Hidden History

Digging Up Lee Harvey Oswald

Conspiracy theories raged that JFK's killer had been misidentified. I got to exhume Oswald’s decomposing body, detach his skull from his spine, and find out who he really was.

Digging Up Lee Harvey Oswald

Dallas, Texas. November 24, 1963. Ninety minutes after the world watched Jack Ruby shoot Lee Harvey Oswald, the suspected assassin lay dead on a bloody operating table at Parkland Hospital, mere steps from the room where President Kennedy had been pronounced dead two days earlier.

Ruby’s .38-caliber bullet entered Oswald’s lower chest just below his left nipple and lodged in a noticeable lump under the skin on the right side of his back. It pierced nearly every major organ and blood vessel in his abdominal cavity – stomach, spleen, liver, aorta, diaphragm, renal vein, a kidney, and the inferior vena cava, a major vein that carries deoxygenated blood from the lower extremities back to the heart. Oswald bled out very quickly through a dozen or more holes. Trauma surgeons poured fifteen pints of blood into him and manually squeezed his faltering heart to revive it, but it simply stopped for good at 1:07 p.m. local time.

Dallas County Medical Examiner Earl Rose started Oswald’s autopsy less than two hours after he was pronounced dead. He was already cool to the touch. Blood, no longer being pumped by his dead heart, was pooling naturally in the corpse’s hollows. Rose’s external examination found nothing remarkable: The average-sized, wavy-haired, slightly balding man on Rose’s slab had slate-blue eyes, decent oral hygiene, a few old scars, no sign of alcohol or drug abuse, a shaved chest and pubic area, and was in otherwise good physical shape, if you didn’t count being dead.

Rose sawed open Oswald’s skull to find a completely normal brain. Apart from his tattered innards and a heart roughly handled by his would-be life-savers, Oswald’s other vital organs appeared normal. Even his bowels went miraculously untouched by the bullet. So Rose sealed all of his severed parts in a beige plastic bag the size of a grocery sack, and tucked it in Oswald’s abdominal cavity before sending him off to be prepared for a hurried burial the next day.

The autopsy took less than an hour.

A negative of Oswald in the morgue after his death. (Image courtesy of The Portal to Texas History)

At Miller Funeral Home in nearby Fort Worth, undertaker Paul Groody couldn’t waste any time. On a hunch that Oswald would someday be exhumed, he pumped a double dose of embalming fluid into the body and dressed him off the funeral home’s private rack: white boxers patterned with little green diamonds, dark socks, light shirt, thin black tie, and a cheap, dark brown suit, its trousers cinched around the waist not by a belt but by an elastic band. The family was charged $48 for this going-away outfit.

Oswald’s hair was washed and combed, his visible bruises concealed with makeup, and his eyes and lips sealed for eternity.

Then Groody placed two rings on Oswald’s fingers. One was a gold wedding band and the other a smaller ring with a red gemstone that Oswald’s wife had requested he be buried with.

The assassin’s burial – deliberately scheduled the next day around the same moment as the president’s nationally televised funeral, to discourage any public mourning – was attended only by Oswald’s small, destitute, shell-shocked family, a handful of reporters, and a local pastor who didn’t know Oswald but believed no man should be buried without a prayer.

The Reverend Louis Saunders’ eulogy was painfully brief, partly because two other ministers had refused at the last minute out of fear they themselves would be assassinated by a sniper. He recited passages from the Twenty-third Psalm and John 14, then added only:

“Mrs. Oswald tells me that her son, Lee Harvey, was a good boy and that she loved him. We are not here to judge, only to commit for burial Lee Harvey Oswald. And today, Lord, we commit his spirit to Your divine care.”

His widow Marina, her eyes red and swollen from crying for three straight days, stepped up to the sealed coffin and whispered something nobody could hear before it was lowered into the damp hole. Everyone left and the grave was filled in for eternity.

But eternity is for poets. Conspiracy theorists aren’t that patient.

Michael Eddowes wasn’t a Fleet Street tabloid scribbler or a paranoid witch-hunter. Instead, he was a distinguished, educated gentleman who’d played tennis at Wimbledon and cricket in Britain’s minor leagues. He graduated from the venerable Uppingham School but abandoned his dream of attending Oxford in order to help at his ailing father’s London law firm, where he became a full-fledged lawyer himself. When he sold the firm in 1956, he opened a chain of popular upscale restaurants and dabbled in sports car design.

A Renaissance man of sorts, Eddowes was also fascinated with injustice. In 1955, he wrote a book exploring the case of a Welsh laborer named Timothy Evans, who’d been hanged in 1950 for murdering his wife and infant child. He proved how prosecutors had hidden evidence in the deeply flawed case. Eddowes claimed Evans could not have been the killer…and he was right. A serial killer who lived downstairs in the same building later confessed.

Eddowes was sixty years old when John F. Kennedy was assassinated in 1963. He eventually moved to Dallas to be closer to the story, and he was intrigued by the rumors he heard about Oswald’s defection to the Soviet Union after he left the Marines in 1959.

In 1975, he self-published Khrushchev Killed Kennedy, in which he alleged that a “look-alike” Soviet agent had killed Kennedy, not Oswald. Eddowes believed the KGB had trained a body-double named Alec to assume Oswald’s identity. This agent met the young Marina Prusakova at a dance in Minsk, married her six weeks later, and returned to America in 1962 with his wife and infant daughter. He was such a dead ringer for Oswald, “Alec” was able to fool Oswald’s own mother.

His mission: Blend in, wait for the right moment, kill the president, and die in the chaos that followed.

Evidence of the switch? Eddowes lists several specific “inconsistencies” between Oswald’s Marine Corps medical records and his autopsy report. Eddowes proposed that Oswald’s body should be exhumed to prove that the man buried in Fort Worth’s Rose Hill Cemetery was not Oswald but his doppelganger Soviet substitute, Alec.

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When the Medical Examiner for Tarrant County, Texas, where Oswald was buried, refused to dig him up, Eddowes filed a lawsuit to force the exhumation, but it was dismissed quickly. While he appealed the ruling, Eddowes approached Dr. Linda Norton, then an assistant medical examiner in Dallas, suggesting that the Dallas County Medical Examiner’s Office reassert its original jurisdiction over Oswald’s body.

Norton was intrigued. She ordered a copy of Oswald’s medical and dental records from the Military Personnel Records Center. They’d ultimately be crucial for any identification because they were dated before Oswald’s defection to the USSR and thus contained authentic identity data of the “real” Lee Harvey Oswald.

“I feel it would be in the best public interest to conduct the exhumation,” Dr. Norton told The Dallas Morning News. “If there’s a question and a reasonable question that science can resolve, then that’s our business.”

Promising to pay all expenses, Eddowes persuaded Marina Oswald – who suspected the grave was empty – to consent to a private autopsy. Marina was haunted by a 1964 visit with government agents who had asked her to sign a stack of cemetery papers without explanation. With only a basic understanding of English, Marina came to believe that her late husband’s remains had been disturbed somehow. She’d grown morbidly suspicious that he’d been secretly removed.

But a new hurdle popped up. News of the impending exhumation prompted Oswald’s older brother Robert, a former Marine himself, to get a temporary restraining order.

Even before the legal path was cleared for Oswald’s possible re-emergence into the world, Dr. Norton was picked as the exhumation’s chief forensic pathologist because of her familiarity with the case, and she assembled a small team, including me and two of the country’s best forensic odontologists. She wanted to move quickly when the time came.

I had worked with Dr. Norton before. After my Army tour-of-duty ended in 1972, I joined the Dallas County Medical Examiner’s Office. I started as a junior assistant medical examiner but within a few years, I was the deputy chief. I worked there until February 1981, when I left to become the Chief Medical Examiner for Bexar County, Texas, in San Antonio. Dr. Norton knew me and trusted my abilities.

The courtroom battle over Oswald’s remains raged for a few months after I left Dallas, until August 1981, when a frustrated Marina sued her former brother-in-law Robert. A month later, a Texas court ruled Robert had no standing to thwart his brother’s exhumation against Marina’s wishes, and Robert withdrew his opposition.

At midnight on October 3, 1981, Robert’s restraining order expired.

Before the sun rose on October 4, we stood at the killer’s open grave. On that unseasonably muggy morning, we dug up Lee Harvey Oswald – or somebody – just to be sure America had buried the right man in 1963.

Ironically, almost nobody had paid any attention when Oswald went into the ground, and now a crowd of reporters clustered outside the cemetery gates and a half dozen news helicopters swarmed overhead like corpse flies as we lifted him out.

I wasn’t expecting any surprises. Forensically, I’d always been ambivalent about JFK’s assassination. It was an uncomplicated gunshot case that had gotten tangled up in a thousand different agendas. As with so many historic and newsworthy cases before and since, people quickly came to believe what they wanted to believe, damn the facts. I had been initially reluctant to join this exhumation team, knowing that our findings would just be fed into the conspiracy meat-grinder. Any questions we might answer would only spawn new questions.

And it wasn’t rocket science. This promised to be a simple task I’d done thousands of times:  identify a dead man. We had sufficient U.S. Marine Corps’ dental X-rays and other medical records to help us prove, one way or another, if Lee Harvey Oswald was buried in Lee Harvey Oswald’s grave. (In 1981, DNA profiling was not yet available. We were limited to dental comparisons and other tell-tale medical evidence.)

But history sucked me in. The simplicity of the challenge was trumped by the significance of this dead killer’s role in human events. In the end, I couldn’t resist taking one last look at a man who changed the course of history – no matter who he might be.

The actual exhumation took much longer than expected.

We had planned to simply lift the entire 2,700-pound, steel-reinforced vault out of the grave and open it elsewhere, but the vault had cracked, allowing water to seep in. The rotting casket inside had grown brittle and was splotched with stains and mildew. Its metal handles were badly corroded. Part of the lid over the cadaver’s upper body had already caved in and we glimpsed, at the very least, that Lee Harvey Oswald’s grave wasn’t empty.

On the fly, gravediggers cut a trench parallel to the defective vault, which would be removed so they could carefully slide the delicate, crumbling casket onto a makeshift wooden platform in the trench. An operation that should have taken less than an hour went almost three.

In the meantime, a large crowd of reporters and curious bystanders had gathered all around us. The situation was getting crowded and a little chaotic. I was nervous. We had to get the casket out of there as quickly as possible and start our work securely.

So as soon as we could do it without spilling a corpse onto the lawn in front of a hundred hungry news cameras, Oswald’s crumbling casket was lifted out of the musty earth and slid into a waiting hearse. The exhumation team and official observers, including Marina Oswald, Michael Eddowes, a hired photographer, the original morticians, and four lawyers representing Marina, Eddowes, Oswald’s brother Robert, and Rose Hill Cemetery, convoyed to the examination site in private cars.

At Baylor University’s Medical Center, the cardboard-covered casket was rolled on a gurney through a warren of basement corridors and narrow hallways to our makeshift morgue.

The decaying lid of Oswald’s casket, likely damaged when gravediggers removed the cracked vault, came completely loose in our hands as we opened it. The smell of moldy dirt, mildewed wood, and rotten flesh emanated from the box in an invisible cloud. The forensic pathologists in the room couldn’t ignore it; the civilians pulled back and covered their noses.

The casket’s interior was a mess. Some of the moldy fabric lining had fallen loose from the lid, covering the corpse underneath. We gingerly removed the fabric remnants and there he was, lying on a rotten straw mat.

We were finally face to face with what was left of the man buried in Lee Harvey Oswald’s grave, or at least what appeared to be a man-shaped blob of black cream cheese in a cheap brown suit.

The muscles in his legs were long gone and a flimsy parchment of skin had shriveled around his dry bones. His hands, also skeletal, were crossed politely over his belly in a classic funereal pose. On his left pinky, two rings stood out amid the grim, fetid decay: a gold wedding band and a smaller ring with a red gem.

Now, the dirty work began.

First, we removed the rings on the corpse’s finger and gave them to Marina. Her presence was unusual – most widows don’t attend their husbands’ exhumations and autopsies – but she didn’t seem to be shaken by the macabre nature of the moment. While we worked, she floated among the onlookers, talking softly, and she never broke down in any way. Maybe the degradations of her upbringing in post-war Russia steeled her against death’s grotesquerie, or maybe she’d simply gotten hard in the fierce personal storms after the assassination. I don’t know. But I saw her as a true survivor.

We four medical examiners encircled the casket as I gently opened the flap of the suit coat and exposed the flesh beneath – or what was left of it. The skin was mostly gone, replaced by grave wax. The ribs had become so brittle that they crumbled at the slightest touch. There was almost no way we’d be able to identify the fatal bullet wound.

Almost all of the abdominal flesh had disintegrated, exposing a wad of embalmer’s stuffing that created the illusion of a healthy torso for the funeral, and the beige organ bag, which now held only a small amount of a congealed, tannish paste that had once been his vital organs.

In the end, we didn’t remove the body from the casket, or even turn it over. It was simply too far gone to withstand any handling, and Marina had asked that we not do any more damage to the body than absolutely necessary to identify it.

We only needed the head.

Our plan was to x-ray, photograph, and create plaster molds of the corpse’s teeth for comparison to two sets of dental x-rays taken during Oswald’s Marine Corps days.

We could see the teeth and jaw, but Dr. Linda Norton had already determined that we couldn’t take our x-rays without removing the head, which was covered with patches of both mummified flesh and grave wax.

With a scalpel, I severed several rotted muscles and dried tendons in the shriveled neck and detached the skull from the spine at the second cervical interspace, the upper neck. With very little force, I pulled the head away from the backbone.

We snipped an embalmer’s wire that had held the corpse’s mouth closed for the funeral, and the jaw came off in my hand.

Unique dental traits helped to identify the corpse as Oswald’s and not a Soviet agent. (Image courtesy Di Maio Collection)
Unique dental traits helped to identify the corpse as Oswald’s and not a Soviet agent. (Image courtesy Di Maio Collection)

In February 1946, when Lee Harvey Oswald was six years old, his mother took him to Fort Worth’s Harris Hospital with a painful, persistent earache. There, a doctor diagnosed him with “acute mastoiditis,” a bad ear infection that had spread to the mastoid process, a bony protrusion just behind his left ear. A new wartime antibiotic called penicillin still wasn’t commonly used in civilian hospitals, so the only other cure was for a doctor to slit the skin behind a child’s ear, then scrape or drill an eraser-sized hole in the bone to remove the pus.

Oswald left the hospital four days later with a three-inch scar behind his left ear.

The scar was noted when Oswald left the Marines in 1959, but it wasn’t noted in his 1963 autopsy. Years later, British journalist Michael Eddowes took what might have been an ordinary, even understandable, oversight in a run-of-the-mill autopsy and turned it into the smoking gun in the murder of the millennium. That little scar was transformed into a big question mark:  If a veteran medical examiner hadn’t see a three-inch scar in Lee Harvey Oswald’s autopsy, is it possible a scar-less imposter had killed JFK and been liquidated by Jack Ruby in a plot of Machiavellian proportion?

As we examined the skull, the small hole in the left mastoid process leapt out. Its manmade edges were rounded and smooth, healed but not natural. It was an old lesion that couldn’t be faked. Our dead man and Lee Harvey Oswald had both undergone a mastoidectomy in the distant past. So we had a strong point of identification, although many World War II-era kids bore the same scar.

We’d outfitted our Baylor lab with everything we’d need to make molds of the corpse’s upper and lower jaws, photograph them, then shoot and develop x-ray films to compare against the Marine Corps’ images.

The two forensic dentists on the team immediately saw several unusual and distinctive dental traits in the corpse’s mouth.

First, almost none of Oswald’s teeth lined up. He had a “bilateral crossbite,” a relatively rare misalignment of his front and back teeth typically seen in fewer than three of every one hundred people.

Second, his top two front teeth were slightly rotated away from each other, rather than growing truly side-by-side, like planks in a fence.

Third, his upper right canine, or “eye tooth,” displayed a prominent cusp known as a “tubercle,” not ordinarily seen on the front of a normal tooth.

The two tooth sleuths carefully charted each of the dead man’s 31 teeth (one had been pulled). When they compared the corpse’s x-rays to Oswald’s military films, they found at least three identical teeth and fillings, four more very similar.

This man was no substitute Soviet, not even a long-lost evil twin.

“Based upon the consistency of the dental charting, the dental radiographs, the dental records, and lack of any unexplainable, inconsistent items,” the forensic dentists ruled that the decaying human before them was undeniably and reliably Lee Harvey Oswald.

Dr. Linda Norton delivered a brief, emphatic press statement to a kettle of reporters who’d gathered. “We, independently and as a team, have concluded beyond any doubt, and I mean beyond any doubt, that the individual buried under the name of Lee Harvey Oswald in Rose Hill Cemetery is in fact Lee Harvey Oswald,” she said.

At that moment, Oswald’s remains were being recombobulated in a new, twenty-gauge steel coffin. Author Eddowes picked up the $1,500 tab for the reburial, plus the considerable expenses of the exhumation, as he should have.

Marina hovered. A great weight had been lifted from her little shoulders. The next day, she told a newspaper reporter that the confirmation of her late husband’s remains had been a “cleansing medicine.”

“I’m walking around here with a smile on my face,” she said. “It’s like getting rid of a disease.”

At first, Eddowes admitted publicly he’d been entirely wrong, but then he quickly contrived a new explanation: The KGB had helped Oswald’s dentist swap Lee’s and Alec’s dental records, enlarging the conspiracy exponentially.

Back in the autopsy room, before Oswald’s new casket was closed and he went back into the damp earth of Rose Hill, a grateful Marina gave Dr. Norton an odd gift: the red gemstone ring we’d taken off the corpse’s pinky. It was her way of saying thanks for the team’s work.

But Linda was visibly uncomfortable with this morbid reward. As soon as Marina left the room, she inconspicuously slipped it into my hand. She didn’t want it.

Neither did I. As well-meaning as it might have been, it was a sordid souvenir of a grim task and an even grimmer history. I wished for the whole wretched mess to just be buried once and for all.

So just before they sealed Lee Harvey Oswald’s coffin for his next eternity, I dropped the ring into the box with him and then drove home to San Antonio in the dark.

morgue hires

This story is excerpted from Morgue: A Life in Death, in which celebrated medical examiner Dr. Vincent Di Maio and veteran crime writer Ron Franscell guide us through the cases that have made Di Maio famous – from the exhumation of assassin Lee Harvey Oswald to the complex issues in the shooting of Florida teenager Trayvon Martin.