By Steve Landwehr
IPSWICH, Mass. — It's not in Dallas, where the assassination took place.
Nor is it in the John. F. Kennedy library in the capital of his home state. And you won't find it in our nation's capital, either.
No, the largest archive of Kennedy assassination-related documents in the world is up a flight of stairs in an unremarkable office - with a business card stuck in the door frame to identify it - over the Choate Bridge Pub in downtown Ipswich. The pub's frying oil leaves a pungent scent, the smell perhaps a metaphor for what some think was left behind after what they consider the biggest cover-up in history.
The Mary Ferrell Foundation is dedicated to carrying on the work of the Dallas legal secretary whose suspicions about Kennedy's assassination began the moment Lee Harvey Oswald was arrested for it. It became an obsession that lasted until her death seven years ago, by which time she had amassed hundreds of thousands of pages of documents related to Kennedy and his assassination, along with books, magazines and newspaper articles.
"She ended up being one of the hubs of research," said Rex Bradford, the foundation's archivist. She was the person writers and historians studying the assassination turned to, he said.
Bradford, a resident, is the chief reason the foundation is headquartered in Ipswich.
After Ferrell's death, an anonymous benefactor who lives in Boston bought her vast collection. Bradford was a well-known archivist in the circles of assassination buffs, so Ipswich seemed a natural choice.
The events that began in Dealey Plaza in Dallas at 12:30 p.m. on Friday, Nov. 22, 1963, and those that followed, probably constitute the most investigated murder in history. One presidentially appointed commission and a House committee pored over every detail of the assassination, as did uncountable private investigators, amateur and professional.
The first, the Warren Commission, concluded Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone and there was no persuasive evidence of a conspiracy, as many people then and now believe. The House Select Committee on Assassinations found otherwise in 1979.
"Most people don't realize they came to the conclusion it was a probable conspiracy," Bradford said. "That's the government's last word on it."
Conspiracy theorists had long claimed four shots were fired at Kennedy, not three as the Warren Commission purported. The House Committee agreed and said the second gunman fired the bullet from the grassy knoll in the plaza. It did not, however, identify the conspirators.
So the debate goes on, and may never end.
"We don't purport to have the answer," said Lona Therrien, the foundation's executive director.
In 1992, Congress ordered all government evidence regarding the assassination be released to the public, and the foundation has a copy of every single page of it.
While the boxes stacked in the foundation's two-room office constitute a valuable paper trail, they are so voluminous that finding a single fact or set of facts would be a herculean task.
That's where the foundation's online archive comes in. There, all of its material is freely available, but searching it is still a bit haphazard and cumbersome. So the nonprofit foundation offers one-year memberships at $39.95 that give users access to advanced search tools to speed up research.
The Web site averages more than 10,000 unique hits each month. Institutional memberships are also available for colleges, universities and libraries.
The library at Marquette University in Milwaukee, Wis., became an institutional member about a year ago. Michael Pate, associate director of library services, said the university's Political Science Department recommended the foundation, and its collection has become a useful resource for a course on assassinations the school offers.
"It expedites the work of students and faculty quite a bit," Pate said. "It saves quite a bit of time."
Therrien said this is not a "conspiracy theorist Web site."
"It's a place to fact-check and promote a conversation about this time in our history when there were a lot of questions about what the government was doing," she said.
There's been so much speculation about the Kennedy assassination, so many theories advanced to explain it, that many Americans alive at the time grew weary of the subject years ago. Bradford thinks he knows why.
"Americans have an aversion to theories that there are conspiracies to change their government," he said.
Steve Landwehr writes for the Salem News in Salem, Mass.