The month of November means different things to different types of people. To some, it means the end of baseball season and the beginning of basketball season. To others, it means Thanksgiving and the start of the Holidays. And to a certain kind of restless mind, it means the anniversary of the most notorious crime in the history of humanity: the November 22, 1963 of President John F. Kennedy.
Get your tinfoil hat ready, because though the assassination was almost 52 years ago, fascination with the case has not abated, and recent polling suggests that only 20% of Americans believe the Warren Commission’s finding that Lee Harvey Oswald committed the murder unassisted. If you’re eager to re-litigate the facts of the case, there are three different documentaries about it on HISTORY’s H2 channel, all available now On Demand.
First up: a 2004 episode of Investigating History focused on the assassination. The show presents the evidence of the case and puts it through a fresh forensic analysis, using new technologies not available to the Warren Commission, in hopes of clarifying or uncovering new information. For example, a Dallas motorcycle cop whose radio was accidentally stuck in transmit mode unwittingly recorded the entire event, and new acoustic analysis suggests that there were five shots fired in Dealey Plaza, not three, which if true conclusively proves that Oswald had help, as only three shots were fired from his rifle in the School Book Depository. The episode also looks at the so-called “Magic Bullet” theory, and comes up with some surprising conclusions about the likelihood of a single shot killing Kennedy and hitting Texas Governor John Connally in two different places. The dubious handling of the evidence in the immediate aftermath of the shooting is also lamented: had investigators not touched shell casings and Oswald’s rifle with their bare hands, modern forensic techniques might well have uncovered useful evidence. Not that it was all necessarily accidental: the Secret Service broke Texas law by taking Kennedy’s body back to Washington, DC for the autopsy, and immediately cleaned all the blood out of the limousine, thus destroying invaluable forensic evidence.
Next up: History’s 2013 special commemorating the 50th anniversary of the assassination, JFK Assassination: The Definitive Guide, a two-hour exploration of a wide range of theories surrounding the event. With participation from noted former prosecutor and true crime author Vincent Bugliosi, former PBS anchor Robert Macneil, author Gerald Posner, lead counsel on the 1976 Congressional Committee on Assassinations G. Robert Blakey, and more, this is an exhaustive examination of the many theories about who was behind the assassination: the Mob, the CIA, the Russians, the Cubans, even the driver of the limousine, with each theory presented, forwarded, and rebutted fairly. Bugliosi and Posner, for example, are firm believers in the Warren Commission, whereas Macneil and Blakey are skeptics. A pair of forensic firearms experts who test the rifle Oswald used to see whether the shot was even possible are even split on whether Oswald could have pulled it off. Some of this stuff is compelling, like the Umbrella Man – why was there a man holding an umbrella on a windy, sunny day at the exact spot where Kennedy was shot? Was it a signal to the various shooters around Dealey Plaza? – which is a detail I had never seen before, and some of it is ridiculous, like the idea that Kennedy was killed because he was about to reveal the truth about aliens crash-landing at Roswell. While this special doesn’t take a firm stand about who’s right and who’s wrong about any particular theory, it does show through polling conducted by History what percentage of Americans believe in each detail or theory.
Finally, we have a tight focus on the man at the center of it all with the two-hour special Lee Harvey Oswald: 48 Hours to Live, presenting a minute-to-minute recounting of the two day period that began with Kennedy’s killing and ending with Oswald’s death in police custody at the hands of Mob-connected nightclub owner Jack Ruby. This one relies heavily on re-enactments, which is a little cheesy but also very helpful in visualizing these events that we’ve all read so much about over the years but seem so remote they’re hard to imagine: Oswald shooting police officer JD Tippitt in front of several eyewitnesses, Oswald at the movie theater, Oswald’s interrogation by Dallas PD, Oswald’s untimely demise. But the special doesn’t just follow Oswald; the activities within the same 48-hour period of related actors like Jack Ruby, and the investigators as they collected the evidence that led the police to Oswald just 90 minutes after the shooting. This special does not really address any theory other than the one presented by the Warren Commision, that Oswald acted alone, but taken together with the other specials, some of the irregularities in the official story – such as the astonishing fact that Ruby, a man with known Mob ties, was allowed to pretty much camp out at the Dallas jail for two days while carrying a .38 while the place was on total security lockdown – stand out.
Anyone with an interest in this case – which I’d imagine includes any American with a natural sense of curiosity – can post up and bathe in five hours of the facts and speculation that have made this such a fascinating chapter in our history for the last 50 years. Even for a dyed-in-the-wool conspiracy enthusiast like myself, there were ample surprises and new details that I’d never heard that made it well worth the time.
The JFK episode of Investivating History, as well as JFK Assassination: The Definitive Guide and Lee Harvey Oswald: 48 Hours to Live are available on H2 On Demand.