When Dallas nightclub owner Jack Ruby walked into the basement of the Dallas Police Headquarters and shot down Lee Harvey Oswald — the accused killer of John F. Kennedy — he became the pudgy-faced progenitor of an entire industry of conspiracy theories. In fact, as Danny Fingeroth points out in his new book, those two killings during the fateful month of November 1963 signaled “ … the start, or at least acceleration, of the age of conspiracy obsession.” There’s truth to this remark: the suspects accused of JFK’s murder range from the mob to Fidel Castro, from the Russians to Lyndon Johnson. And, forty years later, most Americans refuse to believe that either Oswald or Jack Ruby acted alone.
To his credit, Fingeroth avoids going down most of these well-plumbed rabbit holes. Helpfully (and a bit wearily), he even points out that the 1976 Select Committee on Assassinations, which was created to go back over evidence already investigated by the 1964 Warren Commission, was ultimately unable to substantiate the claim that more than one person was involved.
What really interests Fingeroth is Ruby himself. Born Jacob Rubenstein in Chicago, Ruby eventually relocated to Dallas. It was there — as a not particularly successful nightclub impresario, “a perennial small-timer looking for validation from everyone with whom he came into contact” — that he moved in a Runyonesque world of rounders, strippers, vice cops, and shtarkers. Indeed, it was Ruby’s milieu that supercharged theories about him — theories holding either that Ruby was a mob enforcer assigned to take out Oswald before he could squeal, or that the Dallas PD knew what he was up to and deliberately let him get close to his victim. Sure, Ruby probably mixed with mobsters. Who didn’t in his world? And he spent so much time ingratiating himself with Dallas cops, who could destroy a man like Ruby with a single liquor-license violation, that they likely assumed that he was just another rubbernecker when he showed up at the Headquarters that morning.
It turns out that one of Jack Ruby’s motivators may have been his Judaism. A paid-up member of Shearith Israel — a venerable Conservative congregation in Dallas — Ruby was, if not an especially devout Jew, then one for whom community was central. Like so many Americans, Ruby loved JFK. But he particularly admired him “ … for prospering despite prejudice against Catholics, which he saw as not unlike the prejudice Jews faced.”
Although JFK’s “Ask not what your country can do for you” inaugural speech gave many Americans a sense of hopefulness, the John Birch Society and other far-right extremist groups were exerting real influence on Civil Rights – era American politics. In the days leading up to the president’s visit to Dallas, a city “where many virulently hated Kennedy,” Ruby was profoundly disturbed by the messaging that started to proliferate. A mock “wanted for treason” flyer circulated, accusing Kennedy of improbable political and personal crimes. A full-page ad in the Dallas Morning News characterized the president as an incompetent Soviet dupe. Because the ad was signed “Bernard Weissman,” Ruby speculated that it had been placed by “Jew hating” provocateurs.
After his arrest, and during his subsequent homicide trial, Ruby’s already quirky personality started to transform into something much darker. His profound sense of Jewish identity deteriorated into paranoid delusions. “There is going to be the greatest purge against the Jews of America in all history,” he told Rabbi Hillel Silverman of Congregation Shearith Israel, who stood by him throughout his trial. “ … it is a plot … you are next on the list.”
According to Rabbi Silverman, Ruby’s sense of remorse stemmed not from killing Oswald, but rather from being a shanda, for bringing shame upon the Jewish community and unleashing (largely imagined) antisemitic backlash. While it broke him entirely, his defense lawyer, the great Melvin Belli, couldn’t quite get him off on an insanity plea.
Ruby was never able to explain why he killed Oswald — at least not in a coherent fashion. He may not be a likable character in this book, but there is something compelling and strangely sympathetic about him. As Fingeroth says, Ruby was in many ways “the classic shlimazel … a guy who could have been my weird cousin — or yours.”
Angus Smith is a retired Canadian intelligence official, writer and Jewish educator who lives in rural Nova Scotia.