That Time Bill O’Reilly Reported on a JFK Conspiracy Theory


For the past 50 years, the assassination of John F. Kennedy has been catnip for conspiracy theorists. But it also lent an auspicious start to one revered television journalist: Bill O’Reilly. In 1979, long before he wrote Killing Kennedy, O’Reilly was a 30-year-old reporter at WFSB in Hartford, Conne. As part of a four-part series on the Kennedy assassination, O’Reilly reported on the conspiracy theory of the “Umbrella Man.” WFSB recently unearthed the forgotten footage of O’Reilly’s story.

The whole video is worth a watch:

The Umbrella Man myth goes as such: Photos from Dealey Plaza show a man holding an umbrella—despite it being a sunny, 68-degree day—less than 100 feet away from Kennedy’s passing motorcade. Moments later, Kennedy had been shot through the head and throat. Conspiracy theorists believe the Umbrella Man shot Kennedy in the neck with a dart, or flechette, fired from the tip of his umbrella, Penguin-style.

“Now, all of this may sound a little far-fetched,” O’Reilly tells the camera. “But some researchers believe it, and they point to some hard evidence.” Those “researchers” include one Massachusetts architect whose elaborate diagrams are shown on screen. O’Reilley also reached Richard Bissell, one of CIA’s early and storied officers, who confirmed that the CIA had developed just such a flechette-firing weapon. 

O’Reilly goes on to cite the Dallas hospital’s autopsy report, which originally described “the massive would of the head and a second puncture wound of the low anterior neck in approximately the midline.” But when the autopsy was typed up for distribution, the word “puncture” was replaced with “smaller.” His other piece of evidence is an internal FBI memo acknowledging the receipt of a “missile” taken out of Kennedy’s body.

In an interview with O’Reilly, retired FBI agent Francis X. O’Neill, who witnessed Kennedy’s autopsy, explained the “missile” was composed of two bullet fragmentations taken from Kennedy’s head. But that answer wasn’t satisfactory to the young journalist. “Alright, let me get this straight,” O’Reilly says with already practiced gravitas. “There were two fragments in the packet that was handed to you, but you signed a receipt for a missile. Now that’s not very exact, and FBI men are usually very exact.”

But before O’Reilly’s story ran in 1979, the Umbrella Man theory had already been debunked—by the Umbrella Man himself. As this short film from 2011 by Errol Morris explains, Dallas resident Louie Steven Witt identified himself as the Umbrella Man in 1978. Testifying before a congressional committee, Witt said he held up the umbrella as a protest. (It was supposed to be a symbol for Neville Chamberlain, the World War II capitulator supported by Kennedy’s father.) “In a coffee break conversation someone had mentioned that the umbrella was a sore spot with the Kennedy family,” Witt told the committee. “Being a conservative-type fellow, I sort of placed him in the liberal camp and I was just going to kind of do a little heckling.”

It’s strange the enterprising O’Reilly missed Witt’s testimony. He can certainly appreciate the value of giving someone a good “heckling.”

Read more in Slate on the 50th anniversary of the JFK assassination.