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John F. Kennedy and Jackie Kennedy Onassis arriving in Dallas, Texas, in November 1963 shortly before JFK's assassination. (Reuters)
John F. Kennedy and Jackie Kennedy Onassis arriving in Dallas, Texas, in November 1963 shortly before JFK's assassination. (Reuters)

Three surprising details from the JFK assassination – and why they matter Add to ...

Lee Harvey Oswald tried to kill before, Kennedy warned his wife about the possibility of being shot in Dallas, and why the president’s brain wasn’t buried with his body.

1. Oswald’s first attempt at murder

He had been planning the assassination even before he bought the rifle. Lee Harvey Oswald had chosen his victim, scouted the location, written detailed notes in his journal, drawn maps and diagrams, photographed the building, and had even planned his escape. But in the spring of 1963, Mr. Oswald’s target was not the president of the United States, John F. Kennedy. He wanted to murder another man, the notorious anti-communist, right-wing American army officer, Major-General Edwin A. Walker. Furious that the general wanted to invade Cuba and kill his new hero, Fidel Castro, Mr. Oswald decided that Maj.-Gen. Walker must die. So on the night of April 10, Mr. Oswald went to Maj.-Gen.Walker’s home in Dallas, Texas. Through his rifle scope, Mr. Oswald spotted the general through a window, aimed at his head, and fired. He missed him by an inch, and then – undetected – ran away into the darkness.

It was a psychological turning point. It was the first time Mr. Oswald had ever tried to kill a man. He had joined the Marine Corps in peacetime and had never fought in a war. Shooting a rifle at a human being had excited him. Yes, he had failed, but he had enjoyed planning and carrying out the sniper attack.

The experience taught him a valuable lesson. In Dallas he could shoot at a man and get away with it. The failure of the police to catch him emboldened him and enhanced his smug attitude of superiority.

He did not know it in April of 1963, but in a little more than seven months, he would select another human target. But next time, Lee Harvey Oswald would not have to spend weeks stalking his victim. The next man who appeared in his rifle sights would come to him, on the brilliant sunny fall afternoon of Nov. 22, 1963.

2. Kennedy foreshadows his own death

On the morning of Nov. 22, President Kennedy was in his hotel room in Fort Worth, Texas. He was reading the Dallas Morning News, in preparation for his flight there in a few hours. He was irate. A full-page ad that carried the headline, WELCOME MR. KENNEDY TO DALLAS, appeared to be a friendly greeting. But the rest of the ad contained 12 questions that accused Mr. Kennedy of being unpatriotic and soft on communism. The charges incensed him. And the previous night in Dallas, someone had printed several thousand leaflets headlined WANTED FOR TREASON. The handbills resembled an Old West-style reward with mug shots of the criminal on the loose – in this case the 35th president of the United States. Was this the kind of welcome he should expect when Air Force One landed in Dallas later this morning?

Mr. Kennedy warned his wife, “We’re heading into nut country today. But Jackie,” he added, “if somebody wants to shoot me from a window with a rifle, nobody can stop it, so why worry about it?” Mr. Kennedy had often told Dave Powers, one of his top aides, that it would be so easy for someone to shoot him with a rifle from a tall building.

This morning, Mr. Kennedy could not get the subject off his mind. He reminded Jackie of their harried, late night arrival at their Fort Worth hotel the previous night, when hundreds of strangers had surrounded them. “You know,” he told her, “last night would have been a hell of a night to assassinate a president. There was the rain, and the night, and we were all getting jostled. Suppose a man had a pistol in a briefcase and melted away into the crowd.”

John Kennedy was a fatalist who lived with a sense of detachment and ironic humour. He had an intuition that he might not live a long life. One of his favorite poems was written by fellow Harvard graduate Alan Seeger, who had been killed in the First World War. “I have a rendezvous with death,” Mr. Seeger had prophesied. Mr. Kennedy often asked his wife to read the poem aloud to him.

But Mr. Kennedy also believed he was lucky and luck had taken him all the way to the White House where, at age 43, he had been the youngest man ever elected to the presidency.

As Mr. Kennedy spoke in the safety of his hotel suite about guns and assassins, a man who wanted to kill him was already waiting for him in Dallas. He had a rifle, and he was in a tall building.

3. The president’s brain

Not all of the evidence from the Kennedy assassination reposes in the National Archives of the United States. One unique, macabre item is missing from the collection – Mr. Kennedy’s brain. During the autopsy at Bethesda Naval Hospital on the night of Nov. 22 and the early morning hours of Nov. 23, doctors removed the wounded brain and sealed it in a leak proof, stainless-steel cylindrical container with a screw-top lid. Before he was embalmed, they failed to place his brain back in his head, so at his funeral on Nov. 25, he was buried without it.

For a time, the steel container was stored in a file cabinet in a Secret Service office in the executive office of the president. Then it was put in a footlocker with other medical evidence and transferred to the National Archives, where it was placed in a secure room designated for the use of JFK’s former secretary, Evelyn Lincoln, while she organized his presidential papers.

Then, one day prior to Oct. 31, 1966 – Halloween, of all days, no one knows precisely when – the locker, with all its contents, disappeared. An investigation failed to recover the brain. But compelling evidence suggests that former Attorney-General Robert Kennedy, aided by his assistant Angie Novello, had stolen the locker and its contents, including not only his brother’s brain but also a number of medical slides and tissue samples. They have never been seen since.

Robert Kennedy did not abscond with these materials to suppress evidence of a conspiracy to assassinate the president. It is much more likely that he took them to conceal from the American people any evidence of the hitherto unknown extent of his brother’s serious health problems, illnesses and medications, which contradicted his jaunty public image of glamorous effervescence. Robert Kennedy did not want anything to undermine the president’s legacy as a youthful symbol of a new era of American optimism and spirit.

WARREN COMMISSION VERSION OF EVENTS

NOV. 22, 1963

11:40 a.m. John Fitzgerald Kennedy, 46, and wife Jackie arrive at Love Field Airport, aboard Air Force One.

11:45 a.m. John and Jackie Kennedy take back seat of open-topped Lincoln Continental limousine. Texas Governor John Connally and wife Nellie sit in front jump seats.

12:22 p.m. Motorcade reaches downtown Dallas. Along the route, Nellie Connally tells the president, “No one can say Dallas doesn’t love and respect you.”

12:29 p.m. Motorcade drives into Dealey Plaza, en route to a planned political luncheon with a Texas businessmen at the Dallas Trade Mart.

12:30 p.m. Three shots ring out from the sixth floor of the Texas School Book Depository. Lee Harvey Oswald, an ex-marine, worked as an odd-job man at the Texas School Book Depository, where a trail of fingerprints and a gun led to him being found guilty by the Warren Commission.

One of those bullets hits an oak tree and ricochets off the pavement, injuring a bystander. Two others hit the president, one of which also wounds Connally.

12:36 p.m. Car carrying the president arrives at Dallas’s Parkland Hospital.

12:47 p.m. Oswald takes a taxi to his apartment to retrieve a pistol.

1 p.m. Kennedy is pronounced dead. At the time, he is the fourth American president to be assassinated and the first to be killed under Secret Service protection.

1:15 p.m. Oswald is stopped by police officer J.S. Tippit, who he kills before running off, pistol in hand.

1:22 p.m. Police discover a rifle and three cartridge cases on sixth floor of the depository. The rifle had been purchased through a Chicago mail-order house by Oswald under the name Alek James Hidell.

1:50 p.m. Oswald is arrested at Texas Theatre.

2:38 p.m. Lyndon B. Johnson is sworn in aboard Air Force One by judge Sarah Hughes. This is first and only time a woman has sworn in an American president.

Two days later, Oswald is killed while in police custody by nightclub owner Jack Ruby.

In 1978, an investigation by the House of Representatives Select Committee on Assassinations concludes fourth shot was fired from grassy knoll – in other words, Oswald didn’t act alone.

THE MAGIC BULLET

Though reports said two bullets hit Kennedy, the Warren Commission investigation found only one bullet, in pristine condition, which helped spark a number of conspiracy theories about what really happened. The first of the shots fired hit Kennedy in the back at a speed of 550 metres per second, exiting through his throat. That bullet then hit Connally in his shoulder, travelling through his chest, hitting his right wrist and embedding itself in his left thigh. The second bullet caused Kennedy’s fatal head wound.

THE ZAPRUDER FILM

There were no news crews following the presidential motorcade; journalists were waiting for Kennedy at his next stop, the Dallas Trade Mart. But Abraham Zapruder, a Texas manufacturer of women’s clothing, captured Kennedy’s assassination in a 26-second film filmed from the Dealey Plaza’s grassy knoll. The film begins with the motorcade waving at the crowds assembled along Elm Street. Kennedy then stops waving and begins clutching his throat as Secret Service agents rush to his aid.

Life magazine purchased the rights to the film for $150,000, under the condition that a portion of the frames showing the assassination be kept from public view because of their graphic nature. Eventually the film was sold back to the Zapruder family for $1, who then sold it to the U.S. government for $16-million in 1999.

SECOND SHOOTER

An investigation undertaken in 1978 by the House of Representatives Select Committee on Assassinations said it was likely that two shooters fired at the president from different locations. The committee also concluded that it was probable that four, not three, bullets were fired, with the fourth coming from a shooter stationed at the grassy knoll. However, it is believed that the fourth shot missed the president.

JOHN F. KENNEDY, BY THE NUMBERS

35 - John F. Kennedy was the 35th president of the United States

43 - Mr. Kennedy’s age when he was elected president, the youngest ever to this day

46 - His age when he was assassinated

1,063 days - How long he served as president

12 - Number of hours police spent questioning Lee Harvey Oswald before he was killed, according to the Warren Commission

889 - Number of pages in the original Warren Report, the findings of Warren Commission, the first investigation of the assassination. There were an additional 26 volumes of documents, and 3,000 exhibits from the investigation.

61 - The percentage of Americans who believe the assassination involved some kind of conspiracy, according to a Gallup poll released last week

5,800 - Number of books with “Kennedy” in the subject or author heading at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library in Cambridge, Mass.

10,000 to 40,000 - Estimated number of books published about Kennedy or conspiracy theories

With files from Tara Deschamps

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