That Time We Exhumed Oswald’s Body to See If He Was a Soviet Assassin

Then, again.
Nov. 21 2013 11:33 PM

A Grave Matter

That time we exhumed Lee Harvey Oswald’s body to see if he was a Soviet assassin.

Lee Harvey Oswald being shot by Jack Ruby as Oswald is being moved by police, November 24, 1963
Lee Harvey Oswald is shot by Jack Ruby as Oswald is being moved by police, on Nov. 24, 1963.

Photo by Jack Beers Jr./Dallas Morning News/

The idea that there was more than one Lee Harvey Oswald has to be among the most bizarre conspiracy theories suggested to explain President John F. Kennedy’s assassination. It is also the only one that led graveyard diggers to disturb Oswald’s corpse.

The notion that there was more than one Oswald found its most forceful proponent in Michael Eddowes, a British author and lawyer who made his fortune with a chain of restaurants called Bistro Vino. In 1975 Eddowes self-published Khrushchev Killed Kennedy, the first in a trio of books arguing exactly what the title says—that the Soviet premier ordered Kennedy’s murder. Although it wasn’t particularly unusual to argue that the Soviets were behind JFK’s death, Eddowes’ innovation came in his account of the Kremlin’s dark plot.

According to Eddowes, the man Dallas strip club owner Jack Ruby shot was not the same Oswald who was raised in Texas, served in the Marines for three years, and defected to Russia in 1959. Eddowes believed that after Oswald moved to the Soviet Union, the KGB’s Department 13 (its much-feared assassination squad) trained a look-alike to assume his identity. This deadly body double was the man who met Marina Prusakova at a dance in Minsk, married her six weeks later, and returned to the United States in 1962 with his wife and infant daughter in tow. This was the Oswald who went on to work at the Texas School Book Depository, kill the president, and be killed himself.

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The evidence Eddowes presented to support his theory, laid out in his 1977 book The Oswald File, was largely circumstantial. Eddowes noted that passport and Marine Corps application papers created before Oswald went to Russia listed his height as 5-foot-11, but after his arrest the FBI reported Oswald’s as 5-foot-9. Marina, when she met Oswald in Minsk, had at first believed she was speaking to a native Russian with a Baltic accent. Upon Oswald’s return from Russia, family members noted that he had lost some hair and weight, while his complexion appeared ruddier. His autopsy records didn’t match his Marine Corps records regarding the number and position of scars on his arms, and also failed to make note of a prominent scar from a childhood operation behind one of his ears.

Eddowes wasn’t the first to suggest there might have been more than one Oswald. As early as 1960, government officials, including J. Edgar Hoover, had raised the possibility that a Soviet imposter might try to assume Oswald’s identity after his defection to Russia. But when the House Select Committee on Assassinations looked into photos of Oswald pre- and post-Soviet Union in its 1979 report, forensic investigators felt sure they were the same person. Fingerprints taken before and after Oswald’s trip matched up, although Eddowes explained this by saying the KGB had surreptitiously switched the FBI’s fingerprint files.

For Eddowes, the best way to test his theory was to have Oswald exhumed. If the body in the coffin matched up with Oswald’s Marine Corps records, all would be well. If not, the public had a right to know what was going on.

Eddowes was confident in his theory, although he had a difficult time convincing Texas officials of his case. He first approached the Medical Examiner’s Office in Tarrant County, where Oswald was buried, but when his requests were denied, he turned to Dallas County, where Oswald had been killed. Having managed to win over officials there, he triggered a six-month legal battle concerning which county had jurisdiction over Oswald’s remains. The situation was more or less at a standstill when Eddowes gained the support of Marina Oswald, Lee Harvey’s widow and legal next of kin. She agreed to have her husband exhumed as a private matter, with Eddowes paying all of the expenses.

Marina had her own suspicions about the grave. Her concern stemmed from a 1964 visit by government officials, who asked her to sign a stack of papers without explaining what they meant. She knew that the papers had something to do with the grave, but not exactly what, and the odd encounter led her to believe that Oswald’s remains had somehow been disturbed. Oswald’s brother Robert battled in court to stop the exhumation, but eventually ran out of emotional and financial resources to continue the fight.

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