Lee Harvey Oswald’s Paraffin Casts

Lee Harvey Oswald’s Paraffin Casts.


The paraffin casts are interesting as it appeared to be able to confirm whether Oswald had fired a weapon or not. I will share all my available information that I have managed to gather and my special thanks go to Malcolm Blunt for the documentation. I thank Terry Martin for the scans of the hallway photographs. I also used documents from NARAMFFAARC, History Matters and UNT.

Joseph L Thimes on gunshot wounds and their residue tests. This four page summarisation is a great way to familiarise yourself with the subject matter at hand. Also some article and book excerpts on the paraffin casts and its tests, from Malcolm Blunt Archive, are worth checking out as well. At the Weisberg Archive is a chronology of some of the reports and DPD statements released by Dallas Police. Jesse Curry and C.W. Brown seem to be most vocal about the tests.

The Warren Report on the paraffin casts

The Warren Report states on page 561: In fact, however, the test is completely unreliable in determining either whether a person has recently fired a weapon or whether he has not.

A positive reaction is, therefore, valueless in determining whether a suspect has recently fired a weapon. Conversely, a person who has recently fired a weapon may not show a positive reaction to the paraffin test, particularly if the weapon was a rifle. A revolver is so constructed that there is a space between the cylinder, which bears the chambers, and the barrel. When a revolver is fired, nitrate-bearing gases escape through this space and may leave residues on the hand. In a rifle, however, there is no gap between the chamber and the barrel, and one would therefore not expect nitrates to be deposited upon a person’s hands or cheeks as a result of his firing a rifle.

An agent of the FBI, using the C2766 rifle, fired three rounds of Western 6.5-millimeter Mannlicher-Carcano ammunition in rapid succession. A paraffin test was then performed on both of his hands and his right cheek. Both of his hands and his cheek tested negative.
The paraffin casts of Oswald’s hands and right cheek were also examined by neutron-activation analyses at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory. Barium and antimony were found to be present on both surfaces of all the casts and also in residues from the rifle cartridge cases and the revolver cartridge cases.  Since barium and antimony were present in both the rifle and the revolver cartridge cases, their presence on the casts were not evidence that Oswald had fired the rifle.

In short the Warren Commission wasn’t too impressed with the paraffin tests from an evidentiary point of view. Oswald, while working at the TSBD that morning definitely had gotten into contact with printing ink (nitrates). Which would have been enough to have contaminated the paraffin test from the beginning.

W.E. Barnes


Jim Murray/Black Star. Scanned by Terry Martin/ROKC from the Richard E Sprague archive at NARA.

When W.E. Barnes is photographed in the corridor after applying the casts it becomes clear that he has an empty(!) tin of wax in his hands (here is a close-up), but there are no paraffin casts on display, allegedly he dropped these off on the fourth floor, as per his  WC testimony, and the three of them did their appearance in the corridor with the evidence afterwards.

Mr. BELIN. At the time you carried back the paraffin casts?
Mr. BARNES. No. We came back and got the palm prints after I delivered the paraffin tests upstairs. 

W.E. ‘Pete’ Barnes and his empty tin of paraffin wax. Pic.: Ft Worth Star Telegram.


Effectiveness of a paraffin cast on a cheek to determine whether a rifle had been fired

  • W. E. ‘Pete’ Barnes who had been doing these tests for quite a few years, had not applied this test to a suspect’s face ever before. He did this test on orders of Will Fritz. And it would not have made any difference in determining whether Oswald had fired a rifle that day! For this I refer you to Barnes’ W.C. testimony.

Mr. BELIN. Well, let me ask you this. Of the paraffin tests that you have made, how many have you made of a cheek or cheeks?

Mr. BARNES. One.

Mr. BELIN. Was that with Lee Harvey Oswald?

Mr. BARNES. It was.

Mr. BELIN. Other than that, you have never made a paraffin test of anyone’s cheek?


Mr. BELIN. Any particular reason why you might not have in any other case?

Mr. BARNES. It has never been requested of me before.

Mr. BELIN. Based on your knowledge and information about the science of paraffin tests, do you know whether or not it is a common practice or not a common practice to make it of one cheek?

Mr. BARNES. It is not a common practice.

Mr. BELIN. Any particular reason it is not a common practice that you can think of or know of?

Mr. BARNES. Firing a revolver, should he fire a revolver, I would say the revolver most likely would be far enough away where powder residue wouldn’t reach his cheek.

Mr. BELIN. What about a rifle?

Mr. BARNES. Firing a rifle, you get your chamber enclosed with steel metal around it, and the chances of powder residue would be very remote.

Mr. BELIN. Have you fired a bolt-action rifle at all before?

Mr. BARNES. Many times.

Mr. BELIN. How close would the chamber be to the cheek as you would be looking through the sight of the gun?

Mr. BARNES. Be several inches to the rear of the chamber.

Mr. BELIN. Would this have any effect on the paraffin test at all?

Mr. BARNES. It sure would.

Mr. BELIN. What about telescopic sights? Would that push your face back further or not?

Mr. BARNES. Push it even further back.

Mr. BELIN. Would this have an effect on the paraffin test?

Mr. BARNES. The further you get from the chamber, the less possibility of getting powder residue on it would be.

A little later during the same testimony.

Mr. BELIN. Did Lee Harvey Oswald say anything to you as you were removing these casts, that you remember?

Mr. BARNES. Very little, other than what I repeated to you before, that he knew what I was trying to do, and that I was wasting my time that he didn’t know anything about what we were accusing him of.

Barnes is also quoted in a summarisation of a DPD/WC document that taking a paraffin cast of Oswald’s hand was ok with him.

  • Carl Day says pretty much the same during his C. testimony:

Mr. DAY. I directed them to make it, and also paraffin casts or just of a piece of paraffin on the left side of the face to see if there were any nitrates there.

Mr. BELIN. On the left side or right side of the face?

Mr. DAY. Right side.

Mr. BELIN. Do you know what the results of the paraffin tests were?

Mr. DAY. The test on the face was negative.

Mr. BELIN. Had you ever done a paraffin test on a face before?

Mr. DAY. No; actually–had it not been for the particular type of case and this particular situation here we would not have at this time. It was just something that was done to actually keep from someone saying later on, “Why didn’t you do it?” Actually, in my experience there, shooting a rifle with a telescopic sight there would be no chance for nitrates to get way back or on the side of the face from a rifle.

Mr. BALL. Is it usual to find any trace of nitrate on the face if a rifle has been fired? 
Mr. HICKS. That is the first time that I had the opportunity to make a paraffin test on a person’s face.
Mr. BALL. You never made one before?
Mr. HICKS. Never before.
Mr. BALL. The other tests were always on the hands?
Mr. HICKS. Yes, sir.
Mr. BALL. Was there some reason for that?
Mr. HICKS. I had never had the occasion arise that I know of where anyone had that suggested, that a paraffin test be made of a cheek. On other occasions they were only interested in the hand.

The admissions during the W.C. testimonies of Barnes and Day mean that the paraffin cast of Oswald’s right cheek was not going to give them the confirmation of Oswald’s connect to the rifle.

Paraffin test before or after fingerprints?

Then there is the small, but pivotal matter of whether the fingerprints and palm print were taken before the paraffin tests. During Barnes’ testimony something jumps out. And that is whether the finger prints and palm prints were administered before or after the paraffin tests. If they did them before then these paraffin tests would have been useless from the beginning due to the nitrates from the ink being present.

Mr. BELIN. Sergeant, did you make any other tests or obtain any other evidence or information from Lee Harvey Oswald other than the paraffin that you made?
Mr. BARNES. I obtained palm prints from Lee Harvey Oswald.
Mr. BELIN. When did you do this?
Mr. BARNES. Immediately before we made—no, immediately after, I am sorry, immediately after we made the paraffin test.
Mr. BELIN. I would assume you did it afterwards?
Mr. BARNES. That is right. It was after we made the tests. 

According to Ramparts Magazine (page 4), Oswald had his palm prints and finger prints taken before those paraffin tests. In a report submitted by Richard Sims and Elmer Boyd it states that the fingerprints were taken before the paraffin casts.

Barnes is also interviewed for the HSCA on April 17th 1978. And he does not misspeak again and sticks to the order of the paraffin casts being taken first on Oswald and then having his finger and palm prints taken. At the end of the statement it says that J.B. Hicks was not present to be interviewed since he had left town to go fishing.

What happened with the casts?

The paraffin casts are sent in three envelopes to DCCCIL at Parkland hospital by George Doughty (page 5). The results from these tests are not obtained until the next day. In this ten page report it is brought forward that the results are showing nitrate patterns consistent with the subject having discharged a firearm on exhibits #2 and #3. A pattern on exhibit #3 is typical of the patterns produced in firing a revolver. None of these point to Oswald firing a rifle. Nor are they able to differentiate the powder residues, after a Neutron Activation Analysis, to see which particles are from a revolver or from a rifle. There is more additional technical info from Vincent Guinn and articles here. Guinn himself defends the work he and others have done in a newspaper article on Oct 13 1964.

The FBI also releases a report in the afternoon of Nov 23rd which states the same. The FBI earlier that day is keen to obtain the test results for section Chief Jim Handley. The second page is peculiar as it states the paraffin tests were taken at 10:45 AM and that a doctor was present who conducted it!

The findings get repeated in another FBI document alongside the mention of Louie L Anderson, of the Dallas City Council Criminal Investigative Laboratory who washed and taken the paraffin casts home since they were marked to be discarded.

Norman Redlich writes to his fellow Warren Commission member Allen Dulles on July 2nd  1964 and states rather concisely what the Neutron Activation Analysis had managed to achive. Which is not much.

Marrion Johnson of NARA confirms on Feb 3 1966 (page 2) that he has examined seven pieces of paraffin cast and an empty wax tin among the FBI evidence exhibits.

In conclusion, there was not a shred of evidence that tied Oswald to the rifle, not the fingerprints, the palm prints nor the nitrate tests.

Add on that the DPD had no clue about the Hidell ID on the 22nd what did they actually have to charge Oswald with the murder of John Kennedy? Nothing!

Dave Methany – Minnesota Daily Feb 20 1964 Click to enlarge.