The Possessions of Lee Harvey Oswald: Photographic Equipment

CE 750- Oswald’s Imperial Reflex camera.

From October, 1962 to April, 1963, Lee Oswald worked at a graphic arts company based in Dallas, Jaggars-Chiles-Stovall. On the surface, he seems to have worked on basic commercial jobs, according to owner, Robert Stovall, learning the “simple photoprint” process. Indeed, time cards of Oswald’s activities at the company presented at the Warren Commission show that he was working on accounts for clients such as Sears, Dallas Civic Opera, and the Sam Bloom Agency. (Sam Bloom owned a large advertising agency based in Dallas. Coincidentally, Bloom played a large role in the planning of the activities of Kennedy’s tragic visit in Dallas.1) Also, included within the inventory of Oswald’s items were several envelopes labelled “Negatives,” which contained some of the type of work that Oswald was evidently conducting at Jaggars-Chiles-Stovall. These items included photographic print copies of documents, as well as some typesetting using various typefaces, printing out the names “Lee and Marina Oswald” and “George deMohrenschildt” in different fonts.

Microdots2However, in Oswald’s address book (found at the Paine residence) is a notation for Jaggars-Chiles-Stovall (JCS), the company address, as well as the words “micro dots.” Microdots are part of a technique used to print text or images on a very small area. According to the International Spy Museum, “Originally developed as a parlor trick, microdots became essential tools of the spy craft trade. These tiny images could be embedded on an envelope or postcard, or hidden inside a ring or cufflinks. Reading them required special magnifying viewers. Often, these too were cleverly concealed in a cigarette or a fountain pen.”2

So, what exactly was going on at JCS? According to Stovall’s testimony, his company did classified work for the US government. “We are cleared through the Navy Bureau Materiel here, although I believe it now has been incorporated under the Department of Defense as a single unit… the nature of the work is charting and mapping, and actually all we do is set words, letters, and figures. We have no correlation of what they refer to.” Oswald had a gift for maps, indeed part of his military training included “map reading.”3 In her Warren Commission testimony, Oswald’s mother, Marguerite, stated: “Lee loved maps. Lee would study maps, sir. And he could tell you the distance from here and there. And he was home on leave, I was amazed. Something was said about an air-trip. Immediately he knew how many miles in the air that that plane took.”4 Also, within his address book, is a rough, but capable, hand-drawn street map of Moscow. So, was Lee involved with the clandestine operations of JCS? In his testimony, Stovall categorically denied any such activities by Oswald, but when Oswald’s military training, his “confidential” security clearance as a Marine, and his talents with maps and charts are considered, this possibility cannot be completely eliminated. When Oswald applied for assistance from the Louisiana Labor Department in April of 1963, among the experiences listed were “commercial photographer”, “darkroom man,” and he stated his skills with a photo enlarger and “large, still, modification camera” (the type of camera used at JCS).5 An understanding of Oswald’s interests and experiences with photography is very helpful when analyzing the photographic and optical equipment found at the Paine residence.


Lee Oswald’s handiwork with photographic negatives. Note nameplates for George de Mohrenschildt, as well as Oswald’s attempts at copying his identification cards.

The stories of the cameras that were stored and found at the Paines’ are enduring mysteries of JFK lore. According to all accounts, at least two cameras were found at the Paines’ on the 22nd. The first, a Soviet camera, described as a “Cuera 2,” a 35 mm single lens model with a Bakelite plastic body, was owned by Lee Oswald, and evidently purchased in the Soviet Union. The second, a Stereo Realist camera, a popular model of a type of camera that could take stereo (or three-dimensional) photographs, was owned by Ruth and Michael Paine. However, numerous inventories kept by the Dallas Police, list a third camera: variously referred to as a “Minox” camera, or “small German camera and black case on chain.” Four rolls of film for this camera were also recovered. Minox is a German manufacturer that has made an international name for itself based on one simple design. This description of the original Minox camera is taken from company literature: “The ingenious idea was to be seen in its dimensions. A camera smaller than a cigar and weighing less than a cigarette lighter. And featuring an excellent lens. This was a stroke of lasting genius… Originally envisioned as a luxury item, the original MINOX camera gained wide notoriety as a spy camera.”6 The high quality lens enabled the camera to take accurate photographs of documents and its small size meant that it could be easily concealed. Although it was available on the open market, it was admittedly an expensive item, certainly out of Lee Oswald’s price range. So, what was a Minox camera doing in the Paine residence? Does the presence of this camera mean that Lee Oswald (or Ruth or Michael Paine) was potentially doing spy work?

Image result for Lee Oswald Minox
Minox camera and light meter.

Evidently, the FBI had some concerns about such an item among Oswald’s possessions, for within weeks of the assassination, a cover up was seemingly put in place. During his 1978 HSCA testimony, Detective Rose stated, “Stovall and I did take a close look at this Minox miniature camera and it did have a roll of film in it. As time passed and after the Warren Commission was appointed, uh, a couple of FBI agents made three different trips to our office to talk to me about this camera. They said that after they had received all the property they found that I had made a mistake, and that that really wasn’t a camera, it was a Minox light meter. However, as I told them at the time, I was sure that I had not made a mistake; it definitely was a camera and definitely did have film in it. However, they wanted me to change that in our property invoice to read Minox light meter and not read Minox camera. We never did change it.”7 Some have claimed that this was merely a case of mistaken identity, for the Minox camera and its light meter are of a similar size and appearance. However, this is quite unlikely, as Rose stated the item contained a roll of film.

The FBI were clearly aware of what the Minox camera was, as well, for Agent James Hosty claimed, coincidentally, to have used a Minox to photograph the physical evidence from this case in Dallas on November 25.8 By January 30, according to the FBI, there never was a Minox camera at the Paine home, and, that same day, Ruth Paine stepped forward to claim ownership of a Minox on behalf of her husband. A Minox camera with serial number 27259, was turned into the FBI by Michael Paine on January 31, and returned to him shortly thereafter. However, according to researcher John Armstrong, another Minox camera is still housed in the National Archives, and has been altered to prevent its serial number from being retrieved. Is this somehow the same camera? Michael Paine claimed his Minox was stolen from his home years later, so a direct comparison cannot be made, however, research has proven that these cameras were more than likely two different models.9 Exposures made from one of the cameras were also developed and appear to have been taken in Asia, and, according to researcher A.J. Weberman (who filed the Freedom of Information Act to have the photos released), one of the photos shows Oswald holding an M16 rifle. The mystery of the Minox camera may never be completely solved; however, it does appear that Oswald may have received this camera as part of his military training and kept it in his sea bag with his other military mementos, where it was found on the day of the assassination.

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Stereo Realist camera.

In addition to the mysterious “spy camera,” other items retrieved from the Paine home included: an Ansco Camera flash assembly, several negatives and rolls of film, nine boxes of Kodaslide transparency slides, a booklet with instructions on how to develop film, lenses, filters for the Stereo Realist camera, a Sears Automatic tower slide projector, two stereo viewers, a pair of binoculars, a telescope, and numerous photographs. One important piece of evidence that was not present during the initial searches of the property, but turned up at a later date, was the Imperial Reflex duo-lens camera. This inexpensive, gray metal body camera was proven by FBI photographic expert Lyndal Shaneyfelt to have taken the infamous “Backyard Photos” which featured Lee Oswald holding his guns, seemingly the same guns used to commit his notorious crimes.10 One of these photos, purportedly taken by Marina Oswald outside their Neeley Street apartment in Dallas, was featured on the cover of Life Magazine and seemed to influence public opinion about Oswald’s guilt. As stated, the photographs and their negatives were found at the Paine residence on the 22nd, but according to detectives present at that search, the camera that took the pictures was nowhere to be found.11

According to an FBI document from March 26, 1964 (published in the Warren Commission as Exhibit 2557), Marina Oswald, on February 17, was shown photographs of the “Cuera-2” and Stereo Realist cameras in an effort to determine which camera was used. She did not recognize either. She stated that she had taken the photos with an American-made box camera, gray, and made of aluminum.12 She recalled that she had to look down into the viewfinder located on the top of the camera while holding the camera at chest level. Robert Oswald, too, had been asked about any cameras the previous day and did not recognize either, nor could he furnish any additional information. On February 19, Detective John McCabe of the Irving Police Department notified the FBI that he found a camera amongst boxes of Oswald’s possessions during the November 23 search of the Paine residence, but he left the camera because it was in poor condition. (None of the four Dallas Police detectives, Rose, Adamcik, Stovall, or Moore, recalled seeing the camera on the 22nd or the 23rd. According to an FBI document, “They all stated that if it (the camera) had been discovered during the search, they would have brought it in.”) Later that day (Feb. 19), Ruth Paine relayed to the FBI that Robert Oswald picked up the last remaining items at their home after the assassination, later verified to have been on December 8. On February 24, Robert Oswald was contacted by investigators, whereby he surrendered possession of the Imperial Reflex dual lens camera. He said that his brother had purchased the camera before he went into the Marines in 1957, leaving it in Fort Worth with Robert when he left for the Soviet Union in 1959.” As quoted elsewhere, Robert Oswald, alone, felt the items were of no evidentiary value and held onto them, an explanation was good enough for the FBI and Warren Commission. Seemingly, no investigative body was concerned that Robert, under Secret Service scrutiny when he retrieved the camera from the Paines’, neglected to mention this potential evidence to anyone for three months.

As demonstrated by the amount of photographic equipment seized, Oswald loved taking pictures. Housed within the National Archives is another camera owned by Lee: a Kodak Baby Brownie Special, given to Robert’s daughter around 1958.13 Could photography have been a link between Oswald and the Paines? Several of the confiscated photographic items could also be traced to the couple, including a box of Kodaslides owned by Ruth. Both Oswald and Michael Paine owned uncommon and expensive Minox “spy” cameras. This could have been a valuable connection between the assassin and his friends that was not fully explored by the Warren Commission.

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1  Collins Piper, M. (2004). Final Judgment: The Missing Link in the JFK Assassination Conspiracy (p. 246). American Free Press.

2  “Collection Highlights.” International Spy Museum. 2015. Web. 12 May 2015.

3  “Appendix 13.” Report of the President’s Commission on the Assassination of President Kennedy.1964. 682.

4  Warren Commission, Testimony of Marguerite Oswald

5  Warren Commission, Rachal Exhibit 1

6  “MINOX – The Development of Visible Innovation.” Minox. 2015. Web. 15 May 2015.

7  HSCA, Testimony of Guy Rose

8  Hosty, James. “Chapter 5.” Assignment: Oswald. New York City: Skyhorse, 2011. Print.

9  Warren Commission, Testimony of Marina Oswald

10  “HSCA Photographic Panel Report.” House Select Committee On Assassinations Report. Vol. 6. 1979. 354. Print.

11  Warren Commission, Commission Exhibit 2557

12  Ibid.

13  United States. Department of Justice. Attorney General’s Office. Providing For the Acquisition And Preservation By The United States of Items of Evidence Pertaining To the Assassination Of President John F. Kennedy. By Ramsey Clark. N.p.: n.p., 1966. Print.