Monday, December 15, 2014

Richard Paul Pavlick—Would-be Assassin Before His Time

Richard Paul Pavlick on the way to court. 

Any way you slice it this Richard Paul Pavlick guy was a man ahead of his time.  A real pioneer.  Look at the facts.  He was an old White guy who hated the government despite working for it most of his life.  He believed there was a vast conspiracy to destroy the utopian America that existed somewhere in his imagination.  He hated—really hated the man who had been elected President of the United States—a Democrat who belonged to a group the guy despised.  He loved guns and all things that go boom.  He was sure that he was just the guy to save the country by killing the demon. 
Moreover, he had an imaginative plan for doing it.  He packed sticks of dynamite into his old Buick and stalked his target around the country waiting for the opportunity to pull up near him and blow the President-elect, himself, and the car to smithereens.  Mind you, this was 21 years before, by happenstance December 15, 1981, when the Shi’a Islamist group al-Dawa carried out a suicide car bombing on the Iraqi embassy in Beirut, Lebanon which leveled the building and killed 61 people, including the ambassador.   That attack is considered to be the first modern suicide bombing, but our boy nearly beat them to it by decades.  Like I said, a visionary.
It was on December 15, 1960 that the Feds busted Pavlick before he could rub out John F. Kennedy and spare Lee Harvey Oswald or whoever the trouble of doing it three years later.  But it turns out it was a close thing.  A very close thing.
Pavlick was born on February 13, 1887 in Belmont, New Hampshire.  Sources are scant on his life and background.  We know he was a veteran because he frequented the American Legion and proper display of the American flag would be an obsession.  I found no note on what branch of service or if he saw action.  But he was exactly the right age to have been in World War I.
He seems to have spent most of his adult life working for the U.S. Post Office.  He rose to be a local Postmaster at one of the Boston branches.  That was then a political appointment but the custom of one party throwing out all of the appointees of the other every time the Presidency changed hands had passed and most Post Masters were allowed to keep their jobs.  Pavlick owed his appointment to a fellow former New Hampshireman, Calvin Coolidge.
Through all of the years he served in Boston, the rock-ribbed Republican hated Catholics and Democrats with a burning passion.  And most of all he hated the powerful Fitzgerald and Kennedy Families.  That must have made him an awfully lonely man in heavily Irish Catholic, Democratic Boston where both families were revered.
When it came time to retire, Pavlick wasted no time returning to the Granite State and settling in his old home town of Belmont.  He came alone, no wife, no children and had no other relatives still living in the town.  He immediately settled into the role of the town grump and political gadfly.  “He was a grouchy guy with a sour expression on his face,” recalled Earl Sweeney then a 23 year old part-time local cop who played a part in alerting the Secret Service to the threat he posed to Kennedy recalled 50 years later in an interview.  “He would complain that the flag was not displayed correctly at the selectmen’s office, or the water company was poisoning his water.”  He made no friends locally.
He also followed national political developments with disdain and alarm.  After his arrest a check of records turned up rambling, vaguely threatening letters he had sent to President Dwight D. Eisenhower, perhaps influenced by the campaign of the John Birch Society that accused the World War II hero of being a Pinko and a Communist Dupe.
The election of John Kennedy that November sent Pavlick in new heights of paranoid rage.  He told those who he could button hole that Kennedy was an agent of the Pope, that his father Joseph P. Kennedy had bought the election, and that the whole election was a fraud.
Not long after he deeded his small house over to the local Spaulding Youth Center, loaded up his 1950 Buick, and disappeared.   Before he left he bought ten sticks of dynamite, which he packed into the body of the car, wiring them to a detonator switch within easy reach of the driver’s seat.
Shortly after Pavlick left Belmont the local Postmaster 34-year-old Thomas M. Murphy, began receiving bizarre postcards from him.  The two men were nodding acquaintances who Pavlick had sometimes buttonholed to listen to his rants.  Apparently Pavlick felt a kinship to a fellow Postmaster.  In the semi-coherent post cards Pavlick began to brag that his home town would soon hear from him in a big way.  
Recalling that before the old man left town he had said that someone should kill Kennedy to prevent him from taking office, Murphy began taking not of the postmarks on the post cards.  As a news junkie he realized that the postmarks matched the dates and locations of various places Kennedy had visited in the post-election period.  Alarmed, he alerted the young cop Earl Sweeney who passed the information on to the Secret Service.

Pavlick's Buick, the rolling bomb, and his gear.

The Secret Service was unusually busy those days running down various threats to the President elect.  All of them, even the most ludicrous, required investigation.  Almost all turned out to be inconsequential—some loudmouth bloviating in a bar, the blathering’s of someone with neither the intent nor the capability of doing actual harm.  But they quickly identified repeated threat made to multiple individual by Pavlick, discovered the previous letters to Eisenhower, and then found out about the explosives purchase.  Now they had a suspect who was apparently deadly serious and in possession of a deadly weapon capable of doing enormous lethal damage who was actively stalking his target.  They put out a nationwide alert for Pavlick with descriptions of him and his Buick.
Kennedy, after a round of post-election appearances, had gone to Palm Beach, Florida where his family had a large winter compound, a sort of Hyanisport south.  He planned to spend some time with his family around the Holidays while working on putting his administration together before his January inauguration.  His wife Jackie had just given birth to their son, John Jr.
Pavlick drove down, hot on their heels.  On Sunday, December 11 he was able to park directly across the street from the Kennedy compound.  His plan was to ram Kennedy’s car when he left for church that morning and set off the bomb.  But when Kennedy emerged with Jackie and the two children instead of alone, he changed his plans.  He did not want to kill the children.  What a softy!  Instead, he let the Kennedy limousine pass harmlessly by his car.  Neither the Secret Service nor local Palm Beach police noted that the beat-up old Buick and the white haired old man in it matched the description in the bulletin.
Pavlick began to re-calculate his plan.  Better, he decided, would be to enter St. Edward Church wearing a dynamite vest and explode it during Mass the next Sunday.  What sweet justice it seemed to him to kill his enemy in the very viper’s nest of Papal treachery.  A couple of days later he visited the church and went inside to scout it’s lay out.  His disheveled appearance and suspicious behavior aroused suspicion.  He was escorted out of the church and the incident reported to authorities.  They now knew that Pavlick was definitely in town and actively pursuing Kennedy.

Palm Beach cop Lester Free stopped Pavlick

About 9 pm on December 15 Palm Beach motorcycle patrolman Lester Free spotted the light colored old Buick entering the city via a bridge from West Palm Beach driving somewhat erratically.  He pulled the car over for crossing the center line.  When Free called in the plates authorities realized they had Pavlick.  Squad cars sped to the scene surrounding the vehicle.  Pavlick surrendered without incident.
Once in custody Pavlick could not stop talking.  He freely admitted to his plans and described his movements and activities.  He was proud as a peacock about it.  When the Secret Service learned those details the agency was shocked.  The Director later said it was the most serious and nearly successful assassination attempt in decades.
It was a sensational story, but quickly got buried in the press.  On December 15 the President elect held a news conference outside his Florida home, which would become known as the Winter White House to introduce his choice for Secretary of State, Dean Rusk.  The next day there was the Park Slope Plane Crash, was a mid-air collision between two airliners that over New York City that resulted in a United Airlines jet airliner crashing into Brooklyn killing 128 people on the two planes and six dead on the ground.  At the time it was the deadliest air disaster in American history.  The assassination plot quickly faded from public attention.
For his part, Kennedy seemed nonchalant about the attempt to kill him.  Perhaps he didn’t take it seriously.  Perhaps he concluded that the arrest was proof that the Secret Service was effectively protecting him. 
Pavlick was charged with attempting to kill the President elect.  He was reportedly looking forward to the trial as an opportunity to expound his theories that the election was fraudulent and that Kennedy was a usurper and that he was simply a patriot ready to save the Republic.  The specter of such a trial did not appeal to Kennedy or his advisors who felt that it could make a hero out of Pavlick in right wing circles and perhaps inspire copy cats.
After his inauguration Kennedy urged the Justice Department, now conveniently headed by his brother, Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy not to bring Pavlick to trial.  The defendant was found to be incapable of telling right from wrong—the legal definition of insanity by a Federal judge on December 2, 1963, ten days after Kennedy’s assassination in Dallas and was confined to a Missouri mental hospital.  Charges were officially dropped against him the next August.  He would remain in one hospital or another until December 13, 1966 when he was finally released from the New Hampshire State Mental.
Murphy, the Belmont Postmaster had been promised that he would remain an anonymous informant.  But he was quickly identified as the tipster in the case.  At first he was hailed as a hero.  The Postmaster General commended him.  Congress passed a resolution praising him.  But then rabidly right wing publisher William Loeb of the Manchester Union Leader, New Hampshire’s influential state-wide newspaper, took up a defense of Pavlick.  Loeb held many of the same opinions about Kennedy as the would-be assassin.  Loeb began to claim that he was being persecuted and denied his day in court.  The paper disputed the insanity ruling.
After the Union Leader took up the cause Murphy and his family began receiving hate mail phone calls accusing him of helping to frame Pavlick and for “railroading an innocent man.  The abuse went on for years and decades later Murphy’s surviving children still sometimes are targeted when the case gets a new round of public attention.  Needless to say the family was traumatized. 
But it would get worse.  After his release from the hospital, Pavlick returned to Belmont.  He took to staking out the Murphy house, sitting in his car for hours every day watching it.  Sweeney, the young cop would be called, but there were then no laws against stalking.  Pavlick would deny any malicious intent and was never found to be armed.  Sweeny would park his squad car nearby and keep an eye on the watcher sometimes for hours.  If he had to leave on a call, the family felt unsafe.
Pavlick also deluged the media and government official with screeds proclaiming his innocence on one hand and justifying his actions on the other. 
On Veteran’s Day, November 11, 1975 Pavlick died at the Veterans Administration Hospital in Manchester, New Hampshire.  He remained defiant to the end.
Pavlick acted in a far different environment than do his spiritual heirs.  Back then he was a loner and an outcast clearly rejected by his community.  Zealots like him might find encouragement by sending away for literature from the John Birch Society or from even less reputable hate groups like the American Nazi Party or the Ku Klux Klan.  But, outside the South, they would seldom find the congenial support organized groups for their violent impulses.
Today there are vast networks of support systems for dangerous crackpots like Pavlick—a well-oiled industry of hate talk radio, Fox News, echo chamber web sites, and interlocking networks of organizations.  The media pays deference to a social movement loosely identified as the Tea Party that legitimizes their grievances and paranoia and takes the strutting, swaggering threatening mobs of open carry advocates as respectable protestors.  Prominent politicians speak openly of Second Amendment Solutions, of secession, even of civil war.
How many Pavlicks have been spawned?


1 comment:

  1. Democracy has spawned its antithises, the heave-ho which is the current dynamic of the American political movement. Its a balance of ideologies that plays out daily in the "legitimized grievences" of both right and left. Great work. Thank you again!