The Man Who Named the Grassy Knoll

by Gary Mack, Curator
The Sixth Floor Museum at Dealey Plaza

Thirty-five years after the Kennedy assassination and speculation about a conspiracy, "grassy knoll" has become a generic term connoting hidden plots and subterfuge. But who coined the phrase? Until now the answer has remained elusive, yet newly-discovered information identifies the source as a member of the news media. Here's how it happened.

The Kennedy motorcade from Love Field through Dallas included a news "pool car" loaned by the telephone company. It was the fifth car behind President Kennedy. Riding in the right front was Malcolm Kilduff, Mr. Kennedy's acting press secretary. In the middle sat senior White House correspondent Merriman Smith of United Press International (UPI). Thanks to a long-standing agreement to alternate seats with the competing wire service, Associated Press (AP), Mr. Smith sat directly in front of the car's only radio telephone. In the back seat sat the AP's Jack Bell, Robert Baskin of The Dallas Morning News and Bob Clark of ABC News.

When the shots were fired, Mr. Smith's car rode several hundred feet behind the president. The reporter had time to hear and see reactions from the crowd and police escorts, one of whom, Bobby Hargis, immediately stopped, jumped off his Harley-Davidson and raced up the nearby hill to a low concrete wall, passing horrified spectators lying on the ground.

As officer Hargis ran, the pool car picked up speed entering the Triple Underpass to Stemmons Freeway and the wild race to Parkland Hospital. Mr. Smith grabbed the radio telephone and called the Dallas UPI office, which sent out his dispatch at 12:34, four minutes after the shooting. "Three shots were fired at President Kennedy's motorcade today in downtown Dallas," he reported, and news bulletins around the world began with that short statement.

Meanwhile, in Anna, Illinois, WRAJ-AM owner and manager Don Michel responded to the UPI teletype warning bells and relayed those early reports to his startled listeners. Fortunately, Mr. Michel did something few others had presence of mind to do. He saved the UPI dispatches and filed them away, figuring someday they would be valuable for history. He was right. Mr. Michel placed those rare pages on loan to The Sixth Floor Museum, where several have been on display since opening day in 1989.

One of the pages in our archive reveals that in a dispatch sent almost exactly 25 minutes after the assassination, Mr. Smith reported "Some of the Secret Service agents thought the gunfire was from an automatic weapon fired to the right rear of the president's car, probably from a grassy knoll to which police rushed."

No other news reports or witness interviews are known to contain the phrase "grassy knoll" at that time. In fact, tapes of local news coverage reveal that "grassy knoll" was later repeated by a few other reporters for several hours until investigators became convinced the shots originated from the old Texas School Book Depository. Yet it remains an historical fact that police and spectators immediately ran to the grassy knoll, not to the Depository building. And UPI's Merriman Smith reported it first.

So that's the story, as best as can be determined so many years later. Some researchers like to credit witness Bill Newman with the phrase, but the video tape shows he wasn't the one. Newman appeared on WFAA-TV in Dallas about 15-20 minutes after the shooting. He said the shots came from behind him, "up on the mall," or "up on the knoll."

Careful study of the tape shows him forming his lips to make the "mmm" sound, not "nnn." And he did not say "grassy" at any time.

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