In Memoriam: James R. “Jim” Leavelle, 1920 – 2019

Jim Leavelle (right) stands next to his friend, photographer Bob Jackson, at the opening of the special exhibit, A Photographer’s Story: Bob Jackson and the Kennedy Assassination, in 2009.

By Stephen Fagin, Curator

Dallas police homicide detective Jim Leavelle recognized the potential for danger on Sunday, November 24, 1963. As suspect Lee Harvey Oswald prepared to make the routine prisoner transfer from city custody at Dallas police headquarters to the Dallas County Jail, Leavelle made a remark that he would vividly recall for the remainder of his long and legendary life: “Lee, I hope if anybody shoots at you [that] they’re as good a shot as you are.”  Oswald, according to Leavelle, chuckled. It was the only time Leavelle ever saw the alleged assassin of President Kennedy crack a smile. And then, alongside detective L.C. Graves, they made their way downstairs to the basement of police headquarters and stepped into history.

The front page of the Dallas Times Herald on Monday, November 25, 1963, prominently featured the photograph that would later win the 1964 Pulitzer Prize. Ruth Marble Collection/The Sixth Floor Museum at Dealey Plaza

We lost our friend, James R. “Jim” Leavelle on August 29, 2019, just a few days following his 99th birthday. Around the world, people recognize the veteran Texas lawman because of a single photograph that captured a moment in time and came to embody the chaos, violence and uncertainty of a weekend that defined a generation.  Wearing a light-colored suit and cowboy hat, Leavelle twisted his body, still handcuffed to Oswald, with a look of shock and horror on his face. Jack Ruby, local Dallas nightclub owner, had leapt out from a crowd of reporters and shot Oswald at point-blank range. That iconic photograph, taken by Dallas Times Herald staff photographer Bob Jackson, would go on to win the 1964 Pulitzer Prize.

That moment may have made Jim Leavelle famous, but it was his extraordinary life, dry wit and wonderful storytelling that made him a living legend. In my personal experience, I have rarely encountered an assassination researcher, author or dedicated student of the subject who did not meet and visit with Jim Leavelle at some point. Many of them enjoyed lively meals with him at his favorite Dallas restaurant, El Fenix. To say that Jim was giving with his time is an understatement. He was dedicated to honoring interview, program and meeting requests, and he never tired of detailing the same stories over and over again for the benefit of history. Whether it was an audience of one, including at times young elementary school students, or an auditorium full of interested listeners, Jim Leavelle was a gifted storyteller.

He described the shooting of Lee Harvey Oswald like this, during a 2002 oral history with the Museum:

I could see [Jack Ruby’s] pistol.  I saw all of that in a flash because remember, I’m alert for these guns because I’m expecting somebody to shoot at him anyhow but not necessarily in the basement….  Of course, I had Oswald right up against me, and I tried to pull him behind me, but all I succeeded in doing was turning his body, so that instead of hitting him dead center, it hit him just about four inches to the left of the navel.  Then, of course, by that time, the officers gathered around there had piled on him and pushed him to the ground.  I reached over and grabbed Ruby by the shoulder, by his left shoulder, and shoved back and down on him, but by the time that happened, the officers had swarmed on him and crushed him to the ground, and so I released him and returned my attention to Oswald….  And when the ambulance pulled in, why, we loaded him in the ambulance, and I crawled in there with him and so did the doctor, and we rode to Parkland with him. 

Jim never subscribed to conspiracy theories, and he often delighted in debating the topic with interested researchers. He even served as a technical consultant to filmmaker Oliver Stone during the making of his 1991 movie, JFK.  He described his on-set experience like this: “Well, I have found out what a technical advisor is.  When they ask you how a certain scene should be played or how it was done…you describe to them the setting of it. If it don’t suit their idea, they’ll go ahead and do it the way they want to.”  Years earlier, Jim even portrayed himself in the 1978 TV movie, Ruby and Oswald.

Jim Leavelle in December 2018 during his last visit to The Sixth Floor Museum at Dealey Plaza, with Megan Bryant, Director of Collections & Interpretation, and Curator Stephen Fagin.

The Museum will sincerely miss our friend, Jim.  He was truly one of a kind. We extend our sincere condolences to his family and friends, and we are grateful that he shared so many memories with us.

You can see a number of public programs featuring Jim Leavelle on our YouTube Channel.