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  • Matt Crumpton

Ep 50: Oswald in New Orleans (Part 5)

Over the last 4 episodes, we’ve been unpacking Lee Harvey Oswald’s time in New Orleans, and the characters who allegedly surrounded him. We looked at the intelligence connected coffee company where Oswald worked and the ease with which Oswald obtained a passport - even though there should have been a State Department lookout card in place to stop him. We also did a deep dive on 544 Camp Street and Oswald’s arrest and subsequent radio and TV publicity tour where he promoted the views Fair Play for Cuba Committee.

 

In this episode, we turn our attention to two rural Louisiana towns north of Baton Rouge: Jackson and Clinton. Is it true that Oswald visited these towns in the Summer of 1963? If so, what was he doing? And was Oswald accompanied by David Ferrie and Clay Shaw?

 

Before we dive in to the Jackson/Clinton story, let’s talk about why it matters. Oswald is supposed to be a lone nut, according to the Warren Report, whose defenders maintain that Oswald had no relationship whatsoever with Guy Banister, David Ferrie, or Clay Shaw.

 

So, if Oswald is hanging out with Clay Shaw and David Ferrie – as Warren Report critics allege happened in Jackson and Clinton, that evidence bolsters the idea that Oswald is potentially some sort of operative. Oswald hanging out with Ferrie and Shaw would also undermine the idea that Oswald acted to kill president Kennedy on his own, if at all. But, like anything that matters in the JFK Assassination, this story is intensely disputed territory.

 

Jackson

 

In late August of 1963, on a Wednesday afternoon, an unknown white male walked into a barbershop in rural Jackson, Louisiana. Edwin Lee McGehee rarely cut the hair of strangers, so he remembered this man. The man asked McGehee for a haircut. During the 15 minutes that McGehee cut the man’s hair, the stranger asked him if there were any jobs available because he QUOTE “really needed a job.”[1] The man asked if they were hiring at the East Louisiana State Hospital.

 

McGehee told the man there were always jobs there and referred him to the local state representative, Reeves Morgan, who McGehee thought could help the man. McGehee also said that it may help him to get a job at the hospital if he was a registered voter. He then directed Oswald to the county registrar of voters, Henry Palmer.[2] After the assassination, McGehee recognized Lee Harvey Oswald from TV as the same man who had come into his barber shop that day.[3]

 

The man who McGehee claimed was Oswald apparently followed his advice about going to visit state rep Reeves Morgan. Morgan told investigators from the House Select Committee on Assassinations that a man who introduced himself as Lee Oswald came to his house to ask about getting a job at the East Louisiana State Hospital in late August of 1963.[4]  Morgan advised Oswald that he needed to take a civil service examination to get a job there. And that it would help Oswald to get the job if he was a registered voter. Morgan says that he met with Oswald for 20 to 25 minutes that day.[5]

 

Morgan believed that Oswald had been driven to his home by someone because he heard the car drive up, but he didn’t see it. According to Morgan’s HSCA interview, his daughter, Mary, who was at home with him, also did not see the car. However, when Mary was interviewed by author John Armstrong in 1994, she said that she was leaving the house when the car driving Oswald arrived. She is certain that the man she saw was Lee Harvey Oswald. Her brother, Van Morgan, told authors James DiEugenio and Bill Davy that when Oswald came to their house, he was playing outside when he saw a black Cadillac pull up. Van was about ten years old at the time, but he did recall that the driver of the Cadillac had a shock of white hair.[6]

 

But, McGehee and Morgan weren’t the only ones who saw the black Cadillac.  

 

Clinton Voter Drive

 

Clinton is a small Louisiana town that’s about 15 miles east of Jackson - the place where Oswald allegedly got a haircutand visited Reeves Morgan.

 

In the Summer of 1963, much of the rural South was a hotbed of anti-black racism. Organizations like the Congress of Racial Equality, also known as CORE, were focused on securing the voting rights of black citizens by coordinating voter registration drives throughout the South.

 

In late August of 1963, CORE was running a voter registration drive in Clinton, Louisiana. In the East Feliciana parish, for which Clinton was the Parish seat, only one percent of black residents were on the voter roles as of 1962.[7] This registration drive to help enfranchise all citizens in the Parish was dangerous business, with constant threats of violence from the Ku Klux Klan and others. About a year after the Clinton voter registration push, three volunteers associated with CORE (James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner) were abducted and murdered in rural Mississippi.[8]The Gene Hackman film, Mississippi Burning was loosely based on this incident.[9]

 

The Clinton voter registration drive caused long lines of voters to stand outside in the August heat. Corrie Collins was the chairman of CORE in Clinton and was outside observing the registration drive. He testified in the Clay Shaw trial that he noticed when a new black Cadillac pulled up to the curb across the street from the voter registration office. He saw two men stay in the car and one man get out of the car. About three months later, when Collins saw the photo of Oswald on TV after the assassination, he realized that Oswald was the man he had seen at the voter registration drive.

 

Collins told HSCA investigators QUOTE “There weren’t many strange cars in Clinton at the time and when one would show up everyone, white and black, would keep an eye on them. So, when they drove up, I was outside and noticed them, most of the people registering that day was black and every now and then a white would go in. So, Lee Harvey Oswald was a stranger and was easy to spot.”[10]

 

Henry Palmer was the voter registrar in Clinton. His office was open on Thursday, Friday and Saturday mornings. Around 10:30 on a Thursday during a CORE voter registration drive, Palmer took a break and went across the street to get coffee, passing the line of people waiting to register. He noticed two white people standing in the long line of otherwise black people. When Palmer saw the new looking black Cadillac, he wanted to know more about who was in it, since there were not many cars that fancy in Clinton.[11]  So, Palmer said that he asked the Town Marshall, John Manchester, to run a 1028 on the car, which is a license plate check, to find out what this black Cadillac was doing Clinton.  

 

After speaking with Palmer, Manchester then approached the Cadillac to get more information. He told the HSCA, QUOTE: “I walked over and as I would, or any police officer would do, I just checked the car out and I walked over and asked the driver would he please identify himself. He gave me his driver’s license and I looked at his driver’s license and I asked him what his business was in town. He told me he was a representative of the International Trade Mart in New Orleans.” (which is where Clay Shaw worked as director.)[12] In Jim Garrison’s case against Clay Shaw, Manchester recited the same story and positively identified Clay Shaw as the man who was driving the black Cadillac.[13]

 

As a quick sidebar, Garrison claimed in his book, On the Trail of Assassins, that an actual license plate check was run on the vehicle and it came back to Jeff Biddison, who was a close associate of Clay Shaw at the International Trademart. If true, this would be a big deal because it would place that exact vehicle in Shaw’s orbit. But, I could not find any factual support for the idea that a vehicle license plate report, or a 1028, was actually run on the license plate by Manchester or anyone else.

 

Since there is no proof of a license plate report being run, it is by no means established that this specific black Cadillac was linked to Biddison. It is true, however, that Clay Shaw’s associate, Jeff Biddison, did own a new black Cadillac that matched the description of the one seen by witnesses. So, we can’t rule out that these witnesses saw Biddison’s Cadillac. It’s just not proven as fact, like it would be if a license plate check had been run. It looks like John Manchester took Henry Palmer’s request for a 1028 as an informal request to get more information on the people in the car by talking to them, as opposed to running a license plate report on the vehicle.[14]

 

Either way, John Manchester did identify Clay Shaw as the man he spoke with. We know that Manchester isn’t just making this up because he was stationed in front of the voter registration drive that day and Corie Collins saw him speaking to the two men inside the black Cadillac.[15] Collins’ fellow CORE volunteer, William Dunn, was with Collins on the sidewalk. Both Collins and Dunn said that the two men in the Cadillac were Clay Shaw and David Ferrie.[16]

 

Palmer Speaks to Oswald

 

When Henry Palmer testified at the Clay Shaw trial, he confirmed that Manchester told him that the men in the black Cadillac were representatives of the International Trade Mart. His response was to ask Manchester QUOTE “what the International Trade Mart representatives were doing in Clinton.”[17] Since Palmer recalled that he was told by Manchester that the man driving the Cadillac was from the International Trade Mart, that tends to corroborate Manchester’s story. And it also establishes that this isn’t just mistaken identity. What are the chances that the guy could look like Clay Shaw and would have also said he was representing the International Trade Mart, where Clay Shaw served as the director?  

 

And while Manchester didn’t get a good look at the passenger, Henry Palmer did. Palmer said QUOTE: “his eyebrows were heavy and his hair needed combing. He had messed up hair. I noticed that. That is all I could see of him.”[18] When Palmer was shown a photo of David Ferrie, he said QUOTE “I can’t recognize the individual, but the hair and the eyebrows are similar.”[19]

 

As registrar of voters, Henry Palmer interacted with everyone who was trying to register that day. He positively identified Lee Harvey Oswald as being one of two white men who were in line.[20]  When Oswald reached the front of the line, Palmer asked him for his identification and he pulled out a Navy ID card.[21] Palmer said QUOTE “I looked at the name on it. It had Lee H. Oswald with a New Orleans address.”[22]

 

Oswald wasn’t able to register to vote because he couldn’t prove that he lived in the Parish for long enough. He asked Palmer about getting a job at the Jackson Hospital. Palmer then told him that he did not need to be a registered voter to get a job at the hospital.[23] After that, Oswald got up and left, without registering to vote.[24]

 

Garrison investigators, Anne Dischler and Francis Fruge, met with Henry Palmer in May of 1967, when Palmer was still the registrar of voters. He pulled out a book to show the investigators and said QUOTE “Look, this is where Oswald registered.” According to Dischler, although Oswald’s name had been written over, you could still see the capital O, the space where Lee H had been signed, and the shadow of his name.[25] Palmer was coy about why the name had been written over, but later admitted that he and John Manchester decided not to say anything about Oswald being there. The next day, when the two investigators returned, that notebook was missing with no explanation.[26]

 

More Witnesses

 

So, far, we have six people who say they saw Oswald in connection with the Clinton/Jackson incident: Edwin McGehee, Reeves Morgan, Van Morgan and his sister, Mary, Henry Palmer, and Corrie Collins.

 

We also have the two Morgan children, John Manchester, Henry Palmer, Corrie Collins, and William Dunn who all say they saw the black Cadillac. But, they weren’t the only ones. Local resident, Charlotte Greenup said that the black Cadillac stayed there for hours. [27] Corrie Collins and William Dunn’s fellow CORE volunteer, James Bell was asked how he so vividly remembered the black Cadillac. [28] Bell said, QUOTE “When you’re working for CORE, you begin to try to read people and automobiles as fast as you can.”[29] Eddie Lee Spears also recalled the black car in Clinton with three white men sitting inside of it.

 

Henry Clark, a local grocery clerk, saw a very tall man walking down the street towards him in a dark business suit. As the man approached Clark, he turned to get into a black car parked at the curb. Clark also remembered that a man with unusual hair which QUOTE “stood up in all directions on his head” was making calls on the payphone that day. Henry Clark positively identified Clay Shaw as the tall man and David Ferrie as the man with crazy hair..[30]

 

East Louisiana State Hospital

 

Around noon the next day – this is the third day of the trip overall if you are keeping track – Oswald apparently visited the East Louisiana State Hospital.[31] Bobbie Dedon, a nurse’s aid at the hospital, saw Oswald and gave him directions to the personnel office where he may have filled out an employment application. Dedon was interviewed by the HSCA in 1978, and when she was shown photos of Oswald, she said that the man she saw was very similar to the man in the photos, but had some differences. Specifically, she said “They favor and then they don’t favor. This man has fuller lips and this man has a wire mouth. Haircuts are different. Their ears are the same.”[32]

 

Maxine Kemp worked in personnel office at the hospital. Kemp says that after the assassination of President Kennedy, she heard the name Lee Oswald on the radio and then she checked the employment applicant files for the hospital for the name Lee Oswald, and she found a file titled, “Oswald, Lee.” But, when she was interviewed by Jim Garrison’s investigators in 1967, the file had gone missing. [33] Maxine Kemp isn’t the only one who saw the Oswald file. It was also seen by hospital personnel director, Aline Woodside.[34] [35] [36]

 

Assuming the witnesses are correct about what they saw, what was the point of this whole episode? Why would Oswald try to get a job at the East Hospital, which was a mental institution? Jim Garrison concluded that the goal of the operation was to get Oswald’s name in the files at the hospital, so that he could then be switched to have a patient file, which would show that Oswald was mentally unstable if they wanted to play that card. The part of the plan that Shaw and Ferrie did not think about, according to Garrison, was the massive CORE voter rally, which would make 3 out of town white guys in a fancy car easy to notice and to remember.

 

Counterpoints

 

We have reviewed the witness statements regarding Oswald, Shaw, Ferrie, and the black Cadillac in Jackson and Clinton. But, is it possible that all of those witnesses were either lying or mistaken? What are the counter arguments from the Warren Report defender side? There are a few.

 

First, Oswald never missed a night at home except when he was in jail for one night in August, according to Marina. He would have had to miss at least two nights away from home per the timeline of this story (unless the men drove back to New Orleans each night, which is possible.) It’s also true that Marina’s testimony is all over the place throughout the investigations of the JFK Assassination. So, just because Marina Oswald says something is true, doesn’t mean that it is.

 

The second issue is the exact timing of the multi day incident in question. There is not a precise date for when it happened. Edwin McGehee and Reeves Morgan both mentioned it being a cool day when Oswald visited. McGehee said the air conditioner was not on. And Morgan had a fire going in his fireplace. We know that Morgan was burning trash in his fireplace – he wasn’t burning a fire to stay warm. Nevertheless, this is a fair point to say that we don’t know exactly when this happened.

 

The third potential weakness of the Warren Report critic argument are the inconsistent statements of the witnesses. The witnesses didn’t all say exactly the same thing. For example, Corrie Collins told Garrison investigator Anne Deschler that he saw two men get out of the back of the black Cadillac, when others said that only Oswald got out of it.[37]

 

The fourth counterpoint to the Clinton/Jackson witnesses is that Clay Shaw claimed that he was never in Clinton or Jackson during the relevant times. Shaw’s boss, who owned the Trade Mart, Lloyd Cobb, said he was in regular communication with Shaw during this period and did not recall Shaw being out of touch for a three day period. But, their communications were not in person. They were over the phone.[38]

 

The fifth counterpoint is that John Manchester and Henry Palmer were both members of the local Ku Klux Klan at the time.[39] The idea is that Palmer and Manchester had a bond and would be willing to lie on behalf of one another. And, sure, the KKK was and is a terrible organization. But, Manchester and Palmer’s mere membership in the KKK doesn’t mean that they were lying about what they saw, which, remember, was also corroborated by several black people and CORE volunteers. Also, if Manchester and Palmer are working together to mislead, what would their goal be?

 

Finally, the sixth argument against the Jackson/Clinton witnesses is that they didn’t come forward on their own. Instead, they only spoke after being found by investigators for Jim Garrison years later.

 

But, Edwin McGehee says that he contacted Reeves Morgan after the assassination to tell him that Oswald was the man he sent to him. Reeves Morgan told McGehee that he had called the FBI and told them about the incident. So, McGehee thought it was resolved.[40] Morgan said that he called the FBI in Baton Rouge about the matter and that he was told that they already knew Oswald had been in the area. The FBI, for its part, stated in internal memos that Morgan never contacted them.[41] But, Morgan says the FBI then called him back to follow up on what clothes Oswald was wearing at the time.[42] Other witnesses said the reason they didn’t come forward earlier is that they thought the FBI would contact them, or that they thought it wasn’t that important.

 

Conclusion

 

We just went over the arguments against the credibility of the witness statements that put Oswald traveling in a black Cadillac with Clay Shaw and David Ferrie in Clinton and Jackson in late August or early September of 1963. In total, we covered at least 10 witnesses who recalled seeing the black Cadillac, 7 witnesses who identified Lee Harvey Oswald, 4 witnesses who identified Clay Shaw, and 3 witnesses who identified David Ferrie.

 

When it comes to Oswald, we have the possibility of someone impersonating him, which has continually popped up as we’ve studied this case. But, there is no other explanation for Clay Shaw and David Ferrie. The evidence showing Ferrie was there is the weakest. While, the evidence of Oswald and Clay Shaw being present is much stronger.

 

The Clinton/Jackson saga is a classic inference split point in this case. The question is what is more likely: That all of these witnesses were mistaken or lying OR that Clay Shaw was lying.

 

The thing that hammers it home for me – and puts me firmly in the Warren Report critic camp on this issue - is the consistency of the story about Oswald trying to get a job at the hospital. Oswald mentions his desire for a job at East Hospital to the barber, McGehee, who then refers Oswald to state rep Reeves Morgan, who also says Oswald was trying to get a job at the hospital. Morgan, then told him it would help get a job if he registered to vote, so Oswald then goes to see Henry Palmer, the registrar, who says that Oswald was registering just to get a job at the hospital. And, on top of that, we have nurse aid Bobbie Dedon, who gave directions to the hospital personnel office to someone who looked just like Oswald. We also have Maxine Kemp and Aline Woodside who both said that they recalled seeing Lee Oswald’s file at the hospital.

The HSCA’s conclusion about the Clinton/Jackson incident was QUOTE: “If the witnesses were not only truthful but accurate as well in their accounts, they established an association of an undetermined nature between Ferrie, Shaw, and Oswald less than three months before the assassination. The Committee was therefore, inclined to believe that Oswald was in Clinton in late August, early September 1963, and that he was in the company of David Ferrie, if not Clay Shaw.”[43]

 

Like the HSCA, I don’t believe that the Clinton/Jackson witnesses made their stories up. I cannot think of a plausible reason for all of the witnesses to do that. There are simply no incentives for the witnesses to lie. And if they did lie, that would mean someone had to coordinate their stories together. We have no evidence for that. In my view, the most reasonable conclusion here is that Lee Harvey Oswald, or someone who looked like him and was trying to impersonate him, did, in fact, travel in a black Cadillac to Clinton and then Jackson, with Clay Shaw, and probably David Ferrie in late August or early September of 1963.

 

NEXT TIME ON SOLVING JFK: We wrap up the remaining issues in New Orleans, with a focus on David Ferrie before turning our attention to the Jim Garrison’s trial against Clay Shaw.

 


[1] House Select Committee on Assassinations, Interview Notes of Edwin Lee McGehee, 1/19/78, available at John Armstrong, Harvey & Lee, CD-Rom, File August 63 – 14; Armstrong at 578.

[2] Id. at File August 63-15.

[3] Id.

[6] James DiEugenio, Destiny Betrayed, Second Edition, at 89.

[10] HSCA Interview of Corrie Collins, 10/24/78.

[12] HSCA Executive Session testimony of William Manchester.

[15] HSCA Interview Notes of Corrie Collins, available at Armstrong, Harvey & Lee, CD-Rom, File August 63 – 23.

[16] HSCA Affidavit of Corrie Collins, 11/7/78; HSCA Deposition of William Dunn, 4/18/78.

[23] Id.

[25] Joan Mellen, A Fairwell to Justice, at 217.

[26] Id. at 219.

[27] DiEugenio at 90.

[28] Id. (citing NODA memorandum of 1/31/68).

[29] Id.

[30] NODA Affidavit of Henry Clark, 2/12/67.

[32] HSCA Deposition of Bobbie Dedon.

[33] Armstrong at 581.

[34] NODA memorandum by Andrew Sciambra to Jim Garrison, 2/28/67; DiEugenio at 93.

[35] https://digitalcollections-baylor.quartexcollections.com/Documents/Detail/new-orleans-april-24-1963-sept.-24-1963-late-august-clinton-la/713567?item=713579  (When Oswald was speaking to Henry Palmer to try to register to vote, he told Palmer that he was staying with a doctor who worked at the hospital.)

[36] HSCA Document 006098. (Palmer told the HSCA that he thought it was a Spanish sounding name, which he says he gave to Garrison’s investigator. Life reporter, Richard Billings, noted in his journal that Garrison believed that Oswald was living with a Cuban doctor named Frank Silva. But, Palmer also told the HSCA that Oswald said he was living with a doctor from East Hospital named Doctor Person. We learned from the HSCA’s subpoena of a list of doctors at East Hospital that there were two doctors with similar names at East Hospital to the ones Oswald apparently said he was living with: Doctor Frank Silva, and Doctor Malcolm Pierson.)

[43] HSCA Report, at 142-145.

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