As a citizen of the world, Lee Oswald owned and saved many official identification documents. Many of these have a story to tell. He kept the passport that he threw down on the desk of Richard Snyder when he attempted to defect in Moscow. Despite his eventual dishonorable discharge, Oswald retained several military ID’s, including a Department of Defense card, which recent research strongly indicates that Oswald may have been working for the military as a contract agent.1 Lee and Marina saved numerous passports, birth records, and official documents from the United States, as well as the Soviet Union. Sometimes the documents Lee did not have in his possession tell a story. The official record states that he did not have a driver’s license; however, numerous witnesses in the Texas Department of Safety evidently had seen a license made out to Lee Harvey Oswald come through their office after the assassination.2 One very important document, which undoubtedly existed, is still cloaked in mystery, however: Oswald’s Louisiana birth certificate.
The confusing tale of Oswald’s birth certificate was never properly addressed within the pages of the Warren Report, the ultimate statement regarding his guilt. An image of a document, contained within Commission Exhibit 800 (“Group of Retouched Negatives”) contained the only documentation concerning Lee’s birth. It is a photographic negative, found among Lee’s belongings, of an image of what amounts to a voucher, stating that Lee Oswald’s birth certificate exists and is housed at the Office of Births, Marriages, and Deaths of Orleans Parish. In no way, shape, or form is it an actual birth certificate. The image was retouched (probably by Oswald himself when he created the negative), and does not show that the original document had been folded, torn, and taped back together; evidently indicating that Oswald probably kept this item in his wallet. The actual item (pictured below), not the negative, was found among Oswald’s possessions, and deposited in the National Archives in 1965 as “Item 448: Birth certificate No. 17034 for Lee Harvey Oswald reflecting birth 10-18-39. Folio 1321, Book No. 207.” It is unclear why this document was not entered into evidence, but the Warren Commission felt it necessary to enter three copies of Marina Oswald’s birth certificates (CE 129-131), as well as the Soviet birth certificate of daughter June (CE 1111). The confusing tale does not end there. As stated, CE 800 was not a birth certificate at all, rather, a statement that a birth certificate exists and where it could be found. Indeed, on December 2, 1963 (less than two weeks after the assassination) the Deputy Registrar of the Parish of Orleans sent a certified copy of the actual birth record to the FBI. For reasons that are unclear, this document was completely withheld from the Warren Report. Indeed, this certificate was withheld for 30 years, finally being released in 1994 as a result of the JFK Records Act of 1992. The Warren Report, which felt it necessary to include items such as CE 83 (“Photograph of young boy with a rocking horse”), CE 84 (“Unused envelope”), and CE 666 (“Diagram of a hair”), did not feel the need to include the proof of birth of the accused assassin himself, despite having it in their possession.
History books tell us that Lee Harvey Oswald was born on October 18, 1939 in New Orleans, Louisiana. His father, Robert Oswald, Sr., had passed away on August 19 of that year at the premature age of 43, leaving his widow, Marguerite, solely responsible for the arrangements for the upcoming birth. She contacted Dr. Bruno Mancuso, who agreed to perform the delivery at the French Hospital, a small private hospital with approximately 30 beds. Lee entered the world a healthy baby boy, discharged soon afterwards to the care of his mother. Of course, no one knew then that this child would grow up to be an assassin of world-shaking consequence, so his birth was hardly noticed. But, by the time Lee had grown and defected to the Soviet Union, he had drawn much attention to himself; consequently, the US government, particularly the FBI, started to take a close look at Oswald’s background. An FBI document, dated June 3, 1960, three years before the assassination, from the desk of J. Edgar Hoover, stated that there was a “possibility that an impostor is using Oswald’s birth certificate.”3 The topic of Lee’s birth certificate would become a preoccupation of the FBI for months, indeed years, to come. What raised these suspicions? What about Oswald’s birth certificate, in particular, would cause so much interest on the part of Hoover?
Researcher John Armstrong, the author of Harvey and Lee, spent the better part of a decade trying to unravel a mystery hypothesized by Richard Popkin in the 1960s: that there were actually two (or possibly more) Lee Oswalds, based on contradictory eyewitness reports that someone named “Lee Oswald” had been noted in locations where the substantiated Lee Oswald could not have been. This theory is beyond the scope of the subject at hand; however, Armstrong’s research into the identity and history of Lee Harvey Oswald was exhaustive, as evidenced by the massive collection of materials he amassed, now housed at the archives of Poage Legislative Library at Baylor University. Within that archive are photocopies of the document which had eluded researchers for decades: Lee Harvey Oswald’s actual birth record. The certified copy, verified by the Parish of Orleans and City of New Orleans, is not really a birth certificate in a traditional sense. It is, in fact, an affidavit attesting to the birth of Lee Oswald, recording the presence of Lee’s uncle, Harvey Oswald, before J.M. Batchelor, Chairman of the Board of Health for Orleans Parish. According to the document, Harvey appeared before the board on October 25, 1939, and confirmed Lee’s birth at the French Hospital on October 19. The document was endorsed by Batchelor and witnessed by two citizens of the parish, G. H. Giroux (parish recorder) and H. J. Prudhomme. Armstrong contacted an official of the Bureau of Vital Statistics of Louisiana concerning this birth record who stated that “this form is used for births occurring outside a hospital and without a midwife” and that “a French Hospital official should have executed a regular birth certificate” under the circumstances of Lee’s birth. The reasons for this apparent anomaly are unknown, especially curious because the French Hospital at this time had been functioning as a privately funded maternity hospital, which should have made such documentation a routine matter.4(Research indicates that the hospital records were destroyed at some point after the hospital closed in 1951.)5 In any case, Harvey Oswald, a man who Lee evidently knew nothing about6, was the only individual who officially vouched for Lee’s birth, for his mother (or any hospital employee) was not required to endorse any record and the other witnesses on the certificate seem to have been parish employees, rather than actual witnesses to the event. The exact nature of the family relationship between Marguerite Oswald and her brother-in-law, Harvey, is unclear, although, according to the marriage certificate, it appears that Harvey witnessed the wedding between Marguerite and the late Robert Oswald in 1933. The next day, October 26, a notice appeared in the New Orleans Times Picayune, announcing the birth of a son to the late Robert E. L. Oswald at the French Hospital.
A very curious incident was brought forth in the testimony of Marguerite Oswald before the Warren Commission which further muddied the waters. She was trying to explain an enigmatic letter that had been entered into evidence (CE 199). On October 2, 1955, a note signed by “Mrs. M. Oswald” was sent to Lee’s school, Warren Easton High, requesting that any of his records, including his birth certificate, be given to him, as the family would soon be moving to San Diego. Mrs. Oswald was quite resolute that she had not written this note. In October of 1955, Lee desired to join the Marine Corps. Marine recruits from New Orleans are sent to San Diego, and this note and its stated goal of assembling Lee’s identification documents seem to be indicative of his plans. However, he was only 16, a year younger than the generally acceptable age of enlistment. Despite this setback, Lee was adamant that he be given a chance. He informed his mother that he had dropped out of school with the intentions of enlisting. Marguerite testified: “So Lee was determined at age 16 and his birthday was going to be October 18th… that he was going to join the Marines. So what he wanted me to do was falsify his birth certificate. Which I would not do. And he kept after me, like a boy… ‘I don’t see why you don’t, just, put that I am 17 years old.’ I said, ‘Lee. We cannot do that.’ He said, ‘Everybody else-‘ I said, ‘So, I am not going to do it.’” Lee, taking the matter into his own hands, altered the birth date on his baptismal certificate as part of this deception.7
Marguerite, by this point concerned, sought out advice. She talked to her brother-in-law, Charles “Dutz” Murret, who told her, “Let him join, let him go. If he wants to go so badly, let him join the Marines.”8 She discussed the situation with a “family friend,” prominent New Orleans attorney Clem Sehrt, who said he could offer her no legal advice, but stated “a lot of boys join the service at age 16.”9 She also talked to a uniformed military officer she randomly encountered.
“There was a colonel on the street that I stopped-I didn’t know him-I said, ‘Sir, I would like to talk with you.’ I told him about the boy wanting to join the Marines and I didn’t know what to do. I was frantic. And he was insistent that I let him join the Marines at age 16. So he advised me, ‘Well, if he doesn’t want to go to school, let him join the Marines. It is done all the time.’”10
The next day, when she returned home from work, a uniformed recruitment officer was at her home. Lee had evidently made contact with the Marine recruiters, as a minor without parental permission, and had received encouragement from them.
“He (the recuiter) was very vague about the thing. I said, ‘NO, Lee is too young, age 16, to join the Marines. They are liable to send him overseas.’ He said, ‘There is less delinquency in Japan and those places than we have here.’ He saw nothing wrong with it. What he was doing was telling me to falsify his birth certificate.”11
Despite her reservations, and for reasons which remain unclear, Marguerite returned to Clem Sehrt, who evidently had a change of heart about his legal obligations surrounding Lee’s enlistment.
“Lee’s birth records were in New Orleans, and I knew the authorities could easily check on this child, age 16- his birth record. So in order to have a happy situation, so I could work, and to see Lee, I went to an attorney and paid $5 and said that I lost Lee’s birth certificate, and kind of motioned to the attorney. I knew it would not stand up. I bought Lee a duffle bag and everything, and Lee went-we told him goodbye, and Lee was going to join the Marines. I had to accept that, gentlemen. There was no other way I could do, but accept the fact to let him go.”
When asked at her testimony who the attorney was, Marguerite stated it was, indeed, Clem Sehrt, which elicited a sudden response from Warren Commission member Hale Boggs, US Representative from New Orleans, who stated the he knew Sehrt “very well.” Marguerite seemed rather shaken by this statement; indeed, these were the only words uttered by Boggs during her three days of testimony. She immediately switched gears and changed the subject. The topic of Lee’s bogus birth certificate was not discussed again.
The existence of the bogus birth certificate has never been conclusively verified, although the HSCA (the 1976- 1978 investigation into the assassination) had this to say on the matter:
“While it is not entirely clear from her testimony, Mrs. Oswald apparently succeeded in getting Sehrt to assist her in securing for Lee a false birth certificate. Subsequently, she indicated, Sehrt apparently agreed with her that the falsified birth certificate “would not stand up” and that she should allow Lee to enter the Marines, but would at least mollify or humor him in his misguided intentions … Mrs. Oswald further stated that the Marines apparently discovered the erroneous birth certificate when Lee tried to enlist and that Lee returned home.”12
What the HSCA did not indicate, however, is that if a falsified birth certificate had been created and presented to the Marines, numerous laws had been broken, particularly by Sehrt, who procured (or created) a deceitful birth record with the intent of defrauding the US military for his own profit. Consistent with the selective nature of the investigational inquiry of the Warren Commission, the accusations made by Marguerite Oswald against Sehrt regarding this fraud were never scrutinized. It is no surprise that Hale Boggs should have known Sehrt “very well”: Sehrt was a very prominent and powerful New Orleans attorney with close political connections that led all the way to the state capital.13 He was also elected president of the very prosperous National American Bank of New Orleans in 1963.14
Another mysterious acquaintance of Oswald around the time he tried to unsuccessfully enlist had a history of acquiring and forging questionable identification documents, David Ferrie. Ferrie had served as a volunteer instructor for the Civil Air Patrol (CAP)cadet squadron stationed at Moisant Airport in 1955, a period during which Lee Oswald had also been a member of that squadron, a fact which was confirmed by statements of fellow cadets,15 16 17 as well as a photograph showing Ferrie and Oswald together at a CAP function. In 1963, Ferrie was employed by attorney G. Wray Gill in the deportation trial of New Orleans crime boss Carlos Marcello, which concerned a falsified birth certificate issued by the nation of Guatemala. The role of Ferrie, who had no formal legal training, seems to have been as an investigator into the birth certificate matter. According to close Ferrie associate, Layton Martens, Ferrie had shown Martens “birth certificates smuggled out of Guatemala when Ferrie was a pilot,” indicating that part of Ferrie’s duties was to assemble these documents. Two years previously, in 1961, New Orleans police performed a search of David Ferrie’s home and discovered a passport made out in the name of Al Cheramie, a teenaged runaway and CAP cadet who had occasionally stayed with Ferrie. According to New Orleans police records, Cheramie was aware of this passport and “didn’t approve and was trying to get it back.”18 No mention is made of how Ferrie was able to get a passport for a minor without his (or his parents’) approval, although other evidence indicates this may have been a forgery. When Ferrie was being investigated by Jim Garrison immediately after the assassination of President Kennedy, another search was conducted of his home. Three US passports “without pictures or descriptions” were discovered and confiscated.19 No investigation into how Ferrie was able to acquire blank US passports was initiated, yet another example of apparent criminal activity involving identification documents that was ignored during an investigation into the Kennedy assassination. The possibility exists that it was Ferrie or an associate of his who showed up dressed in a military uniform at the Oswald household when Lee attempted to enlist at age 16. Ferrie made it a habit to wear uniforms he was not authorized to wear, purchased at military surplus stores.20 CAP cadet and Ferrie friend John Irion stated that Ferrie had a special working relationship with the Marines.21 However, any links between Ferrie and Oswald were never examined by the Warren Commission.
If young Lee Oswald had actually attempted to fool the Marines, as the HSCA seemed to conclude, it may explain yet another enduring mystery about his identification records: why FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover believed there may have been an impostor using his birth certificate while he was in the USSR. Simply put, the government may have been alerted to a second document for Oswald years before the assassination. After Lee’s active duty had expired 1959, he received an honorable discharge and seemingly intended to attend college in Switzerland. He applied for and received a US passport to travel overseas. According to his mother, Lee had taken his birth certificate with him to Europe.22 By June 3 of 1960, Hoover had become alerted to the possibility that someone else was using Oswald’s birth certificate, releasing a document to the State Department requesting any information about the ex-Marine, who had then been living in the Soviet Union for eight months. It is unclear from the memo why Hoover suspected someone was using Oswald’s identification, other than a reference to the fact that he was expected to start school in Switzerland at the expected start date of April, 1960. This memo has caused considerable debate among assassination scholars. Did Hoover have evidence of another “Oswald” attempting to use a birth certificate?
Researcher John Newman has suggested that the routing slip for an earlier report mentioned in the Hoover memo, filed on May 12, 1960 by Dallas Special Agent John Fain, may hold some clues. According to writer Bill Simpich, “the routing slip shows how a Soviet section officer named Bill Bright silently directed his Soviet section colleague “IEL” to keep an eye on Oswald’s birth certificate, and to watch for the possibility that an impostor might get ahold of this certificate. Bright was the first to suggest that someone might try to create a “second Oswald” – all the way back in 1960.”23 It is possible that the ever-vigilant Hoover was tipped off by Bright’s theory. Such subterfuge was not unheard of during the Cold War. In January of 1961, Gordon Lonsdale, a Soviet spy was caught in Great Britain passing military secrets to the Soviets. Upon arrest, Lonsdale (real name Konon Molodi), who spoke “perfect English,” possessed numerous pieces of fake ID, including counterfeit birth certificates and passports.24 It is possible that the Lonsdale affair rekindled the government’s interest in Oswald’s identification, for according to author Peter Whitmey: “On March 31, 1961, a memo was sent from the passport office to John White, an official at the consular section of the State Department… in regard to the possibility of an impostor obtaining Oswald’s passport (in addition to the likelihood that his birth certificate was in the hands of the Soviets)… Oswald’s file indicated “that it has been stated that there is an impostor using Oswald’s identification data…’”25
After the assassination of President Kennedy, Senator Richard Russell of the blue-ribbon Warren Commission panel had serious doubts about the findings, believing that there could have been a conspiracy. He enlisted the aid of Colonel Philip Corso, a former Army intelligence officer with “FBI connections”26 to perform some investigative work concerning Oswald’s background during the investigation. Corso reported to Russell that there were, according to William Sullivan, head of the FBI’s Domestic Intelligence Agency, two birth certificates for Lee Harvey Oswald and that one of the documents had been used by an impostor,27 which seemed to confirm Hoover’s 1960 statement. The existence and identification of this second “Oswald” has never been determined.
1 Lafontaine, Ray and Mary. Oswald Talked: The New Evidence in the J.F.K. Assassination. Gretna, Louisiana: Pelican Publishing, 1996. 66-90.
2 Statement of Althea Frair, Office of District Attorney, Orleans Parish,Louisiana. 14 Feb. 1968.
3 FBI Memorandum, “Lee Harvey Oswald, Internal Security-R.” 3 Jun. 1960.
4 Street, Julia. “Julia Street with Poydras the Parrot: The Pursuit to Answer Eternal Questions.” My New Orleans Magazine. Apr. 2012. Web. 20 May 2015
5 Hellmers, Norm. “French Hospital in New Orleans – Records.” Web. 2004.
6 Warren Commission testimony of Lillian Murret
7 Armstrong, John “Catalogue entry for Charles Hamilton Auctions.” 1965. MS 15poage-arm-01-04c-10_Signatures, John Armstrong Collection. Baylor Poage Libraries, n.p.
8 Warren Commission testimony of Marguerite Oswald.
12 “Volume 9, Section 4: “Oswald’s Early Life: New Orleans and Organized Crime.” HSCA Final Report. 1979. 101.
13 Whitmey, Peter. “The Curious Connections of Clem Sehrt.” The Fourth Decade: A Journal of Research on the John F. Kennedy Assassination. Freedonia, New York: State University College. 1994.
15 Irion, John. Statement. Office of District Attorney, Orleans Parish, Louisiana. 30 Jan. 1967.
16 O’Sullivan, Fred. HSCA Interview. 15 Dec. 1978.
17 Voebel, Edward. FBI interview. 25 Nov. 1963.
18 Grievance Hearing of David Ferrie. Pilot System Adjustment Board, Miami. 15 Jul. 1963.
19 Brenner, Milton E. The Garrison Case: A Study in the Abuse of Power. New York City, New York: Clarkson N. Potter, 1969. 51.
20 Grievance Hearing of David Ferrie. Pilot System Adjustment Board, Miami. 15 Jul. 1963.
21 Irion, John. Statement. Office of District Attorney, Orleans Parish, Louisiana. 30 Jan. 1967..
22 FBI Memorandum, “Lee Harvey Oswald, Internal Security-R.” 3 Jun. 1960.
23 Simpich, Bill. “State Secret: Wiretapping in Mexico City, Double Agents, and the Framing of Lee Oswald”. Web. nd.
24 Armstrong, John. “Harvey and Lee (speech)” November in Dallas Conference. 1997.
25 Whitmey, Peter R. “Did Oswald Come Back?” Web. 2013.
26 FBI memorandum, C.D. DeLoach (author) “Allegation that Oswald Was an FBI Informant,” Feb. 10 1964.
27 DiEugenio, James and Lisa Pease. The Assassinations: Probe Magazine on JFK, MLK, RFK and Malcolm X. Port Townsend, Washington: Feral House, 2012. 133.