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5 Intriguing Details Found in the Newly Released JFK Assassination Papers

Keystone/Getty Images
Keystone/Getty Images

JFK assassination conspiracy theorists just got a major windfall, but so did history buffs. In 1992, Congress passed a law that ordered all federal agencies to transfer any records they had pertaining to the investigation into the assassination of John F. Kennedy to the National Archives. The vast majority of those records were declassified before this, but some were withheld or redacted. But the JFK Assassination Records Collection Act stipulated that all records that had been withheld, either partially or in full, would be released to the public 25 years later, on October 26, 2017.

Well, the time has come to open up the files, and there is plenty of intriguing content in the 2800 newly released documents to sift through. (At the last minute, the government withheld 300 more documents, which will have to undergo classified review over the next six months.) Here are five things we’ve learned so far—not all about the assassination itself—from the documents.

1. IN THE WAKE OF THE ASSASSINATION, THE FBI SOUGHT INFO FROM A STRIPPER’S UNION.

As the Boston TV station WCVB spotted, an FBI memo [PDF] from January 1964 detailed the agency’s search for a stripper connected to Jack Ruby, the nightclub owner who killed Lee Harvey Oswald. The FBI was trying to determine the identity of the performer, who went by the stage name “Candy Cane,” but only knew that her first name was Kitty. They went as far as to contact the American Guild of Variety Artists in New Orleans, who told them that one performer by that name had died several months before the JFK assassination, and the only other (whose real name was Vivian) had seemed to have left town sometime after paying her August union dues. The memo doesn’t say just how Ruby and Candy Cane were related or if they ever tracked her down.

2. THE SOVIETS WORRIED THE WHOLE THING WAS A COUP.

The USSR was no fan of the U.S., obviously, but the Soviets didn’t cheer JFK’s death. The news “was greeted with shock and consternation and church bells were tolled in the memory of President Kennedy” in the USSR, a Soviet source reported. Communist Party officials, for one, went on high alert, worrying that it was part of some far-right coup.

“They felt that those elements interested in utilizing the assassination and playing on anticommunist sentiments in the United States would then utilize this act to stop negotiations with the Soviet Union, attack Cuba, and therefore spread the war,” the FBI memo [PDF] from December 1966 states. And even if it wasn’t part of a larger plan, they thought it could still lead to big trouble: “Soviet officials were worried that without leadership, some irresponsible general in the United States might launch a missile at the Soviet Union.”

Plus, they were very much of the 'devil you know' mindset. Soviet diplomats understood JFK and respected that he had “to some degree, a mutual understanding with the Soviet Union” and a desire for peace between the two powers, and they had no idea what to expect from Vice President Lyndon Johnson. “The Soviet Union would have preferred to have had President Kennedy at the helm of the American government,” the memo said, citing the USSR’s UN representative Nikolai T. Fedorenko.

3. THE SOVIETS CALLED OSWALD A “NEUROTIC MANIAC.”

In 1959, long before Kennedy's assassination, Oswald had traveled to the Soviet Union. Shortly after arriving, he contacted the KGB asking to defect, but the Soviet spy agency “decided he was mentally unstable and informed him he had to return to the United States upon completion of his visit.” He was hospitalized after cutting his wrists in his Moscow hotel room, and was allowed to remain in Russia for some time afterward, even marrying a Russian woman. After he returned to the U.S., he sent a request through the Soviet embassy in Mexico just a few months before the assassination, asking to come back to the USSR.

In the wake of the assassination, the USSR reiterated that it wanted nothing to do with Oswald, and never recruited him for espionage. “Soviet officials claimed that Lee Harvey Oswald had no connection whatsoever with the Soviet Union,” the memo states. “They described him as a neurotic maniac who was disloyal to his own country and never belonged to any organization.”

4. THE CUBAN GOVERNMENT WAS KIND OF GIDDY.

Perhaps unsurprisingly—what with all of those assassination plots, invasion attempts, and blockades—the Cubans were pretty stoked to see JFK go. “The initial reaction of Cuban Ambassador Cruz and his staff to report of assassination President was one of happy delight,” a CIA source reported on November 27, 1963 [PDF]. However, the Cubans realized that undisguised glee wasn’t going to be a good look for them. “Cruz thereupon issued instructions to his staff and to Cuban consulates and trade offices in Toronto and Montreal to ‘cease looking happy in public,’” the memo says.

5. THE CIA ONCE TRIED TO HIRE THE MOB TO KILL FIDEL CASTRO.

The CIA’s foiled plots to kill the Soviet-aligned Cuban leader Fidel Castro are well known, but somewhat tangential to the assassination of JFK lies yet another misguided attempt to bump off Castro. In a top secret report [PDF] prepared during Gerald Ford’s administration, the agency admits that it tried to recruit the Mob to help. In “Phase I” of the assassination plot, formed sometime in 1960 or 1961, the CIA plotted to make poison botulism pills, then get members of the Mafia to deliver them to Cuba, into the hands of someone who could drop them into Castro’s drink. They tested out the pills on guinea pigs to make sure they worked, and set aside the money to make it happen.

In 1960, the CIA reached out to Chicago mobster Sam Giancana through an intermediate, and the agency approved a $150,000 payment for whatever contact in Cuba actually accomplished the task. The mobsters didn’t get any money, and they repeatedly said they didn’t want any, anyway—they were just looking to get back into the Havana gambling business. The “asset” assigned to slip the pills to Castro got scared, though, and didn’t actually do it, even though he worked in the Cuban prime minister’s office and had access. Then the CIA recruited a staffer at a restaurant Castro frequented, but by the time the pills arrived, Castro had stopped going there.

The plot was called off after the Bay of Pigs fiasco, and in 1967, J. Edgar Hoover sent the U.S. Attorney General a memo that referred to the plot as the CIA’s “intentions to send hoodlums to Cuba to assassinate Castro.”

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Maynard L. Parker/Courtesy of The Huntington Library in San Marino, California
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The Concept of the American 'Backyard' is Newer Than You Think
A home in Long Beach, California, in the 1950s.
A home in Long Beach, California, in the 1950s.
Maynard L. Parker/Courtesy of The Huntington Library in San Marino, California

Backyards are as American as apple pie and baseball. If you live in a suburban or rural area, chances are good that you have a lawn, and maybe a pool, some patio furniture, and a grill to boot.

This wasn’t always the case, though. As Smithsonian Insider reports, it wasn’t until the 1950s that Americans began to consider the backyard an extension of the home, as well as a space for recreation and relaxation. After World War II, Americans started leaving the big cities and moving to suburban homes that came equipped with private backyards. Then, after the 40-hour work week was implemented and wages started to increase, families started spending more money on patios, pools, and well-kept lawns, which became a “symbol of prosperity” in the 1950s, according to a new Smithsonian Institution exhibit.

A man mows his lawn in the 1950s
In this photo from the Smithsonian Institution's exhibit, a man mows his lawn in Long Beach, California, in the 1950s.
Maynard L. Parker/Courtesy of The Huntington
Library in San Marino, California

Entitled "Patios, Pools, & the Invention of the American Back Yard," the exhibition includes photographs, advertisements, and articles about backyards from the 1950s and 1960s. The traveling display is currently on view at the Temple Railroad & Heritage Museum in Temple, Texas, and from there it will head to Hartford, Connecticut, in December.

Prior to the 1950s, outdoor yards were primarily workspaces, MLive.com reports. Some families may have had a vegetable garden, but most yards were used to store tools, livestock, and other basic necessities.

The rise of the backyard was largely fueled by materials that were already on hand, but hadn’t been accessible to the average American during World War II. As Smithsonian Insider notes, companies that had manufactured aluminum and concrete for wartime efforts later switched to swimming pools, patio furniture, and even grilling utensils.

A family eats at a picnic table in the 1960s
A family in Mendham, New Jersey, in the 1960s
Molly Adams/Courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution, Archives of American Gardens, Maida Babson Adams American Garden Collection

At the same time, DIY projects started to come into fashion. According to an exhibit caption of a Popular Mechanics article from the 1950s, “‘Doing-it-yourself’ was advertised as an enjoyable and affordable way for families to individualize their suburban homes.” The magazine wrote at the time that “patios, eating areas, places for play and relaxation are transforming back yards throughout the nation.”

The American backyard continues to grow to this day. As Bloomberg notes, data shows that the average backyard grew three years in a row, from 2015 to 2017. The average home last year had 7048 square feet of outdoor space—plenty of room for a sizable Memorial Day cookout.

[h/t Smithsonian Insider]

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15 Fascinating Facts About the Brooklyn Bridge
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Don't agree to buy it, but you can never know too much about the most famous way to get across the East River—which officially opened 135 years ago, on May 24, 1883.

1. THE BROOKLYN BRIDGE NEEDED A LITTLE BRIBERY TO GET STARTED.

In its initial conception, the Brooklyn Bridge had an honorable goal: Providing safe passage across the rough and frigid East River for Brooklyn residents who worked in Manhattan. In the 1850s, Prussian-born engineer John Augustus Roebling dreamed of a suspension bridge that would make the commute easier for these working class New Yorkers.

However, the methods employed to get the project rolling weren’t quite as honorable. After Roebling was hired by the New York Bridge Company to help span the river, infamous political kingpin William “Boss” Tweed funneled $65,000 in bribes to city aldermen to secure funding for the bridge.

2. THE BRIDGE HAS GONE BY SEVERAL NAMES.

“Brooklyn Bridge” seems like a natural handle for the hybrid suspension and cable-stayed bridge connecting lower Manhattan to its neighbor across the East River, but the name evolved over time. The Brooklyn Daily Eagle first referred to the project as the “Brooklyn Bridge” in 1867, but in its early days it was still referred to as the “Great East River Bridge” as well as the “Great East River Suspension Bridge." At its 1883 dedication, it took on the clunky official name the “New York and Brooklyn Bridge.” (Brooklyn wouldn’t become a part of New York City until 1898.) Brooklyn civic pride led to the name officially changing to the “Brooklyn Bridge” in 1915.

3. ROEBLING PAID A HIGH PRICE FOR THE BRIDGE.

The Brooklyn Bridge was Roebling’s brainchild, but he wouldn’t live to see its completion. While making measurements for the future bridge in 1869, a ferry crushed Roebling’s foot. The engineer developed tetanus as a result of these wounds and passed away in July 1869.

4. ROEBLING’S SON TOOK HIS PLACE AND HAD EQUALLY BAD LUCK.

After Roebling’s death, his son Washington Augustus Roebling stepped in as the bridge project’s chief engineer. The younger Roebling soon developed a problem of his own. To build the structure’s massive foundation, workers labored in caissons, sealed chambers that kept the riverbed dry and allowed for digging. Breathing and working deep in the caissons required compressed air, which meant workers who came up from the depths were vulnerable to “caisson disease,” better known today as the bends. In 1872, Roebling came down with this decompression sickness and was confined to bed.

5. THE PROJECT BECAME AN EARLY FEMINIST VICTORY.

After Washington Roebling fell ill, a third Roebling stepped in as the de facto chief engineer of the bridge, his wife, Emily Warren Roebling. Although Emily began her tenure running orders between her husband, who was laid up in a Brooklyn Heights apartment with a view of construction, and his workers, she soon took bona fide command of the project, overseeing the design, construction, and business management of the tremendous undertaking. Emily Warren Roebling is now widely recognized as a pioneering female engineer and a driving force behind the bridge. Following her work on the bridge, Emily went on to earn a degree in law from New York University and published essays in favor of gender equality.

6. A ROOSTER MADE THE FIRST TRIP ACROSS THE BRIDGE.

Technically, the rooster was tied for first. Emily Warren Roebling earned the honor of being the first human to make the trip across the historic bridge, riding proudly in a carriage a week before its official opening in front of an audience that included President Chester A. Arthur. Sitting in Emily’s lap all the while was a rooster, a symbol of good luck.

7. THE BROOKLYN BRIDGE WAS THE WORLD’S FIRST STEEL-WIRE SUSPENSION BRIDGE.

John Augustus Roebling himself is credited with introducing the steel-wire innovation into bridge design. The engineer proudly referred to steel as “the metal of the future.”

8. A SNEAKY CONTRACTOR INTRODUCED LOW-QUALITY WIRE INTO THE MIX.

Construction materials were accumulated under the watch of John Augustus Roebling, who failed to notice that he had been swindled on his cable wire. Contractor J. Lloyd Haigh snuck a substantial amount of inferior, even faulty, wire into the mix. The flaw went unrecognized until after the wires were incorporated into the standing bridge, at which point replacing them was impossible. Instead, the construction team doubled down on its security measures, introducing far more wire than calculations deemed necessary while working desperately to keep the discovery from reaching the public. For his part, Haigh escaped prosecution for this crime, but was arrested and convicted for forgery in an unrelated case. 

9. THE BRIDGE WAS THE SITE OF A STAMPEDE SOON AFTER OPENING.

The Brooklyn Bridge opened to the public on May 24, 1883 and enjoyed a fairly harmonious first five days in operation. On May 30, however, disaster struck when either a woman tripping or a rumor of a pending collapse sparked a panic among the massive crowd of pedestrians crossing the bridge. The mob’s frantic race to escape the bridge resulted in the deaths of 12 people and serious injuries to 36 more.

10. TWENTY-ONE ELEPHANTS WALKED ACROSS THE BROOKLYN BRIDGE IN 1884.

How do you convince one of America’s busiest cities that its newest bridge can offer safe transport to its many commuters? Elephants. Since the most common haven for trained elephants in the 1880s was a circus tent, the city called upon entrepreneurial showman P.T. Barnum to march 21 elephants across the Brooklyn Bridge in May of 1884 to show just how sturdy the span was.

11. COMPARTMENTS IN THE BRIDGE WERE USED FOR STORING WINE.

If you think a nice glass of wine would be the perfect companion for a moonlit stroll across a river, this is the bridge for you. Engineers built sizeable vaults that were up to 50 feet tall into the bridge beneath its anchorages. Thanks to their cool temperatures, these granite-walled storage spaces made the perfect wine cellars, and they were rented out to the public until World War I. The company A. Smith & Co. Productions forked over $500 a month as rent for the Brooklyn-side vaults, while the liquor distributor Luyties Brothers paid a pretty $5000 for the prime real estate beneath the Manhattan anchorage.

12. ANOTHER COMPARTMENT WAS TURNED INTO A FALLOUT SHELTER.

At some point during the Cold War, one of the bridge’s compartments transformed into a survival shelter stocked with food and water rations and medical supplies. After fading into obscurity after the close of the Cold War, this fallout shelter was rediscovered in 2006 during a routine structural inspection of the bridge.

13. NOBODY CAN FIGURE OUT EXACTLY WHAT COLOR THE BRIDGE WAS.

Upon the announcement of a plan to repaint the Brooklyn Bridge in 2010, controversy erupted over the landmark’s original color. Some historians insisted that the young suspension bridge wore a proud buff color, renamed “Brooklyn Bridge Tan” for the modern makeover. (The option of “Queensborough Tan” drew groans.) On the other side of the battle, old documents and hand-colored lithographs supported the argument that the icon’s original color was “Rawlins Red,” a hue derived from the iron-oxide from the eponymous mountain town of southern Wyoming. In the end, Brooklyn Bridge Tan won out.

14. THE BROOKLYN BRIDGE STANDS WHERE GEORGE WASHINGTON SLEPT.

The Manhattan anchorage of the Brooklyn Bridge features a bronze plaque commemorating the land below as the former location of the country’s first presidential mansion. Known alternatively as the Samuel Osgood House and the Walter Franklin House, the Lower Manhattan mansion served as the home of George Washington during his first ten months as America’s Commander-in-Chief. The residence stood at the intersection of Cherry Street and Pearl Street for 85 years before its demolition in 1856.

15. THE BROOKLYN BRIDGE WAS THE LONGEST IN THE WORLD FOR 20 YEARS.

Just two years before starting work on his New York project, John Augustus Roebling made a bit of suspension bridge history with the humbly named John A. Roebling Suspension Bridge, which spanned 1057 feet over the Ohio River between Covington, Ky. and Cincinnati. Roebling put that endeavor to shame with the Brooklyn Bridge, which bested its predecessor’s principal span by about 50 percent. Boasting a main span of 1595 feet and a total measurement of 5,989 feet, the Brooklyn Bridge held the superlative of longest suspension bridge in the world for two decades. When it finally lost the title in 1903, its successor was none other than its fellow East River crossing the Williamsburg Bridge. The latter’s main span bested the Brooklyn Bridge’s by only four and a half feet, though its total length reached 7308 feet.

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