Wednesday, April 11, 2012

A Macabre Tussle Over a Historic Slab

By Steven Yaccino

ROSCOE, Ill. — The original tombstone of Lee Harvey Oswald may not rest here in peace much longer.

Not that it has rested anywhere for very long.

In the nearly 50 years since Mr. Oswald, the presumed assassin of President John F. Kennedy, was buried in Texas, the grave marker has been stolen from a cemetery, recovered by the police, hidden away for safekeeping, and passed around among distant relatives of the family that bought the home of Mr. Oswald’s mother after she died.

Now one of those family members is determined to pursue whatever legal action it takes to get it back from its current home, an automotive museum in this rural Illinois town.

“Look, they screwed us out of it,” said David Card, 72, a music club owner from Dallas who said that his step-cousin’s wife did not own the stone when she sold it two years ago.

The 130-pound slab of history — engraved with Mr. Oswald’s name, dates (Oct. 18, 1939 - Nov. 24, 1963) and a cross — now sits encased and on display at the Historic Automotive Attractions museum in Roscoe, a small town 90 miles northwest of Chicago near the Wisconsin border.

The museum opened in 2001 showcasing a collection of race cars, but it has since expanded into a quirky montage of history, politics and Hollywood. Its collection of Kennedy memorabilia is set between the limousines of other American presidents and three Batmobiles.

There, among objects that call up political factoids and fictional plotlines, is the black Secret Service Cadillac that drove behind Kennedy’s vehicle when he was shot during a Dallas motorcade in 1963, the Checker taxi Oswald hailed shortly after, a piece of the fence from the grassy knoll and other items that Mr. Kennedy at one time held, wore and bled on.

Just across from Oswald’s gravestone, in a room dedicated to his own murder, sits the ambulance that rushed him to a hospital after he was shot while being escorted by the police two days after being arrested in the president’s death. Wayne Lensing, the owner of the museum, considered buying Oswald’s coffin as well, which was exhumed in 1981 and sold at an auction two decades later for $87,468, but he thought it would be too macabre for the collection.

Mr. Lensing, 64, spent far less on the tombstone, paying a little shy of $10,000 — he would not reveal the exact amount — which he considered a bargain, to a woman named Holly Ragan, a distant relative of Mr. Card’s.

The Card family first stumbled upon the gravestone some 30 years ago when an electrician found it in the crawl space under the house of Mr. Oswald’s mother, Marguerite Oswald, which the family bought after she died. Ms. Oswald is said to have hidden it there after teenagers took the tombstone from her son’s grave site on the fourth anniversary of Kennedy’s death. It was returned days later. But fearing vandals would strike again, Ms. Oswald replaced it with a simpler stone — no first name, no dates, just “Oswald” — that remains at Shannon Rose Hill Cemetery in Fort Worth.

The family asked Mr. Card’s step-aunt, who lived nearby, to take the original headstone for safekeeping sometime in the mid-1980s. Over the years, it drifted to Mr. Card’s step-cousin, Johnny Ragan, who kept it until he died in 2008.

That is when Mr. Card and his siblings said they started asking for the stone back, calling Mr. Ragan’s wife, Holly, at least three times to make arrangements to pick it up. “We knew it was there, and we talked about it being there,” Mr. Card said, insisting that Johnny was only safeguarding it temporarily.

Yet Ms. Ragan, who could not be reached for an interview, denied knowing anything about its location, he said.

A couple of years later, Heritage Auctions of Dallas got a call from Ms. Ragan with an offer to sell the grave marker.

Heritage has been a major player in Kennedy collectibles for at least a decade, handling six figures worth of memorabilia every year, according to the auction house. Recently, it sold items like the watch Kennedy wore during the 1960 presidential campaign ($23,900) and “the last rocking chair he ever sat in” ($65,725).

But it balked at the tombstone, never asking for proof of ownership. “The ick factor was too high,” said Greg Rohan, the president of the auction house. “We thought it was in poor taste to handle something like that.”

Instead the dealer connected Ms. Ragan with Mr. Lensing, who recently purchased a decoration in the form of a presidential seal that adorned the side of the cake presented to Kennedy at Madison Square Garden when Marilyn Monroe sang her seductive rendition of “Happy Birthday” in 1962 ($6,573). Mr. Lensing plans to put it on display soon.

The Cards, who noticed the gravestone on the Historic Auto Attractions Web site last year, are now preparing to file a lawsuit against Ms. Ragan and Mr. Lensing in the coming months to regain possession of the tombstone.

Insisting that money is not his motivation, Mr. Card said he would like to donate the item to the Sixth Floor Museum in Dallas, which chronicles the Kennedy assassination. A spokeswoman for the museum, which is in the former Texas School Book Depository where Oswald worked and from which the shots were fired at the Kennedy motorcade, said it had no interest in displaying the tombstone at this time.

“What’s wrong with having it here?” argued Mr. Lensing, who said he was blindsided by the family feud and is willing to spend whatever is necessary to keep the item in his museum. “All I did was get a phone call. How would I know all this dickering was going on?”

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