Mary Moorman and Her Polaroids

John P. Costella, Ph.D.

32 pages (pp. 259–290); 4 figures (3 photographs; 1 diagram); 13 documents; 3 additional photographs; 1 additional diagram

The Moorman line of sight issue (5 pages)

Following on from my description of this issue in my first chapter, where I outlined the mistakes I made in my initial analysis, I summarise my conclusions about the Moorman line of sight issue following my visit to Dealey Plaza in May 2003. As conceded in May 2002, The Gang’s application of my methodology was correct in finding that the line of sight is consistent with that depicted in the Zapruder film. However, I was surprised at how low Mary’s position would have to have been, and I demonstrate this with a scale photograph of myself next to Mary Moorman and Jean Hill, based solely on my extensive measurements of the Zapruder film. In other words, the question is not whether the line of sight is correct, but whether Mary and Jean were really so short. But there is no doubt that the line of sight measurement itself is, to my mind, now a closed case.

The Gang’s response:

No dispute, of course! The Gang even recycle their May 2002 paper, and include it as if it were new research. Now that’s what I call imaginative criticism—reposting the very paper that I have stated, in two different chapters, I agree with!

Just what is going on with Mary Moorman’s Polaroids? (11 pages)

I use the bulk of this chapter to present a number of sworn statements, FBI reports, Secret Service reports, and letters between J. Edgar Hoover and the Warren Commission relating to Mary Moorman’s and Jean Hill’s witnessing of the assassination, and the Polaroids that Mary actually took. These documents range in date from the day of the assassination to the closing days of the Warren Commission. Viewed from a modern vantage point—in which our minds are more open, because we no longer take the events as depicted in the Zapruder film to be dogma—these documents are remarkable.

Firstly, we consistently find that Mary and Jean describe the first shot to the President as impacting at about the time she took her famous Polaroid—whereas we have always assumed, on the basis of the Zapruder film, that this was the last shot. Indeed, Mary made exactly the same statement in the 2003 shoot for Discovery Channel (as will be made clear by David Lifton in the second printing version of this section of his chapter)! This starts to open our eyes to some of the unwarranted assumptions that we have continued to make, even after realising the lack of authenticity of the Zapruder film.

Secondly, we find that there was a veritable “shell game” played with Mary’s Polaroids, in which the FBI, the Secret Service, J. Edgar Hoover and the Warren Commission all tried to make three photos become two. Indeed, only two are now extant, but their numbering implies that there is one missing, which was allegedly given to a Dallas motorcycle policeman and is now lost. Remarkably, the evidence (including reports and statements clearly typographically altered after the fact) suggests that there was at least one additional photo showing the President and his limousine; and it is also likely that some unwanted aspect of the Texas School Book Depository was depicted in at least one photo.

Thirdly, every one of these official reports consistently rebukes the idea that a copy of Moorman’s famous Polaroid was “smuggled” out on the day of the assassination, as folklore maintains, and indeed the AP wirephoto information provided tells us that it went out some 27 hours after the assassination, which explains why it was not published in any major newspaper alongside the Altgens and Cancellare photographs on the day of the assassination.

Although it is clear that we still have to try to read between the lines of these often obfuscatory reports, it is nevertheless evident that there is much more to Mary Moorman’s Polaroids than was ever fully comprehended in the past, which may explain the fear displayed by Mary and her husband when David Lifton interviewed her in the early 1970s (see his chapter), and the continued “shepherding” of her by Gary Mack and The Sixth Floor Museum in recent years. This is a line of research that is only now being opened up, and so it is likely that my best guesses on some of the unknowns will not all turn out to be correct.

The Gang’s response:

Leader of The Gang, Josiah Thompson himself, felt the need to write a brief section attacking this part of my chapter. Let’s see how he starts:

His principal claim is that the famous Moorman photo “was in the hands of the authorities for 27 hours before going out on the AP wire.”

Yet again, it would be helpful to everyone if Tink actually read the book he was trying to criticise! He might have lost his faculties somewhat, but even he couldn’t fail to realise that this is not the “principal claim” of the chapter, as the above summary establishes, and which you can determine for yourself by reading it.

Thompson opines:

It's true that this FBI report [of 12 December 1963] states mistakenly that Moorman had a contract with AP.

Oh, it’s all a mistake! The FBI were mistaken. Thompson tells us:

According to Mary Moorman, she never sold any rights to AP nor even had contact with them. She sold only non-exclusive reproduction rights to UPI and there is an extant UPI agreement to prove it. To this day, she owns the photograph.

So what about the explicit AP wirephoto code, quoted in the FBI report, that translates to “AP wirephoto Saturday 3:55 PM”?

It may very well be that AP ran a wirephoto of Moorman at 3:55 PM on November 23rd. But all of this is quite beside the point.

Beside the point? The FBI are “mistaken” about the only photograph taken at the moment of the head shot (according to the Zapruder film, that is), and Thompson doesn’t care?

Thompson implies—by omission—that this is the only FBI report of Mary selling her photo to AP. But after J. Lee Rankin, General Counsel for the Warren Commission, wrote to J. Edgar Hoover himself on 18 March 1964, enquiring about Moorman’s Polaroids (Document 10, page 287; the caption is incorrect), Hoover had Special Agent Charles T. Brown, Jr., retrieve two Polaroids from Mary in Dallas, and also had him write a report on it (Document 11, page 288, also mis-captioned). Brown is the agent whom Secret Service Special Agent in Charge Forrest Sorrels believed received one of the other Polaroids on the weekend of the assassination (Document 8, page 283), and the author of the 12 December 1963 report that Thompson claims is “mistaken”. So has Brown learnt of his “mistake” by March? No: he states again, in this “for the record” report, that Mary sold the photo to the Associated Press.

But surely the Director of the FBI, J. Edgar Hoover, a man who prided himself on his agency’s investigative abilities, would not make such a Thompsonian “mistake”? In his 27 March letter to Rankin, just three short paragraphs long, Hoover states: “Photograph number two was the one sold by her to the Associated Press”.

So rather than one “mistaken” report (albeit an incredibly detailed “mistake”, quoting the precise AP wirephoto code ), as implied by Thompson, we actually have three documents containing the “mistake”—one being a letter from the Director of the FBI to the General Counsel of the Warren Commission!

Now, let me be quite clear that I am in no way claiming that Mary Moorman “really” sold her photo to AP. One of the principal points of the chapter (even if Thompson somehow missed it) is the “shell game” being played with the Polaroids. The reports of the FBI and the Secret Service, by themselves, don’t even make sense: there is something happening “between the lines”, which I speculate on at the end of my commentary. My point is simply that, as far as the official, documented history of the Moorman Polaroid is concerned, it went out on the AP wire some 27 hours after the assassination.

If this official, documented history is incorrect, then it implies that we cannot have any faith at all in the provenance of the Moorman Polaroid.

Thompson continues on to relate the standard “zippo” story of the photo being copied on the afternoon of the assassination. He claims that “it ran on the UPI wire later in the day and appeared in several West Coast special newspaper editions on the evening of November 22nd”. If that is true, it would provide fascinating new evidence that may help us unravel this whole “shell game”. So does Thompson provide images of any actual newspapers? No!

At least I provide the evidence I worked from. Jack White has recently discovered this newspaper article from a Fort Worth newspaper:

The caption supports Thompson’s claim that the Polaroid went out on the UPI wire. But it says “released today”—and this article was published on Tuesday, 26 November, four days after the assassination! (The reference to “the third day of [LBJ’s] presidency” in the article confirms this, to within a day—it is not clear if Friday or Saturday was considered to be LBJ’s “first day”.) How is this to be reconciled with Thompson’s claim that it went out on the UPI wire on the afternoon of the assassination?

Again, I don’t have any answers. The truth slips through our fingers when these sorts of games are played with the evidence.

Thompson goes on to state that the famous Moorman Polaroid was broadcast on NBC at 3:16 pm Central time on the day of the assassination. He states that “many tapes of the actual broadcast exist”. But how are we to verify this fact? For this to be of value, this broadcast would have had to have been taped, live, in such a way that we can be certain that the tape itself has not been tampered with, and that it was indeed recorded at the time and day claimed. If the assassination had occurred in 1983 rather than 1963, this would be simple to establish—millions of people may have recorded it, live, on their home VCRs, and a number of those recordings would most likely still be extant—as is true today for September 11. Like published newspapers, stored away in boxes and clipped for scrapbooks, such public recordings would provide overwhelming evidence of what was and was not broadcast at the time. But VCRs for domestic use did not exist in 1963, and so we are left with a smaller number of professional recordings. Is their number sufficient to allay any doubts? Perhaps. Thompson does not list where and how these tapes were made. He simply states:

Many tapes of the actual broadcast exist and several researchers own copies of it.

But let’s assume that Thompson is correct about this. It may actually provide an explanation for something that has perplexed both Jack White and myself, namely, that the Polaroid appears to be genuine in many respects, but the area of the Zapruder pedestal looks like it has been extensively edited. If the Moorman had really been out of the public eye for 27 hours, why wouldn’t a better job have been done with this poor editing work? Or why wasn’t the view shifted to the left slightly, so that Zapruder and Sitzman on the pedestal weren’t even a problem? The answer might be found in the image Thompson shows from the alleged NBC broadcast. Fine details are not discernable at all, due to the limitations of television broadcast technology and video recording facilities of the day, but the broad features of the photograph are visible. This means that the gross details of the Polaroid would have been locked in place at that time—they could not be changed, because tapes of this broadcast would exist, possibly too many tapes to attempt to alter. All that would be left would be the possibility of changing some of the fine details. The rapid publication of cropped versions of the Polaroid in newspapers would further constrain any changes—but not in the Zapruder pedestal region, which was generally cropped out.

In any case, it is worthy of further research.

Finally, Thompson returns to his usual modus operandi by claiming:

All either Fetzer or Costella had to do was to ask Jack White, who, in a separate essay on the Moorman photo, pointed out that it had been “copied that afternoon” by the press and “circulated worldwide by wirephoto services and published within hours.”

But after reading my chapter, Jack reviewed his own basis for making this statement, and concluded that it was simply a belief based on the “standard history” of the Moorman Polaroid that he had learned over the decades. (For several reasons, we did not get a chance to read each other’s Moorman chapters until we received the book itself.) He went through his own boxes of newspaper clippings, and found that the above example was the first publication in the Fort Worth press, which is essentially “local” to Dallas. He could not find any publication of it at all in the AP-affiliated press. His belief about the wirephoto circulation was based on what he had learned; he has a copy of the Moorman which has what looks like a wirephoto caption, but it contains no date information.

Richard Trask is a pro-Warren-Commission JFK historian who has probably done more research into the photographers of the assassination and their photographs than any other person. His Chapter 10 of Pictures of the Pain (1994) is dedicated to the Polaroid pictures of the assassination. The opening paragraph reads:

One of the most familiar of the assassination photographs made at Dealey Plaza was taken with a Polaroid camera with a Dallas housewife. Of immense spot news importance, the photo was quickly copied and then distributed by Associated Press and United Press International on November 23, yet subsequently all but ignored by the Warren Commission investigation.

I guess we should have just asked the expert in the first place, eh, Tink? J

Supporting documents (16 pages)

I have included copies of the many documents analysed in this chapter. Most have been scanned from Harold Weisberg’s Photographic Whitewash, which Weisberg self-published in 1967 and which most readers will have no chance of accessing. These documents, photographically reproduced by Weisberg without modification in any way (other than some removal of trailing white space and margins), following his extensive research of assassination documentation in the National Archives, are of high enough quality that we can generally determine where words have been edited out and re-typed (in one instance on a clearly different typewriter).

The Gang’s response:

No dispute.