The Culture

JFK’s Assassination Only Grows More Distant at Dallas’s Sixth Floor Museum

Dealey Plaza and the Sixth Floor museum in Dallas
Dealey Plaza, looking up Elm Street, towards the Texas School Book Depository building that houses the Sixth Floor Museum

Photograph by Sean O'Neal

The three men position themselves along the edge of Dealey Plaza, glancing up Elm Street, trying to time the traffic. This isn’t easy. Elm slopes downhill, and while local drivers know what to expect as they pass through the intersection at Houston Street, their cars nevertheless tend to accelerate as they approach the triple underpass near the western edge of downtown Dallas.

Finally, there is a lull in the traffic, and the men sprint into the street, moving as briskly as their stiff-looking boots will allow, with their hands reflexively holding onto the brims of their Stetsons. One of them breaks off from the pack, readying his phone. The other two plant themselves on the large X that has been crudely affixed to the middle lane with reflective tape. There’s some debate about its accuracy; the X moves a little whenever the road is repaved, replaced each time by still-mysterious sources. But it supposedly marks the precise spot where President John F. Kennedy was hit by a fatal headshot on a sunny November day much like this one. With the faded red-brick building of the former Texas School Book Depository stationed picturesquely behind them, the two men position their feet on either side of the X, and throw their arms around each other’s shoulders. As their friend snaps away, they smile.

It’s a grim yet familiar scene, one that plays out many times per day here—like Dallas’s own morbid version of Abbey Road. Like Abbey Road, you can even watch the spot via a live-streaming webcam, stashed inside the so-called “sniper’s perch” on the old depository’s sixth floor, from which Lee Harvey Oswald fired on Kennedy’s motorcade as it passed by on the street below. It remains preserved behind a thick pane of plexiglass as the centerpiece of the Sixth Floor Museum, where people have been coming since 1989 to revisit one of the darkest days in American history—November 22, 1963.

A fifteen-minute documentary commemorating the museum’s thirtieth anniversary plays on a loop near the exit. There is a slight air of defensiveness to this celebration, which is understandable. As museum curator Stephen Fagin explains in the video, a lot of people once regarded this blockish, unremarkable building at 411 Elm St. as the “looming manifestation of evil.” When the Texas School Book Depository Company finally moved out in 1970, there were numerous calls to raze it to the ground, some of them led by prominent Dallasites like Tom Landry, Mary Kay Ash, and Ross Perot. Instead, its owner, oilman D. Harold Byrd, sold it to country music producer Aubrey Mayhew, an opportunistic Kennedy “collector” who hoped to turn it into a shrine to the late president. Mayhew failed to find backers or attract much more than outrage. When the bank foreclosed on the building in 1972, Byrd bought it back via an auction in which he was the only bidder. An arsonist set fire to the building that same year. It stood empty once more until 1977, when it was purchased by Dallas County and converted into administrative offices. In 1984, as plans for a museum were once more ramping up, an arsonist struck again. There were many, it seemed, who simply wished it would disappear.

Visitors in the Sixth Floor Museum in Dallas

Visitors are guided through the museum via an audio tour.

Photograph by Sean O'Neal

Yet even as the former depository became a symbolic flashpoint for Dallas’s anger and shame, visitors from all over the world continued to pilgrimage to Dealey Plaza. Some brought flowers and photos. Others simply came to gawk. Their persistence and curiosity convinced the museum’s champions—chiefly Dallas County public works director Judson Shook, preservationist Lindalyn Adams, and historian Conover Hunt—to spend more than twelve years fighting to save the building, convinced that the city had a responsibility to turn it into something that could confront the tragedy, honestly and tastefully. Besides, as Shook remarks in the film, tearing it down would only confirm suspicions that Dallas had something to hide.

It’s been three decades since the Sixth Floor Museum opened, a longer timespan than the one separating its birth from the tragedy it memorializes. Today, little controversy remains. Dallas has moved on, if not exactly embracing its role, then learning to roll with it. In 2013, Dealey Plaza hosted an official ceremony to mark the fiftieth anniversary of JFK’s assassination. Whatever repressed feelings still lingered were surely exorcised then—if not way back in 1991, when Oliver Stone commandeered downtown to film JFK, restoring Dealey Plaza to its 1963 vintage so he could kill the president over and over again. In the words of the late councilman Al Lipscomb, allowing Stone to drag those ghosts back out into the street was “a good therapeutic enema … a purge to make sure there will be no residue of the past.”

What was left behind is largely what the museum’s founders envisioned: a dignified, borderline-clinical examination of the life and murder of John F. Kennedy, inside the very walls where the latter was carried out. (Opinions about exactly what happened vary. Out in the plaza, you can still find plenty of card tables laden with literature that will tell you a story very different than the Warren Commission’s.) The Sixth Floor is a hushed and somber space, partly due to the fact that practically every visitor is plugged into a headset, listening as former WFAA reporter and assassination witness Pierce Allman guides them along walls of photographs and large, text-filled placards.

Sniper's Nest in the Sixth Floor Museum in Dallas

The museum's re-creation of the "sniper's perch" from which Lee Harvey Oswald fired at John F. Kennedy.

Photograph by Sean O'Neal

Notebook in the Sixth Floor museum in Dallas

The museum's guestbook

Photograph by Sean O'Neal

Left:

The museum's re-creation of the "sniper's perch" from which Lee Harvey Oswald fired at John F. Kennedy.

Photograph by Sean O'Neal

Right:

The museum's guestbook

Photograph by Sean O'Neal

Video displays and newspaper reproductions give a sense of the turmoil that colored his trip to Texas, before a snaking path of stills from the infamous Zapruder film kick off a near millisecond-by-millisecond breakdown of the assassination and its aftermath. These are rendered safe for family viewing—no fatal headshots here—and the facts of the subsequent investigation are delivered cleanly and succinctly.  The lingering questions of conspiracy are handled with similar detachment, theories of CIA and Mafia involvement laid out matter-of-factly on a pair of murals near the exhibit’s end, finally concluding with a shrug only that the discussion continues.

There’s little in the way of actual artifacts here. Anything of genuine interest was locked away inside the National Archives long ago. You will find Jack Ruby’s gray fedora, right next to the tan suit, cowboy hat, and handcuffs that belonged to the late Jim Leavelle, the detective who was escorting Oswald on the day Ruby shot him. Around the corner is the camera that the Dallas Times Herald’s Bob Jackson used to capture Oswald’s murder for his Pulitzer-winning photograph. Nearby is another row of cameras, acquired from various Dealey Plaza eyewitnesses, each paired with the pictures they took. But undoubtedly the most famous camera of all, Abraham Zapruder’s, is represented by a copy. There’s something surreal about this, as is the fact that one of the museum’s main attractions is the large-scale model of Dealey Plaza that was used by the Warren Commission—a replica of the very place you’re standing in.

Even the “sniper’s perch” is a re-creation. The space it occupies is real, as are the scuffs visible on the original floorboards. But both it and the corner staircase, where the now-infamous Mannlicher-Carcano rifle was discovered, are staged with cardboard boxes standing in for the ones that were taken away decades ago by the FBI. The infamous window, where Oswald is said to have fired that rifle, is just a facsimile, the original having been carved from the wall at some point during the building’s long dormancy. (Whether it was by Byrd or Mayhew remains a hot topic of debate and, occasionally, contested auction.) Its neighboring windows overlooking the plaza have all been fitted with interactive touchscreens, on which CGI models of the motorcade amble down Elm St. in an endless loop, Kennedy et al. reduced to pleasantly featureless avatars.

On the headset, Allman explains that these things have been painstakingly arranged so that visitors can make a “powerful connection with this building and its history.” But doing so requires breaking through several layers of artifice.

Cameras in the Sixth Floor museum in Dallas

The cameras of eyewitnesses to the assassination

Photograph by Sean O'Neal

In many ways, the museum suits a man who was shrouded in myth in life, and in death even more so. What Norman Mailer once characterized as the “elusive detachment… of a man who was not quite real to himself,” an aloofness that allowed Kennedy to “capture the secret imagination of a people,” gave way to the fairy-tale mystique of Camelot, nurtured by the young president’s shrewd manipulation of television. His assassination was TV as well, the flood of information and images across those three days in November blurring the lines between news and narrative, and creating a gulf of understanding that quickly calcified into mistrust. That suspicion has since echoed across hundreds of books, films, Broadway musicals, and internet rabbit holes. The ambient paranoia it created is woven into the fabric of American life.

I’m as guilty as anyone of buying into this mythos. I was a “JFK assassination buff” from an early age, a fascination that began with a sixth-grade report on the Warren Commission. My mother, a former Fort Worth Star-Telegram reporter, was friendly with the late Jim Marrs, whose 1989 book, Crossfire: The Plot That Killed Kennedy, became a partial basis for Oliver Stone’s film. She took me to one of Marrs’s presentations—an abridged version of the conspiracy theories he’d been lecturing on at the University of Texas at Arlington since 1970—and I was hooked instantly. I had her take me to JFK on opening night (alas, I couldn’t convince her to let me skip school so we could watch Stone film the motorcade). I spent much of my adolescence thereafter carrying around books like Best Evidence and On The Trail of the Assassins, becoming intimately familiar with assassination “characters” like “Umbrella Man” and “Babushka Lady.” Were it not for my discovery of punk rock, I might have grown up to be the obsessive nerd in Richard Linklater’s Slacker, still haranguing casual acquaintances about Lee Harvey Oswald’s breakfast.

Looking back now, it’s easy to see how closely my dark enthusiasms dovetailed with the timeless teenage rite of passage of deciding that everything is bullshit. In signing my copy of Crossfire, Marrs wrote, “Always Question Authority!” —probably a stock line for him, though it felt to me like a mandate, handed down from one subversive to another. Of course, the fact that Dealey Plaza was so close to my hometown of Arlington played a major role in fostering my ghoulish pastime. On our way back from a Dallas Sidekicks games at Reunion Arena, I always got a perverse thrill passing by the old depository building, instinctively glancing up to that permanently half-open window, then quickly over to the grassy knoll, as though the mystery would reveal itself to me if only I looked hard or often enough. Again, the place had ceased to be real to me, transformed through Stone’s intoxicating pastiche and X-Files folklore into something more akin to a movie set. Even revisiting the museum today, as my GPS instructs me to turn from Houston onto Elm, my brain still fills in the rest with bits of Kevin Costner’s climactic courtroom monologue in JFK: It’s gonna be a turkey shoot.

Returning to the museum now, I intended to reckon with the fact that I once treated a man’s gruesome death as something like a hobby, and Dealey Plaza like my own personal Universal Studios. But I found that whatever connection I hoped to make, or profound truth I thought I might discover, only seemed further obfuscated, not just by time but intent. With its CGI re-creations and webcam, the virtual reality aspect of it all felt even more pronounced.

At the museum cafe across the street, I found tourists eating ice cream cones beneath a slideshow of Oswald’s arrest. In the attached gift shop, you can get a signed print of Jackson’s infamous photo of Ruby shooting Oswald for $250, one of the pricier items from a bounty of merchandise that includes Texas School Book Depository-shaped keychains and refrigerator magnets. Here as it has everywhere, the JFK assassination has grown as an industry. Even the conspiracy theories have become something of a lifestyle, evidenced in the messages from QAnon believers I find scrawled in the museum’s memory books.

The Sixth Floor isn’t to blame for this, of course, any more than the city of Dallas is for Kennedy’s death. It has made the best of its unthinkable situation, responding with an admirably positive attempt to educate, rather than titillate. On the day I visit, the museum is packed with people of all ages and nationalities: high schoolers on field trips, European tourists, a couple of zombified parents pushing strollers. They continue to be drawn here to learn not only about Kennedy’s death but his legacy, and in those same guestbooks (next to the jokers who have scribbled, “The mob did it!”), you’ll find earnest testimonials in looping cursive from kids who seem to have just now discovered Kennedy’s role in the space race and the civil rights movement. In this, the museum has clearly succeeded in its goal of crafting a memorial to the man, not his murderer.

That said, it’s jarring to see just how much separation it’s created from the very space it occupies, a distance that has only grown since 1989. Visiting there again after so many years away, I found myself wondering how it—and I, once upon a time—might have benefited from it remaining dusty and abandoned, allowing you to confront just how scarily ordinary it must have been for Oswald (or some other mortal) to fire a gun out of those windows and topple a kingdom. Maybe whatever the site lost in dark appeal, it might have gained in cathartic truth. But perhaps we can only comprehend the mythos this way, through layers of Plexiglass and X-es in the street. It’s truly history now, with all the comfort the distance of time allows.

Just before I head for the exit, I watch a man posing by that sealed-off corner staircase, positioning himself just-so next to the replica of the rifle believed to have altered America forever. As his wife readies the camera, the man points to it and smiles. What else is he supposed to do?

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Tags: History, John F. Kennedy, kennedy assassination, Lee Harvey Oswald, sixth floor museum

Comments

  • Greg Parker

    Harold Byrd, sold it to country music producer Aubrey Mayhew, an opportunistic Kennedy “collector” who hoped to turn it into a shrine to the late president. Mayhew failed to find backers or attract much more than outrage. When the bank foreclosed on the building in 1972, Byrd bought it back via an auction in which he was the only bidder.

    You can bet he bought it back for a fraction of the $650.000 he sold to Mayhew for – this being the second time he got very very “lucky” in business.

    His company, the Carroway-Byrd Corp (an air-conditioning company) owned the building in 1939. It was put up for auction when Carroway-Byrd Corp defaulted on the loan. The sole bidder? If you guessed Harold Byrd, you guessed right. He purchased it for a TENTH of what his company had paid for it.

    His assassination was TV as well, the flood of information and images across those three days in November blurring the lines between news and narrative, and creating a gulf of understanding that quickly calcified into mistrust. That suspicion has since echoed across hundreds of books, films, Broadway musicals, and internet rabbit holes. The ambient paranoia it created is woven into the fabric of American life.

    Which is why, for several years now, I have tried to spread the idea that the whole lone nut vs conspiracy dichotomy needs to be ditched. I want the case reopened. I want the history corrected. The best path to that is by demonstrating that Oswald was framed by a police department where framing was part of the culture. The head of Homicide for example, Will Fritz, claimed a murder clear-up rate of 98% – an impossibility now even with modern forensics, let alone in the 1960s. The average clear-up rate now is around 60%. Fritz (and Wade in the DAs office), based on the maths alone, must have been framing a large number of innocent people. But more than that, I can demonstrate several ways in which was being framed. There was not special about the frame against Oswald. Read some case files from the Innocence Project. All the same techniques.

    In short, no one has to go down any rabbit holes. Proving Oswald was framed, puts this case back in an open status – where it belongs.

    • Hugh Everett

      “Oswald was framed by a police department”

      Of all the crazy conspiracy theories, that’s the craziest.

      Dallas police had custody of Oswald for 48 hours on charges of killing Officer Tippit. During this time, they uncovered nothing on the assassination.

      FBI’s study of Oswald’s timeline revealed an opportunistic lone nut. He bought the mail order rifle and took a shot at General Walker long before JFK planned the Dallas trip. He got the job at the school book depository before JFK planned the Dallas trip.

      Logical people have no problem with the “lone nut” explanation. Conspiracy theorists with personal issues will never give it up.

      • Greg Parker

        Logical people have no problem accepting that all the people freed through the Innocence Project are indeed innocent.

        Logical people should have no problem accepting that Fritz’s proclaimed 98% murder clearance rate is not only unlikely – but downright impossible without convicting a lot of innocent people.

        Making a time-line is an essential part of a case against an accused. But when framing someone, the time-line will be tailored to aid the prosecution.

        Here is a well-known example of Fritz and Wade sending an innocent man to the electric chair. https://www.dmagazine.com/publications/d-magazine/2016/may/henry-wade-executed-innocent-man/

        These men had no shame, no conscience, no morals.

        Oswald was not killed because he knew anything. He was killed because Fritz – an expert at extracting confessions – couldn’t get one out of him. Going to trial was not an option in front of the world media with the joke of a case they had. They could get away with flimsy cases, but not under these circumstances.

        The police, FBI and Sheriff’s office all got calls saying Oswald would killed during the transfer. The only one of those three to bury the report on this was the Dallas Police. Fritz himself, ordered the 4 man press around Oswald to “protect” him as he was led to the transfer car. They stalled the transfer until Ruby was in place and then brought him down. It was Fritz himself who broke formation around Oswald that allowed Ruby to get the shot away. The reason he broke formation? To open the car door — like that couldn’t be done with Oswald still protected behind him.

        • Hugh Everett

          Dallas Police Officer JD Tippit was murdered 45 minutes after JFK was assassinated, and nobody was ever tried for the crime. Who do you think was responsible for the death of JD Tippit?

          https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/J._D._Tippit

          • Greg Parker

            Not Oswald.

            Not a jealous husband.

            Not as part of any plot against JFK.

            I think it was local gang members with Oswald being framed for it to protect police kickbacks via the powerful forces behind the gangs.
            https://www.thenewdisease.space/tippit

          • Hugh Everett

            If you put this much energy into your career, you would be much more successful in life.

          • Greg Parker

            Do you have a problem with someone digging beneath the paper-thin surface laid out by the Warren Commission?

            No, I don’t think so. Just another answer made to avoid responding directly to what is written.

            So I’ll take this opportunity to again ask the good people at Texas Monthly to consider the facts.

            Oswald was arrested on the vague pretext that he matched the description of the Dealey Plaza suspect per a phone call from the ticket seller whose statement admits she never saw him enter. What is more, the suspect description was of someone years older and 20 pounds heavier.

            His arrest was made by a police force in a county that holds the record for the most number of innocent people released through DNA and the Innocence Project. His chief interrogator held an impossible 98% clearance rate. https://www.maryferrell.org/showDoc.html?docId=129778&relPageId=3 and as already shown, had no problem, together with Henry Wade, sending innocent men to the electric chair.

            If he were still alive and in prison now, his case would be taken up and he would be freed. His murder, arranged by the same cops to avoid a trial they couldn’t win, was considered by the FBI as a Civil Rights matter. Yet that breech of his rights really served to make sure he would have none from then on. No right to a defense, no right to a fair trial, no right of appeal, no help from those who claim to uphold the rights of falsely convicted.

            Hoover himself testified under oath that

            so far as the FBI is concerned, the case will be continued in an open classification for all time.

            Yet a look at the FBI website shows that they quietly closed it long ago.

            It is not just the assassination that is a blot on your history — it is the failure to provide closure to the family of a man who history currently and falsely condemns as the one an guilty of the crime.

            This has nothing to do with “Conspiracy theories” no matter how desperate you are to frame it that way. There was nothing that set the frame against Oswald apart from the framing of countless others. You do not need to go down any rabbit holes to find it. All you need to do is the same as in any other case – study the evidence and reports generated that weekend and use modern forensics to DNA test fibers, hairs, envelopes and other materials.

      • Greg Parker

        He got the job at the school book depository before JFK planned the Dallas trip.

        Allow me to correct you here.

        1. JFK had nothing to do with the planning of the trip. He merely accepted the invitation.

        2. The Dallas Morning News, announce that the President will visit Texas November 21–22, 1963 and that the visit would include Dallas. All motorcades through Dallas went the route taken that day.

        3. The weapons were ordered in the name of AJ Hidell. The only piece of evidence linking that name to Oswald as an alias was a fake Selective Srvice card in that name allegedly being carried by Oswald on the day, yet appearing in no photos taken of the material found on him and mentioned in none of the earliest reports by the arresting officers. There is in fact, no trace of this card existing until the following day. What made it an obvious fake was that it contained a passport photo of Oswald. Oswald would have known that these cards carried no such photo – as would most people. So as fake ID, it was totally and utterly useless. It;s ONLY utility was, as I said, linking Oswald to the use of the name as an alias – and thus to the weapons.

        • Hugh Everett

          The history surrounding Oswald’s employment at the school book depository is well documented. Do you dispute these facts?

          https://www.google.com/amp/s/theweek.com/articles-amp/458953/jfks-murder-not-conspiracy

          • Greg Parker

            The investigation of the circumstances was incomplete.

          • Hugh Everett

            Your public comment history reveals that you’re a JFK conspiracy nut living in Australia.

            I’m pleased that you are rare and unique.

            Good luck on finding help.

          • Greg Parker

            Always a good idea to attack the messenger when you have no real answer.

            At least I use my real name… what are you hiding?

            I think anyone reading these exchanges will quickly see who is sticking to evidence and reasonable, polite commentary and who is relying on language typical of trolls or those without any counter-argument.

            I’m not the one living in a country which shoots it’s leaders every other decade. I’m not the one needing any help.

          • Hugh Everett

            “I’m not the one living in a country which shoots it’s leaders every other decade.”

            You might want to start another campaign to reopen the investigations of the assassinations of Presidents William McKinley and James Garfield.

            You could employ similar fabulous mythology about police corruption and gang activity in those cases.

            I think anyone reading these exchanges will quickly see who is mentally disturbed.

          • Greg Parker

            Again with the ad hom.

            Do you often spend your time trying to distract away from what people you consider to be “mentally disturbed” are saying? Seems a rather cruel, but otherwise pointless waste of time for a well-adjusted, intelligent individual such as yourself.

            But I’m happy to play along because it affords another opportunity to get more information out.

            There is nothing mythological about police corruption or criminal gangs in Dallas.

            Nothing has changed in the past 80 years. This is from 2005 story under the headline KICKBACK CITY:

            Business people from Dallas painted an ugly picture in which the city sues businesses for reporting crime in their areas; the Dallas City Council is flat-out corrupt and engages in extortion and kickbacks; cops are goons who do the dirty work of connected politicians; and when you cross the cops you get a bullet through your house.

            https://www.dallasobserver.com/news/kickback-city-6381866

            Here are 5 more stories
            https://www.ire.org/resource-center/stories/?q=Dallas%20Police%20Department

            You are obviously not familiar with the Tippit case, nor apparently, did you read all of the essay I pointed you to.

            Two of the witnesses to the Tippit murder were local gang members who specialized in break and enters and car theft.
            Those two were William Smith who was on probation for auto theft – and his friend Jimmy Burt who was AWOL from the army.

            A third member of this gang was James Markham. Markham was on parole for break and enters. He was the son of the main Tippit witness, Helen Markham – and Helen was a cousin to former Barrow gang member Floyd Hamilton who got early release from prison via Sheriff Decker who then got Hamilton a job with one of the people who ran Dallas – WO Bankston. Bankston himself was named in secret recordings made by the Texas Rangers and arranged by then Sheriff Guthrie. It was said in those recordings that Banskton was a liaison to fences (those who deal in stolen goods). Bankston subsequently financed Decker’s election to take over from Guthrie.

            One of the things that Hamilton did was to set up a “charity” to help local youth on probation or parole from becoming recidivists. Nice cover for actually working as a Fagin figure to them under the protection of Bankston, Decker and Fritz (another who was close to Banskton).

            Young James Markham made the mistake of talking to Marguerite Oswald and her attorney. Soon after that, the police arrived to arrest him for parole violation and he broke a leg after going through a second floor window, claiming he had been pushed by police.
            https://www.maryferrell.org/showDoc.html?docId=11851&relPageId=4

  • devan95

    I never believed any of the “conspiracy” theories. Then I heard James Files: https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=cxtrFoh3Pao

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