"Smoke" on the Grassy Knoll
By Jerry Organ

So little has changed in Dealey Plaza that — if one could ignore the towering monoliths of post-1963 Dallas — it is easy to imagine the motorcade is about to arrive. The Zapruder film has now become familiar to the public, and it stands as the best-quality film taken from a near-ideal vantage point. But we are also familiar with footage of the aftermath, thanks in good measure to broadcast-quality newsreel film taken by several cameramen back in the motorcade. This was the footage that was shown on the networks as that awful afternoon unfolded.

The Rush to the Knoll!

In the immediate aftermath of the assassination, numerous witnesses and policemen found themselves in the parking lot atop the infamous Grassy Knoll. Their presence is often cited as evidence of an assassin firing from behind the fence.

The "rush" to the knoll actually occurred over a minute after the shots, and was triggered by a Dallas motorcycle policeman in the parade, Clyde Haygood, who had no firsthand knowledge of the shot direction. Officer Haygood was a block away when he heard the first of three shots. After racing to Elm Street, he stopped just pass the fallen Newman family, parked his cycle, and ran up to confer with a policemen he saw on the railbridge. Only then did people start running up after him, falsely thinking he was after a culprit.

The "rush" up through the walkway by the Bryan Colonnade occurred even later. Prominent witnesses like the Newmans didn't begin for over a minute; Jean Hill didn't cross the street for over two minutes. The initial reaction of most people close to the shooting was to simply drop to the ground or seek cover. Later, media reports and affidavits from witnesses would describe their impression — perhaps aided by the sight of Haygood and the tricky acoustics of the Plaza — that shots seemed to come from the area to the front of the car.

Initially, the Grassy Knoll wasn't suspected by researchers as a source of shots. Thomas Buchanan, in his 1964 book Who Killed Kennedy? based a shot from the Triple Underpass on a "bullet hole" that reportedly passed through the limousine's windshield. Only when the Warren Commission demonstrated the windshield could only have been hit from the interior (probably a lead fragment from the fatal shot), and released the testimony of Sam Holland, did attention shift onto the knoll.

The Grassy Knoll has since been a favorite of researchers, who've deduced "assassins" and "puffs of smoke" from numerous photographs that captured the area. In 1967 came the sensational announcement that a "classic gunman" shape was apparent on a frame of the poor-quality 8mm film taken by Orville Nix. Within months, Josiah Thompson had laid that one to rest, noting the same shadow pattern effect in a frame taken long after the assassination.

In 1965, critic David Lifton studied copies of the Moorman Polaroid, which included much of the Grassy Knoll at the near-instance of the fatal shot. Lifton thought one of the bushes on the knoll was an artificial blind for a sniper.

In 1976, yet another shape materialized from the shadows in a Moorman blowup in Robert Groden's book JFK: The Case for Conspiracy. From the same image, Texas researchers Gary Mack and Jack White presented a shape they called "Badgeman" in the 1988 documentary "The Men Who Killed Kennedy." That same year, at NOVA's request, technicians at MIT analyzed the shape, concluding it "took some imagination" to render it into a human figure.

One shape on the knoll has been confirmed as human; the "Black Dog Man" figure at the Bryan Colonnade's retaining wall seen in the Willis and Betzner photographs as the limousine moves down Elm. Critics have made much of this shape, some even suggesting he was holding a "rifle." But a long-forgotten interview of Marilyn Sitzman by Josiah Thompson determined the shape was quite benign.

Black Dog Man

Who Was Black Dog Man?

The 1993 book The Killing of a President by Robert Groden offers enlargements from the Moorman Polaroid, and Muchmore and Nix films that purport to show Black Dog Man at the corner of the retaining wall. On an episode of Geraldo in 1991, Groden played a rotoscoped sequence of the Nix film showing a "tan-colored object [dropping] downward and to the left" as evidence of Black Dog Man's suspicious activity.

That program opened with a live remote from Dealey Plaza that included one of the last interviews with the late Marilyn Sitzman, the secretary who steadied Abraham Zapruder as he filmed atop an abutment of the Bryan Colonnade. Pointing towards the corner of the retaining wall, Sitzman recalled:

"What had happened, there was a couple sitting right over here in a park bench and they dropped a pop bottle, right after the car went under the Triple Underpass. And when that pop bottle hit the cement, it kind of woke us up. And both Mr. Z and I was still standing up here. Everybody else was laying down flat. And all's I can remember then, was going through my mind: 'What am I doing standing up here?'"
The movements in the Nix film Groden later showed on the same program do resemble the event recalled by Sitzman. The couple were gone when Zapruder panned over the retaining wall seconds later, having fled "towards the back." Two years later, Groden still had not connected the couple to the grainy shapes at the retaining wall he presented in the most suspicious light in The Killing of a President.

Nor, apparently, did Josiah Thompson care to associate the couple Sitzman first described to him in 1966 with the errant "fourth" shot recalled by the featured witness of his 1967 book Six Seconds in Dallas. Sam Holland, signal supervisor for the Union Terminal Railroad, who witnessed the assassination from atop the Triple Underpass.

Sitzman told Thompson of a young black couple who were eating lunch and drinking Cokes on a bench behind the retaining wall. When the motorcade arrived, the Willis and Betzner photographs showed they had repositioned themselves near the wall's corner, apparently leaning with their elbows on top of the wall.

Sitzman recalled hearing "a crush of glass and I looked over there and the kids had thrown down their Coke bottles, just threw them down." Her description of the bottle-breaking being "much louder than the shots were" and the possibility that sunlight reflected from the flying shards would account for Holland's claim of gunfire and a puff of smoke from the knoll.

Thompson doesn't acknowledge it, but a likely reason Holland looked towards the knoll area in the first place was because — from Holland's position atop the railbridge — the Oswald window loomed above it. Holland later thought he could distinguish three shots from "the north end of Houston Street," also in the vicinity of the Oswald window. Holland's alleged shot from "under the trees" becomes an aberration of the exploding Coke bottle.

Black Dog Man

Sitzman's revelation to Thompson was re-discovered by Massachusett archivist Richard Trask in 1985, who "in 1991 located the bench photo and put the scenario of the black couple together." Trask's 1994 landmark book, Pictures of the Pain, publishes an image taken on the afternoon of the assassination by Dallas Morning News photographer Johnny Flynn showing:

"two plainclothes men, one with a stenographer's note pad in hand, leaning over and examining a paper lunch bag, and a wrapper marked 'Tom Thumb 8 Buns 25 cents.' The lunch leavings are resting on an odd-looking metal frame slat bench positioned perpendicular to the concrete wall and next to the walkway leading to the stairs at the knoll."
The black couple have never been identified — they may very well be the elusive "smoking gun" needed to crack the so-called "great mystery" of the Kennedy assassination.

Smoke and Mirrors

Holland's co-workers on the railbridge also described "smoke" but take a closer look. Austin Miller located the incident "coming from a group of trees north of Elm off the railroad tracks." This is the tree grouping, at the retaining wall, described by Holland. Miller testified: "I turned and looked toward the — there is a little plaza sitting on the hill. I looked over to see if anything was there, who threw the firecracker or whatever it was." The "little plaza" is the concrete pergola structure, that includes the retaining wall. Nothing about gunfire from the fence.

James Simmons located it "near the embankment in front of the TSBD." The wall is closer and more "in front of the TSBD" than the fence. In 1966, Simmons told Mark Lane it "came from the left and in front of us, toward the wooden fence, and there was a puff of smoke that came underneath the trees on the embankment." Simmons stood next to Holland — the only cluster of trees from their vantage point was that later described by Holland.

Marilyn Sitzman was a lot closer to the stockade fence corner than Holland, yet the only unusual event she noticed was the bottle-smashing by the black couple — nothing about gunfire. That same day she told a police detective the shots came from the Depository.

Likewise, Emmett Hudson, the Dealey Plaza groundskeeper, was standing halfway up the steps on the knoll, and heard nothing like a gunshot from the fence, a few feet behind him. Hudson would clarify for the HSCA that he meant the Depository when he described the shots as coming from "behind" him; critics had misused him as a second-gunman witness for years.

The "haze of gunfire" Groden presents on page 204 of The Killing of a President is, of course, a burst of fall foliage as better revealed in the blow-up on page 46. There is little doubt that what David Lifton purports to be "smoke" on a Nix film frame is simply the tree shadow pattern on the sunlit portion of the retaining wall, seen clearer on the Moorman and Bond photos. The Nix film did, however, unmistakably capture the swinging motion of the bottle-breaking.

Many of the witnesses who indirectly saw or heard the bottle-breaking and the couple's dark shapes immediately running from the scene understandably associated the events at the wall with the President's head explosion so nearby. The witnesses' insistence that what they saw was a "puff of smoke," the Parkland doctors' snap judgment of frontal shots, the failure of the black couple to come forward — and later on, the "rearward" head snap as seen on the Zapruder film — left the Grassy Knoll open to all sorts of speculation.

The sad part is that Sam Holland gave an honest impression of what he saw which critics later molded to fit their agenda. Josiah Thompson had the opportunity in 1966 to ask Holland whether the "puff of smoke" could have been the bottle-breaking recalled by Sitzman, but it would have challenged his hypothesis of a simultaneous double-impact on the President's head.

Ironically, Sam Holland had complained to Thompson about the subterfuge of an alias used by Mark Lane to gain a interview. Having been a Dallas Deputy Sheriff for 17 years, Holland had checked out Thompson with his old friend, Dallas County Sheriff Bill Decker. Thompson's credibility was no doubt helped by being Life magazine's Special Consultant on the assassination. In Thompson's words, Holland complained that critics:

"had lied to him about the use to which his words would be put and had badgered him unceasingly, trying to prove one point and then another. Thus the first part of the evening was spent in salving the wounds Holland had suffered in earlier interviews."
Despite assurances that Thompson "wished to plead no special case," Thompson admits to an agenda: "Holland's story fitted the last piece into a jigsaw puzzle whose shape I had first perceived some five months earlier."

Newman and the Umbrella

The November 22, 1963 affidavits of the Newman couple were published in Volume XIX of the Hearings; subsequently to be misrepresented by critics like Meagher, Thompson and Marrs. It wasn't until 1984, in the TV production "On Trial: Lee Harvey Oswald," that Vincent Bugliosi simply asked William Newman to specify the bit about the "garden directly behind me" that was in his affidavit of November 22, 1963. Newman specified the area to the east of the pergola; between the Depository and Newman's position on November 22 is a landscaped walkway.

In his affidavit, Newman thought the shots came from the direction of the Depository, but was unsure as to the shooter's elevation and so looked no higher than the "garden." The Moorman photo shows the fence on the Grassy Knoll is more to Newman's right than rear, whereas the "garden" — and Depository — are more rearward. To millions of viewers of the Zapruder film, it does initially appear that, in Newman's words, a shot "hit the President in the side of the temple." The autopsy finding and discovery of the Z312-313 forward movement reveal the explosion of the upper right skull was actually an exit wound.

Dealey Plaza in the wake of the shots

In the "JFK" movie, a man with an umbrella in the heart of Dealey Plaza acts as a visual signalman for the assassination teams. No, Stone didn't make this up; there was a man pumping an open umbrella as the limousine passed him. But what Stone left out was that the man has been identified.

In his Select Committee testimony, Louie Steven Witt recalled his symbolic protest action in the Plaza using an umbrella. To many researchers, Witt offered the type of innocent explanation Thompson thought “most likely” in 1967. There was another protester, with a handwritten sign across Elm from Witt. Both Witt and that man, like many others, lingered in the Plaza long after the assassination.

Witt told the Committee that he wanted to taunt Kennedy, since the umbrella was supposedly symbolic of Joseph Kennedy's sympathy for Neville Chamberlain's attempts to appease Germany before the start of World War II. Chamberlain's famous "peace in our time" was read — in front of newsreel cameras — under an umbrella at a rainy airport. During the cajoling of convention delegates on the day JFK received the nomination in 1960, Lyndon Johnson chided his opponent’s father, saying "I was never any Chamberlain umbrella man."

Critics note Witt said he didn't see "the President shot or his movements" because Witt was preoccupied walking towards the sidewalk and raising up the umbrella. Photographs show the Umbrella Man was already stationed on the sidewalk with a raised umbrella, and thus a clear view of the approaching motorcade. But consider the dynamics of the moment, such as the possibility that the first and second loud reports diverted Witt's attention towards the Depository as the President neared.

Recall that Witt was in the Plaza to protest against the President — at the last moment, Witt could have seen the Secret Service agents and Mrs. Kennedy, realized the absurdity of his silly protest, and just couldn't face the President. Years later, he would not be able to recall the exact sequence.

Louie Witt's open admission should have ended speculation over the Umbrella Man. Like other conspiracy candidates, such myths die a hard death in the critical community. It may be the questionable principals and skewed analysis of conspiracy authors that's the ultimate "smoking gun" in this case. They continue to lead millions on a wild-goose-chase up the Grassy Knoll.

© copyright 2000 Jerry Organ. All rights reserved.

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