When Jeff Underwood gives tours of the Air Force plane that carried President Kennedy's body to Washington after his Nov. 22, 1963, assassination in Dallas, "people get real quiet. It's a highly emotional place," he says.
Underwood, historian and curator at the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force in Dayton, Ohio, says the plane's interior has been modified, but he shows visitors where the casket was and where Jackie Kennedy stood in her bloodied pink suit as Lyndon Johnson took the oath of office.
Places and objects linked to John F. Kennedy's death still stir strong sentiments 46 years later. "It's not just the assassination," Underwood says. "It reminds people of the last spurt of innocence before the death of a president."
Some artifacts from that day in Dallas are displayed in museums. Some are locked away in vaults. Some are in private hands and occasionally show up in auctions. The fedora worn by Jack Ruby when he shot assassin Lee Harvey Oswald was sold at auction to an anonymous buyer this month for $45,000.
Kennedy "was kind of a saint and these are his relics," says David Lubin, a Wake Forest University art professor and author of the 2003 book Shooting Kennedy: JFK and the Culture of Images. Tangible objects owned by historic figures impart "a direct physical connection … that you can't get in any other way," he says.
Some items had fates that fuel the mysterious aura that still surrounds the assassination. On Feb. 18, 1966, the casket that held Kennedy's body on the flight to Washington was weighted and dropped by an Air Force plane into the Atlantic Ocean in an area where test weapons firing left the sea bottom littered with munitions, making it dangerous for anyone to try to recover it.
The coffin's disposal was described by Steve Tilley, a senior archivist at the National Archives and Records Administration who was in charge of its Kennedy collection from 1993-2004. He believes people are fascinated by the assassination because "there was something about Jack Kennedy and Mrs. Kennedy that people just took to." Their saga, Tilley says, "never ceases to amaze, to be interesting."
Where some assassination artifacts are located:
• Parkland Memorial Hospital Trauma Room No. 1: The contents of the Dallas hospital room where Kennedy died, including equipment and a gurney, were sold to the federal government for $1,000 in 1973 and stored at the Regional Archives Branch in Fort Worth, Tilley says.
The boxed items were moved in 2007 to a caged area in underground Archives facility in Lenexa, Kan., called "The Caves." No one can see them at this time.
• Clothing worn by John and Jackie Kennedy and Oswald: All are stored in a secure, climate-controlled area of an Archives building in College Park, Md., Tilley says. The first lady's pink suit was delivered anonymously to the Archives soon after the assassination. Deeds from the Kennedy family establish rules for access. The suit cannot be seen until 2103; requests to view Kennedy's clothing and the autopsy report and X-rays go through Kennedy family representative Paul Kirk.
Oswald's rifle and pistol, bullets and bullet fragments from the assassination, the windshield of Kennedy's limousine and Oswald's diary and other writings also are stored at the Archives.
• The 1956 Cadillac used by the Secret Service in Kennedy's motorcade: It's at Historic Auto Attractions, a museum in Roscoe, Ill., that showcases other artifacts, including the shoes Ruby wore when he shot Oswald and the ambulance that transported Oswald after he was shot.
Owner Wayne Lensing, who bought the shoes at a recent auction for about $15,000, says people will always be fascinated by the assassination. "It's like a crime not solved," he says.
• Kennedy's limo: The 1961 Lincoln Continental is at the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Mich. The car was modified after Kennedy's death and remained in service until 1977.
• Ruby's hospital slipper: One slipper worn by Oswald's killer before he died of lung cancer in 1967 was part of a collection of Kennedy materials donated to Baylor University in Waco, Texas, says Ben Rogers, director of political materials.
It hasn't been authenticated, Rogers says. "You never know about these things." Baylor also has many conspiracy documents.
The Sixth Floor Museum in the Dallas building from which Oswald fired allows visitors to see the assassination scene from his perspective. Executive director Nicola Longford says the museum gets about 325,000 visitors a year. The John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum shows TV coverage of the assassination and funeral, but spokeswoman Rachel Day says the museum is "focused on his life."
Arlan Ettinger of Guernsey's Auction House in New York has sold many Kennedy items — including the toe tag attached to Oswald's corpse, which brought $83,000. Interest in Kennedy's death, he says, will continue because the tragedy will "stay forever in the American psyche."