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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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A Brief History of Black Friday
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iStock

The unofficial start of the holiday shopping season is often referred to as the busiest shopping day of the year. But where did this tradition start and just how big is it? Here are the answers to a few frequently asked questions about Black Friday. Hopefully they'll give you some good talking points tomorrow, when you line up outside Best Buy at 4 a.m.

HOW DID BLACK FRIDAY BECOME SUCH A BIG SHOPPING DAY?

It's hard to say when the day after Thanksgiving turned into a retail free-for-all, but it probably dates back to the late 19th century. At that time, store-sponsored Thanksgiving parades were common, and once Santa Claus showed up at the end of the parade, the holiday shopping season had officially commenced.

In those days, most retailers adhered to an unwritten rule that holiday shopping season didn't start until after Thanksgiving, so no stores would advertise holiday sales or aggressively court customers until the Friday immediately following the holiday. Thus, when the floodgates opened that Friday, it became a huge deal.

SO RETAILERS WERE ALWAYS HOPING FOR AN EARLY THANKSGIVING?

You bet. They weren't just hoping, though; they were being proactive about it. In 1939, the Retail Dry Goods Association warned Franklin Roosevelt that if the holiday season wouldn't begin until after Americans celebrated Thanksgiving on the traditional final Thursday in November, retail sales would go in the tank. Ever the iconoclast, Roosevelt saw an easy solution to this problem: he moved Thanksgiving up by a week. Instead of celebrating the holiday on its traditional day—November 30th that year—Roosevelt declared the next-to-last Thursday in November to be the new Thanksgiving, instantly tacking an extra week onto the shopping season.

BRILLIANT! HOW DID THAT WORK OUT?

Not so well. Roosevelt didn't make the announcement until late October, and by then most Americans had already made their holiday travel plans. Many rebelled and continued to celebrate Thanksgiving on its "real" date while derisively referring to the impostor holiday as "Franksgiving." State governments didn't know which Thanksgiving to observe, so some of them took both days off. In short, it was a bit of a mess.

By 1941, though, the furor had died down, and Congress passed a law that made Thanksgiving the fourth Thursday in November, regardless of how it affected the shopping day that would become known as Black Friday.

WHY CALL IT BLACK FRIDAY?

If you ask most people why the day after Thanksgiving is called Black Friday, they'll explain that the name stems from retailers using the day's huge receipts as their opportunity to "get in the black" and become profitable for the year. The first recorded uses of the term "Black Friday" are a bit less rosy, though.

According to researchers, the name "Black Friday" dates back to Philadelphia in the mid-1960s. The Friday in question is nestled snugly between Thanksgiving and the traditional Army-Navy football game that's played in Philadelphia on the following Saturday, so the City of Brotherly Love was always bustling with activity on that day. All of the people were great for retailers, but they were a huge pain for police officers, cab drivers, and anyone who had to negotiate the city's streets. They started referring to the annual day of commercial bedlam as "Black Friday" to reflect how irritating it was.

SO WHERE DID THE WHOLE "GET IN THE BLACK" STORY ORIGINATE?

Apparently store owners didn't love having their biggest shopping day saddled with such a negative moniker, so in the early 1980s someone began floating the accounting angle to put a more positive spin on the big day.

DO RETAILERS REALLY NEED BLACK FRIDAY TO TURN AN ANNUAL PROFIT?

Major retailers don't; they're generally profitable—or at least striving for profitability—throughout the entire year. (A company that turned losses for three quarters out of every fiscal year wouldn't be a big hit with investors.) Some smaller outlets may parlay big holiday season sales into annual profits, though.

IS BLACK FRIDAY REALLY THE BIGGEST SHOPPING DAY OF THE YEAR?

It's certainly the day of the year in which you're most likely to be punched while reaching for a Tickle Me Elmo doll, but it might not be the busiest day in terms of gross receipts. According to Snopes.com, Black Friday is generally one of the top days of the year for stores, but it's the days immediately before Christmas—when procrastinators finally get shopping—that stores make the serious loot. Black Friday may, however, be the busiest day of the year in terms of customer traffic.

Snopes's data shows the 10-year span from 1993 to 2002, and in that interval Black Friday was never higher than fourth on the list of the year's busiest shopping days by sales volume. In 2003 and 2005 Black Friday did climb to the top of the pile for sales revenue days, but it still gets stiff competition from the week leading up to Christmas, particularly the Saturday right before the big day.

DO PEOPLE REALLY GET INJURED ON BLACK FRIDAY?

Sadly, yes. One of the most tragic Black Friday incidents happened in 2008, when 34-year-old seasonal employee Jdimytai Damour was killed after a crowd of hundreds of people from the approximately 2000 people waiting outside knocked him own and stampeded over his back after the doors opened at 5 a.m. at the Wal-Mart on Long Island, New York.

In 2010 in Buffalo, New York, several shoppers were trampled trying to get into a Target. One of the victims, Keith Krantz—who was pinned against a metal door support and then shoved to the ground—told a CNN affiliate he thought he would be killed. “At that moment, I was thinking I don't want to die here on the ground,” Krantz said.

In Murray, Utah, 15,000 shoppers swamped a mall with such force, the local police had to respond to break up skirmishes and fistfights, and keep shoppers from ransacking stores.

In 2008, a fight broke out between a young girl and a man at another Wal-Mart store in Columbus, Ohio, over a 40-inch Samsung flat-screen television. It was $798, marked down from $1000. The New York Times reported that the not-so-aptly-named Nikki Nicely, 19, leaped onto a fellow shopper’s back and began pounding his shoulders violently when he attempted to purchase the television. “That’s my TV!” shouted Ms. Nicely, who then took an elbow to the face. “That’s my TV!” The fight was broken up by a police officer and security guard. “That’s right,” Nicely cried as her adversary walked away. “This here is my TV!”

HOW CAN THIS KIND OF THING BE AVOIDED?

In an effort to keep a few would-be clients from personal injury law firms, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) created a special checklist for retailers expecting large crowds.

So what’s OSHA’s advice? Consider using bullhorns. Hire a team of police officers. Be prepared for “crowd crushing” and “violent acts.” Set up barricades. And, above all else, if charging shoppers come running, stay out of the way.

Haley Sweetland Edwards contributed to this story, portions of which originally appeared in 2009.

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Pop Culture
A Speedy History of the Hess Truck
Hess Corporation
Hess Corporation

Unless you know someone crazy about air fresheners or caffeine pills, holiday gifts purchased at gas stations don’t usually provoke much excitement. But if you were one of the millions who grew up in the northeast, the annual release of the Hess toy truck at Hess gas stations—usually green, always labeled with a Hess logo, always boxed with batteries—was and is as much a part of the holiday as Santa Claus and his sleigh.

The idea for an affordable, quality children’s toy sold at service stations at thousands of Hess locations in 16 states was courtesy of Leon Hess, the college dropout-turned-fuel magnate who began selling oil door-to-door in 1933 and graduated to gas stops by 1960. Hess decided he would trump the cheap merchandise given away by gas stations—mugs, glassware—by commissioning a durable, feature-heavy toy truck modeled after the first oil tanker he ever bought for his company. Unlike most toys of the era, it would have headlights that really worked and a tank that kids could either fill up or drain with water.

Most importantly, Hess insisted it come with batteries—he knew the frustration suffered by kids who tore into a holiday present, only to discover they’d have to wait until it had a power source before it could be operated.

The Hess Tanker Truck went on sale in 1964 for $1.29 and sold out almost instantly. Hess released the toy again in 1965, and then introduced the Voyager Tanker Ship in 1966. For the next 50 years, hardly a year went by without Hess issuing a new vehicle that stood up to heavy play and offered quality and features comparable to the “real” toys on store shelves. Incredibly, fathers would wait in line for hours for an opportunity to buy one for their child.

The toy truck became so important to the Hess brand and developed such a strong following that when the company was bought out in 2014 and locations converted to the Speedway umbrella, new owners Marathon Petroleum promised they would keep making the Hess trucks. They’re now sold online, with the newest—the Dump Truck and Loader, complete with working hydraulics and STEM lesson plans—retailing for $33.99. Bigger, better toy trucks may be out there, but a half-century of tradition is hard to replicate.

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