Warren Commission was supposed to end all doubts about the
assassination of President John F. Kennedy. Tragically,
it hasn’t. The distinguished members of the Commission never
intended that their Report should become the basis for an
amateur detective game. Yet this is precisely what is happening.
A growing number of people are spending their leisure hours
scouring the Commission’s Report and the twenty-six volumes
of testimony and exhibits for possible clues to a conspiracy.
Others, using high-powered magnifying glasses and infrared
lights, are scrutinizing photographs of the assassination
scene, hoping to find snipers concealed in the shrubbery.
Still others are combing the National Archives on the hunch
that they will locate something relevant in the three hundred
cubic feet of documents that the Commission deemed irrelevant.
Since the National Archives will provide microfilm copies
of any nonclassified document in the assassination file
at five cents a page, including F.B.I. and Secret Service
investigative reports, a syndicate of private researchers
is planning to buy all the available documents. Presumably
they will then subdivide the 20,000 or so pages into areas
(e.g., Ruby, Oswald, eyewitnesses, etc.) , and attempt a
more definitive study than the Commission itself conducted.1
Elizabeth Hardwick, a literary critic of considerable stature,
is considering joining the syndicate for another purpose.
She believes it might contain the American comédie humaine.
active private investigators are tracking down leads in
Dallas and re-interviewing star witnesses. A few are keeping
the death count2
on those who have been even remotely connected with the
case. And there is a burgeoning grapevine through which
assassination news is rapidly disseminated. As soon as a
new discovery is made, assassination buffs across the country
are alerted by a telephonic chain letter.
would not be particularly disturbing if the players were
merely kooks. However, most of them are not. Assassination
buffs apparently are serious people—professionals, students,
housewives, etc.—bent on solving what they consider to be
an unsolved mystery. Perhaps this is all part of the American
folklore tradition of amateurs stepping in and solving cases
that baffle the police. Already amateurs have made some
constructive contributions to the case. Mrs. Sylvia Meagher,
a U.N. careerist, has completely indexed the
twenty-six volumes of testimony, a feat the Commission
never had time to accomplish. Mr. and Mrs. George Nash,
sociologists, found three new witnesses to the Tippit murder
by following a tip given to them by a Dallas undertaker.
Vincent Salandria, a Philadelphia lawyer, has charted the
precise movements of the President’s head after the bullet’s
impact by superimposing on each other the individual frames
of the film of the assassination taken by a bystander.3
And Paul Hoch, a Berkeley graduate student, has unearthed
some extremely important documents in the National Archives,
including the original F.B.I. report on the autopsy. The
man who has undoubtedly done the most to propagate the assassination
cult is Mark Lane, thirty-nine-year-old attorney and sometime
New York State Assemblyman. Lane began lecturing in coffeehouses,
them stumped the college circuit, and is currently promoting
both a book and a two-and-a-half-hour documentary film on
the assassination. Above all, the Warren Commission itself
shares at least part of the responsibility for the game.
The Commission was obliged to publish all twenty-six volumes
of data, although Commissioner Allen Dulles saw no point
in doing so. “Nobody reads,” he said. “Don’t believe people
read in this country. There will be few professors who will
read the record.” Making the record public, however, is
The American Way.
number of people who have bothered to read the record has
been small (less than a thousand sets of the twenty-six
volumes have been sold to date). But they have been an inquisitive
group, often ingenious. With their help, the public record
has spawned a school of theories that have been swimming
in the eddies of the public press, lately with increasing
dizziness. Many of the theories, it is true, depend on fragments
of evidence which, although clear enough, are palpably irrelevant
(i.e., the death of several peripheral witnesses since the
assassination). But they are no more irrelevant than many
of the Report’s own meticulous entries (i.e., in July of
1962 Oswald spent $3.87 for a subscription to Time).
Assassination buffs have seized, perhaps too eagerly, on
discrepancies in the testimony of witnesses who were understandably
shaken and confused. But in this they are no more at fault
than the Commission, which appeared to accept testimony,
even though it may have been ambiguous, so long as it aided
its predisposition to prove Oswald the lone assassin.
While the Commission
was obviously intent on proving there was no conspiracy,
selecting testimony and evidence for their Report that particularly
suited them, the assassination buffs have responded by being
suspicious of everything in which the Commission put credence.
Throughout the case, where an omission or a contradiction
seems best explained as simple human error, the private
theorists loudly claim intentional deceit on the part of
the Dallas police, the F.B.I., the witnesses, and the Commission
Most of these
accusations would be difficult to prove without further
evidence, and thus for the time being they are rendered
moot. But from the mass of such charges there has emerged
one flagrant contradiction in the Report which can be proved
or disproved very easily. More important, it is a crucial
contradiction upon which all of the other leading theories
involves the one and only autopsy conducted on the President
at the Bethesda (Maryland) Naval Medical Center on the night
of the assassination. The report of the autopsy findings,
published by the Commission, virtually precluded the possibility
of a second assassin. First, it shows that both bullets
that hit the President came from behind and the general
direction of the Texas School Book Depository (where Oswald
was at the time). This finding of course would cut the ground
out from under early theories that the shots came from a
point in front of the motorcade. Mark Lane’s theory that
the throat wound was an entrance wound, Thomas Buchanan’s
theory that the shots came from the triple overpass, and
the many theories based on eyewitness testimony that the
shots came from the grassy knoll would all be rendered invalid
by the autopsy findings.
autopsy report states that the first bullet hit the President
in the back of the neck and then exited through his throat.
This led the Commission to believe that the same bullet
that exited from Kennedy’s neck proceeded to wound Connally,
who was seated directly in front of the President. This
finding would explain the split-second time lapse between
the first two shots. An amateur film of the assassination
shows that both Kennedy and Connally were hit no more than
1.8 seconds apart. Yet, the bolt of the murder rifle cannot
be operated in less than 2.3 seconds. In other words, both
men were shot in less time than the rifle could be fired
twice. And this fact has given rise to a number of two-assassin
theories. But if both men were hit by the same bullet,
as the autopsy report suggests, the time problem is resolved,
and there is only one assassin.
in fact Connally and Kennedy were hit by the same bullet,
it can be deduced that all the bullet fragments found in
the President’s car came from the rifle of Lee Harvey Oswald.
Since the autopsy findings indicate that only two bullets
hit Kennedy, and one bullet was found virtually intact (raising
some other problems), all the fragments must have come from
the other bullet. Since some of these fragments matched
Oswald’s rifle, the other fragments which were too deformed
to be ballistically identified also must have come from
Oswald’s rifle. The autopsy report thus leaves little ground
for the two-assassin theories.
But the Commission’s
account of the autopsy is not the only one. Two F.B.I. Summary
Reports that were not published by the Commission give an
alarmingly different version of the autopsy findings. After
the F.B.I. Reports were published in my book Inquest,
Norman Redlich, a former Commission lawyer, told the New
York Times that these Summary Reports had to be deemed
erroneous and instead the Commission relied on the original
F.B.I. report of the autopsy (known as the Sibert-O’Neill
report), prepared by the two F.B.I. agents who were present
at the autopsy. This heretofore unpublished F.B.I. report
was only recently made available to me. It gives a detailed
description of the autopsy:
of X-rays and photographs, the first incision was made at
8:15 p.m.” The F.B.I. Report then states that Commander
J. J. Humes, the chief autopsy surgeon, made a detailed
examination of the head wound to determine the exact path
of the bullet. Only later, in “the latter stages of autopsy,”
did Commander Humes discover the wound in the President’s
back. It was, according to the F.B.I. Report, “below the
shoulders.” In probing the wound, Humes found that the bullet
had barely penetrated the skin “inasmuch as the end of the
opening could be felt with the finger.” The autopsy surgeons
were puzzled. The bullet hole was only a few inches deep,
yet there was no bullet to account for it.
then learned that a bullet had been found on a stretcher
in the Dallas hospital where President Kennedy was first
treated, and Commander Humes concluded: “The pattern was
clear that one bullet entered the President’s back and worked
its way out of the body during external cardiac massage.”
The autopsy examination ended about eleven p.m.
Ten months later,
The Warren Report described autopsy findings entirely different
form those reported by the F.B.I. Now, in the Report, there
was no wound “below the shoulders.” Instead, there was a
wound in the back of the neck. Rather than barely penetrating
the skin, the bullet had gone clean through the neck and
exited through the throat. The Warren Report states these
conclusions were reached during the autopsy, the same autopsy
that the F.B.I. report described. How can two such accounts,
diametrically opposed to each other, be reconciled?
lawyers have recently explained that at the time of the
autopsy the doctors were not aware of the wound in the President’s
throat. The outlines of this wound had been obliterated
by a tracheotomy performed earlier in the day in Dallas.
Learning of the throat wound the next day, the autopsy doctors
changed their opinion and deduced that the bullet exited
through the throat. This would seem to explain why a bullet
that was first thought to have penetrated the back only
a distance of a few inches was later thought to have passed
entirely through the body. But it begs the question of how
a wound below the shoulder became a wound in the back of
the neck. Obviously, no amount of information about the
throat wound could alter the location of the back
wound. And this is the crucial contradiction.
Of course, the
contradiction might be dismissed (as Time magazine
dismisses it) simply as an F.B.I. error. But the fact is
that other evidence seems to corroborate the F.B.I. version.
A diagram of the President’s body, prepared by Commander
during the autopsy, very clearly shows the wound
to be below the shoulder. The other autopsy surgeon, Lieutenant
Colonel Pierre Finck, was quoted by a secret Service agent
as saying: “There are no lanes for an outlet in this man’s
shoulder.” Another Secret Service agent, who was called
in after the autopsy for the express purpose of viewing
the President’s body, later testified that he observed the
back wound to be “about six inches below the neckline.”
F.B.I. photographs taken of the President’s shirt and jacket
(which were never published by the Commission) show the
bullet hole to be about six inches below the top of the
collar of both shirt and jacket, a position which corresponds
with the F.B.I.’s assertion of a wound “below the shoulders.”
this evidence of a wound below the shoulder is only a strange
series of random coincidences. But so long as these other
discrepancies stand, the contradiction cannot be discounted
merely as an “F.B.I. error.”
Nor can it be
dismissed as irrelevant. It is true, as former Commission
lawyers now point out, that an investigation as complex
as the Kennedy assassination is bound to have a few “loose
ends.” But the contradiction between the F.B.I. and Commission
account of the autopsy findings is more than just a “loose
end.” It is crucial to the question of whether or not Oswald
acted alone.5 For if the bullet
did hit the President below the shoulders, it could not
have exited through the throat and continued on to wound
Governor Connally. This is because the bullet was traveling
downward and was undeflected. If the F.B.I. report is accurate,
President Kennedy and Governor Connally were hit by two
different bullets which, in turn, gives grounds for theories
of a second assassin.
is why the publication of the F.B.I. Summary Reports and
photographs in my book precipitated a good deal of debate
and wrangling over the contradiction in the autopsy findings.
In Look magazine, Fletcher Knebel attempted to prove
that the F.B.I. did not receive a copy of the official autopsy
findings until after its Summary Reports were published.
He stated that Treasury Department records show that the
Secret Service sent the autopsy report to the F.B.I. on
December 23, 1963. However, Professor Richard Popkin countered
in The New York Review of Books that Knebel inadvertently
had proved that the F.B.I. did have the final autopsy
report in hand when its final summary report was prepared
on January 13, 1964 (a fact Knebel apparently missed).6
Newsweek suggested that Kennedy “might have been
bent forward enough” to place the back wound higher than
the throat wound. But Life’s film of the assassination
indicated that the President was seated erect at the time
of the shot. And Philadelphia District Attorney Arlen Specter,
a former Commission lawyer, attempted to demonstrate to
the Greater Philadelphia Magazine7 how
a shirt could rise high enough on the neck to that a bullet
hole about six inches below the top of the collar would
be consistent with a neck wound. The interviewer was not,
however, fully convinced since it appeared that this feat
would require doubling over a portion of the shirt—and there
was only one bullet hole in the back of the President’s
debate, the F.B.I. has remained coyly ambiguous. It told
The Washington Post that its December 9 Summary Report
was “based on the medical evidence at that time.” But it
told the Los Angeles Times that the F.B.I. report
was wrong when it said that there was “no point of exit”
for the bullet, explaining “F.B.I. agents were not doctors,
but merely quoting doctors.” To the New York Times
and other papers, the F.B.I. declined comment.
The great irony
of the controversy is that it can be settled decisively
by available evidence that neither the Commission nor its
critics have seen. Color photographs, taken during the autopsy,
would show exactly where the bullet entered the President’s
back, whether it was below the shoulders, as F.B.I. reports
claim, or in the back of the neck, as the Commission’s autopsy
report claims. After the autopsy, these photographs were
turned over undeveloped to the Protective Research Section
of the Secret Service. What happened to the photographs
after this is not definitely known: some Commission lawyers
believe they were given to the Kennedy family, others believe
that they remained with the Secret Service or White House.
In any case, the Commission never received either the autopsy
photographs or X-rays. Not that the Commission lawyers did
not try to obtain them: Arlen Specter reportedly was on
the verge of tears when he found out that they were not
to be requested by the chairman.
of these photographs and X-rays has remained a mystery.
Newsweek recently reported that a two-month inquiry
by its staff “failed to turn up a single government official
who can, or will, give a simple answer to the question:
‘Where are the Kennedy autopsy pictures?’”
is not known whether the autopsy photographs were ever developed.
Undeveloped color film tends to lose detail and decompose
in about five years. Three years have already elapsed. If
the photographs fade or are somehow accidentally destroyed,
the opportunity to resolve the contradiction will be lost
forever. What is ascertainable today may become a moot point
in the near future.
What is to be
done? The Commission’s investigation of the assassination
of President Kennedy cannot be considered complete so long
as the contradiction in the autopsy findings remains unresolved.
By viewing the photographs, the contradiction can be resolved
once and for all time. If they show the wound to be in the
back of the neck, then there can be no further doubt as
to the accuracy and authenticity of the autopsy report.
Theories of a second assassin, evolving out of the contradiction,
would be quashed. And virtually all of the speculation would
be reduced, at least among thinking people, to groundless
There is another
possibility. The photographs might show the bullet wound
to be below the shoulders. If this were the case, the Commission
(or any other fact-finding body) would have very serious
unfinished business to attend to.8
conspiracy theories are proliferating at an alarming rate.
As the following Primer
shows, doubts about the authenticity of the autopsy report
are at the root of all the two-assassin theories. The assumption,
either explicit or implicit, that the autopsy report was
changed makes tenable the theories that hold that a shot
came from the front of the President’s car. This in turn
leads to theories of suppressed and planted evidence, which
implicates the authorities and other important figures in
the conspiracy. Finally, there come theories speculating
on the forces behind the conspiracy to kill Kennedy, some
of which go so far as to accuse those with power to suppress
by K. Rahn
1. This syndicate never materialized.
2. Refers mainly to the death count of Penn Jones, Jr.,
newspaper editor of Midlothian, Texas.
3. The film, of course, was the famous Zapruder film.
The superposition of frames by Vincent Salandria revealed
the backward movement of the head and body. But the frames
that Salandria chose missed the more important forward snap
from a couple frames earlier. This seriously misled Salandria
and may have set the tone for misleading nearly the entire
4. It was actually prepared by Dr. Boswell.
5. Actually, it is not crucial to the question of one
assassin versus two. The basic argument from the number
of entrance and exit wounds in the body, plus the lack of
a bullet in the body, is far stronger.
6. The FBI may have had the official autopsy report
on hand but not used it.
7. The reporter was Gaeton Fonzi, later a staff investigator
for the HSCA. For the full text of this article by Fonzi,
8. The autopsy photographs are now available via a set
that was stolen and reproduced for the public. Ironically,
Kennedy's back has enough blood spots still on it that it
is very hard to determine where the wound is. Dr. Robert
Artwohl, one of the few to have viewed the original photos,
says that the wound is significantly less than six inches
below the top of the collar.