Forty-eight years ago today, just as President John F. Kennedy’s motorcade in Dallas passed a lone bystander holding a black umbrella under a brilliant blue sky, the first shot was fired.
Why would anyone have an umbrella on a beautiful, cloudless day?
Why were frequent public appeals and media mentions unable to determine the man’s identity for more than a decade?
In a brilliant six minute video posted by the New York Times, documentary filmmaker Errol Morris meditates on these questions of coincidence and conspiracy; he considers the ignorance that surely must cloud much of our understanding of history. The Times won’t let me embed the video, but you can find it here. All of the images in this post are screen captures from that work. You can also read Morris’ comments on the short documentary, which relies largely on an interview with Six Seconds in Dallas author Josiah Thompson, an expert on the iconic Zapruder film of the assassination.
In the New Yorker in 1967, John Updike speculated about “umbrella man”:
We wonder whether a genuine mystery is being concealed here or whether any similar scrutiny of a minute section of time and space would yield similar strangenessesâ€”gaps, inconsistencies, warps, and bubbles in the surface of circumstance. Perhaps, as with the elements of matter, investigation passes a threshold of common sense and enters a sub-atomic realm where laws are mocked, where persons have the life-span of beta particles and the transparency of neutrinos, and where a rough kind of averaging out must substitute for absolute truth. The truth about those seconds in Dallas is especially elusive; the search for it seems to demonstrate how perilously empiricism verges on magic.
It turned out, of course, that “umbrella man” was the innocuous Louie Steven Witt, who considered the black umbrella a symbolic protest against Kennedy, whose father Joseph supported Neville Chamberlain’s policy of appeasing Hitler. Chamberlain became symbolically associated with an umbrella. From Witt’s testimony before Congress in 1978:
Mr. Fauntroy. I wonder if you would care to tell us a little more about your understanding of the significance of the umbrella, and why you felt that it would heckle the president to raise the umbrella?
Mr. WITT. I know the generalities of the thing. It had something to do with the–when the senior Mr. Kennedy was Ambassador or England, and the Prime Minister, some activity they had had in appeasing Hitler. The umbrella that the Prime Minister of England came back with got to be a symbol in some manner with the British people. by association, it got transferred to the Kennedy family, and, as I understood, it was a sore spot with the Kennedy family, like I said, in coffee break conversations someone had mentioned, I think it is one of the towns in Arizona, it is Tucson or Phoenix, that someone had been out at the airport or some place where some members of the Kennedy family came through and they were rather irritated by the fact that they were brandishing the umbrellas. This is how the idea sort of got stuck in my mind.
Mr. FAUNTROY. Is it true that what you felt was that Mr. Kennedy would be sensitive because of the appeasement image of the umbrella as related to his father?
Mr. WITT. Not the appeasement thing. It was just–excuse me–I just understood that it was sort of a sore spot, with them and this was just one thing. I personally never thought too much of liberal politics in general. In this case the Kennedy family just happened to be in office.
Mr. FAUNTROY. I see. And it had no relationship in your own thinking between Mr. Kennedy’s posture with; say, the Russians?
Mr. WITT. No. No. No. That was not it at all.
Mr. FAUNTROY. But someone had–no–you had read in the paper that someone had used an umbrella to heckle the President and that it was a sore spot, and that was the reason—
Mr. WITT. Not read in the papers.
Mr. FAUNTROY. Someone told you?
Mr. WITT. Yes. This was in a conversation somewhere at work. I wish that I could remember now who brought the subject up and put this idea in my head. I am sure that I would have taken that umbrella and clouted him over the head somewhere in this last 2 or 3 weeks.
If you don’t have access to the NYT video, go here to see it.