Riis Christensen: 411 Elm Street—Cradle of Evil

Riis Christensen
Riis Christensen

The Nile River in Egypt is commonly referred to as the cradle of civilization. Although a historical infant compared to Egypt, Dallas has its own cradle—a few acres sitting in the front yard of and under 411 Elm Street. In my opinion, it’s the most important chunk of property in Dallas’ history, but very few current residents are aware of the whole story that was both nurtured upon it and unleashed from its maturity.

During the past year, I’ve written blogs about the people and buildings that have uniquely shaped Dallas. The most evil in both categories were created during one unimaginable crime that lasted only 5.6 seconds.

At 12:30 p.m. on Friday, Nov. 22, 1963 a 24-year-old former Marine and self-proclaimed Marxist diagnosed with “personality pattern disturbance with schizoid features” hid himself in a sniper’s nest on the 6th floor of 411 Elm Street. He quietly peered through a 4X scope at the 35th President of the United States, and coldly fingered the trigger of a 6.5mm Mannlicher-Carcano Italian infantry rifle. Three squeezes on that trigger would forever change the history of Dallas, the United States, and the world.

In that same spot 122 years earlier in 1841, original Dallas settler John Neely Bryan had carefully crafted the city’s cradle—a cabin on what was then the East bank of the Trinity River.  Atop the “grassy knoll” in the front yard of where 411 Elm now stands, the Father of Dallas erected a one-room 10′ by 12′ log structure out of which he and his wife ran a trading post, Trinity River crossing service, post office, and courthouse, along with housing their family with five children. Bryan sold the property to George and Mary Braird in 1849, and the Brairds built a house for themselves and quarters for slaves. The Brairds later moved to a bigger residence, and the property was then operated as a boarding house.

During the 1880’s, Maxime Guillot ran Dallas’ very first manufacturing business on the site, where he and his crew made carriages and buggies. In 1894, the Illinois-based Rock Island Plow Co. bought the property for $9,000 and sold farm equipment there, ultimately out of a five–story brick building they constructed. Lightning plowed through that structure in 1901 and burned it nearly to the ground. It was rebuilt two years later to seven stories on the original foundation and basement and in the Romanesque Revival architectural style.  The enlarged structure contained 80,000 square feet.

Oil tycoon Colonel Harold Byrd bought the building at a public auction in 1937, and leased it to grocery wholesaler John Sexton and his Sexton Co. on January 1, 1941. Sexton received bi-monthly shipments of canned goods, which he then sold to area restaurants and institutions.

Under FDR’s New Deal Program during the Great Depression, decorative concrete colonnades along Houston Street were built, as was the triple overpass (where Elm, Main and Commerce converge to go under the railroad tracks). The ensuing triangle that fronted 411 Elm to the south and west was developed into a “vehicular park.”  The project was led by George Bannerman Dealey, publisher of the Dallas Morning News. After G.B.’s death in 1946, a 9-foot bronze statue of him was erected in the newly-named Dealey Plaza. It was hailed as Dallas’ front door to the west and was a great symbol of civic planning and pride.

411 Elm was vacated in 1961, when Sexton Co. moved to a one-story warehouse. It was subsequently leased to the Texas School Book Depository, a private company that provided textbooks and educational materials to schools all over the Southwest. The Depository bunch significantly improved the building on several floors with partitions, carpeting, air-conditioning and elevators. Books were stored in the basement, first floor, and fourth through seventh floors. The company also had a warehouse on an unpaved section of North Houston Street, just a few blocks to the north.

On Oct. 16, 1963, the Texas School Book Depository employed 14 office workers and 19 warehouse men. Lee Harvey Oswald—a man who had spent three years in Russia, where he had tried to renounce his U.S. citizenship and commit suicide—and another man were hired as part-time book stockers and pickers at a wage of $1.25 an hour.

In a giant flip of the fate coin, Oswald was sent to the newer 411 Elm building; the other worker to the older and half-hidden Houston Street warehouse. Oswald’s supervisor, Roy Truly testified at the Warren Commission hearings that he “could just as easily have sent Oswald to either building.” Most all Depository workers parked at the Houston Street facility—where Oswald and his bulky paper package (which he claimed contained curtain rods) both arrived in a co-worker’s car on that gloomy and overcast morning of Nov. 22, 1963.

The upper storage floors of the main Depository on Elm had become oil-soaked from the storage and leakage of perishables by the Sexton Co. The oil was leaching up into boxes and books, and it was decided that plywood sheets would have to be laid down to prevent further damage. Boxes of books were being stacked on one-half of the floors at a time while plywood was fitted down on the other half.
It was this process and the ensuing disarray that allowed Oswald to so effectively hide and create his sniper’s nest behind a six foot stack of boxes in front of the 6th floor corner window overlooking Elm Street. In the early afternoon, as skies cleared to a vibrant blue and temperatures climbed to the upper 60s, and as President John F. Kennedy’s motorcade rolled through downtown Dallas to a jubilant reception, nothing seemed amiss at 411 Elm Street.

But at 12:30 p.m., just seconds after the motorcade slowed and made the acutely angled left turn from Houston Street onto Elm, Oswald shouldered the Carcano, took dead aim, and fired three shots. The first shot missed, but the next two bullets found their mark, striking John Fitzgerald Kennedy in the back and head, and also seriously wounding Texas Gov. John Connally.

Local fabric merchant and amateur photographer Abraham Zapruder caught all of the action with a silent Bell and Howell home movie camera. (His footage of the assassination has been the most studied reel of film in history and is considered to be the most horrific home movie ever made in America). When Secret Serviceman William Greer realized what had happened, he gunned the big, bloody Lincoln limo under the triple overpass and raced up to Parkland Hospital, while a dazed Jacqueline Kennedy cradled her dying husband’s head in her lap.

The buoyed anticipation and excitement of the day turned into utter shock and chaos. Hundreds ran in all directions looking for cover. Parents threw themselves on top of their children in an effort to shield them. Some just froze where they stood. Others just cried on the sidewalks repeating, “Oh, no.”

At the Depository, Oswald was stopped as he fled down the northwest stairs—by a Dallas Police Officer who shoved a gun in his ribs—but he was identified by supervisor Truly as an employee and allowed to leave. Truly would later testify that Oswald was acting normally and didn’t seem panicked. Oswald escaped from the building just moments before Dallas Police sealed it off. He caught a city bus for several blocks, then took a cab to Oak Cliff—presumably because of heavy traffic.

An accurate description of the shooter had been put out on DPD radio, and Officer J.D. Tippet saw and questioned Oswald as he walked near East 10th and North Patton Avenue. At approximately 1:15 p.m., as Tippet exited his ’63 police cruiser, Oswald shot him four times at close range with a .38 Smith and Wesson “Victory” revolver. The Officer instantly died. Nine people witnessed that shooting, with one later testifying that Oswald looked “wild and glassy-eyed.”

Soon after, alert Hardy Shoes manager Johnny Brewer saw Oswald duck into the alcove in the front of his store at 213 West Jefferson, then watched as the disheveled shooter ran six doors down to the Texas Theatre. (It was the largest suburban theater in Dallas when it opened in 1931. It was air-conditioned and part of a chain once owned by Howard Hughes, and also where J.D. Tippit frequently worked as an off-duty cop).

Brewer noticed Oswald had skirted around the ticket booth without paying. He hustled down and notified the theater’s ticket clerk, who called police at 1:40 p.m. Oswald had only a few minutes to take in the day’s matinee, “War is Hell,” before Dallas cops converged on the scene. Oswald was apprehend in the balcony, while again trying to discharge the .38 at an officer—except this time, the webbing between his thumb and forefinger jammed in the hammer of the pistol as he drew and aimed it, thus saving the life of DPD’s Nick McDonald.   McDonald and Oswald traded blows, and the assassin was ultimately taken down by eight officers. Upon emerging from the theater, Oswald, with a black eye and gouge to the forehead, had the gall to complain about police brutality to the gathering crowd.

The entire world was shocked and stunned by the news of Kennedy’s death. Men and women openly wept. People crowded television sets in department stores to see coverage of the event, as only the wealthiest owned TVs at that time. Many prayed. Dallas Schools were dismissed. Banks and businesses closed for the day out of respect. Anger against Texas and Texans was widely reported.

As with the bombing of Pearl Harbor years before, and the attacks of September 11 years afterward, the most common question became, “Where were you when you heard the news?”

On the morning of Sunday November 24, just 46 hours after the President’s death, Oswald—the self-proclaimed “patsy”—was being led through the basement of Dallas Police Headquarters on his way to the Dallas County Jail. He was shot point blank, with a Colt Cobra snub-nosed .38 revolver, by a distraught strip club owner named Jack Ruby, who “wanted to save Mrs. Kennedy the discomfiture of returning to Dallas for a trial.”

Ironically, while Gov. John Connally recuperated at Parkland Hospital from wounds to his back, ribs, chest, and right wrist, Oswald was rushed in to Parkland’s Trauma Room No. 2, right across the hall from Trauma Room No. 1, where Kennedy’s life had ended less than two days before. Oswald died from Ruby’s gunshot at 1:07 p.m. It was the first murder ever seen on live television.

Born Jack Rubenstein, Ruby had been the proprietor of the Carousel Club in downtown Dallas and the Vegas Club in Oaklawn. He was frequently seen around town showing off scantily-clad pictures of his many dancers to drum up business. Ruby hired famed San Francisco defense attorney Melvin Belli to represent him. Nearly 400 reporters from 111 news organizations covered the trial. The flamboyant Belli argued that Ruby suffered from “psychomotor epilepsy,” and had shot Oswald involuntarily, unconsciously, and without memory of the event. But “Sparkling Jack”, as he had been known years earlier during his boxing career in Chicago, was tried, convicted, and sentenced to death in March of 1964 for the “murder with malice” of Oswald.

That initial conviction was ultimately overturned by an Appeals Court on the grounds that Ruby didn’t get a fair trial in Dallas due to the publicity. Ruby was awaiting a second trial to be held in Wichita Falls when he was taken to a Dallas emergency room for pneumonia. Three weeks later, in January of 1967, he died of a pulmonary embolism and terminal cancer at—where else—Parkland Hospital. News of his Mafia ties and his repeated attempts to tell his story to the Warren Commission fueled even more speculation about an assassination conspiracy.

The Texas School Book Depository moved out of 411 Elm Street in 1970. Many hoped that the building would be torn down—they didn’t want it to become a shrine to Oswald. Sixth Floor Museum curator Stephen Fagin said, “the building itself was a manifestation of evil.” But Mayor Wes Wise argued against its demolition, fearing that it would be seen as an attempt to hide the crime. It wasn’t torn down, and Dallas County ultimately acquired it in 1977. The Dallas County Administration Building was formally dedicated in 1981, though the 6th and 7th floors remained vacant.

On President’s Day in 1989, the Sixth Floor Museum opened to the public. It houses an educational exhibit on President Kennedy’s life and death, and has been visited by more than 6 million people. The building looks virtually the same today as it did 50 years ago, although the Hertz time and temperature sign was removed from the roof and northwest stairway—the same one Oswald used to escape—and the sign is now in storage.

Oswald obviously was never tried for shooting the President. The official government inquiries by the FBI, The Warren Commission, and The Dallas Police Department all concluded that Oswald had acted alone, and that the President had been killed by two shots from above and behind that originated from the 6th floor of the Depository. But the House Select Committee on the assassination formed in 1976 concluded that “there was a high probability that a second assassin fired at the President” from the top of the knoll.

Not surprisingly, a Gallup poll at that time found that 89 percent of Americans didn’t believe that Oswald was the lone gunman. Consequently, more conspiracy theories abound about the Kennedy assassination than any other event of the 20th century—and possibly of all time. People in 1963 and during the last 50 years have had a difficult time understanding how one weasely drifter could have taken down the President of the most powerful nation on earth with a $19.95 mail-order rifle. According to historian William Manchester, “the crime seemed too vast to be attributed to a single criminal.”  Sixth Floor curator Stephen Fagan said, “It was unsatisfactory to accept that this scrawny little ex-Marine, communist sympathizer could take down a man of that stature. It is much more satisfying to believe that there were darker forces at work—a massive conspiracy involving our own government or international forces.”

Kennedy had many known enemies: the Russians, the Cubans, the Mafia, and even conservative Democrats in his own party. So thousands of books and countless documentaries have arrived at starkly different conclusions about who was really behind the shooting. Theorists have identified 60 possible assassins at possible places around Dealey Plaza, including one who purportedly fired out of a manhole cover on Elm. But one thing is sure: Lee Harvey Oswald and 411 Elm Street are forever cradled together with the most evil tragedy in Dallas history—a history that sent JFK to his grave and marked the end of innocence in this country.

In an attempt to move beyond the tragedy, Dallas is preparing for the first time to finally officially commemorate the anniversary of Kennedy’s death. The City will host 5,000 guests in Dealey Plaza at an invitation-only ceremony on the morning of Nov. 22. An amazing 95 percent of current Dallas residents weren’t here in 1963, and many don’t even remember who John F. Kennedy was, much less Lee Harvey Oswald or J.D. Tippit. Perhaps the 190 new books being published this year about the shooting and plausible conspiracies will educate some.

Today, 411 Elm Street stands as a silent sentinel with its own proclamation on a first floor plaque: “On Nov. 22, 1963, the building gained notoriety when Lee Harvey Oswald allegedly shot and killed President John F. Kennedy from a sixth-floor window as the presidential motorcade passed the site.” Through the years, the word “allegedly” has been underlined and gouged many times. It is an eerie testimony to the controversy surrounding the Kennedy assassination that still rocks Dallas’ cradle 50 years later.

Riis Christensen is senior vice president of tenant advisory Services at Transwestern in Dallas and an amateur historian. He subscribes to the lone gunman theory. He can be reached at riis.christensen@transwestern.net.

Sources: “Witness to History:  November 22, 1963”:  Hugh Aynesworth; “Texas School Book Depository,” John Hayes Nall; The Sixth Floor Museum and JFK.org; “Transcripts of the Warren Commission Hearings”; “United States House Select Committee on Assassinations Final Report”; “Fifty Years After the Assassination of John F. Kennedy, the ‘City of Hate’ Confronts Its Painful Past,” Dallas Observer, Edward Helmore; “Death of a President,” William Manchester; “Reclaiming History: The Assassination of President John F. Kennedy,” Vincent Bugliosi; “Portrait of the Assassin,” Gerald Ford; “Impossible: The Case Against Lee Harvey Oswald,”  Barry Krusch; “Oswald’s Tale: An American Mystery,” Norman Mailer; “Case Closed: Lee Harvey Oswald and the Assassination of JFK,” Gerald Posner; “Not In Your Lifetime,” Anthony Summers; “Killing Kennedy,” Bill O’Reilly and Martin Dugard.

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