Ray Duckler: Years ago, the Belmont postmaster delivered

Last modified: Friday, September 27, 2013
Richard Pavlick, Belmont Postmaster Tom Murphy remembered, had always been a bit off.

Pavlick was the guy who complained about everything, oftentimes reaching ridiculous levels, the guy who made residents roll their eyes at town meetings. Once, he had even said that newly elected President John F. Kennedy should be assassinated because of his Catholicism and allegiance to the Pope.

Postcards written by Pavlick to Murphy late in 1960 told the postmaster that murder was, indeed, on Pavlick’s mind.

The cards were mailed from places Kennedy had visited, a month before his inauguration, at the times Kennedy had been there. And when one read that Belmont would soon hear about Pavlick “in a big way,” Murphy acted.

He spoke to Earl Sweeney, a part-time Belmont cop at the time. Sweeney called the FBI, and within days Pavlick had been arrested, dynamite found in his car, his plan to kill J.F.K. thwarted.

“If he had succeeded, Camelot would not have been part of history like it was,” said Sweeney, now the governor-appointed assistant commissioner of safety. “The Bay of Pigs might have turned out differently. L.B.J. would have been president earlier.”

Four days before his arrest, on Dec. 11, 1960, Pavlick

had a clear path to the president, parking his 1950 Buick, wired with dynamite, across the street from Kennedy’s Palm Beach compound.

Only when Pavlick noticed that Jackie and Caroline and John Jr. were also going to church that Sunday did Pavlick change his plans.

He decided to wait.

“He planned it for the next Sunday, to go into church with a vest wired with dynamite, but in the meantime, he was driving around West Palm Beach,” Sweeney said. “A motorcycle patrolman saw him crossing the solid line and ran a check on his plate and saw he was wanted by the FBI.”

A big footnote

Never heard this story? Skeptical that it’s even true, that a quiet Belmont postmaster helped stop a loud former Boston postmaster from killing J.F.K, three years before Lee Harvey Oswald fired that rifle from the Texas book depository?

Murphy died in 2002 at the age of 76. Pavlick was 88 when he died a free man, in 1975.

With the 50th anniversary of the Kennedy assassination coming in two months, the media is stockpiling segments about the event.

The story about Murphy and Pavlick is one of them, with a documentary scheduled for Nov. 17 on the Smithsonian Channel.

The Murphy family, four of whom still live in Belmont, is surprisingly nonchalant that the patriarch changed history.

Memories, of course, are fuzzy, especially for the children. The couple had six daughters, with Colleen Lines, semiretired and living in Belmont, the oldest at 64. She was 11 at the time.

“I don’t remember anything,” Lines said. “They kept a lot from us. I read more about it now than I ever did then.”

Susan Rhodes, 56, also lives in Belmont and works at the Laconia High library. Her emotions at the time were triggered when the would-be assassin’s name was mentioned.

“I just remember that if I heard his name, I would be afraid,” said Rhodes, referring to Pavlick. “Other than that, no one ever talked about it until this summer, when they contacted us to say they were doing a show.”

It’s a nugget of history that Rhodes says elicits a consistent response from co-workers if and when the subject comes up.


“Most people don’t know anything about it,” said his wife, Polly Murphy, who also still lives in Belmont. “The kids found out about it later and were proud of their father.”

Their father saw signs of unbalance before any of this occurred. Belmont’s postmaster for 25 years, he knew everyone in town, including Pavlick, a former postmaster himself in Boston.

Pavlick, everyone noticed, was odd. “He was a grouchy guy with a sour expression on his face,” Sweeney remembered. “He would complain that the flag was not displayed correctly at the selectmen’s office, or the water company was poisoning his water.”

Dangerous, though? “We thought of him as a chronic complainer,” Sweeney said.

He complained about Kennedy after he beat Richard Nixon in the November 1960 election. Kennedy was an agent for Catholicism, Pavlick ranted, a messenger from the Pope. He stole the election, Pavlick shouted, using his father’s wealth.

Pavlick donated his Dearborn Street home to the Spaulding Youth Center, loaded up his 1950 Buick and disappeared. Soon, the postcards began coming, many addressed to Murphy.

“He had no friends in town,” Sweeney said. “As a retired postal worker, he felt he and the postmaster had something in common.”

That imaginary bond probably saved Kennedy’s life. Kennedy traveled to St. Louis, San Diego and Hyannis Port, Mass., – and Pavlick did too, leaving a paper trail of postcards, sent to Murphy in Belmont.

Murphy alerted Sweeney, a 23-year-old part-time cop at the time. Murphy called the FBI and the search began.

A missed opportunity

On Dec. 11, 1960, Pavlick, 73 at the time, parked across the street from Kennedy’s West Palm Beach compound and waited, his car containing 10 sticks of dynamite he’d bought in Belmont. The explosives were wired to a switch he held in his hand.

Drive full speed into the limo once Kennedy got in, on his way to church. That was the plan, a suicide bombing before there were suicide bombers.

As it turned out, the entire Kennedy family got into the car, and Pavlick, who saw himself as a patriot, not a killer, backed off.

Four days later, Pavlick was arrested, with dynamite in his car. Newspapers covered the story, of course, but the plane that crashed in Brooklyn the same day that Pavlick was arrested surfaced as the bigger story.

At the time, it was the deadliest commercial aviation disaster in history. It claimed 134 lives and stole the thunder from the story about the strange disheveled senior citizen with the silver hair who wanted to kill our next president.

Pavlick was ruled insane in 1961. Two years later, Kennedy was killed. Three years after that, after six years of being institutionalized, Pavlick was released.

And the story still had plenty of traction.

First, Murphy was lauded as a hero, by the Postmaster General, the U.S. Post Office, even the House of Representatives.

Next, publisher William Loeb editorialized in the Union Leader that justice had not been served, that Pavlick had not received his day in court, nor a proper assessment of his mental stability.

Then Murphy, told he’d remain anonymous as the tipster, received hate mail from people who said Murphy had “caused an old friendless man to suffer horrible humiliations. You are in a sad state. Kneel and pray. Beg for mercy.”

“They were mostly threatening,” Polly said. “Afterward, he was almost sorry he did it. His name was not supposed to be released as an informant. He got letters that were derogatory, faulting him for turning in an elderly man.”

Then came the stalking episode, when there were no laws on the books to prevent it. Following his release from the state hospital in Concord, Pavlick would park his car near the Murphy house and wait.

And wait.

“They would call me and I would go there, and he wasn’t committing a crime and he had no weapon,” Sweeney said. “I would park down the road facing him, waiting. I might get called away for an accident, and the Murphys would be alarmed. This went on for several years.”

Added Polly, “I was a little uneasy.”

Now, as the 50th anniversary of one of the most important dates in history approaches, Polly and Susan are part of the spotlight, part of the story, lining the outer edges.

They were interviewed for a documentary. They know the important role Murphy played.

They know he altered the course of history.

But you need to ask them about it. Otherwise, it’s hidden from view.

“In a way, yes, it did have an effect,” Polly said. “But it’s mostly forgotten, and if I mention it today, most people don’t know anything about it.”

(Ray Duckler can be reached at 369-3304 or rduckler@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @rayduckler.)