This Day in Jewish History

1967: Death of an Assassin's Assassin

Jack Ruby, born Jacob Leon Rubenstein, killed Lee Harvey Oswald, the man who killed President John F. Kennedy.

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On January 3, 1967, Jack Ruby, the man who killed the man who assassinated President John F. Kennedy, died in Parkland Hospital in Dallas, the same hospital where Kennedy and his assassin, Lee Harvey Oswald, died a little over three years earlier.

A Google search of Jack Ruby’s name yields more than 16 million hits – evidence that nearly a half-century after Kennedy’s murder, the public remains not only fascinated by the subject, but also, to an extent, unsatisfied by the results of the official investigations of the event and its aftermath. The Warren Commission concluded that Oswald acted alone when he shot at the president’s motorcade from the sixth floor of the Texas School Book Depository on Friday, November 22, 1963; and that Ruby too acted alone, if not spontaneously, when, two days later, he shot and killed Oswald in the basement of Dallas police headquarters as the latter was being moved to the county jail. Conspiracy theorists have never been willing to accept it.

Born Jacob Leon Rubenstein sometime in 1911 (many different dates have been offered for Ruby’s birthdate: He usually said March 25; his tombstone says April 25), Ruby grew up in a highly dysfunctional family in working-class Chicago. Both his parents were Jewish immigrants from Poland, whose first two children – Jacob was their fifth -- were born before they departed Europe. The couple separated early, authorities at one point placed the children in foster care, and Jacob’s schooling probably did not extend beyond eighth grade.

After three years in the Army Air Forces, during and after World War II, and a variety of jobs in a variety of cities, Ruby moved to Dallas in 1947 to help his sister Eva Grant run a nightclub there. By 1960, he had his own club, the Sovereign, later the Carousel, which offered strip shows and sold alcohol. Ruby was known to have friendships and business connections with organized-crime figures, and out of various pieces of evidence that suggested violent intentions toward the president from Mafia members and Cuban exiles, eventually emerged some of the theories that Ruby had killed Oswald to prevent details of the real assassination plot from being exposed. But none of the theories has ever succeeded in disproving the apparent truth, which is that Ruby had the means, the access and the emotional makeup that would together allow him to punish the man who had killed the president.

Throughout his life, Jack Ruby (together with two of his brothers, he legally changed his name in 1947) was seen by people as both hot-tempered, violent, impulsive and also as gentle-mannered, patriotic and generous. He also came from a family that was plagued by mental illness, and he himself was certainly delusional before his death from lung cancer in 1967 – he claimed to a Dallas deputy sheriff that he had been injected with cancer cells while in prison, in order to get him out of the way. His work as a nightclub owner, connections with organized crime, frequent if minor scraps with the law, all contributed to an atmosphere that gave birth to thousands of bizarre theories about who Ruby “really” was, and why he shot Oswald.

Both the Warren Commission and the 1978 House Select Committee on Assassinations agreed that Oswald killed Kennedy, although the latter thought there was a second gunman as well, and therefore a conspiracy. There’s also no doubt that Ruby shot Oswald, since the event took place before witnesses and was photographed as it happened. But in the years after his arrest, Ruby offered various explanations to people for his actions, ranging from his claim to the Warren Commission that he shot Oswald so as to spare Jacqueline Kennedy the anguish of having to return to Dallas to testify in Oswald’s trial, to his statement at a press conference in March 1965 in which he said that “The people who had so much to gain, and had such an ulterior motive for putting me in the position I'm in, will never let the true facts come above board to the world." When a reporter asked if those people were in “very high positions,” Ruby responded yes.

Jack Ruby was tried for the killing of Oswald, and convicted, on March 14, 1964, of “murder with malice,” for which he was sentenced to death. Ruby appealed for a retrial, claiming that it had not been possible for him to receive a fair trial in Dallas, and a state appellate court agreed to his request; a new trial was scheduled for February 1967 in Wichita, Kansas. But in December 1966, Ruby was admitted to hospital, where it was found that he was suffering from cancer throughout his body. On December 19, he made a final statement from the hospital claiming that there was no conspiracy, that, “There is nothing to hide there was no one else.” He died on January 3, 1967.