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.

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.

Early in the morning of Oct. 4, 1981, the exhumation at the Rose Hill Cemetery finally began. Camera crews were banned, although news helicopters hovered in the sky, and Marina waited in a nearby car. Once the digging started, it became clear that Oswald’s concrete vault had cracked, and water damage had caused the coffin lid to partially cave in, exposing the remains. Workers covered the dilapidated coffin in a white sheet, and drove it the 35 miles to Baylor Medical Center in Dallas in a hearse.

Once the body arrived at Baylor, the exhumation team—led by Assistant Dallas County Medical Examiner Linda E. Norton—conducted a brief examination, which found the body still clad in the dark brown suit in which Oswald had been buried. The corpse was well on its way to being completely decomposed, but that didn’t matter to the forensic team, because the only thing they really needed was Oswald’s head. The plan was to take a set of dental X-rays and compare them to a set produced while Oswald was in the Marines. The team also wanted to look for a small crater behind one of the corpse’s ears, to see if it matched records of the scar left by Oswald’s childhood mastoidectomy (a procedure used to repair skull damage after an ear infection).

Forensic odontologists who compared the corpse’s teeth to Oswald’s dental X-rays found that three of the teeth in the corpse’s skull were exactly the same shape as in the documents, while other teeth and pulpal were very similar. In addition, the mastoidectomy scar was clearly present on the left side of the skull. At a press conference a few hours after the exhumation, Norton stepped before the microphone and announced, “We, both individually and as a team, have concluded beyond any doubt, and I mean beyond any doubt, that the individual buried under the name Lee Harvey Oswald in Rose Hill Cemetery is, in fact, Lee Harvey Oswald.”

Marina said she was happy to have some answers, and wanted to go on with her life. Eddowes, ever the gentleman, issued a statement saying that he was “surprised” by the results, but “in no way disappointed in the apparent disproving of my evidence of imposture.”

Still, not everyone was convinced. During the examination at Baylor, Paul Groody—the mortician who had prepared Oswald for burial in 1963—had been asked to verify whether the body in the coffin was the same one he’d embalmed. At the time he agreed that it was, but later on he had his doubts. A few days after the exhumation, Groody was discussing the events with his assistant, Alan Baumgartner, when both men realized they hadn’t seen a key detail on the corpse’s head. Neither had noticed the craniotomy line, a crevice created when morticians saw off the top of the skull to examine the brain. The mark has a way of sticking around, and sometimes leads the skullcap to fall off during decomposition. Both men were sure that a craniotomy had been performed on Oswald in 1963, and his brain weight is recorded on his autopsy report, which means doctors must have handled his gray matter at some point. Yet neither Groody nor his assistant could remember seeing the mark.

Groody shared his concerns with assassination researchers, and together they developed a theory that makes Eddowes’ look uninspired. While Groody agreed that the body buried in Oswald’s grave was the same one he embalmed, he wasn’t so sure about the head. He believed that the KGB, CIA, FBI, or someone else dug up the corpse in Oswald’s grave before the 1981 exhumation, cut off the head, and replaced it with Oswald’s real noggin, presumably located and retrieved from somewhere deep in Russia. Fittingly, this is known as the “head in a box” theory.

This idea generated a fresh round of interest among conspiracy theorists, and debate was fueled by the fact that it took three years for the Norton team to publish their official account of Oswald’s exhumation in a medical journal. In 1984 their report finally appeared in the Journal of Forensic Sciences, complete with a handsome photo of Oswald’s rotting jaw. Among other observations, the report noted that the corpse’s neck column was entirely intact (making any head switch unlikely) and said that the craniotomy line was evident on the skullcap, which was covered by patches of “mummified soft tissue.” Today, some assassination researchers think that Groody and Baumgartner simply failed to notice the craniotomy mark during their brief time in the examination room.

But true conspiracy buffs won’t let evidence stand in the way of a good theory. The Internet and bookstores are rife with reports that the craniotomy mark was missing, or that the head was found rolling around inside the coffin. It’s tempting to suggest that the authors of those theories reread Norton’s article—but of course, she might be in on the conspiracy, too.

Adapted from Rest in Pieces: The Curious Fates of Famous Corpses by Bess Lovejoy. Copyright © 2013 by Bess Lovejoy. Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster Inc.