Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

JFK Assassination

Lee Harvey Oswald

Lee Harvey Oswald
Lee Harvey Oswald
Even aside from his role as political assassin, Lee Harvey Oswald surely led one of the more unusual 24-year-long lives in history.

He tagged along with his itinerant mother for the first 15 years; developed a fascination for communism at 16; dropped out of school as a high school sophomore; joined the Marine Corps at 17; taught himself rudimentary Russian; got an early military discharge; emigrated to Russia at age 20 and attempted to renounce his U.S. citizenship; married a Russian woman and fathered a daughter; got bored with his Soviet factory job and returned to the United States; tried to shoot a controversial general; threw himself into the pro-Castro movement.

Oswald went through life with a simmering sense of outrage.

He was born to a troubled life on October 18, 1939, in New Orleans.

His mother, Marguerite, was seven months pregnant with Lee when her husband, Robert, died of a heart attack.

Lee and his two siblings--one full brother and one half-brother from the brief first marriage of his motherspent time in orphanages as children because Mrs. Oswald was unable to support them.

The family moved to Dallas and then Fort Worth in the mid-1940s as Mrs. Oswald pursued a new romance and marriage with Edwin Ekdahl, an electrical engineer. But the marriage soon was on the rocks.

Lee lived with Marguerite at various places in the Dallas area during the formative years after the breakup. He attended school but did not distinguish himself, struggling especially in math and spelling.

As the Warren Commission reported, Lee is generally characterized as an unexceptional but rather solitary boy during these years. His boyhood neighbors later would use unflattering words and phrases to describe him: bad kid, quick to anger, mean.

At age 13, Lee moved to New York with his mother to live near relatives, but his behavior took a turn for the worse there. He became a chronic school truant and was increasingly difficult for his mother to control. After appeals for help from Marguerite, young Oswald was ordered to undergo testing at a youth detention facility.

Staff members indicated that Lee was a withdrawn, socially maladjusted boy whose mother did not interest herself sufficiently in his welfare and had failed to establish a close relationship with him, according to the Warren report.

In 1954, Lee and his mother returned to New Orleans, where he attended school more regularly for a year, then dropped out in tenth grade, just before his 16th birthday.

The two moved once again to Fort Worth as Lee bided time until his 17th birthday, when he intended to enroll in the Marine Corps.

On October 3, 1956, a few weeks before that birthday, he wrote a letter to the Socialist Party of America based on a coupon he clipped from a magazine:

Dear Sirs:

I am sixteen years of age and would like more information about your youth League, I would like to know if there is a branch in my area, how to join, etc., I am a Marxist, and have been studying socialist principles for well over fifteen months I am very interested in your Y.P.S.L.


Lee Oswald

Three weeks later, he enlisted in the Marines.

Oswald qualified as a sharpshooter rifleman during basic training, and he spent much of his time aboard ships in the Far East.

He earned a reputation as an oddball among his fellow jarheads, who nicknamed him Oswaldskovich for his fascination with Russia.

Oswald studied the Russian language, read Russian literature and played recordings of Russian music in the barracks. He often responded with da or nyet instead of yes or no and addressed fellow Marines as comrade, according to the Warren Commissions book-length biography of Oswald.

He sometimes debated with his peers about the moral superiority of Marxism and communism, which he called "the best system in the world," according to one Marine who knew Oswald. He also told peers that he supported the revolutionary Cuban leader Fidel Castro.

He buried his nose in books that concerned political ideology: Das Kapital, Animal Farm and 1984.

Oswald was discharged in September 1959. Within a month, he traveled by ship to France, flew to Helsinki, entered Russia on a tourist visa. A few days later, on his 20th birthday, he began telling any Russian who would listen that he wished to defect.

He apparently believed this would be a momentous international event. He kept notes of his defection in a binder he labeled Historic Diary.

But Russia initially rejected him, and Oswald responded by slashing a wrist in an apparent suicide attempt. The Russian government then ordered him confined to a psychiatric hospital.

Seeing that the young man was serious, Russia reconsidered, and after a series of interviews with American and Russian officials he was allowed to defect.

Marguerite Oswald learned that her son was in Russia when she read about his defection in a Fort Worth newspaper.

A few weeks after his arrival in Russia, Oswald sat for an interview with an American reporter, Aline Mosby of United Press International.

He said America was a nation of the rich and the poor while the Marxist ideology looked after all citizens equally. He told Mosby that he had been introduced to Communist political theory at age 15, while living in New York, when a woman handed him a pamphlet about the case of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, who were executed on charges of wartime espionage.

It is not clear what sort of life Oswald expected in Russia, but he grew disenchanted quickly.

He was sent to Minsk, 450 miles southwest of Moscow, and assigned to a factory job. A year later, in January 1961, he made this entry in his diary, with his typical misspellings:

I am starting to reconsider my desire about staying. The work is drab. The money I get has nowhere to be spent. No nightclubs or bowling allys, no places of recreation acept the trade union dances. I have had enough."

He spent the ensuing year appealing to the Russian and American bureaucracies to secure reentry into the United States. He wrote indignant letters to American authorities, including one to U.S. Sen. John Tower of Texas that urged the senator to raise the question of holding by the Soviet Union of a citizen of the U.S., against his will and expressed desires."

Remarkably, he also wrote an appeal for help to Texas Gov. John Connally, the same man he would shoot in the Kennedy motorcade.

Meanwhile, Oswald met a Russian love interest, Marina Prusakova, in March 1961, and they were married just weeks later. She gave birth to their daughter, June, in February 1962.

Four months later, the U.S. and Russian governments finally relented and allowed Oswald and his family to leave. They traveled by ship from Europe to New York, then flew to Fort Worth on June 14, 1962.

But the return to his native land did not ease Oswalds listlessness and animosities. FBI agents who debriefed him about his time in Russia described him as arrogant and insolent.

He tried working but couldnt hold a steady job, and he fiddled with a manuscript about his Soviet ideological dalliance.

His marriage grew increasingly tempestuous, and he began beating Marina. The couple socialized for a time with expatriate Russians in Dallas, but Oswald was soon ostracized for his anti-American carping, his egocentricity and his treatment of his wife.

The couple separated and reconciled a number of times, and Marinadissuaded from learning English by her husband--was taken in by a series of friends.

Meanwhile, Oswald threw himself ever more deeply into political ideology. He subscribed to Soviet periodicals and corresponded with the Communist Party USA and the Socialist Workers Party.

In early 1963, Oswald bought a pistol and a rifle via mail order under an alias, Alek Hidell.

Edwin Walker, after shooting
Edwin Walker, after shooting
On April 10, someone fired a rifle shot in Dallas that narrowly missed the head of Edwin Walker, a notorious anti-Communist. Walker had resigned from the U.S. Army in 1961 after being accused of indoctrinating soldiers with literature from the right-wing John Birch Society.

The shooting went unsolved until Oswald was arrested and investigators found a note he wrote to Marina in Russian that explained what she should do if he was arrested. The Warren Commission said Oswald fired the shot at Walker, although many question that conclusion.

Days after the Walker assassination attempt, Oswald traveled by bus to New Orleans, apparently hoping to find work in his hometown. He rented an apartment and sent for his wife and daughter after landing a $1.50-an-hour position at a coffee mill.

As usual, he soon lost the job and began collecting weekly government unemployment payments.

He found a new cause to occupy his idle time: the pro-Castro Fair Play for Cuba Committee.

Fidel Castro
Fidel Castro
Oswald applied for and received a new passport, hoping to travel to Cuba to meet Castro and join his revolution.

He formed an informal New Orleans branch of Fair Play and spent a night in jail following a street dispute with anti-Castro Cuban exiles. He appeared on TV and in a radio news report for his pro-Castro leafleting, and he wrote a series of letters trumpeting his work for the cause to the national Fair Play organization and the Communist Party USA.

In late September, Oswald rode a bus from New Orleans to Houston, continued west to Laredo, then crossed the border into Mexico for a 20-hour bus ride to Mexico City.

Once there, Oswald began seeking permission to travel to Cuba. But his American passport was invalid for travel to the country, so he once again cast himself against bureaucracies.

He repeatedly visited the Mexican, Cuban and Russian embassies, seeking a visa to Cuba. He was turned away each time.

On October 3, he returned crestfallen to the U.S. and made his way back to Dallas. He was hugely disappointed by his failed Cuban odyssey, said his wife.

He wrote a scorching letter to the Soviet embassy in Washington, charging a gross breach of regulations by the Mexico City Cuban embassy, according to the Warren Commission.

In Dallas, Oswald persisted in his rabble-rousing, attending a John Birch meeting for reconnaissance purposes, then attending an ACLU meeting at which he reported what he had heard at the Birch gathering.

He lived apart from Marina in a series of cheap rooming houseshis last an $8-a-week place at 1026 N. Beckley Ave. where he registered as O.H. Lee.

A family friend said Oswald was discouraged by more than his failure to get to Cuba when he returned to Dallas: Marina was pregnant. He had failed to support one child, let alone two.

He lost one job prospect due to a poor reference, then took yet another menial job on October 15 at the Texas School Book Depository on a referral from a family friend. He was assigned to work the day shift, and he spent much of his time on the sixth floor, where a window afforded him a fine view of Dealey Plaza not quite six weeks later when President Kennedys motorcade passed.

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