It is early fall 2013. Almost 50 years have passed since the killings of John F. Kennedy and Lee Harvey Oswald. Most of the rest of the Dallas power players of that era are long dead, unable to bear further witness to the truth; the legacy that survives them is one of skepticism and intrigue. The Warren Commission, the House Select Committee on Assassinations, the Assassinations Record Review Board, Oliver Stone’s movie, J.F.K., all produced various theories about what really happened. Was Jack Ruby — Lee Harvey Oswald’s killer — a helpmate to the mob? Was he enlisted by them or others, perhaps the CIA or Naval Intelligence, to kill Oswald and erase forever the truth about who really killed President Kennedy?
The Warren Commission, appointed by Kennedy’s successor, Lyndon Johnson, and chaired by U.S. Supreme Court chief justice Earl Warren, said Oswald alone killed the president and that Ruby was also a deranged single actor. Polls show a minority of Americans believe them.
Remaining faithful to the Warren Report is one of the last men still alive who knew Jack Ruby personally, knew him both before and after he killed Oswald, visited him in his Dallas jail cell for months, and testified at his trial. His name is Hillel Silverman. He was Jack Ruby’s rabbi. Today he lives in San Diego.
Rabbi Silverman, the Kennedy assassination's last insider
An interview with Hillel Silverman, Jack Ruby's rabbi and friend. Topics include his love for baseball, his time as a soldier in the 1948 Arab--Israeli War and rabbi in the US Navy, his thoughts on the JFK assassination, and his experiences with Jack Ruby before and after the killings of JFK and Lee Harvey Oswald.
Three miles up the road and over the hill from where mid-century Dallas oil tycoon Clint Murchison’s Del Charro hotel used to be before it was torn down for condos in the 1970s (see sidebar), Silverman gingerly puts down his cane and eases into a chair for yet one more take on the truth. He is 89 years old, but his memory of November 1963 is still firm, if sometimes, as might be expected at his age and after so long a time, wavering on some of the details. If anyone can speak with authority about those tragic days in Dallas, he can, though the mystery remains formidable, he admits, even for himself.
The bright sunlight of early fall streams through the windows of the upscale apartment complex near University Town Centre, where he has lived with his second wife in retirement for 12 years. After a career in Dallas, Los Angeles, and Greenwich, Connecticut, he moved to University City in 2001, becoming interim rabbi at La Jolla’s Temple Beth El. He still serves at B’nai Shalom, a small, conservative congregation in Vista.
Silverman says he is still convinced, after the many years of dispute, that the Warren Commission was right, that Ruby acted alone and there was no conspiracy with the mob, the CIA, or anyone else to silence Lee Harvey Oswald. Then he admits that there is still an argument.
“I think it was a bona fide commission,” he says. “I think they did a beautiful job of research, but they’ll never put it to bed; there will be people who are saying it’s a conspiracy a hundred years from now.”
Silverman, the son of a renowned Jewish scholar, went to Yale to play baseball, and then to the Jewish Theological Seminary in Manhattan. In the middle of his seminary training, Silverman went to Palestine to study the Talmud. When war broke out in 1947, he joined the Haganah, the Jewish paramilitary group, seeing deadly combat against Arab enemies. A legendary force for Zionism, the Haganah carried out anti-British operations in Palestine, liberated interned immigrants, and sabotaged British bases and radar installations. Silverman still carries the emotional scars, as well as the fierce pride of having been present at the explosive birth of Israel.
“I went to study at the Hebrew University and I wanted to be a farmer,” he recalls. “I wanted to work on a kibbutz, one of those agricultural collectives, but then the war broke out and the Hebrew University closed. And I was not a hero — I did what anybody would do: I joined.”
At the end of the fighting, he returned to New York to complete his seminary degree and become a rabbi. But Silverman’s military career was not over. When the Korean War broke out in 1950, he joined the Navy and ministered to sailors and Marines. As the sole Jewish chaplain of the Sixth Fleet, he stood on the deck of the carrier Coral Sea and watched fighter jets launch on perilous, top-secret missions. He traveled in Europe, going to Germany, where he says he came face-to-face with fresh images of the Holocaust.
Hillel Silverman, Jack Ruby’s Dallas rabbi at the time of the Kennedy assassination, now lives in the University Town Centre area.
Silverman says he loved the Navy; he would remain an officer in the Reserves for another 30 years, seeing active duty again in Hawaii during the early days of the Vietnam War before retiring as a commander in 1974.
In 1954, deciding it was time for a change, he left full-time duty and for the first time sought a civilian pulpit.
A friend and mentor from the great Warburg family of Wall Street whom he had worked for at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York put him in touch with a Dallas lawyer for Del Charro’s Clint Murchison, who arranged an interview with Shearith Israel, a prosperous conservative congregation that wanted to build a new synagogue in the burgeoning suburbs of North Dallas. He got the job. That’s where he would find himself face-to-face with Jack Ruby.
Silverman was born to Morris and Althea Silverman. Of his father, Silverman says: “He was in Hartford, Connecticut, for 50 years, and he was the editor of a prayer book, a holy day prayer book that’s used all over the world. It’s a little out of fashion now but still is used, so he’s very well known.”
Though his father was a scholar, Silverman says he was still surprised when he got admitted to Yale. “It was a miracle. I couldn’t get in today, I guarantee. I don’t know how I got in, I really don’t. My marks weren’t that great, though my senior year I did well and I did some summer work. I wanted to build myself up for football, so I was on a construction gang with a pick and a shovel.
“I remember in August — August! — my mother came to pick me up, and she’s waving this slip — ‘You have been accepted to Yale!’ It was a miracle, and I’ve been very loyal to Yale, very active in the alumni and my class.”
Forty miles from Hartford, Yale in the early 1940s was a world largely closed to Jews. Silverman would not gain admission to any of the secret societies, such as Skull & Bones, with its legendary links to the Central Intelligence Agency.
“Was there anti-Semitism at Yale? I had heard that there was a 10 percent unwritten quota for Jews at Yale. I had two strikes against me.
“I was Jewish and a public school graduate, not a ‘preppie.’ I was not welcome at any campus fraternities — not that I cared. The members of the basketball team were cordial but not particularly friendly.”
Later in life, as his military and rabbinical reputation grew, he would be asked to speak each year at his class reunion. “Amazingly, former classmates who barely spoke to me at Yale, the Endicott Peabodys and Rockefellers and Eldridges would approach me after the address and put their arms around my shoulders: ‘Hillel, that was so moving. We have so many wonderful memories with each other at Yale. Let’s have a martini together!’”
Later Silverman would come to know Prescott Bush, son of the U.S. senator from Connecticut and brother of former president George H.W. Bush.
After graduation, Silverman entered rabbinical training at the Jewish Theological Seminary in Manhattan, known, he notes, as the “fountainhead of Conservative Judaism.” His father had graduated from there, class of 1922. By the end of his own sophomore year in 1947, he had made arrangements to spend his junior year in Palestine. “Zionism was raging, and the United Nations, after much study and examination, was preparing to vote on partition into an Arab and Jewish state.” War came in November 1947.
In the late 1940s, Silverman fought with the Zionists in the Holy Land. “It was the culmination of 2000 years of yearning, at last a Jewish homeland.”
Silverman sets the scene in his autobiography: “Every American student there responded to the call. It was the culmination of two thousand years of yearning, at last a Jewish homeland. How could one not join one’s beleaguered brethren?”
He smiles when he remembers his single week of basic training: “They gave me a machine gun, they told me, ‘You’re a machine-gunner.’ It was from the First World War, a Schwarzlose water-cooled, and that’s what I did for a while.” The real action was yet to come.
“After sixty years I still recall the members of my platoon,” Silverman writes. “Yosef, who became a distinguished judge; Mordecai, who became ambassador to France; Shlomo, the partisan who had fought in the forests of Poland; two teenagers from Iraq, dark-skinned, jet-black hair, laughing eyes who were hablanim (specialists in demolition) — we called them Efes and Hatzi-Efes, ‘Zero’ and ‘Half-Zero.’
“I had friends who were killed: Moshe Saloman, scaling the outer wall in the battle for the Old City in Jerusalem; Nachum Shimshoni, shot in the face in the battle of Castel; Dov at Latrun.
“On Hanukkah we were stationed at an Army camp in Atarot. A young Orthodox teenager from Brooklyn fashioned a gigantic menorah from huge boulders. The next day he was killed, ambushed by Arabs as he climbed the hills of Kfar Etzion bringing food and supplies to the settlers. He was one of the first Americans to lose his life. This platoon was known as the Lamed-Hey —Hebrew for ‘thirty-five.’ All of them were slaughtered.
“My closest call to being a casualty came, strangely enough, at the hands of the British, not the Arabs....
“The Haganah, until statehood, was an underground army. A Jew could not carry weapons publicly. In December 1947 one of my first assignments was guard duty at the Jewish Agency in Jerusalem. We slept in the building and patrolled. Across the way was a British Army installation. As we patrolled in the alley separating the two buildings, we could actually converse with the British soldiers through the barbed wire.
“They were friendly and certainly knew what we were up to. My American-accented English surprised them.
“Suddenly fire burst out between the two buildings. We never learned who was doing the shooting, Arabs, British, or Jews. We didn’t stop to ask. We ducked down on our stomachs on the pavement, a virtual foxhole, until the shooting stopped at nightfall. After all was quiet we crawled away to our sleeping bags in the Jewish Agency. It was very close!”
During his interview, he remembers another anecdote.
“We were surrounded at one place, a little village, by thousands of Arabs. And we didn’t have anything to eat. All we had was sardines and halavah. They didn’t have anything for three weeks. That’s all we had.
“So I can’t touch a sardine today. My wife has sardines every morning. I can’t stand the smell. But it was a miracle that Israel was able to defeat the invaders. Six different Arab countries invaded. The world gave them a couple of days to be liquidated, but they weren’t. And there they are. Eight million strong.”
Silverman returned home to New York and the seminary. He graduated in 1949. Wishing to complete his doctorate, he was given a job there. “Assignment number one, assistant to the director of the Jewish Museum,” says Silverman in his autobiography. “It really had very little to do with Jewish art and working with the curator, Dr. Stephen Kaysen. The purpose was public relations and fundraising. I would come to know Eddie Warburg, son of the donor of the Fifth Avenue mansion that houses the Jewish Museum.”
A year later, Communist North Korea invaded South Korea and Silverman signed up for duty. “I was assigned to the Marines the first year in at Parris Island in South Carolina,” he remembers today. “Marines have no doctors, dentists, and chaplains; they get them assigned by the Navy, so it was boot camp. It was very nice. I really enjoyed it. Then they sent me to the Navy, back to the Navy in Italy. I lived in Naples, but I was connected with the Sixth Fleet, so that I would go where the fleet went for two weeks on a carrier, two weeks on a cruiser.
Silverman conducts a High Holy Day service on an aircraft carrier in Barcelona in the early 1950s.
“We went once to Spain on the High Holidays, and I conducted a service on an aircraft carrier which was tied up to Barcelona. And as you know, Jews were expelled from Spain in 1492. Some of them were living on the shore, but they didn’t have any synagogues, they were not recognized, and I had not only my Navy people, [but] many people from the shore, Jews who had been living in Spain, came to the service, so that it was one of the first services that Spanish Jewry was able to attend.”
Though technically there was no war, the United States still faced a deadly challenge from the Soviet Union, Silverman says.
“It was in the Mediterranean during the Korean War, all the fighting was in Korea, but they were training, of course, for eventual...who knows what,” Silverman says. “We didn’t know. We thought [the Soviets] would be threatening, that’s why they built up the Mediterranean.
“I would go out on the aircraft carriers and watch the night firing and the planes coming in in the middle of the night, it’s dark, and the ship is bobbing up and down, and a guy in fluorescent whatever it was signaling and once or twice the plane hit the ship as it bobbed and bobbed. That was exciting.”
Not as pleasant was a trip Silverman made to Europe, described in his autobiography:
“I was sent to Frankfurt, Germany, on an assignment. It was a few years after the Second World War. I was walking the streets at night and heard footsteps behind me. I envisioned the goose-step of Nazi soldiers. I hoped they saw the Jewish star on the shoulder boards of an American officer, the same symbol that Jews destined for gas chambers wore on their sleeves. I can’t tell you how uncomfortable I felt.”
Silverman says he liked his time in the service and the Navy liked him, but it would soon be time to move on. “I loved the Navy, I really loved it,” he says. “I almost stayed in. A chaplain, Captain Goldberg, came to Naples and he said, ‘Why don’t you stay in the Navy? They like you, you get along with non-Jews, you like the work — you love it!’ I said, ‘I’ve never had a congregation. I’d like to try it.’ So, I didn’t go into the regular Navy. I went to Dallas, and I loved the rabbinate. I really enjoyed it.”
Eddie Warburg, his old friend and mentor from the seminary in Manhattan, helped him get the job. “I heard about Dallas opening up. It was a fine congregation. And I was intrigued with living in cowboy country, Texas, and I never had a congregation. I was not eligible, really. And I went to Eddie, and I said, ‘Eddie, What do you think?’ And he said, ‘I tell you what. During the war I was stationed in Europe with a guy from Dallas who is very important, and I’ll call him up. They’ll give you an interview. You know I can’t guarantee you’ll be accepted, but at least you’ll get an interview. So, I did and I was accepted. So, it was because of Eddie.”
“I loved the Navy, I really loved it.”
Who was the Dallas connection? “His name was Jaffe,” Silverman says today. “Morris Jaffe. And he was not a member of the congregation. He was in a reform congregation, but his brother was in the congregation. But he had many, many friends, and he arranged for me to have an interview. So, I’m forever indebted to Eddie.” In the small world that was Dallas, Jaffe was one of Del Charro owner Clint Murchison’s lawyers.
“Shearith Israel was a large congregation serving six hundred families,” writes Silverman in his memoir. “It was very traditional, ‘Texas Orthodox,’ men and women seated together.” He adds modestly today, “I was only 30 years old. I didn’t really have any right to be in such a big congregation; and it was orthodox, but I kind of changed it to conservative, and we built a building, a very nice building, but the neighbors gave us a hard time.”
The congregation had traditionally been located in South Dallas, but most of its new members were living in the tony exurbs of North Dallas. “Eight years previously they had purchased an eighteen-acre tract of land in a lovely section of luxury homes,” Silverman relates in his book. “For years the neighbors had protested the erection of a public building (never using the word ‘synagogue’) because it would create traffic congestion.
“In my first year as rabbi, the synagogue leaders went to court to sue our neighbors to allow construction. It was a trial by jury, a trial to end all trials. It lasted three days in the heat of summer. There was no air-conditioning, just a huge fan suspended from the ceiling. It was like a scene from the movie Inherit the Wind.
“Our attorney, with a 32-year-old rabbi at his side, faced a hostile red-neck jury of twelve men. I was on the stand. The lawyer for our neighbors questioned me with derision: ‘Do you intend to slaughter chickens and animals in your new kitchen? The blueprints call for a meat and milk kitchen.’
“I carefully explained the intricacies of the Jewish dietary laws, separating milk and meat.”
“Later they asked me on the stand, ‘Rabbi, will you teach the Taalmood to your children?’ I thought to myself, ‘Teach the Talmud to children? I’ll be fortunate to find one adult who could absorb it.’ I answered, ‘I will try to teach the Talmud.’
“Can you tell us something that the Taalmood teaches?” the neighbors’ lawyer asked Silverman. “I thought, here we go. I’ll fix them.” Silverman quoted his namesake, the ancient Jewish sage Hillel: ‘That which is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow man. That is the entire Torah. The rest is commentary.’”
“The jury was out just a short time. It was unanimous. ‘Build your temple.’”
“The final chapter to the story was written when we were vindicated by a famous baseball player on the New York Yankees, Mickey Mantle, who built a beautiful home adjacent to our chapel. I can still see him throwing the ball to his four sons in his backyard.”
Silverman and the hard-drinking Yankee slugger became fast friends. Besides their common love of baseball, Silverman and Mantle were both dedicated golfers, which brought them into contact with another figure to play a role in the Jack Ruby case.
Silverman shared a loved for baseball with Dallas neighbor and Yankees slugger Mickey Mantle.
“I used to play with a guy who owned an Italian restaurant I loved in Dallas — Campisi’s. And Campisi used to play with Mickey Mantle and a couple of guys. They used to play thousand dollars, three ways. You know, they really gambled.”
Silverman says Ruby wasn’t part of the game, but in 1978, the House assassinations committee investigated several Ruby-Campisi connections. “Law-enforcement files have long contained information suggesting that Joseph Campisi occupied a position in organized crime. The committee’s investigation did not confirm or refute the allegation, but it did establish that Ruby visited Campisi’s restaurant on the evening of November 21 and that Ruby was visited in jail after the shooting of Oswald by Campisi and his wife. Further, Campisi acknowledged a long-standing business and personal relationship with [New Orleans Mafia boss] Carlos Marcello.”
Silverman can no longer remember the first time he met Ruby. “I got to Dallas in 1954, and the president was assassinated nine years later, so I don’t think I met Jack until maybe the late ’50s. He may have been around, he may have been a member, I don’t know, it was a large congregation.
“And I didn’t know him that well before the assassination, though I remember some things about him. I remember that he was saying the mourner’s prayer for his father, and he came in one day and he had a cast on his arm. I said to Jack, ‘What happened?’ He said, ‘Well somebody came into my nightclub and was boisterous so I kicked him out.’ I remember that.
“I remember he loved dogs, and he had dachshunds. And he came one day before this happened, the assassination, to my home, in the yard, and all the dogs were running around. He said, to the mother dog, Sheba, ‘This is my wife,’ he said, ‘and these are my little dogs.’ He said, ‘Take a dog.’ I said, ‘I don’t want a dog,’ but my kid saw a little dachshund and said ‘I want that dog,’ so we adopted the dog. Snoopy, they called the dog Snoopy. He used to stand up on his rear end.
“We went to Israel one summer. This was before the assassination and I didn’t know what to do with the dog. And I figured there were a lot of dachshunds there, so we brought him to [Ruby’s] nightclub, and he took care of the dog for a month.” When the family returned, Silverman says, laughing, “the dog was never the same. He didn’t seem the same.”
Ruby, Silverman recalls, “liked class, everything to him was status, class, because he was raised in poverty. I don’t know if you know this — his mother was an alcoholic and they were divorced, she and his father. They put him in a home for children, an orphans’ asylum. So he grew up in very difficult circumstances, had very little education, and he was always looking for status, for class, for respectability. He wanted to be known.”
The day of the assassination, Silverman was set to hear Kennedy’s Dallas speech in person. “They invited a lot of clergy and civic leaders to the Trade Mart, and we were sitting there waiting to have lunch, and I remember my wife said, ‘I’m going to see Jackie Kennedy. I’m so happy,’ and we sat there and we waited and we waited, and nothing happened.
“All of a sudden they announced there’s been an accident, the lunch is called off, and we heard that Kennedy was shot, and they took him to Parkland Hospital, which was a five-minute drive from where we were. So I hopped in my car and went to Parkland Hospital and people were gathered there. I remember a physician was asked by the people, ‘Is he going to live?’ and the physician said, ‘The wound is moribund.’
“I never heard that word before: moribund, ‘fatal.’ I think I saw Johnson there and Jackie there, all that stuff. That was Friday afternoon. I rushed home to prepare my sermon for the service that night.” Among the attendees was Jack Ruby.
“We had a service, a regular Friday-night service. It became a memorial service, with a thousand people there, and I recall so vividly that he was there. And he came up to me after the service — you’d think he would be in tears, his president this and that and the other. He said, ‘Thank you, Rabbi, for visiting my sister in the hospital.’ I thought, God, isn’t that peculiar. It didn’t occur to me until later, after he killed [Oswald], why in the world? Where was he? Was he grieving, was he... What was it all about?”
Two days later, Oswald was gunned down in the basement of the Dallas Police Department as he was being transported to county jail. “I was talking to my confirmation class Sunday morning, and I said to them, ‘You know we Jews are a small minority, and we become scapegoats. When we do something that casts aspersion on our people, all of us are blamed.’ I said, ‘What if Oswald were Jewish? There would have been a massacre. I went to the cemetery for an unveiling Sunday. I got back, I had the radio on and I heard the announcement. ‘Killed by Jack Rubenstein.’ I didn’t even know his name was Rubenstein.” It was Ruby. “I said, ‘Oh, my God, here we go.’”
Illustration of Rabbi Silverman (left) meeting with Jack Ruby by Woodi Ishmael.
“He meant well,” Silverman says of Ruby. “When I walked to see him in prison the next day, he said, ‘Rabbi, I know you don’t approve of what I did, but I did it for the people of America,’ which was a terrible thing, because they couldn’t interrogate Oswald, and they never could find out what it was all about. A lot of people think that there was collusion, that it was conspiracy, and I’m 100 percent convinced there was no conspiracy.
“He was a proud Jew, I’ll tell you that. You know we’re a small minority, 2 percent of the population of the country, but he was always proud of being Jewish. He wasn’t religious. I would bring him a prayer book, he wanted a prayer book; he wanted a Bible. On Passover I brought him the Passover Haggadah and some Passover food, but he wasn’t a religious person at all.
“Very misguided. Very volatile, very belligerent, almost psychotic, really, and he did what he wanted to do; impulse, always impulse with him.”
Yet, as Silverman acknowledges, doubts remain, many of which arose from Ruby’s relationship with mob associate and Dallas gambler Lewis McWillie, who also had connections to San Diego players. McWillie testified to the House assassinations committee in 1978 that while a manager at Benny Binion’s famous Top of the Hill Terrace, a gambling emporium in Arlington, Texas, during the early 1950s he frequently saw oilman Sid Richardson, co-owner of La Jolla’s Del Charro hotel, with fellow Texas oil baron Clint Murchison. And Billy Byars, the millionaire Texan said by federal jail house stool pigeon Harry Hall to have been set up and robbed at the Del Charro; perhaps, Hall suggested, by Ruby.
“We had a roulette wheel or two and dice games, maybe three, and one twenty-one game,” McWillie told the committee about his time at the Top of the Hill. “Let me see, there was a fellow named Carraway, he was an oilman, Sid Richardson would come out there, he didn’t do much playing. I don’t think he played at all.
“Billy Byers [sic], a man named Billy Byers, he played out there. Big oilmen, H. L. Hunt, he played out there.”
The House committee targeted connections between Ruby’s trips to Cuba during the late 1950s and his links to McWillie and organized crime. “In September 1958, McWillie moved to Cuba and managed the Tropicana Casino until May 1960. He worked as a pit boss at the Capri Hotel-Casino in Cuba from May 1960 to January 2, 1961, when he left Cuba.”
“In Cuba, McWillie knew Santos Trafficante, Jake Lansky, and Dino Cellini, notorious organized crime figures. He stated, however, that he knew them only ‘casually.’ McWillie was employed in Cuba by Martin and Pedro Fox, who were allegedly involved in narcotics and gambling activities. McWillie stated that he made a number of trips to Miami to deposit money in banks for the Foxes.”
Though Ruby insisted he had been to Cuba only once, in 1959, to visit McWillie on a vacation, the House committee found otherwise.
It cited a 1964 Warren Commission document by two staffers, who wrote: “The number and length of Ruby’s stays to Cuba are not entirely clear. Ruby admits to having been in Cuba only once in 1959 for about 10 days. However, records of the Immigration and Naturalization Service show that Ruby flew to Havana from Miami on the night of September 12, 1959, and returned to New Orleans on September 13.”
“Based on the unusual nature of the 1-day trip to Miami from Havana…and the possibility of at least one additional trip to Cuba, the committee concluded that vacationing was probably not the purpose for traveling to Havana, despite Ruby’s insistence to the Warren Commission that his one trip to Cuba in 1959 was a social visit.
“The committee reached the judgment that Ruby most likely was serving as a courier for gambling interests when he traveled to Miami from Havana for one day, then returned to Cuba for a day, before flying to New Orleans.”
“The committee also deemed it likely that Ruby at least met various organized crime figures in Cuba, possibly including some who had been detained by the Cuban government.”
During Ruby’s 1964 trial, according to Silverman’s unpublished notes of the period, which he made available for this story, Ruby repeatedly told the rabbi of his Cuba dealings. “On Sunday afternoon, Feb. 23rd, the trial having been in progress one week, I visited with Ruby. I discovered that he was terribly distraught and disturbed. He had requested his sisters Eva and Eileen, to contact me and visit him as soon as possible. He seems to have lost a great deal of weight, his face is drawn and his glance unsteady.
“He was terribly concerned about an event which he thinks occurred in 1958 or 1959 about which he had not informed the F.B.I. It seems that McWilley [sic] had called him from Houston and asked him to contact a Todd in Dallas to deliver to him four rifles, which in turn were shipped to Cuba. ‘This will link me to the underworld and reflect on all of the Jews. I am a “meshuggeneh martyr” and now it has backfired.’” (Meshuggeneh is a Yiddish word meaning crazy, or senseless.)
In his jailhouse sessions with Silverman, according to his notes, Ruby dwelled on his connections with McWillie, and his fears that Dallas district attorney Henry Wade might use them against him. “He was terribly disturbed about the McWilley situation. It seems that he has asked Sam Brody weeks before to check with a gun store on Singleton Blvd, in order to clear himself. (It seems that he had purchased four rifles there for McWilley.) Finally, he was told by one of [Ruby defense lawyer Melvin Belli]’s staff that the store owner did have a recollection of only one gun having been transferred. In any event, Jack was terribly disturbed that all of this would come out at the trial. ‘Now the world will see that I have underground connections. This will be terrible for the Jews. Wade and his staff are out to get all of us.’
“For the first time, he seems to express some kind of distorted remorse, not for his deed, nor for Oswald’s family, nor for depriving America of information about Oswald. He merely said, ‘I have unleashed terrible hatred. Now everyone hates Dallas and hates the Jews.’”
According to Silverman’s notes, at one point Ruby seemed to admit to him that the killing of Oswald had been premeditated, a version in conflict with his lawyer Belli’s “psychomotor epilepsy” defense. “With crestfallen face he then suddenly related that he had ‘thought of it’ in his apartment as he entered his automobile. ‘I felt sorry for her coming back.’ I questioned him about this thoroughly but he would not divulge any further information. For the first time in many weeks I have the feeling that he is holding back and hiding something.”
After he was found guilty, Ruby’s mental state virtually collapsed, according to Silverman’s notes, though his allusions to organized crime continued. “On Friday, April 17, I visited with Jack Ruby in his prison cell. He has deteriorated so rapidly that I have the feeling he is on the verge of a complete mental breakdown. He was disturbed and distressed, at times completely incoherent. He whispered his fears to me and his glance is that of a manic depressive.
“He referred back to some episode when he had observed a robbery at the Statler. He feels that after his court appearance on Wednesday, they will throw him in the ‘hole’ and torture him. He pleaded with me to see the Governor and other individuals in order to forestall a ‘blood purge’ against the Jews.”
Ruby’s mental condition grew progressively worse. “On Wednesday, April 29, I visited with Jack Ruby in his cell shortly before his appearance in court at the ‘hearing for a new trial.’ He was in an even more emotional state.” “He would whisper rapidly and then suddenly stop to hear the screams of Jews being tortured. A few times his mind went completely blank and there were minutes of silence. Suddenly he stood up and kissed me on the cheek. ‘I am kissing you good-bye because I will never see you again. They will kill you as soon as you leave my cell.’
“Suddenly he took out a pencil and wrote some names completely incoherent on pieces of paper. ‘Contact these people immediately.’ He showed me that though he was dressed in a suit for his appearance at the court, he was wearing no socks. When I questioned him, he said, ‘It is a kangeroo [sic] court, it is all a farce and a plot.’ There is no possibility of Jack’s putting on an act. He was far too emotional, irrational, incoherent, and obviously mentally deranged to be ‘playing games.’ I sat near him in court this morning and every few moments he would turn to me. ‘This is the end. They will kill you today. This is the greatest tragedy in history.’
“He asked me in his cell, ‘Will God forgive me for all that I have done?... I am worse than Hitler.’”
There had been talk by the Warren Commission of giving Ruby a lie-detector test, but the majority of the commission’s staff opposed polygraphing him, arguing that Ruby’s mental condition made such a test problematical at best, and in any case wouldn’t have been considered admissible in a conventional legal proceeding.
But there was one man on the staff who insisted on the lie-detector for Ruby, and, as he later wrote, he would use his friendship with Silverman to achieve that goal. He was David Belin, a deputy counsel to the commission. Recalls Silverman: “We were on a mission to Israel together, of young leadership, so I knew him. Very bright guy. It was in ‘62, I remember the year. He was an attorney, I think he was from Iowa [or] Nebraska, a very bright, very nice man.”
Belin, who died in 1999 — reportedly killed in a fall at a Rochester, Minnesota hotel —described how he used Silverman to get to Ruby in his 1973 book November 22, 1963: You Are the Jury.
“In light of the position of the Commission on polygraph examinations,” Belin wrote, “I decided to take matters into my own hands.”
“Although Ruby seldom attended religious services, I found out that Rabbi Silverman was regularly visiting Ruby in the Dallas County Jail. The plan I developed was basically a very simple one: Ruby proclaimed he was innocent of any conspiracy. Yet, the fact that he had killed Oswald gave rise to all sorts of speculations and rumors in the Dallas area. Rabbi Silverman knew this. Jack Ruby knew this.”
“Therefore, I thought I might — through Rabbi Silverman — encourage Ruby himself to ask the Commission for a polygraph examination. As a matter of fact, perhaps I could go one step further and have Ruby make it a condition precedent to any testimony before the Commission:
“He would not testify unless the Commission agreed to give him a polygraph examination. Obviously there were many problems to overcome. First I had to have the cooperation of Rabbi Silverman. Second, Rabbi Silverman would have to convince Ruby that the plan would be followed even though Ruby’s defense attorneys might try to block it.”
In early March 1964, shortly after Ruby’s conviction, Belin wrote, he traveled from Washington to Dallas for a meeting with Silverman. “We had a cordial visit. Although during part of the conversation we naturally discussed the assassination, I did not broach the subject of a lie detector test.”
A few weeks later, they met again, and Belin made his pitch to the rabbi. “In that second meeting I did not wait long to bring my plan out into the open. First, I asked Rabbi Silverman if he was personally convinced that Ruby was not involved in any conspiracy. Without hesitation, he said that he was convinced that Ruby was innocent of any conspiracy.
“I replied that based on conversations I had already had with citizens both inside and outside of Dallas, I believed that Ruby would never convince the world in general — and Dallas in particular — of his innocence of any conspiracy unless he undertook a lie detector test.”
“By the end of our conversation, Rabbi Silverman was receptive to my suggestion. However, he said that there was a problem because Ruby had already requested that a lie detector test be given him and his attorneys had refused.”
“I told Rabbi Silverman that I appreciated that Ruby’s life was at stake and that as a lawyer I also appreciated the fact that when a client places himself in the hands of a competent attorney, he should normally follow that attorney’s advice. I admitted to Rabbi Silverman that I also knew there were inherent risks involved in the course of action I proposed. For instance, the defense of Ruby at the time of his trial was basically one of insanity.
“I knew that if a lie detector test were given to Ruby, it could show enough premeditation to completely destroy that defense. Yet Ruby had already been convicted and sentenced to death. Matters could not be much worse.”
(According to Silverman’s notes of 1964, Belin also argued that the test would “alliveate [sic] antisemitism.”)
“Finally, Rabbi Silverman reached a decision. He said he knew that Ruby was innocent of any conspiracy, and he felt that in the long run the most helpful thing for Jack Ruby would be to have this innocence of conspiracy accepted throughout the world. He agreed that there could be no better way for Jack Ruby to have this accepted than through a lie detector test.
“I reiterated that the only way the test could be undertaken would be for Ruby to make this a condition precedent to giving any testimony before the Warren Commission.
“Jack Ruby would have to be determined to take this position because I was sure that his defense attorneys might do everything possible to interfere with the test, since it could disclose (as it ultimately did disclose) that the defense of insanity was not available.
“During my next trip to Dallas Rabbi Silverman told me that he had discussed this matter with Ruby and that he was making much progress. And in the following week — when I talked to Rabbi Silverman — he said that Ruby had decided to demand that the Warren Commission give him a lie detector test.
“Jack Ruby made his demand on June 7,1964, in the interrogation room of the Dallas County Jail, where his testimony was taken before Chief Justice Earl Warren.”
“Ruby told Warren and fellow commissioner and Michigan Congressman Gerald Ford that he wanted to be polygraphed. ‘Without a lie detector test on my testimony, my verbal statements to you, how do you know if I am telling the truth?’ He was interrupted by his attorney, who said, ‘Don’t worry about that, Jack.’ Ruby persisted. ‘I would like to be able to get a lie detector test or truth serum of what motivated me to do what I did at that particular time.... Now Mr. Warren, I don’t know if you got any confidence in the lie detector test and the truth serum, and so on.’
“Replied Warren, ‘I can’t tell you just how much confidence I have in it, because it depends so much on who is taking it, and so forth. But I will say this to you, that if you and your counsel want any kind of test, I will arrange it for you. I would be glad to do that, if you want it. I wouldn’t suggest a lie detector test to testify the truth. We will treat you just the same as we do any other witness, but if you want such a test, I will arrange for it.’”
Ruby said, “I do want it.”
Among the questions Ruby was asked, according to the transcript of the session:
Q. Did you do business with Castro-Cuba?
Q. Was your trip to Cuba solely for pleasure?
Q. Did you shoot Oswald because of any influence of the underworld?
Q. Did you tell the truth about relaying the message to Ray Brantley to get McWillie a few guns?
Far from settling the facts of the case, the lie detector test engineered by Belin only further inflamed the debate over Ruby’s role in the Kennedy assassination and motivation in Oswald’s killing. In an appendix to its final report, the Warren Commission noted, “Because Ruby not only volunteered but insisted upon taking a polygraph examination, the Commission agreed to the examination.”
The commission went on to say, “During the proceedings at Dallas, Texas, on July 18, 1964, Dr. William R. Beavers, a psychiatrist, testified that he would generally describe Jack Ruby as a ‘psychotic depressive.’ In view of the serious question raised as to Ruby’s mental condition, no significance should be placed on the polygraph examination and it should be considered non-conclusive as the charts cannot be relied upon.”
Two years later, in the fall of 1966, Rabbi Silverman picked up the phone in his office at Sinai Temple on Wilshire Boulevard in Los Angeles. A reporter for a Dallas TV station had news about Jack Ruby. “He said, ‘He’s dying and he’d like to see you. Will you come in?’ I didn’t want to come in because I was afraid they’d say in his last breath he told me something that he’d never told the world. But he died before I could get in.”
Recording Ruby’s last words released to the public fell to his appeals attorney, Elmer Gertz, who acknowledges in Moment of Madness: the People vs. Jack Ruby, a book he wrote about the case in 1968, that he, along with Ruby’s brother Earl, and Larry Schiller, a photographer and freelance writer from Los Angeles, orchestrated Ruby’s final testimony to obtain money from a record deal and seal in the public’s mind their own version of the non-conspiracy theory.
“[Schiller] had already interviewed many others — congressmen, the staff of the Warren Commission, eye-witnesses — without paying for the privilege; but knowing our need for funds for the second trial, he was willing to pay for Ruby’s interview.
“Four of us attorneys and Earl discussed the matter. Surely, money was needed, for Earl and other members of the family had borrowed to the limit. In addition, Jack had always wanted to proclaim the truth about his case. This, then, we all agreed, would be a good means of accomplishing a dual purpose — fund-raising and vindication.”
“Our task would not be easy, for the sheriff and the district attorney would be suspicious of anything that we might attempt. Of course, Schiller would pay only for an actual interview, and not for the bare hope.
“So the contract was completed for the recording and use of Jack’s voice in a personal statement, or apology, for history.”
“Together Larry and I rehearsed with Earl the exact area to be covered by the interrogation of Jack. We tried to think of clear and precise questions that would best and most briefly bring out the essential facts about Jack’s slaying of Oswald. We contemplated about fifteen minutes of conversation.”
Ruby had grown no saner since the Warren Commission’s lie-detector test, making the effort by his lawyers and family to get their version of his “final story” on the record all the more formidable. “Of course, we could not put words into Jack’s mouth,” wrote Gertz, “for then it would not be his statement, and, moreover, there would be greater likelihood of complications and something going amiss.
“The aim was to stress the emotional state in which Jack found himself following the assassination of the President, the circumstances of his going to the Western Union on that Sunday morning, the purely happenstance nature of his going to the basement of the City Hall and being there at the very moment of Oswald’s arrival, the innocent nature of his having a pistol in his pocket, the lack of premeditation, his lack of any prior contact with Oswald other than the press conference on the night of the Kennedy killing, the complete absence of any conspiracy in these things. The very words of a dying man would serve to clear the air and persuade the American people.”
“Although Jack appeared to be much more rational than when we had seen him in the Dallas County Jail, he still whispered, mostly to Earl, of his earlier obsessions. But now to the slaughtering of Jews induced by his act was added another strain — there was something conspiratorial about his illness. It had been induced, somehow, by the prosecution.
“I asked him how he felt. ‘Like a dying man,’ he replied in an undramatic tone that almost belied the substance of what he said. We whispered to him, in Yiddish, of our plans with respect to the tape recording. He understood and approved. He made it clear as to whom he wanted in the room and whom not.”
After the interview was over, Gertz wrote, he edited the tape for public consumption with Schiller, Ruby’s brother Earl, and sister Eileen. “The task now was to select four minutes or so that would fit best with the material from other sources. Another copy of the tape was made, and from it passages were cut to preserve the original intact. The aim was to reduce the fourteen or fifteen minutes of the original to three or four.”
“Now Eileen, then Earl or I, would be dubious about something or other. Words change their meanings when you listen to them too much or too well. Words have different meanings for foes and for friends. Larry Schiller had ideas of his own, and would sometimes argue with us. At last we wound up with the right words and the right length.”
Later, reporters and Warren Commission defenders would erroneously claim that Rabbi Silverman was present at Ruby’s so-called last interview, suggesting it gave a presumptive air of spiritual credibility to his testimony. Silverman says he was not there and had nothing to do with arranging it.
As late morning edges into noon, his interview in University City nearing an end, Silverman shifts in his chair and repeats the questions he has been asked by skeptics thousands of times over the years about the Kennedy assassination and Ruby’s murder of Oswald. “‘People don’t kill unless there’s a conspiracy. I mean, why did Oswald kill [Kennedy]? Who did he represent? Why did [Ruby] silence Oswald? There must have been a reason.’” Despite his position as a reserve officer in the Navy, Silverman says he’s had no contact with any government agencies besides the FBI and Warren Commission regarding the assassination.
“I don’t know anything about Oswald, except what I’ve read, and he seems to have also been a misguided communist. I call Ruby a misguided patriot.”
Not the mob, not the Texas oilmen, not the CIA, not the Del Charro set, he insists. Silverman points the finger at Dallas itself.
“They were very right wing, very conservative, that ad appeared in the paper. I don’t like to say it but they applauded in certain public schools when they heard Kennedy was shot. There were a lot of conservatives there, even in my congregation.
“It was an environment that made possible the assassination, really. Of course, he went to this — what was it called? — the textbook depository, the whole thing is really unbelievable, isn’t it? That he got a job [at the depository], that he went back to get [the] gun.
“I know I read something recently about it. I don’t know what book it was, how [Oswald] went back to get the gun, how he went up the flights of stairs, whatever it was, dismantled the gun, went out, hopped a bus to Oak Cliff, which is where he lived, to get a revolver, shot this guy Pickett [Dallas policeman J.D. Tippit, allegedly killed by Oswald].
Jack Ruby, Del Charro, and Rabbi Silverman
Nine days after the assassination of John F. Kennedy on November 22, 1963, a letter arrives at the White House. It has been barely a week since the nationally televised murder of Lee Harvey Oswald by Dallas strip club owner Jack Ruby. Addressed to Attorney General Bobby Kennedy, the late president’s brother, and CIA chief Allen Dulles, it says:
“If my memory serves me right, Jack Ruby was visiting Syndicate members in San Diego between the last months of 1961 and early months of 1962. The meeting of the Syndicate members was at ‘The Brass Rail,’ a bar-restaurant owned by two Hungarian members. It is used as a homosexual bar, much as the New York Syndicate under the former Gallo gang used some dozen homosexual bars as ‘fronts.’…Jack Ruby is known as a ‘finger man’ in these operations, and not only is it probable for him to have had a hand in stimulating the assassination of President Kennedy by Oswald, but likewise pre-arranged the attitudes for the assassination which was ordered from the East Coast. Oswald was a ‘sitting duck’ to be used for the actual assassination of President Kennedy.”
“I wish you good luck by the investigations, stressing the most careful analysis and protection to those who might give testimony during the trial. I likewise suggest that Mr. Robert Kennedy personally take greater precautions for himself and his family until such time as he retires as Attorney General.
“I prefer not to sign my name...As you know from my past letters, I have very little confidence in the local FBI office maintaining silence regarding my name, please do not acknowledge this letter to them here.
There is no signature.
The same weekend, another tip about Jack Ruby and San Diego prompts two agents to pay a visit to a federal prison in Los Angeles. An inmate wants to talk about Ruby’s mob connections, in particular a robbery at the Del Charro hotel, the high-end La Jolla hideaway of Dallas oilmen Clint Murchison and Sid Richardson. They run the hotel and the Del Mar race track as their personal playground, playing host every summer to FBI director J. Edgar Hoover and his close friend and assistant Clyde Tolson.
A revolving lineup of smart talking con men, flashy gamblers, and mobsters of the highest order also frequents the place, a complex of low slung two-story buildings and some bungalows grouped around a busy bar and swimming pool frequented by Dallas socialites, high class “showgirls” flown in from Las Vegas, and Hollywood stars and starlets.
“On November 30, 1963, [Special Agent in Charge] Spaman and [Special Agent] Knowland, FBI, interviewed Harry Hall at Terminal Island without prison officials being present. Hall stated that around 1950 to 1952 his uncle, Marty Fields, introduced him to Jack Ruby in Dallas, Texas.
“At that time Ruby ran a small cheap bar and night club in Dallas. Harry Hall had checked into a Dallas Hotel using the alias of Harry Sinclair, Jr. and was looking for high stakes gambling games to get into or to place bets on football games or horse races.
“His method of operation at that time was to use the name of a well known person and ingratiate himself with persons with money. He would then make bets or gamble putting over fictitious checks if he lost and leaving town.
“Ruby on occasion provided Hall with a bankroll and introduced him to likely victims, with Ruby taking 40% of any deal while Hall collected 60% percent. Ruby’s cut was because he was supposed to have influence with the police, so that he would have no worry about any gambling arrest.”
“Hall stated that there was a Texas millionaire named Bill Byers who came from Tyre, Texas, who was friendly with two other Texas millionaires named Murchison and Andraddy. Bill Byers circulated between Texas and Los Angeles.
“Ruby knew that Byers carried large sums of money with him and wanted Hall, who also knew Byers, to find out when Byers would be alone. Ruby said he had a couple of men who would hold Byers up without injuring him, and Ruby and Hall could divide whatever money Byers had.
“Hall said he did not go through with this deal, but he heard later that Byers was robbed while at the Del Charro Hotel, La Jolla, California.
“This hotel is owned by Mr. Murchison.”
The memo misspells Byers name — it is actually Byars — and like many of the thousands of tips the FBI fielded, is later marked “DISPOSITION: Closed,” forwarded to the Dallas office, and filed away.
It is left to others to investigate. One who does is Hoover biographer Anthony Summers, who in 1993 writes: “Byars was close to Edgar. They used adjacent bungalows at Murchison’s California hotel each summer. The phone log for the Director’s office shows that, aside from calls to Robert Kennedy and the head of the Secret Service, Edgar called only one man on the afternoon the President was shot — Billy Byars.
“Byars’ son Billy Jr., who was a student in the early sixties, saw Edgar at Del Charro the following summer. ‘I was there for one or two weeks,’ Byars recalled in 1988.
“‘They would eat together, my father, Murchison and Hoover, and the others. Hoover seemed to be in a very strange frame of mind. He was having a better relationship with Johnson. Evidently, than he had with President Kennedy — by a long shot.
“‘His relationship with Bobby Kennedy had apparently almost driven him over the edge. He used to talk about that constantly, and once I had the chance to ask him directly about the assassination.
“‘I asked him, “Do you think Lee Harvey Oswald did it?” And he stopped and he looked at me for quite a long time. Then he said. “If I told you what I really know, it would be very dangerous to this country. Our whole political system could be disrupted.”’
“’That’s all he said, and I could see he wasn’t about to say any more.’”
Murchison and the Del Charro aren’t yet done with the Jack Ruby story. Four months after Oswald’s murder, a Dallas County jury takes just two hours and nineteen minutes to convict Ruby of the crime. It rejects a theory propounded by Ruby’s flamboyant San Francisco defense lawyer Melvin Belli that his client acted during an episode of “psychomotor epilepsy.”
Judge Joe E. Brown, a jurist from the good old boy school of Texas justice, pronounces the jury’s death sentence. That August, Brown, still hearing motions regarding Ruby’s appeal, takes a plane to San Diego and checks into the Del Charro. He and ghost writer Paul Crume, front page “Big D” columnist for the Dallas Morning News, are there to write Brown’s first person account of the case. They hash out the story while sipping drinks in chaise lounges at their poolside bungalow.
The judge is being paid a $10,000 advance for the book, to be titled Dallas, Ruby & the Law, by the New York publishing house of Holt, Rinehart and Winston. The publishing company is owned by Clint Murchison; he picks up the judge’s hotel bills and related expenses that Brown and Crume run up in San Diego.
Crume’s boss is Morning News publisher E.M. “Ted” Dealey, who hates the Kennedys, famously telling the president to his face at an October 1961 White House reception, “We need a man on horseback to lead this nation — and many people in Texas and the Southwest think that you are riding Caroline’s tricycle.” Dealey approved the running of an angry, black-bordered full-page advertisement the morning of the assassination that accused Kennedy of being soft on communism and worse. It was headlined: “Welcome, Mr. Kennedy, to Dallas.”
Writing the book takes longer than expected, and by early 1965, with both Crume and Brown finally back in Dallas from their marathon Del Charro sessions, the judge sends a letter to Holt managing editor Samuel Stewart, assuring him that he will finish the project but needs a little more time. Ruby’s lawyers are trying to get him thrown off the case. “About the book — it perhaps is a good thing that it is not finished,” Brown writes, “because they have filed a motion to disqualify me on the grounds of having a pecuniary interest in the case. I can refute that by stating that there has been no book published or that I have not begun to write a book.
“We are coming along nicely,” the judge continues. “We have approximately 190 pages complete. I have been on Paul, trying to hurry him, have called him, gone to see him and everything else I could do to hurry it, but Paul has been sick and has not been able to do as much as he wanted to on it.
“As you probably read in the papers, the Court of Criminal Appeals tossed the case back to me to determine Jack Ruby’s sanity and I have set the Sanity Hearing for March 29th, and don’t know the outcome, but it is my opinion that they will never prove Ruby insane, but the case is far from being over. Therefore, I ask your indulgence and patience as actually we may have a much, much better book than we had anticipated; but I do not want to put myself in the position of being disqualified.”
Ruby’s lawyers obtain a copy of Brown’s letter and after much effort finally force him to quit the case in October 1965.
A year later, they win a retrial for their client, partly on the grounds that the judge’s rulings in the case were compromised by his book deal with Murchison. By then Ruby has been diagnosed with cancer, and before his new trial begins, he dies in Dallas’s Parkland Memorial Hospital, also the place of Kennedy’s death, on January 3, 1967. Holt Rinehart shelves the manuscript and never publishes the book.