Conspiracy in Presidential Assassinations

I am continuing to work on my Master’s in American History degree from Pace University and the Gilder-Lehrman Institute of American History. They have a great online program designed specifically for K – 12 teachers and I have been enjoying it immensely. My most recent class, which ended today, was titled The Kennedy Era and was taught by Kennedy historian Barbara Perry. For my final paper for the class, I chose to write about the history of conspiracy in presidential assassinations. In the same way that I previously posted my final paper for my American Indian class last year, I thought I would share this one as well. I do not claim to be a Kennedy expert and the purpose of my paper is not to rehash the evidence against Lee Harvey Oswald. Rather, I wanted to cover the history of conspiracy and explain why conspiracy theories are so common in the study of presidential assassinations.


Since the founding of the United States of America, four presidents have met violent deaths at the hands of their fellow citizens. Abraham Lincoln, James Garfield, William McKinley, and John F. Kennedy have all lost their lives through acts of public assassination. Their murders have occurred over a period of almost 100 years with the first assassination taking place in 1865 and the most recent having occurred in 1963. The men who became martyrs for the country they served came from distinctly different backgrounds and epochs in the American experiment and so, too, did their respective assassins. Despite these differences of time and character, there has been one overarching concept that can be found in the story and memory of each successful Presidential assassination – the involvement of conspiracy in their deaths. The nature of the first successful Presidential assassination in the United States set a historical precedent for conspiracy. That assassin, John Wilkes Booth, recruited literal conspirators to help him in his plan to not only assassinate President Lincoln, but other heads of the federal government. Since that time, the American public has returned to the idea of conspiracy when trying to make sense of subsequent reoccurrences of presidential assassinations. By looking at the history of real and perceived conspiracy in our country’s assassinations and the psychological effects of conspiracy theories on the general public, we can come to understand why, despite a preponderance of evidence implicating Lee Harvey Oswald and the sole murderer of President John F. Kennedy, conspiracy theories regarding the murder of JFK continue unabated in the minds and memory of the public.

The history of conspiracy as a real and concrete part of American assassinations stems from the death of President Abraham Lincoln on April 15, 1865. In the aftermath of Lincoln’s assassination and the subsequent killing of his assassin twelve days later, a trial of eight of John Wilkes Booth’s alleged conspirators occurred. While there is much debate regarding the effect vengeance had on the meting out of justice in Lincoln’s case, there is no debate that a legitimate conspiracy existed in the death of our first president. At the same time that Lincoln was being shot at his box at Ford’s Theatre, William Seward, the Secretary of State, was viciously stabbed in his bed by a would-be assassin. “Coordinated assaults could mean only one thing: a conspiracy, and a well-developed one.”[1] The Union government’s primary goal in the aftermath of Lincoln’s death was to find all of those who had a hand in its execution, thus resulting in the trial of the conspirators. Of the seven men and one woman who were put on trial in 1865 for their involvement in Booth’s conspiracy, the evidence overwhelmingly supported knowledge of a plot for five of them. These men had been persuaded by Booth to join a conspiracy to abduct Abraham Lincoln from Washington and ferry him into the open arms of the Confederacy in Richmond. As the assassin himself wrote while on the run, “For six months we had worked to capture. But our cause being almost lost, something decisive & great must be done.”[2] It was the surrender of Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia to Union General Ulysses S. Grant’s Army of the Potomac on April 9, 1865 at Appomattox Courthouse and the impending end of the Civil War that caused Booth to change his plot from one of abduction to assassination. Some of those put on trial in 1865 joined him in the carrying out of Lincoln’s murder while some had left beforehand. Regardless of this distinction, in the eyes of the public, and the law, they were held vicariously liable for the death of Lincoln and the attempted assassination of William Seward. Their shared act of conspiracy first to kidnap and then to kill Lincoln bonded them together and showed to the public that the death of the Great Emancipator was not the act of a single man, but of a group. Occurred as it did, during the time of war in which a great many men had sealed themselves together in an act of rebellion against the United States, this conspiracy helped the public make sense of Lincoln’s death and put it into context. This established the precedential connection between presidential assassination and conspiracy in the minds of the American public.

However, it is important to point out that while there was a legitimate and established conspiracy involved in Abraham Lincoln’s death, the true precedent that was set in 1865 and became increasingly applicable to President Kennedy’s death in 1963 dealt with the assumption of a larger and more complex conspiracy. In his book, The Lincoln Murder Conspiracies, historian William Hanchett, devotes one whole chapter to the idea that the assassination of Lincoln was a “Grand Conspiracy” by the Confederacy. Even though the writing was on the wall regarding the collapse of the so called Confederate States, the open hostilities that had existed between the North and the South made the Confederates an extremely plausible, and even likely, scapegoat for the death of Lincoln. The investigation into Lincoln’s death led those at the highest heads of the government to vocally support the idea that Booth had acted not just of his own accord in support of the Confederacy, but as their approved agent. The final charges against the captured conspirators put on trial included the names of still at large officials of the Confederacy officially avowing that, “the assassination was the result of a grand conspiracy involving the Confederate leadership and the Copperhead Booth and his associates.”[3] Despite the government’s fully supported attempt to place the blame of Lincoln’s death at the feet of Jefferson Davis and other high ranking members of the Confederate government, their case was stymied by perjured witnesses and a lack of concrete evidence. Two future investigations including the 1867 impeachment investigation against President Andrew Johnson and the civilian trial of Booth conspirator John Surratt, once again failed to prove the existence of a grand Confederate plot. According to Hanchett, by 1869, “there was nothing left of [Judge Advocate General Joseph] Holt’s grand conspiracy except long-lingering bitterness.”[4]

So, too, was there the initial impression and belief that Lee Harvey Oswald’s crime was the result of a grand conspiracy with Communists being exchanged for Confederates as the puppet-master perpetrators. In the very first instance of Lyndon Johnson being addressed as “Mr. President” from a hallway inside Parkland Hospital in Dallas, Texas on November 22, 1963, Johnson was asked by assistant White House Press Secretary Mac Kilduff if he could announce President Kennedy’s death to the public. Johnson first nodded yes, before countermanding with, “No. Wait. We don’t know whether it’s a Communist conspiracy or not. I’d better get out of here and back on the plane.”[5] It is telling that Lyndon Johnson’s first reaction to Kennedy’s murder was the assumption of a Communist conspiracy. While the United States was not overtly at war with the Communists in 1963 in the same manner they were at war with the Confederates in 1865, Lyndon Johnson perfectly encapsulates the impression Kennedy’s murder had on those in power and the general populace due to the heightened level of fear during the Cold War era. As Max Holland, a Kennedy assassination researcher and Warren Commission chronicler, noted, “The overwhelming instant reaction among those [national security] officials was to suspect a grab for power, a foreign, Communist-limited conspiracy aimed at overthrowing the U.S. government.”[6] Immediate fear of the unknown in Kennedy’s death and the precedent of Lincoln’s death almost one hundred years earlier at the hands of an assumed grand conspiracy played into the public perception of what occurred in Dallas. The idea that Oswald was merely a cog in a Communist conspiracy was also influenced by another prior assassination – the death of William McKinley in 1901.

In 1901, almost forty years after the death of Lincoln, our country suffered its third assassination of a President. William McKinley was struck down while shaking hands with a queue of well-wishers at the Great Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, New York. A young man wearing what appeared to be a bandage around his right hand slowly made his way to the front of the line to greet McKinley. When McKinley reached for the man’s unbandaged left hand to order to shake it, two bullets emerged from a concealed pistol behind the handkerchief. The assassin was a 28 year old self-proclaimed anarchist named Leon Czolgosz. Unlike his forbearer of John Wilkes Booth, Czolgosz made no effort to run or evade capture after his crime. Instead, he did little to prevent bystanders from subduing and even attacking him in their rage. When interviewed after his arrest about his crime, Czolgosz stated, “I killed President McKinley because I done my duty. I didn’t believe one man should have so much service and another man should have none…I am an anarchist, a disciple of Emma Goldman. Her words set me on fire.”[7] In the same way Communism had become the sinister enemy facing the United States in Kennedy’s day, by the end of the 19th century, the threat to the world was the concept of anarchism and its teachings. Anarchist violence had already deprived the world of many leaders during the era including the King Umberto I of Italy just the year before. Czolgosz had been inspired by the killing of Umberto, carrying an article about his assassination in his pocket and purchasing the same type of handgun used by Umberto’s assassin for use in his own murder of McKinley.[8] Czolgosz’s identification as an anarchist led to a crackdown on known anarchists including the arrest of many anarchist leaders. “Telegrams went out from Buffalo headquarters to Chicago police, who arrested [anarchist Abe] Isaak and his family that night, and [Emma] Goldman within the next couple of days, charging them with conspiracy in the President’s shooting.”[9] These actions were taken despite Czolgosz’s own insistence that he was acting under his own accord and that, even under possible torture, he did not, “implicate anyone else.”[10] In the end, the investigators could find no overt connection between other anarchists and the murder of McKinley. Leon Czolgosz was no doubt inspired by the anarchists’ movement and their portrayal of a utopian society where the suffering borne from class oppression would be replaced with a commune and leaderless existence where each person worked and provided for the well-being of the whole. He also took great motivation from the violent anarchists who were a distinct subset of the aforementioned intellectual breed who spoke mostly in hypothetical terms. The violent anarchists believed the only way to bring about the desired leaderless and utopian society was through the removal of all leaders through direct action. By killing McKinley, Czolgosz desired to prove his worth as an anarchist.

Due to Czolgosz’s status of a self-proclaimed anarchist and the subsequent arrest of anarchist leaders, it was easy for the press of the day to portray McKinley’s death as a conspiracy, even though such a view was not supported by the authorities. “There is reason to believe,” the New York Herald newspaper reported, “that other anarchists stand ready to complete the work of Czolgosz if the President recovers.”[11] Even after the mania stage of McKinley’s shooting and death subsided and the investigators officially dismissed any notion that others were directly involved in the president’s death, the idea of conspiracy remained present in explaining the assassin’s actions. At his trial, both the defense and the prosecution made note of how much Czolgosz had been effected by language and allure of the anarchist circles. While no other anarchist leaders were put on trial next to him (as had been the case in the death of Abraham Lincoln), anarchism, as a concept, was tried to the same degree in the court of public opinion.

In the same way John Wilkes Booth wrote sympathetically of the Confederacy and anarchist propaganda was loving collected by McKinley’s murderer, so, too, were Communist writings discovered in Lee Harvey Oswald’s home by investigators. Writing in his you are there style, lawyer turned author Vincent Bugliosi described the search of Oswald’s rooming house. “The detectives are particularly struck and alarmed by the stuff in Russian and the left wing literature. It’s not the kind of thing they find too often in Dallas. There’s a letter…in Russian from the Soviet embassy in Washington, and another from someone called Louis Weinstock of the Communist Party’s paper, the Worker.”[12] Throughout the investigation it became increasingly clear that, similar to the case of Leon Czolgosz sixty years earlier, Lee Harvey Oswald had been well educated in a system believed to be very much at odds with the Presidency of the United States. Yet, an education alone does not mean one was part of a conspiracy. Oswald may have been motivated by his Communist beliefs to murder Kennedy in the same way that Czolgosz was motivated by his anarchist beliefs, but legitimate investigations failed to uncover any overt connections between Oswald and a greater conspiracy.

In talking to reporters in the early hours of November 23rd, Dallas District Attorney Henry Wade (of later Roe v. Wade fame) was asked, “Are you willing to say whether you think this man [Oswald] was inspired as a Communist or whether he is simply a nut or middleman?” Wade replied, “I’ll put it this way, I don’t think he’s a nut.”[13] The reporter who phrased this question was channeling another precedent set by presidential assassins in American history. While conspiracy had been an overarching theme and one that could be traced to Lincoln’s death in 1865, the question of mental instability had always gone hand in hand with conspiracy. There was a societal expectation that those who engaged in such heinous acts, such as the murders of the heads of state, must have suffered from severe mental disorders. This expectation was likely reinforced due to the case of another prior presidential assassin.

On July 2, 1881, President James Garfield was shot at a Washington, D.C. train depot by assassin, Charles Guiteau. A barely qualified lawyer by profession, Guiteau was a unique combination of religious zealot, grifter, and delusional dreamer. From an early age, Guiteau had grandiose dreams about his own self-worth and prospects for the future. When he became a lawyer (an easier task in those days than today) he filled his business cards with the names of well-known businessmen he had barely met and bragged that his office building had an elevator.[14] Ever trying to improve his lot in life, Guiteau attempted to drift into politics, a realm where a man of his assumed talents could truly prosper. During the Presidential election of 1880, Guiteau put himself firmly behind the Republican ticket and its candidate, James Garfield, hoping to hitch his own wagon to that of the prospective president. Before Garfield became the Republican nominee, Guiteau was convinced that U. S. Grant would take to the White House again and wrote a speech extolling the virtues of the former President and the need for his leadership once again. When Garfield, not Grant, became the nominee, Guiteau adapted his speech by merely changing the names and little else. Through shameless tenacity, Guiteau managed to convince Chester A. Arthur, Garfield’s running mate, to allow him to give a short stump speech for the pair in New York. According to historian Candice Millard, this insignificant act – the recitation of a hurried and half heard speech by a complete stranger – convinced Guiteau that he, “had played a pivotal role in putting Garfield in the White House, and that it should certainly guarantee him a position of prominence in the administration.”[15] When Garfield was elected to the Presidency, Guiteau truly believed his reward for all of his hard work was soon at hand and that an ambassadorship was in his near future.

Charles Guiteau arrived in Washington, D.C. the day after Garfield’s inauguration eager to attain the position he felt himself rightfully owed. Lacking any sense of tact or shame, he repeatedly wrote and visited the White House ready to be given an ambassadorship to France. He even met with President Garfield in the White House regarding his request, giving the President a copy of his speech and relating his own qualifications for the job. To Garfield, however, Charles Guiteau was just one of the many unqualified office seekers who flooded the White House looking for a handout. Garfield treated the man kindly the first time they met, but had no inclination to give him any sort of position. Months went by, with Guiteau making repeated calls to the White House and State Department, addressing many notes and letters to the President, though he never met with him again. At first, the delusional Guiteau truly believed that his application was being considered and reviewed and that his ambassadorship was only a matter of time. But the normal protocol of ignoring office seekers and waiting them out did not work with Guiteau. His delusions were of such a degree that he would not give up on his goal. Guiteau truly felt he deserved a consul position and that he would get one. Eventually, Secretary of State James Blaine lost all patience with the man and told him that he had, “no prospect whatever of receiving,” an appointment with the government and that he should, “never speak to me about the Paris consulship again.”[16]

Stung by Sec. Blaine’s response, Guiteau began writing to Garfield informing him that he must fire Blaine at once and that the man would cause his downfall if allowed to remain in his administration. He continued to visit the White House hoping to speak with Garfield but as Millard put it, eventually, “Guiteau’s eccentricity and doggedness turned into belligerence,” and he was barred from the White House.[17] Over the next few weeks, Guiteau’s mind began to reflect on his own mistreatment and further embraced a religious zealotry that he had learned from his youth. By the end of May, 1881, Charles Guiteau had convinced himself that God wanted him to kill James Garfield. “The Lord inspired me to attempt to remove the President in preference to some one else, because I had brains and the nerve to do the work. The Lord always employs the best material to do His work,” Guiteau later explained.[18]

In the aftermath of Guiteau’s crime, which he finally enacted on July 2nd, the assassin was very vocal about how God had chosen him to remove Garfield. He was only an instrument of God’s will on earth and therefore he could not be tried or convicted by men. The conspiracy behind James Garfield’s death was quickly understood by the public to be the imagined conspiracy in Guiteau’s unstable mind between himself and God. Insanity was the conspiracy that satisfied the public in their quest to understand Garfield’s murder. Lincoln was killed by a group of conspirators, many men poised against one. Though Garfield was killed by a single man, that man was mad and completely outside the realm of normal society and expectation. There was no need to pin Garfield’s death on a more complex conspiracy in this case as the public more widely understood and accepted Guiteau as being crazy. Garfield’s death was still an event to be lamented and mourned, but there was no uncertainty behind it that required a specter of conspiracy for understanding.

Thus, when Dallas D.A. Henry Wade gave the press his opinion on November 23, 1963, that Lee Harvey Oswald wasn’t, “a nut”, he gave credence to the only other mode of understanding that the public had experience with – conspiracy. Interestingly, this opinion also helped put into motion the event that would help to solidify the idea of conspiracy in Kennedy’s death: the subsequent murder of Lee Harvey Oswald by Jack Ruby. The owner of popular night clubs in Dallas and deeply affected by the President’s death, Ruby had been drawn to the police headquarters much like Charles Guiteau had been drawn to the White House for his ambassadorship. Through confidence alone, Ruby managed to gain entrance into the police headquarters and ingratiated himself with the press reporting on the assassination. He was present when Oswald was first brought before the press. “I felt I was deputized as a reporter momentarily,” Ruby later said.[19] Ruby introduced a disc jockey from the local KLIF radio station named Russ Knight to Henry Wade, the D.A. Knight later mentioned that, “Ruby was insistent that I ask Wade if Oswald were insane,” which he did and was informed that, “Oswald was not insane and that the President’s murder was premeditated.”[20] This information regarding Oswald’s sanity was important to Jack Ruby who already felt that Oswald deserved to die for what he had done to the country and Mrs. Kennedy. However, had the belief been that Oswald was of unsound mind through the police’s initial rounds of questioning, this may have made an impact on Ruby. It’s impossible to know for certain, but Ruby, who was accused of being mentally unstable himself after his own arrest, may have altered his plans to kill Oswald if he had reason to believe Oswald was not responsible for his actions. Without any such extenuating circumstances however, Jack Ruby took justice into his own hands and shot Lee Harvey Oswald in front of live television crews as the assassin was being escorted through the Dallas police headquarters’ basement on November 24, 1963. Oswald was rushed to a hospital where he would be pronounced dead during emergency surgery about an hour and a half later and Jack Ruby was taken into police custody. As he was being taken up in the police headquarters’ elevator from the basement, Ruby stated to the policemen all around him, “Somebody had to do it, you guys couldn’t.”[21]

Lee Harvey Oswald died almost exactly 48 hours after his victim, President Kennedy. During his brief time in police custody, he denied having anything to do with JFK’s assassination and his few writings contain no reason for it. During his limited times in front of the press while being shuffled from different rooms at headquarters, Oswald feigned ignorance of the whole affair even going so far as to state the infamous, “I’m just a patsy!” line that conspiracy theorists continue to cling to today.[22] However, as many of those who interviewed Oswald before his death stated, it was obvious that Oswald was putting the police and FBI through the motions as a form of sick punishment or comeuppance for their former surveillance of him and his Communist activities. The police and press alike described Oswald’s attitude during his interrogations as “arrogant,” “defiant,” and “stoic.”[23] In the aftermath of his crime, Oswald was enjoying himself. He had brought a country to its knees and now had all the attention placed on himself. But the sense of power and control he maintained at the Dallas police station would not have lasted forever. Just before his ill-fated escort to the basement of the headquarters in order to be transferred to the county jail, Secret Service Agent Forrest Sorrels noted a change in Oswald’s demeanor. “I felt he was less arrogant,” Sorrells later said, “more ready to break.”[24] It seems likely that Oswald’s arrogant façade would have broken as the walls came closing in on him in county lock up and he was less available to the press to feed his desire for importance.

Oswald’s murder before he could express his reason for killing Kennedy and be put on trial for it created an uncomfortable hole in the minds and hearts of the American people. A similar hole had been created in 1865 when John Wilkes Booth was cornered and killed twelve days after shooting the President, but the trial and execution of his conspirators helped to satisfy the public in feeling that Lincoln had been properly avenged. Even though Charles Guiteau was deemed insane he likewise paid the ultimate price for murdering Garfield while Leon Czolgosz also suffered trial and execution for killing McKinley. After Oswald’s death on November 24, 1963 at the hands of a private citizen, Jack Ruby, the public lacked a person to punish properly for a President’s murder. Unlike Booth, Oswald did not have any conspirators to take his place. The government did its best to press on in making sense of Kennedy’s death, even as millions of private individuals struggled to do so. Less than a year after the assassination in Dallas, the President’s Commission on the Assassination of President Kennedy released their reports on the evidence in the case. Known as the Warren Commission, their report, “included an 888-page summary, twenty-six volumes of supporting documents, testimony or depositions of 552 witnesses, and more than 3,100 exhibits.”[25] The commission concluded, beyond a reasonable doubt, that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone in shooting John F. Kennedy from the sixth floor of the Texas School Book Depository.

Why then, with such detailed and voluminous evidence pointing to Oswald as the lone gunman, is the story of President Kennedy’s death so fraught with outlandish conspiracy theories that place the blame on a multitude of others? As has already been discussed, Oswald’s denials, closely crafted words during his brief period in police custody, and the unexpected nature of his death created a lack of resolution in the mind of the public which often turned to suspicion and paranoia. Violent crime is something that a society is programmed to abhor. There is a natural tendency to attempt to dehumanize any perpetrator of an overtly violent act. This is one reason we often portray violent criminals as being “crazy” or “insane”. The label of insanity serves to help us feel separate from those who commit crimes. It reinforces the idea that there is something fundamentally wrong with them, and prevents us from having to face the possibility that we may be capable of the same violent act under different circumstances. Historian James W. Clarke, in his book American Assassins, took a psychological approach in writing about those who have tried to take the life of the chief executive. Clarke groups the different men and women into different categories based on their upbringings, life experiences, and character traits. In the case of Oswald, Clarke classified him as an, “anxious, emotional, and ultimately depressed person who is primarily concerned with his or her personal problems and frustrations and only secondarily with causes or ideals.”[26] While Oswald may have had political feelings about the United States’ treatment of Cuba and communism, he did not act out of a purely political ideal. He was not like Booth who was willing to sacrifice himself on behalf of the Confederacy, nor was he Czolgosz who sought to prove his worth to the anarchism community. Neither was Oswald a Charles Guiteau, so irrational that he was unable to grasp the response his crime would bring. Even after taking into account the many failed assassins that had preceded him, Clarke still determined Oswald to have been the first assassin of his type, making him an outlying point of data that could not be easily understood in his day.

In the end it has been Lee Harvey Oswald’s enigmatic nature that has helped conspiracy theories about Kennedy’s death spread and grow. The day before he gunned Oswald down in the police basement, Jack Ruby verbalized the same thoughts that millions of people had (and continue to have) regarding the man who shot the President: “It’s hard to realize that a complete nothing, a zero like that could kill a man like President Kennedy. It’s hard to understand how a complete nothing could have done this.”[27] This true and honest assessment of Lee Harvey Oswald as “a complete nothing” is at the heart of all of the conspiracy theories in Kennedy’s death. Those who portray Oswald as a framed bystander, a patsy, or a merely the trigger finger of a shadowy organization suffer from the same inability as Jack Ruby to make sense of the incongruity between Oswald and his victim. Kennedy historian William Manchester makes the most eloquent argument regarding why many believe, and will continue to believe, that John F. Kennedy’s death was the result of a conspiracy. Manchester invokes the image of a scale as a way in which we try to make sense of a great tragedy. Using the Holocaust as an example, he relates that, “if you put six million dead Jews on one side…and on the other side put the Nazi regime – the greatest gang of criminals ever to seize control of a modern state – you have a rough balance: greatest crime, greatest criminals.” But, when it comes to the death of President Kennedy, the scale between Kennedy and the “zero” Oswald does not balance: “You want to add something weightier to Oswald. It would invest the President’s death with meaning, endowing it with martyrdom. He would have died for something.”[28] We have a psychological desire to balance that scale. Balance brings comfort and understanding. It reaffirms to us that society is just and stable and that only huge events and huge people can be at the cause of such massive suffering such as the loss of a President. And so conspiracy theorists look for more to put on Oswald’s side. They use misconstrued “evidence” and faulty reasoning to place Oswald on top of a massive house of cards, hoping to balance him with the greatness that is President Kennedy. But the truth is that the scales rarely, if ever, truly balance. Booth and his legitimate band of his conspirators don’t balance out the greatness that was Abraham Lincoln. Charles Guiteau’s insanity doesn’t balance out the promise that was James Garfield. Leon Czolgosz and his anarchism didn’t balance the representational American government that William McKinley embodied. In the end, conspiracy theories are nothing more than misguided coping strategies – faulty tools we invent for ourselves to help us make sense of what is actually a chaotic and random world. As strange as it seems, there’s a comfort in the concept of conspiracy. It creates a group of unspecified “others” that can be blamed or railed against when things go wrong or tragedies happen. But, as nice as this may seem, conspiracy theories also prevent us from developing real strategies for addressing and dealing with problems both in our public and private lives. Conspiracy theories provide a scapegoat for our troubles, but deny us a path for healing and growth. American presidential assassins share this in common with the conspiracy theorists in that each group fail to develop healthy means to interact with the world around them and choose, instead, to lash out at those they blame for their lack of control.

The idea of conspiracy has played a role in the public’s understanding of every assassination of an American president, but it has not always manifested the same way. In the introduction to his book, James Clarke wrote that, “many of the thoughts and emotions of some of the [assassins] may be disturbingly familiar to a good number; the beast slumbers in us all.”[29] In the case of President John F. Kennedy, for example, the conspiracy Lee Harvey Oswald was engaged in that led him to shoot from his sixth floor window in Dallas was not a conspiracy of men, but a conspiracy of neuroses from within his own mind. Oswald could not rectify his life and failures, and the 35th President of the United States paid the price.


[1] Michael W. Kauffman, American Brutus: John Wilkes Booth and the Lincoln Conspiracies (New York: Random House, 2004), 24.
[2] Kauffman, American Brutus, 399.
[3] William Hanchett, The Lincoln Murder Conspiracies (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1986), 64 – 65.
[4] Hanchett, Lincoln Murder Conspiracies, 89.
[5] Vincent Bugliosi, Four Days in November: The Assassination of President John F. Kennedy (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2007), 119.
[6] Bugliosi, Four Days in November, 121.
[7] Jack C. Fisher, Stolen Glory: The McKinley Assassination (La Jolla (CA): Alamar Books, 2001), 93 – 94.
[8] Fisher, Stolen Glory, 9.
[9] Eric Rauchway, Murdering McKinley: The Making of Theodore Roosevelt’s America (New York: Hill and Wang, 2003), 19.
[10] Rauchway, Murdering McKinley, 31.
[11] Fisher, Stolen Glory, 91.
[12] Bugliosi, Four Days in November, 215.
[13] Ibid., 307.
[14] Candice Millard, Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine, and the Murder of a President (New York: Anchor Books, 2011), 59.
[15] Millard, Destiny of the Republic, 111.
[16] Ibid., 125.
[17] Ibid., 134.
[18] Ibid., 137
[19] Gerald Posner, Case Closed: Lee Harvey Oswald and the Assassination of JFK (New York: Anchor Books, 1993), 378.
[20] Posner, Case Closed, 379.
[21] Steven M. Gillon, Lee Harvey Oswald: 48 Hours to Live (New York: Sterling, 2013), 127.
[22] Bugliosi, Four Days in November, 256.
[23] Gillon, Lee Harvey Oswald, 78 – 79.
[24] Ibid., 119.
[25] Ibid., 137.
[26] James W. Clarke, American Assassins: The Darker Side of Politics (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1982), 15.
[27] Posner, Case Closed, 377 – 378.
[28] Ibid., 469.
[29] Clarke, American Assassins, 16 – 17.

Categories: History | Tags: , , , | 6 Comments

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6 thoughts on “Conspiracy in Presidential Assassinations

  1. Carlo Rosati

    You’re doing great. Good luck.

    Carlo J. Rosati

  2. Lane Zangwill

    Did you search for conspiracy thoughts on attempted presidential Assassinations,as in Reagan?

    • Lane, I decided to stay focused solely on the four successful presidential assassinations and, since the class was centered around Kennedy, I didn’t look beyond his era for the purpose of my paper.

  3. Dave Greene

    Great job, Dave! I’d give you a solid A+ on that. Your historical outline of our tendency to lean toward conspiracies is very well presented and rational. Congratulations.
    Dave

  4. Todd B

    Posner’s book Case Closed is the best book on the Kennedy assassination. His level of research is remarkable.

  5. Paul Hancq

    Thank you for posting this, Dave. There are some great insights here!

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