Friday, April 01, 2016

Poker in the Warren Commission Report

Poker is mentioned exactly one time in the Report of the Warren Commission on the Assassination of President Kennedy, or at least in the summary of the Commission’s findings first presented to Lyndon B. Johnson on September 24, 1964.

That is to say, in the 888-page report in which the commission determined both that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone when killing John F. Kennedy on November 22, 1963 and that Jack Ruby also acted alone when killing Oswald two days later, there is only one somewhat incidental mention of poker in any of the eight lengthy chapters and 18 appendices. (I can’t say the same about the 26 volumes of supporting documents published in November 1964.)

The mention comes near the end of Chapter VI, titled “Investigation of Possible Conspiracy,” appearing in the chapter’s latter section that focuses on the “Possible Conspiracy Involving Jack Ruby.” After describing Ruby’s background and in particular his activities during the two days preceding his shooting of Oswald in the basement of the Dallas Municipal Building, a subsection dealing with “Ruby’s Background and Associations” includes summaries of a few different witnesses’ testimonies regarding the possibility that Ruby and Oswald knew each other prior to the events of that weekend. (The Commission concludes they did not.)

If you’ve ever read through the Warren Commission’s report -- whether you agree with its conclusions about Oswald and Ruby or not -- you know that it almost reads like some kind of sacred text designed at every turn to bolster the faith of the reader in the truth of its conclusions. Hundreds of potentially worrisome possibilities are brought up one after another and then meticulously countered, sometimes with concrete evidence negating their significance or (often) with authoritative pronouncements why a particular individual’s testimony should be considered unreliable.

This is the procedure followed with regard to the testimony of a man named Willbryn Waldon (Robert) Litchfield II who claimed to have seen a man resembling Oswald at Ruby’s Carousel Club “in late October or early November 1963.” Litchfield is one of several witnesses who made such a claim following Ruby’s shooting of Oswald, though the Commission concludes none of the witnesses to be convincing.

In Litchfield’s case, his remembering the man he thought to be Oswald as “having pockmarks on the right side of his chin” helped weaken his claim, as “Oswald did not have such identifying marks.” “Moreover,” the report continues, “the Commission has substantial doubts concerning Litchfield’s credibility.” (This is a very common formulation used in the report, by the way -- that is, to present indirect evidence encouraging the reader not to take seriously those whose claims potentially complicate the report’s central theses.)

The fact that Litchfield failed to mention his having seen Oswald when present during an FBI interview of another witness previously raised an eyebrow of concern for the Commission regarding his worthiness as a witness. So, too, does his having been previously charged with forging checks, a detail incidentally included as a damning aside: “Litchfield, who had twice been convicted for offenses involving forged checks, testified that he first recalled that Oswald resembled the visitor he saw at the Carousel Club while watching a television showing on Sunday morning, November 24, of the shooting of Ruby.”

Continuing from there, the reader learns that Litchfield wasn’t alone when watching TV that Sunday morning -- he was playing a poker game.

“At that time Litchfield was playing poker with three friends, and he testified that he promptly informed them of the resemblance he observed. However, none of the other three poker companions remembered Litchfield’s making such a remark; and two added that Litchfield’s statements were often untrustworthy.”

That last bit -- the final mention of Litchfield in the Report proper -- is somewhat humorous to read. Two poker companions reporting his statements were often untrustworthy? Statements like, “You should fold, I made my straight” or “Go ahead and call me, I’ve got nothing”?

Out of curiosity, I did look up Litchfield’s testimony as it appears in Volume XIV of the supporting documents, delivered to the Commission on April 16, 1964.

There one learns Litchfield -- who went by Bobby -- identified himself as a 30-year-old professional bowler and bowling instructor who also sells bowling equipment and trophies. Prior to that he was a bookseller, though said he lost his job “due to my past record” -- namely, because when he was 19 he “forged some hot checks and paid them off.” He then voluntarily describes the charges he faced to the Commission, including how he served some prison time as well.

Litchfield was unemployed and between jobs, then, during the latter half of 1963. When asked about that period in his life, there’s an interesting detour in the conversation concerning a woman named Bertha Cheek whom the interviewer thinks managed the apartment building where Litchfield was living, although Litchfield points out she didn’t. It is revealed that Litchfield knew Cheek, however, and in fact despite Litchfield’s being married the two apparently had an affair.

He says he visited Cheek “spasmodically from September to October and November of 1963” (a funny word choice), and that what began as some sort of business deal turned into a different kind of negotiation in which (says Litchfield) “I would have had to divorce my wife and had to have married her for any other further business to have been transacted.”

Why did the Commission know about Bertha Cheek and ask Litchfield questions about her once he mentioned where he had lived? She was the sister of Earlene Roberts, Lee Harvey Oswald’s landlady. In fact, she’d just testified herself two days before Litchfield did. (This stuff happens constantly whenever you dig even a little bit below the surface of the Dallas-Fort Worth area, circa late 1963 -- everyone seems to have at least some connection to everyone else.)

So Litchfield had had an affair with the sister of Oswald’s landlady (which is curious, but doesn’t necessarily mean a thing). Meanwhile he certainly knew Ruby, and testified he’d known him since 1959. He also described to the Commission having visited the Carousel Club a couple of times where he actually discussed with Ruby the possibility of buying the Carousel. The last visit was in mid-October, he says. When asked if that was the last time he ever saw Ruby, Litchfield says “it was until I saw him on television -- I happened to be playing poker then.”

Litchfield then explains how he and “a bunch of fellows from the bowling alley” usually played poker every Saturday night. “We started about 9:30 and the game continued all through the night -- one of those $2 limit games and we were still playing on Sunday.” He then explains how the game was interrupted when one of the other player’s wives came by “and said something about Ruby had shot Oswald on television.”

They turned the television on and saw “they were rerunning all of this and a big hullabaloo over it and that was the next time I saw Jack.” The poker game, then, must have been going around 14 hours by then as Ruby shot Oswald at 11:21 a.m. CST.

Litchfield continues: “Somebody said, ‘I think I’ve seen that Oswald around somewhere,’ and I made the statement, ‘Yes, I think I have seen him too,’ and that was the extent of it. Nothing more was said.” He adds that he later repeated the statement to two FBI agents and apparently was given a polygraph test as well, which Litchfield believed he failed.

They go on at length after that, with Litchfield giving the names of a couple of his poker buddies and the conversation eventually winding back to Bertha Cheek and the interview asking Litchfield if he knew she was Earlene Roberts’s sister (he vaguely remembers Earlene’s name and that he might have spoken to her on the phone once).

Litchfield also notes that the poker game would continue until about 6:30 p.m. on Sunday. The game just went on and on and on. So, too, does the report and all of its thousands of threads, winding all about and together creating the most tangled knot imaginable.

I mean, seriously... talk about a partial information game.

Image: Report of the Warren Commission on the Assassination of President Kennedy (1964), Amazon.

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Blogger Grange95 said...

Fascinating historical tidbit!

4/03/2016 11:00 PM  

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