On the Day President John F. Kennedy Died

Fifty years later, remembering the Boston that JFK left behind.

By | Boston Magazine |
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Photographs by Dave Bradley

November 22, 1963 was mild and overcast. At City Hall Plaza, workmen were readying two Christmas trees to be illuminated by Mayor Collins. The movie theaters were showing Disney’s Fantasia, Irma la Douce, and Jayne Mansfield in Promises! Promises! Members of the Boston Symphony Orchestra were tuning up to play their afternoon concert. On Boylston Street, Schrafft’s restaurant served the lunchtime crowd. In Brockton, the jury began deliberations in the notorious case of Dr. William Sutcliffe, charged with poisoning his wife.

At 2 p.m., the city came to a halt. In front of the Hotel Statler-Hilton, automobiles stopped, and people gathered in knots to listen to the car radios. Switchboards at newspapers and TV stations were clogged; no one could get a dial tone.

The concertgoers streaming into Symphony Hall were uneasy; they knew only that the president was having emergency surgery. At 2:40 p.m., midway through the concert, BSO personnel began to distribute new parts to the orchestra. The audience didn’t know it yet, but the conductor was about to change the program. The new sheets contained the funeral march from Beethoven’s “Eroica” Symphony. “What’s the matter? Don’t they have the right music?” a woman in the audience whispered to her seatmate. Nearby, another audience member gasped as he realized what was happening. “He’s dead,” he blurted out. “He’s dead.”

Outside the hall, the news was everywhere. Businesses closed and people streamed into the streets, many of them weeping. At City Hall Plaza, busloads of children arrived to attend the tree lighting, but workers were already dismantling the Christmas trees; the ceremony was canceled. Theaters and movie houses were shuttered. Suffolk Downs closed. At lunch, a few Brockton jurors overheard that the president had been killed. The bailiffs assured them it was just a rumor.

In Schrafft’s restaurant, a waitress named Dianne muttered, “Terrible, terrible.” A month before, Kennedy had stopped at Schrafft’s for a butterscotch sundae. Dianne had been so excited she had dropped a glass. At 6:30 p.m., Dr. William Sutcliffe was found innocent of poisoning his wife. On Arch Street, St. Anthony’s held a high Mass of requiem. It was delayed because of the crush of more than 2,000 people. On the Common, a homeless man sat alone. His fingers moved the beads of a rosary.

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