Epitaph For Jim Garrison: Romancing the Assassination

November 30, 1992

by Edward Jay Epstein

When Jim Garrison, the former district attorney of Orleans, died of cancer on October 21,1992, the obituaries called attention to two extraordinary events, that occurred a generation apart--one in fact, one in fiction-- that will be forever connected in the popular imagination. The real event, that took place in 1969, was his prosecution of Clay Shaw in New Orleans for conspiring to kill President John F. Kennedy on November 22, 1963, which gave him the distinction of being the only prosecutor ever to try someone for the assassination. The fictional event, which took place in 1991 was Oliver Stone's stunning film, JFK in which Garrison, played by Kevin Costner, achieved his celluloid immortality as a soft-spoken truth-seeking district attorney who relentlessly investigates the Kennedy assassination and, despite all the obstacles thrown in his way by the federal establishment, heroically exposes the conspiracy responsible for killing the President. Even though this fictive rendition excited enormous interest among a worldwide audience of some 100 million people and even led to the film's distributor issuing new textbook supplements for a whole generation of students unborn at the time of the assassination, the real Garrison, and his treatment of the truth, deserves not to be forgotten.

In April 1967, I went to New Orleans to write about District Attorney Garrison for this magazine and inadvertently became part of his investigation. Once month earlier, he had shocked the world by arresting Clay L. Shaw, a socially-prominent civic leader and the founding director of the city's International Trade Mart, for conspiring to murder President Kennedy. He had explained to a bewildered press conference a week before that arrest: "My staff and I solved the assassination weeks ago. I wouldn't say this if we didn't have evidence beyond a shadow of a doubt."

Garrison's conspiracy thesis clearly contradicted the Warren Commission's conclusion that a lone gunman, Lee Harvey Oswald, acting without assistance, had been responsible for the assassination. But that did not necessarily mean he was wrong as far as I was concerned. In the course of writing my master' thesis at Cornell, which became the book Inquest: The Warren Commission and the Establishment of Truth, I had examined the Warren Commission's staff records and found that its investigation, far from being the exhaustive examination it was taken for, had skimmed over unresolved issues. The Commission itself, appointed by President Lyndon Baines Johnson, was determined to have its report out before the 1964 election campaign began. So in June of 1963, just three months after its staff lawyers had begun their investigation at the assassination site in Dallas, it instructed them were supposed "to be closing doors, not opening them". One yawning gap in its investigation at that time was Oswald's activities in New Orleans. So I, for one, believed it was at least possible that a local district attorney, not hemmed in by the time pressures, political considerations and national security considerations that affected the Warren Commission, might have uncovered hidden associates of Oswald's in New Orleans.

Garrison had been born Earling Caruthers Garrison in Denniston, Iowa on November 20, 1921, but he legally changed his first name to plain "Jim" when he first entered Louisiana politics in the 1950s. He had already tried his hand as a pilot in the military in the second world war, a FBI agent in Seattle and as a lawyer in New Orleans. After running but failing to win election as a judge, he ran as a reform candidate for district attorney in a three-man race and was elected in the run-off in 1962. He quickly made a reputation for himself, strapping on a pistol and himself leading well-publicized raids on brothels, after-hour bars and dice-games in the French Quarter.

"I am flamboyant," he would brag to the press. When the eight judges who oversaw his offices expenditures refused to authorize anymore expense funds for these forays, he suggested that they were under "racketeer influence," and for this unsupported charge, in February 1963, was tried and convicted of criminal defamation. Garrison appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court that the state law on defamation of officials was unconstitutional, and won-- thereby greatly expanding the latitude the public had in leveling charges against public officials.

I could see why Garrison was popularly referred to as the Jolly Green Giant when I met him for dinner at Broussards. He stood six foot six inches tall, with a self-conscious stoop that made him look even taller, as if he was larger than life. As he lumbered through the restaurant, he affably extended his political glad hand to acquaintances at almost every table.

His welcome to me was exceedingly gracious. He began by saying, almost solemnly, that my book on the Warren Commission had helped shape his decision to launch his investigation (which, as I learned later, was more or less the standard compliment he paid to almost all critics of the Warren Commission who soon began flocking to him like the children of Hamelin to the Pied Piper). He fixed me with his intense, almost walleye, stare, speaking slowly but with great articulateness. He traced his own intellectual development to two heroes: Ayn Rand, whose lone-wolf protagonist in The Fountainhead had exemplified to him the need for higher-conscious individuals acting like supermen; and Huey Long, the assassinated Governor of Louisiana, whose speeches attacking elite conspiracies, had attracted immense popular support.

As the leisurely dinner progressed, Garrison spelled out the conspiracy he had uncovered. Like the specialities, which the chef personally delivered dish by dish to the tables, his narrative was rich but sporadic. Its central character was David W. Ferrie, an ex-airline pilot and self-styled soldier of fortune, who was bizarre even by the relaxed standards of the French Quarter. He had orange pieces of fur glued to his head, having lost all his body hair from the disease alopecia, making him unforgettable in appearance. He professed to be a bishop in a quasi-political cult called the Orthodox Old Catholic Church of North America and worked on and off as a free-lance pilot, a pornography trafficker, a hypnotist and gas station operator. By the summer of 1963, when Oswald was living in New Orleans, he had also became involved in training anti-Castro guerrillas.

The day after the assassination, Garrison got a tip alleging that Ferrie had trained Oswald in marksmanship and detained Ferrie for questioning. A few hours later he was released, after the tipster, Jack Martin, who was known for providing false leads in other cases, completely recanted his story. Two years later, after Senator Russell Long told him that he had doubts about the Warren Commission's version of the assassination, Garrison resumed his pursuit of Ferrie. Even though Ferrie maintained that he had no connection whatsoever with Oswald, he found other witnesses that established, at least to his satisfaction, that Ferrie had become involved with Oswald through his anti-Castro activities. He was deeply suspicious of Ferrie's ice-skating trip to Houston, Texas the day after the assassination and hypothesized to me that he had been Oswald's get-away pilot. He then asserted with absolute authority that Ferrie was the "evil genius" who planned the mechanics of the assassination in Dallas.

The problem was this theory, at least for a criminal prosecution, was that Ferrie had died some six weeks ago. At the time, Garrison, who was getting ready to re- arrest him, he explained. His investigation, however, leaked to the press, and, on February 22, Ferrie's body was found in his apartment. (It turned out, a few hours before he died, Ferrie had complained to George Lardner of the Washington Post that Garrison was persecuting him.) The coroner of Orleans Parish, Dr. Nicholas Chetta, concluded from the autopsy that Ferrie had died of natural causes-- a cerebral hemorrhage caused by the rupture of a blood vessel. He ruled out suicide because a person ordinarily would not be aware a weak spot exists in a blood vessel and murder on the grounds that if the rupture had been caused by an external blow there would necessarily be tissue damage and none was found. Although Garrison said he believed it was either suicide or murder, he did not challenge the coroner's finding. Instead, one week later, he arrested another man for the assassination: Clay Shaw.

When I asked what Shaw had to do with the assassination, he became more elliptical. "Its exactly like a chess problem," he said. "The Warren Commission move the same pieces back and forth and got nowhere. I made a new move and solved the problem." He explained that the surprise arrest was timed to prevent Shaw from destroying any of his personal papers, which his men gathered up from his home in the French Quarter immediately afterwards. He then offered to make this "important evidence" available to me.

Early the next morning, I went with my research associate, Jones Harris, to his office suite in the Criminal District Court Building, where Garrison had left word with his assistant, district attorney, James C. Alcock, that I "should start going through the evidence." He brought in six cardboard cartons that contained such Shaw's personal paraphernalia as letters, photographs, manuscripts, checkbooks, address books, calendars, blueprints for the renovation of houses in the French Quarters (which had been one of his civic projects) and a Mardi Gras costume and, before leaving us alone with it, he explained that the staff had yet to fully examine it. Even though a Judge's order had forbidden disclosure or discussion of the evidence in the case, Garrison apparently had no compunction about turning it over to a journalist to peruse.

Though none of this material, as far as I could see, had any bearing on the conspiracy Garrison had described to me the night before, Harris discovered a striking coincidence between a 5 digit number in Shaw's address book and one in Lee Harvey Oswald's book. Oswald's phone book contained the number 19106 preceded by the Cyrillic letters DD. Shaw's book contained the same number in an entry "Lee Odom, PO Box 19106, Dallas, Tex". It was of course only a partial match since the prefixes were different, but, if it proved to be more than a coincidence, it could provide a connection between the two men. Apprised of this discovery by Harris, Garrison immediately announced to the press that he had linked Shaw to Oswald. He stated without equivocation that Shaw and Oswald's address books had the identical entry in them "PO 19106" (which was untrue), that this number was "nonexistent" (which he had not yet determined) and that the number was a code, which when deciphered, produced the unlisted telephone number of Oswald's killer, Jack Ruby, and "no other number on earth" (which was also false). When asked by a reporter for the Times-Picayune how "PO 19106" became Ruby's number "WH 1-5601," Garrison, without missing a beat, explained that one simply transposed its third and last digit (so it became PO 16901) and then arbitrarily subtracted 1300. Since this nonsensical hocus-pocus still did not produce the "WH" portion of the number, Garrison added that the code was "subjective."

As it turned out upon investigation, the Post Office Box 19106 in Dallas not only existed but had been assigned to person listed in Shaw's book, Floyd Odom. He had contacted Shaw in 1957 in the hope of promoting a bloodless bullfight in New Orleans and left him his calling card, accounting for the entry. In any case, Odom's post office box number could not possibly have been the number in Oswald's address book, which had to be entered before he died in 1963, because, as the Dallas Post Office confirmed, that Post Office box number did not exist in Dallas before it was assigned to Odom in 1965. When caught in his own egregious false claim, Garrison attempted to divert attention, first by saying he wanted to find out "how many bull fights Mr. Odom actually produced"-- as if that was relevant-- and then by claiming he had found another number in Oswald's book which, when decoded, yielded the CIA's unlisted number in New Orleans (even though the CIA's number had been listed at the time in the phone directory). In each of these cases, he had, like a true Cabalist, drawn conspiratorial conclusions by attributing to innocent numbers, plucked out of a phone book, the sinister properties of hidden numbers that he claimed were encoded in them.


Questions? Email me at edepstein@worldnet.att.net
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