Fashions and fads swirl around the world of JFK conspiracy theories just as anywhere else. Today the most trendy, cutting-edge area of research is the Two Oswalds theory, which provides certain proof that some people may have too much time on their hands. The theory has been around in one form or another at least since Richard H. Popkin published The Second Oswald in 1966. But in recent years it has been refined, if that’s the word. It claims there were actually two people who, for around ten years, lived as Lee Harvey Oswald. One was the son of Marguerite Oswald who was born in New Orleans and grew up in Fort Worth, and the second, perhaps a boy from Hungary with physical features similar to Lee’s, was a plant by the CIA or some other powerful and secret organization who, at about age thirteen, began living a parallel life as Lee’s double. The attraction of this theory is that it fits neatly with any number of other conspiracy theories involving the CIA, the KGB, the FBI, and Castro. Any of them, the speculation goes, could have manipulated the Two Oswald situation to its benefit. How the doubles behaved when it came time to murder the president is murky, but in general, one Oswald, the plant, is left holding the bag (“I’m a patsy”) while the other Oswald, the son of Marguerite, ostensibly working for the CIA, gets away, his existence and involvement unsuspected.
The theory is so implausible that its popularity now might be taken as a sign that conspiracy research has at last hit a dead end. It’s one thing to believe that Oswald was involved in a plot; it’s another to believe that the plot began when he was thirteen. Who could believe this stuff and why? To answer those questions I spent two days in Tulsa, Oklahoma, this summer with John Armstrong, a 48-year-old contractor and oilman who is the leading proponent of the Two Oswalds theory. Armstrong is a relative latecomer to conspiracy research, getting into the game eight years ago after attending JFK assassination classes at the University of Texas at Arlington. He has since coauthored a book, Dead Witnesses (Consolidated Press); made numerous multimedia presentations on the Two Oswalds to groups, including the JFK Lancer and COPA (Coalition on Political Assassinations) conventions, the two conspiracy research assemblies that meet in Dallas every November; written for Probe magazine, which is published by the Citizens for Truth About the Kennedy Assassination; and devotes from twenty to forty hours a week to the subject, which has filled two studies in the home in suburban Tulsa that he shares with his family. He hardly fits the profile of a conspiracy nut. Rather, I found him to be a congenial, if sometimes obsessive kind of guy (it goes with the territory) who obviously isn’t in it for the money, judging from his home and six expensive sportscars.
The existence of two Oswalds would be simple enough to prove. All that would be necessary is valid physical evidence showing Oswald at place A and valid physical evidence showing a second Oswald at place B at the same time. (If the deception lasted almost eleven years, from the time Oswald was thirteen until November 1963, such evidence must be in abundance.) Armstrong can’t do that. Instead, Armstrong regaled me for hours with minutiae. It was clear that he suffers from the conspiracy buff’s disease of admitting all supposed evidence that supports his thesis no matter how shaky and ignoring all evidence that undermines it no matter how certain. Here are a few of Armstrong’s many claims:
• Of the 451 photos taken of Oswald’s personal effects by the Dallas Police Department, 210 were never returned by the FBI.
• The description of a Minox spy camera that Dallas police officer Gus Rose testified he found in Oswald’s duffel bag was changed by someone at the FBI to that of a Minox light meter. • A sixth-grade photograph from Ridglea West Elementary in Fort Worth, with Lee Harvey, one of the tallest kids in the class, on the top row, doesn’t agree with a New York psychiatrist’s description of the thirteen-year-old Oswald as short a year later.
• Accounts from Oswald’s co-workers in New Orleans conflict with the employment history detailed in the Warren report; some witnesses said he was working there at the same time he was supposed to have been in the military.
• W-2 forms relating to Oswald’s employment in 1955 and 1956 had taxpayer identification numbers that weren’t issued until 1964, according to correspondence from the Internal Revenue Service.
• A woman in Yuma, Arizona, filed a report with the FBI after the assassination that said her son had befriended a Marxist-quoting Oswald at age thirteen in Stanley, North Dakota, during the summer of 1953, when he was supposed to have been in New York.
• There are several accounts of encounters with Oswald in New Orleans, in Florida, and in Havana during the time he was supposed to have been in Russia, two from car salesmen who remembered Oswald inquiring about purchasing a fleet of trucks to send to Cuba.
• Ray Carney, the former news director at KBOX radio station in Dallas said Oswald tried to obtain from him the names of pilots who had volunteered on airborne missions over Cuba.
• Armstrong has even compiled a list of more than twenty people who remembered seeing Oswald driving a car, though he didn’t have a driver’s license.
• Frances Irene Hise said she met “Ozzie” Oswald in the company of her friend Jack Ruby several times at the Carousel Club in Dallas in the summer and fall of 1963.
• Mary Lawrence, the head waitress at Lucas B&B Cafe on Oak Lawn, said she saw Ruby and Oswald together at the restaurant the night after the assassination.
• Dub Stark, the owner of the Top Ten record shop in Oak Cliff, said Oswald and Officer J. D. Tippit were both in his store on the day of the assassination.
• Numerous eyewitnesses placed Oswald at various times in the company of anti-Castro Cuban exile groups and pro-Castro supporters. Robert McKeown, a Houston-area businessman who had provided arms to Fidel Castro during the Cuban revolution and was visited by Castro in Houston in 1959 after the revolution, testified before the House Select Committee on Assassinations in 1978 that Oswald showed up at his doorstep trying to buy rifles in September 1963.
Most of these pieces of evidence, Armstrong believes, were ignored by investigators or either suppressed or withheld by the FBI. Armstrong has his own reasons for believing these assertions are credible, but it would take a lifetime to double-check them all. That’s how Armstrong is spending his life, not how I’m going to spend mine. Still, why would an otherwise reasonable and successful man live like this? Why devote yourself to proving a theory that is ludicrous on its face? I found the answer unexpectedly. There were two items he showed me that flew in under my radar. There is in fact a memo from J. Edgar Hoover written in 1960 saying “there is a possibility that an impostor is using Oswald’s birth certificate.” But an even more intriguing moment occurred for me when Armstrong began talking about Frank Kudlaty. Kudlaty was the vice principal at Stripling Junior High in Fort Worth, where I was a student on November 22, 1963. Kudlaty told Armstrong of handing over Oswald’s school records to two agents from the FBI the day after the assassination. According to the Warren Commission, Lee Harvey Oswald attended junior high schools in New York and New Orleans but not in Fort Worth. The FBI denies the existence of the Stripling records.
I tracked down Kudlaty in Waco, where he now lives in retirement after a lengthy career as a school administrator in several Texas cities. He related the incident that turned out to be his brush with infamy. The day after the assassination, Mr. Wylie, Stripling’s principal, asked him to pull Oswald’s records and hand them over to FBI agents. Kudlaty recalled those events and briefly examined the records before handing them over. “I do recall the grades were not good,” he told me. That has bothered him ever since. “A person of that mind could teach himself Russian and pass himself as Russian? I don’t think so,” Kudlaty said.
The Hoover memo and that short conversation with Kudlaty put more doubt in my mind than the two days I spent with Armstrong and his blizzard of documents. Is there a good explanation for what happened to those records? Was Kudlaty wrong? And what was Hoover talking about in that memo, and what’s the story behind it? I don’t know the answers and I’m not going to devote my life to finding out. But here was one undeniable, strange, and tantalizing fact in the memo and the personal testimony of a man I knew and respected, and that almost had me going. It was enough to let me understand why a man like Armstrong has fallen under the spell of the Two Oswalds.