If not for the events of Nov. 22, 1963, Jack Ruby may have lived out the rest of his life as he did most of the first 50-plus years of it: as a nobody, an outsider looking in, a small-time crook desperately seeking to belong. As it happened, though that day in Dallas changed a lot of lives, many of them inalterably. Ruby's was one of them.
Two days after that sunny November afternoon when Lee Harvey Oswald assassinated President John F. Kennedy, Ruby — a man most often described now as a "Dallas nightclub owner" — stepped from a pack of reporters and cameramen in the basement of the city's police headquarters, thrust a revolver into the handcuffed Oswald's stomach as officials were preparing to transfer him to a higher-security jail and, as witnessed on live television, pulled the trigger.
Ruby initially found a measure of fame with his infamous act. He became, to some, the assassin's assassin, an avenger of the fallen U.S. president. When news first broke that Oswald had been killed, cheers broke out on the streets of Dallas. In the weeks after, Ruby received hundreds of letters of support.
To others, though, Ruby was labeled, almost as quickly, as something else entirely; a confused loser, a lost soul, a fool, and a mere pawn in a burgeoning murder conspiracy.
To this day, Ruby's motivations for shooting Oswald are unclear. But the simple act of pulling that trigger has, for almost six decades now, fueled theories surrounding the Kennedy assassination.
"Were it not for Jack Ruby, I don't think the Kennedy assassination would be the lingering mystery that it has become for so many people around the world. Without Ruby, Lee Harvey Oswald would have gone to trial, in 1964, and so much more information, likely, would have come out about Oswald's background and his motivations," says Stephen Fagin, the curator of the Sixth Floor Museum at Dealey Plaza, located in the former Texas School Book Depository building, from which Oswald, according to many, fired the shots that killed Kennedy. "Ruby kind of closed the book on Oswald's story, and therefore ushered in decades of skepticism and questions about the assassination.
"Ruby is, for some people, the Rosetta Stone that you can use to unwrap the entire Kennedy conspiracy theory. But for others, he's just a guy who took matters into his own hands because he loved Kennedy and wanted to spare Jackie [the president's wife] the pain of possibly coming back to Dallas to testify in a trial. Crucial figure, but at the same time, largely a footnote in the story."
Who Was Jack Ruby?
Born Jacob Leon Rubenstein in Chicago sometime in 1911 — his exact birthdate is under some question — Ruby survived a troubled and violent upbringing that included several run-ins with the police and constant exposure to the criminal element of the city. He served in World War II, was discharged from the service in 1946, and moved to Dallas with his brothers in 1947.
There, Ruby became known as a hot-headed nightclub owner and a friend to the police who frequented his places. By 1963, Ruby had tried on a string of business ventures, none of them very successful. When an "upscale" place called the Sovereign Club failed to flourish, he rebranded it as the Carousel Club, a burlesque spot that featured champagne, beer, pizza, a band and a handful of strippers.
"[Ruby] described the Carousel Club as a 'f--ing classy joint' and patrons who challenged his opinion sometimes got thrown down the stairs," Gary Cartwright wrote in Texas Monthly in 1975. "The Carousel was a dingy, cramped walk-up in the 1300 block of Commerce, right next to Abe Weinstein's Colony Club and close to the hotels, restaurants, and night spots that made downtown Dallas lively and respectably sinister in those times of official innocence."
According to several oral histories conducted by the Sixth Floor Museum, Ruby's definition of "classy" and "professional" was sometimes stretched. He often approached young women on downtown streets to entice them into appearing as amateur strippers in his club.
"Ruby never seemed to be about quality in terms of business, and yet, personally, he tried to keep fit, he ate a good diet, he always dressed very nicely. Always wore a suit and really wanted to ingratiate himself with reporters, with police officers," Fagin says. "So while he cared a lot about his physical appearance and his personality — he was very sociable — when it came to business, he seemed kind of clueless in terms of what constituted class."
After the Kennedy assassination, many conspiracy-minded theorists pointed to Ruby's involvement in nightclubs and his rough childhood in mob-run Chicago as evidence that he was involved in organized crime and used that to push the idea that the killing of Kennedy was mob-backed.
Ruby had made at least one trip to Havana, Cuba, too, which raised more organized crime suspicions. But by most accounts, Ruby was just not that connected.
"He was always adjacent to criminal activity, if not involved in it personally. It's believed he enjoyed giving people the impression that there was far more to him than there was in reality," Fagin says. "Certainly, it helped his club business for people to think that, oh, they're rubbing elbows with a gangster. And Ruby did not dissuade them of that."
Through the years, Ruby's ties to organized crime have been difficult to prove. Still, a mostly failed nightclub owner who, at the time of the Kennedy assassination, owed the government more than $4,500 (some $38,500 today) — and who had made mysterious trips to Communist-run Cuba — seems prime fodder for those that suggest Ruby silenced Oswald as part of some larger mob-involved conspiracy to kill Kennedy.
But other explanations for Ruby's actions Nov. 24, 1963 — some in his own words — counter that notion.
Killing Kennedy's Killer
Ruby didn't smoke or drink or use drugs. He never married. He had no children, but he was said to love kids. He had dogs that he treated as his children. Yet he could be brutally violent with those who crossed him (or called him "Sparky," a nickname from childhood) and unsparingly mean to his employees.
He showed, at times, a kind side, too, helping out employees and showing great generosity toward his friends. And when Kennedy was gunned down, Ruby apparently was devastated.
In his later testimony to the Warren Commission, which President Lyndon Johnson established to examine the Kennedy assassination, Ruby said a published letter addressed to President Kennedy's daughter Caroline after the assassination "caused me to go like I did." More from his testimony:
I never spoke to anyone about attempting to do anything. No subversive organization gave me any idea. No underworld person made any effort to contact me. It all happened that Sunday morning.
The last thing I read was that Mrs. Kennedy may have to come back to Dallas for the trial of Lee Harvey Oswald, and I don't know what bug got ahold of me. I don't know what it is, but I am going to tell the truth word for word.
He went on to testify about what happened:
I had the gun in my right hip pocket, and impulsively, if that is the correct word here, I saw him, and that is all I can say. And I didn't care what happened to me.
Some suggest that Ruby shot Oswald to gin up business for his club, and that he never thought he'd be held responsible. Shooting Kennedy's assassin, some say he figured, was a win-win for everyone.
It wasn't, of course. For anyone.
The Trial of Jack Ruby
Ruby was arrested and tried for murder, the topic of a new book by Dan Abrams and David Fisher, "Kennedy's Avenger: Assassination, Conspiracy, and the Forgotten Trial of Jack Ruby." In March of 1964, long before he spoke to the Warren Commission, he was convicted of murder with malice and sentenced to death.
His conviction and sentencing were overturned, two years later, when an appeals court agreed that the venue for his trial should have been changed. He was granted a new trial but, weeks before it was to start, in early January 1967, Ruby suffered a pulmonary embolism brought on by advancing cancer.
Jack Ruby died in Dallas' Parkland Hospital — the same place where both Kennedy and Oswald were taken after they were shot — technically untried and not convicted of the crime that millions saw him commit.
"A lot of people ask, 'Whatever happened to Jack Ruby?'" Fagin says. "Ruby died an innocent man. It is sad that he didn't get to live to see that second trial because, I think, history would have benefited. To say the least."