The Assassination of John F Kennedy – a summary

It’s become a cliche but people who remember John F Kennedy’s assassination in 1963, can usually say exactly what they were doing when they first heard the shocking news. It was a defining moment of the second half of the twentieth century.

On 21 November 1963, President Kennedy, accompanied by the First Lady, travelled to Texas, where he was scheduled to make a number of appearances in a bid to drum up support for the Democratic Party prior to the 1964 general election.

Not everyone, however, was convinced of the wisdom of such a journey. Some White House officials, worried that the President would receive a hostile reception from voters in what was a staunchly Republican State, advised against it.  But characteristically, Kennedy rebuffed their concerns, insisting that a trip to ‘nut country’ was necessary. He reportedly said to Jackie: ‘if somebody wants to shoot me, […] nobody can stop it, so why worry about it?’

22 November 1963

The following day, 22 November 1963, at 12.30pm, President Kennedy was travelling in an open top car through the streets of Dallas when three loud rifle shots rang through the air, apparently shot from the sixth floor of the nearby Book Depository building. According to official reports, the first of these bullets missed its mark, while the second penetrated the back of the President’s neck. Kennedy’s steel-boned back brace which he wore to alleviate his constant pain held Kennedy in a upright position, despite his wound – allowing the final, fatal shot to strike the back of his head. (Pictured, President Kennedy with the First Lady, shortly before his assassination, 22 November 1963. Click on image to enlarge).

In the ensuing chaos, the presidential limousine sped to nearby Parkland Memorial Hospital, where surgeons tried in vain to save Kennedy’s life – in all probability, the impact of the third bullet had killed him instantly. At 1pm local time the 35th President of the United States was pronounced dead.  He was forty-six years old.

Less than two hours later, on the tarmac of Dallas Love Field airport, Lyndon Baines Johnson was sworn in as President on board Air Force One. Standing by his side was the former First Lady, a crimson-red bloodstain despoiling her stylish pink suit.

A little over an hour after the shooting of President Kennedy, Lee Harvey Oswald – a disaffected former US Marine who had once tried, unsuccessfully, to defect to Soviet Union – was arrested on suspicion of Kennedy’s murder. Unfortunately, he was not given an opportunity to defend himself against the allegations levelled against him – two days later, as President Kennedy’s body lay in State in the Capitol rotunda in Washington DC, Oswald was shot by nightclub owner, Jack Ruby, while in police custody. (Pictured, Lee Harvey Oswald’s arrest card).


Almost immediately, various conspiracy theories began to surface. Among the most popular were allegations that Oswald was not in fact a ‘lone gunman’, that he was merely a pawn in a sordid assassination plot, masterminded by FBI boss, J Edgar Hoover. Another conjecture, which gained traction at the time, cast Fidel Castro as the villain of the piece, accusing him of murdering Kennedy in revenge for a rumoured CIA-backed attempt on his life.

However, while no definitive proof has ever emerged to support these hypotheses, neither have they been irrefutably disproven, despite various governmental inquiries into the assassination – most notably the Warren Commission, established by President Johnson a few days after Kennedy’s funeral. Consequently much like the fascinating circumstances of his extraordinary life, the controversies surrounding John Fitzgerald Kennedy’s untimely death continue to fascinate even now, almost fifty years later.

Lee Harvey Oswald

Lee Harvey Oswald was born two months after his father’s death on 18 October 1939 in New Orleans. A troublesome student, Oswald was referred to a psychiatrist in his early teens. He was diagnosed with a ‘personality disorder’, now thought to have been schizophrenia, but did not receive any treatment. In 1956, he joined the US Marines, where he became a skilled marksman. Oswald, however, harboured Communist sympathies and, in 1959 he left the United States for the Soviet Union.

In 1961, after a six-week courtship, Oswald married Marina Nikolayevna Prusakova in Minsk. The couple’s first child was born in February 1962. Having been unsuccessful in his bid to gain Soviet citizenship, the family returned to the US in June.

In October 1963, just before the birth of his second daughter, Oswald started work at the Texas Book Depository in Dallas. Six weeks later, he allegedly smuggled his rifle into the building and shot President Kennedy from a sixth floor window. Forty-five minutes after the assassination, Oswald allegedly shot a policeman before being arrested a little time later while taking refuge in a movie theatre. Oswald was shot in the abdomen by Jack Ruby on 24 November 1963 as authorities were preparing to transfer him to county jail. He died at around 1pm at Parkland Memorial Hospital.

Jack Ruby

Jack Ruby was born Jacob Rubenstein on 25 March 1911, in Chicago, Illinois. The son of Polish émigrés, he was the fifth of eight surviving children. Jack had a difficult childhood, and spent some time in care at foster homes.

In 1943, Ruby was drafted into the United States Air Army Forces and was honourably discharged in 1946, after which time he became involved in the nightclub business. He was also rumoured to have been involved in organised crime.

On 24 November 1963, Ruby shot Lee Harvey Oswald in the abdomen as authorities were preparing to transfer Oswald to county jail. The assassination was captured by a number of television cameras and was broadcast live to the nation. On 14 March 1964, Ruby was found guilty of the Oswald’s murder and sentenced to death. Ruby appealed both the conviction and the sentence, but died of lung cancer on 3 January 1967, before his appeal came to court.

Sinead Fitzgibbon

Read more in JFK: History In An Hourpublished by Harper Press, and available in various digital formats and as downloadable audio.

See also Sinead’s articles on Joseph P Kennedy, his father, Jacqueline Kennedy and the inauguration of JFK and the early life of John F Kennedy.