Where They Were: Stories of How People Learned JFK Was Gone

Every national tragedy creates an unlimited supply of "where were you when?" stories. For those who lived through the mid-twentieth century, no other moment compares to the shock of John F. Kennedy's murder. 

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Every national tragedy creates an unlimited supply of "where were you when?" stories. For those who lived through the mid-twentieth century, no other moment compares to the shock of John F. Kennedy's murder—a bolt of grief that endures in archival footage, gripping photos, and the stories of those who remember.

As Adam Gopnik wrote recently in The New Yorker, "The nation really did get turned inside out when Kennedy was killed, as nations do at the death of kings." Indeed, the sudden, life-changing jolt of the moment when Americans first heard the news is part of what gave Kennedy's death such power.

It's impossible, of course, to capture the full range of reactions to that single burst of news. But here, on the 50th anniversary of the assassination, it's only natural to take note of some of unusual ways that different swaths of the nation learned of its president's murderhow the shocking news traveled and was received back in 1963, at the dawn of 24-hour media coverage.

The "typical" November 22

In a recent piece for The New Yorker, cartoonist David Sipress summarizes the closest thing there is to a "typical" November 22, 1963, story, at least from a Baby Boomer's perspective.

Most tell some version of the same story: they were in school, in class, the principal entered the room looking shaken and pale, he or she walked over to the teacher, whispered something in the teacher’s ear, the teacher’s eyes welled up, the terrible announcement was made, and everyone was sent home.

Many such stories, each with their own grief-soaked details, stream across a recent feature in The Los Angeles TimesDespite the myriad advances in breaking news technologies over the subsequent 40 years, you could hear a remarkably similar account if you ask a millennial for their recollection of September 11, 2001. But Sipress wasn't at school on November 22; he was on the subway, at 168th Street, when a large crowd of people entered the car, one of whom announced the president had been shot. So he arrived home to a near-hysterical mother and a grim father, whose one-sentence response to the confirmation of Kennedy's death remains vivid. Regarding the unidentified assassin, he said, "I hope to God he wasn't Jewish."

"For my father, the Kennedy assassination awoke an ancient tribal anxiety," Sipress writes, explaining that the 20 years between the height of Nazism and 1963 must not have seemed a long time at all. This, too, brings to mind contemporary fears—of dormant prejudice, racial profiling—that surround other developing national tragedy. Consider the days of speculation regarding the perpetrator(s) of last spring's Boston Marathon bombing. As one widely discussed Salon piece put it, "Let's hope the Boston Marathon bomber is a white American."

Shutting down the New York Stock Exchange

One of the first outside groups of people to feel the impact of the shooting weren't even aware at the time of what the news was that they were facing. Veteran Wall Street trader Art Cashin was on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange that day when a major selloff of stocks began. Only later would he learn that the selloff was initiated by a single branch manager in Dallas, who played a hunch in the frantic first moments after the shooting. Via Business Insider:

"What happened"?, asked the manager.  "Parade got canceled" mumbled one of the returnees.

After questioning, he learned that they had heard the sirens accelerate, the police lights flare and the "parade" suddenly turn right.  They were many blocks away and obviously heard no shots.

The savvy manager quickly asked – "Give me a bullish reason to pull a President out of a parade?"  "It's not to sign a tax bill – that could wait."  No one could think of a bullish reason to divert a parade.  Then they mulled bearish reasons.  No one thought assassination.  But they did think natural disaster, nuclear accident, missile threat and scores of others.  That's when they decided something "bad" must have happened and began to sell.

With an hour, trading was halted in New York, just seven minutes after Kennedy was declared dead in Dallas. All they knew was "something bad" had happened to the President, and it was worse than they imagined.

The journalists at work

Kennedy was killed at 12:30 p.m. local time. At 12:40, a terse AP news bulletin sent word of the shooting to newsrooms around the nation. The story of that bulletin concerns a brief, frantic telephone call between Bob Johnson, bureau chief of the Dallas AP office, and James W. “Ike” Altgens, the staff photographer who captured some of the clearest photographs of the scene at Dealey Plaza—including, famously, the shot of Secret Service agent Clint Hill reaching to grab Jackie Kennedy across the trunk of the vehicle. A recent AP story recounts that crucial conversation:

“Bob, the president’s been shot,” he shouted from a pay phone.

“Ike, how do you know?” Johnson demanded.

“I was shooting pictures then and I saw it.”

“Ike, you saw that?”

“Yes, there was blood on his face.”

Johnson typed furiously, folding in Altgens’ details.

Here's the initial bulletin:

Parkland Memorial Hospital

A different sort of shock pulsed through Dallas' Parkland Memorial Hospital when the earliest reports arrived on November 22 — one coated with the urgency of attending to the president before his wounds were confirmed fatal. The same AP story describes the terse intercom announcement that informed hospital staff of the emergency at hand:

Because it was lunchtime, many on the Parkland staff were in the cafeteria when calls suddenly blared over the public address system, summoning specialists — “stat.”

Dr. Ronald Jones called the operator to learn why.

“Dr. Jones, the president’s been shot ...,” she said. “They need physicians.” The cafeteria cleared.

In an account for The Augusta Chronicle, a then-nursing student recalled rushing to the hospital and facing chaos: "The president and governor was being treated, but we still had other patients to take care of." Meanwhile, doctors swiftly attended to the president, inserting an IV and examining the neck wound, but it was too late. A doctor recalled to the AP the precise moment they realized he was gone:

Dr. Kemp Clark, professor of neurosurgery, was standing by a heart monitor at one point, McClelland recalls. Kennedy’s heartbeat had flatlined.

“Dr. Clark said to Dr. Perry—and I remember the exact words—‘He said, ‘Mac, you can stop now because he’s gone,’” McClelland says.

The impromptu funeral march

For some several thousand concertgoers on November 22, the news of Kennedy's assassination was delivered not by a family member or radio announcer, but rather by Erich Leinsdorf, the longtime Austrian-American music director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Leinsdorf was about to begin a matinee concert that Friday when he learned the news, and so he had the grave responsibility of passing it along to the oblivious crowd.

"Ladies and gentlemen, we have a press report over the wires," he told his audience. "We hope that it is unconfirmed, but we have to doubt it. But the president of the United States has been the victim of an assassination!"

Here's a recording of the concert, via Time:

The intense rush of gasps that followed serves as a testament to the visceral, physical force such news can carry when it arrives. It's also a reminder of what it's like to behold such major news in a group setting, as was more common in 1963, rather than alone in front of a smartphone or laptop screen. Leinsdorf then led the BSO in an impromptu funeral march as members of the crowd wept or exited in grief.

A story of a similar nature concerns a group of Pennsylvania high schoolers who heard the news while watching a school play. The actors and crew members who found out while the play was still in progress had to force themselves onstage despite the shock and grief that accompanied the revelation circulating throughout the auditorium.

The view from Japan

A recent Washington Post interview with Rep. Niki Tsongas of Massachusetts reminds us that overwhelming displays of emotion weren't limited to the U.S., or even the English-speaking world, after the assassination. Tsongas , who was then a child living on a military base in Tokyo, describes the scene in Japan.

"We were Americans, and if they would see us they would come up and share their emotions. Tears on the street, wherever you went," she recalls. "It was deeply, deeply emotional."

The dawn of "Breaking News"

Thousands learned the news in front of their televisions, as news anchors interrupted network programming with the announcement. Here's what may be the first breathless bulletin to that effect:

November 22 was a Friday, so weekend news programming offered round-the-clock coverage of the assassination; a development that seems strikingly obvious for such a captivating tragedy in today's media world, but was virtually unprecedented in 1963. So, too, came a sense of information overload. As Adam Gopnik wrote recently in The New Yorker, "an imbalance between the flood of information and the uncertainty of our understanding . . . does seem to have begun then."

There's nothing fast or immediate about the speed of the assassination news by the standards of Twitter or livestreams. Many still had to wait for the next day's paper to read all about it. But in 1963, it heralded fascinating—and, for some, frightening—new possibilities in the realm of developing media coverage.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.