JFK killer Lee Harvey Oswalds' coffin embroiled in legal battle

Assassin's brother says sale of coffin is in bad taste

Andrew Buncombe
Friday 12 December 2014 12:30
Lee Harvey Oswald's original pine coffin, Nate D. Sanders' in Brentwood
Lee Harvey Oswald's original pine coffin, Nate D. Sanders' in Brentwood

Two days after he assassinated President John F Kennedy, Lee Harvey Oswald was himself killed – shot dead by a night club owner as he walked through the basement of the Dallas police headquarters.

Oswald was buried the following day at the Shannon Rose Hill Memorial Burial Park in Fort Worth. Given the absence of mourners, reporters covering the burial were asked by officials to act has pallbearers and carry the coffin.

Now, more than 50 years on, an emotional legal battle is being fought over the simple coffin in which the assassin of America’s 35th president was lowered into the ground.

Lee Harvey Oswald is led through the basement of Dallas Police Headquarters in advance of his transfer to the county jail

A funeral home involved in the 1981 exhumation of Oswald’s body, sold the coffin four years ago for $87,468 (£55,653). But this week, a Texas court has been hearing arguments from Oswald’s 80-year-old brother, Robert Oswald, who said he had paid a total of $710 to purchase a casket, vault, suit and flowers for the funeral. He thought the coffin had been destroyed years ago and believes something so "disgusting" should not be sold.

“His motive is to keep items away from the public. He does not want it out,” Mr Oswald’s lawyer, Gant Grimes, told The Independent. “He appreciates there is some historical interest in things such as letters and such because [Oswald] played a significant role in US history. But this was the coffin. He bought it for his brother. He never thought he would see it again.”

In the years after the assassination, there has been a small industry of books and films that have explored various theories about who Oswald may have been was and whether he genuinely plotted alone, as the official investigation, the so-called Warren Commission, concluded he had.

Many pondered the possible involvement of the CIA, the Mafia and the USSR in the killing of Kennedy, fatally shot as his motorcade passed through Dallas’s Dealey Plaza on November 22, 1963. There was even speculation as to whether or not Oswald was even really inside the coffin and if a Russian agent had been placed there instead. Such was the furore that in 1981 the pine box was exhumed and his body examined.

The company involved in the exhumation was the Miller Funeral Home, now owned by Allen Baumgardner, who himself took part in the task of digging up the coffin. An examination of the dental remains inside confirmed that it was indeed Oswald who had been buried.

The assassination of American president John F. Kennedy in Dallas in 1963

But the original box, which had cost $300, was in a poor state and Oswald had to be reburied in a new coffin. In the years since then, Mr Baumgardner reportedly sought to sell the original, decomposing coffin on numerous occasions. He finally found an anonymous buyer in 2010, by means of a Los Angeles auction house.

Mr Baumgardner was not available for comment. But in arguments to the court this week, his lawyer claimed the purchase of the coffin for the funeral by Oswald’s brother was in effect a “gift”, the Associated Press reported. As such, Robert Oswald had no legal claim to it, his legal team said.

“At the time he bought the casket, he thought he would never see the casket again, and it would remain in the ground forever and ever. Under Texas law, that's a gift,” said lawyer Brett Myers, according to a local media report. “Texas law says if a man dies without a will, then his estate gets it not Robert Oswald. His widow and daughters are not bringing suit.”

Mr Oswald, who now lives in Wichita Falls, northwest of Fort Worth, did not appear in person at the at the trial become of what his lawyer said was declining health. However, during a 77-minute video testimony before the judge, he said he thought the sale of the coffin was “in poor taste”. He began his legal action against Mr Baumgardner in 2011.

The assassin’s widow, Marina Oswald Porter, who still lives in the Dallas area and has always refused to talk about her husband, has not made any claim on the coffin. Neither have her two daughters.

Reports say Judge Don Cosby is expected to rule on the case soon after the new year. Meanwhile, the coffin remains in a storage area in Los Angeles operated by Nate D Sanders Auctions. It will not be moved until the court has decided who owns it.

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