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.”

The Very Real Events That Inspired Game of Thrones's Red Wedding

Peter Graham's After the Massacre of Glencoe
Peter Graham's After the Massacre of Glencoe
Peter Graham, Google Cultural Institute, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

Ask any Game of Thrones fan to cite a few of the show's most shocking moments, and the so-called "Red Wedding" from season 3's "The Rains of Castamere" episode will likely be at the top of their list. The events that unfolded during the episode shocked fans because of their brutality, but what might be even more surprising to know is that the episode was based on very real events.

Author George R.R. Martin has said that the inspiration for the matrimonial bloodbath is based on two dark events in Scottish history: the Black Dinner of 1440 and 1692's Massacre of Glencoe. “No matter how much I make up, there’s stuff in history that’s just as bad, or worse,” Martin told Entertainment Weekly in 2013. And he’s absolutely right. See for yourself.

The Massacre of Glencoe

The West Highland Way in 2005, view from the summit of the Devil's Staircase looking south over the east end of Glen Coe, towards Buachaille Etive Mòr with Creise and Meall a' Bhuiridh beyond
Colin Souza, Edited by Dave Souza, CC BY-SA 2.5, Wikimedia Commons

In 1691, all Scottish clans were called upon to renounce the deposed King of Scotland, James VII, and swear allegiance to King William of Orange (of William and Mary fame). The chief of each clan had until January 1, 1692, to provide a signed document swearing an oath to William. The Highland Clan MacDonald had two things working against them here. First of all, the Secretary of State, John Dalrymple, was a Lowlander who loathed Clan MacDonald. Secondly, Clan MacDonald had already sworn an oath to James VII and had to wait on him to send word that they were free to break that oath.

Unfortunately, it was December 28 before a messenger arrived with this all-important letter from the former king. That gave Maclain, the chief of the MacDonald clan, just three days to get the newly-signed oath to the Secretary of State.

Maclain was detained for days when he went through Inveraray, the town of the rival Clan Campbell, but still managed to deliver the oath, albeit several days late. The Secretary of State’s legal team wasn't interested in late documents. They rejected the MacDonalds's sworn allegiance to William, and set plans in place to cut the clan down, “root and branch.”

In late January or early February, 120 men under the command of Captain Robert Campbell arrived at the MacDonalds's in Glencoe, claiming to need shelter because a nearby fort was full. The MacDonalds offered their hospitality, as was custom, and the soldiers stayed there for nearly two weeks before Captain Drummond arrived with instructions to “put all to the sword under seventy.”

After playing cards with their victims and wishing them goodnight, the soldiers waited until the MacDonalds were asleep ... then murdered as many men as they could manage. In all, 38 people—some still in their beds—were killed. At least 40 women and children escaped, but fleeing into a blizzard blowing outside as their houses burned down meant that they all died of exposure.

The massacre was considered especially awful because it was “Slaughter Under Trust.” To this day, the door at Clachaig Inn in Glen Coe has a sign on the door that says "No hawkers or Campbells."

The Black Dinner

In November of 1440, the newly-appointed 6th Earl of Douglas, who was just 16, and his little brother David, were invited to join the 10-year-old King of Scotland, James II, for dinner at Edinburgh Castle. But it wasn’t the young King who had invited the Douglas brothers. The invitation had been issued by Sir William Crichton, Chancellor of Scotland, who feared that the Black Douglas (there was another clan called the Red Douglas) were growing too powerful.

As legend has it, the children were all getting along marvelously, enjoying food, entertainment and talking until the end of the dinner, when the head of a black bull was dropped on the table, symbolizing the death of the Black Douglas. The two young Douglases were dragged outside, given a mock trial, found guilty of high treason, and beheaded. It’s said that the Earl pleaded for his brother to be killed first so that the younger boy wouldn’t have to witness his older brother’s beheading.

Sir Walter Scott wrote this of the horrific event:

"Edinburgh Castle, toune and towre,
God grant thou sink for sin!
And that e'en for the black dinner
Earl Douglas gat therein."

This article has been updated for 2019.

When Skeleton Rocking Chairs and ‘Vampire Killing Kits’ Fooled People Into Thinking They Were Rare Historical Artifacts

A vampire killing kit at Ripley's Believe It or Not! in San Francisco
A vampire killing kit at Ripley's Believe It or Not! in San Francisco
Glen Bowman, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

In 2012, bizarre rocking chairs—usually dark brown, with various kinds of ornate flourishes, always in the shape of a skeleton—began popping up on sites across the internet. Gothic.org and io9 ran stories about them, and Facebook pages like Steampunk Tendencies soon followed. The chairs were sometimes described as modeled on 19th-century Russian examples—and other times described as 19th-century Russian items themselves.

The grotesque chairs were funny, but got even funnier in 2013 when someone appropriated a photo from an auction house and meme-ified it. They added a blurred effect and magnified the skeleton’s anguished, open-mouthed expression, making it seem as if it were screaming into the void—perhaps upon realizing that it must spend the rest of eternity as a rocking chair in some eccentric collector’s parlor. By early 2014, someone on 4chan had associated the meme with the words “Wake Me Up Inside (Can't Wake Up)” after lyrics from the 2003 song "Bring Me to Life" by rock band Evanescence. Then, in true internet fashion, people started adding their own text.

By then, another story had attached itself to the chairs. In 2009, the Lawrence Journal-World discussed the macabre furniture item in a column titled "Ghoulish pieces attract collectors," and suggested that the chair had something to do with a Masonic ritual.

So—aside from the joy of a good meme—what’s the deal? Was this chair used in some secret society's ceremony, or is it just a strange artifact made by some long-forgotten Russian woodworker?

A Macabre Fantasy

According to James Jackson, the answer is neither. Jackson—the president and CEO of Jackson’s Auctions in Cedar Falls, Iowa, and a specialist in Russian art—sold the chair that was featured in several of the early news stories.

He says most of these chairs were probably made in the '90s, but were designed to look older to fool buyers into forking over more money. “These are the type of things that are created in various markets to appeal to the eclectic, exotic tastes of a wannabe fine art consumer,” Jackson tells Mental Floss. “So the person making this chair—and the guy buying it and reselling it—they understand this brain very well.”

The precise origins of the chairs Jackson's sold are murky. A couple of the chairs were sold to a third-party seller called a consignor, who then resold them to Jackson’s Auctions. Jackson suspects they were probably made somewhere in Europe—probably at a workshop where the primary goal is to “make a buck.” That would explain why no artist or craftsman's name is ever attached to the chairs.

These “fantasy chairs” were initially thought to be rare, and some sellers may have benefited from the myths and stories surrounding their origin. Over the years, people started to see more and more of these chairs at auction, which contributed to their diminishing value. Jackson said his auction house sold one of the chairs for $2600 in 2008, but in 2012, the price dropped to $1500. At its lowest price point, a skeleton chair sold for $900 in Detroit, according to Jackson's database of different auction houses.

Artifacts of the Hyperreal

Jackson says the skeleton chairs remind him of the vampire slayer kits that were popular in the '90s, and continued to be sold throughout the 2000s (they still pop up on eBay and other online auctions from time to time). Wooden trunks—purportedly full of vampire-repelling tools from the 1800s such as wooden stakes, garlic, a crucifix, and sometimes pistols—used to command high prices at auction. Sotheby’s even sold one for $25,000 in 2011.

“It was BS,” Jackson says of the trunks, explaining that while they may have contained old tools, the pieces were assembled later for commercial purposes and given a phony backstory. “Whenever we see anything weird like that, it’s an automatic red flag. To the consumer, though, they want it to be some rare and unusual thing—and that’s not true.”

Jackson said one obvious sign that the slaying kits were inauthentic was that "they don’t show up in any literature prior to the 1990s, [and] something like that would have been written about somewhere.” In hindsight, Jackson thinks the whole scam was pretty comical. He said you had experts on TV doing careful analyses of the paper labels inside these kits, when in reality, all they had to do was use a magnifying glass to see that the letters were printed by a dot matrix.

"It’s like doing a metallurgic study on a brand new Mercedes-Benz," he said. “I didn’t have to get a microscope out and a black light and spend an hour fondling it. It’s common sense.”

Jonathan Ferguson, a curator at the UK-based National Museum of Arms and Armour, also debunked these hunting trunks. He wrote in a blog post, “Nowhere was there evidence to support real vampire slayers carting about one of these kits.”

Still, he wrote that they were somewhat valuable as “genuine artifacts of the Gothic fiction,” and rather than being seen as fakes (since there never was a Victorian original), should be seen as "'hyperreal' or invented artifacts somewhat akin to stage, screen or magician's props."

As for the Sotheby's kit that was snatched up for $25,000, its creation was also probably inspired by the popularity of Dracula (1897) and other late 19th century vampire lore, according to Dennis Harrington, head of Sotheby's European furniture department in New York City. Harrington notes that some of the pieces inside the kit are valuable in their own right.

"[The kit] was complete and did contain individual elements that have some intrinsic value themselves, like silver bullets and an ivory figure of Christ on the Cross (though we can no longer sell ivory items today) ..." Harrington tells Mental Floss. "The curiosity value would also have helped, and of course the golden rule of auctions is that any one lot is worth whatever someone is willing to pay for it on a particular day."

Likewise, the skeleton rocking chairs—despite not being antiques—certainly have their own unique appeal. “They’re cool, they’re neat. These are ‘man cave’ type things for the most part,” Jackson says. However, “They’re obviously not functional. You can’t sit in it comfortably.”

And what of the skeleton meme? Do the makers of these chairs know that their creation has been turned into an absurd internetism? Jackson, for his part, hadn’t heard anything about it. “I’m glad they made a joke out of [the chairs],” he said, “but I don’t know what meme means.”

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