CHICAGO — Inside Wayne Lensing’s auto museum down a remote road from a body shop, visitors can see Elvis Presley’s 1972 Lincoln, the Mayberry squad car from “The Andy Griffith Show” and three Batmobiles.
Right around the corner from Richard Petty’s 1960 stock car and a few steps from the Cadillac covered in 120,000 coins, the curious also can view a decidedly different artifact: Lee Harvey Oswald’s tombstone.
That’s right. The 130-pound gray granite slab that marked the final resting place of one of U.S. history’s more notorious figures is about 90 miles northwest of Chicago, on the outskirts of Roscoe, Ill., best known perhaps as race car driver Danica Patrick’s hometown.
How the stone got there is a tale of thievery that also involves an electrician who made a startling discovery in a crawl space and a woman who isn’t saying much. Whether it remains in the museum may end up as a courtroom drama between Lensing and the owner of a legendary live music club.
The Oswald tombstone saga also underscores the unwavering interest in John F. Kennedy and the hot market for collectibles related to the 35th president.
With hundreds of Kennedy items displayed at his museum in rural Winnebago County, Lensing has tapped into that robust appetite, he said.
The name of his museum, Historic Auto Attractions, might not suggest the full range of exhibits, but it fits perfectly with Lensing’s main interest as a builder of racing car bodies.
The headstone, he said, is in one of the more popular sections of the museum, “Kennedy Day In Dallas.”
“Nobody ever wanted anything to do with it throughout all those years, until they found out the thing got sold,” said Lensing, 64. “So now, after 25-30 years . . . they all come out of the woodwork.”
David Card, owner of Poor David’s Pub in Dallas, which celebrated 35 years in the business this month, sees the a slightly different scenario.
“They screwed us out of it,” said Card, 72, who contends that the stone is part of his father’s estate. “And I want it back.”
The man who killed President Kennedy on Nov. 22, 1963, in Dallas, was buried in Rose Hill Memorial Park Cemetery in Fort Worth, Tex. His body was placed there after Dallas nightclub owner Jack Ruby, a native Chicagoan, shot Oswald in a police escort two days after Kennedy’s death.
On the four-year anniversary of the assassination, a couple of high school pranksters stole the stone, which features Oswald’s name and the dates of his birth and death etched around a cross. Authorities found it in a park in Bartlesville, Okla., and returned it to Marguerite Oswald, the assassin’s mother.
Concerned that other thieves and vandals might strike, Marguerite Oswald tucked the stone in her Fort Worth home’s crawl space, David Card said. A few months after her death in 1981, Card’s father and stepmother bought the house.
About four years later, an electrician rooting around in the crawl space found the headstone. Fearful that someone might steal it, Card’s father and stepmother hauled the stone to the home of Mrs. Card’s sister, who later sent it to her son.
It sat in his garage until the son, Johnny Ragan, died in 2008, David Card said, leaving the tombstone in the hands of Ragan’s wife, Holly.
That’s where its odyssey gets murky. Card contends that the stone is among items his father and stepmother acquired when they bought the home. Lensing maintains that Johnny Ragan’s will left it in his wife’s possession.
Holly Ragan is not inclined to discuss the matter publicly.
In a very brief phone conversation from Fort Worth, she said Card is spreading “a lot of incorrect information” and “cannot show any proof of ownership.” Then she hung up.
In a second very brief phone conversation, Ragan said Card will never get the stone.
“It’s over with,” Ragan said. “It’s history.” Then she hung up again.
Lensing said Ragan tried to sell the stone to at least one auction house in Dallas but “they didn’t want anything to do with it.” He added that the auction house recommended she contact him because of the range of his Kennedy collectibles.
They include suits the president wore, 18 outfits worn by Jackie Kennedy and clothes that belonged to the couple’s children. Also on display are the 1956 Cadillac that was directly behind Kennedy’s limousine when he was killed, the ambulance that took Oswald to the hospital and shoes Ruby wore when he shot Oswald.
Lensing, who opened his museum in 2001, began exhibiting the tombstone in May, which is when Card’s brother saw it featured online. Lensing says he acquired the stone in late 2010.
The Kennedy collectibles are only one section of a museum that has broadened its original vision to include an eclectic mix of artifacts.
The museum has a rocking chair used by Martin Luther King Jr., a swatch from the chair that Abraham Lincoln occupied when he was assassinated and Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s ivory cane. A guitar autographed by Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson and Kris Kristofferson is mounted on one wall. A Marilyn Monroe nightgown, James Dean sweater and a deerskin jacket that reportedly belonged to Buffalo Bill Cody are on display. Many of the items bear certificates of authenticity.
Card maintains it’s no place for the tombstone. He said he would donate it to the Sixth Floor Museum at Dealey Plaza, a nonprofit based in the building where Oswald fired at Kennedy.
To underscore his seriousness, Card has hired an attorney and sent a letter to Lensing stating that Card “will pursue whatever legal means necessary to recover” the headstone.
Lensing maintains that any statute of limitations expired years ago, that he obtained the stone legally and that Card may end up spending thousands of dollars with little to show for it.