Kennedy’s assassination was a desperate Cosa Nostra counterblow, the result of a blood feud between the Kennedy family and an outraged alliance of crime families who felt they’d bought political protection from the Kennedys and then been double-crossed—a hit organized by Marcello, in league with Florida heroin trafficker Santos Trafficante and Chicago crime boss Sam Giancana—actually has a long history. One of the first published suspicions came out even before the Warren Report did, in l’Aurore, a Paris newspaper. Serge Groussard, a reporter (later author of The Blood of Israel, about the 1972 massacre in Munich) wrote of the Mafia, “Feeling themselves to be driven back, little by little, from the labor unions they controlled and other screens for their activities, and drunk with rage, they must have decided for many months to strike at the very top—to kill the head of the Kennedy family.” Jack Ruby was, according to Groussard, assigned the job of finding a suitable patsy: “The ideal case was to find an individual who had no link with the Mafia, no real defense. An isolated man who could be led blindfolded, as far as possible. An executioner doomed to be, in turn, the victim.”

Another writer, Thomas Buchanan, previously fired by the Washington Evening Star for Communist affiliations, was the first to quote Groussard’s theories in English, in a book called Who Killed Kennedy? published by Secker & Warburg in 1964. Buchanan agrees with Groussard up to a point—“Gangsters were involved in this case,” he writes—but he ultimately assigns guilt for the crime to an unnamed millionaire oilman he calls Mr. X. In the American edition of Who Killed Kennedy? published by Putnam, lengthy passages about the Mafia’s potential role in the killing were cut, and observations about Jack Ruby’s mobsterish leanings were mysteriously softened. (For example, Putnam’s editors changed “Ruby was one of the most notorious of Dallas gangsters” to read, “Ruby was one of the best-known figures in that border world which lives under continual police surveillance.”)

Then, in 1969, in a study of the Mafia called The Grim Reapers, Ed Reid, a Pulitzer-winning reporter, published a revealing anecdote about Carlos Marcello. Back in September of 1962, Reid recounted, Marcello was entertaining an acquaintance (later identified as an entrepreneurial non-mobster named Ed Becker) in Marcello’s private hideout, six thousand acres of partially drained marsh outside New Orleans called Churchill Farms. Becker asked Marcello what he was going to do about Bobby Kennedy, who had been making life impossible for him. “Livarsi na pietra di la scarpa” (Take the stone out of my shoe), said Marcello. Becker scoffed; if you get Bobby, he observed, then the president will just send in the Marines and shut you down for good. No, said Marcello: “You know what they say in Sicily: If you want to kill a dog, you don’t cut off the tail, you cut off the head.” Marcello added that he would employ a “nut” to do the job.

By 1969, when Ed Becker’s story surfaced, Jim Garrison’s sensational, self-imploding investigation into the assassination had come and gone—but with a strange omission. Garrison, the district attorney of New Orleans, had charged that the CIA was behind the murder plot, and he turned up an interesting suspect: an eyebrowless former Eastern Airlines pilot and closet pederast, David “the Professor” Ferrie, who had done contract work for the CIA and had taught Oswald how to fly in the Civil Air Patrol. But Garrison failed to mention that Ferrie had also flown planes (before his sudden “suicide”) for Carlos Marcello and had worked for Marcello’s long-time lawyer, G. Wray Gill. In fact, David Ferrie had been sitting in New Orleans Federal Court with Marcello, helping the “Little Man,” as he was called by associates, to beat yet another lawsuit from Bobby’s Justice Department, on the fateful day, November 22, 1963.

Why had Garrison, a prosecutor normally given to fearless, grandiose accusations of intrigue, tiptoed so lightly around the topic of organized crime? Because, wrote Peter Noyes, a news producer (and later a Peabody and Emmy award winner), “it is no secret in New Orleans that Garrison and Marcello are friends.” Marcello’s financial empire grew, according to Noyes, “while Jim Garrison winked and looked the other way.”

I believe, with full consciousness that I’m only a newcomer, that the CIA-blamers are barking up the wrong conspiracy.

In Legacy of Doubt: Did the Mafia Kill JFK? (1973, reissued 2010), Noyes noted that he’d heard journalists’ hints and rumors that Marcello was behind the Kennedy murder, but at first he couldn’t accept it. And yet it made sense. Marcello had the means—he was “almost as rich as Rockefeller, and much more powerful in his home territory”—and more important, he had the motive. Marcello’s personal animus, Noyes explained, was traceable to one of the first acts of the Kennedy administration. In 1961 attorney general Robert Kennedy ordered Marcello’s abrupt, extralegal deportation—Marcello called it a kidnapping, and the ACLU said it smacked of “totalitarian tactics”—to Guatemala, where Marcello had bribed someone to give him a fake birth certificate. (Guatemala City was becoming, it seems, a gambler’s mecca; president Carlos Castillo Armas, a dictator put in place by the CIA under vice president Nixon’s supervision, was then in turn murdered in 1957, supposedly by a lone pro-Communist “fanatic,” although later accounts determined that the fanatic was a patsy and that the killing was probably mob related.)

Marcello, who was born in Tunisia of Sicilian parents and had been ordered to leave the United States in 1953, showed up on April 4, 1961, at the immigration office in New Orleans for his obligatory periodic check-in as a resident alien, whereupon he was handcuffed, hustled onto an empty plane, and flown to Guatemala City without being allowed to pick up a toothbrush or call his wife. He lived there in splendor in the Biltmore Hotel for a few weeks, joined by his family and legal team, and then (so later accounts have it) the Guatemalan government deported him and one of his lawyers to the edge of El Salvador. After a week in jail, they were driven to a remote hilltop on the border of Honduras and left to fend for themselves. They stumbled over ravines, pledging revenge against “that Bobby,” until they were able to sneak back into the United States, perhaps on a plane flown home by David Ferrie, or perhaps on a shrimp boat, or possibly with the help of the Dominican Republic’s air force. (The president of the Dominican Republic was murdered shortly afterward, with CIA-supplied weapons.)

“If any man had reason for wanting the Kennedy brothers killed,” Noyes summed up in Legacy of Doubt, “it was Carlos Marcello.” And Noyes made a closing proposal: “I suggest that it is not too late to revive this ugly moment in America’s history. A Congressional committee, armed with the power of subpoena, could give the American people an opportunity to live with the truth again. Earl Warren had no right to tell the American people that they might not know the truth about the assassination in their lifetime.”

Noyes’s book was followed in 1978 by Seth Kantor’s Who Was Jack Ruby? Kantor was an observant Dallas-based reporter who knew Ruby personally—in fact, he had shaken hands with a distraught Ruby on the steps of Parkland hospital, just before the president’s death was formally announced, and not long before the moment when a rifle bullet, later known as the “magic bullet” because it had managed to pass through so many body parts with so little injury to itself, appeared on a bloody hallway stretcher that may or may not have held the wounded governor of Texas, John Connally. Kantor talked to many people in Dallas, including Jesse Curry, Dallas’s former police chief, who had once defended the Warren Commission’s lone-nut argument; now Curry was not so sure. “There’s coincidental things that have happened here,” the former chief said, “to lead one to believe that there could have been a conspiracy after all.” In Kantor’s view, which carries the weight of local knowledge, organized crime was the culprit. “Carlos Marcello made his way back from exile in Guatemala, managed to beat a perjury rap in federal court and was determined to seek revenge against the Attorney General,” he wrote. “In the universe of the Kennedy assassination the mob loomed as the sun.”

Meanwhile a congressional committee had reopened the investigation into Kennedy’s death, just as Noyes had hoped. The House Select Committee on Assassinations was hastily voted into being in 1976, after some witnesses who’d been called to testify before Frank Church’s earlier Senate Intelligence Committee turned up dead or missing. (Chicago’s Sam Giancana was murdered while cooking sausage in his basement, five days before he was scheduled to testify, wounded around the mouth and throat to signify the price of becoming an informant; Jimmy Hoffa disappeared; and Vegas’s Johnny “Mr. Smooth” Rosselli, who’d mediated between the CIA and the mob in plots to kill Castro and who evidently, in closed session, had been overly forthcoming to the Church Committee about the Kennedy plot, was discovered floating—legless, stabbed, and shot—in an oil drum in Dumfoundling Bay, north of Miami.) The House Select Committee on Assassinations, troubled by inner feuds, took a while to get rolling, but eventually committee members took testimony from a lot of interested parties, including both Marcello and Trafficante (they didn’t say much); analyzed sound patterns on Dictabelts; and did elaborate “neutron activation” studies of bullet fragments. In 1979 the committee came up with a cautious verdict: Oswald was one of the shooters, but the crime was “probably” the product of a conspiracy. G. Robert Blakey, counsel to the committee and a veteran of Robert Kennedy’s justice department, went further in an interview with Newsweek: “I am now firmly of the opinion that the mob did it. It is a historical truth.” Blakey’s book, The Plot to Kill the President, written with his colleague Richard Billings, appeared in 1981. In a profile for Salon, David Talbot called Blakey “the man who solved the Kennedy assassination.”

David Scheim, an IT person at the National Institutes of Health with a PhD in mathematics from MIT, began years of sifting through the voluminous testimony and supporting documents of the House Committee hearings, cross-collating them with the supporting volumes of the Warren Report. The result was a meticulous, quietly angry volume called Contract on America: The Mafia Murders of John and Robert Kennedy, which he privately published in 1983. Scheim follows the traffic patterns of Jack Ruby’s phone calls and meetings throughout 1963, and he persuasively links Ruby to Marcello and Marcello to Oswald: Oswald lived in New Orleans with his uncle, who earned cash on the side as a bookie for Marcello’s organization. After an April 23, 1963, story in the Dallas Times Herald about President Kennedy’s planned tour through Dallas, Ruby’s long-distance calls suddenly spiked. “A spree of telephone calls and visits begins between Ruby and Mafia associates in several cities, contacts that intensify with each update on the president’s trip,” Scheim notes. “For the first three months, these interactions occur in Marcello’s turf, New Orleans.” The circumstantial evidence that Scheim assembles goes a long way toward demonstrating that Ruby, a compulsive gambler with a savage temper, who beat up customers and strippers who crossed him and bought off a good percentage of the Dallas police force, served as the harried, debt-ridden intermediary in the execution of a contract agreed to by Marcello, Trafficante, Giancana, Rosselli, and Jimmy Hoffa.

One of the few people who read Scheim’s book when it first came out was Kennedy family biographer (and first cousin of Jacqueline Kennedy) John H. Davis. Davis liked Contract on America so much that he wrote an introduction to the paperback edition, praising Scheim’s “analytical skills, intelligence, and moral courage”; it became a bestseller. But Davis, in his own bestselling book, The Kennedys: Dynasty and Disaster (1984), took the story further and gave it biographical lights and shadows—and not just by offering details on Judith Campbell, the mistress whom the steroid-stoked president recklessly shared with Chicago mobster Sam Giancana. Davis writes smoothly, and he’s good on Bobby’s Kennedy’s tortured silence, his “suicidal sense of guilt,” after the assassination. “I thought they might get one of us,” Bobby told a press aide. “I thought it would be me.” Bobby was part of the cover-up, according to Davis, along with Hoover and Dulles and Helms: all of them “withheld vital information from the Warren Commission.” Davis writes:

It is the irony of all ironies that Robert F. Kennedy, the arch crime-fighter and enemy of the Cosa Nostra, was compelled to thwart the investigation of his own brother’s murder even though there was a high probability that organized crime was involved.

But it is John Davis’s next book, Mafia Kingfish: Carlos Marcello and the Assassination of John F. Kennedy (1989), now out of print, that really slams blame home. What a paperback! It’s got a black cover, of course, with embossed red letters flanked by a smiling JFK and an unsmiling Marcello. It’s the sort of true-crime book that I would have instantly turned away from when it was published. Now I paged through it eagerly; I wanted to know everything. It includes an account of an FBI report, filed a week after Kennedy’s killing, describing a conversation overheard in March 1963 at the Lounnor Restaurant, a.k.a. Tregle’s Bar, a Marcello-backed gathering place on Airline Highway in New Orleans, down the road a ways from Marcello’s own office at the Town and Country Motel. (The office had a famous sign on the wall: “Three Can Keep a Secret If Two Are Dead.”) Some men were at the Lounnor, flipping through a detective magazine, when they came to an ad for a mail-order rifle selling for $12.98. “This would be a nice rifle to buy to get the president,” said one of them. He added that there was a price on the president’s head now, and he said, “Somebody will get Kennedy when he comes south.” One of the men was called “the Professor”—the nickname for David Ferrie, Marcello’s factotum.

Halfway through Mafia Kingfish, Davis again goes after Bobby Kennedy, who, he says, by hiding a footlocker full of medical evidence (including the president’s formalin-preserved brain, which eventually went missing), became an accessory after the fact to his brother’s killing. Davis writes, “It is scandalous that Robert Kennedy was allowed to control these autopsy materials, since, as a family member, his interests might have conflicted with the prosecution of anyone charged with the crime.” And then:

In my opinion, it seems most likely that Robert Kennedy might have destroyed or rendered inaccessible the wound-edge tissue slides and bullet-riddled brain to eliminate the last remaining significant pieces of evidence that his brother had not been murdered by Lee Harvey Oswald, acting alone, but by a team of gunmen which may or may not have included Oswald.

As if that fat stack of mass-market paperbacks—by Noyes, Kantor, Blak­ey, Scheim, and Davis—wasn’t enough to make the world take seriously the possibility of a Mafia plot in Dallas, there followed several damning memoirs written by insiders: one by Sam Giancana’s brother Chuck, one by Giancana’s daughter Antoinette, and one depth-charge of an autobiography by Frank Ragano, containing many incriminating conversations, called Mob Lawyer. All three were intimates of the alleged conspirators, and all three argue for the mob’s preponderant involvement in the assassination. In JFK and Sam, Antoinette Giancana and her coauthors write, “To Mafia insiders the Marcello contract against Kennedy looked like a typical mob contract against an Irish gang leader.” Chuck Giancana quotes his brother: “When I told Marcello what the deal was, he said he liked the way Oswald looked for the job.” Ragano quotes Santo Trafficante as saying, “Carlos fucked up. We shouldn’t have killed Giovanni. We should have killed Bobby.”

So, Bobby Kennedy says that he thinks the Mafia did it, and Marcello, Giancana, and Trafficante all maintain late in life that they did do it. What more do you want? On YouTube, until recently, you could even watch an hour-long video of informant Jack Van Laningham describing how Marcello confessed in prison. (The video, produced by Prevalent Studios, has since been made private.) Yet many students of the assassination still don’t buy the Mafia-did-it narrative. Indeed, the notion really troubles some of the “deep politics” conspiracists, some of whom trace everything back to Lyndon Johnson. They share a general, and justified, conviction that the CIA, aided by a fishy liaison named George Joannides, held back from the House Select Committee a raft of relevant documents, and that Robert Blakey wrongly gave the Agency a pass. (Eventually Blakey himself came around on this point: “The Agency double-timed us,” he said in a documentary in 2005.) The Mafia-sourced explanation, the Unspeakablers think, is no more than a convenient blame-shifting distraction, a “false sponsor” pushed on the public by the CIA to divert attention away from a much bigger plot that originated deep within the hard-right Invisible Government. (And to a limited degree, of course, they’re right: the CIA is an opportunistic fungus, and its apologists have often used the practice of “limited hangout” to shield from public view its history of murderous screwups.)

The post-Garrisonites very much want Kennedy’s death to be a real martyrdom, based on principles, the result of a Seven Days in May sort of national-security-state power grab, not a mere sordid gangland slaying. It wasn’t, it couldn’t be, that JFK died because his hot-headed crusading brother (David Talbot calls him “the Kennedy family’s avenging angel”) was obsessed with shutting down strip clubs, slot machines, and bookie wires—no, the president died as a heroic consequence of his quiet peace overtures to Castro and Khrushchev and his professed desire to get out of Vietnam after reelection in 1964. This view understandably persists. You can sense it sometimes in James DiEugenio’s fierce attacks on Lamar Waldron’s books, and you can read it in its most extreme form in comment columns on YouTube. “The secret brotherhood of evil fuckers have been working hard to inject this Mafia explanation into the narrative of JFK’s murder,” says one commenter to a Waldron clip. Says another, “The Mafia is the new patsy.”

But it seems pretty clear that Oswald is the patsy (a term perhaps derived from the Italian pazzo, “crazy person”), just as he said he was. Maybe the way to think about it is to ask yourself two questions. If there had been a CIA, but no Mafia, would the president have lived through the motorcade? I think the answer is yes. If there had been a Mafia, but no CIA, would the president have lived? I think the answer is no.

Another writer who resists the Mafia-did-it view is Vincent Bugliosi, author of a huge, fascinating, annoying book called Reclaiming History, whose purpose—aside from telling us how Oswald all by himself fired all the shots—is to rescue America from its evil conspiratorial degeneracy. “The decreasing trust by Americans in their government all started with the Kennedy assassination,” Bugliosi said recently in a CNN documentary, and he wants to turn that around. “The thought that Trafficante, Marcello, or any of the mob leaders would plot to murder the president of the United States is too ridiculous to even mention,” he writes. He dismisses mob-lawyer Ragano as “within the grasp of, or flirting very heavily with, psychosis”; in fact, Bugliosi wants us to believe that any person who offers evidence that the mob, or anyone else who is not Oswald, killed the president is dumb, crazy, senile, or fraudulently motivated by money. He dismisses one FBI informant’s evidence as “terribly ridiculous.” John H. Davis, he says, in one of 958 pages of endnotes included on a supplemental CD, “adds his own rubbish to the brew.” It’s all just bullshit, Bugliosi claims, “to anyone who is using the gray matter between their ears. That, of course, automatically excludes virtually all the resident habitues of the conspiracy community.” The notion that Carlos Marcello planned the killing, he said on TV in response to one of Waldron’s books, is “sublime silliness.” But then, in Bugliosi’s view, all conspiracy theorists are just wasting their lives, breast-feeding the credulous “with their special lactations of bilge, blather, and bunk.” Bugliosi is a hard-working man, but his mouth at times seems set in an unbecoming sneer.

There’s nothing silly about trying to find out what really happened. We know more now, and I think we know where the long finger points. Antoinette Giancana writes, “Chuck said that the three main Mafia chieftains sent as possible shooters their own representatives to Dallas.” Whoever the paid hit men were, one of them, positioned somewhere on Dealey Plaza, fired a different kind of bullet than the earlier shot or shots that hit the president in the back and Governor Connally in the ribs: instead of penetrating cleanly into a human target, as a full-metal-jacket bullet does, this one exploded when it hit the president’s temple, leaving him mutilated and dying in his wife’s arms. The Parkland hospital staff, seeing the massive head wound, whispered that it must be from some kind of hollow-point, “dumdum” bullet—and in fact a constellation of white flecks visible on the x-rays of Kennedy’s head suggests to some experts that the shooter of the fatal shot used a frangible, mercury-tipped round, which disintegrates into many tiny pieces—the sort of professional assassin’s bullet later described in Frederick Forsyth’s The Day of the Jackal: “Hitting the head, such a bullet would not emerge, but would demolish everything inside the cranium, forcing the bone-shell to fragment.” Craig Roberts, a former marine sniper and author of Kill Zone: A Sniper Looks at Dealey Plaza, studied the Zapruder film. “I’ll tell you what I saw, as a sniper,” he said at a conference in Dallas in 1997. “I saw a guy hit from the right front, with a frangible mercury bullet.”

Jack Ruby is the most interesting, and perhaps the most repentant, of the Dealey Plaza conspirators. Ruby, who professedly loved President Kennedy and claimed that he shot Oswald two days later in a moment of unpremeditated, grief-stricken rage, was not standing outside in the crowd, as one might have expected an ardent Kennedy admirer to be, waiting to wave as the president’s car drove by. “If I loved the president so much,” Ruby asked later, “why wasn’t I at the parade?” He said this during a polygraph test, in the presence of one of the Warren Commission’s lawyers, Arlen Specter. Where Ruby was, it turns out, at 12:30 p.m. on November 22, was in the office of the Dallas Morning News, in an office in the advertising department whose windows faced across from the Texas School Book Depository. He was there to place ads for his strip club—he had money now to bring his account current—and he was sitting, according to an FBI summary, “in the only chair from which he could observe the site of the President’s assassination.” Georgia Mayor, a secretary in the advertising department, told the FBI that, although she wasn’t sure, “she had a faint impression that he was looking out at the scene where President Kennedy was assassinated.” Half an hour later, the secretary again glanced over at Ruby. He was in a different chair, sitting and staring into space. “He seemed very dazed.”

Ruby sometimes sounds, during this rambling, polygraphed self-interview, as if he, too, is fitfully trying to confess. “What about my being present in the News Building that morning?” he asks. “The assassination took place across the street from there.” Arlen Specter tries to shut him down (“I think we have covered that”), but Ruby adds, “If I was in a conspiracy, wouldn’t it start off with that point?”

KILLER BOOKS DISCUSSED

 

David Talbot, Brothers: The Hidden History of the Kennedy Years (Free Press, 2007)

Lamar Waldron, The Hidden History of the JFK Assassination (Counterpoint, 2013)

Mark Shaw, The Poison Patriarch: How the Betrayals of Joseph P. Kennedy Caused the Assassination of JFK (Skyhorse, 2013)

Stefano Vaccara, Carlos Marcello: The Man Behind the JFK Assassination (Enigma Books, 2013; translated by Robert Miller)

Burton Hersh, Bobby and J. Edgar: The Historic Face-Off Between the Kennedys and J. Edgar Hoover That Transformed America (Carroll & Graf, 2007; new preface, 2013)

Thomas Buchanan, Who Killed Kennedy? (Secker & Warburg, 1964; Putnam, 1964)

Peter Noyes, Legacy of Doubt: Did the Mafia Kill JFK? (Pinnacle Books, 1973; reprinted 2010)

Seth Kantor, Who Was Jack Ruby? (Everest House, 1978)

G. Robert Blakey and Richard Billings, The Plot to Kill the President (Times Books, 1981)

David Scheim, Contract on America: The Mafia Murders of John and Robert Kennedy (Argyle Press, 1983)

John H. Davis, Mafia Kingfish: Carlos Marcello and the Assassination of John F. Kennedy (Signet, 1989)

Antoinette Giancana, John Hughes, and Thomas Jobe, JFK and Sam: The Connection Between the Giancana and Kennedy Assassinations(Cumberland House, 2005)

Chuck Giancana and Sam Giancana, Double Cross: The Explosive, Inside Story of the Mobster Who Controlled America (Warner Books, 1992)

Frank Ragano, Mob Lawyer (Random House, 1996)

Vincent Bugliosi, Reclaiming History: The Assassination of President John F. Kennedy (Norton, 2007)

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