Sinister Phone Outage?

Evidence of a Coup in the Nation's Capitol?

It sure sounds sinister. At the time Kennedy was killed the phone system in Washington, D.C. went dead. Or at least that's what the conspiracy books say.

That's what plotters of coups in Third World countries do: they take out the phone system.

See how a couple of conspiracy books describe the situation. First, from Coverup by J. Gary Shaw and Larry Howard, p. 199:

In Washington, D.C. there was a crucial and astonishing breakdown of communications when the telephone system in the nation's capital went out at approximately 12:33 p.m. (CST). It was almost an hour before full telephone service was restored in the city. We do not accept the explanation that it was due to overloaded phone lines, and we would like to know if the Pentagon was effected [sic] by this breakdown.
Where'd They Get That?

Note that both Shaw and Russell give a sinister time for the phone outage. For Shaw, it was at 12:33 pm., three minutes after the shooting but before the first UPI news flash (which went out at 12:34) was broadcast. For Russell it was one minute before Kennedy was actually shot.

What source do they cite these two contradictory accounts? Manchester's The Death of a President. However Manchester gives 2:00 pm. Eastern as the time of the "outage." His account makes it clear that this is approximate, but also that the phones didn't fail until the news was broadcast.

Where did Shaw and Russell get their information? Are they just making stuff up? Or credulously quoting sources that are just making stuff up? If the latter, why don't they supply a citation?

Now, Dick Russell, The Man who Knew Too Much: (p. 570),
One minute before the shooting, in Washington, D.C., there had occurred an astonishing breakdown of the telephone system. The official explanation was overloaded lines. But in was almost an hour before full service could be restored, while the Pentagon was placing American troops on worldwide alert. [emphasis in original].
Both of these authors cite William Manchester as the source of this strange "outage." Yet Manchester doesn't describe it in the same way they do

From The Death of a President by William Manchester (pp. 195-196). Manchester describes the phone call where J. Edgar Hoover called to inform Bobby Kennedy that his brother had been shot.

A White House operator connected [Hoover] with extension 163, at the end of the swimming pool behind the Virginia mansion. In response to the ring Ethel Kennedy left the men. The operator told her "The director is calling." Ethel didn't have to ask which one. In official Washington there were many directors, but only one Director. She said, "The Attorney General is at lunch."
At the other corner of the pool her husband had just glanced at his watch. It was 1:45 P.M. They had been away from the office for over an hour. He picked up a tuna fish sandwich and said to Morgenthau, "We'd better hurry and get back to that meeting."
"This is urgent," the operator told Ethel.
Ethel held out the white receiver. She called, "It's J. Edgar Hoover."
Robert Kennedy knew something out of the ordinary had happened; the Director never called him at home. Dropping his sandwich, he crossed to the phone, and as he took it Morgenthau saw the workman with the transistor radio whirl and run toward them, gibbering.
The Attorney General identified himself.
"I have news for you. The president's been shot," Hoover said tonelessly.
There was a pause. Kennedy asked whether it was serious.
"I think it's serious. I am endeavoring to get details," said Hoover. "I'll call you back when I find out more."
His [Bobby's] first thought was to fly to the side of his wounded brother, and after alerting McNamera to the need for immediate transportation he darted upstairs to change his clothes. Meantime telephones were ringing incessantly; during the first quarter hour calls were received or placed at the pool, the court, the upstairs study, and the downstairs library. Taz Shepard offered help in informing members of the family. Kennedy politely thanked him; that was his own responsibility. While instructing Clint Hill to make sure a priest reached the hospital he asked, "What kind of doctors do they have?" and "How is Jackie taking it?" He held several subsequent conversations with McNamera (who had been told that his information was coming from the DIA, the Defense Intelligence Agency, and who in the confusion thought that the source was the CIA), and once he took a call from John McCone of the CIA (who was actually watching Walter Cronkite).
Manchester then describes the reaction in the Capitol Building when John's brother Teddy gets the news (p. 198):
In the lobby, Ted Kennedy broke his stride between the teletype machines. It was impossible to see anything. Crowds had thickened around both. He swerved toward Lyndon Johnson's office and dialed the Attorney General's office from there -- government code 187, Extension 2001. Nothing happened. There was no dial tone, no sound at all. He dialed again and received a busy signal. . .
The telephone crisis was growing queerer and queerer. Calls could come in--Martin Agronsky of NBC was inquiring whether the Senator planned a flight to Dallas--but when Ted retired to his private office and tried again to reach his brother, whether at Justice or through the White House, all the lines were dead. After a pause did one briefly come to life. The White House switchboard, however, told him that the Attorney General was talking to Dallas, and since Ted Kennedy, unlike Bob, didn't have an executive mansion extension, there was no way of splicing him into the call. The conversation was with Clint Hill, but Ted didn't know that. He didn't even know that the President was in the hospital. Like Bill Pozen at the Interior, he was left with a useless black plastic receiver and the task of trying to assess the scope of the calamity. In retrospect it boundaries are clear: there was an assassin at large in Dallas, two victims at Parkland, and reaction everywhere else. ......
Later, Teddy rushed to find is wife Joan:
On the Twenty-eight Street threshold, Ted awaited [Joan Kennedy and Milt Gwirtzman]. His face was taunt and drained. "All the phones are gone," he said. He and Claude had been going through the house, picking up extensions. They had been unable to get a dial tone. The Chesapeake & Potomac Telephone Company was deaf and dumb. It was as though Alexander Graham Bell had never been born. They began to wonder whether the failure of the system could be more than an accident; Joan, scared, said, "There must be some national reason." Ted decided to conduct a door-to-door search, asking permission of strangers to test instruments until they found one that worked. It seemed to be the only solution. He had turned on his television set, but despite their many excursions since he left the Senate rostrum, the commentators were still exasperatingly vague. He had to reach Hickory Hill. Bob had talked to Dallas; he would know something. On the sidewalk, Ted said to Claude, "We'll split up. You try the doors on the right. I'll take the left. If you get something, let me know." (page 199)
But many people in were getting calls through. At Parkland Hospital:
During the first half-hour, when pressure was at its greatest, members of the Presidential party repeatedly placed calls to Washington and elsewhere. (p. 176)
In Washington, DC:
The assassination was so fantastic that the general reaction was utter incredulity. "George, I've just heard something wild," a colleague called to George Reedy on Capitol Hill, and Reedy agreed that it was absurd. He rose to check only because it was his duty to telephone Lyndon Johnson's Walter Jenkins if anything unusual had happened in Texas. (p. 207)
In the Lafayette dining room Sargent Shriver was summoned to a phone and told [of the shooting] by his secretary. He returned to the table and said to his wife, "Something's happened to Jack." Eunice asked, "What?" "He's been shot," Shriver said. She asked if her brother was going to be all right. "We don't know," her husband replied. Eunice thought a moment and then said, "There have been so many crises in his life; he'll pull through." . . . They calmly studied the menu and ordered lunch; it arrived, and Eunice ate the bread and drank a cup of soup before a second telephone call destroyed their fragile facade. (p. 208)
Manchester explains what was happening during this time period:
The breakdown of the telephone system, which seemed so menacing, was an inevitable consequence of this compulsion to spread the word. It is impossible to estimate how many of the 1,443,994 phones in service in the Washington metropolitan area on November 22 were snatched up in that first half-hour, but the Chesapeake & Potomac's Friday record of over a quarter-million long-distance calls is staggering, and locally the phenomenon of what communications engineers call "the slow dial tone," a result of overloaded exchanges became frightening. Lines would go dead, return to normal when a sufficient number of people had hung up, and go dead again and return to life, over and over. The pattern was repeated throughout the country. It became obvious that in a national emergency this would be the first link to snap. The phoners likeliest to get through immediately were those who called as soon as they heard the first flash; Byron Skelton's daughter, knowing that he was about to leave for Austin, dialed him at once and caught him at the front door. After that, it was a matter of persistence and luck, because remote acquaintances, distant relatives, and estranged friends were searching for one another's numbers by the millions. Even total strangers called--in Georgetown, a ghostly voice told Bill Walton, "Turn on your radio, the President's been shot." (p. 205-206)

Elsewhere in the nation, the same thing was happening. From The Boston Globe, November 23, 1963, p. 4:
In Boston, they wept.

Elsewhere they mourned.

At 2 p.m. Friday, the President of the United States died from the bullets fired by a mad assassin in Texas.


Boston's telephone communications were vitually paralyzed. Switchboards at newspapers, radio and television stations were clogged. People throughout the metropolitan area were unable to make outside contact by phone because of the calls.

Everywhere people were trying to telephone -- to tell others of the shooting of the President. Many waited 20 minutes to get a dial tone because of the overload.

The Boston Herald, Nov. 23, 1963, p. 12
Phone Company Jammed by Calls

The telephone company yesterday was jammed with calls after President Kennedy's assassination became known. It asked all radio and television stations to urge listeners to use their phones only in emergencies.

From the Chicago Tribune, November 23, 1963
Shooting Launches Phone Call Deluge

News of war, peace, and the death of a President always brings a deluge of phone calls. Yesterday, with the assassination of President Kennedy may have caused the greatest number of calls in the Chicago area since the first commercial phone was installed in 1877.

"There was a tremendous surge of [phone] traffic immediately following the announcement of the shooting of the President," a spokesman for the Illinois Bell Telephone company said. "We haven't see anything like this since the death of President Roosevelt and the end of World War II in 1945."

Much Automated Service

But since then, the spokesman pointed out, "there has been a huge increase in automatic dial service and the number of phones." The 2 millionth phone was installed in Chicago several weeks ago.

Roosevelt died of a cerebral hemorrhage in Warm Springs, Ga. News of his death came unexpectedly and caused heavy phoning. The edge was taken off the news of the end of World War II. It had been forecast by several days.

Customers all over the Chicago area, particularly on the south and west sides of the city, had a brief wait before they got a dial tone on their telephones, the IBT spokesman said.

A dial tone indicates that there is a line available for a call. Lack of dial tone is a sign that the exchange equipment is jammed with calls.

Newspaper Phones Clogged

A sharp increase in long distance calls was also noted during the first half hour after the news of the shooting broke. The spokesman said phone traffic had returned to normal by 2:12 p.m.

One exchange which was clogged was 222, which serves all four major Chicago newspapers. Harry Bernardt, telephone service manager for The Tribune said seven operators handled more than 500 calls in a half-hour period. Hundreds more were received at The Tribune's news department.

Operators at City Hall and the County building were hard-pressed to handle hundreds of calls which loaded their switchboards. One chief operator said, "the girls were almost hysterical with the news and the sudden increase [in calls], but we managed to get everything under control."

In Summary:

Like so much else in the conspiracy literature, this "mysterious" outage seems entirely unsinister when you know the details.
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