MODERN TIMES Who Really Dunnit?

The new Conspiracy Museum tries to rewrite the history books with a tale of government lies, murder, and deception.

IF YOU BELIEVE TOM BOWOEN, A MUR-derous conspiracy has controlled our nation since the end of World War II. A dark force from within the government was responsible for the assassinations of John and Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King, and for the drowning death of Mary Jo Kopechne, not to mention the downing of Korean Air Lines 007. The history books are wrong, These incidents are all connected. JFK, RFK, MLK, MJK-they were all killed by the CIA.

Um, OK.

These ideas have been floating around America, popping up in the crude missives of various extremist groups, for decades now. Perhaps it was inevitable that someone would at last bring them all together at the Conspiracy Museum, which opened officially on April 4, the anniversary of King’s assassination. Located on the corner of Commerce and Market streets downtown, it sits just steps away from Dealey Plaza and the Grassy Knoll. It is not a museum in the traditional sense, with historical artifacts on exhibit. Instead, the Conspiracy Museum uses documents, diagrams, and old newspaper clippings to plant the seeds of doubt in the public’s mind, to convince visitors that the “official” story is seldom a plausible explanation.

Dedicated to eradicating government lies and exposing possible, albeit improbable, truths, the museum showcases a variety of theories that champion the role of foul play in major historical events.

Could this be a worthy addition to the tourofhistoric Dallas? Or is it nothing more than a far-out forum for the speculations of a few double-speaking nut cases? At first glance it might seem the latter. Behind the front desk is a color monitor connected to six discreetly placed black surveillance cameras, giving an impression that the employees may he a tad overly suspicious. The museum’s foyer doubles as a gift shop, with copies of Paranoia magazine and books like The CIA’s Greatest Hits for sale.

But step into the exhibit hall and you’ll see the more serious side of conspiracy theories, a side tinged with historical fact. A life-size portrait of Abe Lincoln is part of a very official-looking, elegantly detailed display outlining the alleged conspiracy behind the assassination of our 16th president. “There were at least 10 conspirators involved here, ” says Bowden, the museum’s president, “including President Andrew Johnson and possibly Lincoln’s own secretary of war, Edwin Stanton. We know this from actual newspaper reports, photographs, and court records. “

The bifocaled Bowden speaks matter-of-factly as he offers this revised history lesson, explaining that Johnson pardoned several accomplices and once dated the sister of John Wilkes Booth’s girlfriend. Citing records of Johnson’s impeachment proceedings as his source, he insists that Lincoln was felled by a conspiracy, but he is willing to draw the line between hard facts and unsubstantiated speculation. This exhibit-part of a rotating series that will later include conspiracy information about Malcolm X and presidential second ladies, such as Marilyn Monroe-goes on to suggest that conspirators might have helped Booth escape execution, a theory that Bowden says has yet to be proven. (According to the official story, Booth was shot as law officials rousted him from a barn where he was hiding on April 26, 1865. )

The Lincoln display prepares you for the harder-to-swallow (and harder-to-follow) ideas presented in a permanent exhibit: about the Kennedy assassination. Six interactive video monitors tell this sordid tale of conspiracy and cover-up in the Great Coalbin Exhibit, which constitutes half of the 4, 000-square-foot museum and is named after the original purpose of the space it occupies. The exhibit goes far beyond simply trying to prove that Lee Harvey Oswald didn’t act alone-hardly surprising, since surveys show that only about 20 percent of Americans believe the Warren Commission account of November 22, 1963.

“Complete with hit squads, planted evidence, diversionary fire and fake arrests, [conspirators] assassinated the president in a paramilitary ambush on Elm Street, ” declares the video’s voice-over. The voice is that of R. B. Cutler, an 81 -year-old architect from Boston and self-proclaimed assassinologist whose research and theories form the foundation of the Conspiracy Museum. “Cover-up showers the media with three shots, one rifle, and a lone nut assassin. The media swallows the story, hook, line, and sinker. ” On the next monitor Cutler’s explanation continues, laden with confusing acronyms: “The Umbrella Man’s lucky hit to the president’s throat was not a lucky shot from the patsy on the sixth floor of TSBD [Texas School Book Depository]. “

Wait a minute now, what was that? Umbrella Man?

The belief here is that not one but several unknown assailants actually killed Kennedy, one of whom fired a poisoned dart from-can this be right?-an umbrella rifle, Though it was a sunny day when Kennedy was killed, the Zapruder film shows a man standing on the grassy knoll opening an umbrella, at the precise moment the president’s head jerks back.

“The CIA had an umbrella weapon developed at that time, ” Bowden explains, assuring me that this information is documented somewhere. “Most umbrellas have 10 ribs, but the one in the film has eight… which is the same number that the CIA umbrella had. ” It almost seems plausible, just enough to make you wonder if you are being enlightened. “Well, actually most people say he was just signaling, ” Bowden continues. Uh, signaling to whom? That’s another part of this vast, interlocking conspiracy world-view.

There’s more to the Coalbin Exhibit and to this conspiracy than just the Kennedy assassination, which the museum refers to as a “coup d’etat in America”: The same evil forces that killed Kennedy have exerted control over the Oval Office since his death, using murderous tactics to elect unknowing puppets to the presidency.

“There is a single conspiracy that began with the killing of JFK and went on toelim-inate Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy, ” says Bowden. “They also killed Mary Jo Kopechne and shot down Korean Air Lines 007. “

The exhibit’s centerpiece, and pride and joy of the entire museum, is a 108-foot mural connecting these various plots and their cover-ups. With jagged streaks of black and spots of blood-red providing abstract explanation, the artistic interpretation is in places rather convincing. A panel that challenges the single-bullet the-ory in the JFK assassination shows the preposterous zig-zagging flight path of the so-called “magic bullet. ” According to the Warren Commission, this one bullet killed Kennedy, piercing his throat, chest, and wrist before lodging itself in Governor John Connally’s thigh.

The exhibit goes on to reveal who is behind this singular, complex conspiracy. Represented on the mural as buzzards perched outside the capitol building, the culprits are described as the Professional War Machine, or PWM. It consists of insiders from the CIA, the FBI (especially J. Edgar Hoover), the Mafia, and the military who want to ensure that the United States maintains an aggressive (and expensive) war-oriented foreign policy. The PWM, says Cutler in his academic-sounding voice-over, has systematically eliminated potential opponents using political and physical assassination. They, yes they, are responsible for almost all the assassination attempts and major scandals of our time. They shot down Francis Gary Powers’ U2 plane over Russia in 1960 (to escalate the Cold War, you see). They botched a hit on Alabama Governor George Wallace. And they set up Ronald Reagan’s arms-for-hostages deal with Iran.

“There is plenty of evidence to suggest this is all true, ” says Rowden, who became a believer in conspiracies while working closely with the CIA as a civilian computer engineer in the 1960s. Designated with a “Q” security clearance, one level above top secret, he says he became privy to much classified information. “There were things I knew to be true that I never saw accurately represented in the papers, ” says Bowden, speaking from his bunker-like basement office, where detailed blueprints of Kennedy’s motorcade route decorate the 20-foot concrete walls and bound reports titled “Chappaquiddick” clutter the shelves. “I get really fed up with historians, ” he says. “There is quite a bit of history that didn’t make it into the textbooks. “

After retiring from the computer industry in the mid 1980s, Bowden went to work in the museum business. While working on Fair Park’s Catherine the Great exhibit in 1992, he met Cutler. For decades Cutler had been studying ballistics evidence in the Kennedy assassination and had concluded long ago that the Warren Commission’s lone gunman theory was physically impossible. Cutler is a prolific Kennedy expert, though some scholars believe him to be a single bullet short of having a fully loaded chamber.

On the day of the museum’s grand opening, Cutler wandered over to Dealey Plaza, where he engaged unsuspecting tourists in debares, trying to convince the sightseers, many of whom had just left the Sixth Floor Museum, that a different picture of the truth exists- It didn’t take long before the odd gent in the how tie and sunglasses attracted a crowd of almost 50 curious people with his bantering about Kennedy’s death. “The autopsy report was faked!” Cutler said excitedly to a woman looking at a diagram. “Ask any doctor if this was from a tracheotomy. “

The woman turned to her husband, an M. D, who squinted his eyes quizzically at the post-mortem sketch. After several seconds he smiled slightly. “The man is right, ” he announced. Cutler was winning over supporters quickly, but a few remained skeptical.

“I don’t know. I think he’s a crazy old man, ” one bystander whispered to a friend.

The friend answered back a bit louder: “Well, he makes more sense than the government, that’s for sure. “

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