The television cameras were rolling at 11:21AM Central Standard Time, twenty-four November 1963 when a man emerged from the crowd and appeared to gun down a prisoner in the basement of the Dallas Police Department as he was being transferred to another detention facility. What seemed so obvious was perhaps anything but.
A trial followed and the man was convicted on March the fourteenth of the following year of committing murder with malice, and he was subsequently sentenced to death. On October the fifth of 1966, that sentence was overturned by the appellate court in the state of Texas, and a new trial was ordered to begin in March of the following year but that never occurred.
Jacob Leon Rubenstein died on Tuesday, January the third of 1967 at Dallas’ Parkland Hospital. The official cause of death: a pulmonary embolism resulting from bronchogenic carcinoma, the disease more commonly known as lung cancer. What precipitated his death, and his fame, may never be completely revealed to the world. What really happened leading up to that last Sunday in November of 1963 is likely just as much speculation as it might be historically factual.
The citizens of the world all know Mr. Rubenstein better as Jack Ruby.
I doubt there is anyone alive over the age of sixty who couldn’t tell you exactly where they were or what they were doing in the early afternoon of Friday the twenty-second day of November in 1963.
I was outside playing flag football with my 7th period gym class at Joel Barlow High. It was unusually warm that day, probably somewhere around 60 degrees under partly cloudy skies. Someone from the school appeared on the field and relayed a message to Coach Engler shortly after we had started to play. We were all told to go back into the building, dress into our street clothes and then report back to our homerooms. We were not given any reasons as to why, but I am certain that some of us were thinking that we were being attacked by the Russians and that a nuclear holocaust was eminent. After all, it had only been thirteen months earlier that the Cuban Missile Crisis had kept many of us awake at night during the twelve-day stand-off between President Kennedy and Russian Premier Nikita Khrushchev.
As we would soon learn, President Kennedy had been shot while on a trip to Dallas, Texas. He had been rushed to Parkland Hospital, but there was no word as to the extent of his injuries. We sat in eerie silence at our homeroom desks while we listened to a radio broadcast of the ongoing events that was being played over the school’s intercom system. Some of the girls were sobbing but we were all in shock.
In 1963 there were no means of instant communication other than the standard land-line telephone. Television offered live coverage of certain events, but only after technical crews had spent hours setting up the apparatuses needed to transmit the coverage to the studio where it could then be sent to the national network feed. Television satellite transmission was still in its infancy, used mostly for international communications, but national news networks were still several years away from using it to broadcast their programming on a regular basis. Television cameras of the day were large, bulky, and weighed hundreds of pounds. Heavy cables needed to be strung to connect the cameras with the equipment required to send both the picture and the sound back to the studio. Compared to today, broadcast technology was rather primitive, but the events of November 22, 1963 were likely the official beginning of transmitting news live from the scene, having an anchor in the studio narrating the coverage but letting the images tell most of the story. Radio feeds were slightly less complicated to put in place, but in no case could live news be broadcast instantaneously from anywhere on the planet without some sort of time-consuming set up.
Over the ensuing few days, two new technologies would make their debut in television. On November 24th, CBS would introduce its instant replay, something it had planned to unveil during the upcoming Army-Navy game originally scheduled for the following Saturday, but instead used for the first time to repeatedly show Jack Ruby shooting Lee Oswald in the parking garage of the Dallas Police Station. In addition, Japan’s very first international satellite television broadcast carried the news of President Kennedy’s assassination on the 22nd.
By the time we arrived home from school that Friday afternoon, network news broadcasts were announcing that President Kennedy was dead. As the television coverage continued, a stunned nation received bits and pieces of information that a possible suspect in the shooting had been taken into custody shortly after killing a Dallas patrolman. By early evening, the entire world was hearing the name Lee Harvey Oswald for the first time.
Throughout the weekend, the Dallas Police Department headquarters was swamped with reporters camped out demanding that Oswald be paraded before them so that the nation could get a good look at the man who had allegedly shot Kennedy. The press was allowed far more leeway than they would be afforded today, and the then Chief of Police Jesse Curry and homicide Captain Will Fritz seemed only too happy to accommodate them, granting several interviews and even allowing the press corps, who appeared to have free roam the building, access to Oswald himself. In researching this article, I have found photographic evidence at the University of North Texas digital library that shows Oswald being paraded before the press no less than four times prior to his being shot in the parking garage in the basement on November 24th.
On November 23, 1963, a little after midnight, less than twelve hours after the president had been shot, Curry and Fritz waltzed a battered Oswald out into the third-floor hallway and down to the police assembly room where they allowed the press to ask Oswald a series of questions in front of the television cameras setup in the crowded space. Also present in that crowd was Jack Ruby, who in a December 3rd interview with homicide Lieutenant Jack Revill, stated that the smirk on Oswald’s face and his denial that he knew anything about being charged in Kennedy’s death filled him with rage.
FBI director J. Edgar Hoover was incensed by Curry’s cavalier attitude towards protecting the details of the case that the police were still in the process of building. Hoover was further disturbed by an earlier interview with CBS news’ Nelson Benton where Fritz laid out the entire route that Oswald had taken between the time when he left the Texas Book Depository and when he was captured. Fritz told Benton that they had, “Pretty much cinched up the case” against Oswald.
A 1992 law passed by Congress required all records related to the assassination of President Kennedy – around five million pages in total – to be publicly released in full within 25 years. Many (but not all) of those records were finally disclosed in October of 2017. One of items released that month was an internal memo Hoover had written about those incidents that took place the morning of the 23rd: “Chief of Police Curry, I understand, cannot control Capt. Fritz of the homicide squad, who is giving (too) much information to the press. Since we now think it involves the Criminal Code on a conspiracy charge under section 241, we want them to shut up.”
I had spent much of Sunday morning the 24th working alongside my father as we were stripping my first car of all its brightwork before sending it to the body shop at my dad’s dealership in Bridgeport for a freshening of its paint. I was back in my room reading Harper Lee’s novel “To Kill a Mockingbird,” while waiting for Oswald to be transferred to the county jail sometime before noon CST. The television was on, as it had been almost continuously since the afternoon of the 22nd, when one of the newscasters announced that Oswald was being brought down to the garage where he would be loaded into a car and taken away. I put my book down to observe what was happening.
It was just before 12:30 PM EST when Oswald could be seen entering the garage surrounded by several plainclothes police officers. Almost immediately, a short statured man dressed in a suit and wearing a fedora could be seen approaching Oswald. A gun suddenly appeared. In less than two or three seconds, the man pulled the trigger and fired a single shot into Oswald’s midsection. Instant chaos erupted as the police pulled Oswald back behind the same elevator door they had just exited, while several other police officers tackled the man who had just shot Oswald.
In almost total disbelief, I summoned my parents who soon joined me as we watched the newscaster replay the scene again and again over the next couple of hours. If Oswald had any information to give to either the police or the FBI, it certainly appeared that was unlikely to ever occur. Oswald was taken to Parkland and soon expired in the operating room across the hall from where Jack Kennedy had been pronounced dead only a little over 48 hours earlier.
As the week would wear on and we were all glued to our television sets as the nation mourned the loss of JFK and witnessed his funeral on live television, we began to learn more about Lee Oswald and Jack Ruby. Absolutely none of it was reassuring that Oswald had acted alone or that Ruby had somehow decided to avenge the president’s loss by spontaneously shooting and mortally wounding Oswald on that last Sunday in November.
The events of that weekend spawned multiple conspiracy theories, some of which still live on nearly sixty years after the fact.
Jack Ruby, born Jacob Rubenstein in Chicago sometime in 1911, had been involved in managing several strip clubs in Dallas throughout the 1950’s. In 1959, along with a partner, he opened a strip club known as the Sovereign in Dallas. After a couple of years of losing money with the Sovereign, Ruby borrowed new money and rebadged the club as the Carousel. It was later reported he had minor connections to organized crime, but no solid evidence was ever presented that supported those allegations. He was also known to have working relationships with members of the Dallas police force. Those relationships reportedly amounted to Ruby giving police officers various perks in exchange for their looking the other way when it came to the monitoring certain illegal activities in his nightclub.
Ruby was known to have a violent temper and would often berate his employees and get into physical altercations with both his patrons and his competitors. Over the years, Ruby had been arrested several times by the Dallas police. Written police reports confirm that on at least one occasion he was carrying a Smith & Wesson .38 caliber revolver with him at the time of his arrest – the same weapon he used to shoot Oswald. Ruby never married but he was known as a devoted animal lover when it came to caring for his pets. According to acquaintances interviewed after his arrest, he jokingly referred to his favorite dog, Sheba, as his wife.
On Saturday, Nov. 23, 1963, the Dallas Police announced they would be transporting Oswald from the police station on South Harwood to the county jail the following day at 10:00 AM. At 10:19 AM on Sunday, some nineteen minutes after Oswald’s scheduled transport time, Ruby was still at home.
The telephone company’s business records for Ruby’s home phone, along with witnesses’ later testimony, proved that it was exactly 10:19 AM when Jack Ruby answered a call from one of his nightclub dancers. She asked Jack if he could send her a twenty-five dollar advance on her next paycheck. Ruby agreed to wire her money that day through Western Union.
Ruby dressed, putting on a suit and tie, and then took Sheba along with him, driving his 3-year-old white Oldsmobile coupe to the Western Union office at 2034 Main St. At 11:17 AM he wired twenty-five dollars to his dancer in Fort Worth. If Ruby had indeed intended to shoot Oswald that day, one would have to question why he took Sheba along with him and then left her in the car parked at the curb while he walked less than a block to the police garage, some seventy-seven minutes after Oswald had been scheduled to be moved.
But unbeknownst to Ruby, the police had not yet relocated Oswald to the county jail that morning. Oswald was still inside the police station due to a questioning session that had run longer than the police had originally planned. Officers of the Dallas Police Department knew Ruby well and made no effort to stop him or to determine if he was armed. He walked unimpeded down the concrete ramp into the Dallas Police Station’s underground garage and arrived near an elevator just seconds before Oswald emerged from it. As he exited the elevator, Oswald was still wearing the same sarcastic smirk on his face that had so maddened Ruby just after midnight on Saturday morning. A few seconds later, Ruby shot him in the stomach from point-blank range. The bullet lacerated Oswald’s liver, mortally wounding him.
Prior to going to trial, celebrated attorney Melvin Belli took over from Ruby’s first lawyer, Tom Howard. Belli argued for a change of venue claiming that Chief Curry and Captain Fritz had tainted potential jurors, first by trying Lee Oswald in the press and then continuing to disclose too much about Ruby’s alleged motives for killing Oswald to the public prior to going to trial. The judge ruled against Belli’s motion and the location remained in Dallas. Internal memos written by J. Edgar Hoover at the time foretold of the appeal that Ruby would likely have if convicted – that seating objective jurists from Dallas who had no prior knowledge of the facts in the case would have been all but impossible.
At his trial, Ruby denied any allegations that Oswald’s murder had been premeditated. Belli claimed that Ruby was innocent based on the grounds that his extreme grief over Kennedy’s murder had caused him to suffer an episode of “psychomotor epilepsy” – a relatively newly diagnosed form of mental illness – and that Ruby shot Oswald unconsciously when he saw him again on that last Sunday of November in 1963. But the jury believed the case presented by prosecutor Henry Wade and found Ruby guilty of the “murder with malice” of Oswald, sentencing him for execution. An interesting side note about the prosecutor: a decade later, Henry Wade would go on to argue and lose before the Supreme Court in Roe v. Wade.
In October 1966, the Texas State Court of Appeals overturned Jack Ruby’s conviction on the grounds of improper admission of testimony and the fact that Ruby could not have received a fair trial in Dallas. It was just as Hoover had feared. In January of 1967, while awaiting a new trial scheduled to begin that March in Wichita Falls, Texas, Ruby died of a pulmonary embolism resulting from lung cancer.
But two weeks before his death Ruby was interviewed twice by the Warren Commission while still in prison awaiting his retrial:
I don’t know, Chief Justice, but I got so carried away. And I remember prior to that thought, there had never been another thought in my mind; I was never malicious toward this person. No one else requested me to do anything.
I never spoke to anyone about attempting to do anything. No subversive organization gave me any idea. No underworld person made any effort to contact me. It all happened that Sunday morning.
The last thing I read was that Mrs. Kennedy may have to come back to Dallas for the trial of Lee Harvey Oswald, and I don’t know what bug got ahold of me. I don’t know what it is, but I am going to tell the truth word for word.
He went on to testify about what happened and concluded his testimony with these words:
I realize it is a terrible thing that I have done, and it was a stupid thing, but I was just carried away emotionally. Do you follow that?
I had the gun in my right hip pocket, and impulsively, if that is the correct word here, I saw him, and that is all I can say. And I didn’t care what happened to me.
Whether Ruby’s testimony before the commission was genuine and true, we will never know. The true history behind the Kennedy Assassination and what followed that weekend may be just as the Warren Commission concluded. Or it might be just as complicated and convoluted as many of the conspiracy theories have long suggested. Sadly, we will likely never know for certain.