The JFK Assassination, pt. 15: Oswald’s personal effects

It should be clear how I use this blog as a mental scratch pad rather than for polished writing. And it should also be clear how I approach the JFK assassination as a great mystery and puzzle rather than a case that urgently needs solving. Reviewing the most recent post on this topic, however, I really thought it was poor, so this is the revised version.

Items on Lee Oswald when he was arrested, copied exactly from the Dallas PD Property Clerk’s invoice dated 12/30/1963 (and numbered by me for convenience):

1. Eighty-seven cents in money (1 half dollar, 3 dimes, 1 nickel, and 2 pennies)
2. Thirteen dollars in money (1 five-dollar bill, 8 one dollar bills)
3. Dallas County bus transportation coupon or ticket for transfer dated Nov. 22, 1963
4. Marine Corps, silver color
5. Chrome color ID bracelet with expansion band with the inscription ‘Lee’
6. Brass key marked “Postoffice Department Do not Dup.” #1126
7. paycheck voucher from American Bakeries Company dated 8/22/60
8. top of a small cardboard box with “Cox’s Fort Worth” printed on top

Not mentioned are a .38 revolver or a wallet containing two IDs with different names, but these would have been taken separately, as evidence, rather than being stored with personal effects.

We know that after leaving the Texas Schoolbook Depository, Oswald’s next location was his boarding house, where he spent just a few minutes before leaving for the Texas Theatre, where he would be arrested. He’s known to have picked up a light jacket at the house, despite the warm weather. What else did he do there? He must have gathered up some of these items as well, unless he had taken them all to work, which is unlikely.

Items 1, 2, and 6 are pretty ordinary things to carry, so I’ll skip them. Item 3 is not necessarily very exciting. Roger Craig claimed that he saw Oswald leave Dealey Plaza in a station wagon, but Craig could have been wrong and/or Oswald could have been dropped off to catch a bus afterward, and in either case the bus ticket is perfectly natural.

Item 4 is interesting. The invoice entry is not complete, but elsewhere this is described more fully as “Silver color Marine Corps emblem ring”. It’s hard to know if this was something he wore often or something he specifically picked up at the boarding house. I can’t find a photograph of him wearing it, but most of the existing photos are from times he wouldn’t have had it on.

Item 5: uninteresting, except that while “Lee” was his real first name, one of the IDs he was carrying had a different name. Item 6 is perfectly ordinary.

Items 7 and 8 are where it gets really interesting, and where the previous version was lacking.

Item 7 is a paycheck voucher issued three years before, and not to Oswald. At that time, Oswald was working in an electronics factory in the Soviet Union, not for the American Bakeries Company. A strange thing for anybody to carry, and extra strange for Oswald.

I initially thought the list would be fairly reliable, i.e. not falsified, because the officials never made a big fuss about it. If it were manipulated, it would have been for some purpose and it seems like they would have then used it as evidence. However, the history of the pay stub is more than a little curious. It was issued to one James A. Jackson of 214 W. Neely St. The date in the invoice is given as 8/22, although elsewhere it’s listed as “dated 8/22/1960 or 8/27/1960”—why the confusion? (The 22nd was a Monday, and the 27th was a Saturday, by the way.)

The W. Neely St. address is significant because it’s the location of the backyard photos, which supposedly show Oswald holding the Mannlicher-Carcano rifle used to shoot Kennedy. However, Oswald said the backyard photos were faked, denied owning the rifle, and denied ever living at that address, and no clear picture comes out of interviews with other residents at that apartment complex. James A. Jackson’s pay stub is significant because it’s supposed to connect Oswald to the Neely apartment, and thus to the photos and the rifle.

You can see the problem: why would he own this item at all, and why would he pick this item up during his brief stop? It doesn’t make sense. And there’s another problem. It’s not clear when the pay stub was discovered. It’s listed on the invoice, but other sources report it was found later, during a search of his home. This has an explanation: there were two pay stubs, both in Jackson’s name, discovered at different times.

This looks fishier and fishier.

Item 8, the box top, is also very strange. This seems to be some kind of spy novel stuff where two people can identify each other by putting together their torn box tops; this can’t be faked, so you know the other person is who he is supposed to be. I’m agnostic on this. I already thought Oswald was involved in intelligence work, so it would make sense, but it seems a little too much like fiction.

Taken all together, this collection of items is just too strange to be what a lone gunman would carry. I admit this is a probabilistic rather than definitive conclusion.

The social problem of low conscientiousness

Let me preface this with an example I’ve given in classes. When we talk about social problems, we have to be careful what we mean. We don’t simply mean something a lot of people don’t like. In terms of public health, for example, one person’s case of heart disease is not a public health issue in the way one person’s case of ebola is a public health issue. Heart disease becomes a public health issue when it’s a widespread issue with systemic causes that can be fruitfully addressed in a systemic way.

This weekend, as I sat waiting to be called to renew my vehicle registration, I overheard the following exchange (this is inexact, but roughly corresponds):

Receptionist: Can I have your name, sir?

Guy: [J]

Receptionist: And what can we do for you today, J?

Guy: I need to update my registration.

Receptionist: Do you have all the forms? ID, title, emissions inspection, two proofs of address?

Guy: Does a W-2 count as proof of address?

Receptionist: Unfortunately it doesn’t. It can count for proof of your Social Security number. We need two other proofs of address.

Guy: (Loudly) Man, I ain’t got two proofs of shit! Fuck! (storms out)

Now, I agree with J, the rules of motor vehicle registration can be a hassle to comply with, even before you come in and wait. And with only a little bit of imagination we could probably come up with a better system. Most of us have probably thought of tweaks while we waited. But come on, J, them’s the breaks. Yelling at the receptionist won’t change anything. A little self-control goes a long way in life. By itself the interaction wasn’t really a big deal, but people who yell at receptionists tend to express their low conscientiousness in other ways that can be. (I’m sure the receptionist wasn’t happy, but she didn’t seem overly fazed.)

In what follows I may be unfair to J, but from my limited sample of his behavior I am going to generalize him into an archetype we’re all familiar with, and hey, I doubt he will read this anyway. (Plus, is it more likely that the moment you encounter somebody is when they’re acting consistently with their long-term personality or when they’re acting inconsistently with it?)

I think about people like J a lot, people who get low scores in the five factor model’s conscientiousness category. The general population is full of them, and they’re greatly overrepresented in sub-populations of interest to policy makers and people who study rules: the unemployed, welfare recipients, jail and prison inmates, etc. All evidence suggests that major personality traits are partly heritable, i.e. there’s little we can do about them, but there is plenty of room for environment to influence them as well, and of course we know people respond to incentives.

We have a lot of money in formal social institutions that deal with low-conscientiousness people. I recently saw a news story about two men arrested for auto theft while on a roundabout drive to the local courthouse, where one of the men was to pick up an ankle monitor for a previous auto theft arrest. It’s hard to imagine what could be done to deter this kind of bad apple but more of the criminal justice system. People like J, however, aren’t beyond the pale.

I give the Left credit for thinking about systemic influences on behavior, but I often think its prescriptions are lacking. For example, people like J may benefit in the short term from having a social safety net to fall back on when their lack of self-control makes maintaining gainful employment difficult, but in the long term this weakens the incentive to develop self-control. I know the counterargument: the social safety net helps poor children and other deserving poor, and it’s better to cushion too many rather than too few. Creating institutions that penalize low-conscientiousness behavior without unduly impacting others, and that aren’t retroactive criminal justice institutions, is a very difficult task. I readily acknowledge this, but the goal should still be one of the guiding lights of policy. At the very least, failure to acknowledge the tradeoff should be viewed as highly suspicious.