Friday, November 15, 2013

The AP's Peggy Simpson

It takes Dallas Associated Press Bureau Chief Bob Johnson, writing nine years after the Kennedy and Oswald assassinations, a word count well into four figures to explicate his news service's performance over that weekend in November, 1963. We learn the teletype operator's name; Johnson's secretary's name; the sport's editor's name, and the names of bigwigs in New York, but when it comes to naming the Associated Press personnel present in the basement of the Dallas City jail who witnessed Jack Ruby pull the trigger of a gun on Lee Harvey Oswald, he becomes vague and obscure:
Peggy Simpson had checked in at police headquarters and started compiling a list of the known evidence against Oswald. She called and said that Oswald was to be transferred to the county jail at 10:30 a.m. Another newsman was waiting at the county jail, and we had photographers at both places.
Nowhere in the Dallas police department fact-finding from which the Warren Commission report was comprised, is the name Peggy Simpson mentioned, although the 25-year-old had critical front-page, bylined articles published on the department's "investigations," as well as their "custody" of Oswald. As the only female reporter present in the basement that day, Simpson even figured in the live NBC News television coverage.

According to Google returns, only recently were several images taken during the "slaying" of Lee Harvey Oswald attributed by name to an Associated Press photographer. David F. Smith is credited with a shot of a knuckle-dragging Oswald being medically attended to. Someone has thrown their spare coat over the bloodless, gut-shot form.

A second Smith image depicting the struggle to subdue Jack Ruby is special, inasmuch as it is a rare break in the theatrical "fourth wall," or more precisely, "stage left," beyond the range of television cameras, an area which seems strangely underpopulated compared to the concentrated pandemonium of the telecasts. There, the 52-year-old Ruby is putting on quite a show for someone who has successfully completed his stated mission.

In a front-page article published the following morning, Probers 'Sure' Oswald Guilty; Case Said Airtight, Peggy Simpson wrote:
"The shooting occurred in the police headquarters basement in front of hundreds of police, Secret Service, FBI men and newsmen...."
David Smith isn't mentioned by Dallas investigators, but then again, neither does the AP's Bob Johnson mention his work; while the Warren Report offers a very generous margin of error in estimating the (anonymous, and state-level or lower,) law enforcement offficials, and government-credentialed news professionals on hand.
By the time Oswald reached the basement, 40 to 50 newsmen and 70 to 75 police officers were assembled there. Three television cameras [Note: Two were NBC's, one was CBS's, with apparently two more (shared) outside on Commerce Street, all part of a planned ten seconds, or so, of filmed coverage.] stood along the railing and most of the newsmen were congregated in that area and at the top of the adjacent decline leading into the garage. A group of newsmen and police officers, best estimated at about 20, stood strung across the bottom of the Main Street ramp.
Of course, no one even alludes to the modern era of producers, directors, stylists, public-relations experts and practitioners of psychological warfare who had access to the basement scene. The unaccounted for then are the unaccountable now. Ruling Lee Harvey Oswald in for the killing President Kennedy was much easier than ruling everybody else out.That, they never set out to do.

November 25, 1972, Free Lance-Star, Too Busy For Tears, AP former Dallas bureau chief recalls reporting the day John F. Kennedy was killed, by Bob Johnson,

Assistant Bureau Chief Jim ManganFrank Cormier and Jack Bell would be the Washington AP newsmen traveling with the President and Henry Burroughs would be the photographer. State Editor Bob Ford, Fort Worth Correspondent Mike Cochran, Dallas photographer Ferd Kaufman and Mangan covered Kennedy at his Fort Worth stop. Mangan drove back to Dallas and joined Bob Fordand Patricia Curran at the Trade Mart.Raymond Holbrook met the Presidential party at Love Field.

I had assigned Peggy Simpson to the downtown parade route and had instructed her to follow the motorcade on foot as best she could so that she could break away in case of heckling. I also knew that either Bell or Cormier would be in the pool car with a mobile telephone.

As soon as the motorcade left downtown Dallas, Peggy was supposed to go to Love Field and catch a plane for Austin. I had plenty of staffers in the Austin bureau, but the reception there that night was closed to everybody except invited guests. Peggy had gotten a state legislator to invite her as his date. This meant the AP probably would have the only reporter there, with the possibility of turning up an exclusive color story. We felt very clever about this.

We also, of course, had photographers at Love Field, along the motorcade route, and at the Trade Mart. One of these was Ike Altgens, a Wirephoto operator who often doubled as a photographer.Newsphoto Editor Dave Taylor told Altgens his post was the railroad trestle of the Triple Underpass, through which the motorcade would leave downtown and head north on Stemmons Freeway to the Trade Mart. The idea was that Altgens could get a scenic shot of the motorcade approaching the underpass with the downtown skyline forming a backdrop.

I brought Night Editor Ron Thompson to sit in as state editor for Ford. I joined Thompson on the desk, making a fourth.

As I drove to the office, though, I worried more than anything else about Peggy Simpson and her legman assignment on the motorcade route: I was afraid the drizzle would spoil her hairdo for the reception that night in Austin.

Austin photographer Ted Powers.

Peggy started back to the office, thinking she would get to contribute only a minor sentence about the friendly crowd. She heard a girl ask a policeman: "Why did he have to go by so fast?" And the policeman laughed. He said: "Well, you know, Honey, everybody in Dallas wants to shoot him; they've got to get him out of town fast." In the midst of the happy laughing crowd, the intended irony seemed mildly amusing.

Ike Altgens tried to take his station on the railroad trestle. A cop ran him off because he wasn't a railroad employee. Ike went to look for a spot on the street near the Triple Underpass...
Felix McKnight, the Times-Herald executive editor. Wire filer Dick McMurray. Ron Thompson.

The telephone rang. It was Altgens.

"Bob, the President has been shot!"

"Ike, how do you know?"

"I saw it. There was blood on his head. Jackie jumped up and grabbed him and cried, 'Oh no!' The motorcade raced onto the freeway.

"Ike, you saw that?"

"Yes, I was shooting pictures then and I saw it."

Teletype operator Julia Saunders timed it off on the AAA wire at 12:39 p.m. (CST). This was the first word in publishable form that President Kennedy had been shot.

Altgens had run five blocks from the scene to our Newsphoto office in the Dallas Morning News building. He had tossed his camera to another operator and called me on the hotline linking our two offices.

While we got the story moving, Altgens' film was processed and three historic pictures were transmitted: President Kennedy waving to the people just before the turn into Elm Street; the President's head dropping forward, with Mrs. Kennedy's white-gloved hand reaching to aid him, and a Secret Service Agent leaping onto the rear of the Presidential car to come to Mrs. Kennedy's aid. These were the only professional pictures made at the scene.

Harold Ratliff, the bureau sports editor.

New York had called. I talked to General Manager Wes Gallager and General News Editor Sam Blackman. Wilbur Martin, Oklahoma City bureau chief. Pat Curran and Ford at Parkland Hospital, along with Val Immof of the Times-Herald.

Why was Bell beaten to the phone in the pool car?

In the front seat of the car were a police driver, Acting Press Secretary Malcolm Kilduff and Merriman Smith of UPI. In the back seat were Bob Clark of ABC, Bob Baskin of the Dallas Morning News, and Bell.

New York Traffic Bureau Chief Bernie Farrell and Dallas Traffic Bureau Chief Eddie Edwards.

There were many other rumors that flourished after the assassination, mainly the one that there was more than one gunman. From our investigations at the time, we concluded that many of these rumors were started by foreign reporters unable to believe that an assassination could result from anything other than a political plot in the European tradition.

Peggy Simpson had checked in at police headquarters and started compiling a list of the known evidence against Oswald. She called and said that Oswald was to be transferred to the county jail at 10:30 a.m. Another newsman was waiting at the county jail, and we had photographers at both places.
Martin and I ran back into our bureau. The phone rang and Wilbur grabbed it. It was Peggy. I could hear her yell:"They shot him!"

Peggy had been standing with about 150 other reporters in the basement corridor down which Oswald would be led. As he came into view and was about to turn a corner, Peggy heard a shot and saw Oswald double over. She heard him gasp. Pandemonium broke out. Peggy quickly found a telephone in a small office adjoining the corridor. And now she was reporting to Martin.

Jerry Pillard of the Austin staff was at the hospital. We sent San Antonio Correspondent Chuck Green to join him.

Punch Operator Joe Accardi walked over to Wilbur and me and said: "I know Jack Ruby---I've known him for years."


1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Very interesting read