Who Is ‘Prayer Man’?
‘Prayer Man’ in the TSBD Doorway
Dave Wiegman and Jimmy Darnell, two of the news cameramen travelling in the motorcade, began filming when they heard gunshots. For several decades, the significance of their two films was thought to lie in their portrayal of the spectators along Elm Street and the cars in the motorcade. More recently, attention has been drawn to the films’ depiction of the doorway of the Texas School Book Depository, and in particular to a previously ignored figure who, according to some observers, may have been Lee Harvey Oswald.
In several frames of the two black–and–white news films, a figure is visible in the western corner of the TSBD doorway. From the cameras’ point of view, the figure is standing to the left of the man in the Altgens photograph who has been identified as Billy Lovelady. The figure’s right arm appears to be raised across its chest, which has earned it the name ‘Prayer Man’. The figure is unlikely to have been praying, but it may have its arms crossed, or it may be holding an object up to its chest.
Although the figure in the currently available versions of the films is insufficiently distinct to permit a definitive identification, it appears to be a white man, dressed in a loose, dark–toned shirt with an open neck and either short or rolled–up sleeves. The figure does not appear to be wearing a white shirt or a tie, as would have been customary for male office workers in the early 1960s. Its short hair and light skin tone strongly suggest that it is neither a woman nor a black man, although the lack of definition in the images does not completely rule out either possibility. The figure’s head and hairline are not inconsistent with Oswald’s appearance.
Online Discussions of ‘Prayer Man’
The Prayer Man question has been discussed on several online forums:
- The earliest discussion was probably a thread on the JFK Lancer forum, which at the time of writing no longer exists.
- https://educationforum.ipbhost.com/topic/20354-oswald-leaving-tsbd/ dates from 2013 and is the most complete discussion still online. You should pay particular attention to posts by Sean Murphy, who builds a strong case that the Prayer Man figure is Lee Harvey Oswald.
- https://reopenkennedycase.forumotion.net/t388–prayer–man–on–the–education–forum, also begun in 2013, contains probably the highest proportion of constructive contributions. Various ROKC members add to the evidence and arguments provided by Murphy.
- http://www.jfkassassinationforum.com/index.php?topic=8916.0, which no longer seems to exist, in any case contained the lowest proportion of constructive contributions.
Almost all valuable research is the product of collaboration. Dozens of people, most notably Sean Murphy, have made worthwhile contributions to the topic of Prayer Man. The following account is a summary of this research, with a handful of additional observations.
Update: January 2023
For a detailed discussion of the Prayer Man question, see Bart Kamp’s very useful website, http://www.prayer-man.com/. A good place to start is http://www.prayer-man.com/misc/prayer-man-in-a-nutshell/.
Could ‘Prayer Man’ Have Been Oswald?
Lee Oswald’s Alibi
Lee Oswald claimed to have been on the first floor at the time of the assassination. There is certainly very little evidence to support the official doctrine that he was on the sixth floor of the TSBD. An unreliable witness, Howard Brennan, described the gunman as looking somewhat like Oswald, and a handful of other witnesses gave vague descriptions that matched Oswald along with any number of other young, white men. On the other hand:
- Every witness who described the gunman’s clothing, including Brennan, claimed that it did not match Oswald’s clothing.
- Oswald was seen on a lower floor about 15 minutes before the shooting, at the same time as a spectator saw a gunman on the sixth floor.
- Oswald is known to have been on the first floor, in or near the domino room, about five or ten minutes after this.
- Reports in the Dallas Morning News and the New York Herald Tribune, both published on the morning after the assassination, state that Ochus Campbell, the vice–president of the TSBD company, and a policeman saw Oswald very shortly after the shooting in a “storage room on the first floor”; see https://educationforum.ipbhost.com/topic/20354-oswald-leaving-tsbd/?do=findComment&comment=276903.
The currently available evidence of Oswald’s location at the time of the assassination does not preclude him from being Prayer Man.
Lee Oswald’s Shirt
The Wiegman and Darnell films are in black–and–white. They show Prayer Man wearing a shirt with a dark tone consistent with both the brown shirt Oswald was wearing at the time of his arrest and the “reddish colored” shirt which Oswald apparently claimed to have changed out of after visiting his rented room about 30 minutes after the assassination. The “reddish colored” shirt recently discarded by Oswald may well be the creased shirt shown in a black–and–white photograph, Commission Exhibit 151. Police inventories of Oswald’s belongings mention a “tan sportshirt” and “1 brown shirt with button–down collar”, each of which is consistent with the shirt in CE 151. (For Oswald’s remarks about a “reddish colored” shirt, see Warren Report, pp.622 and 626. For comparison photographs and police inventories, see https://educationforum.ipbhost.com/topic/20354-oswald-leaving-tsbd/?do=findComment&comment=280150 and http://www.jfkassassinationforum.com/index.php/topic,8916.1496.html [no longer online].)
Eliminating Other Candidates
A process of elimination allows the possibility that Prayer Man may have been Oswald. Five white men claimed to have been standing in the doorway during the assassination. All five may be ruled out, with varying degrees of certainty, as may all the other TSBD employees who might realistically have worn a dark casual shirt to work.
Prayer Man’s location, at or close to the top of the steps with his back to the glass door, implies that he is likely to have been someone who worked inside the TSBD building, as were all the witnesses who claimed to have been standing in the doorway during the assassination. All of the TSBD’s white, male, manual workers were accounted for, apart from Oswald.
Against the notion that the man was Oswald is the fact that no–one in the vicinity of the doorway is on record identifying Oswald at the time of the shooting. Two of the people on the steps specifically denied having seen Oswald after they stopped work more than half an hour before the assassination:
- Billy Lovelady, who can be seen standing close to the Prayer Man figure, was asked by Joseph Ball of the Warren Commission, “Did you ever see him again that day?” Lovelady replied, “No.” (Warren Commission Hearings and Exhibits, vol.6, p.338).
- William Shelley last saw Oswald at “10 or 15 minutes before 12 … on the first floor over near the telephone.” (WCHE, vol.7, p.390.) “He saw OSWALD on two or three occasions during the morning and last saw him sometime between 11:45 A.M. and 12 Noon, when he, SHELLEY, went to lunch. He did not see OSWALD again on this date until he observed OSWALD at the Dallas Police Department.” (Commission Document 5.) “I did not see Lee Harvey Oswald at the time Pres. Kennedy was shot.” (CE 1381, p.84 [WCHE, vol.22, p.673].)
In addition, Roy Lewis stated that “I stood by myself on the inside of the front entrance of the Texas School Book Depository Building” and that Oswald “was not with me at the time I heard the shots.” (CE 1381, p.61 [WCHE, vol.22, p.661])
But no–one identified the figure in the doorway as anyone else either. Unsurprisingly, with everyone’s attention focussed on the presidential motorcade and the ensuing pandemonium in front of them, the figure standing behind them in the shadows went unnoticed.
The lack of identification suggests that Prayer Man may have arrived late on the scene, almost certainly as an employee slipping out through the TSBD’s main doors, unseen by most or all of the other people on the steps. It is very unlikely that the Prayer Man figure was someone who did not work in the building. Other members of the public, as well as many TSBD employees, recognised that the best view was to be had from the side of the road rather than several yards back in a crowded doorway. The other thirteen people on the steps all worked in the building; most of them would surely have noticed an unfamiliar figure climbing the steps to stand among them, but none mentioned it, even when specifically asked about the presence of strangers in the TSBD that day.
There was, in fact, one person whose presence on the steps, if noticed, might understandably have gone unmentioned. By the time the majority of their statements were taken, every witness would have been well aware that Lee Oswald had been shot dead while in police custody. Even before Oswald’s murder, the Dallas police had proclaimed him guilty, a conclusion later repeated consistently by the police, the FBI, politicians and, with very few exceptions, newspapers, television and radio. No–one may have gone on record identifying Oswald, but that in itself is not strong evidence that no–one saw him.
The TSBD Employees in the Doorway
In March 1964 the Warren Commission asked the FBI to interview every TSBD employee who was at the Elm Street premises on the day of the assassination. All of the 73 people interviewed were asked about their location at the time of the shooting. The relevant parts of their replies, all from CE 1381, are shown below, along with other pertinent statements. Some of the witnesses had made statements to the FBI within days of the assassination, which are collected in CD 5, although none of these statements contains information about the witnesses’ locations that does not appear in CE 1381.
Every employee was asked in the March 1964 interviews if he or she had noticed a stranger in the building. All replied that they had not, which suggests strongly that Prayer Man was someone who worked in the building.
The evidence quoted below comes from two groups of TSBD employees who share features with Prayer Man:
- Location: Thirteen TSBD employees stated that they were standing on the steps during the assassination. Breaking them down into categories that are relevant to the Prayer Man discussion: six were women, two were black men, and five were white men.
- Clothing: Ten other employees may have worn a shirt like Prayer Man’s.
Three of the statements contain minor errors. Roy Truly, O.V. Campbell, Jeraldean (Mrs R.A.) Reid and Carolyn Arnold were claimed to have been on the steps, but their own statements make it clear that all four had moved away from the steps by the time the presidential motorcade arrived; for example, Roy Truly stated that he and Ochus Campbell were standing “out in Elm Street, 10 to 15 or 20 feet from the front steps. We first stood on the steps, the bottom steps a few minutes, and then we walked out in the line of spectators on the side of Elm Street” (WCHE, vol.3, p.219).
It is worth noting that many of the witnesses quoted below were standing on the TSBD’s steps for some time, and they too may have moved around. Their recollections in March 1964 of their exact positions at the time of the shooting will not necessarily be accurate. Billy Lovelady’s memory, for example, may have been influenced by his viewing of the Altgens photograph. He claimed to have been standing “to the far right against the wall,” as is wrongly implied by the angle from which the Altgens photograph was taken, but he can be seen in other images to be leaning against the hand–rail that in 1963 ran down the middle of the steps.
Layout of the Texas School Book Depository
CD 496 contains plans and photographs of the TSBD. Of particular relevance to the Prayer Man question are:
- A photograph of the front steps and hand–rail from Elm Street.
- A photograph of the main entrance from inside the building.
- A photograph of the staircase and storage room door near the main entrance.
- A photograph of the first floor warehouse area.
- A plan of the first (i.e. ground) floor.
- A plan of the second floor.
The Six Women on the Steps
- Avery Davis:
- Ruth Dean:
- Judith McCully:
- “I was standing on the front steps of the Texas School Book Depository Building with Mrs. Charles Davis. … Miss McCully advised that when she was previously interviewed by FBI Agents on November 24, 1963, she recalls telling them she was standing on the fourth floor of the Texas School Book Depository … however, she stated she wished to clarify this point by stating she was actually standing on the front steps of the main entrance to the building and immediately following the shooting returned to the fourth floor.” (CE 1381, p.64 [WCHE, vol.22, p.663], 20 March 1964.)
- Madie Reese:
- “She was standing on the second step in front of the Texas School Book Depository Building.” (CD 5, 24 November 1963.)
- “I, accompanied by Mrs. Ruth Hilliard Dean, left the Depository building by the main entrance and took up a position on the second step from the bottom to the right or west side of the main entrance of the Depository building. Mrs. Dean was standing directly to my left at the time of the assassination. … Following the shooting, I and Mrs. Dean remained in front of the building for about five more minutes.” (CE 1381, p.77 [WCHE, vol.22, p.669], 20 March 1964.)
- Pauline Sanders:
- “She stood in the last line of spectators nearest the door to the Texas School Book Depository building.” (CD 5, 24 November 1963.)
- “I took up a position at the top of the front steps of the Depository building facing Elm Street. To the best of my recollection I was standing on the top step at the east end of the entrance. I recall that while standing there I noticed Mrs. Sarah Stanton standing next to me, but I am unsure as to the others.” (CE 1381, p.82 [WCHE, vol.22, p.672], 19 March 1964.)
- Sarah Stanton:
- “She was standing on the front steps of the building as the President passed.” (CD 7, p.20, 23 November 1963.)
- “I was standing on the front steps of the Texas School Book Depository Building with Mr. William Shelley … Mrs. R.E. Sanders … and Billy Lovelady.” (CE 1381, p.89 [WCHE, vol.22, p.675], 18 March 1964.)
The Two Black Men on the Steps
- Carl Jones:
- “I was sitting on the front steps of the Texas School Book Depository Building. With me were Mr. Roy Truly, Mr. O.V. Campbell, Mrs. R.A. Reid and Billy Lovelady.” (CE 1381, p.52 [WCHE, vol.22, p.657], 18 March 1964.)
- Roy Lewis:
- “SUBJECT stated that he was in the entrance of the building when the President was assassinated.” (CD 950, p.54, 18 February 1964.)
- “I stood by myself on the inside of the front entrance of the Texas School Book Depository Building. … I was acquainted with Lee Harvey Oswald, but he was not with me at the time I heard the shots.” (CE 1381, p.61 [WCHE, vol.22, p.661], 18 March 1964.)
The Five White Men on the Steps
- Buell Wesley Frazier:
- “I was standing on the front steps of the building when the Parade came by.” (CE 2003, p.26 [WCHE, vol.24, p.209], 22 November 1963.)
- “FRAZIER was standing on the front steps of the Texas School Book Depository, with Mr. BILL SHELLY [sic].” (CD 5, 23 November 1963.)
- “I was standing on the front steps of the Texas School Book Depository Building. I was with William H. Shelley … and Billy Lovelady.” (CE 1381, p.32 [WCHE, vol.22, p.647], 18 March 1964.)
- “I was standing on the steps there … I stayed around there pretty close to Mr. Shelley and this boy Billy Lovelady …. There was a lady there, a heavy–set lady who worked upstairs there whose name is Sarah something, I don’t know her last name. … I was standing about, I believe, one step down from the top there … standing there by the rail.” (WCHE, vol.2, p.233, 11 March 1964.)
- Billy Lovelady:
- “When the President came by Bill Shelley and I was standing on the steps in front of the building where I work.” (CE 2003, p.36 [WCHE, vol.24, p.214], 22 November 1963.)
- “LOVELADY and his foreman, BILL SHELLEY, were standing on the front doorstep at 411 Elm Street.” (CD 5, 22 November 1963.)
- “I was standing on the top step to the far right against the wall of the entranceway to the Texas School Book Depository. … William H. Shelley … and Sarah Stanton … were standing next to me.” (CE 1381, p.62 [WCHE, vol.22, p.662], 19 March 1964.)
- “I happened to look on the outside and Mr. Shelley was standing outside with Miss Sarah Stanton, I believe her name is, and I said, ‘Well, I’ll go out there and talk with them, sit down and eat my lunch out there, set on the steps.’” (WCHE, vol.6, p.338, 7 April 1964.)
- Joe Molina:
- “MOLINA … proceeded to the front of the building to observe the parade.” (CD 5, 23 November 1963.)
- “He was standing on the steps of the building.” (CD 7, p.15, 30 November 1963.)
- “I … took up a position on the top step at the entrance of the Texas School Book Depository … Otis Williams … and Mrs. Pauline Sanders … were also viewing the motorcade with me. I recall that Roy Truly … and O.V. Campbell … were also viewing the motorcade. … I heard three shots. I moved from my position on the steps in the direction of where the Presidential car was proceeding. I remained outside for a few moments and then went back inside the Texas School Book Depository Building.” (CE 1381, p.66 [WCHE, vol.22, p.664], 25 March 1964.)
- “I was standing on the front steps. … Right next left of me was Mr. Williams and close to there was Mrs. Sanders.” (WCHE, vol.6, p.371, 7 April 1964.)
- William Shelley:
- “I was standing just outside the glass doors of the entrance. … Billy N. Lovelady … was seated on the entrance steps just in front of me. I recall that Wesley Frazier, Mrs. Sarah Stanton and Mrs. Carolyn Arnold … were also standing in this entrance way near me at the time Pres. Kennedy was shot. I did not see Lee Harvey Oswald at the time Pres. Kennedy was shot.” (CE 1381, p.84 [WCHE, vol.22, p.673], 18 March 1964.)
- “Just outside the glass doors there.” (WCHE, vol.6, p.328, 7 April 1964.)
- Otis Williams:
- “WILLIAMS was on the front steps of the building.” (CD 5, 24 November 1963.)
- “I was standing on the top step against the railing on the east side of the steps in front of the building. I do not recall who was standing at either side of me but I do know that Mrs. Robert E. Sanders … viewed the motorcade. … Just after the Presidential car passed the building … I heard three loud blasts. … I remained momentarily on the steps and then returned inside the building.” (CE 1381, p.101 [WCHE, vol.22, p.683], 19 March 1964.)
The TSBD’s Other Manual Workers
The TSBD employed several other men who may have worn a shirt like Prayer Man’s, but who claimed to have been somewhere other than on the steps during the assassination. Four were on the fifth floor; two were inside on the first floor; one was outside beyond the steps; and one was several blocks away:
- Danny Garcia Arce:
- “I was standing on the grassy area directly in front of the Depository Building.” (CE 1381, p.5 [WCHE, vol.22, p.634], 18 March 1964.)
- Jack Dougherty:
- “I was at a point about 10 feet from the elevator on the fifth floor of the Texas School Book Depository Building. I was alone at this time.” (CE 1381, p.27 [WCHE, vol.22, p.645], 19 March 1964.)
- Charles Givens:
- “I was standing at the corner of Record and Elm Streets after having watched the parade on Main Street.” (CE 1381, p.36 [WCHE, vol.22, p.649], 18 March 1964.)
- James Jarman:
- “I was at the third window from the east side on the fifth floor, Texas School Book Depository Building. I was with Harold Norman … and Bonnie Ray Williams.” (CE 1381, p.49 [WCHE, vol.22, p.655], 18 March 1964.)
- Harold Norman:
- “I was on the fifth floor of the Texas School Book Depository building … I was with James Jarmon [sic] and Bonnie Ray Williams watching the motorcade.” (CE 1381, p.70 [WCHE, vol.22, p.666], 18 March 1964.)
- Eddie Piper:
- “I am a member of the Negro race.…I was sitting on a box on the first floor of the Texas School Book Depository watching the parade from the window. … I was sitting by myself during all this time and I did not see Lee Harvey Oswald.” (CE 1381, p.74 [WCHE, vol.22, p.668], 18 March 1964.)
- “I went on back to the first window of the first floor. … No, not the first window — but on the first floor about the second window on the first floor. … Well, from the front door, you know where the front door is — going back right down Elm, it’s the second window from the corner.” (WCHE, vol.6, p.383, 8 April 1964.)
- William Shelley confirmed that Piper was not on the steps; he saw Piper “coming back from where he was watching the motorcade in the southwest corner of the shipping room.” (WCHE, vol.6, p.330, 7 April 1964.)
- Troy West:
- “I am a Negro male …. I was on the first floor making coffee for the employees. I was alone at this time and did not know at the time that President Kennedy had been shot. I was walking toward the front of the building when people rushed in the building and told me that someone had shot President Kennedy. I do not recall seeing Lee Harvey Oswald at any time on 11–22–63.” (CE 1381, p.96 [WCHE, vol.22, p.679], 18 March 1964.)
- “I made the coffee right there close to the wrapping mail table where I wrap mail. … Well, I had just, after I made coffee, I just had started to eat my lunch …. But before I got through, well, all of this was, I mean, the police and things was coming in.” (WCHE, vol.6, p.361, 8 April 1964.)
- Bonnie Ray Williams:
- “I, along with Harold ‘Hank’ Norman and James Earl Jarman, Jr., … were [sic] on the fifth floor of the Depository Building looking out the windows.” (CE 1381, p.101 [WCHE, vol.22, p.681], 19 March 1964.)
Statements were also taken from two employees at the TSBD’s other premises, on Houston Street, about two blocks north of the more famous location:
- Edward Shields:
- “When President John F. Kennedy was shot I was standing in front of Mullendore’s Cafeteria, 601 Main Street, watching the President’s motorcade. Standing there with me [was] Charles Givens.” (CE 1381, p.86 [WCHE, vol.22, p.674], 18 March 1964.)
- Franklin Wenter:
- “I was working in the warehouse [on Houston Street] all morning and at the time of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, I was on my lunch hour. I ate lunch in the warehouse and did not leave the warehouse at any time.” (CE 1381, p.98 [WCHE, vol.22, p.680], 24 March 1964.)
Eliminating TSBD Candidates for ‘Prayer Man’
Was Prayer Man a Woman?
If the Prayer Man figure was a woman who worked in the TSBD, the only plausible candidates are Pauline Sanders and Sarah Stanton, both of whom were standing on or near the top step, though probably at the opposite end from Prayer Man. The other four women on the steps claimed to have been on a lower step than Prayer Man, and their stories corroborate each other. All of the other female TSBD employees claimed to have been elsewhere.
Was Prayer Man a Black Man?
The Wiegman film shows one of the two black men, either Carl Jones or Roy Lewis, standing several steps below Prayer Man. He is by himself, as Roy Lewis claimed to have been. The precise location of the other man is not known. Other photographs may show Jones wearing a light–coloured shirt, like the man on the steps below Prayer Man, and Lewis wearing a dark top, like Prayer Man; see https://educationforum.ipbhost.com/topic/23221-roy-lewis-updated/. Roy Lewis’s dark top, however, is a cardigan with a distinct collar, unlike the garment Prayer Man was wearing, which is clearly a shirt.
Was Prayer Man a Manual Worker?
Of the manual workers who claimed to have been somewhere other than on the steps, all can be eliminated, with the possible but very unlikely exceptions of two whose locations are not corroborated by other witnesses: Troy West, the black man who claimed to have been on the first floor of the building, away from the main doors, and Jack Dougherty, the white man who claimed to have been on the fifth floor near the elevators. The fact that no–one reported seeing Dougherty is probably enough to rule him out. He was described by his boss, Roy Truly, as “a great big husky fellow” (WCHE, vol.3, p.237); he would presumably have been noticed if he had wandered down to the first floor.
The White Men in the Doorway
Assuming that Prayer Man was in fact a man, and that he was white, both of which seem reasonable based on the available images, the women and the black men may be ruled out. If Prayer Man is not Lee Oswald, he must be either a non–employee of the TSBD or one of the five white, male TSBD employees who claimed to have been standing on the steps. There are grounds for eliminating all five:
Buell Wesley Frazier
Several frames of one of the films show a tall man with Buell Frazier’s distinctive profile, standing near Prayer Man (https://educationforum.ipbhost.com/topic/20354-oswald-leaving-tsbd/?do=findComment&comment=277622). Frazier was photographed in the police station that afternoon wearing a jacket consistent with the one worn by the man with his profile.
Billy Lovelady can be ruled out with certainty if, as is generally agreed, he is the figure in the Altgens photograph. Frames from the Wiegman film show this person standing next to Prayer Man (photo: https://educationforum.ipbhost.com/topic/20354-oswald-leaving-tsbd/?do=findComment&comment=276597).
Joe Molina stated that he was standing just to the west of Otis Williams, who claimed to have been east of the “railing”, the hand–rail that ran down the middle of the steps, on the opposite side of the steps from Prayer Man. Molina would have been close to where Prayer Man was standing. Molina’s location does not appear to be corroborated by other witnesses.
Molina was 39 years old at the time of the assassination, and described himself as being 5′ 7½″ tall, weighing 164 pounds, with a “stocky” build and “brown, graying” hair, “balding in front,” and a “fair” complexion (CD 1426, pp.17–18). This is not inconsistent with Prayer Man’s appearance, but it is perhaps more consistent with the sturdy torso of the figure wearing a suit, tie and white shirt who can be seen standing to the east of Billy Lovelady in the Altgens photograph. Joe Molina was the TSBD’s credit manager, and would presumably have worn a white shirt and a tie rather than a dark, casual shirt.
William Shelley was almost certainly the man, thin and with angular cheek–bones and wearing a black suit and tie and a white shirt, who is seen in several photographs taken later on the day of the assassination. See https://educationforum.ipbhost.com/topic/20354-oswald-leaving-tsbd/?do=findComment&comment=276716, which makes a good case that this man is Shelley, as well as the less good case that this man is the portly besuited figure near Lovelady in the Altgens photograph. It is more likely that the portly man is Molina, and that Shelley is one of the men shielding his eyes from the sun, as identified in the previous link. Either way, William Shelley cannot be Prayer Man. For a very plausible comparison of the thin, tie–wearing man with an earlier photograph of Shelley, see https://reopenkennedycase.forumotion.net/t388p585–prayer–man–on–the–education–forum.
In his Warren Commission testimony, Shelley stated that after the shooting he and Billy Lovelady “ran out on the island [on Elm Street] … and we turned around and we saw an officer and [Roy] Truly” (WCHE, vol.6, p.329). A frame from one of the films seems to corroborate this by showing two men heading away from the TSBD entrance; one of these men is wearing a shirt with a pattern like Lovelady’s (https://educationforum.ipbhost.com/topic/20354-oswald-leaving-tsbd/?do=findComment&comment=278249). Marrion Baker is the only plausible candidate for the police officer whom Shelley saw. If Shelley had indeed moved off the steps by the time Baker arrived, he cannot have been Prayer Man; the Darnell film shows Prayer Man standing on the steps at the same time as Baker has almost reached them.
Otis Williams stated to the FBI in March 1964 that “I was standing on the top step against the railing on the east side of the steps in front of the building.” Joe Molina corroborated this in his Warren Commission testimony: Otis Williams was “right next left of me.” Williams was a bookkeeping supervisor; like Molina, he was unlikely to have worn a casual dark shirt to work.
Summary: Who Was Not Prayer Man?
One of the five white men can be eliminated for certain: Billy Lovelady can be seen standing next to Prayer Man. Two others can be eliminated with near–certainty:
- Buell Frazier is almost certainly the tall man standing near Prayer Man.
- William Shelley was probably standing on the other side of Lovelady, wearing a white shirt and tie, and was very likely to have left the steps by the time Prayer Man was filmed there.
The other two are unlikely to be Prayer Man, but the possibility cannot be entirely discounted:
- Joe Molina was probably standing close to Prayer Man’s location, but he was probably not wearing a dark, casual shirt.
- Otis Williams was probably standing further away from Prayer Man, on the eastern side of the steps, and was probably not dressed like Prayer Man.
At the time of writing, the only members of this group whose appearance is known from contemporary photographs are Frazier and Lovelady, neither of whom was Prayer Man. The strong identification of Shelley in photographs taken on the day of the assassination, as mentioned above, suggests that he too was not Prayer Man. The identification of Molina in the Altgens photograph, as the portly besuited man near Lovelady, is weaker than that of Shelley, though perfectly plausible. The only photographs of Molina in public circulation date from 1969 and 1988: https://educationforum.ipbhost.com/topic/21772-photo-of-joe-molina-circa-1963/. Williams’s appearance in 1963, and his possible resemblance to Prayer Man, remains a mystery.
Prayer Man: the Candidates
With the current state of the evidence, the most likely candidate for Prayer Man is Lee Oswald:
- Oswald was certainly on the first floor a few minutes before the assassination.
- He was seen by Ochus Campbell very close to the steps soon after the shooting.
- Oswald’s build, facial features and hairline are consistent with those of Prayer Man.
- His clothing is consistent with that of Prayer Man.
The next most likely are:
- Joe Molina, who is ruled out solely because of his probable attire,
- and an unknown member of the public, who went unnoticed despite having climbed the steps from the street.
The only other remotely plausible candidates are the following six TSBD employees, none of whom can be identified with certainty, if at all, in the various films and photographs taken at the time of the assassination:
- Otis Williams, who recalled that he was standing some distance from where Prayer Man is seen, and who was probably wearing different clothes.
- Pauline Sanders and Sarah Stanton, who were standing in the right general area but whose clothes and hair were probably unlike Prayer Man’s.
- Jack Dougherty, whose clothes were probably like those worn by Prayer Man but who was almost certainly on the fifth floor.
- Troy West, who was likely to have been wearing the same type of clothes as Prayer Man but was unlikely to have been standing on the steps, and whose skin almost certainly was darker than Prayer Man’s.
- The same combination of similar clothes but dissimilar skin tone applies to whichever of the two black men, Carl Jones or Roy Lewis, is not standing below Prayer Man.
‘Prayer Man’ and the Second–Floor Encounter
It was generally accepted for many years that Lee Oswald encountered Roy Truly and Marrion Baker in the TSBD’s second–floor canteen less than one and a half minutes after the shooting. The online discussions about Prayer Man revived a suggestion that this event may not have happened, and that any encounter between Oswald, Truly and Baker would instead have taken place close to the main entrance on the first floor.
If Prayer Man was indeed Oswald, it is of course much more plausible that any encounter took place close to the main entrance, although it is not impossible that Oswald reached the second–floor canteen just ahead of Truly and Baker, if he had taken the set of stairs that were situated just inside the main entrance. For more about the pros and cons of the second–floor encounter, see the previous article about Lee Harvey Oswald’s alibi.
‘Prayer Man’ and the Framing of Oswald
It might be objected that the framing of Oswald would require him to be kept away from other people during the assassination. If he was seen watching the motorcade on the first floor, he could hardly be accused of firing a rifle from the sixth floor.
There is, however, no reason to assume that Oswald needed to be falsely implicated in advance as the lone gunman on the sixth floor. Allowing Oswald to watch the motorcade from the main entrance with other TSBD employees would certainly risk ruling him out as the gunman on the sixth floor, but it would not rule out any involvement on his part in the assassination.
The lone–gunman interpretation was imposed on the evidence after the event for political reasons, and need not have been an integral element of any plot. Oswald’s essential function was simply to provide a link between the assassination and the Cuban or Soviet regimes, either to provoke an invasion of Cuba, which did not happen, or purely to prevent an honest investigation of the assassination:
- Oswald apparently owned the rifle that was discovered on the sixth floor. This by itself was prima facie evidence of his involvement in the assassination, whether he fired the gun himself or merely supplied it to someone else.
- The Cuban and Soviet regimes were in turn linked to Oswald through his apparent support for the Cuban regime while in New Orleans in the summer of 1963, and his apparent encounters with a representative of the Soviet regime in Mexico City a few weeks before the assassination.
The Wiegman and Darnell Films
The Quality of the Wiegman and Darnell Films
At the time of writing, the only copies of the Wiegman and Darnell films in public circulation are of relatively poor quality. In the absence of unexpected new witness testimony, the only realistic way to resolve the identity of Prayer Man for certain would be to examine good–quality versions of these films, if any still exist.
Although both Wiegman and Darnell were moving while taking their films, each film contains plenty of frames in which the images are reasonably sharp. What is lacking in the known versions is not sharpness but detail. It is possible that the original films or early copies will contain enough definition to allow Lee Harvey Oswald to be conclusively eliminated either as the figure in the doorway or as the gunman on the sixth floor.
Where Are the Original Films?
The original Wiegman film, or at least a good copy of it, may still exist. The original Darnell film probably no longer survives, although a first–generation copy probably does.
According to Richard Trask, the leading authority on the photographic record of the assassination:
WBAP had possession of the original Wiegman film, and if normal procedures were followed, the films would eventually be shipped out to NBC in New York. Soon after the assassination, NBC sold a copy of the Wiegman film (apparently the edited version) to Hearst Metrotone Newsreel …. According to one source, the HSCA located the original film at NBC News in Los Angeles.
NBC made a gift of news film and television tapes of the President Kennedy era to the Kennedy Library in 1967. Copies of the original November 22 through 23, 1963, news coverage are available at the audiovisual department of the library. In 1988 … the Arts and Entertainment cable network rebroadcast videotape of the first 4½ hours of the NBC telecast including the original Wiegman assassination clip.
(Richard Trask, Pictures of the Pain: Photography and the Assassination of President Kennedy, Yeoman Press, 1994, p.383)
As for the Darnell film, Trask reports that “Today most of the original 16mm prints of the work of Darnell, Couch … and the other cameramen are broken up at best, mislaid, unaccounted for, or completely lost at worst. None of their work was ever seriously collected or used in the FBI, Warren Commission, or HSCA investigations” (Trask, op.cit., p.430).
All is not lost, however. It appears that a first–generation copy of the Darnell film exists at the Sixth Floor Museum in Dallas. The late Gary Mack, formerly the museum’s spokesman, wrote to a researcher early in 2015 that “a first–generation 16mm copy print … is in the Museum’s collection; however, the Museum cannot do anything with it until copyright issues are resolved. It’ll happen, and sooner rather than later” (see https://educationforum.ipbhost.com/topic/20354-oswald-leaving-tsbd/?do=findComment&comment=298991). For more about the locations of the two films, see:
The Significance of the ‘Prayer Man’ Question
The figure in the shadows of the TSBD doorway may never be identified with certainty. Even if Prayer Man is identified and turns out not to be Lee Oswald, there is more than enough evidence placing Oswald somewhere other than the sixth floor during the shooting. Definitive proof that he was not the sixth–floor gunman would, of course, eliminate what little public support the lone–gunman hypothesis retains, and would provide further, very strong evidence that Oswald had been framed in advance of the assassination.
Changing Public Opinion
If it were to happen, the conclusive identification of Prayer Man as Lee Oswald would be one of the major events in the history of the JFK assassination. The consequences would be enormous.The public’s perception of the assassination would be changed even more dramatically than the two previous such events had managed:
- The first television broadcast of the Zapruder film in 1975 generated widespread suspicion that the fatal shot had come from the front. The ensuing public outcry led to a lobbying campaign that forced the setting up of the House Select Committee on Assassinations. Although the HSCA’s investigation was hobbled, it nevertheless produced a good deal of useful information, all of it unfavourable to the lone–gunman hypothesis.
- Oliver Stone’s film, JFK, again brought the Zapruder film to the public’s attention and educated many casually interested members of the public about the flimsiness of the case against Oswald. On this occasion, public opinion led to the setting up of the Assassination Records Review Board, which released a large number of previously classified documents that undermined the case for a lone gunman.
The Effect of Public Opinion
Everyone understands that worthwhile social and political change comes about not through the benevolence of the powerful but through organised pressure from below. The same process has applied in the past to the JFK assassination, and can apply again.
There is a large amount of potential public interest in the assassination, generally untapped, which becomes manifest whenever a major anniversary or a significant event occurs. The identification of Oswald as Prayer Man would surely ignite substantial public interest in the assassination. If it were properly organised, this support would make it very difficult for the authorities to resist giving the JFK assassination its first serious, honest investigation, which in turn would oblige the media to treat the assassination with more objectivity than it has managed up to now.