Ruby's Motive for Shooting Oswald

Did He Do it for Jackie?

Conspiracists can't resist assigning a sinister role to Jack Ruby. Logically, a volatile vigilante like Ruby would have been about as likely to kill a guilty lone nut assassin as he would be to shoot a framed patsy. But conspiracists can't resist extending the plot to include Ruby as a conspirator.

Ruby's motive, as expressed to the Warren Commission, was his desire to spare Jackie Kennedy the ordeal of having to return to Dallas to testify at the murder trial of Oswald. Obviously, to make Ruby a plotter, conspiracists have to impeach this. Further, this motive implies that Ruby was a humane man — although badly misguided — and conspiracists want to portray him as a brutal Mafia type.

So it was a huge boon to conspiracists when Newsweek, in its March 27, 1967 edition, revealed a note that Ruby had passed to his attorney Joe Tonahill during his murder trial in 1964. As remembered by Tonahill, the note read:

Joe, you should know this. Tom Howard told me to say that I shot Oswald so that Caroline and Mrs. Kennedy wouldn't have to come to Dallas to testify, OK? (p. 21)
Howard was Ruby's first attorney, and conspiracists infer from this that Howard simply concocted the "to spare Jackie" motive. Further, some conspiracists also quote a statement from Ruby's lead counsel, Melvin Belli, to support this claim. Quoting Jim Marrs', Crossfire:
Ruby also admitted this ploy to attorney Melvin Belli, as recorded in his book, Dallas Justice. Belli wrote that Ruby told him: "We know I did it for Jackie and the kids. . . . Maybe I ought to forget this silly story that I'm telling, and get on the stand and tell the truth." (p. 414)
Marrs is quoting from Belli's book Dallas Justice, p. 39. Unfortunately, a fuller version of this passage from Belli doesn't convey quite the impression that Marrs claimed.
With a weary gesture, Ruby slapped his hands down on the metal table between us and shook his head impatiently. "What are we doing, Mel, kidding ourselves?" he asked.

I was tired too. "What do you mean, Jack?" I snapped.

"We know what happened," he said. "We know I did it for Jackie and the kids. I just went and shot him. They've got us anyway. Maybe I ought to forget this silly story that I'm telling, and get on the stand and tell the truth."

He was absolutely sincere. At that point, with his mental examination behind him and the outline of our defense clearly established, he was suddenly ready to admit that he had shot Lee Harvey Oswald deliberately and that our contention that the shooting had occurred during a blackout in which he was incompetent to know what he was doing was a fraud.

Ruby, in other words, is asserting to Belli that he did it "for Jackie," and the "silly story" is Belli's cockamamie defense based on the notion that Ruby shot Oswald while "blacked out" as a result of psychomotor epilepsy. Belli had no real evidence that Ruby suffered from any such malady, and the jury didn't buy it.

But of course Marrs' distortion doesn't vitiate the note that Ruby gave Tonahill. Did the note mean what conspiracists believe it did, and if so, was it true?

When Did Ruby First Claim to Have Done it "For Jackie"?

One fundamental problem with the conspiracists interpretation is the fact that Ruby told numerous people that he did it "for Jackie" well before he ever talked to Howard. Consider, for example, the Warren Commission testimony of Secret Service agent Forest Sorrels, who talked to Ruby within 30 minutes of his arrest.
Mr. HUBERT. Did he at that time, the first interview, indicate anything, or say anything which would indicate what his motive or reason for his act was?

Mr. SORRELS. Yes; and I might say that it was at that time that I found out his name was Ruby in place of Rubin, and he informed me his name had formerly been Rubinstein, and that he had had his name changed in Dallas.

I asked him — after I identified myself, I told him I would like to ask him some questions.

He said, "For newspapers or magazines?"

I said, "No; for myself."

He appeared to be considering whether or not he was going to answer my questions . . . [s]o I remarked to Jack Ruby, I said, "I just saw Honest Joe across the street over there, and I know a number of Jewish merchants here that you know."

And Ruby said, "That is good enough for me. What is it you want to know?"

And I said these two words, "Jack — why?"

He said, "When this thing happened" — referring to the assassination, that he was in a newspaper office placing an ad for his business. That when he heard about the assassination, he had canceled his ad and had closed his business, and he had not done any business for 3 days. That he had been grieving about this thing. That on the Friday night he had gone to the synagogue and had heard a eulogy on the President. That his sister had recently been operated on, and that she has been hysterical. That when he saw that Mrs. Kennedy was going to have to appear for the trial, he thought to himself, why should she have to go through this ordeal for this no-good so-and-so.

Mr. HUBERT. Did he use any words or did he say "no-good so-and-so"?

Mr. SORRELS. He used the word "son-of-a-bitch," as I recall (13H67-8).

There is plenty of testimony confirming Sorrel's claim to have talked to Ruby within a half hour after his arrest and the 11:21 shooting of Oswald, including the testimony of M.W. Stevenson (12H105) and Patrick Dean's reports to Chief Jesse Curry (19H439-440). FBI agent Ray Hall visited Ruby starting at 12:40 p.m., and Hall's notes show Ruby consulting with Tom Howard from 1:58 to 2:02 p.m. (15H64)

Further, numerous other witnesses confirm that Ruby was telling his "I did it for Jackie" story within minutes of his arrest. For instance, an FBI interview with T. D. McMillon on 12/05/63 says in part:

. . . McMILLON recalled that detectives CLARDY, ARCHER, and Captain KING and possibly others, were in the elevator that took RUBY to the fifth floor. On the fifth floor RUBY was stripped and searched and left dressed only in his shorts. About this time, Mr. SORRELS of the Secret Service office came to the fifth floor to talk to RUBY. RUBY was talking freely and said that he had read in the papers that JACKIE KENNEDY might have to come to Texas to testify and that OSWALD did not deserve a trial for what he had done and that he, RUBY, thought he would save the taxpayers time, trouble, and money. RUBY said that he was not trying to be a hero and that what he did he did on his own as a spur of the moment thing.... (Emphasis in the original. McMillon Exhibit 5017, 20H557-8)
Detective Barnard Clardy testified:
Mr. HUBERT. Did he make any statement to you as to why he had done it?

Mr. CLARDY. He said — no, somebody — I was going to ask him, and I am sure some other officer asked him as to why. He said, "Somebody had to do it. You all couldn't."

Mr. HUBERT. Is that the only explanation he offered?

Mr. CLARDY. Well, later on we talked to him a little further and he went into this long story about how much he thought of President Kennedy, and how he was remorseful. Didn't want Mrs. Kennedy to have to come to testify on trial, and —

Mr. HUBERT. Did he say anything here to indicate that he had any accomplices in his act?

Mr. CLARDY. No, sir.


Mr. CLARDY. Mr. Sorrels had left before Mr. Hall come up there. Sorrels had talked briefly to Mr. Ruby. I say, "briefly," he — approximately 10 minutes. (12H413)

Patrick Dean testified that he too was present and said:
Mr. GRIFFIN. Now, do you remember anything that Sorrels learned from Ruby?

Mr. DEAN. Yes, sir.

Mr. GRIFFIN. Can you tell us what that was?

Mr. DEAN. Yes. He asked him what possessed him to do it. Of course, I have testified to all this in court. And he said that he was — had been despondent over the assassination of the President, also Officer Tippit, and that he was a very emotional man, and that out of grief for both these people, was one of the motivations, and that he couldn't see any reason for a long and lengthy trial, even though he believed in due process of law. (12H432)

Two FBI interviews confirm that Officer Ray Hall heard the same story from Ruby:
He [Ruby] read in the newspaper about OSWALD having a trial, and he thought that President KENNEDY's wife would have to return to Dallas for the trial and he did not think she should have to undergo that ordeal.

RUBY said he thought about these things, and had become very emotional.... (Ray Hall Exhibit 2, 20H42-43)

And from another report dated 12/25/63:
RUBY was asked why he killed Oswald, and he said, "I was in mourning Friday and Saturday. To me, when he shot before me like he did, something in my insides tore out, and I just went blank. To me, he represented — I'll go back a little bit. I listened to a eulogy Saturday morning, I am sure, and I heard Rabbi SILVERMAN speak about our President. He said, 'Here is a man that fought in all battles, but he didn't have a chance to fight here, he was shot from the rear'. I have been around people that are so smug and hard. Then about OSWALD being associated with Communism, and how he blemished this beautiful city; and Mrs. KENNEDY having to come back to the trial.... (Ray Hall Exhibit 3, 20H57)
In addition to Secret Service agent Sorrels and several cops, Assistant District Attorney Bill Alexander was present and told author Gerald Posner "I saw Ruby at the jail before Tom Howard ever arrived, and he was telling people then that he had shot Oswald because he was so upset about Mrs. Kennedy. No one told Jack to say that" (Case Closed, Random House, 1993, p. 398).

All of this was before Ruby talked to Howard, since the time of his first visit to Ruby can be fixed by a pass issued by jailor J.R. Stacey. The pass was issued at 1:55 p.m. on November 24, 1963.

How Did Howard Become Involved?

Howard could hardly have been there sooner, given the way he became involved in the case. As Kaplan and Waltz explain:
Ruby was well known in Dallas and had a good many friends and business associates. When several of these either saw the shooting on television or heard about it shortly thereafter, their first concern had been to get a lawyer for Jack. Independently, five of Ruby's acquaintances phoned five different attorneys, all of whom appeared in a short while at the jail prepared to arrange his release on bail. Soon thereafter Oswald's death was announced and the crime abruptly changed from assault with intent to kill to murder. Since setting bail in capital cases is a great deal more difficult than in noncapital ones, it was immediately apparent that Ruby's release could not be procured quickly. Four of the five laywers then departed, leaving Tom Howard, a veteran criminal lawyer who had been called in by Ruby's business partner, Ralph Paul, to act as Ruby's principal attorney. (John Kaplan and Jon R. Waltz, The Trial of Jack Ruby (New York: Macmillan, 1965), pp. 8-9.)
What Kaplan and Waltz say is, of course, consistent with the Warren Commission testimony of several of Ruby's friends and associates.

Conspiracists have made some rather far-fetched attempts to tie Howard to Ruby by claiming that Howard was at the jail at the time Ruby shot Oswald. And indeed, Howard was at the jail, according to Detective H.L. McGee.

While I was in this area, the only person I noticed come into the building from either the Commerce Street or Harwood Street doors was Attorney Tom Howard. He came in through through the Harwood Street entrance and walked up to the jail office window.

At this time, Oswald was brought off the jail elevator and Tom Howard turned away from the window and went back toward the Harwood Street door. He waved at me as he went by and said, "That's all I wanted to see."

Shortly after that I heard a shot . . . (Commission Exhibit 2002, pg. 73).

Unfortunately, McGee's account has Howard coming into another section of the basement by the Harwood Street entrance and then leaving the same way before Oswald was shot. Ruby was not in that particular area (WR, 211; Commission Exhibit 2179). Not only does this source not put Howard in contact with Ruby, it rules out such contact.

Before Ruby Shot Oswald

Before Ruby shot Oswald (and long before he talked to Tom Howard) Ruby was talking about how terrible it would be if Jackie Kennedy had to return to Dallas to testify. Reporter Wes Wise recounted how Ruby approached him in Dealey Plaza the day before he shot Oswald.
He leaned into my driver's-side window. "Isn't this awful? Where were you when it happened?" he asked.

"I was at the Trade Mart," I said. Then I remarked that I had taken film of the western salddles that were to have been gifts from the City of Dallas to the Kennedy children, Caroline and John-John. Tears welled up in Ruby's eyes.

"I just hope they don't make Jackie come to Dallas for the trial," he said. His voice broke as he added, "That would be terrible for that little lady." (Bob Huffaker [ed.], When the News Went Live: Dallas 1963, Lanham, MD: Taylor Trade Publishing, 2004, 125)

Why the Note to Tonahill?

If the evidence is decisive that Ruby was telling his "I did it for Jackie" story before he ever talked to Howard, does this mean that Ruby's note to Tonahill was a lie? Author Gerald Posner, for example, says that Ruby was mad at his defense team after his murder conviction and write the note "in apparent retaliation" against Howard (Case Closed, Random House, 1993, p. 398).

Posner appears to be guilty of interpreting the note the same way that the conspiracists do. But as Jean Davison has pointed out, this isn't the most plausible interpretation.

If a defendant tells his lawyer, "I robbed the bank because I had a grudge against the bank president, and I like the excitement, and my mother needs an operation," the lawyer might tell him to say he did it because his mother needs an operation. Ruby had mentioned several motives, and Howard may have felt that this one would gain more sympathy from a jury than "to prove that Jews do have guts" or "you [cops] couldn't do it, and somebody had to" (from a newsgroup post).
Dave Reitzes suggests a similar interpretation:
. . . Ruby did not say that his sympathy for Mrs. Kennedy was a fabrication; he merely said that Tom Howard suggested it as the reason he give publicly and stick to (presumably because it was a more sympathetic motive than some of the other explanations Ruby had offered, such as, "I did it to show the world that Jews had guts!").

People don't seem to understand that if Ruby's act was an impulsive one, as he claimed, then all his later explanations are, to some extent, after-the-fact rationalizations. Thus, "I did it for Mrs. Kennedy" may be no more or less accurate than "I did it to show the world that Jews have guts," or "That rat killed my President!" or "You guys [the Dallas police] couldn't do it!" or "I only wanted to be a hero" — all of which (and more) he reportedly said soon after the shooting, and all of which, to some extent, may well be true (from a newsgroup post).

Thus Ruby was almost certainly sincere when he claimed to have done it for Jackie. That was not exactly the reason for the murder, but it was indeed one of the reasons that weighed on Ruby's befuddled brain.

This issue shows conspiracists at their worst — making a hasty inference from Ruby's note, failing to check that inference against readily available evidence, and making a lame attempt to put Howard with Ruby at the time Ruby shot Oswald. Evidence, to conspiracists, seems to be something to be rummaged through looking for indications of a conspiracy, and not something that can be used to test conspiracy claims. It's all too typical of what happens when you start with your conclusion, and then try to make the evidence fit it.

This essay is based heavily on newsgroup posts by Jean Davison and Dave Reitzes

Back to Jack Ruby Page
Back to Kennedy Assassination Home Page