For the past 58 years, ever since the assassination of President John Kennedy on November 22, 1963, the discussion about what happened has continued, so has the skepticism. New Orleans has frequently been mentioned as part of the debate, whether it deserved to be or not.
It was not the first time that the city was linked to a presidential assassination. Just for the exercise, I once tried to develop an argument explaining why Abraham Lincoln’s assassination was the result of a conspiracy that originated in New Orleans. Consider this: actor Edwin Booth, John Wilkes’ brother, spent much time performing in New Orleans. Could he have been used as a conduit to funnel money and directions? Many planters risked seeing their fortunes lost to a Union victory.
Also, Judah Benjamin, who served as the confederate government’s Secretary of War and as Secretary of State was a resident of New Orleans. He was a slaveholder and had roots to the West Indies, where it would have been in the interest of planters, and shippers, to maintain slavery.
Isn’t it also suspicious that Confederate President Jefferson Davis spent his last days in New Orleans, being taken care of in a Garden District home? He died here and was briefly entombed in the city. What was it about New Orleans that made him feel more secure?
There is, of course, no evidence of a New Orleans link to Lincoln’s death, but the point is just how easy it is to make a case.
New Orleans is a great town for conspiracy theories, even if the conspiracies don’t exist. There are enough shadows and shadowy figures to give one pause. Being a port city adds mystique, as one wonders just who steps off the ships, even if the ship just arrived from a seven-day cruise to Cancun.
During the decades since the Kennedy assassination, the city has been mentioned prominently in many of the theories. Lee Harvey Oswald was born and raised here. Not long before the assassination he was seen downtown near Camp Street handing out circulars urging “fair play” for Cuba. Carlos Marcello, the local Mafia chief, had contempt for the Kennedys. Then there was district attorney Jim Garrison’s post-assassination far-flung investigation, which ultimately fell flat and hurt many people along the way.
I am adamantly one of those who believes that Oswald acted alone and that there was no conspiracy. As a veteran investigative reporter once told me, of all of the sleuths in the world who have had a chance to solve the crime and could have achieved wealth and fame had they done so, no one has successfully been able to make the case. (For the most convincing analysis of the incident check out “Case Closed: Lee Harvey Oswald and the Assassination of JFK,” by Gerald Posner, Random House, 1993.) Nevertheless, it remains easy to conjure up a conspiracy theory and to make New Orleans part of the scene.
Kennedy’s assassination remains forever muddled because of the actions of one man, Jack Ruby, who shot Oswald. Had that not happened and Oswald lived to be interrogated, we could have learned more about the facts. Ruby adds a cloud though, and the conspiracy theories will live on. What is a clear fact is that New Orleans will forever be linked to the assassination, even if its role was more tangential than actual.
Kennedy visited New Orleans on May 4, 1962, where he was to dedicate the then new Nashville wharf. There was genuine excitement about the President’s visit. School kids lined St. Charles Avenue to see him pass by in a procession. New Orleanians loved Kennedy that day.
Eighteen months later Dallas police were investigating a tragic motorcade. Based on his comments made to the arresting officers, Ruby, shaken by the passion of the moment, thought he was being a hero by shooting Oswald though he quickly realized he made a mistake. Oswald, whose politics was all over the place alternately leaning both far-left and far-right, thought he was liberating the country from something or the other. Ninety-eight years earlier, John Wilkes Booth believed he would be a revered figure for freeing the country from a tyrant.
Rather than being motivated by deep philosophical thinking, Booth, Oswald and Ruby were relatively young men who were politically screwed up and who acted on an opportunity. History sometimes turns dramatically because of a pulse from individual madness.
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