Flashback: Lee Harvey Oswald Visits Spring Hill

Torpedoed on national television by Dallas strip bar owner, former Chicago hood Jack Ruby, Lee Harvey Oswald on Nov. 24, 1963 reached the apex of his explosive rise from nonentity to infamy. 

According to the Warren Commission, which found Oswald solely responsible for killing President John F. Kennedy two days before his own death, infamy was just what Oswald was seeking—a troubled, leftist malcontent out to make a name for himself.

The yen for publicity, however, came on Oswald late in his 24-year life—the last four months, in fact, and just after his first, modest public speaking engagement, on July 27, in Mobile, Ala. Ten days later Oswald made New Orleans Times-Picayune headlines after a street scuffle erupted over his handing out of pro-Castro literature on Canal Street. In the next four weeks he became a determined publicity seeker—lobbied the newspaper for further coverage of his pro-Castro cause, continued his leafleting, was filmed in a television debate, and made an appearance on a radio show in which he made the soon widely publicized declaration, “I am a Marxist.”

Oswald's visit to Mobile came in response to an invitation from a cousin, Gene Murret, who was one of some 90 scholastics studying for Jesuit priesthood at the Jesuit House of Studies at Spring Hill College.

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Murret hadn't seen his cousin since Oswald, an ex-Marine, had left for an aborted two and half year defection to Russia. Oswald had been back in the states for a year, bringing back a Russian wife, Marina, and new baby. Oswald first settled in Forth Worth, then, in April of 1963, moved back to his and Murret's hometown, New Orleans, staying with Murret's mother and father for three weeks before getting his own apartment and sending for Marina and 16-month-old baby June. 

Lee, Marina and June were three of eight who made the trip to Mobile, piled into a station wagon driven by uncle Charles “Dutz” Murret, accompanied by Dutz's wife Lillian, their daughter Joyce and her two children, all of whom put up at the Palms Motel at Highway 90 and Azalea Road, Uncle Dutz footing the bill.

The occasion for the speech was simple enough. The inquisitive Jesuits had an almost weekly series of weekend speakers, were curious to hear first-hand sources on such worldly topics of life behind the Iron Curtain, so Gene Murret tapped cousin Lee. 

What Oswald Said

Oswald stuck close to the topic and time limit Gene outlined in his July 6 letter of invitation. He talked for about 20 minutes, answered questions for another 30 minutes, speaking as Gene suggested, “on contemporary Russia and the practice of Communism there.”

“Within several hours after the assassination the CIA had agents descend all over the Scholasticate, ” recalls Paul Tipton, S.J., former president of Spring Hill College, one of the scholasticates who attended the Oswald speech. Investigators searching the Oswald's Fort Worth residence, says Tipton, “found letters from [Robert J.] Fitzpatrick to Marina.” Fellow scholasticate Fitzpatrick spoke Russian and it fell to him to keep company with Marina, who spoke almost no English. Jesuit house rules allowed only the scholasticates and their Jesuit professors to attend the speech, so Fitzpatrick and Marina strolled around campus. He told F.B.I. agents later that the follow-up letter he wrote (in Russian) on August 8 was never answered.

Although Fitzpatrick didn't attend the speech, he provided the most detailed account of its content, taking it on himself, immediately after announcement of Oswald's arrest, to write a five-page precis based on his interviews of those who had heard the speech. His summary is consistent with interviews local F.B.I. agents recorded, 10 days after the assassination, with several Jesuits who attended the speech. 

“Those who went to listen to him [Oswald] expected to hear a man who had been disillusioned with Soviet communism and had chosen America to it, ” Fitzpatrick wrote in his summary. “What they heard was only partially this.” 

“Russian authorities had assigned him to a fairly well advanced area, the Minsk area, ” wrote Fitzpatrick. “He said that this was common practice: showing foreigners those places of which Russians can be proudest.”

Given a job in a Minsk factory, Oswald said he was impressed with the “care provided for the workers, ” including a “factory-sponsored hunting club, ” which gave him a chance to go on shotgun-equipped hunting parties (“pistol and rifles are prohibited by Russian law”) in the hinterland, where he found the peasants were “poor, often close to starvation.”

Also on the downside, Oswald told how factory workers were required to attend party meetings where “Things came up for discussion and voting, but no one ever voted no. The meetings were, in a sense, formalities. If anyone did not attend, he would lose his job.”

Oswald noted that after the shooting down of the U-2 spy plane piloted by Francis Gary Powers, which occurred seven months after Oswald's defection, “the workers were very angry with the United States, but not with him, even though he was an American.” Oswald apparently mentioned the U-2 incident in the context of “the policy of Russia, ” which “was important” in Oswald's speech, wrote Fitzpatrick. Fitzpatrick outlined a sequence of four Soviet “policy” changes covered by Oswald, ending with: “3) A peace movement leading to the Paris conference” and “4) The U-2 incident and its aftermath.”

[Note: Some assassination conspiracy theorists speculate that Oswald—who had a high-security clearance as a radio operator at a U-2 base in Atsugi, Japan when a Marine in 1957-1958—could have provided information that enabled Russians to shoot down Powers, thus sabotaging promises for a breakthrough at the U.S.-Soviet Paris Peace Conference of 1960. The resulting chill, theorists speculate, could have been as much desired by cold war U.S. militarists as by Soviet ones.]

One of the few details about the city of Minsk noted by Oswald, according to the Fitzpatrick summary, was the fact “that there was a very large radio-jamming tower that was larger than anything else in Minsk.”

In the final analysis, wrote Fitzpatrick, Oswald, who made the point “that he disliked capitalism, ” also made it clear he “was disappointed in Russia because the full principles of Marxism were not lived up to….He said, 'Capitalism doesn't work, communism doesn't work. In the middle is socialism, and that doesn't work either.'”

Although Oswald had already set himself up as the one-man New Orleans chapter of the Fair Play for Cuba Committee and had begun his pro-Castro leafleting, and although the day before was the fifth anniversary of Castro's July 26th Revolution, all witnesses to the Spring Hill speech say he made no mention of Cuba or Castro.

Fitzpatrick, who did not become a priest and is now president of EuroDisney (the Paris version of Disney World) declined an interview. But his account to F.B.I. agents of his chats, first with Marina then with Oswald shortly after the speech, give interesting details. Fitzpatrick said Oswald “spoke fairly good Russian; however, it was not as smooth or correct grammatically as Mrs. Oswald's.” Oswald, “a very tense and high-strung person, ” Fitzpatrick told the F.B.I., “evaded several questions he asked Oswald as to how he managed to leave Russia with his wife.” Strolling the Spring Hill grounds, Marina told Fitzpatrick that Oswald “kept her completely away from other people.” As to their homelife in New Orleans, the F.B.I. interview with Fitzpatrick reports that “[Fitzpatrick] said she told him Oswald is away from home a great deal and she did not know of any of his associates or any of his activities.”

Addendum on Oswald's “Associates”

Just who was associating with Oswald in New Orleans during the summer of 1963—which the 1978 House Select Committee on Assassinations called “an especially puzzling period in Oswald's life”—has been scrutinized by many, most sensationally by New Orleans D.A. Jim Garrison in his controversial investigation that began in 1966. While largely discounting the Garrison probe, the House Committee independently confirmed that six witnesses the Committee found to be “credible and significant” put Oswald in the company of David Ferrie and Clay Shaw, two prime suspects in the Garrison investigation. Another key figure, private investigator and former special agent in charge of the Chicago F.B.I. Bureau, Guy Banister, was named as an Oswald associate by another House witness, Banister's former secretary.

The House report—which concluded that there was more than one gunman in Dallas and, hence, a conspiracy of some sort—also found that Oswald's New Orleans associates had a puzzling mix of connections to both Carlos Marcello's New Orleans mafia organization and to anti-Castro activists. Ferrie and Banister were involved with New Orleans anti-Castro militants, working out of Banister's office at 544 Camp St., the address stamped on some of Oswald's pro-Castro leaflets. Oswald was the only pro-Castro activist in New Orleans, as far as anyone had determined. 

Ferrie was closely connected both to anti-Castro groups, and to Carlos Marcello, working as an investigator for Marcello's legal defense in federal court at the time of the assassination. “Another such [Marcello] relationship actually extended into Oswald's own family through his uncle, Charles “Dutz” Murret, a minor underworld gambling figure, ” the House Committee reported. “Murret, who served as a surrogate father of sorts throughout much of Oswald's life in New Orleans, was in the 1940s and 1950s and possibly until his death in 1964 an associate of significant organized crime figures affiliated with the Marcello organization.” One of Dutz's mafia associates, “an associate of two of Marcello's syndicate deputies, ” the Committee found, posted Oswald's bail when Oswald was arrested in his pro-Castro leafleting scuffle.

Addendum on Mobile Anti-Castro Activists

There has never even been alleged, nor does Mobile Bay Magazine in any way now suggest, a connection between Oswald and Mobilians engaged in anti-Castro activities. Yet we think it appropriate to note, as a matter of historical background, that Mobile, as well as New Orleans, was at least up until the 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion a center of active support for anti Castro militants.

A memo filed in the F.B.I. office in Los Angeles dated May 8, 1963 quotes an informant who copied a list of headquarter cities for Alpha 66, the Cuban exile led group that staged regular raids on Castro's Cuba. One of the 13 cities in the U.S., Canada, and South America is Fairhope, Ala.

Fairhope sculptor Craig Sheldon, now in his late 70s, was an adventurous, patriotic WWII veteran and devout anti-Communist in the early 1960s. He has never made a secret of the fact that he was a member of Alpha 66

According to Sheldon, his close friend Kenneth Giddens was a leading fundraiser for the group, helping finance semi truck loads of surplus U.S. military munitions shipped to Cuban dissidents in south Florida. Giddens, who died last year, was founder of WKRG Inc.

Sheldon, who helped purchase and transport arms and engaged in military raids on Cuba, says he stopped such active participation after the Bay of Pigs, frustrated with the incompetence of the CIA and the expatriate Cubans. “I hate the CIA more than I ever did, ” says Sheldon. “With those fellows, there's never anyone in charge.”

Frank Sturgis (1977)

The principal leader of the Alpha 66 activities he engaged in, says Sheldon, was Frank Sturgis, who in 1972 was one of four men (two Cuban exiles) arrested in the Watergate burglary of National Democratic Party Headquarters. Sturgis, whom Sheldon still admires for his leadership in the anti Castro cause, says Sheldon, “came through Mobile” as part of Alpha 66 organizing efforts.

A March 30, 1964 report by Mobile F.B.I. agents summarizes an interview, conducted at Sheldon's Fairhope home, with Jerry Buchanan, “a member of the International Anti Communist Brigade, ” a group founded by Sturgis. Buchanan, living in Fairhope at the time, told agents that members of his group in Miami in 1962 scuffled with a group of Fair Play for Cuba demonstrators that included Oswald. Sheldon, whom the F.B.I. agents said “advised that he is the Southeastern Chairman of the International Anti Communist Brigade, ” now discounts Buchanan as an “unreliable” individual who “was probably just trying to drum up publicity for himself.”

Sturgis, it must also be noted, was accused in 1978 by a House Committee witness, of direct involvement in the JFK assassination. Maria Lorenz, Castro's ex mistress, later Sturgis' lover and operative (she claimed involvement in one assassination attempt on Castro, one of many staged by Operation 40, a Castro assassination cadre to which Sturgis has admitted being a member) told the Committee that around Nov. 15, 1963 she was part of a two car caravan (with rifles and scopes loaded in the trunks) that included Sturgis and Oswald and that drove from Miami to Dallas. The Committee, however, found no substantiation for Lorenz' story.

The Strange Coincidence of James A. Hawkins

The night before Oswald arrived in Mobile for his speech at Spring Hill College, a 22-year-old white male, James A. Hawkins, was arrested on the Mobile Bay Causeway, later convicted, on charges that he'd threatened the life of the president. The threat was made in Laurel, Md., the Secret Service issued a national bulletin, and a Mobile Secret Service agent picked up Hawkins at a gas station Friday night, July 26 (coincidentally, the fifth anniversary of Castros July 26th Revolution).

Like many of the slew of puzzling coincidences related to Oswald and the JFK investigation, this incident cannot be finally put down to coincidence because government records have unaccountably disappeared.

According to the front-page Mobile Press-Register report on Hawkins' arraignment, Mobile Secret Service agent Forrest Guthrie said Hawkins “was unemployed and moving around the country” but “did not reveal how he located the man at the service station.”

Almost 30 years later, Guthrie still cannot shed any light on how he came to pick up Hawkins. “Now that you read it [press clipping] to me, I sort of remember the case, but I really can't say how it [the arrest] came about.”

As to the coincidence of Oswald being in town that weekend, Guthrie said it was the first he'd heard about it. “We didn't know anything about Oswald at that time, ” Guthrie said, “although the F.B.I. had information on him, as it has come out since then.”

Attorney H. Albert Korn, who represented Hawkins in Maryland federal court, does not recall anything about an arrest being made in Mobile or anywhere else outside the jurisdiction of Maryland. He does recall that the threat his client was alleged to have made occurred “at a gas station” and “happened to have been made to an F.B.I. agent in plain clothes.”

“It's been a long time, ” said Korn, but as I recall, what he was alleged to have said was something along the lines of, 'I'm going to get that nigger loving president.”

Korn waived a jury trial, pleaded his client not guilty by reason of insanity and called as his expert witness “one of the top forensic psychiatrists in the county, ” says Korn. But Dr. Manfred Guttmacher proved disappointing on cross examination. “He backed off' his direct testimony, says Korn, and “on cross said he could not really give an opinion” that Hawkins was not culpable. Hawkins was sentenced to three years.

Reports by Guttmacher and the prosecution's psychiatrist might tell a lot about just who Hawkins was and the nature of his threat against the president. And court records could show whether Hawkins ever posted the $5, 000 bail set in Mobile prior to his indictment in Maryland one month after the Kennedy assassination. But those reports and all other records of the trial testimony, are missing from the Federal Court Records Center and the National Archives, where they should be stored. All that could be found was the docket sheet entries.

According to U.S. District Court of Maryland Chief Deputy Clerk Gary Sapperstein, the disappearance of Hawkins' records from both the archives and court records “is very unusual.”

The court record might also help discount the coincidence that Laurel. Md., where Hawkins reportedly made his threat in earshot of a plainclothes F.B.I. agent, is about a 10 minute drive from the Washington, D.C. suburb of Silver Spring, Md. one of the 13 cities, along with Fairhope, that the F.B.I. report of May 8. 1963 (six weeks before Hawkins' arrest on the causeway) listed as a headquarters for Alpha-66.

text by Chris McFadyen

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