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The Amateur Hit Man

1.

The mystery of Oswald subsumes the enigma of Jack Ruby. Yet if the first mystery has haunted the American intelligence establishment with the fear that it is implicated, Jack Ruby buggers reasonable comprehension for the rest of us. A minor thug from the streets of Chicago with a mentally unbalanced and often hospitalized mother, he has Mob connections. While they are no more impressive than those cherished by a hundred thousand other petty hoodlums in fifty American cities—which is to say, connections so tenuous and yet so familial that one can make a whole case or no case out of the same material—he has grown up among the Mob, and is on a first-name basis with Mob figures of the middle ranks. He is of the Mob in the specific values of his code, and yet never a formal member in any way—too wacky, too eager, too obsessed with himself, too Jewish even for the Jewish Mob. All the same, he is pure Mafia in one part of his spirit—he wants to be known as a patriot in love with his country and his people. He is loyal. Select him and you will not make a mistake.

We all know his famous story or cover story. He was grief-stricken by the death of JFK, so bereaved that he shut down his strip-joints for the weekend, and was so appalled at the possibility that Jacqueline Kennedy might have to come to Dallas to testify in Oswald’s trial that he decided to shoot the accused—“the creep,” as he would call him. But only at the last moment did he so decide. No premeditation. At 11:17 on Sunday morning, after waiting on line at a Western Union office to send $25 to one of his strippers who was desperately in need of money, he crussed the street, went down the ramp into police headquarters, and ran smack into Oswald, who was being filmed by TV cameras in the basement as he walked with his police escort to a car that would take him to the County Jail. There, imprinting the American mind forever with the open-mouthed expression of the victim and the squint-eyed disbelief of his guards, Ruby killed Oswald. Never before in history was a death witnessed by so many people giving full attention to their television sets. Much of the world now believed that Ruby was a Mafia hit man. The logic of such an inference suggested a conspiracy not only to kill Kennedy but Oswald as well, because he knew too much.

The concept, clear as a good movie scenario, ran into one confusion that has never been resolved: Why was Ruby standing on line in Western Union waiting his turn to send $25 to a stripper while time kept floating away and Oswald might be moved at any moment? The question could not be answered. How many confederates—and most of them had to be police—would be necessary to coordinate such a move? No one who is the key figure in a careful schedule that will reach its climax just as the target is being transferred is going to be found dawdling across the street at a Western Union office with only a few minutes to go. It would take hours for a stage director to begin to choreograph such a scene for an opera.

Ruby himself would say in the last interview he gave before he died of cancer that there was no way he could have been part of any calculation to bring him there at just the instant Oswald passed unless “it was the most perfect conspiracy in the history of the world…the difference in meeting this fate was thirty seconds one way or the other.”1

So, the death of Oswald is filled with the groans of thwarted logic. Yet never on the face of it has a crime seemed to belong more to the Mafia.

In a brilliant book exploring the rifts within the American Establishment, The Yankee and Cowboy War, Carl Oglesby was the first to advance the notion that Ruby was trying to tell Earl Warren that the Mafia certainly did order him to commit the deed. If Warren would just fly him, Jack Ruby, back to Washington on that same day, he, Jack Ruby, could furnish Warren with all the truth and, to prove it, would take a lie detector test on the spot.

As one reads these declarations in Jack Ruby’s testimony, it is difficult not to believe that Oglesby is right. In the course of a half hour, Ruby repeats his request five times.

Mr. Ruby: Is there any way to get me to Washington?

Chief Justice Warren: I beg your pardon?

Mr. Ruby: Is there any way of you getting me to Washington?

Chief Justice Warren: I don’t know of any. I will be glad to talk toyour counsel about what the situation is, Mr. Ruby, when we get an opportunity to talk.

Mr. Ruby: I don’t think I will get a fair representation with my counsel, Joe Tonahill. I don’t think so…2

He disavows Joe Tonahill. He is all but saying that he cannot know whom his lawyer is working for.

In another minute, he repeats himself:

Mr. Ruby: …Gentlemen, unless you get me to Washington, you can’t get a fair shake out of me.

If you understand my way of talking, you have got to bring me to Washington to get the tests.

Do I sound dramatic? Off the beam?

Chief Justice Warren: No; you are speaking very rationally, and I am really surprised that you can remember as much as you have remembered up to the present time.

You have given it to us in detail.

Mr. Ruby: Unless you can get me to Washington, and I am not a crackpot, I have all my senses—I don’t want to evade any crime I am guilty of.3

Five minutes go by. They speak of other matters. Then Ruby pushes his request again, even takes it another step:

Mr. Ruby: Gentlemen, if you want to hear any further testimony, you will have to get me to Washington soon, because it has something to do with you, Chief Warren.

Do I sound sober enough to tell you this?

Chief Justice Warren: Yes; go right ahead.

Mr. Ruby: I want to tell the truth, and I can’t tell it here. I can’t tell it here. Does that make sense to you?

Chief Justice Warren: Well, let’s not talk about sense. But I really can’t see why you can’t tell this Commission.4

Well, he can’t. Not in Dallas. Ruby all but shrieks at them: You dummies!—can’t you see that I can’t tell it here? You people don’t run this town. You can’t protect me in Dallas. I’ll get knifed in my cell, and the guards will be looking the other way.

Mr. Ruby: …My reluctance to talk—you haven’t had any witness in telling the story, in finding so many problems?

Chief Justice Warren: You have a greater problem than any witness we ever had.

Mr. Ruby: I have a lot of reasons for having those problems… If you request me to go back to Washington with you right now, that couldn’t be done, could it?

Chief Justice Warren: No; it could not be done. It could not be done. There are a good many things involved in that, Mr. Ruby.

Mr. Ruby: What are they?

Chief Justice Warren: Well, the public attention that it would attract, and the people who would be around. We have no place there for you to be safe when we take you out, and there are not law enforcement officers, and it isn’t our responsibility to go into anything of that kind…5

Ruby tries to explain it to them in the simplest terms. “Gentlemen, my life is in danger.” Then he adds, “Not with my guilty plea of execution.” (He has been sentenced to death by a jury in Dallas.) No, he is trying to tell them: I will be killed a lot sooner than that.

Mr. Ruby: …Do I sound sober enough to you as I say this?

Chief Justice Warren: You do. You sound entirely sober.

Mr. Ruby: From the moment I started my testimony, have I sounded as though, with the exception of becoming emotional, have I sounded as though I made sense, what I was speaking about?

Chief Justice Warren: You have indeed. I understood everything you have said. If I haven’t, it is my fault.

Mr. Ruby: Then I follow this up. I may not live tomorrow to give any further testimony…the only thing I want to get out to the public, and I can’t say it here, is with authenticity, with sincerity of the truth of everything and why my act was committed, but it can’t be said here…

Chairman Warren, if you felt that your life was in danger at the moment, how would you feel? Wouldn’t you be reluctant to go on speaking, even though you request me to do so?

Chief Justice Warren: I think I might have some reluctance if I was in your position, yes; I should think I would. I think I would figure it out very carefully as to whether it would endanger me or not.

If you think that anything that I am doing or anything that I am asking you is endangering you in any way, shape, or form, I want you to feel absolutely free to say that when the interview is over.

Mr. Ruby: What happens then? I didn’t accomplish anything.

Chief Justice Warren: No; nothing has been accomplished.

Mr. Ruby: Well, then you won’t follow up with anything further?

Chief Justice Warren: There wouldn’t be anything to follow up if you hadn’t completed your statement.

Mr. Ruby: You said you have the power to do what you want to do, is that correct?

Chief Justice Warren: Exactly.

Mr. Ruby: Without any limitations?

Chief Justice Warren:…We have the right to take testimony of anyone we want in this whole situation, and we have the right…to verify that statement in any way that we wish to do it.

Mr. Ruby: But you don’t have a right to take a prisoner back with you when you want to?

Chief Justice Warren: No; we have the power to subpoena witnesses to Washington if we want to do it, but we have taken the testimony of 200 or 300 people, I would imagine, here in Dallas without going to Washington.

Mr. Ruby: Yes; but those people aren’t Jack Ruby.

Chief Justice Warren: No; they weren’t.

Mr. Ruby: They weren’t.6

In the pause, Ruby tries to inform them of the incalculable depth of the peril he feels:

Mr. Ruby: I tell you, gentlemen, my whole family is in jeopardy. My sisters, as to their lives.

Chief Justice Warren: Yes?

Mr. Ruby: Naturally, I am a foregone conclusion. My sisters Eva, Eileen, and Mary…

My brothers Sam, Earl, Hyman, and myself naturally—my in-laws, Harold Kaminsky, Marge Ruby, the wife of Earl, and Phyllis, the wife of Sam Ruby, the are in jeopardy of loss of their lives…just because they are blood related to myself—does that sound serious enough for you, Chief Justice Warren?

Chief Justice Warren: Nothing could be more serious, if that is the fact…7

  1. 1

    Interview of Jack Ruby by Lawrence Schiller, 1996, Copyright © Alskog, Inc.

  2. 2

    Testimony given before the Warren Commission is hereafter abbreviated as WC Testimony. Vol. V, p. 190.

  3. 3

    WC Testimony, Vol. V, p. 191.

  4. 4

    WC Testimony, Vol. V, p. 194.

  5. 5

    WC Testimony, Vol. V, p. 195.

  6. 6

    WC Testimony, Vol. V, p. 196.

  7. 7

    WC Testimony, Vol. V, p. 197.

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