When I first started studying the assassination one phrase struck me as significant because I kept reading it over and over. That phrase was "It sounded like a firecracker". The large number of times it occurred was one thing that made it stand out to me but the other was how odd it was. Others disagree with me over this, but what I found odd was that on an American city street, in a State that was no stranger to gunfire, in a country unique in it's tolerance of private weapon ownership and use, the first thought many people had was not that they'd heard gunfire but that they'd heard a firecracker. I come from and live in the UK, where until comparatively recently, gunfire was a sound totally alien to the average citizen. Not so the United States. Gunfire was and is something that whilst not exactly commonplace is also not something people would be so surprised by that they were unable to recognise it when they heard it. Before I list some of the many (it has been estimated at upwards of 80) testimonies to hearing a firecracker, these two videos demonstrate both a rifle shot and a firecracker.
Having heard both of those sounds you will be forgiven for thinking "so they confused a rifle sound for a firecracker, that's an easy enough mistake to make. Maybe so, but here is some testimony to help explain why I think the "firecracker" phenomenon is so important.
CLINTON J. HILL: November 30, 1963 statement
(secret service agent on the left rear of JFK limousine grabbing Jackie Kennedy during assassination)
The motorcade made a left hand turn onto Elm Street. I was on the forward portion of the left running board of the follow-up car. The motorcade made a left hand turn from Elm Street toward an underpass. We were traveling about 12 to 15 miles per hour. On the left hand side was a grass area with a few people scattered along it observing the motorcade passing, and I was visually scanning these people when I heard a noise similar to a firecracker. The sound came from my right rear and I immediately moved my head in that direction. In so doing, my eyes had to cross the Presidential automobile and I saw the President hunch forward and then slump to his left. I jumped from the Follow-up car and ran toward the Presidential automobile. I heard a second firecracker type noise but it had a different sound - like the sound of shooting a revolver into something hard. I saw the President slump more toward his left.
[Statement: CE1024: 18H742]
(Dallas police officer, on the corner of Main and Houston Streets 1st April 1964
“… we heard what we thought at that time was either a rifle shot or a firecracker, I mean at that second.”
[Warren Commission testimony: 7H106]
SECRET SERVICE AGENT WINSTON LAWSON
(in the lead car ahead of the Presidential limousine), April 23, 1964:
“I heard this very loud report which at first flashing through my mind did not say rifle shot to me. It sounded different than a rifle shot. It sounded louder and more of a bang than a crack. My first impression was firecracker or bomb or something like that.”
[Warren Commission testimony: 4H352)
SECRET SERVICE AGENT CLIFTON CARTER
(in the third car behind the Presidential limousine, in front of the Texas School Book Depository at the time of the
shooting), May 20, 1964:
… “our car had just made the left hand turn off Houston onto Elm Street and was right alongside of the Texas School Book Depository when I heard a noise which sounded like a firecracker.”
[Warren Commission affidavit: 7H474]
(Dallas police officer holding back traffic and spectators
at the corner of Elm and Houston), July 23, 1964:
“When the first shot was fired, I thought it was a firecracker ….”
[Warren Commission testimony: 7H541]
(Secret Service agent, three cars back from the Presidential limousine), November 29, 1963:
“As the motorcade was approximately 1/3 of the way to the underpass, travelling between 10 and 15 miles per hour, I heard a loud noise—someone hollered [sic] ‘What was that?’ It sounded more like an extremely large firecracker, in that it did not seem to have the sharp report of a rifle.”
[Statement: CE1024: 18H778]
All six of the above will have been familiar with gunfire. Seymour Weitzman had once owned a sporting goods store...selling, amongst other thing, firearms. These were all people who were also close to the limousine. Remember too what the Franzen's both said, that whatever they saw and heard appeared to be happening inside the limousine.
The following witnesses also all heard what they thought was a firecracker, as opposed to gunfire, an impression they are quite sure of.
MALCOLM KILDUFF Acting Press Secretary / Dallas Trip: (riding in the Presidential Motorcade / five cars behind Presidential Limousine):
“My thought process-you may think I am absolutely crazy that I can remember my thought process-but my thought process was that we were a week away from Thanksgiving. And that we were in Texas, and fireworks. And I said it must be a firecracker. This is between the first and second shot.”
[High Treason 2 by Harrison Edward Livingstone]
JAMES TAGUE Wounded by a shot at the President:
The testimony of James Thomas Tague was taken at 8:15 p.m., on July 23, 1964, in the office of the U.S. attorney, 301 Post Office Building, Bryan and Ervay Streets, Dallas, Tex., by Mr. Wesley J. Liebeler, assistant counsel of the President's Commission.
Mr. TAGUE. Well, I was standing there watching, and really I was watching to try to distinguish the President and his car. About this time I heard what sounded like a firecracker. Well, a very loud firecracker. It certainly didn't sound like a rifle shot. It was more of a loud cannon-type sound. I looked around to see who was throwing firecrackers or what was going on and I turned my head away from the motorcade and, of course, two more shots. And I ducked behind the post when I realized somebody was shooting after the third shot. After the third shot, I ducked behind the bridge abutment and was there for a second, and I glanced out and just as I looked out, the car following the President's car, the one with the Secret Service men, was just flying past at that time.
[Warren Commission Testimony: 7H553]
CAROLYN WALTHER Eyewitness at the assassination:
“The President passed us, and he was smiling, and everybody was waving. Then the last of the cars went by, and I heard the shot. I thought it was a firecracker. Then I started back to work, and it was along the curb, and then two shots right together, and then another one. I'm sure there were four shots".
[The Warren Report: Part 1, CBS Television (25th June, 1967)]
MARY ELIZABETH WOODWARD Dallas Morning News Reporter:
One of the many witnesses to the assassination of President Kennedy was a young junior reporter from the DALLAS MORNING NEWS named Mary Elizabeth Woodward, who was standing on the north side of Elm St. with three other female colleagues (Maggie Brown, Aurelia Lorenzo and Ann Donaldson) next to the large sign that momentarily impaired Abraham Zapruder’s view of the motorcade. Despite being close to the Lincoln convertible carrying the Kennedys and the Connallys, none of the four women were interviewed by either the Dallas County Sheriff’s Department or by the Warren Commission itself. The only official statement given by Miss Woodward was to the FBI on December 6, 1963, published as Commission Exhibit No. 2084…
[Miss Woodward wrote an article for the Dallas Morning News printed November 23, 1962.] Certainly the content of her article gave no hints of shots being fired from behind the motorcade, except for the first being described as sounding like a firecracker.
[The Third Decade, July 1992, pp. 24-26.]
JAMES UNDERWOOD (news reporter on Houston Street at the time of the shots) April 1, 1964:
“I believe I said to one of the other fellows it sounds like a giant firecracker … Now, the first [shot] was just a loud explosion but it sounded like a giant firecracker or something had gone off.”
[Warren Commission testimony: 6H169]
MALCOLM SUMMERS (Summers was standing on the south side of Elm Street across from the grassy knll at the time of the shooting. He was extremely close to the Presidential limousine):
“I’m a Republican but he (JFK) was a Democrat I voted for so I wanted to get close. I was sick for two weeks after it happened. I couldn’t believe it happened in Dallas, I was right next to the car when Jackie crawled on the back and helped pull the FBI guy (acutally SS). I heard three shots. The first shot came right after the car turned the corner (Houston & Elm Streets)-and I thought it was more like the sound of a firecracker and I thought, ‘Well, that’s a cheap trick.” And I saw the FBI guys (SS) looking around on the ground like that was what they thought too.”
[Oral History Collection at Sixth Floor Museum, March 7, 2002]
WILMA BOYD Eyewitness to the assassination (her testimony during the Garrison Trial of Clay Shaw):
Q: And did you hear any unusual noises in Dealey Plaza?
A: I heard what I thought was a firecracker, a firecracker.
Q: And what were you doing at the time you heard this noise?
A: I was trying to take a picture of the building, or I mean the corner there, and that is when I realized that I had not cocked my camera and I felt, well, when I heard what I thought was a firecracker.
S.M. HOLLAND (standing roughly in the middle of triple overpass directly over Elm Street):
“…when they (JFK Limo) got just about to the Arcade (Grassy Knoll area) I heard what I thought for a moment was a firecracker and he slumped over and I looked over toward the arcade and trees and saw a puff of smoke come from the trees and I heard three more shots after the first shot but that was the only puff of smoke I saw.”
[Sheriff’s Department affidavit: 19H480]
J. W. FOSTER Dallas Police Patrolman, on top of the triple overpass:
“After he came onto Elm I watched the men on the track more than I was him. Then I heard this loud noise, sound like a large firecracker. Kind of dumbfounded at first and then heard the second one. I moved to the banister of the overpass to see what was happening. Then the third explosion, and they were beginning to move around. I ran after I saw what was happening.”
[25th March 1964 FBI report: CD897]
VICTORIA ADAMS Eyewitness to the assassination (4th Floor, Texas School Book Depository):
April 7, 1964: “And we heard a shot, and it was a pause,and then a second shot, and then a third shot. It sounded like a firecracker or a cannon at a football game ….” [Warren Commission testimony: 6H388]
RONALD FISCHER (on south side of Elm Street at the west side of the Houston Street corner):
“Well, as I looked around to watch these other cars, I heard a shot. At first I thought it was a firecracker. And---uh everybody got quiet. There was no yelling or shouting or anything. Everything seemed to get real still. And--uh--the second shot rang out, and then everybody--from where I was standing---everybody started to scatter. And--uh--then the third shot.”
[Warren Commission testimony: 6H195]
JOHN CHISM (on the north side of Elm Street, in front of the Stemmons Freeway sign), November 22, 1963:
“… and just about the time they looked back, the second shot was fired. At this point, I looked behind me, to see whether it was a fireworks display or something.”
[Sheriff’s Department affidavit: 19H471] John Chism (on December 18, 1963): “The first shot he thought was a firecracker….”
[FBI report: 24H525]
BILLY LOVEDAY (on the steps of the Texas School Book Depository), November 22, 1963:
“At first he thought it was a firecracker or the backfire of a motorcycle.”
[FBI report: CD205]
JAMES WORRELL (standing in front of the entrance of the Texas School Book Depository), November 23, 1963:
“I heard a loud noise like a firecracker or gun shots.”
[Affidavit: CE2003: 24H231]
OCHUS CAMPBELL (on the north side of Elm Street, in front of the Texas School Book Depository), November 24, 1963:
“… about 30 feet in front of this building facing away from the building observing the passing motorcade containing President Kennedy. At this time, he heard a loud report, which at first he considered to be a firecracker or some such object set off by a crank ….”
[FBI report: CE1435: 22H845]
DOLORES KOUNAS (on the south-west corner of Elm and Houston Streets), November 24, 1963:
“After the car had passed her point and was almost to the underpass she heard a noise like a firecracker.”
[FBI report: CE1436: 22H846]
TOM DILLARD (press; on Houston Street at the time of the shots), November 25, 1963:
“Mr. Dillard stated the car in which he was riding had not approached the corner of Houston and Elm Streets when he heard a noise sounding like a ‘torpedo’ (a large firecracker).”
[FBI report: CD5]
RUBY HENDERSON (on the north-east corner of Elm and Houston Streets),: December 6, 1963:
“Mrs. Henderson said at the time the motorcade passed where she was standing,
she heard what she initially thought was a firecracker ….”
[FBI report: CE2089: 24H524]
LILLIAN MOONEYHAM (watching from a window of the Courts Building):January 10, 1964:
“At the time of the initial shot, Mrs. Mooneyham believed that a firecracker had gone off.”
[FBI report: CE2098: 24H531]
BILLIE CLAY (on the north side of Elm Street, near the Thornton sign, just west of the Texas School Book Depository), March 23, 1964:
“Just a few seconds after the car in which President John F. Kennedy was riding passed the position where I was standing, I heard a shot. At first I thought it might be a firecracker or a motorcycle backfire, but when I heard the second and third shots I knew someone was shooting at the President.”
[FBI statement: CE1381: 22H641]
JUDY JOHNSON (on the south-west corner of Elm and Houston Streets):
March 23, 1964: “I heard three explosions which sounded to me like firecrackers.”
[FBI report: 22H656]
ROY TRULY (on the north side of Elm Street in front of the Texas School Book Depository), March 24, 1964:
“I heard an explosion, which I thought was a toy cannon or a loud firecracker from west of the building.”
[Warren Commission testimony: 3H221]
JOHN MARTIN, JR. (on the south side of Elm Street, north of the reflecting pool) March 31, 1964:
“A few seconds after the President had passed and was departing from his view, he heard a loud report and first thought that it was a firecracker ….”
[FBI report: CD897]
RONALD FISCHER (on south side of Elm Street at the west side of the Houston Street corner), April 1, 1964:
“Well, as I looked around to watch these other cars, I heard a shot. At first I thought it was a firecracker.”
[Warren Commission testimony: 6H195]
MARY MITCHELL (on the south-east corner of Elm and Houston Streets):
April 1, 1964: “… and probably on the first one my thought was that it was a firecracker ….”
[Warren Commission testimony: 6H176]
BARBARA ROWLAND(on the east side of Houston Street, between Main and
Elm Streets), April 1, 1964: “I just heard a sound, and I thought it might be a firecracker.”
[Warren Commission testimony: 6H184]
WILLIAM SHELLEY(on the steps of the Texas School Book Depository),April 7, 1964:
Mr. BALL - Did you see the motorcade pass?
Mr. SHELLEY - Yes.
Mr. BALL - What did you hear?
Mr. SHELLEY - Well, I heard something sounded like it was a firecracker and a slight pause and then two more a little bit closer together.
Mr. BALL - And then?
Mr. SHELLEY - I didn't think anything about it.
Mr. BALL - What did it sound like to you?
Mr. SHELLEY - Sounded like a miniature cannon or baby giant firecracker, wasn't real loud
[Warren Commission testimony: 6H329]
DAVE POWERS (Presidential aide; in the follow-up car), May 18, 1964:
“Shortly thereafter the first shot went off and it sounded to me as if it were a firecracker.”
[Warren Commission affidavit: 7H473]
KENNETH O’DONNELL (Presidential aide; in the follow-up car), May 18, 1964:
“My first impression was it was a firecracker.”
[Warren Commission testimony: 7H447]
MARILYN WILLIS (on the south side of top end of Elm Street), June 17, 1964:
“Mrs.Willis advised when the motorcade passed on Elm Street in front of where she was standing she heard a noise that sounded like a firecracker or a backfire.”
[FBI report: CD1245]
The importance of the use of the term firecracker cannot be overstated. Many of the people listed above were familiar with firearms -some for example would have done military service and we know some were law enforcement officers, former rifle dealers and secret service personnel. There are some things that need to be borne in mind by the 21st century reader, and it is alluded to by some of the witnesses. In the 1960's small fireworks were a lot louder than most available today. One such popular firecracker was a "Cherry Bomb", which is still (rarely) available and which you have just seen and heard. It produces a large explosive sound, a "crack", which is quite distinctive.
Winston Lawson: "My first impression was firecracker or bomb or something like that.”
Jerry Kivett: "It sounded more like an extremely large firecracker, in that it did not seem to have the sharp report of a rifle.”
James Tague: "About this time I heard what sounded like a firecracker. Well, a very loud firecracker. It certainly didn't sound like a rifle shot."
James Underwood: "Now, the first [shot] was just a loud explosion but it sounded like a giant firecracker or something had gone off.”
J.W. Foster: "Then I heard this loud noise, sound like a large firecracker."
Victoria Adams: "It sounded like a firecracker or a cannon at a football game ….”
Tom Dillard: "heard a noise sounding like a ‘torpedo’ (a large firecracker).”
Roy Truly: “I heard an explosion, which I thought was a toy cannon or a loud firecracker from west of the building.”
Bill Shelley: "Sounded like a miniature cannon or baby giant firecracker, wasn't real loud"
The witnesses above such as Winston Lawson, Victoria Adams or Roy Truly are not literally referring to bombs or cannons. They are referring to fireworks widely used at the time...for example, as Adams says, at football games. No two descriptions are identical, they range from very loud to "wasn't real loud", but the Firecracker descriptor is universal.
You will have noted from the two videos above that the rifle sound is very different from the cherry bomb in that it produces a prolonged echo. That may of course be due to location it is being fired in that particular demonstration. Dealey Plaza, an area surrounded by large, tall buildings would produce a different but not dissimilar sound, i.e. one that is more prolonged. The cherry bomb by contrast produces a distinctive, sharp "crack".
There is one possible explanation for the widespread impression given of hearing a firecracker, that the rifle that fired the shot could have been suppressed. If that were so, the only noise many would hear would be the bullet's impact with the windshield. Unfortunately I cannot replicate that here simply because all of the examples I've been able to find include the gunshot as they are close range. It is however a sharp "crack" not dissimilar to the cherry bomb.
The widespread use of the term Firecracker is in my view significant and whilst I accept that eye and ear witness testimony can be wide and varied, I include it here because in this instance I think it is proof of the sound of a bullet - a suppressed bullet, impacting a windshield.