James Earl Ray – Assassin of MLK Jr.

Martin Luther King - The fake passport used by James Earl Ray
James Earl Ray’s photo on a fake passport was issued to one of his aliases, Ramon George Sneyd, though it was misspelled on this initial passport as Sneya.

When it became known in 1968 that Martin Luther King’s assassin James Earl Ray had secured a Canadian passport to escape the FBI, it was another embarrassment for the Canadian passport office and Foreign Affairs. Ray was not the only one on the list of famous spies and assassins who used a Canadian passport to get around.

  • In 1940, Frank Jacson, also known as Ramon Mercader del Rio, a Spaniard, murdered Leon Trotsky in Mexico City. He traveled there on a Canadian passport.
  • In 1961, Russian spy Gordon Lonsdale used a false Canadian passport for his espionage activities in England, as did his associates in the British naval spy drama, the American-born couple Helen and Peter Kroger.
  • In 1962 three American narcotics fugitives obtained Canadian passports to escape to Spain. Around that time, Australia also found a Soviet spy ring that was using Canadian passports.


Government documents from the time of the King’s assassination show how External Affairs, as it was known then, fretted about how to spin the story. They also reveal a Canadian passport office bemoaning how understaffed they were and that it was temporary employees who had processed the Ray application.

Pierre Trudeau, who became prime minister on April 20 amid the international hunt for Ray, vowed to tighten the passport application process later. Still, it continued to be a prime document for international intrigue. It has been used by Israeli spies and, allegedly, by two Mossad assassins seeking to take out Hamas leader Khaled Meshal in 1997.

Also, Ahmed Ressam, the so-called Millennium Bomber convicted of planning to blow up the Los Angeles airport, ended up with no fewer than two legitimate Canadian passports with false names. When Ray’s name was added to this infamous list, the world’s media was awash with stories about the ease with which he was able to procure the document.

Swedish newspapers wrote that, for Russian spies and American gangsters, the Canadian passport was the travel document of choice. Newspaper cartoonists drew machines for dispensing Canadian passports next to other vending machines or depicted Canadians covered in cobwebs, waiting for their legitimate passports while “alien renegades” received expedited service.

In the Ray case, and possibly to save face, Canada charged Henry Moos, the notary public who owned the Kennedy Travel Agency, for signing the picture that said Ray’s passport photo was a true likeness of Ramon George Sneyd. Because an employee would not testify against Moos, the case fell apart, with the judge ruling that the evidence presented by the Crown was equally consistent with innocence as guilt.

To further embarrass the department, Ray’s passport was issued with a spelling mistake. On May 16, 1968, while in Lisbon, Portugal, during his attempt to get a job as a mercenary in Africa, he turned in his “Sneya” passport at the Canadian embassy for one with the correct spelling.

Secure Passport Application Process

Editor’s note: Time has changed, and ePassports are widely used, making it much more difficult to produce fake documents.

The main question remains. How do authorities ensure a secure passport application process? There are 195 countries worldwide, and a notable amount (~50) did not yet introduce ePassports which require a more secure application process.

I would say by today; the USA sets the barrier high to obtain a travel document as you might be asked even for documents of your ancestors to prove who you are.


incl. FREE guideline!

FAQ Passport History pasaporte passeport паспорт 护照 パスポート جواز سفر पासपोर्ट

1. What are the earliest known examples of passports, and how have they evolved?

The word "passport" came up only in the mid 15th Century. Before that, such documents were safe conducts, recommendations or protection letters. On a practical aspect, the earliest passport I have seen was from the mid 16th Century. Read more...

2. Are there any notable historical figures or personalities whose passports are highly sought after by collectors?

Every collector is doing well to define his collection focus, and yes, there are collectors looking for Celebrity passports and travel documents of historical figures like Winston Churchill, Brothers Grimm, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. Read more...

3. How did passport designs and security features change throughout different periods in history, and what impact did these changes have on forgery prevention?

"Passports" before the 18th Century had a pure functional character. Security features were, in the best case, a watermark and a wax seal. Forgery, back then, was not an issue like it is nowadays. Only from the 1980s on, security features became a thing. A state-of-the-art passport nowadays has dozens of security features - visible and invisible. Some are known only by the security document printer itself. Read more...

4. What are some of the rarest and most valuable historical passports that have ever been sold or auctioned?

Lou Gehrig, Victor Tsoi, Marilyn Monroe, James Joyce, and Albert Einstein when it comes to the most expensive ones. Read more...

5. How do diplomatic passports differ from regular passports, and what makes them significant to collectors?

Such documents were often held by officials in high ranks, like ambassadors, consuls or special envoys. Furthermore, these travel documents are often frequently traveled. Hence, they hold a tapestry of stamps or visas. Partly from unusual places.

6. Can you provide insights into the stories behind specific historical passports that offer unique insights into past travel and migration trends?

A passport tells the story of its bearer and these stories can be everything - surprising, sad, vivid. Isabella Bird and her travels (1831-1904) or Mary Kingsley, a fearless Lady explorer.

7. What role did passports play during significant historical events, such as wartime travel restrictions or international treaties?

During war, a passport could have been a matter of life or death. Especially, when we are looking into WWII and the Holocaust. And yes, during that time, passports and similar documents were often forged to escape and save lives. Example...

8. How has the emergence of digital passports and biometric identification impacted the world of passport collecting?

Current modern passports having now often a sparkling, flashy design. This has mainly two reasons. 1. Improved security and 2. Displaying a countries' heritage, icons, and important figures or achievements. I can fully understand that those modern documents are wanted, especially by younger collectors.

9. Are there any specialized collections of passports, such as those from a specific country, era, or distinguished individuals?

Yes, the University of Western Sidney Library has e.g. a passport collection of the former prime minister Hon Edward Gough Whitlam and his wife Margaret. They are all diplomatic passports and I had the pleasure to apprise them. I hold e.g. a collection of almost all types of the German Empire passports (only 2 types are still missing). Also, my East German passport collection is quite extensive with pretty rare passport types.

10. Where can passport collectors find reliable resources and reputable sellers to expand their collection and learn more about passport history?

A good start is eBay, Delcampe, flea markets, garage or estate sales. The more significant travel documents you probably find at the classic auction houses. Sometimes I also offer documents from my archive/collection. See offers... As you are already here, you surely found a great source on the topic 😉

Other great sources are: Scottish Passports, The Nansen passport, The secret lives of diplomatic couriers

11. Is vintage passport collecting legal? What are the regulations and considerations collectors should know when acquiring historical passports?

First, it's important to stress that each country has its own laws when it comes to passports. Collecting old vintage passports for historical or educational reasons is safe and legal, or at least tolerated. More details on the legal aspects are here...

Does this article spark your curiosity about passport collecting and the history of passports? With this valuable information, you have a good basis to start your own passport collection.

Question? Contact me...

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