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With the 50th anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy less than two months away, the Smithsonian Magazine has published an interesting article on the iconic ‘Zapruder film’ that ignited a virtual conspiracy industry. One part of the feature discusses the ‘Umbrella Man’ mystery – in particular a short documentary of that name made by film-maker Errol Morris – as an illustration of how sometimes conspiracies become like “a snake eating its own tail”. The six-minute documentary Umbrella Man consists of Morris talking with Josiah “Tink” Thompson, one of the first and most respected of Warren Commission critics:

“So here is Tink,” Morris says, taking us back to Thompson’s Life magazine days, “hunkered down over the Zapruder film looking at it frame by frame by frame. And he notices there is a man, a bystander among the crowds waiting for the Kennedy motorcade—and he’s holding an umbrella. And indeed he looks really out of place.”

“Because the sun is shining.”

“The sun is shining. As I say to Tink, in my film, ‘it was a beautiful day in the neighborhood,’” Morris says in a wry Mister Rogers imitation.

“And the Umbrella Man became an icon of conspiracy theorists?” I ask. “They believe that when he raised the umbrella it was a signal for the assassins?”

“As in all of these theories, there are multiple versions, there are variants. There’s the version where the umbrella was a signal to the co-conspirators. There’s another version where the Umbrella Man himself is one of the assassins…with the umbrella.”

…In Morris’ film, Thompson discloses something I hadn’t known: that the Umbrella Man had eventually come forward and explained himself. “The Umbrella Man himself showed up to give testimony to the House assassinations committee,” Morris says.

And he reproduced a clip of his appearance before the committee in his Umbrella Man film. His name was Louie Steven Witt and he testified that he brought the umbrella on that sunny day because—wait for it—he wanted to express his displeasure with JFK’s father, Joseph Kennedy.

“Who,” Morris says, “had been ambassador to England in the 1930s and [was] known for his policies of appeasement to the Third Reich.”

“Symbolized,” I say, “by the umbrella that Neville Chamberlain carried back from Munich, after Chamberlain claimed to have brought ‘peace for our time’ by letting Hitler swallow up half of Czechoslovakia, giving Hitler the impetus to launch World War II. The umbrella became the symbol of appeasement in 1938 and here in 1963, this guy carries an umbrella and thinks, ‘Whoa, people are really going to be blown away, this is really going to make a statement!’ And it turns out he becomes a symbol himself. It’s almost like history is a kind of snake swallowing its tail.”

“Part of the problem of rationality and irrationality—and it really is a problem—is how do you separate the two? Where is that line of demarcation between nutso thinking and good thinking?”

Which brings us to the double irony: Morris and Thompson’s attempt to nail down this one tiny factoid ended up getting them linked to the coverup by a conspiracy theorist.

Expect plenty more articles and news stories related to the JFK-assassination in the coming couple of months.