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Four shattering days: the assassination of President John F. Kennedy

Nov. 22, 1963

There they were. John F. Kennedy and his wife, Jacqueline, on her first official outing since the death of the couple's infant son in August, smiling in the bright sun as they rode through Dallas with the Texas governor and his wife.

Supporters lined the streets, several deep. As the 1961 Lincoln Continental turned off of Main Street at 12:29 p.m., Nellie Connally swiveled in her seat and said to Kennedy, "Mr. President, you can't say Dallas doesn't love you."

And then, as crowds cheered and Jackie, enjoying her trip, smiled at them, the 35th president of the United States was hit by his first bullet.

It tore through his flesh above his right shoulder blade, exiting at the base of his throat, and searing into John Connally's back. "Oh no, no, no, no!" the governor cried. "My God, they are going to kill us all."

A second bullet entered the right side of the president's head.

Mrs. Connally cradled her wounded husband in the jump seat. She heard a Secret Service agent instructing the driver to go to the nearest hospital. And she heard Jacqueline Kennedy behind her, repeating:

"They have killed my husband. I have his brains in my hand."

The world had shifted, but nobody knew it yet.

The carnation pink suit worn by the first lady would end up in the National Archives, still spattered with blood, banned from public display. The pillbox hat, last known to be in the possession of Mrs. Kennedy's secretary, would disappear.

On Nov. 22, 1963, she kept it on, through the two-hour flight back to Washington, into the nighttime hours at the Bethesda Naval Hospital for her husband's autopsy, through her pre-dawn return to the White House, where the president's body was placed in the East Room and guarded by servicemen representing each branch of the military.

Several times, people suggested she might like to change out of these clothes.

"No," she told them. "Let them see what they have done."

Saturday, Nov. 23, 1963

Around the United States, people gathered to pray in churches but they also huddled at home around electronic boxes, finding community in isolation. On screen, dignitaries made pilgrimages to Washington to pay respects, and foreign heads of state expressed dismay from across oceans.

Late Friday at the White House, Caroline Kennedy, four days shy of her sixth birthday, and her brother John Jr., two days shy of his third, hadn't yet known of their father's death. Jackie's mother, Janet Auchincloss, asked her daughter at Bethesda Naval Hospital who should tell them, and Jackie said she could when she got home. Janet decided this was too much for her daughter to bear, and she instructed Maude Shaw, the Kennedys' British nanny, to tell the children herself.

"Please, no," Shaw begged on the telephone, keeping her voice low because the children were nearby. "I can't take a child's last happiness from her."

Mrs. Auchincloss insisted. In Caroline's room, Maude improvised. "Your father has gone to look after Patrick," she said. "Patrick was so lonely in heaven. He didn't know anybody there. Now he has the best friend anyone could have."

In the hours before dawn on Saturday, Jackie returned to the White House and went to the East Room to visit her husband's body. She told the surrounding servicemen that she wanted to see Jack's face.

When the casket was opened, 23-year-old James Felder, an African-American Army sergeant with 57 days left in his service, watched as Jackie snipped a piece of Kennedy's hair. She said, he remembered, "He looks so waxen."

The newly former first lady went back upstairs, where she finally managed a few hours of sedated sleep.

Necessary tasks propelled the family and staff through the day. At 9:05, the new president, Lyndon B. Johnson, met with CIA director John McCone. At 9:20, he met with Secretary of State Dean Rusk, followed by Defense Secretary Robert McNamara. He spent two hours with former President Dwight Eisenhower, seeking advice on a proposed tax cut and on the foreign policy of Laos and Cuba. Several of President Kennedy's senior advisers offered to resign, to honor the changing of an administration. Johnson declined.

When Jackie woke, she told her staff to begin packing for the family's inevitable departure from the White House. By the afternoon, her husband's office was empty, save for his desk, two telephones and a rug. Presumably searching for something with which to occupy herself, Mrs. Kennedy sat down at her writing desk, sketching out the executive residence's capacity to accommodate visitors for the funeral weekend: "3rd floor 5 Single 2 Double," she wrote on a sheet of White House stationery.

On Saturday afternoon, members of the military honor guard, who would double as pallbearers, quietly drove to Fort Myer Army post and unloaded a practice casket.

The team had just rehearsed a presidential funeral, anticipating the death of ailing Herbert Hoover. But Kennedy's mahogany coffin from Gawler's funeral home was much heavier than anyone anticipated; pallbearers wanted to make sure they could maintain their precision as they bore its weight up the Capitol steps and into the Rotunda, where the former president was to lie in state on Sunday.

They would practice again the next day, this time at Arlington National Cemetery. When the bags of sand they put in the casket didn't seem heavy enough, they improvised again; with two servicemen sitting atop the casket, they carried it up and down the steps of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.

Emotions were off-kilter on Saturday. Soldiers became numb, and nursemaids were racked with guilt. The moving images on television never stopped. A heavy mood rolled in and united the nation on the first full day of mourning.

Sunday, Nov. 24, 1963

Lee Harvey Oswald had been held in a cell in the Dallas city jail, but he was scheduled to move to County on Sunday morning. Detectives and FBI agents questioned him several times after his arrest on Friday. Even when confronted with evidence, he never confessed to shooting the president or J.D. Tippit. Police found him smug and smirking, telling obvious lies with ease.

Across town in his apartment, Jack Ruby, a local nightclub owner, opened the Sunday Times-Herald. He saw a letter beginning "My Dear Caroline," addressed to the president's daughter and written by a local father. Another article mentioned that Mrs. Kennedy might have to return to Dallas for Oswald's trial. Ruby had adored Kennedy, and he was filled with rage at this final insult, at the thought of another burden placed on the man's widow.

He drove to the city jail, stopping first at the nearby Western Union to send a money order to one of his employees, and then walked to the exit ramp of the jail where police had said they would bring Oswald through for his transfer.

At 20 minutes after 11, Oswald appeared, flanked by Detectives L.C. Graves and James Leavelle. The media swarmed the area, flashbulbs and television cameras ready to broadcast his face to the country. Ruby blended in — he was on a first-name basis with a lot of police officers, who frequented his club. He had a .38-caliber Colt Cobra in his pocket, and now he grabbed it and reached for Oswald's torso.

"You killed my president," he said, and pulled the trigger.

Oswald was taken by ambulance to Parkland Memorial, where he died at 1:07 Central time in Trauma Room 2. Medical staff hadn't wanted to put him in Trauma Room 1. That's where they had attended to President Kennedy 48 hours before.

At the White House, some members of the president's casket team watched Oswald's slaying on television from their makeshift headquarters downstairs but couldn't stay to witness the aftermath. Instead, they had to move John Kennedy's body from the White House's North Portico to a caisson waiting outside to begin the procession to the U.S. Capitol.

The casket team, well practiced from its session at Fort Myer, passed an estimated crowd of 300,000 people lining the streets. They arrived at the steps of the Capitol, followed by Jackie, Robert Kennedy and the two children. President and Mrs. Johnson were also there. The Navy band played a solemn rendition of Hail to the Chief.

At 1:52 p.m., Jackie Kennedy heard the opening notes of this presidential tune, bowed her head to her chest, and sobbed.

At the end of the ceremony, after President Johnson laid a wreath, waiting crowds were allowed to file into the Capitol Rotunda and past the president's closed casket, two lines moving at an average of 35 people per minute.

The Capitol was supposed to close at 9 p.m., but by that time, visitors were still lined up in near-freezing temperatures all the way to D.C. Stadium, two miles away. Officials decided to extend visitation hours through the night.

The death of President Kennedy was already becoming a narrative of the nation, a story it told about itself. A blend of minute factual detail and epic myth. Months after the funeral, when Kennedy family friend William Manchester would begin work on his book The Death of the President, he would find that people claimed to remember things they couldn't possibly have seen, or personally visited places that had only been shown on camera.

The new President Johnson would ride home from Sunday's events at the Capitol under a new dawn of security, with a police officer ordered to monitor every building he passed for snipers.

The United States would never stop telling this story, as a loss of innocence, as a time of unity, as a rote memory.

Monday, Nov. 25, 1963

More than 200 officials from more than 100 countries attended the president's state funeral, the apex of official mourning. Ten prime ministers. Twenty-two presidents. Kings and queens and emperors. It was 42 degrees in Washington, four degrees cooler than average for that day, and windy. Everybody walked, in the open air, from the White House to St. Matthew's Cathedral, seven-tenths of a mile away.

The funeral caisson was followed by Black Jack, the riderless horse symbolizing the fallen master. Black Jack was generally known to be calm and settled. During his career, he participated in more than 1,000 funerals. On Monday, he bucked and misbehaved through the entire procession, at one point kicking the foot of Arthur Carlson, the 19-year-old Army private who was his handler. Carlson thought his foot was broken. He spent the rest of the day in poker-faced throbbing pain, thinking about how angry he was at his horse and about how he could not show it to the hundreds of thousands of people lining the route.

"I'm from Mobile, Alabama, and I've been to a lot of Mardi Gras parades," remembers Carlson, now a retired oil rig worker. "Whenever we have a parade there, people are noisy. It's a big party." As he walked the route from the Capitol to St. Matthew's to Arlington Cemetery on Monday, lined by an estimated 1 million people, "I've never seen that many people be that quiet. It must have been eight or 10 people deep, the whole way, and they were all as still as statues."

Caroline Kennedy and Maude Shaw produced a toy helicopter and a picture book, and sang Happy Birthday to John, who was turning 3.

Bishop Philip Hannan, participating in the president's funeral service at St. Matthews, read five passages of scripture and then read Kennedy's inaugural address as a testament to the man. Three years earlier, Kennedy, a friend, had asked Hannan after the inauguration what he thought of the speech. The bishop told him the words were good but that Kennedy hadn't read it slowly enough. Now, inside the packed and emotional cathedral, Hannan read it slowly.

At 1:30, the funeral procession left St. Matthew's and proceeded to Arlington.

Jackie had requested an eternal flame for the grave site. She had seen one at the Arc de Triomphe in Paris and found it moving; this one in Arlington was constructed by military engineers. Archbishop Richard Cushing had been asked to bless it, and after some research, determined there was no special blessing for an eternal flame.

"Ad omnia," he chanted over the torch's copper tubing — a generic church blessing roughly meaning to all. "Ad omnia."

The burial completed, the Kennedy family returned to the White House for a reception.

President Johnson went to a budget meeting.

Cardinal Cushing went to the airport to catch a flight.

Black Jack, once again docile and well behaved, returned to his stable.

Shortly before midnight at the White House, once Charles de Gaulle had left and the Duke of Edinburgh had left — once everyone had left, Bobby Kennedy turned to Jackie and asked, "Should we go visit our friend?"

Jackie took some lilies of the valley from a cup on a hall table, and the brother- and sister-in-law drove back to Arlington, which was now empty and dark. As Monday ended, Jackie, who would later become Jacqueline Onassis, who would later become Jackie O, who would die in 1994 of non-Hodgkins lymphoma after returning to the White House only once in her life despite repeated invitations, left the bouquet next to the eternal flame.

The final hours

All times are local

Nov. 22, 1963

11:37 a.m. Air Force One lands at Dallas' Love Field.

11:55 a.m. After shaking hands with the crowd, Kennedy enters a blue Lincoln Continental, and the motorcade leaves the airport.

12:21 p.m. Motorcade turns onto Main Street.

12:30 p.m. Kennedy and the motorcade are struck by gunfire.

12:38 p.m. Kennedy admitted to Parkland Hospital.

1 p.m. Kennedy pronounced dead.

1:26 p.m. Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson leaves Parkland.

1:33 p.m. Johnson boards Air Force One.

2:08 p.m. Kennedy's body is removed from the hospital after heated discussion among local law enforcement officials, the Secret Service and members of the Kennedy entourage; Texas law prohibits the removal of a murder victim's body until an autopsy has been performed.

2:20 p.m. Deputy Attorney General Nick Katzenbach dictates the oath of office to Johnson, and Johnson is sworn in aboard Air Force One.

2:47 p.m. Air Force One leaves Dallas.

Four shattering days: the assassination of President John F. Kennedy 11/22/13 [Last modified: Friday, November 22, 2013 7:41am]
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