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  • Matt Crumpton

Ep 43: The Backyard Photos (Part 1)

According to the Warren Commission on March 31, 1963 Lee Harvey Oswald asked his wife Marina to take a picture of him in their backyard with a holstered revolver, just like the one he allegedly used to shoot Officer J.D. Tippit, while he was holding a rifle that looked like the Carcano that was found on the 6th floor of the schoolbook depository building. Oswald also had two newspapers in the photo: The Militant and The Worker.[i]


How do we know that the photograph is legit? There’s the existence of the photographs themselves, combined with Marina Oswald’s Warren Commission testimony where she talks about taking the photo.[ii] At surface level, this seems pretty damning for Oswald. In theory, it shows Oswald about 7 months before the assassination with both guns that he is later accused of possessing and using by the Warren Commission.


The allegedly resulting photos are a hotly disputed battleground in the world of JFK assassination research. To those who say Oswald acted alone, the pictures are a smoking gun proving that he possessed the Kennedy and Tippit murder weapons in March of 1963 AND that he was proud enough of the weapons to want to take a picture. The two supposedly communist-friendly newspapers that Oswald is holding up for the camera help to establish Oswald’s radical political leanings. The photo was first shown to the public on the cover of Life Magazine on February 21, 1964, before the Warren Report was released, at a time when the public’s opinion on the Kennedy Assassination was still up in the air, and at a time when many Americans actually read Life Magazine.[iii]


But skeptics of the official story counter that someone superimposed Oswald’s face over another image to make it look like Oswald was in that photo, when it was really someone else’s body. This is actually what Oswald himself told the police when they showed him the backyard photo.


To get to the bottom of this, we’ll look at the findings of the HSCA Photography Panel, Marina Oswald’s testimony to the Warren Commission, and the Chain of Custody of the photos and the camera. In the next episode, we’ll look at the numerous continuing arguments that the photo is a fake.


Did Lee Harvey Oswald actually pose for the famous backyard photos, were the images edited to assist in framing Oswald, or is something else going on?


HSCA Panel/Background


When the House Select Committee on Assassinations re-opened the case, a panel of photographic experts reviewed various photographs, including the Oswald backyard photos. It was determined that the photos were initially obtained from a search of the garage of Ruth and Michael Paine on Saturday, November 23, the day after the assassination, during the afternoon.[iv] The Dallas police found two of the famous backyard photos, which were marked 133A and 133B, as well as a negative for 133B.[v] Those two pictures and one negative were then turned over to the FBI and reviewed by the Warren Commission.[vi]


But, it turns out that there are few more versions of these backyard photos, aside from just the two that were included in the Warren Report. The HSCA looked at four additional photos and copies. And two of them were prints of a picture that had not been published in the Warren Report – 133C.


The first was 133-C–Dees, which was provided by the widow of Dallas police officer Roscoe White. Then, there was 133-A and 133-C Stovall, which were provided by Officer Stovall who was one of five detectives involved in searching the Paine residence that resulted in the initial 2 pictures that were sent to the Warren Commission.[vii]


De Mohrenschildt 133A


The HSCA reviewed another photo marked 133A – De Mohrenschildt, which had been provided by George De Mohrenschildt. The back of the De Mohrenschildt backyard photo has an inscription that says, QUOTE “To my friend George from Lee Oswald 5/IV/63” (The four is written as a roman numeral). In darker ink, there is another transcription on the back of the photo that says in Russian cryllic, “hunter of fascists, ha-ha-ha!!”[viii]


As we will soon see, General Edwin Walker, had his political star was rising at the time, was supposedly considered to be a fascist by Oswald. The Warren Report concluded that Oswald fired a shot at Walker and attempted to kill him on April 10, 1963. We’ll cover the General Walker Shooting in depth in an upcoming episode. All you need to know right now is that this reference to “hunter of fascists” on the back of the De Mohrenschildt 133A photo, whether it is fake or real, is probably a reference to General Walker.


HSCA Handwriting expert Joseph McNally and two other handwriting experts confirmed that Oswald did write “To my friend George from Lee Oswald”. The other phrase, which said “hunter of fascists, ha-ha-ha” was written by neither Lee nor Marina, nor de Mohrenschildt according to McNally. That phrase was written by one person and then retraced by someone not familiar with Russian cryllic according to McNally.[ix] McNally said that three different people wrote on the back of this photo, and aside from Oswald, he couldn’t positively identify any of them.


Oswald and two other people wrote on the back of this photo. But the two other people were not Marina or de Mohrenschildt. If the experts are right, who could possibly have written on the photo and why would they write that if it wasn’t Marina or de Mohrenschildt?


While we’re on the topic of 133-A de Mohrenschildt, where did this mysterious photo come from? De Mohrenschildt said that his wife found it in a vinyl record sleeve in his storage unit after they returned from Haiti.[x] He also said that since he was in Haiti on April 5, 1963, he did not understand why the inscription would be for that date since he could not have seen Lee then.[xi] But, as author James DiEugenio points out, de Mohrenschildt wasn’t truthful about that. He was not in Haiti on April 5. He didn’t actually leave until April 13 or 14th.[xii]


Going a level deeper, how did the vinyl records make their way into de Mohrenschildt’s storage unit? It turns out they were picked up from Everett Glover’s house. But, Michael Paine is the one who dropped the records off to Glover.[xiii] De Mohrenschildt had let Marina borrow a few English language records to try to help her learn English. So, the vinyl records would have all been at the Paine house. The reason that doesn’t totally add up is that the Dallas Police inventoried and collected several boxes of vinyl records. It’s in the written report. Either, the police and the FBI didn’t see this photo when they took the records into evidence (which we certainly cannot rule out), OR the photo was put in the record sleeve after the records were returned by the investigators, but before they were given to Everett Glover.[xiv]


The Imperial Reflex Camera


The HSCA panel, relying on scientists from the Rochester Institute of Technology, determined that the one negative they had in evidence – the same one from the Warren Commission, did, in fact, come from an Imperial Reflex Camera, which is the kind of camera that Marina eventually said Lee owned. The scientists took test pictures using two different Imperial Reflex cameras.[xv]


What they found is that, with the Imperial Reflex camera, the film is drug across the film plane on the inside of the camera each time a picture is snapped. And that dragging action creates consistent scratches. Also, the mold on the camera makes an imperfect edge around the image. And the edges of images taken with Imperial Reflex cameras are blurry.[xvi] All of these characteristics – the scratches around the edge, the imperfect edge, and the blur away from the center of the image – established that the negative for the backyard photos was, in fact, taken by an Imperial Reflex Camera.[xvii]


Commission Exhibit 2557 is an 8 page FBI report that lays out how the camera came to be in the FBI’s custody. The report says that about 3 weeks after the assassination, Robert Oswald – Lee’s brother, went to Ruth Paine’s house to pick up some items that she said belonged to Lee.[xviii] Then, on February 24 – about 10 weeks after Robert got the camera from Ruth Paine, he finally gave it to the FBI.[xix]


According to Robert, his brother Lee bought the Imperial Reflex camera in 1957 and then left it with Robert in 1959 when Lee went to Russia. Then, in 1962, Lee returned from Russia and picked up the camera from his brother.[xx]


But, when Ruth Paine’s home was initially searched on the day of the assassination and the day after, none of the Dallas police officers recalled seeing an Imperial Reflex Camera among Oswald’s possessions. They documented a Russian Cuera 2 Camera and a Stereo Realist camera – but no Imperial Reflex Camera. Those cops, John Adamcik, Richard Stovall, Guy Rose, and Henry Moore, were shown a photograph of the Imperial Reflex by the FBI. None of them recalled seeing that particular camera that day. They all stated that if it had been discovered during the search, they would have brought it in.[xxi]


BUT, there was one other officer who searched the garage that day – Detective John McCabe from the Irving Police Department. According to an FBI report, McCabe is QUOTE “certain that he saw a light gray box camera in a box in Mrs Paine’s garage. McCabe stated that this camera was in a box which contained books and photographs belonging to Lee Harvey Oswald. McCabe stated that he searched this box and did not take the camera since he did not consider it to be of evidentiary value.”[xxii]


McCabe told the FBI that the Imperial Reflex camera was found QUOTE “in a box containing books, some pictures, and a camera.” But, it appears that the box that McCabe is referring to was inventoried by the Dallas Police. It appears in the Stovall D exhibit and is listed as containing thirteen books and some random items such as dice and a pencil sharpener. But there were no photos or cameras inventoried.[xxiii]


So, we have four Dallas cops who are on the record saying that they looked, and did not see a box camera, like the Imperial Reflex, and that they would have remembered it and inventoried it if they did. And then we have Irving Detective McCabe who says that he definitely did see the box camera. This is another one of those fun who should you believe games within this case.  Critics point to the 4 cops who did the search and didn’t find the camera as evidence that it was planted after the fact. And, I agree, that it is definitely weird that those 4 cops don’t recall seeing that camera. But, then we have Detective McCabe right there in the record implying that the other 4 cops must have been mistaken because he is sure that he saw it, even though the camera is not mentioned in the inventory and the box he says he saw it in is included.


Was it Oswald’s Camera?


The premise of the backyard photos being authentic relies on two things being true: 1) that Lee Oswald ownedthe Imperial Reflex Camera and 2) that Marina Oswald took the backyard photos using the Imperial Reflex Camera. Most of the information that we have available to try to answer these questions comes from various statements of Marina Oswald, which means that Marina’s credibility as a witness is a big part of the backyard photos story.


Regarding the cameras the couple owned, here’s the timeline of Marina Oswald’s statements: On January 29, 1964, she said that they owned two cameras, a Russian Cuera 2 and a Stereo Realist camera.[xxiv] This testimony was consistent with the cameras that were actually in evidence at the time, since the police did, in fact, recover a Cuera 2 and a Stereo Realist. Then, 3 weeks later, on February 19, Marina was shown a photo of the Stereo Realist camera (one of the 2 in evidence) and she said that it did not look familiar to her.[xxv]Then, on February 25, she is shown the Imperial Reflex camera and says that camera was the one that belonged to her husband, and it was the one that she used to take the backyard photos.[xxvi] Finally, on August 12, the Stereo Realist Camera was returned to Ruth Paine who said it was hers the whole time.


Basically, the evolution of Marina’s testimony was that the Stereo Realist was not hers, but the Imperial Reflex, which wasn’t in evidence, because it was in Robert Oswald’s possession, did belong to Lee. Critics question how Marina could maintain for 2 and half months that the family owned this Stereo Realist camera and then change her mind.


It turns out that Marina, June and her infant daughter Rachel, all stayed at Robert Oswald’s home on February 10 and February 11 of 1964. Those dates are significant because Marina changed her testimony about the cameras on February 19, only after staying with Robert.[xxvii] But, maybe its nothing.


Marina also testified to the Warren Commission that the backyard photos of Lee are QUOTE “the only time she took any pictures” because she said she didn’t know how to take pictures.[xxviii] I’ve heard skeptics say that it is weird that Marina, who had a small child in the house, took only one photo during the entirety of her and Lee’s marriage and it was of Lee with guns in the backyard. But, that’s not evidence. Yes, it’s weird, but it doesn’t necessarily prove anything.


There is also the claim that there were no other photos taken with the Imperial Reflex camera – aside from the infamous backyard photos. However, there are 11 photos – mostly of Marina and her daughter June - that were taken in New Orleans with the same Imperial Reflex camera, apparently all in one session.[xxix]


The reason this matters is that it goes against the argument that the Imperial Reflex camera that took the backyard photos was used solely for that purpose – and is thus suspicious. If it was used for more pictures than just Oswald’s guns and newspapers backyard photo, then it is more believable that the Oswald’s owned the camera.


So what do we know about who took these other photos on the Imperial Reflex Camera? Marina appears in the photos, so it can’t be just her. The possibilities are that it was Oswald himself or, that it was Ruth Paine. Paine drove to New Orleans and was there with Marina for several days that overlap with the time period when the photos were taken. And while, official story defenders are quick to argue that Oswald took the photos, a letter from Marina to Ruth Paine seems to prove once and for all that it was Ruth Paine who took the other 11 photos. The postscript of a letter from Marina to Ruth says QUOTE “Have you got the photographs which you took in New Orleans?”[xxx]


Therefore, it looks like it was Ruth Paine who took the 11 photos of Marina and June while Lee was at work – making it possible that Lee may not have even been aware of the photos.  


Did Marina Take the Backyard Photos?


Marina told author and former CIA asset, Priscilla McMillan, that Lee developed the backyard photos himself, when McMillan interviewed her for her 1977 book.[xxxi] But the HSCA photographic panel determined that both of the photos that were found in Ruth Paine’s garage were made at a drug store – not by Lee. On the other hand, the de Mohrenschildt photo was developed in a non-commercial setting. This means that Marina is wrong, and that Oswald could not have developed 133A and 133B, but that Oswald could have developed the photo for de Mohrenschildt and given it to him. It was made outside of a commercial photo lab and some of the writing matches Oswald’s handwriting according to experts. But, just because he could have done it, doesn’t mean that he did.


Another reason why critics doubt Marina’s testimony that she is the one who took the backyard photos is that she told the HSCA that the way to use the Imperial Reflex camera was to just put up your eye to it and shoot. She said the camera was black. But, in reality, the gray Imperial Reflex camera was a very different style of camera. It required the photographer to hold the camera around their waist and look down into the large rectangular viewfinder as opposed to looking straight at the subject.[xxxii] It seems like Marina would have been able to remember that if this was the only photo she ever took in her life, especially because the way the pictures are taken is so counterintuitive. But, she didn’t.


While Marina’s testimony was frequently damning of Oswald, she was not seen as a reliable witness by the Warren Commission due to the numerous inconsistencies in her statements. What jumped out to me about Marina’s testimony was this exchange when she was changing her position about having seen Oswald with a rifle:


Yes. I said before I had never seen [the rifle] before. But I think you understand. I want to help you and that is why there is no reason for concealing anything. I will not be charged with anything.[xxxiii]


It sounds like she is saying that she will say whatever they want to hear so long as she isn’t charged with any crimes. If that is what she is saying, then her testimony was coerced and isn’t reliable. But it actually goes further than that.


Less than one week after the assassination on November 27, 1963, Marina was interviewed by FBI Agents Brown and Hosty at the Six Flags Inn motel where she and her two small children were staying.[xxxiv] During that interview, FBI agents told Marina that if she cooperated with the government, they would help her to stay in the United States.[xxxv] The report also says QUOTE “Marina was asked how she intended to make a living for herself and her children; she said she would find some type of work. She was then told that her cooperation with the government could also be of assistance.”[xxxvi]


So, the FBI agents ask Marina how she is going to make a living and take care of her kids, and they then quickly add that QUOTE “the government could also be of assistance”. I don’t know how to read that any way other than – The government will pay you money to cooperate. Perhaps they meant that they could help direct her to existing government programs. But, the context makes it seem like more than that. Now, the definition of cooperation could mean many different things. But, given the implication in the documents that Marina was promised financial assistance (whether she received it or not) and the opportunity to stay in America, that would have to impact what she said during her testimony.[xxxvii]


I don’t know what Marina’s motives were or why she said what she said. But, we have to be aware of what will become an ongoing theme in this case: Marina Oswald’s testimony is often inconsistent, and sometimes flat out impossible.


NEXT TIME ON SOLVING JFK: We continue looking at the backyard with a focus on the arguments against their authenticity, including foreknowledge of the photos and the allegations of the widow of Roscoe White.

[i] Case Closed by Gerald Posner. P 107.

[ii] Id.

[v] Id.

[vi] Id.

[x] Id. At 81.

[xi] Id. At 82.

[xii] DiEugenio at 82.

[xix] Id.

[xx] Id.

[xxi] Id. At 4

[xxii] CE 2557.

[xxiv] CE 1155.

[xxv] CE 1156.

[xxvi] CE 2557.

[xxvii] Armstrong at 497.

[xxx] CE 415, at 118.

[xxxi] Posner at 107

[xxxii] Armstrong at 501.

[xxxvii] But, her story about taking the backyard photos was in place as early as 5 days after the assassination.[xxxvii] Was she being pressured to say that she took the photos? Or did she really believe that she took the photos? Then, two days later, Marina tells Secret Service Special Agent Leo Gopadze during an interview that she forgot to tell him that she had copies of the infamous backyard photos and she burned them after Oswald’s mother, Marguerite Oswald, suggested that she do so after the assassination.[xxxvii]

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