The Tragedy in U.S. History Museum was tucked away in a modest, one-story house on a quiet street in St. Augustine, Florida, a bizarre sideshow to the nearby graceful antiquity of the nation’s oldest city. As you approached the entrance, you saw an eerie-but-fascinating tableau. Peering at you from a living-room picture window was a life-size wax figure of Lee Harvey Oswald hiding behind stacks of cardboard boxes, about to change history with the scoped Italian-made Carcano rifle he’d bought for a few bucks from a magazine ad.It was a dreadfully tacky depiction of one of the most tragic events of the 20th century, and not something you’d see at the Smithsonian Museum. But that dark image of Oswald haunts our national psyche – that creepy little man with his cheap mail-order rifle who is going to blow the brains out of arguably the most charismatic president in U.S. history. And it’s seemed to me since the day I saw it that, as morbid, gruesome and tasteless as that display was, it was somehow as appropriate a comment on John F. Kennedy’s death as the most insightful essays and deftly understated museum exhibits.
Browsing through the dusty, amateurishly displayed exhibits at The Tragedy in U.S. History Museum was like rubbernecking as you drive slowly past a horrible car wreck. There was a steam whistle purportedly from the locomotive operated by Joseph “Steve” Brody on the night in 1903 when he left this world in a spectacular and legendary train wreck that came to be known as “the wreck of the old 97,” and the car that supposedly was the one in which actress Jayne Mansfield died.
But the museum’s centerpiece exhibits were artifacts from the assassination of President Kennedy on November 22, 1963. The displays included the dresser from Oswald’s $7-a-week rented room and the bed he’d slept in the night before his terrible deed. There was a 1953 Chevrolet in which he’d gotten a lift to work at the Texas Schoolbook Depository on that fateful day. And there was the 1962 Ford ambulance that had rushed him to Parkland Hospital two days later after he’d been fatally shot by Jack Ruby.In the days following Kennedy’s assassination, St. Augustine businessman Buddy Hough made frequent trips to Dallas to acquire objects associated with the president’s death. In the process, he decided to open a museum focusing on tragedies that had darkened U.S. history.
But St. Augustine’s purveyors of more traditional tourist attractions never liked Hough’s macabre collection, and Hough deeply resented the cold shoulder he received from the town’s Chamber of Commerce.The Tragedy in U.S. History Museum struggled to make money in a town that attracts more than a million tourists every year. Hough died in 1996, and his wife auctioned off her late husband’s unusual collection – including, I assume, that wretched wax likeness of Oswald.
So today, we’re remembering where we were 50 years ago when a troubled, fatherless drifter who’d learned to fire a rifle with deadly accuracy in the U.S. Marine Corps stunned the world.I was in an eighth-grade math class in Richfield, North Carolina when a teacher abruptly opened the door, stepped into the classroom, and announced that Kennedy had been shot.
For days afterwards, the three television networks dropped all other programming and focused on what happened in Texas. And the events were incomprehensible. Lyndon Johnson grimly taking the oath of office accompanied by a dazed Jacqueline Kennedy still wearing the chic Chanel suit stained with her husband’s blood; Oswald’s murder on live television; the endless line of mourners filing past the dead president’s coffin in the Capitol; and the funeral, during which I acquired an abiding respect for the somber, dignified ceremony of a military sendoff. And all of this depicted in black-and-white television images. I wonder if anyone turned off their TV in the week following Kennedy’s death.Still, as morbidly compelling as this drama was, I think everyone craved normalcy. And eventually, the shock faded and the routine events of life resumed.
In 1964 we were handed a massive document that was the official product of the Warren Commission. It told us that Oswald, the chinless loser unable to find a satisfying place in this world, had plotted and carried out, alone, the murder of the most powerful man on Earth.The Warren Commission’s conclusion has been debated for 49 years. Many now-familiar phrases have been added to our popular lexicon – lone gunman, magic bullet, rogue CIA, second shooter, Castro-Mafia connection.
I keep going back and forth on whether I believe the commission’s version of events. At the moment I’m swinging back to the lone gunman theory for two reasons. I’ve read that the “magic bullet” theory is disproved by the fact that Texas Governor John Connolly’s seat in the limousine was three inches lower than Kennedy’s and thus the path of the bullet didn’t have to defy the laws of physics to hit them both. And I hear that the second shooter theory is disproved because the movement of the president’s head is explained because that’s what happens when a bullet hits the brain in just the right (or wrong) way, causing brain cells to explode in a certain way.But really, it doesn’t matter what I believe because nothing will make Oswald’s haunting image go away. And that’s why I think that ghastly display years ago in The Tragedy in U.S. History Museum was a legitimate commentary on John F. Kennedy’s shocking death. Oswald is always going to be rising from the dark, dusty, cobweb-infested depths of our collective minds’ eyes, disrupting our efforts to return to normalcy and distorting our perceptions of the world around us. Oswald is the face of this tragedy, and the face of that psychopathic piss-ant will trouble us until the day we die.