Who Was Jack Ruby?

How a small-time strip joint operator ushered in America’s age of violence.

on the stand and tell the truth.”

The silly story that Belli, Joe Tonahill, and other members of the defense team were attempting to pass along to the jury was that Ruby killed Oswald during a seizure of psychomotor epilepsy. Belli and Tonahill still subscribe to this contention.

“The autopsy confirmed it. Ruby had fifteen brain tumors,” Joe Tonahill told me. Tonahill, a huge, deliberate, friendly man, maintains the Ruby trial “was the unfairest trial in the history of Texas.” Judge Joe Brown, exhibiting a classic downtown Dallas mentality, appointed Dallas advertising executive Sam Bloom to handle “public relations” and overruled the defense on almost every motion. Ruby himself considered hiring a public relations man—or that’s what he wrote in a letter to his intellectual hero, Gordon McLendon.

“Jack Ruby needed help long before Kennedy came to Dallas,” Tonahill said. He was seated at the desk of his law office in Jasper, in front of a four-by-eight-foot blowup of Bob Jackson’s Pulitzer-Prize winning photograph of the Oswald murder. “He was a big baby at birth—almost fifteen pounds. That could have had something to do with it. His mother died in an insane asylum in Chicago. His father was a drunk and was treated for psychiatric disorders. A brother and a sister had psychiatric treatment. Ruby tried to commit suicide a couple of years earlier. His finger was once bitten off in a fight. He had a long history of violent, antisocial behavior, and when it was over he wouldn’t remember what he had done. What provoked him? Maybe the flashbulbs—that’s a common cause in cases of psychomotor epilepsy—or the TV cameras, or the smirk on Oswald’s face.”

I asked Tonahill what he thought of Ruby as a person.

“He was a real object of pity,” Tonahill said. “Anytime you see a person overflowing with ambition to be someone, that person is admitting to you and the world that he’s a nobody. Ruby was like a Damon Runyon character—a total inconsistency.”

If Jack Ruby was not crazy when he gunned down Oswald, it’s a safe bet the trial drove him that way. Day after day in the circus atmosphere of Judge Brown’s courtroom, Ruby was forced to sit as a silent exhibit while psychiatrists called him a latent homosexual with a compulsive desire to be liked and respected, and his own attorneys described him as a village clown. He didn’t even get to tell his own story, and by the time the Warren Commission found time to interview him months later, Ruby was convinced that there was a conspiracy to slaughter all the Jews of the world.

“In the beginning,” Tonahill told me, “Ruby considered himself a hero. He thought he had done a great service for the community. When the mayor, Earle Cabell, testified that the act brought great disgrace to Dallas, Jack started going downhill very fast. He got more nervous by the day. When they brought in the death penalty, he cracked. Ten days later he rammed his head into a cell wall. Then he tried to kill himself with an electric light socket. Then he tried to hang himself with sheets.”

Ruby wrote a letter to Gordon McLendon claiming he was being poisoned by his jailers. Many Warren Report critics take this as additional evidence of a conspiracy. If someone did poison Ruby, it was a waste of good poison. An autopsy confirmed the brain tumors, massive spread of cancer, and a blood clot in his leg, which finally killed him.

The trial of Jack Ruby may have been one of the fastest on record. The crime was committed in November and the trial began in February. “The climate never cooled off,” Tonahill said. “He was tried as it was peaking. There was this massive guilt in Dallas at the time. The only thing that could save Dallas was sending Ruby to the electric chair.”

Though there are unanswered questions in his mind, Tonahill supports the conclusions of the Warren Report.

“If there was a conspiracy, and it was suppressed, it had to involve maybe a million people. That’s a bunch of crap.

“The worst mistake the Warren Commission made was yielding to Rose Kennedy and suppressing the autopsy report. There was something about Kennedy’s physical condition the family didn’t want made public. I don’t know what it was. Possibly a vasectomy—there was a story he had a vasectomy after the death of his baby. Being good Catholics, the Kennedy family wouldn’t have wanted that out.”

Once close participant in the bizarre happenings of Dallas who isn’t satisfied with the Warren Commission investigation is Bill Alexander, the salty, acid-tongued prosecutor who did most of the talking for Henry Wade at the Ruby trial. Alexander and former state Attorney General Waggoner Carr both urged the commission to investigate FBI and CIA personnel for information linking the agencies to Lee Harvey Oswald. There is no indication that such an investigation took place.

“I’m in Washington telling the commission to check out this address I found in Oswald’s notebook, in his apartment, the day of the killing,” Alexander recently told the Houston Chronicle . “None of those Yankee hot dogs are paying any attention to me.

“So I say ‘Waggoner, c’mon, let’s get a cab.’ We jump in an tell the driver to take us to this address. We get there and what do you think it is? The goddamn Russian Embassy. Now, what does that tell you?

“To this day, I don’t think anybody from the commission followed that up.” Although Alexander, known to members of the press as “Old Snake Eyes,” was the main reason Henry Wade got all those death penalties that the leaders of Dallas were convinced would deter crime, he is no longer on the DA’s staff. Shortly after his infamous declaration that Chief Justice Earl Warren didn’t need impeaching, he needed hanging, Alexander resigned to enter private practice.

When I telephoned Alexander for an interview, he told me he didn’t want to talk about

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