April 1996 cover

Behind the Lines
The Fourth Tramp

I know more about the Kennedy assassination than most people do, I'm sorry to say. Although I came to my own conclusions long ago -- Oswald acted alone, Ruby acted alone -- I can't keep myself from reading any new theory about what really happened that day in Dealey Plaza. Some theories, like the one that identified Franklin Folley as a second gunman, are good for a laugh. Franklin Folley was Frank Sinatra's drummer. Most often the theories are aggravating because even a little basic knowledge can be enough to spot the misunderstandings, inconsistencies, facts conveniently ignored, or lies on which the theories depend. Still, there are too many spooky characters, known and unknown, real or mythical, for me to resist: the "babushka lady," "umbrella man," and "badgeman"; the three tramps; the exotic European George de Mohrenschildt; David Ferrie, with his pasted eyebrows; mad dog anti-Communist Guy Banister and his office at 544 Camp St. in New Orleans; the mob; the CIA, the FBI, the KGB; and Oswald himself, horrible and pathetic, who escaped after the assassination in a cab and later admitted to the police that he had never ridden in one before in his life.

Polls show that a large majority of Americans believe the assassination was the result of a conspiracy; but, if the majority are like me, it's more accurate to say that they want there to be a conspiracy. I'm convinced that the belief in a conspiracy persists because people instinctively think that somewhere in the midst of all these bizarre people and events there must be a better story than the one the Warren Commission told. I don't doubt the sincerity of director Oliver Stone's belief in the conspiracy that he used as the basis for his very good and very wrong movie JFK; but, it's also inevitable that he would believe in a conspiracy. Stone is by trade a dramatist, and without a conspiracy there is no drama in the assassination, no plans, no arguments, no interplay of personalities, no conflict between the forces of good and evil, and no triumph of one over the other. Most assassination researchers, I believe, think they are looking for the truth, but because so much of the truth is absolutely known, in fact they are looking for something else, for something more aesthetic, for a narrative, for beauty. Certainly that's the case in the most interesting new book about the assassination to come along in years: Oswald Talked: The New Evidence in the JFK Assassination, by Ray and Mary La Fontaine of Dallas.

In 1990 a young man living in Lubbock named Ricky White announced that his father, who had been in the Marines with Oswald and was on the Dallas police force when Kennedy was murdered, had been the fabled gunman who shot from the grassy knoll. (See "I Was Mandarin . . ." TM, December 1990.) That story took a while to unravel and to be exposed as an honest mistake at best or as a plot for money at worst. The La Fontaines believed in the story and wanted to make it the subject of a documentary film. During the early months of 1991 they were still actively trying to shore up the White story enough to save their documentary, although as the year wore on they gave up. Then, that fall, Stone's JFK appeared. Its portrayal of a conspiracy by agencies of the federal government to kill Kennedy increased the percentage of the public who believe that the government, specifically the CIA and the FBI, are hiding the truth about the assassination. Official Dallas had always been uncomfortable about the film. But after it appeared, perhaps to allay the widespread suspicions, perhaps as a final act of expiation, the Dallas City Council ordered all the city's police files concerning the assassination placed in the city archives at city hall and opened to the public. For a few days in late January 1992, researchers dug through the previously restricted files only to find little there that wasn't already available in other sources, in particular the Warren Commission documents.

Mary La Fontaine looked at the newly released files, but she had the curiosity to look at a second set of files that had been released more than two years earlier with no fanfare and overlooked in the excitement about the new files. She noticed one folder labeled "Arrest sheets on persons arrested 11-22-63." The first three sheets in the folder were for three men arrested for vagrancy near the railroad tracks behind the Texas School Book Depository. Their names were Harold Doyle, Gus Abrams, and John Forrester Gedney, and they were the famous "three tramps" who had been photographed not long after the assassination in the custody of two Dallas police officers but never previously identified. One tramp is now believed dead. After Mary's discovery, the FBI located the other two and questioned them. There is no doubt that the men in the arrest records and the men in the photograph are the same. Their arrest records were thought to be nonexistent or lost or hidden or destroyed by sinister forces, depending on which assassination theory one believed. Some authors argued that these men were the real killers of the president. Others thought they looked like E. Howard Hunt and Frank Sturgis, who later became infamous as Watergate burglars. Charles Harrelson, a convicted hit man and the father of actor Woody Harrelson, said he was the real murderer of Kennedy. Others pointed out a resemblance between Charles Harrelson and the tallest of the three tramps. In 1979 the House Select Committee on Assassinations spent a considerable amount of money doing computerized comparisons of the tramps' faces with photographs of known individuals, hoping to identify the tramps. The tramps play a role in the murder in Stone's film. All the while, the truth was sitting in a plainly marked file, and the truth is that the "three tramps" were simply three tramps.


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