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JFK assassination: the mother of all conspiracy theories turns 50

Thane Burnett (QMI Agency)

By Thane Burnett, QMI Agency

U.S. President John F. Kennedy is seen working in the Oval Office in the White House in this 1963 photo. (JFK Presidential Library/The White House/Robert Knudsen/Handout)

U.S. President John F. Kennedy is seen working in the Oval Office in the White House in this 1963 photo. (JFK Presidential Library/The White House/Robert Knudsen/Handout)

The mother of all modern conspiracies is so impressive — stretches arms so wide — the embrace extends even to the graves of strangers.

Over the past 50 years since Lee Harvey Oswald shot U.S. president John F. Kennedy on November 22, 1963, the legacy is inked in as much treason and sedition as any official version.

Everything, and everyone, is suspect in arguably the most talked about few minutes in history.

While there have been other supposed plots stretching back before the American revolution — from the authenticity of the moon landing and shooting sprees in U.S. schools — arguably none have reached the same level of repetition as the JFK conspiracy.

You can talk about 9/11 without uttering a word about 'truthers' and their cries of an inside job by the government.

But you can't recall JFK without raising the doubt of whether Oswald acted alone.

It's a rare adult who hasn't heard about a possible second shooter, a supposed government cover-up and the notorious Dallas grassy knoll.

Mark Fenster, a professor at the University of Florida and author of Conspiracy Theories: Secrecy and Power in American Culture, says the killing happened: "Long enough ago to make it foreign but there's enough film ... to make it feel present."

Fenster believes there's a benefit to all this doubt.

"Conspiracy theory is a form of populist fear of concentration of power in the state and in society," he says, adding: "A fear that is at the core of any democratic government."

It also causes everything — including the absurd — to be questioned.

Here are some key truths, disbeliefs and assorted moments of infamy in the JFK assassination time-line:

In the Shannon Rose Hill Cemetery, in Fort Worth, Texas, where killer Oswald is buried, another gravestone beside his appeared in 1996. It reads 'NICK BEEF'.

The moniker weaved itself into intriguing speculation, promoting the New York Times to recently track down the owner. 'NICK BEEF' is apparently the mischievous work of New York writer and artist, Patric Abedin, who uses the name as a bit of playfulness.

He told the paper, as a child, he saw the president the night before when Kennedy and his wife, Jacqueline, landed at the local air force base, and began a life-long connection — culminating in buying the plot next to Oswald.

But now people have begun to speculate whether Abedin really saw the president — and whether there's more to his story.

On October 4, 1981, Oswald's grave was exhumed, to make sure his body wasn't that of a Russian agent sent to America in 1963 to kill the president. The remains were Oswald.

The most valuable tool for conspiracy theorists has been an 8-mm, silent home movie, shot by Abraham Zapruder. Armchair sleuths and those sure of a second shooter have combed each frame.

Eyewitness Jean Hill, seen in the Zapruder film, said she called out to the president, so she could take his picture. But at that moment, shots rang out. Over the years, she recalled how she saw a "man with a hat running toward the monument" on the infamous grassy knoll. She was convinced the man was Jack Ruby, who would kill Oswald three days later. Though officials, and the Zapruder film, cast doubt on her memory.

Skeptics also see suspicious behaviour in one of the motorcycle policemen riding alongside the motorcade, breaking formation 10 to 15 seconds before the shots are fired.

The official Warren Commission, released in 1964, found one bullet — shot from the sixth floor of the Texas School Book Depository — caused injuries to both Kennedy and Texas governor John Connally, who was riding in the same car and seriously wounded.

But countless theorists have called it a 'magic bullet', that must have been capable of changing directions.

One theory is that it wasn't Oswald's bullet that killed Kennedy, but the gun of a Secret Service man that went off accidentally.

Skeptics point out buildings along the route were not searched, as they should have been.

In 1973, the Department of Defense was said to have destroyed Oswald's military records.

In 1978, the United States House of Representatives Select Committee on Assassinations found the president was likely the victim of a murder conspiracy. They suggested two shooters, but didn't know who else was involved.

Everyone, it seems, have been named as possible actors in the conspiracy. The names range from Dallas Police Officer J.D. Tippit, killed by Oswald, to Watergate burglar E. Howard Hunt, who always denied involvement.

Among the many groups that have been suspected in taking part in the assassination: The CIA, organized crime, the Cuban government, Cuban exiles, the Russians, far right-wing Texans, the Illuminati, the government of South Vietnam and French drug lords. As well as space aliens.

Dr. Jovan Byford, a senior lecturer in psychology in the U.K. and author of Conspiracy Theories: A Critical Introduction, says this all adds up to ripe fruit for those who disbelieve authority: "The Kennedy assassination is widely held to be a landmark event in the history of conspiracy theories.

"Many scholars argue that in America, in particular, it inspired more conspiracy theories than any event in history."

While he doesn't believe the theories have any ring of truth, Byford adds: "I think the fact Kennedy was not killed by a conspiracy makes his death all the more tragic and worth reflecting on.

"The fact that a petty radical like Lee Harvey Oswald was able to kill one of the most popular, progressive and forward thinking presidents America has ever had, demonstrates the way in which chance and coincidence sometimes influence the course of history, and exposes the inherent vulnerability of human life."

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