Penn Jones, Pt. 1

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Penn Jones, Jr., a Texan, through and through, was born in 1913. He was a man short in physical stature (he stood only about 5’2”), but he was a man of strong convictions who never wavered under pressure. In fact, Jones first came to national attention in 1962 when, on April 30, the offices of his small Texas newspaper, The Midlothian Mirror, were firebombed and destroyed. It seems Midlothian, a town of 1800 residents in the early 60s  (Jones had no reservations in reminding people that The Mirror had a circulation of about 800 back then) did not take too kindly to Jones’ brand of politicking. A 1964 feature about Jones in the Houston Chronicle Texas Magazine features a photograph of stickers that had been hanging in the window of the newspaper office at the time of the bombing: “Repeal the Poll Tax” and “Reelect Ralph” (referring to Ralph Yarborough, an outspoken Texas liberal who would later ride in the fatal Kennedy motorcade). In fact, an attempt to desegregate the local school system would find him square in the sights of the John Birch Society, which, according to the Chronicle, was “big in Midlothian.”  Jones was the subject of a 1962 FBI file concerning the firebombing, as well as related rumors that he was a “communist sympathizer.” By 1965, the Bureau, with uncharacteristic certainty, had declared that this gossip was “ill founded” and “malicious.”  Luckily for Jones, his self-professed liberalism was not rejected by all Americans: he was awarded the Elijah Parish Lovejoy Award for Courage in Journalism in 1963. His Herculean efforts to continue publishing 3 days after the fire had undoubtedly earned him much respect among liberal journalists and agitated the ire of his conservative neighbors.

Jones had been covering President Kennedy’s visit to Texas in November of that year and was invited to attend the speech to be given by the President at the Dallas Trade Mart on the 22nd. He was among the guests who awaited the arrival of the motorcade to be stunned by the tragic news. Along with other reporters, Jones rushed to Parkland Hospital where he asked questions and took several photographs. One of his pictures, according to researcher John Judge, may have captured Jack Ruby going into the hospital.  (The Warren Commission later denied Ruby was there. Of course, Jones would later disagree with them within the pages of The Mirror.) To a liberal Democrat who considered himself a man whose job it was “to insult those who fail… to fulfill their obligations they have inherited along with their citizenship,”   the death of a President he admired seemed to stir some emotions, for Penn Jones is reported to have returned to Dealey Plaza on the one year anniversary of the assassination and observed a moment of silence. It is claimed that this sign of respect by Jones was the beginning of an annual tradition of quiet reflection which is recognized by researchers and Kennedy admirers to this day.

Jones maintained his interest in the assassination through his part-time reporting of the Jack Ruby trial in 1964. His writing assistant for the assignment was John Freeman, a man he had met in October of 1963 at an anti-right wing speech Jones had given at the Dallas Unitarian Church. Freeman had been interested in joining the liberal cause and had pledged his assistance to Jones, asking him what Freeman could do for the movement. Jones suggested that Freeman follow in his footsteps and purchase a small newspaper to edit, which would legitimize and promote his political views. Freeman did just that, and purchased the Farmer and Miner paper of Frederick, Colorado in July of 1964, a few months after the Ruby trial had concluded. By May of 1965, their friendship took a very dramatic and strange turn when Freeman had decided to contact the FBI regarding a trip to Washington DC that Jones had taken in February or March of 1964. While in Washington, Jones was able to meet with Robert Kennedy, he said, to have a copy of John Kennedy’s Profiles in Courage autographed by the younger Kennedy brother. According to Freeman, Jones attempted to discuss some conspiracy theories regarding the assassination with the then attorney general. Kennedy was evidently not interested and suggested that Jones discuss the matter with the Deputy Attorney General, Nicholas Katzenbach. Freeman also stated bluntly to the FBI that Jones then started meeting with Katzenbach and providing him with information about assassination theories. Incidentally, Katzenbach’s role in the then-ongoing Warren Commission was no small matter, for according to Edward Jay Epstein’s 1966 account of the founding of that blue-ribbon panel in his landmark book, Inquest, Katzenbach hand-picked Howard Willens to act as liaison between the Commission and the Justice Department.  According to Epstein, “Willens took charge of the administrative function (of the Warren Commission), he divided work up among the staff, made schedules, requested assistance from other agencies, and ‘kept the investigation moving.’ Some considered him “hard-driving” and “aggressive”; others considered him ‘the hero of the investigation.’”  If Freeman’s FBI statements are truthful, Penn Jones may have, either knowingly or inadvertently, been giving controversial material to his eventual enemy, the Warren Commission, by way of his contact, Katzenbach, the direct superior of Willens, the “hero of the investigation” who “kept the investigation moving.”

However, by May of 1965, the Warren Commission had been concluded for several months and Penn Jones’ alleged contributions evidently went unnoticed by the FBI. It is certainly worth noting that the FBI’s renewed interest in Jones coincided with the upcoming publication of one of his very first critical articles concerning the assassination, titled “Meeting at Jack Ruby’s Apartment.” This article, to be published on June 2nd, would be the prototype for decades of investigation pioneered by Jones: that is, establishing “mysterious” deaths as a sinister element of the Kennedy assassination case. In this article, Jones discusses the tragic deaths of several reporters who had covered Jack Ruby: Bill Hunter, Jim Koethe, Tom Howard, and Dorothy Kilgallen. Five days before the story hit the presses, May 28, apparently tipped off by Freeman, the FBI made an appearance at the office of The Midlothian Mirror and interviewed Penn Jones in a car outside. Jones refused to give up the sources of some of his more controversial theories and stated he was going forward with his story. Jones evidently telephoned Freeman after this encounter and Jones stated that he “feared for his life.” Evidently, Jones had told his partner that if he were able to prove his theories, he and Freeman would “print the entire story in three weekly newspapers and then they would both hide out in the Rocky Mountains.”

Undaunted, Jones published his controversial Jack Ruby story on time. In an editorial, entitled “An Editor’s Credo”, which preceded the article, Jones announced his motives and intentions. “In the discharge of our duty as a newspaper editor, we must do everything possible to bring into some intelligible whole ALL the events surrounding the assassination of John F. Kennedy… Further articles will appear periodically in The Midlothian Mirror. We expect to work on the assassination for the rest of our lives- not that any action will be taken, but in the hope that historians may be able to point a more accurate finger… We thank the dedicated few who have helped in assembling the facts presented. They must have shed the same hot tears of despair this writer could not hold back.”

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