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The Umbrella Man

by Guy McCardle

November 26, 2011

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Donate The other day, while browsing the New York Times online, I watched a short film by Errol Morris called “The Umbrella Man”. It featured an interview with Josiah (Tink) Thompson, author of “Six Seconds in Dallas”, a micro-study of the JFK assassination. The film centers on the mystery of a man who appears in the Zapruder film and still photos from other sources, at the exact time shots rang out from the Texas School Book Depository. On a perfectly clear, sunny day this man was holding an open large black umbrella above his head. Why? This question has launched numerous conspiracy theories related to the assassination.

As the film begins, Thompson quotes a 1967 comment that John Updike made after reading Thompson’s book. Updike observes that the Umbrella Man “dangles around history’s neck like a fetish.” He continues:
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 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.
It is almost as if life happens on two levels: the macro level where things pretty much obey the laws of nature and physics and a chaotic micro level where things are really, really weird. If you put anything under a microscope you begin to see all sorts of fantastic goings-on not visible to the unaided eye. Such is the case of the umbrella man. How did he, the only person in all of Dallas holding an open umbrella aloft on that bright, sunny day, happen to be standing at the exact time and place where the President of The United States was assassinated?

The existence of the umbrella man is not in dispute. He appears in several photos from several sources and was seen by numerous eye witnesses. He is not, as is the case with the so called “badge man”, the blurry figment of an overactive imagination. Can any of you come up with a non-sinister reason for the presence of the umbrella man? Oliver Stone, in his film JFK, intimates that umbrella man is signaling the shooter when to fire. After the first two rounds, he supposedly signaled that Kennedy was not dead yet then out rang the third, fatal shot. Another conspiracy theorist believes that the open umbrella was used as some sort of weapon to shoot the President from the front. This was the supposed cause of the wound in Kennedy’s throat (this was actually made by a tracheotomy after he arrived at the hospital).

Tink Thompson was not buying these theories about the presence of umbrella man, so he asked him to come forward. And he did. In 1978 Louie Steven Witt brought his black umbrella to Washington and testified before the House Select Committee on Assassinations. He explained why he was standing there that day with an open umbrella. Witt stated that the open umbrella was intended to be seen as a sign of political protest. This was not a protest against the policies of JFK, but rather his father, Joseph P. Kennedy and his appeasement policies to the Nazi’s back in the late ‘30s when he was ambassador to the Court of Saint James. It was a reference to British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain’s omnipresent black umbrella. Apparently it was an attempt to heckle Kennedy with a reminder of the appeasement policies of Chamberlain, whose weak posture toward Hitler was supported by Kennedy's father. This sounds pretty obscure to us today, but the 1930s British cartoon shown here links Chamberlain’s trademark umbrella with weakness toward Nazism.

Thompson believes that Witt’s statement “…is just wacky enough, it has to be true. And I believe it to be true”. In the film he goes on to say:
What it means is, If you have any fact which you think is really sinister, is really obviously a fact that can only point to some really sinister underpinning, forget it man…because you can never on your own think of all the non-sinister perfectly valid explanations for that fact …a cautionary tale.
Well said. And so very true of many of the topics we skeptics investigate. Sometimes truth is stranger than fiction, and sometimes both are equally strange.


by Guy McCardle

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