Fifty years ago today, on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange, Michael Robbins heard a murmur. It started at the booth of a Texas firm, Eppler, Guerin & Turner Inc., and got louder, until the 30-year-old trader realized what it was: the sound of a selloff.
In the order room of Thomson McKinnon Securities Inc., a 21-year-old clerk named Arthur Cashin Jr. answered the ringing phone. It was a broker on the exchange floor asking if any news had come over the wire. He’d heard a rumor that something may have happened to the U.S. president. Cashin told him no.
The Dow Jones & Co. news ticker machine in those days was as big as a refrigerator. It chattered, then it spit out paper with the latest breaking news. For special stories, such as company earnings, a bell on the machine would ring. For important economic data, the bell would ring twice. On Nov. 22, 1963, right after Cashin hung up with the trader, it rang three times.
The day President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas was a day that changed so much. From Texas to the New York Stock Exchange floor where, Robbins said in an interview, the whole world was reflected, those who remember say they’ll never forget.
That morning, just like every morning, Robbins said he traded his jacket for the blazer he wore on the exchange floor. Attached was his member number, 718. He put on comfortable shoes. While today most of the exchange’s trades are executed by computers in Mahwah, New Jersey, back then Robbins could walk seven miles before quitting time. He would take orders on the phone at the booths that ringed the trading floor, then buy and sell shares at the dozens of posts where specialists oversaw individual stocks, said Robbins, a Bloomberg News contributor who was a floor trader for 40 years and also served on the exchange’s board of directors.
Those days, the exchange was open from 10 a.m. to 3:30 p.m., leaving enough time after breakfast for a game of poker or backgammon in the card room. Or a smoke in the smoking room.
That’s where Paul Ross, a 26-year-old trader, went on the morning of Nov. 22, 1963. Ross said he drank a cup of coffee and smoked a cigarette as he read his way through the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times and the New York Herald Tribune.
At 10 a.m., as the opening bell rang at the New York Stock Exchange, the 46-year-old president greeted city leaders at a breakfast in a Fort Worth ballroom. Later in the day, he was scheduled to address a luncheon in Dallas. Kennedy had been good for investors, with the Dow Jones Industrial Average up 19 percent between his inauguration and the start of November 1963.
Trading in New York was quiet that morning -- desultory, Robbins said. Two days earlier, on Wednesday, Nov. 20, exchange member Ira Haupt & Co. had been suspended from trading. The firm had invested in storage tanks of vegetable oil, some of which turned out to be filled with water, Ross said. The Dow slipped 1.3 percent that Thursday.
Ross said he thought there might be a turnaround on Friday. He bought retailer E.J. Korvette. He bought camera maker Polaroid Corp. and some Xerox Corp. (XRX:US), which had just taken a hammering, he said. He bought computer-maker Control Data Corp.
At 1:29 p.m. New York time, as the president’s car, on its way to the luncheon, approached the Texas School Book Depository in Dallas, Donald Stone, a 39-year-old trader for E.H. Stern & Co., rode the elevator up to the Stock Exchange Luncheon Club and ordered his usual: chicken salad.
Stone said he saw a guy running between the tables. He stopped him. The guy said Kennedy’s been shot. Stone asked him if he meant Jack, the president, or Bobby, the attorney general. The guy said Jack.
Stone said he raced downstairs.
On the floor of the exchange, a clerk yelled, “The president’s been shot!” The sound of selling grew into a roar.
In those days, the NYSE (NYX:US) floor had two mechanical boards on either end. They were called annunciator boards. The boards had flaps. Whenever a phone order came in for a trader, a flap would fall. The flap would have the trader’s number on it, the number he wore on his blazer.
Floor traders had to train themselves to always keep an eye on the board. If they were properly attuned, they could identify their falling flap by the sound it made, said Robbins.
On the afternoon of Nov. 22, 1963, flap, flap. Flap flap flap. Flapflapflapflapflapflap.
Walter N. Frank Sr., the vice chairman of the exchange at the time, called it the worst avalanche of selling he’d ever seen, according to an unpublished oral history kept by the exchange. The Dow lost 21 points, or 2.9 percent, that day.
Frank suggested calling an emergency board meeting, according to the oral history. The president and chairman were out of the building. Still, Frank said he and Ed Gray, the executive vice president of the exchange, were able to gather a quorum of the board at 1:55 p.m. They voted unanimously to halt trading -- the first time, besides for bad weather or a civil defense drill, since a parade for General Douglas MacArthur in April 1951.
Meanwhile, a crowd had formed around the post where RCA Corp. traded. Bill Meehan of M.J. Meehan & Co. (0883922D:US) was the specialist. In those days, RCA was the hot technology stock. It owned RCA Records and the NBC television network. It sold TVs and radios. The traders were all trying to sell RCA shares. They were pressing into Meehan. He was backed against his post. Finally, he held out his arms, as Robbins described it, like the statue of Jesus overlooking Rio de Janeiro. I’ll give you $85 for everything you got, Meehan cried, according to Robbins and Ross.
The orders surged in. Sell, sell, sell at $85 -- down $5.50 from its opening price that day.
Paul Ross said he was standing next to Robbins. “If it’s good enough for Meehan, it’s good enough for me,” Ross told him. Ross bought 500 shares of RCA at $85.
“Meehan had stopped the run,” Robbins said. “He was heroic.”
The bell rang at 2:07 p.m. The exchange closed.
An eerie hush spread across the floor. From the 10 a.m. opening till 2 p.m., 4.4 million shares had changed hands. In the next seven minutes, 2.2 million shares were traded, Robbins said. Within moments the thunder of the selloff had become a stunned and grieving silence.
Robbins said he noticed J. Truman Bidwell. Bidwell had been elected chairman of the exchange in May 1961. He’d resigned in February 1962 after his indictment on charges of evading income taxes. Bidwell had been acquitted in January 1963, but the case had drained him of thousands of dollars in legal fees after he’d refused to settle, said his son, J. Truman Bidwell Jr.
Robbins said he admired the elder Bidwell. Thought he was the leading broker on the floor. Always beautifully dressed. Elegant. He was sitting on a fold-out chair. A man who’d been through so much. And he was crying.
Donald Stone, too, was shaken. He said he hadn’t thought the exchange would close early. He’d bought a lot of stock figuring he could unload it before 3:30 p.m. When the bell sounded at 2:07, he owned more than he thought his firm could bear.
Stone said he walked the short distance from the exchange to the office of E.H. Stern. He took the elevator to the 12th floor. He said he felt sick. Stone said he was sure he’d brought down the entire firm.
When he came in the door, Eddie Stern saw him. What’s the matter, kid, Stern asked him. You look pale.
“I felt pale,” Stone said. “I said I didn’t think they’d stop trading. I thought I’d have time to lighten my positions. The stocks I bought were down and I bought a lot of them.”
Stern motioned him over, according to Stone. He opened a desk drawer. He took out a bottle of Scotch and a shot glass. Drink, he said.
Stone said he was not in the habit of drinking during working hours. On Nov. 22, 1963, he knocked one back.
Relax, Stern told him. You’ll come out alright.
“It was only then that I realized he wouldn’t fire me,” Stone said. Stone went on to serve as vice chairman of the New York Stock Exchange.
At 2:33 p.m. New York time, Malcolm Kilduff, the acting White House press secretary, made the official announcement. Minutes later, an emotional Walter Cronkite relayed the news on CBS TV: “From Dallas, Texas, the flash, apparently official: President Kennedy died at 1:00 p.m., Central Standard Time, two o’clock, Eastern Standard Time -- some 38 minutes ago.”
All weekend, as Paul Ross watched the aftermath of the tragedy on TV, he went over his stock positions in his mind. He’d bought RCA at $85. Ross said he thought maybe he was wrong to follow Meehan. Maybe Meehan had led him over a cliff.
Ross needn’t have worried. RCA opened the next trading day at $89.75, according to the New York Times.
That Monday, the exchange was closed for John F. Kennedy’s funeral. Cashin, the clerk for Thomson McKinnon, had volunteered to come into work. There was data to process because people had left early on Friday. It was quiet. A friend called and suggested they meet for lunch at the Downtown Athletic Club, according to Cashin, who 50 years later is the dean of floor traders at the exchange.
In the club’s third-floor dining room, every TV was tuned to the funeral. When the flag-draped coffin appeared on the screen, an older man stood up and raised his glass.
Ladies and gentlemen, the old man said, I give you the president of the United States.
The entire restaurant stood up and toasted John F. Kennedy.
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