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The Umbrella Man
November 22, 2011 5:30 AM   Subscribe

On the 48th anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, filmmaker Errol Morris examines a particularly intriguing figure of conspiracy speculation - "The Umbrella Man".
posted by Tenacious.Me.Tokyo (65 comments total) 37 users marked this as a favorite

 
Back, and to the left... back, and to the left... back, and to the left.
posted by Fizz at 5:31 AM on November 22, 2011 [3 favorites]


Huh. That was an interesting bit of trivia.
posted by delmoi at 5:40 AM on November 22, 2011 [1 favorite]


That was great! "...You can never on your own think up all the non sinister perfectly valid explanations..."
posted by Blake at 5:49 AM on November 22, 2011 [1 favorite]


That was super cool... wouldn't have seen it on my own. Thanks for posting it!
posted by ph00dz at 5:54 AM on November 22, 2011 [1 favorite]


The Kennedy Assassination: Where a House Select Committee declared a conspiracy based largely on acoustic evidence presented by a regular guy who listened really closely to dictabelt recordings of open motorcycle microphones that he got from a flexidisc included as a foldout in a porn mag.

Sometimes I really miss the 70s.
posted by stupidsexyFlanders at 5:58 AM on November 22, 2011 [19 favorites]


It's interesting, but I wish Morris had fleshed out this one a bit more. It feels a little rushed, and I'd like to get deeper into "Tink's" obsession and how the eventual explanation given in testimony satisfies him, but doesn't seem to satisfy the conspiracy theorists.
posted by xingcat at 6:01 AM on November 22, 2011 [1 favorite]


I will now refer to all assumptions about the sinisterness of a given situation or people as, "a case of Neville Chamberlin's umbrella" -- thank you, Errol Morris. That was awesome.
posted by gsh at 6:03 AM on November 22, 2011 [1 favorite]


He says there are two kinds of history: The macro level of historical research where things sort of obey natural laws, and then there's this microscopic level - a whole dimension of completely weird things going on.

Or as Victor Hugo put it, where the telescope ends, the microscope begins.
posted by three blind mice at 6:05 AM on November 22, 2011 [4 favorites]


At last...A term to apply to one of the most common dramatic crutches in television crime shows. The one where, if a suspect engages in anything other than pitch-perfect, supposedly normal behavior (in the eyes of the police, that is) then they are absolutely guilty. As in "No one would ever do X right after their wife was killed."
posted by Thorzdad at 6:08 AM on November 22, 2011 [6 favorites]


That was great! Thanks!
posted by Ron Thanagar at 6:18 AM on November 22, 2011


I've always wondered what Death looks like, and it turns out it's always a normal person.
posted by swift at 6:23 AM on November 22, 2011 [2 favorites]


The New York Times has a long-standing history of dismissing any serious questioning of the official story of the JFK assassination. This is merely another installment. For whatever reason, Morris doesn't mention that the Witt appearance at the HSCA was not a very satisfying endeavour from the POV of evidence gathering.

But Tink Thompson? He's about as cool a guy as you'll ever meet.
posted by grounded at 6:51 AM on November 22, 2011 [2 favorites]


I don't really see any reason to believe one way or another, but I did enjoy the interview.
posted by michaelh at 6:57 AM on November 22, 2011


It's totally Seinfeldesque. Imagine Kramer, with some strange theory he plans to act upon:

"Jerry, it's the perfect protest! Only the President himself will understand!"

Then later:

"Jerry, you gotta hide me! They shot him! They shot the President, and now they are looking for the Umbrella Man! It's me Jerry! I'm the Umbrella Man! They think I shot him!"
posted by Xoebe at 6:58 AM on November 22, 2011 [54 favorites]


That Zapruder film is the perfect example of the saying "the universe in a grain of sand". It's like a Where's Waldo. Every square millimeter contains intrigue.
posted by DU at 7:01 AM on November 22, 2011 [3 favorites]


I have to be down near Dealey Plaza for some unrelated business today at around 12:30, the time of the assassination. Maybe I'll bring an umbrella.
posted by item at 7:07 AM on November 22, 2011 [1 favorite]


That Zapruder film is the perfect example of the saying "the universe in a grain of sand"

I thought the Zapruder film had been edited, therefore if the umbrella man shows up on the film, he wasn't part of the...universe we don't get to see

Also, I thought numerous people died right before testifying about the JFK assassination, therefore if he got in front of congress, it wasn't important.

Regarding the post, I think there's a lot of truth in not having the ability to understand why things happened by how things ended up, but does anyone have a better option?
posted by rakish_yet_centered at 7:35 AM on November 22, 2011


I know it is poor form to point to one's own site, but I had earlier today posted a video which purports to be a confession about this historic event. I am, in passing, not a conspiracy nut.
posted by Postroad at 7:42 AM on November 22, 2011


That was very good.

My opinion after a very small amount of reading and web surfing is that there is a larger probability that Oswald was not a lone gunman than there is a probability that Oswald was a lone gunman.

What was Ruby's motive? To become a notorious assassin of an assassin? Morris's logic is that unanswered question has a non-sinister impossible to fathom without inside information answer.

That's his story. Mine is I think Oswald was probably not a lone gunman.
posted by bukvich at 7:51 AM on November 22, 2011


What was Ruby's motive?
Good question for the Mafia and some Cuban exiles.
posted by TrialByMedia at 8:01 AM on November 22, 2011


In the director's statement, Morris says, "I hope his [Tink Thompson] interview can become the first part of an extended series on the Kennedy assassination. "
posted by warbaby at 8:06 AM on November 22, 2011 [1 favorite]


Morris needs to do a feature on the Kennedy assassination. also, if you haven't seen Tabloid, you should it's awesome.
posted by vibrotronica at 8:33 AM on November 22, 2011


Bukvich and company, the TRUTH is that every single conspiracy was in Dallas that day, gunning for the president. CIA, KGB, Mafia, Cubans, reptoids, etc., they were all there. The problem is, they were all tripping over and running ops on each other, that they completely sabatoged themselves, and in the end some punk named Oswald took the shot by himself.

This totally screwed up everything for everybody; no message was sent, no body double or clone was put into place. Hell, even World War III failed to happen on schedule. This makes the leaders of the conspiracies very nervous, because it implies a meta-conspiracy that ran a game on everybody. When agents get together in seedy diners to chat and the topic comes up, the Vatican agents simply cross themselves and mutter in Latin.
posted by happyroach at 8:43 AM on November 22, 2011 [18 favorites]


I have sometimes been where a "newsworthy event" occurs. I have generally found the news reports barely recognizable--reporters do 'stories', but most events are not stories. So they make up a story.

Does anyone have a counter-experience, where the reports of an event accurately matched their eyewitness recollections?
posted by hexatron at 8:46 AM on November 22, 2011


if a suspect engages in anything other than pitch-perfect, supposedly normal behavior (in the eyes of the police, that is) then they are absolutely guilty. As in "No one would ever do X right after their wife was killed."

See also: any real-life crime that captures the public's attention and gets news coverage.
posted by Hoopo at 8:47 AM on November 22, 2011 [2 favorites]


It feels a little rushed

He did say "I published it in 6 seconds". Oh, hang on
posted by iotic at 9:04 AM on November 22, 2011 [1 favorite]


Stephen King has all the answers.
posted by quonsar II: smock fishpants and the temple of foon at 9:10 AM on November 22, 2011


Here's what John Updike says in the New Yorker for December 9, 1967, in his "Talk of the Town" column (p. 51):
We wonder whether a genuine mystery is being concealed here or whether any similar scrutiny of a minute section of time and space would yield similar strangenesses — gaps, inconsistencies, warps, and bubbles in the surface of circumstance. Perhaps, as with the elements of matter, investigation passes a threshold of common sense and enters a sub-atomic realm where laws are mocked, where persons have the life-span of beta particles and the transparency of neutrinos, and where a rough kind of averaging out must substitute for the absolute truth. The truth about those seconds in Dallas is especially elusive; the search for it seems to demonstrate how perilously empiricism verges on magic.
Which sounds suspiciously like the ideas about coincidences in the "wake of huge events" attributed to Norman Mailer in the opening monologue of Pontypool.
posted by steef at 9:12 AM on November 22, 2011 [7 favorites]


I thought it was just a guy shielding himself from the sun. Can't get simpler than that.
posted by IndigoJones at 9:15 AM on November 22, 2011 [1 favorite]


He was an Observer, duh.
posted by OverlappingElvis at 9:15 AM on November 22, 2011 [9 favorites]


Every conspiracy theorist — on JFK, moon landing, 9/11, Federal Reserve, Clinton body count, chemtrails, fluoride, whatever — should be made to watch this. And then think about it for a while.

But probably, as evidenced by apparently serious comments in this very thread, it probably won't deter them.
posted by beagle at 9:22 AM on November 22, 2011 [1 favorite]


Personally, I think it was Mr. Spock
posted by briank at 9:38 AM on November 22, 2011


This sort of feels like a trailer or teaser for a much longer film. Almost a minute of credits for a 6 minute video sort of adds to that. I am disappoint.

That said I'm sure I'd heard about the umbrella man before, but man does googling this stuff send you down the rabbit hole fast....
posted by Big_B at 9:39 AM on November 22, 2011


Louie Steven Witt was quite the ... slender man.

His Congressional testimony.
Mr. Fauntroy. I wonder if you would care to tell us a little more about your understanding of the significance of the umbrella, and why you felt that it would heckle the president to raise the umbrella?
Mr. WITT. I know the generalities of the thing. It had something to do with the--when the senior Mr. Kennedy was Ambassador or England, and the Prime Minister, some activity they had had in appeasing Hitler. The umbrella that the Prime Minister of England came back with got to be a symbol in some manner with the British people. by association, it got transferred to the Kennedy family, and, as I understood, it was a sore spot with the Kennedy family, like I said, in coffee break conversations someone had mentioned, I think it is one of the towns in Arizona, it is Tucson or Phoenix, that someone had been out at the airport or some place where some members of the Kennedy family came through and they were rather irritated by the fact that they were brandishing the umbrellas. This is how the idea sort of got stuck in my mind.
Mr. FAUNTROY. Is it true that what you felt was that Mr. Kennedy would be sensitive because of the appeasement image of the umbrella as related to his father?
Mr. WITT. Not the appeasement thing. It was just--excuse me--I just understood that it was sort of a sore spot, with them and this was just one thing. I personally never thought too much of liberal politics in general. In this case the Kennedy family just happened to be in office.
Mr. FAUNTROY. I see. And it had no relationship in your own thinking between Mr. Kennedy's posture with; say, the Russians?
Mr. WITT. No. No. No. That was not it at all.
Mr. FAUNTROY. But someone had--no--you had read in the paper that someone had used an umbrella to heckle the President and that it was a sore spot, and that was the reason---
Mr. WITT. Not read in the papers.
Mr. FAUNTROY. Someone told you?
Mr. WITT. Yes. This was in a conversation somewhere at work. I wish that I could remember now who brought the subject up and put this idea in my head. I am sure that I would have taken that umbrella and clouted him over the head somewhere in this last 2 or 3 weeks.


I wasn't able to find any corroboration that brandishing umbrellas at JFK was ever a thing, but apparently in 1961 some students in Bonn sent him a replica of Chamberlain's umbrella as a protest over his Cold War policy. (This actually followed JFK sending Gen. Clay and a convoy to Berlin as a symbol of US resistance to any takeover, right after the Wall was built.)
posted by dhartung at 9:44 AM on November 22, 2011 [1 favorite]


Well...okay. I guess.

I suppose if a person were, say, giving some kind of signal like, "Okay, he's right at the point of triangulation--all three of you fire NOW!", you wouldn't want to do it by pumping an umbrella up and down on a sunny day in Dallas. Might be just a tad conspicuous.

So, yeah, I guess it checks out. But GOD, it irritates me! What a champion all-time dumb-ass idea for a protest this yahoo came up with!

What the hell was JFK supposed to do, even on the one chance in a million that he saw the guy and got the symbolism of Neville-freaking-Chamberlain's umbrella? Go back in time and tell his dad not to be such a wuss?! Grrr.
posted by Olden_Bittermann at 9:45 AM on November 22, 2011 [2 favorites]


Stephen King has all the answers.

Gahh, I really didn't like this book. Felt like a giant missed opportunity, what with the changed future world being dealt with over the course of a few pages of exposition.

Makes me want to get Stephen King addicted to crank all over again.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 9:59 AM on November 22, 2011 [1 favorite]


But GOD, it irritates me! What a champion all-time dumb-ass idea for a protest this yahoo came up with!

It wasn't even a protest per se, just an attempt to irritate or something. Over a grievance against Kennedy's father. Supposedly symbolic, although he'd never read about it anywhere and vaguely recalls hearing about it in a conversation at work. And he decided it would be a good way to express that he "personally never thought too much of liberal politics," nothing personal against Kennedy.

I think it's completely bizarre.
posted by Hoopo at 9:59 AM on November 22, 2011



Every conspiracy theorist — on JFK, moon landing, 9/11, Federal Reserve, Clinton body count, chemtrails, fluoride, whatever — should be made to watch this. And then think about it for a while.

But probably, as evidenced by apparently serious comments in this very thread, it probably won't deter them.


Indeed, they will focus instead on the fact that the New York Times finally -- finally! -- published diagrams of the flechette-firing umbrella with built-in cover-up.
posted by chavenet at 10:00 AM on November 22, 2011


That wikipedia article is missing TONS of [citation needed] and [weasel words] tags.
posted by CarlRossi at 10:10 AM on November 22, 2011 [1 favorite]


My great-uncle once met someone who knew the guy who was 'The Spatula Man' at Dealy Plaza. Turns out he was just frosting a gateau.
posted by newdaddy at 10:31 AM on November 22, 2011 [1 favorite]


Someone who doesn't like Chamberlain and came up with an obscure prop to say so happened to be at the intersection of time and space where Kennedy gets assassinated. I suppose it's weird enough it could be true, but I wish Morris had done a bit more groundwork, because it's just weird, true or not.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 10:47 AM on November 22, 2011


because it's just weird, true or not.

Although...poorly chosen symbols and railing at ill-defined targets is pretty common these days. He may be a pre-internet and pre-right-wing media precursor to the Tea Party.
posted by Hoopo at 11:04 AM on November 22, 2011


Oswald was a lone gunman. End of story. All of the evidence fits. The story isn't satisfying enough for some folks, so they try to "uncover the truth". Sad to say, the truth's been uncovered. And it's awful and ultimately doesn't seem to fit the impact of the crime. No conspiracy necessary.
posted by grubi at 11:44 AM on November 22, 2011 [1 favorite]


And don't forget the Markov Umbrella.

Also, you don't have to be a 'conspiracy theorist' to conclude that both of the US government's investigations of the JFK assassination were very deeply flawed.
posted by grounded at 11:48 AM on November 22, 2011


Also, you don't have to be a 'conspiracy theorist' to conclude that both of the US government's investigations of the JFK assassination were very deeply flawed.

Flawed, I will concede. Deeply flawed? No. The LAPD's investigation into the activites of Orenthal James Simpson in June 1994: deeply flawed. The Warren Commission: not so much.
posted by grubi at 12:00 PM on November 22, 2011


grubi, didn't the two US investigations into the JFK assassination come to different conclusions?
posted by rakish_yet_centered at 12:10 PM on November 22, 2011


Which two?
posted by grubi at 12:16 PM on November 22, 2011


Wikipedia link to 1976 investigation
posted by rakish_yet_centered at 12:21 PM on November 22, 2011


All I need to know about Dealy Plaza I learned in The Cold Six Thousand and Libra.
Though this is a nice fillip.
posted by From Bklyn at 12:45 PM on November 22, 2011 [2 favorites]


That investigation says the committee didn't believe any of the prevailing theories and that he "probably' was killed as part of a conspiracy. That's not much of a conclusion.
posted by grubi at 12:58 PM on November 22, 2011



I have to be down near Dealey Plaza for some unrelated business today at around 12:30, the time of the assassination. Maybe I'll bring an umbrella.
posted by item at 7:07 AM on November 22


Has anyone seen item since oh,maybe one o'clock?
posted by Cranberry at 1:26 PM on November 22, 2011


He may be a pre-internet and pre-right-wing media precursor to the Tea Party.

That's true. Big ups for being on the cutting edge of a five-decade-long course of insanity, I guess.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 1:29 PM on November 22, 2011


Hmm?
posted by item at 3:11 PM on November 22, 2011


That investigation says the committee didn't believe any of the prevailing theories and that he "probably' was killed as part of a conspiracy. That's not much of a conclusion.

True, but it's a different conclusion than:

Oswald was a lone gunman. End of story. All of the evidence fits.
posted by formless at 3:51 PM on November 22, 2011


Years ago — probably around the 10th anniversary of the assassination, maybe because I also was reviewing the movie Executive Action at the time — I read 5 or 6 books on the subject, and I always thought Thompson's was the best-written, most thorough, and also the least... what's the word... lunatic?

Much less lunatic, especially, than standing beside the street in Dallas to protest something that happened — to completely different people — 25 years earlier in Munich.

To me, the most interesting coincidence of the whole affair — which I'm sure has its own "non-sinister valid explanation" — concerns the two U.S. representatives serving on the Warren Commission. The one (Hale Boggs) who disagreed with its conclusions mysteriously disappeared in Alaska, and has never been found. The other one (Gerald Ford), who agreed, got to be President.
posted by LeLiLo at 5:43 PM on November 22, 2011


I see - cite "factual" inconsistencies to demonstrate a lack of "factual" inconsistencies.... nothing could encapsulate america's zeitgeist more succinctly.
posted by onesidys at 7:03 PM on November 22, 2011


What was Ruby's motive? To become a notorious assassin of an assassin?

It's not that difficult to explain. Ruby liked JFK, and he thought he would be viewed as a hero for assassinating JFK's killer. Ruby even got fan letters for assassinating Oswald. Besides, Jack Ruby was nowhere near as crazy as Boston Corbett, the self-castrated religious fanatic who assassinated John Wilkes Booth.
posted by jonp72 at 7:44 PM on November 22, 2011


The Kennedy Assassination: Where a House Select Committee declared a conspiracy based largely on acoustic evidence presented by a regular guy who listened really closely to dictabelt recordings of open motorcycle microphones that he got from a flexidisc included as a foldout in a porn mag.

Actually, you've got it a little bit backwards. The HSCA was all set to publish their findings that Oswald acted alone, Ruby acted alone, 3 shots, end of story. However, at the 11th hour some "acoustic experts" waltz in with the dictabelt recording, go on record as saying they're 95% certain of a 4th shot, and the HSCA has about 3 weeks left before their charter expires. So they do some very hurried experiments, the acoustics guys say it's a match, and the HSCA reluctantly concludes a "probable conspiracy." (with several committee members VERY strongly dissenting in the final report)

The guy you're referring to (Steve Barber) was actually the guy who DISPROVED the dictabelt evidence, by carefully listening to the flexidisc record from Gallery Magazine.

What the recording revealed was that at the time of the supposed "gunshots" on the dictabelt, it was in fact already a few minutes AFTER the assassination.

How this was proven was due to a phenomenon called "crosstalk," which is much simpler than it sounds. The Dallas Police Department had 2 radio channels, each operating (more or less) independently from each other. On November 22, 1963, Channel 1 was assigned to the President's motorcade detail, while Channel 2 was for all other routine police business. Recordings were made of both channels, using the very primitive method of placing a microphone next to a speaker, and recording it onto a dictabelt. But since both speakers were in the same room, occasionally the Channel 1 microphone would pick up sound from the Channel 2 speaker across the room. Since Channel 2 was a voice activated system,(turning on and off only while someone was speaking) this would usually not be a problem. But for several minutes, right around the time of the assassination, a police motorcycle had his radio "open" (i.e. broadcasting to the station) and hence, being recorded to the dictabelt.

So what we have is basically a recording of a motorcycle driving around, then ambient noise, then "gunshots", then sirens. However, at the time of the "gunshots," we can hear (from across the room, on Channel 1's speaker) the Sheriff saying "Hold everything secure..."

The problem? Sherriff Bill Decker was *known* to have said "Hold everything secure" about 2 minutes *after* the assassination. The reason we know this is because the Channel 1 recording was not voice actuated, but uninterrupted, and most broadcasts were time-stamped, making it fairly easy to determine the exact time (within a few seconds) when each broadcast was made.

Steve Barber was the first to notice this crosstalk, and it's since been verified by the National Academy of Sciences, along with about a dozen other reasons why there were NO gunshots on the recording.

As is probably apparent, the JFK assassination is a favorite subject of mine, so if anyone has any lingering doubts or questions, I'd be more than happy to address them here, if that's appropriate.
posted by ShutterBun at 7:53 PM on November 22, 2011 [1 favorite]


As is probably apparent, the JFK assassination is a favorite subject of mine, so if anyone has any lingering doubts or questions, I'd be more than happy to address them here, if that's appropriate.
posted by ShutterBun at 7:53 PM on November 22 [+] [!]

I'd suggest that if you lack any "lingering doubts or questions" about the assassination, you lack the ability to evaluate the case logically or without bias.
posted by onesidys at 8:04 PM on November 22, 2011


I'd suggest that if you lack any "lingering doubts or questions" about the assassination, you lack the ability to evaluate the case logically or without bias.

That's one possibility, but another might be "have lacked the time/resources/inclination to do all the research, but I've heard some pretty compelling theories."

Given the number of people who still believe (or at least tend to agree) in a conspiracy to kill JFK, it's fair to say that we've got to look beyond simple "evaluation skills" and maybe move on to "so, you believe elements of our government conspired to assassinate their commander-in-chief (or at least cover it up) but you don't care enough to look into it further?"

Granted, pretty much everyone involved is dead by now, but still, it's kinda shocking that a majority of U.S. citizens believe in the conspiracy, but just shrug it off like "eh, what're ya gonna do?"
posted by ShutterBun at 8:21 PM on November 22, 2011 [1 favorite]


Shutterbug - Indeed, we all probably lack the time/resources, etc. to fully delve into the matter fully.

I've also looked that matter a great deal and just don't see much purchase in debating the particulars (hence my use of quotes around "factual" in my earlier post.

Btw, I sincerely apologize for appearing snarky.
posted by onesidys at 8:30 PM on November 22, 2011


wow, those are some editing skills I have there...
posted by onesidys at 8:31 PM on November 22, 2011


Someone who doesn't like Chamberlain and came up with an obscure prop to say so happened to be at the intersection of time and space where Kennedy gets assassinated. I suppose it's weird enough it could be true, but I wish Morris had done a bit more groundwork, because it's just weird, true or not.

At his core, Morris is much more interested in people than he is in investigative reporting. So many of his movies revolve around not so much a coherent story as they do an interesting person (or group of people) Their mannerisms, their dialect, their...I dunno, they "way they do what they do" is much more important than...what they actually do.

The Thin Blue Line is something of an exception, in that the filmmaker essentially investigated the story until he became part of the story. But at its heart, it's about the quirky characters involved. But films like Gates of Heaven or Vernon, FL are all about the people. It almost doesn't matter what they're about, but rather *who* they're about.

Obviously, Tink is a perfect subject for Morris, with his exaggerated mannerisms and increasingly odd speech patterns. For my money, I believe the real message of Morris's film is simply "Check this guy out. Isn't he interesting?"
posted by ShutterBun at 8:33 PM on November 22, 2011




> Granted, pretty much everyone involved is dead by now, but still, it's kinda shocking that a majority of U.S. citizens believe in the conspiracy, but just shrug it off like "eh, what're ya gonna do?"

First of all I do not believe any one thing here. I believe in most probable, possible, and least probable.

Second I believe the narrative of record is wrong. I don't think this means Kennedy was killed by the government. Or even that they knew who did it and covered it up. To me the most likely scenario is they couldn't make any sense of it themselves but lacked the backbone to present that to the public as their conclusion. In other words a textbook example of a Platonic noble lie.

I think it's quite believable that Oswald did odd jobs for the CIA. I think it's probable that Jack Ruby had mobster connections. The stated motive for Oswald's crime is believable but not probable. The stated motive for Ruby's crime is possible but highly improbable.

Mostly I shrug all this off because eh, what're ya gonna do?

That part you got almost exactly right.

You are kinda shocked by that?
posted by bukvich at 3:07 PM on November 23, 2011


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