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  • Matt Crumpton

Ep 44: The Backyard Photos (Part 2)

 In the last episode, we started to unpack the facts surrounding the infamous backyard photos of Lee Harvey Oswald. These pictures show Oswald holding a rifle in one hand, and two supposedly communist newspapers in the other. He’s also got a revolver holstered on his waist. In the absence of any other information, this picture says a lot.


If the pictures are authentic, then they show that Oswald had both the rifle and the revolver in late March of 1963. The newspapers appear to support the idea that he was a radical communist, which some Warren Report defenders say was Oswald’s motive in killing the President.


In this episode, we look at arguments advanced by critics about the authenticity of these pictures. Should we take these backyard photographs at face value, or is there something more going on?


Photo Is Fake Arguments


After Oswald was arrested, he was interviewed by Captain Fritz at the Dallas Jail. Fritz showed him one of the versions of the backyard photo.[1] In Fritz’s declassified notes, he wrote QUOTE “showed photo of gun. Would not discuss… [Oswald] says I made picture superimposed.”[2] And Oswald also told Fritz QUOTE “I understand photography very well and I will prove this is a fake.”[3]


It’s true that Oswald worked at Jaggers, Chiles, Stovall and had knowledge of photography. So, Oswald, more so than the average person, would be aware of photographic forgery techniques. Then again, if you believe that Oswald is guilty, then we can’t take Oswald’s analysis seriously because most guilty people will say anything to keep their freedom.


While Oswald says that the picture of him holding two guns in the backyard was faked, the HSCA photo experts concluded that the image was authentic. Like we discussed before, there were several reasons why they reached this conclusion: the scratches around the edge of image, the imperfect edges, and the blur away from the center of the image. All of those things were consistent with the photo coming from the Imperial Reflex Camera.[4] And the HSCA photo panel did test CE 750, the specific Imperial Reflex Camera that was ultimately determined to belong to Oswald.


Aside from Oswald’s claim that the photos are faked, are there any other reasons to believe that may be true? If you ask Warren Report critics, there are at least nine more reasons to doubt the authenticity of the backyard photos.


First, the man pictured is wearing black pants and a black polo style shirt. After thorough searches, neither of those articles of clothing were found among Oswald’s belongings.[5] If the shirt and pants were found, it would be a strong argument in support of the photo being authentic. But, they weren’t found. Sure, Oswald could have gotten rid of the clothes, but only about 7 and a half months passed in between the date when the photos were allegedly taken and the search of Oswald’s belongings. Given that Oswald didn’t have a lot of money, it doesn’t seem like it would make sense for him to just throw those clothes away. If you think Oswald really did take these photos, it doesn’t make sense that Oswald would have thrown the clothes away to destroy the evidence because, remember, he took the incriminating photo in the first place. That’s the act of a zealot – not someone worried about avoiding jail.


Second, there is an inconsistency with the rifle sling in the backyard photos as compared to the rifle sling that was found in the Schoolbook Depository. The leather sling attached to the rifle found in the schoolbook depository was not the same as the sling in the backyard photographs according to the FBI’s own expert, Lyndal Shaneyfelt, who told the Warren Commission QUOTE “I find it to be different from the sling that is presently on the rifle. It has the appearance of being a piece of rope that is tied at both ends, rather than a leather sling.”[6] So, Oswald would have had to get a new leather rifle sling. And, that would not have been too hard for him to do. He could go to any gun shop in Dallas and buy a leather rifle sling – just like he could have gone to any gun shop in Dallas to buy a gun (instead of the whole mail order charades that he allegedly ended up doing). Either way, the necessity of Oswald acquiring a different rifle sling is one more thing to consider.


Third, many critics say that something doesn’t look right with Oswald’s chin in the photo. The focus of these claims is typically that the shadow under the chin goes straight down, whereas the shadow of Oswald’s body goes to the right.[7] The FBI attempted to recreate the photo with the same lighting at the same time of day. They did, but then they removed the face of the man from the photo so that you couldn’t see where the shadow on the nose went, which makes the exercise done by the FBI sort of pointless.[8]


The implication by critics is that Oswald’s face was added into another photo and that the shadows don’t match. The other discrepancy that is emphasized by skeptics is the shape of the jawbone and chin structure of the person in the photo as compared to other known photos of Oswald.


Recently, there have been researchers, like professor Henry Farid, who claim to have recreated the image with shadows that are consistent with the backyard photo. Farid performed detailed tests to confirm how the shadows would fall on human faces using 3D models. In doing that experiment, he confirmed that the shadows in the photo are consistent with how they would have been if taken at the same time of day in that location.[1]In other words, Farid believes that the backyard photo is authentic.[9]


On the other hand, there’s language in the HSCA report that leaves the door open that the image could have been a photographic composite. The HSCA microscopically examined the area above and below the horizontal chin cleft. They were looking to see whether the grains of silver in the photo were consistently distributed. When they did this, they found that there was no difference in grain structure. But, the HSCA report then has this disclaimer: “Under very carefully adjusted display conditions, the scanned image of the Oswald backyard negative did exhibit irregular, very fine lines, in the chin area. The lines appeared, however, only with the Aerospace gradient-enhancement process, where the technique was applied at a much higher resolution.”[10]The HSCA report goes on to explain that the lines don’t prove forgery because  “similar lines, although less pronounced,  were found on a known authentic photograph.”


Warren Report critics have pointed out that the grain pattern would be consistent and the scratches would also be present if an Imperial Reflex camera was used to take a picture of an existing picture which had been doctored. This is because the photographic experts examined only one negative and the 133A de Mohrenshchildt photo. And their findings of authenticity were simply that 1) the photo came from Oswald’s Imperial Reflex camera and 2) because the grains on the photograph were consistent throughout, it was unlikely that there was an image superimposed on the images they examined.


But, a person who was skilled in photographic forgery could simply take a photo of another forged photo with an Imperial Reflex camera, and the end result would have consistent scratch marks from an Imperial Reflex and a consistent grain pattern from the same photo. In other words, the metadata on the photo would be consistent with an authentic image, but the substance of the photo itself would not be original, but would be a picture of a picture.[11] The HSCA findings do not rule out that scenario.[12]


The fourth potential reason to view the backyard photos with skepticism is the “Ghost Photograph” that was found in the Dallas Police Department in 1993.[13] That year, the Department had all of their files catalogued by the City Manager’s office and made available to the public. When Reporters Ray and Mary LaFontaine searched the newly released Dallas Police documents they found a strange picture. It was a pose of the famous photograph of Oswald in the backyard, with the same background, but the figure of the man was cut out, leaving a white space in the shape of the man’s silhouette.[14] This image became known as the Ghost Photograph.


In addition to the Ghost Photograph, the reporters also found a photo of officer Bobby Brown in a pose similar to Oswald in the backyard of the Neely Street house. According to Brown, he took that picture at the request of the Secret Service a few days after the assassination. Brown told author Gary Savage that he then had his image removed from the photo because he did not want to be identified with it. He said he cut his image out of a developed photo and placed a white sheet of paper behind it. In other words, Brown claimed that the ghost photo that was in the Dallas PD archives was a picture of Officer Brown – not a photo of Oswald.


But, anyone who looks carefully at the images can immediately tell that the cutout image does not match the outline of Brown’s body. However, the outline is an exact match for Oswald’s body in the image labeled as 133-C, which is the one pose that the Warren Commission did not have access to. It turns out that it wasn’t Brown that was cut out of the photo. It was Lee Harvey Oswald.


When confronted with this information, Officer Brown changed his story and said that he actually cut the picture out because the FBI wanted to get Oswald’s image on a white background.[15] But, for what purpose? Brown specifically said it was him in the photo and he cut his image out because he didn’t want to be associated with it. But, then he changed his story to something else when challenged with the reality that the photo was really of Oswald. The fact that there is no police report explaining why these photos exist is concerning, especially after the key witness to the Ghost Photograph, Officer Brown, was caught in a lie, that continues to be unexplained to this day.  


The Fifth reason to doubt the backyard photos is the two competing stories of exactly how the photos were found. Detective John Adamcik and Detective Guy Rose, two of the four Dallas cops who said they didn’t see the Imperial Reflex Camera, were asked by the FBI about how they discovered the backyard photos known as 133-A and 133-B. They said QUOTE “from a packet of 47 photographs found in the search.” Adamcik said that he numbered each photo and placed his initials on them.[16] And, when we look at the back of those photos relied on by the Warren Commission, they are indeed numbered, and Adamcik’s initials appear on the back. So, it looks like the photos were found in a packet of 47, just like Adamcik and Rose say. Everything seems to be consistent with that story.


But Detective Rose told a different story later when he spoke to the Warren Commission.[17] In that testimony, he erases Adamcik from the story and says that it was just Detective Rose and Detective McCabe who found the photos. Given that Adamcik’s initials are on the photos, he’s telling the truth here and Rose is either lying or mistaken.[18] I don’t know which. And I don’t know why.


The sixth reason to doubt the backyard photo is that the two supposedly “Communist” newspapers that Oswald was holding in his hands were contradictory. The Militant was published by Trotskyites who sought an international communist revolution. They didn’t just want revolution in their backyard. They wanted it to be worldwide. Whereas the Worker was aligned with the Soviet Union. The ideology that was espoused in the two publications differed wildly. For anyone who was steeped in left wing politics it would look silly for Oswald to be holding up both of these papers at the same time.[19]


Seventh, there is the more out on a limb argument that the photo itself is authentic, but it was taken of another person who is not actually Oswald. The analysis here is really focused on the face of the person in the backyard photographs as compared to the face of Lee Harvey Oswald when he was in custody. Now, everyone assumes these are the same people because the photo looks very much like Oswald, AND because Oswald’s wife is on the record saying that she took that photo of him. I spent awhile comparing the backyard photo face with the face of Oswald in jail.[20] One thing that jumps out at me is that Oswald’s chin is more pointy, whereas the chin in the backyard photo is squared. But, if we are to believe Captain Fritz’s notes, even Oswald himself admitted that it was his face in the picture, although he said someone superimposed it there.


The eighth reason to pause before adopting the idea that the backyard photos are authentic is that there are three people who claim to have been shown a backyard photo at the Dallas Police Station before the photos were discovered in Ruth Paine’s garage on Saturday afternoon, the day after the assassination. Washington Evening Star reporter, Jerry O’Leary confirmed to the FBI that he was shown a copy of the same backyard photo of Oswald that appeared in Life Magazine at the Dallas Police Station either on the evening of the assassination, or early the next morning.[21] 


Michael Paine told the Warren Commission that on the night of the assassination, the police asked him where Oswald was standing when he was holding the rifle that was later on the cover of Life Magazine. Paine said that the picture was taken at Oswald’s Neely Street house. He said that he could tell it was that house from the clapboard on the house in the photo.


But according to Michael Paine’s Warren Commission testimony, went to the Neely Street duplex where this photo was taken only one time – the night that he went to pick up the Oswalds for dinner with him, his kids, and his wife, Ruth.[22] Paine never went around to the back yard when he was there. So, it’s surprising that he was able to identify the backyard, and according to him, that identification was on the night of the assassination before the photos were found.


Paine’s testimony about being shown the photo on Friday night is supported by the notes of Captain Will Fritz. In those notes, Fritz describes asking Oswald on Saturday late morning and early afternoon about where he was living when the picture was made. He said Oswald was evasive about the location, but QUOTE “Mr. Paine told me about where Oswald lived on Neely Street.”[23] At first, I didn’t think this was a big deal because we don’t know the exact moment when the photos were discovered on Saturday afternoon, and it’s possible that they were discovered in time to bring them to the station to be in Fritz’s notes. But, Fritz says Michael Paine identified the house. And we know that Paine was at the police station on Friday night, not Saturday morning or afternoon. Together, Jerry O’Leary, Michael Paine, and Will Fritz show that at least one of the backyard photos was at the police department before it was officially found.


Finally, the ninth reason to have concerns about the backyard photo is the story of Roscoe White and the photograph known as 133C-Dees. Roscoe White began working for the Dallas Police on October 7, 1963 – about six weeks before the assassination. White worked in the photographic department of the Dallas Police. According to his widow, Geneva Dees, White was skilled in trick photography.[24] She said that the photo was obtained by White during the course of his employment with the Dallas Police.


What makes the Roscoe White angle intriguing for a lot of people is that White served in the Marines in Atsugi, Japan at the same time as Oswald.[25] Given that enlisted men would go to the same clubs, it’s very possible (but not confirmed) that Roscoe White may have known Oswald in the Marines. Oh, and get this, White’s wife, Geneva, worked at Jack Ruby’s Carousel Club. Those facts are not disputed. What is much more contested is whether Roscoe White shot at President Kennedy, which is what his widow and his son both believe.[26]


There’s one more point relevant to White as it pertains to the backyard photos. White broke his right wrist in the military, which resulted in a protrusion a couple of inches behind his wrist. Some researchers believe that this same protrusion appears on the arm of the man in the backyard photos. I personally cannot tell. The picture isn’t clear enough for me to make it out. Whether Roscoe White’s body is pictured in the backyard photo or not, you have to admit that it’s a little strange that the HSCA photo experts ended up reviewing a picture from a guy who served with Oswald in Atsugi, was an expert in trick photography, and told his family he was personally involved in the Kennedy Assassination. Then again, maybe White just made a copy of the photo for himself because he knew it may have historical value and the marine link to Oswald and Geneva’s employment at the carousel club could be coincidences.


One final point: If it really is Oswald in the photo, it’s possible that Oswald was told to take this photo as part of his work setting up a legend of a serious communist who was potentially violent. I’m not saying that’s what happened – just that it is a possibility to consider. In other words, even if the photo is completely legit, that doesn’t necessarily mean that the story behind it is.




Even after all of the information we’ve covered over the last few episodes, I don’t know for sure whether the backyard photos were faked. I do think it’s possible. But, this is what I do know:


-       The negative that was tested was authentic and was taken by an Imperial Reflex Camera. But, a photographic forgery is still possible. We can’t rule out that someone took a picture of a composite picture from the Imperial Reflex Camera.


-       The circumstances surrounding the discovery of the Imperial Reflex Camera and the substitution of that camera into the record in exchange for the Stereo Realist camera is suspicious. The timing of Marina staying at Robert’s house in between changing her story, and the Imperial Reflex Camera coming from Robert Oswald, seems to suggest that they may have spoken about it while she stayed with him. But, why would Robert Oswald want to incriminate his own brother? If he’s not telling the truth, then that’s what he’s doing. If he is telling the truth, then why did he hold on to the camera for so long without telling the FBI? There’s not really hard proof here. Just unanswered questions.


-       The fact that 3 people saw the backyard photo before it was officially discovered at the Dallas Police Department – Jerry O’Leary, Michael Paine, and Captain Fritz, combined with the Ghost Photograph cutout of Oswald from 133C and Officer Brown’s changing stories on why he cut the figure out, tends to show that there could have been forgery or some sort of shenanigans going on.


-       One argument that cuts against Oswald is the handwriting match on the back of the de Mohrenschildt photo. If the expert is right about Oswald writing the inscription to “To My Friend George,” then that seems to prove that Oswald must have taken the photo if he wrote this on the back. But, the additional handwriting from 2 other unknown people who aren’t Marina or de Mohrenschildt makes that evidence a bit confusing.


My ultimate answer on the backyard photos is that, while the single photo and the single negative tested by the HSCA were not doctored, we can’t rule out that someone took a picture of a picture. The foreknowledge of the photos before they were discovered is the biggest problem to me for taking them seriously. Because of that and all the other reasons that were mentioned in the last 2 episodes, whether Oswald’s face was superimposed or not, the backyard photos should be viewed with healthy skepticism.


NEXT TIME ON SOLVING JFK: We turn our attention to the General Walker shooting. Did Lee Harvey Oswald shoot at General Walker? And why is it so important to find out?

[3] Warren Report, 608-609.

[5] Armstrong 492.

[7] CE 746A-C, Meagher at 208

[8] CE 748

[11] See Armstrong, Harvey & Lee at 496.

[12] See id. at 497. 

[13] James DiEugenio, Reclaiming Parkland at 196-97

[14] Id.

[15] Id. at 197.

[21] FBI DeLoach to Mohr 2-25-64

[23] CE 2003

[24] Armstrong at 500.

[25] Id.

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