By Stephen Fagin, Curator
Dallas police homicide detective Jim Leavelle recognized the potential for danger on Sunday, November 24, 1963. As suspect Lee Harvey Oswald prepared to make the routine prisoner transfer from city custody at Dallas police headquarters to the Dallas County Jail, Leavelle made a remark that he would vividly recall for the remainder of his long and legendary life: “Lee, I hope if anybody shoots at you [that] they’re as good a shot as you are.” Oswald, according to Leavelle, chuckled. It was the only time Leavelle ever saw the alleged assassin of President Kennedy crack a smile. And then, alongside detective L.C. Graves, they made their way downstairs to the basement of police headquarters and stepped into history.
We lost our friend, James R. “Jim” Leavelle on August 29, 2019, just a few days following his 99th birthday. Around the world, people recognize the veteran Texas lawman because of a single photograph that captured a moment in time and came to embody the chaos, violence and uncertainty of a weekend that defined a generation. Wearing a light-colored suit and cowboy hat, Leavelle twisted his body, still handcuffed to Oswald, with a look of shock and horror on his face. Jack Ruby, local Dallas nightclub owner, had leapt out from a crowd of reporters and shot Oswald at point-blank range. That iconic photograph, taken by Dallas Times Herald staff photographer Bob Jackson, would go on to win the 1964 Pulitzer Prize.
That moment may have made Jim Leavelle famous, but it was his extraordinary life, dry wit and wonderful storytelling that made him a living legend. In my personal experience, I have rarely encountered an assassination researcher, author or dedicated student of the subject who did not meet and visit with Jim Leavelle at some point. Many of them enjoyed lively meals with him at his favorite Dallas restaurant, El Fenix. To say that Jim was giving with his time is an understatement. He was dedicated to honoring interview, program and meeting requests, and he never tired of detailing the same stories over and over again for the benefit of history. Whether it was an audience of one, including at times young elementary school students, or an auditorium full of interested listeners, Jim Leavelle was a gifted storyteller.
He described the shooting of Lee Harvey Oswald like this, during a 2002 oral history with the Museum:
I could see [Jack Ruby’s] pistol. I saw all of that in a flash because remember, I’m alert for these guns because I’m expecting somebody to shoot at him anyhow but not necessarily in the basement…. Of course, I had Oswald right up against me, and I tried to pull him behind me, but all I succeeded in doing was turning his body, so that instead of hitting him dead center, it hit him just about four inches to the left of the navel. Then, of course, by that time, the officers gathered around there had piled on him and pushed him to the ground. I reached over and grabbed Ruby by the shoulder, by his left shoulder, and shoved back and down on him, but by the time that happened, the officers had swarmed on him and crushed him to the ground, and so I released him and returned my attention to Oswald…. And when the ambulance pulled in, why, we loaded him in the ambulance, and I crawled in there with him and so did the doctor, and we rode to Parkland with him.
Jim never subscribed to conspiracy theories, and he often delighted in debating the topic with interested researchers. He even served as a technical consultant to filmmaker Oliver Stone during the making of his 1991 movie, JFK. He described his on-set experience like this: “Well, I have found out what a technical advisor is. When they ask you how a certain scene should be played or how it was done…you describe to them the setting of it. If it don’t suit their idea, they’ll go ahead and do it the way they want to.” Years earlier, Jim even portrayed himself in the 1978 TV movie, Ruby and Oswald.
The Museum will sincerely miss our friend, Jim. He was truly one of a kind. We extend our sincere condolences to his family and friends, and we are grateful that he shared so many memories with us.
You can see a number of public programs featuring Jim Leavelle on our YouTube Channel.
by Stephen Fagin, Curator
In the days following the Kennedy assassination, more than 300 members of the world press crowded the corridors of Dallas police headquarters, shouting questions at suspect Lee Harvey Oswald and pressing law enforcement for opinions on the case. The Warren Commission in 1964 criticized the media for their part in a frenzied, largely unchecked situation that climaxed with Jack Ruby’s shooting of Oswald. City leaders, fully aware of Dallas’s tainted reputation following the events of that fateful weekend in November 1963, hoped that Ruby’s 1964 murder trial would be handled with far more decorum and security.
Recognizing that hundreds of journalists would cover the trial, Sam Bloom, president of a prominent Dallas advertising agency, offered his services to Judge Joe B. Brown of Criminal District Court No. 3. It was unprecedented for a PR firm to represent a judge, and Bloom faced direct criticism when he testified at a change-of-venue hearing prior to the trial. With more than 300 requests for only forty-eight seats reserved for media, Defense attorney Joe Tonahill accused Bloom of favoring reporters “sympathetic to Dallas.” Bloom denied this, noting that his firm merely handled logistics and credentials, though Bloom employee Helen Holmes did advise Judge Brown and draft his public statements. Media pressure ultimately led Brown to use a larger courtroom for the trial where at least 150 reporters could be seated.
This photograph, taken through the window of the courtroom door, shows defense attorney
Melvin Belli questioning PR executive Sam Bloom on the witness stand.
The day press credentials were issued, Helen Holmes recalled, “there was a stampede.” For added security, journalists were required to wear photographic identification badges, though only the largest news organizations could quickly produce small ID photos for their reporters. The courthouse arranged a checkpoint where everyone, including press, was searched before entry. Though commonplace today, this type of security was new in 1964; some, including syndicated columnist Dorothy Kilgallen, found the whole process comical. Early in the trial, deputy sheriffs confiscated a pocketknife from KRLD-TV sketch artist Ken Hansen, which he needed to sharpen his art pencils. He began pre-sharpening both ends of every pencil to avoid future problems.
Columnist Dorothy Kilgallen smiles as she is searched prior to entering the courtroom.
A probate courtroom was transformed into an international press room with typewriters, twenty Western Union teletype machines and thirty telephones, some with new direct-dialing (non-operator) service. Experienced teletype operators were always on hand, promising an average of sixty words per minute, though few were prepared for the numerous foreign language requests. One operator grew familiar with the word “geschworenenkandidat,” which is “prospective juror” in German.
Some of the thirty telephones installed in the Ruby trial press room.
The Dallas Morning News reported that the courthouse had “an international flavor,” with Swiss, French, Swedish, British, Polish, German, Australian, Bulgarian, Mexican and Canadian press mingling with local and national journalists in the press room. CBS commentator Eric Sevareid noted at the time that the “camaraderie [of local reporters] both beguiles and astounds the European journalists covering the trial.” There was a definite distinction between the relaxed informality of Dallas reporters accustomed to covering the courthouse and those who flew in specifically to cover the Ruby trial, sometimes arriving with negative preconceived notions about the city. Helen Holmes remembered having a reporter from French weekly magazine L’Express physically removed from her PR office. “He was screaming at me,” she recalled in an oral history. “He was yelling at me that he was going to ruin me in Europe because I wasn’t being cooperative enough.”
Some national and international reporters pushed the boundaries of professionalism during the trial. Defense attorney Phil Burleson often received phone calls in the middle of the night from reporters needing to confirm information for pressing deadlines. Defense investigator Bob Denson abandoned his Dallas office to work out of his home because reporters consistently stopped by with questions. Assistant District Attorney Bill Alexander was vocally critical of what he considered “unfair, sloppy” news stories. In a talk given two weeks after the verdict, he lamented, “they reported what they wanted to see and what they wanted to hear rather than the events that happened.” Echoing some of the sentiments expressed by Dallas D.A. Henry Wade, Alexander went on to say that the press “came late, left early and wrote their reports from what they heard at the Press Club.”
Always jockeying for position, there was occasional friction between print, radio and television journalists. Carrying only a portable tape recorder, Gary DeLaune, police reporter for Dallas radio station KLIF, grew frustrated by television technicians wielding large boom microphones. He used the wooden slats of an orange crate to rig a homemade boom mic. “Every day when the network guys would gather around,” he recalled, “I got a chair and I’d start putting that slat over so I could get the audio, and these guys would swear at me.” News photographers also got creative since no cameras were allowed in the courtroom. To get good overhead shots without reporters in the way, a few cameramen taped flashes and remote-operated cameras to hallway walls. In a rare moment of solidarity, network television crews worked together to properly light the main hallway for their bulky cameras. “We had one master switch,” recalled ABC broadcaster Murphy Martin. “Didn’t have to wait for proper lighting or worry about anything like that, and that was the first time that I had been in a situation like that.”
Cameramen gather in the courthouse hallway. Note the lights and camera taped to the wall.
The one occasion when cameras were permitted inside the courtroom was on March 14, 1964, for the trial verdict. Martin, a longtime friend of the judge, was the one who finally convinced Brown to televise that significant moment. Martin and Brown established “some ground rules as to how [the press] would conduct themselves.” Unfortunately, before an audience of millions, all decorum broke down as soon as the guilty verdict was read. Martin recalled that cameramen “just jumped up on the furniture.” PR advisor Helen Holmes had recommended that the verdict not be televised, fearing that the jurors would be overwhelmed by reporters. Instead, she was shocked when live cameras caught lead defense attorney Melvin Belli deliver an impromptu and unhinged rant against Dallas, which he declared “a city of shame forevermore.” Holmes remembered, “He had all these bright lights on him, and his face was just sweating. You could practically see the spittle.”
Analysis of the trial’s unprecedented media coverage was swift in the aftermath. Journalism professor J. Edward Gerald at the University of Minnesota suggested that such “publicity [was] altering the jury system, making it unnecessarily expensive, cumbersome to administer and less trustworthy than justice requires.” The American Bar Association suggested “an urgent need for voluntary restraints” without advocating press censorship or restrictions. The American Civil Liberties Union simply stated “that court proceedings should not be broadcast, televised or photographed.”
Just as the Kennedy assassination altered the way in which breaking news stories are covered, the Jack Ruby trial impacted the way in which the media reports on high-profile court cases, right up to the present day. For those who lived through that hectic, historic experience fifty-four years ago, it was, if nothing else, unforgettable. Helen Holmes concluded, “I think almost everybody connected with the Ruby trial, at one time or another, felt the pressure of the press.”
Note: This blog quotes interviews from the Oral History Project at The Sixth Floor Museum as well as contemporary newspaper accounts. Access to these and other Museum collections is available by scheduling a research appointment in our Reading Room.
The world was shocked by the assassination of President John F. Kennedy on November 22, 1963, in Dallas, Texas. Reported across the globe, the news of President Kennedy’s death eclipsed all other events that took place that day. Here are some things you may not know about that day:
1. Prior to President Kennedy’s assassination, top news stories for November 22 included the Coast Guard recovering wreckage from a U2 plane near Key West, the AFL-CIO calling for a strike in favor of a proposed 35-hour workweek, and the reporting of the November 21 death of Robert Stroud, the “Birdman of Alcatraz.
2. The number one New York Times bestseller for fiction that week was The Group by Mary McCarthy. The number one non-fiction bestseller was JFK: The Man and the Myth by Victor Lasky.
3. Flying over central Florida on November 22, Walt Disney selected the site for what would later become the Walt Disney World Resort near Orlando.
4. The Beatles’ second studio album, With the Beatles, was released in the United Kingdom on November 22.
5. More than 30 college and professional weekend football games throughout the United States were canceled or postponed on November 22, as were most high school games.
6. Almost 66% of American homes with televisions tuned in at 6:15 p.m. EST on November 22 as the new president, Lyndon B. Johnson, addressed the nation following his return to Washington.
by Stephen Fagin, Curator, The Sixth Floor Museum at Dealey Plaza
More than fifty-three years after the Kennedy assassination, the ongoing Oral History Project at The Sixth Floor Museum at Dealey Plaza is in a race against time. A seventeen-year-old high school student in 1963 is today 70 years old. As these November anniversaries go by, we sadly lose more of our storytellers each year. As we acknowledge those interview participants who passed away this year, we also applaud their willingness to add such unique perspectives to our ever-growing archive of “living history.”
In late December 2015, we lost Dallas Police Lieutenant Rio Sam Pierce, who was in charge of basement security on the day of Lee Harvey Oswald’s planned transfer to the Dallas County Jail. Pierce drove his vehicle up the Main Street ramp at the time many believe Jack Ruby gained access to the basement. Ruby’s good friend, longtime Dallas Times Herald television editor, Bob Brock passed away this year. Brock spoke with Ruby just one day prior to the Oswald shooting. When Ruby went on trial the following year, young SMU law student George Bramblett, Jr. was there to watch the spectacle unfold. Covering the trial for the Associated Press was photographer Ferd Kaufman, who held the distinction of capturing through his camera lens Presidents Kennedy and Johnson, Lee Harvey Oswald, and Jack Ruby. In fact, Kaufman was one of the first to photograph Oswald after his arrest at the Texas Theatre, where the late Dallas police patrolman Jerry Pollard had helped wrestle Oswald to the ground.
Another photographer who passed away in 2016 was Joe Laird, the last surviving staff photographer at The Dallas Morning News in 1963. Laird photographed the Kennedy motorcade at the corner of Main and Harwood Streets. Near his location was parade spectator Sam Berger, who had sold Abraham Zapruder the Bell and Howell home movie camera that he would use to capture the assassination on film that day.
Following news of the assassination, young Karen Knight Neukom and her family went to Dallas Love Field. Her father had been Senator Kennedy’s campaign manager in Wichita County, Texas, during that hard-fought 1960 campaign. The late Harold Vaughan also understood the pressures of campaigning for Kennedy. As the senator’s direct link to the African American community in Boston, Vaughan worked on Kennedy’s first U.S. Senate campaign in 1953.
Prior to his Texas visit in November 1963, the president supposedly asked Arkansas Sen. John McClellan to quietly survey the conservative political atmosphere in Dallas. His cousin, Sue Crutchfield, who passed away this summer, shared this untold story that might have been lost to history. The Dallas City Council had also voiced concerns, questioning the police chief at length about security preparations. This November we lost Dorothy Roberts, widow of 1963 councilman Bill Roberts. Though the Warren Commission later investigated right-wing activities in Dallas, they ultimately concluded that Oswald acted alone. The late Justice Richard Mosk served on the Warren Commission’s staff. He shared his memories with us at a 2013 public program exploring the Commission’s efforts.
The assassination impacted individuals around the world in profound ways. In Dallas, the Reverend Wally Chappell led a special prayer service for President Kennedy at Ridgewood Park United Methodist Church. Noted Fremont, Ohio, artist Bernadine Stetzel responded to the tragedy through seventy-one paintings depicting President Kennedy’s life and death. In 2011, she donated those works to the Museum. We also lost two oral history subjects from the world of entertainment. Actor Alan Young, star of the popular Mister Ed sitcom in 1963, shared his memories of when production shut down on November 22, 1963. The advertising manager for Disneyland, Jack Lindquist, discussed the unscheduled closing of the Anaheim theme park in memory of President Kennedy.
Everyone has a story to share, and we are grateful to these individuals for helping us better understand the moment and the memory of the Kennedy assassination and the 1960s. If you would like to add your voice to our ongoing Oral History Project, please contact OralHistory@jfk.org.
Stay tuned for an upcoming special blog post in memory of former WBAP reporter Bob Welch.