Brace yourself: JFK assassination conspiracy theories are coming. As 50th anniversary observances of the Kennedy assassination approach, many people — perhaps most — will focus on the conspiracy theories surrounding that famous day instead of honoring a great man.
Think you see a portentous “something” in a blurred Zapruder frame? Hear an ominous sound on the scratchy recording of a police radio? Well then, just jam it in or stretch it to fit your theory.
Be it the grassy knoll, the alleged involvement of Sam Giancana, or the perceived echo of yet another shot, each fragment will inexorably take its place in the tenuous constructions of a hundred different conspiracy theories.
The irony is, sometime the truth is more interesting — and unknown.
While the true events surrounding the JFK assassination are pretty well known, a truly dramatic series of events is missing from the history of another famous presidential assassination.
The equally tragic assassination of President Lincoln nearly a century and a half ago spawned similarly questionable conspiracy theories as Kennedy’s: John Wilkes Booth did not die in that burning tobacco barn, but lived to a ripe old age in Enid, Oklahoma; Secretary of War Stanton was behind it all; or was it the Catholic Church?
All these theories are groundless, yet the remarkable truth about such singular events is the very ordinariness of the majority of the people and words and details involved. Might it not be wiser to unmake our Procrustean beds, unravel our neat Procrustean solutions, and acknowledge that some things just happen — that some people are simply caught up in the proverbial wrong place and time?
That wasn’t the case for the actors who were plotting to kill President Lincoln. A number of them, close friends of Booth — prominent among them John Mathews, John McCullough and Ned Emerson — were unquestionably complicit to some extent, privy either to Booth’s earlier plot to abduct the president or the assassination, or both.
Mathews had outright turned Booth down when first enlisted. Several Ford’s Theatre stagehands — including stage carpenter James Gifford and property man Jimmie Maddox — were avowed secessionists distraught over recent events at Appomattox, eager to see the South avenged, who had openly voiced their hatred of Abraham Lincoln. Yet, none of these men was ever accused of complicity in the assassination; Mathews, McCullough and Emerson were never even questioned, much less imprisoned.
While these actors working with Booth weren’t tied to the assassination and have been largely shielded from conspiracy theories, they were actually involved in the plot.
Conversely, some men connected with the theatre, notably manager John T. Ford — who was a hundred miles away from Washington on the fatal night — and his brothers Harry and Dick, were arrested and interrogated extensively, as were naïve actresses like young May Hart. One abject, semi-literate stagehand, Edman Spangler, was arrested and held under the most inhumane conditions for months, and ultimately tried and convicted, largely on the basis of suborned testimony, and sentenced to six years’ hard labor at Ft. Jefferson in the Dry Tortugas.
None of these eventualities were predictable or logical, nor can any of them be tidily connected to one another. In the aftermath of monstrous, incomprehensible events, Occam’s Razor simply does not apply: the utter randomness and complexity of people’s presence, interaction and sentiments at the moment of the actual deed defy ready interpretation and thwart the efforts of even the most doctrinaire conspiracy theorists.
It is a fool’s errand to attempt to force structure upon such disparate elements or draw meaningful inferences from them a century and a half, or even a half century, after their occurrence.
As with President Lincoln, we need to honor President Kennedy by believing the clear logic of what actually happened. Being interested in the true history is one thing; spending endless hours on fanciful conjecture is another. Conspiracy theorists: stand down.
Thomas A. Bogar is the author of Backstage at the Lincoln Assassination (Regnery 2013).