Three years before that fateful day in Dallas 50 years ago, an assassination attempt on John F. Kennedy was thwarted by a New Hampshire postmaster, a small-town Florida patrolman and some quick investigative work by federal law enforcement officials.
The attempt on the president-elect’s life was barely a blip on the news radar screen, overshadowed by a mid-air crash of two airplanes over New York City that killed 134 people.
In the Cape Cod Times of Dec. 16, 1960, the arrest of Richard Pavlick got two paragraphs under a headline, “Man Tells Plan To Bomb Kennedy.” According to that story, Pavlick, a New Hampshire man with a history of mental illness, had “cased” both Kennedy’s summer home in Hyannisport and his winter home in Palm Beach, Fla., and told authorities after he was caught that security was “lousy.”
The plane crash, along with a sparsely attended meeting about the fledgling Cape Cod National Seashore, dominated the top of the Times page.
“The plane crash was a huge, huge story and that really swept, I think, a major part of this story underneath the table,” said David Royle, executive producer of a Smithsonian Channel documentary on the assassination attempt called “Kennedy’s Suicide Bomber” scheduled to air Nov. 17. “It was just one of those quirks of history and we all know from the news business how easy that can happen. You have a major story, a really significant one, and the next thing you know it’s vanished. It’s just pure luck the way that happened.”
Pavlick’s threat was real. The anti-Catholic zealot followed Kennedy across the country and had the means — 10 sticks of dynamite purchased from a New Hampshire hardware store — to carry out his plan, Royle said.
“I was pretty aggravated,” Robert Rust, a retired assistant U.S. attorney in Miami reached by phone at his Coral Gables, Fla., home, said of the lack of attention Pavlick’s attempt garnered. “When (the Smithsonian) came to do an interview, I said, ‘Where have you been for the last 50 years?’”
BUICK FILLED WITH DYNAMITE
Dozens of books have been written about JFK’s assassination and the conspiracy theories that abound. Pavlick’s attempt, despite how close he came to changing history, is barely a footnote.
In former Secret Service agent Gerald Blaine’s book, “The Kennedy Detail,” Pavlick’s plot gets some rare ink, albeit two pages in a 400-plus page book dominated by the events in Dallas.
On Dec. 11, 1960, Blaine was posted at the entrance to St. Edward Church in Palm Beach as Pavlick approached.
“When a disheveled elderly man walked through the front door, Blaine watched him carefully. He just didn’t seem to fit,” the book states. “The man stood at the back of the church and looked around. When he saw president-elect Kennedy sitting in a pew about six rows back from the front, the man’s eyes became transfixed, and he began walking in that direction.”
Page 2 of 4 - The book describes how Blaine grabbed Pavlick by the elbow and escorted him to the back of the church as if he was an usher. “A few minutes passed, and finally the man turned and walked out of the church,” the book states. “Blaine watched as the man got into his car and before he drove off, Blaine took note of the Buick’s description and license plate.”
After Blaine shared his suspicions with the agent in charge, Palm Beach Police were given notice to keep an eye out for the car.
Meanwhile, a New Hampshire postmaster in the town of Belmont, Thomas Murphy, was sharing his suspicions, too, Rust said. Murphy was familiar with the rants of Pavlick, a former postal worker, against government, in general, and Kennedy, in particular.
“When it appeared Kennedy might get elected, (Pavlick) would become very animated when he talked about the fact that Kennedy was Catholic,” said Earl Sweeney, who was a police sergeant at the time in the small New Hampshire town outside Laconia. “Pavlick was convinced the pope would be running the government from Rome. He made comments when (Kennedy) got elected that someone should shoot him.”
FOILING THE PLOT
Around the time of the election, Pavlick had donated his property in Belmont to a program for troubled teens and left town, Sweeney, who eventually became police chief, said.
Murphy noticed that postcards from Pavlick back to New Hampshire were from places where Kennedy had traveled.
“If he gave a speech in St. Louis, the postcard was from St. Louis. If Kennedy was in Detroit, the postcard came from Detroit,” Sweeney said. “Some of those postcards said, ‘You’re going to be hearing from me in a big way.’”
Murphy, though he felt sheepish about reading the rants, shared his suspicions with Sweeney and they decided Murphy should contact postal inspectors. Pavlick’s bizarre behavior was also passed along to the Secret Service and he was labeled a “threat,” according to “The Kennedy Detail.”
“Thomas Murphy was a genius,” said Rust, who prosecuted Pavlick.
Four days after he approached Kennedy in church only to be escorted out by Blaine, Pavlick was stopped by Palm Beach officer Lester Free for a marked lanes violation, Rust said. “If he hadn’t stopped him for crossing a white line, history might be very different,” he said.
Rust would learn that Pavlick purchased explosive materials in New Hampshire and told special agent John Marshall, “We’ve got a live one.”
With probable cause, they visited Pavlick in jail. Pavlick gave them permission to search his Buick where he had 10 sticks of dynamite rigged with a switch to set it off.
“We made him a federal prisoner and drove to his motel room,” Rust said. Inside the motel, Rust found binoculars that were used to watch the movement of Secret Service agents in a nearby motel. He also found a letter written by Pavlick that he calls the man’s last will and testament. A framed copy hangs on the wall of Rust’s Coral Gables home next to certificates heralding his role in thwarting the assassination attempt.
Page 3 of 4 - “That’s where he explains why he had to kill the president,” Rust said.
In a lengthy diatribe against the new president, Pavlick accuses the Kennedy family of buying the presidency and Catholics of failing to obey the same laws as all Americans. “Now that the presidency has been sold to the Kennedys, they must be stopped by any and all means possible,” the letter states.
Pavlick, who was 73 at the time, also refers to his intent in the letter. “My country’s best interests are, to me, greater than my own life,” Pavlick wrote.
“You can see this guy was vicious, intelligent and crazy,” Rust said, after reading his copy of the Pavlick manifesto.
Pavlick’s arrest drew little media attention in Florida, Rust said. In court, he was ordered to undergo psychiatric evaluation. “(The doctor) testified that Pavlick was not mentally competent to stand trial,” Rust said. “He was a functioning nut in my estimation.”
Pavlick told the judge he was sane, so the judge allowed the defense to hire its own psychiatrist, Rust said. Weeks later, after 5 to 10 visits with Pavlick in jail, that doctor was summonsed to court, but refused to give his name or testimony until Pavlick was removed from the courtroom because he was afraid of him. “When he was out of the courtroom, (the doctor) gave his opinion that Pavlick was mentally incompetent and a homicidal maniac,” Rust said.
Pavlick spent years being moved from federal hospital to federal hospital and at one point was sent back to New Hampshire to a state facility, Rust and Sweeney said.
In 1966, three years after Kennedy was killed in Dallas, the Manchester Union Leader in New Hampshire, led by right-leaning publisher William Loeb, wrote a series of editorials pushing for Pavlick to be released, Sweeney said.
Despite some push back by him and others, Pavlick was indeed released and stalked Murphy and his family.
“He would come up periodically and park by Murphy’s house,” Sweeney said. “He would sit and stare at the house. I would come up and check him out and stare back at him. We had no stalking law. He wasn’t disturbing the peace. He wasn’t really doing anything. Murphy felt he had no protection.”
Royle, whose Smithsonian Channel has also produced a documentary to air on the same night titled “The Day Kennedy Died,” said there were others like Pavlick who didn’t like what Kennedy stood for and who were in Dallas that day handing out leaflets that said, “Wanted for treason,” and advertisements appeared in newspapers calling him soft on communism.
“You realize watching that and watching all the contemporary footage, just how much of a polarizing figure (JFK) was,” Royle said. “We tend to think of the Kennedys with this Camelot glow around them. They were incredibly glamorous people, extremely intelligent and articulate, but they polarized the country. There were people who loved them and people who hated them.”
Page 4 of 4 - NEW DOCUMENTARY
What: “Kennedy’s Suicide Bomber”
When: 8 p.m. EDT Nov. 17
On TV: Smithsonian Channel™