Was the TSBD Paper Bag Genuine?

The only physical evidence that linked Lee Harvey Oswald to the assassination of President Kennedy was the rifle and bullet shells that were discovered on the sixth floor of the Texas School Book Depository (see The Basic Facts of the JFK Assassination).

Getting the Rifle into the Building

When Did Oswald Bring the Rifle to the TSBD?

If Oswald had been the lone assassin, he must have brought the rifle into the TSBD himself. According to the Warren Commission’s case against Oswald, he had stored the rifle in the garage of the house in which his wife and children were staying. Oswald himself was living in a rented room several miles nearer to his place of work. The only plausible opportunity for Oswald to retrieve the rifle was when he stayed with his wife and children the night before the assassination.

The Police Discover a Paper Bag

The Dallas police claimed to have found a paper bag on the sixth floor close to the south–eastern window from which Oswald was supposed to have fired the shots. They alleged that he had used this bag to disguise the rifle when bringing it from its storage place to the TSBD.

The bag, which was entered into evidence as Commission Exhibit 142, had not been commercially manufactured, but instead had been assembled by hand from wrapping paper and tape.

Problems with the Sixth–Floor Paper Bag

Although the bag contained a partial fingerprint and a partial palm print which linked the bag to Oswald, there were four problems with the Dallas police’s claims:

  • The eye–witness evidence strongly suggests that Oswald had not carried the bag when travelling to work that morning.
  • The photographic and eye–witness evidence does not support the claim that the bag had been found on the sixth floor.
  • Laboratory analysis suggests that the bag had not contained the rifle.
  • Laboratory analyses and eye–witness evidence suggests that the bag had not been assembled by Oswald before the day of the assassination.

The Size of Oswald’s Paper Bag

Three people saw Oswald before and during his arrival at the TSBD on the day of the assassination. Two of them testified that the only thing Oswald had been carrying was a paper bag that was much shorter than the bag that was supposed to have contained the rifle:

The sixth–floor rifle was 35 inches (88 cm) long when disassembled, and 40 inches (102 cm) long when intact (Warren Commission Hearings, vol.3, p.395).

Oswald’s Prints on the Sixth–Floor Bag

Linnie Mae Randle saw Oswald before he began his journey to work. She described him gripping the top of the paper bag in his right hand as the bottom of the bag “almost touched the ground” (Warren Commission Hearings, vol.2, p.248). Buell Wesley Frazier described Oswald about half an hour later, holding the bag “cupped in his [right] hand”, with the top of the bag under his armpit (ibid., p.239). It would be reasonable to suppose that the weight of a rifle may have caused at least Oswald’s right fingerprints and right palm print to become attached to one or both ends of the package.

Lieutenant Day used fingerprint powder on the bag, but found “no legible prints” (Warren Commission Hearings, vol.4, p.267). Robert Studebaker also failed to identify any worthwhile prints:

Mr Ball :
Did you lift any prints?
Mr Studebaker :
There wasn’t but just smudges on it — is all it was. There was one little ole piece of a print and I’m sure I put a piece of tape on it to preserve it … just a partial print.
Mr Ball :
The print of a finger or palm or what?
Mr Studebaker :
You couldn’t tell, it was so small.

(Warren Commission Hearings, vol.7, p.144)

The rifle was sent to the FBI laboratory, where Sebastian Latona found that “there was nothing visible in the way of any latent prints on there” (Warren Commission Hearings, vol.4, p.3). Latona applied silver nitrate to the bag, and discovered two partial prints that were matched to records of Oswald’s prints (ibid., p.6):

Although the bag, or at least the paper that was used to make the bag, appears to have come into contact with Oswald’s hands at some point, the fingerprint and palm print evidence was insufficient to prove that Oswald had carried the bag in the manner described by Randle and Frazier, or that he had assembled the bag by hand.

The Bag and the Sixth–Floor Sniper’s Nest

There is a good deal of uncertainty about whether the police had actually discovered a bag by the supposed sniper’s nest.

Police Descriptions of the Paper Bag

Of the officers who were first on the scene, three gave conflicting descriptions of the bag:

  • Richard M. Sims described seeing “some wrappings”, “a brown wrapping”, “some loose paper” and “a wrapper” (Warren Commission Hearings, vol.7, p.161)
  • Marvin Johnson saw a paper bag: “L.D. Montgomery, my partner, picked it up off the floor, and it was folded up, and he unfolded it …. It was folded and then refolded. It was a fairly small package …. The sack was folded up here and it was east of the pipes in the corner. To the best of my memory, that is where my partner picked it up. I was standing there when he picked it up.” (ibid., pp.103f)
  • Montgomery also saw a bag but denied picking it up (ibid., p.98).

Was There a Paper Bag on the Sixth Floor?

Four other officers did not notice a bag:

  • Gerald Hill stated that “the only sack that I saw” was one that was later shown to have contained a TSBD employee’s lunch (ibid., p.65; he describes his discovery of the lunch bag on p.46).
  • Elmer Boyd also saw the lunch bag, and stated that “I don’t believe I did” see any brown wrapping paper near the window (ibid., p.122).
  • Roger Craig stated that “I don’t remember seeing” a paper bag on the floor (Warren Commission Hearings, vol.6, p.268).
  • Luke Mooney, who appears to have been the first officer to examine the south–east corner of the sixth floor, “didn’t see anything over in the corner” (Warren Commission Hearings, vol.3, p.286).

J.B. Hicks, of the Dallas police crime laboratory, did not remember a paper bag:

Mr Ball :
Did you ever see a paper sack in the items that were taken from the Texas School Book Depository building?
Mr Hicks :
Paper bag?
Mr Ball :
Paper bag.
Mr Hicks :
No, sir; I did not. It seems like there was some chicken bones or maybe a lunch; no, I believe that someone had gathered it up.
Mr Ball :
Well, this was another type of bag made out of brown paper; did you ever see it?
Mr Hicks :
No, sir; I don’t believe I did. I don’t recall it.

(Warren Commission Hearings, vol.7, p.289)

More importantly, the paper bag is not present in any of the photographs made by the police of the area around the south–east window. The Warren Commission helpfully published one such photograph, Commission Exhibit 1302, with a dotted outline to indicate the supposed location of the bag.

The earliest known photograph of the bag dates from about three hours after the police had entered the building. William Allen of the Dallas Times Herald photographed Detective Montgomery on the front steps of the TSBD, holding the bag; see Richard Trask, Pictures of the Pain, Yeoman Press, 1994, p.552.

There were problems with the testimony of the two detectives who were in charge of photographing the scene and dusting pertinent items for fingerprints. Robert Studebaker and Carl Day each claimed to have been the officer who discovered the bag (Commission Document 5, pp.128f). Day claimed that Roy Truly, the manager of the TSBD, had been the only other person to see the bag, a claim which Truly denied (Warren Commission Hearings, vol.3, p.231). The testimony of the other officers quoted above implies that they reached the scene before Studebaker and Day arrived.

Did the Sixth–Floor Paper Bag Contain the Rifle?

According to Wesley Frazier, Oswald said that the bag he carried to work contained curtain rods. Oswald denied this, and claimed that the bag contained only a sandwich and an apple (Warren Report, p.622). The Warren Commission claimed that the bag contained a rifle.

Evidence from the FBI suggested that the sixth–floor bag had not come into contact with the rifle that Oswald was alleged to have used. The bag was too short to accommodate the rifle in its assembled state, and it contained none of the markings that could be expected to be left on the bag by the loose parts of the disassembled rifle, which was in a “well–oiled condition” (Warren Commission Hearings, vol.26, p.455 [Commission Exhibit 2974]). According to James Cadigan of the FBI laboratory:

I was also requested … to examine the bag to determine if there were any significant markings or scratches or abrasions or anything by which it could be associated with the rifle, Commission Exhibit 139, that is, could I find any markings that I could tie to that rifle. … And I couldn’t find any such markings.

(Warren Commission Hearings, vol.4, p.97).

Manufacturing the TSBD Paper Bag

Two Types of Paper Bag

Frazier was certain that the bag he had seen Oswald carry was a standard paper bag, manufactured commercially and obtained from a store:

Mr Ball :
What did the package look like?
Mr Frazier :
Well, I will be frank with you. I would just, it is right as you get out of the grocery store, just more or less out of a package, you have seen some of these brown paper sacks you can obtain from any, most of the stores, some varieties, but it was a package just roughly about two feet long.
Mr Ball :
The paper, was the color of the paper, that you would get in a grocery store, is that it, a bag in a grocery store?
Mr Frazier :
Right. You have seen, not a real light color but you know normally, the normal color about the same color, you have seen these kinds of heavy duty bags you know like you obtain from the grocery store, something like that, about the same color of that, paper sack you get there.

(Warren Commission Hearings, vol.2, p.226)

Frazier stated that Oswald usually carried his lunch to work in “a little paper sack you get out of a grocery store” (ibid., p.220).

The bag produced by the Dallas police had been assembled from wrapping paper, and sealed with tape. It was an ad hoc, home–made bag, not one from a shop.

TSBD Wrapping Paper and Tape Machine

The bag was made from the Texas School Book Depository’s stock of wrapping paper, and sealed with the TSBD’s tape. The paper and the tape each contained markings from one particular tape dispensing machine in the shipping room on the first floor of the building. Because the dispensing machine, which was too sturdy to have been removed from the TSBD, moistened the tape at the same time as it applied the markings, the bag must have been assembled on the premises (Warren Commission Hearings, vol.4, pp.90–93).

The person who assembled the bag was unlikely to have been Lee Harvey Oswald. The machine was under constant supervision by Troy West, who testified that he spent his entire working day at the wrapping table, and implied that Oswald never had the opportunity to manufacture the bag (Warren Commission Hearings, vol.6, pp.360ff).

When Was the Bag Assembled?

James Cadigan of the FBI laboratory testified that the paper and tape of the bag possessed “identical” physical characteristics to samples of wrapping paper and tape taken by the Dallas police on the afternoon of 22 November (Warren Commission Hearings, vol.4, p.93).

The TSBD used approximately one roll of paper every three working days (ibid., p.96). For each consignment of 58 rolls of paper, the company ordered a consignment of 500 rolls of tape (Commission Document 897, p.163), the equivalent of using one roll of tape roughly every three working hours.

The tape on the paper bag supposedly found on the sixth floor seems to have been applied within about three working hours of the samples being taken by the Dallas police. The bag is likely to have been constructed during the period between Oswald’s arrival at the TSBD, four and a half hours before the assassination, and the bag’s first public appearance in the hands of Detective Montgomery later that afternoon.

Conclusion: The Sixth–Floor Paper Bag

It is very likely that the home–made paper bag that was produced in evidence by the Dallas police had no connection to the assassination of President Kennedy:

  • The testimony of the police officers who were first on the scene, and the absence of any photographs of the bag in situ, suggests that the bag which was entered into evidence had not been discovered in the south–eastern corner of the sixth floor of the Texas School Book Depository.
  • The two witnesses who saw Oswald carrying a bag on the morning of the assassination claimed that the bag they saw was too small to have contained a rifle, and that it was a standard grocery store bag rather than the home–made package supposedly found on the sixth floor.
  • The physical state of the sixth–floor package was not consistent with that of a paper bag which had contained the loose parts of a disassembled rifle.
  • The evidence of Troy West, of the TSBD’s shipping department, suggested strongly that Oswald never had an opportunity to manufacture the bag.
  • The bag was made from a roll of tape that was probably first used on the morning of the assassination, long after Oswald was supposed to have constructed the bag.

The only pieces of evidence linking the bag with Oswald were his partial fingerprint and palm print. The prints can be explained in two ways:

  • either the bag was assembled from paper that Oswald happened to have touched during his work in the TSBD,
  • or, less charitably but more credibly, the prints were added to the bag in order to incriminate Oswald, as seems to have happened with the palm print on the rifle.

The fact that the paper and tape of the bag can be dated to the day of the assassination suggests that the bag was manufactured on the afternoon of 22 November by one or more members the Dallas police force. As with the palm print on the rifle and Commission Exhibit 399, the so–called magic bullet, there are good reasons to doubt the authenticity of the paper bag.

Any non–conspiratorial explanation of the assassination requires that the Dallas police’s home–made paper bag had genuinely been found on the sixth floor, and had genuinely been used by Oswald to transport a rifle on the morning of the assassination. Without a credible means of getting the rifle into the TSBD himself, Oswald cannot plausibly have been the lone gunman:

  • either Oswald had at least one associate,
  • or the rifle was brought into the building without his knowledge.

Further Reading

For a detailed account of the sixth–floor paper bag, see: