Dashiell Hammett, JFK and ‘the fall guy’

Sam Spade

Humphrey Bogart as Sam Spade

Bill Kelly passed along the photo of Oswald under arrest at the Texas Theater along with a revealing quote from Dashiell Hammett, the 20th century American writer who specialized in hard-boiled detective fiction.

Within 24 hours of his arrest, Oswald had shouted to reporters that he was “a patsy,” and everyone knew what he meant. He was claiming to be “a fall guy,” an innocent set up to take the blame for the deeds of others.

How did Americans know about the concept? As Kelly notes, Chapter 14 of Hammett’s classic detective tale, The Maltese Falcon, is called “The Fall Guy.” In it, detective Sam Spade (played by Humphrey Bogart in the movie version) explains:

“There’s another thing that’s got to be taken care of first. We’ve got to have a fall-guy. The police have got to have a victim — somebody they can stick those murders on. The way to handle them is to toss them a victim, somebody they can hang the works on.”

“I get away with it because I never let myself forget that a day of reckoning is coming. I never forget that when the day of reckoning comes I want to be all set to march into headquarters pushing a victim in front of me, saying ‘Here, you chumps, is your criminal!'”

“As long as I can do that I can put my thumb to my nose and wiggle my fingers at all the laws in the book.”

“We’ve got to give them a victim. Let’s give them the punk. He’s made to order for the part. Let’s pin the necessary evidence on him and turn him over to them.”

“(But) Will they stop right there? Or will the Fall Guy be a fresh clue that as likely as not will lead them to information about the falcon?”


  1. Charles says:

    The term “patsy” as seemingly spontaneously used by Oswald always fascinated me. It takes planning and organisation to make someone a patsy. It’s not a term you would use to describe a genuine “lone nut.” It suggests that if Oswald was not alone behind the trigger, he then was aware of the activities of a larger group.

  2. Thomas says:

    In my view Oswald is a patsy but not an innocent man. He seemed to be manipulated for the purposes of others but not knowing how it would all turn out. He was a puppet on a string. Used and then discarded.

  3. Max says:

    Oswald was knee-deep in this situation…..the only question is what forces were manipulating him & using him & just what did Oswald know. The Raleigh call Oswald placed from Dallas points directly to an American intelligence connection as outlined by Grover Proctor in his updated synopsis.

  4. Peter says:

    Although it’s open to interpretation, I think Oswald’s comment “I’m just a patsy” may have been slightly misconstrued over the years and he’s not actually referring to having knowledge of being set up by some sinister group which carried out the assassination as some have suggested.

    After telling reporters he worked in that building, he says “They’ve taken me in because I lived in the Soviet Union. I’m just a patsy”. He may very well be just trying to convey to reporters that the DPD are only targeting him because he worked in the TSBD together with his background. Basically, the ‘patsy’ comment may be directed more toward the DPD for making him their prime suspect.

    On a related but slightly different note, quite a while ago I was watching the old TV show Route 66 and heard the term ‘patsy’ used. I believe it was from an episode that aired in March 1963. A few episodes later in April 1963 there was a storyline where the main characters get involved with an anti-Castro freedom fighter. Although LHO didn’t own a TV at the time I half wonder whether he might have caught an episode or two before heading down to New Orleans. Of course Route 66 is famous for the episode I’m Here To Kill A King which was due to air around the time of the JFK assassination and involves a plot to assassinate an Arab king from the workplace of the main suspect by a lookalike hitman.

    • Lance Payette says:

      That is CLEARLY what LHO was saying – I’m just a patsy of the DPD, an easy target because I defected to the USSR. This does not, of course, mean that LHO was or wasn’t the lone assassin or one of the assassins. But the way the assassination “research community” has taken this statement out of context and run with it certainly speaks volumes about the “research community.”

    • John says:

      “Although it’s open to interpretation, I think Oswald’s comment “I’m just a patsy” may have been slightly misconstrued over the years and he’s not actually referring to having knowledge of being set up by some sinister group which carried out the assassination as some have suggested.”

      I personally think that Oswald, with all his goings-on in regards to Pro-Cuba/Anti-Cuba, etc., who know what intelligence group was manipulating him,and the speed at which he was targeted and picked by the DPD, he had to know that “oh oh, I’m in some deep stuff here. They set me up”

    • Charles says:

      Suppose you are driving a blue car and minding your own business when you are stopped by the police and arrested for murder because the killer was witnessed leaving the crime scene driving a blue car.

      Reporters are swarming, peppering you with questions. Would it make sense to blurt out “I’m just a patsy!”

      To me, the term patsy always implies an elaborately engineered result. Perhaps the police have it “in for you” and “the fix is in” as you are “set up” and “framed.”

      I can’t help but think “patsy” is qualitatively different.

      • Bogman says:

        Good point.

        Also, it’s interesting to note Oswald never shouts, ‘I’m innocent!’

        He only says direct statements to reporters’ questions like ‘No, I didn’t shoot anybody.’

        For what it’s worth.

    • Bogman says:

      Curious – anyone know if the ‘patsy’ comment is even in the WR? I’d bet odds it is not.

  5. Kennedy63 says:

    The “missing link” enigma for the “Oswald as pasty” emerges from the tailor-made convenient scenario’s presented by the Warren Omission. Where ever they needed to place Oswald, they did. What ever “so-called” evidence they needed to produce, they did. What ever picture they needed to create to “convince the American public that Oswald acted alone,” they did. Thus, the untenable work product of the “Warren Commission.” Much of the “so-called” evidence would not be admissible in a court of law, due to chain of custody issues, relevance, and falsification. Thus, Oswald had to die in order to make the government’s case against him stand. I think we get too caught-up in trivialities regarding the mechanics of this famous cold case. The commission did not prove Oswald’s guilt, but did propagandize, to the “American public,” that Oswald alone assassinated President John F. Kennedy. Dallas Police Chief, Jesse Curry, stated “there is no ‘credible evidence’that places Oswald in that window firing a rifle.” Curry was NOT convinced Oswald acted alone. The crux of a murder case/charge is, can the charges be proven beyond a reasonable doubt, that the accused did, in fact, commit the crime(s) he is accused of by the state? The sum total and weight of the facts we know today, would cast reasonable doubt on the charges against Oswald. The preponderance of evidence points to either a state sponsored, or a subterranean collaboration (conspiracy) of integrated group-members, which would involve the CIA and it’s affiliated umbrella groups/individuals.

    • John says:

      Agree. I don’t want to steer this thread into a different direction, but I still can’t believe that when interrogating LHO, they didn’t have a stenographer or a tape recorder to record anything. Some crappy hand-written notes that could be interpreted differently, etc. I mean, he is the alleged murderer of the POTUS and you treat the investigation and interrogation like a teenager just got popped for shoplifting. It also says a lot that the Raleigh call never got placed.

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