The Kennedy Assassination Series:
The Kennedy Casket Conspiracy, by Jacob G. Hornberger
The Shot That Killed Kennedy, by Jacob G. Hornberger
The Kennedy Autopsy, Part 1, by Jacob G. Hornberger
The Kennedy Autopsy, Part 2, by Jacob G. Hornberger
The Kennedy Autopsy, Part 3, by Jacob G. Hornberger
The Kennedy Autopsy, Part 4, by Jacob G. Hornberger
The Kennedy Autopsy, Part 5, by Jacob G. Hornberger
The Kennedy Autopsy, Part 6 by Jacob G. Hornberger
The Kennedy Autopsy, Part 7 by Jacob G. Hornberger
The Kennedy Autopsy, Part 8 by Jacob G. Hornberger
The Kennedy Autopsy, Part 9 by Jacob G. Hornberger
The Kennedy Autopsy, Part 10 by Jacob G. Hornberger
The Kennedy Autopsy, Part 11 by Jacob G. Hornberger
On the afternoon of November 22, 1963, one of the most astonishing events in the history of U.S. law enforcement took place at Parkland Hospital in Dallas. It involved a confrontation between agents of the Secret Service and hospital personnel.
After President John F. Kennedy was declared dead at Parkland Hospital, his body was placed into an expensive bronze, ornate casket that had just been ordered and delivered by O’Neal Funeral Home in Dallas. Agents of the Secret Service immediately took control over the casket and began removing it from the hospital, over the vehement objections of the Dallas County medical examiner, Dr. Earl Rose, who was the hospital’s chief of forensic pathology. Rose told the agents that they weren’t going anywhere with the casket, at least not until an autopsy had been conducted. Since a murder had just taken place, Texas law required an autopsy to be conducted on the victim’s body.
The purpose of an autopsy is to determine how the victim was killed. In the ideal case, it’s conducted by a forensics pathologist, one trained in violent deaths. The pathologist carefully examines the shooting victim’s body, searches for bullets and removes them, probes bullet holes with rods, has photographs and X‑rays taken, and fills out an official autopsy report detailing his findings. In a sense, the victim’s body is a crime scene, one that must be carefully preserved, examined, and reported on.
What was the Secret Service’s attitude toward Rose? The agents confronting him clearly had one mission — to prevent Texas officials from conducting an autopsy on the president’s body and to get it out of Parkland Hospital immediately and delivered to Dallas Love Field, where it would be immediately flown back to Washington, D.C. In his book Conspiracy of Silence, Dr. Charles Crenshaw, one of the physicians who had attended to the president’s wounds, stated that he had heard the “men in suits” telling hospital pathologists Vernon Stembridge and Sidney Stewart that “they had orders to take the President’s body back to Washington, D.C., just as soon as it was ready to be moved, that there would be no Texas autopsy.”
What jurisdiction did the Secret Service have over the president’s body? None. At that time, it was not a federal offense to assassinate the president. Thus, when Kennedy was shot and killed, the federal government had no jurisdiction over the matter at all. That, of course, included the Secret Service. Nonetheless, the Secret Service agents at Parkland Hospital make it clear to Parkland Hospital officials that they had absolutely no intention of permitting Texas officials to conduct the autopsy required by law. Brandishing guns, they began screaming and yelling for people to get out of their way. When Rose blocked their way, emphasizing to them that Texas law required the autopsy to be conducted, the agents flew into a fit of loud, angry profanities, exposed their guns, and began forcibly pushing people out of the way as they wheeled the casket out of the hospital.
Here’s how Crenshaw described this amazing encounter in his book Conspiracy of Silence:
As though on cue, a phalanx of guards poured into Trauma Room 1 just as the coffin was being rolled out. They looked like a swarm of locusts descending upon a cornfield. Without any discussion, they encircled the casket and began escorting the President’s body down the hall toward the emergency room exit. A man in a suit, leading the group, holding a submachine gun, left little doubt in my mind who was in charge. That he wasn’t smiling best describes the look on his face. Just outside Trauma Room 1, Jacqueline [Kennedy] joined the escort and placed her hand on the coffin as she walked along beside it. I followed directly behind them.
When the entourage had moved into the main hall, Dr. Earl Rose, chief of forensic pathology, confronted the men in suits. Roy Kellerman, the man leading the group, looked sternly at Dr. Rose and announced, “My friend, this is the body of the President of the United States, and we are going to take it back to Washington.”
Dr. Rose bristled and replied, “No, that’s not the way things are. When there’s a homicide, we must have an autopsy.”
“He’s the President. He’s going with us,” Kellerman barked, with increased intensity in his voice.
“The body stays,” Dr. Rose said with equal poignancy.
Kellerman took an erect stance and brought his firearm into a ready position. The other men in suits followed course by draping their coattails behind the butts of their holstered pistols. How brave of these men, wearing their Brooks Brothers suits with icons of distinction (color-coded Secret Service buttons) pinned to their lapels, willing to shoot an unarmed doctor to secure a corpse.
“My friend, my name is Roy Kellerman. I am special agent in charge of the White House detail of the Secret Service. We are taking President Kennedy back to the capitol.”
“You are not taking the body anywhere. There’s a law here. We’re going to enforce it.”
Admiral George Burkley, White House Medical Officer, said, “Mrs. Kennedy is going to stay exactly where she is until the body is moved. We can’t have that … he’s the President of the United States.”
“That doesn’t matter,” Dr. Rose replied rigidly. “You can’t lose the chain of evidence.”
For the second time that day, there was little doubt in my mind as to the significance of what was happening before me.
“Goddammit, get your ass out of the way before you get hurt,” screamed another one of the men in suits. Another snapped, “We’re taking the body, now.”
Strange, I thought, this President is getting more protection dead than he did when he was alive.
Had Dr. Rose not stepped aside I’m sure that those thugs would have shot him. They would have killed me and anyone else who got in their way. Dr. Kemp Clark wanted to physically detain the coffin, but the men with guns acted like tough guys with specific orders. A period of twenty-seven years has neither erased the fear that I felt nor diminished the impression that that incident made upon me.
They loaded the casket into the hearse, Jacqueline got into the backseat, placed her hand on top of the coffin, and bowed her head. As they drove off, I felt that a thirty-year-old surgeon had seen more than his share for one day.
Imagine that — federal agents threatening to use deadly force on doctors who had just finished trying to save the president’s life. That’s astonishing. And all to prevent Texas officials from doing their job under Texas law. All to prevent them from conducting an autopsy on the president’s body.
Why? Why was the Secret Service so adamant about getting the president’s body out of the hospital so quickly and preventing an autopsy from being conducted on it? After all, they could have instead said, “Dr. Rose, we fully understand your position. That is Texas law, and we don’t want to interfere with or obstruct Texas law. And we certainly don’t want to do anything that will adversely impact a criminal case against whoever committed this dastardly act. We are fully prepared to cooperate with you, wait until you have finished with the autopsy, and then return the body to Washington for the funeral.”
Isn’t that how we would normally expect law-enforcement officials to conduct themselves?
In any event, the ambulance then took the casket, along with Mrs. Kennedy, from the hospital to Love Field, arriving about ten minutes later at 2:14 p.m.
Surprisingly, President Johnson was still there, despite the fact that he had been taken to Love Field soon after the president had died at 1:00 p.m. After all, don’t forget that this was the height of the Cold War. It had been less than a year since the United States had come to the brink of nuclear war with the Soviet Union during the Cuban missile crisis. Wouldn’t you think that Johnson would consider that the assassination of President Kennedy might be the first step in a Soviet sneak WMD attack on the United States?
Well, as a matter of fact, Johnson did express such a concern. When Kennedy was declared dead at 1:00 p.m., he asked that the public announcement be delayed until after he had left the hospital and headed to Love Field just in case there was an international conspiracy to attack the United States. He stated to White House press secretary Malcolm Kilduff, “I think I had better get out of here … before you announce it. We don’t know whether this is a worldwide conspiracy, whether they are after me as well as well as they were after President Kennedy, or whether they are after Speaker McCormack or Senator Hayden. We just don’t know.” Johnson later wrote, “I asked that the announcement be made after we had left the room … so that if it were an international conspiracy and they were out to destroy our form of government and the leaders in that government, that [sic] we would minimize the opportunity for doing so.”
Apparently, however, Johnson’s concern wasn’t so pronounced that it caused him get into the air immediately and return to Washington or go to some secret federal facility for use in emergencies. He was still there at Love Field, more than an hour after leaving Parkland Hospital.
In fact, it gets stranger. As vice president, Johnson had flown in Air Force Two, which was also sitting at Love Field. Immediately after Kennedy was shot, Johnson could have proceeded to Love Field, boarded Air Force Two, and flown off.
He didn’t do that. Instead, he waited at the hospital until Kennedy had been officially declared dead. Then, after mentioning the possibility of an international conspiracy, he proceeded to Love Field, where he decided that he should change planes, given that he was now the president and, thus, entitled to use Air Force One. In fact, imagine Mrs. Kennedy’s reaction when she later boarded the plane, headed to her bedroom, and found Johnson lying on her bed. Why, Johnson even took the time to ensure that his luggage was transferred from Air Force Two to Air Force One, even though both of the planes were returning to Washington.
Johnson also took the time to summon a Dallas federal judge to swear him in as president.
All that delay meant that Air Force One was still at Love Field when the ambulance arrived with the casket and Mrs. Kennedy. In fact, it’s arguable that the president was actually waiting for the casket, given that the Secret Service agent in charge of Johnson’s security had already prepared for the arrival of the casket by removing two rows of seats in the back of the plane.
At 2:47 p.m., one hour and 47 minutes after President Kennedy expired at 1:00 p.m. and Johnson had immediately headed to the airport after expressing concern about the possibility of a foreign attack on the United States, Air Force One, carrying Johnson, Mrs. Kennedy, several other people, and the Dallas casket took off from Love Field and later landed at Andrews Air Force Base.
That brings us back to my article, “The Kennedy Casket Conspiracy,” which details the evidence establishing that the president’s body was secretly delivered to the Bethesda morgue in a different casket —a cheap gray shipping casket — and approximately 1¾ hours before the U.S. military’s autopsy officially began at 8:15 p.m. If you haven’t read that article, I invite you to do so, even though it’s long. It raises disturbing questions, such as: Who were the officials in dark suits who secretly delivered the president’s body in a plain gray shipping casket to the Bethesda morgue? Why was the president’s body delivered early to the morgue? What happened to the body between 6:35 p.m. and 8:15 p.m.? Why was it necessary to keep all this secret from the American people (and from Mrs. Kennedy, who, unbeknownst to her, was accompanying an empty casket to the Bethesda morgue)? I invite you also, after reading that article, to read my article, “The Shot That Killed JFK,” which shows that the hole in the back of Kennedy’s head, as observed by the Parkland Hospital doctors immediately after the shooting, was not depicted in the photographs that were taken as part of the U.S. military’s autopsy of the president’s body.
Did you notice I said, “the U.S. military’s autopsy”? That’s correct: after preventing the Parkland Hospital personnel from conducting an autopsy of the president’s body, an autopsy was actually turned over to the U.S. military to conduct.
Why the military? That’s a fascinating question, one that deserves careful examination. After all, what business did the U.S. government itself have in taking control of the autopsy? As I previously noted, the shooting of the president involved no federal crime. Even though it involved the president of the United States, under the law at the time, it was a plain murder case, one governed by the laws of the state of Texas. Yet the federal government simply assumed jurisdiction over the autopsy — and after its agents had threatened to use deadly force to prevent Texas state officials from conducting the autopsy as required by Texas law.
If the federal government was so concerned about an autopsy, why didn’t Secret Service agents simply let it be conducted in Texas, as the law required? Why didn’t Lyndon Johnson stop the casket from being loaded onto Air Force One and order that it be returned for an official autopsy conducted under state law? Why the urgency of bringing the body back to Washington for an autopsy?
Indeed, why not turn the autopsy over to a medical examiner in Washington or Maryland (where Andrews Air Force Base is located)? After all, the president is a civilian in a country that purports to be run by civilians. Why wasn’t the autopsy turned over to a civilian medical examiner rather than to the U.S. military?
Sure, we often hear that the president is the commander in chief, but that’s misleading. He’s first and foremost the president of the United States, and he’s not commander in chief of the American people. He’s commander in chief of the U.S. military.
If the president had been a full-time member of the military, or if he had been murdered on a military base, or if he had been killed on the field of battle in the middle of war, then it might have made sense to have the military conduct an autopsy of the body. But instead, his death involved a simple murder case in Texas.
On the flight to Washington, Navy Adm. George Burkley, who had been Kennedy’s personal physician, told Mrs. Kennedy that the president’s body had to be taken to a hospital to remove any bullets in it and that that should be done in a military hospital for security reasons.
Security reasons? What security? Were they scared that someone might attack the president’s body? In that case, why not simply have people guarding it at the hospital during the autopsy? And if an autopsy had to be conducted, why did Secret Service agents prevent an autopsy from being conducted in Dallas? What was so special about the U.S. military that it had to conduct the autopsy?
Burkley gave Mrs. Kennedy two choices for the autopsy — Walter Reed Army Medical Center and the U.S. Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland. Since her husband had been in the Navy during World War II, she chose Bethesda.
Of course, hardly anyone during that time questioned the fact that the U.S. military was conducting the autopsy. That was a time when there was tremendous deference to authority and unwavering trust in federal officials, especially the military, among the American people. It was before Vietnam, the Gulf of Tonkin, the Pentagon Papers, syphilis experiments, Watergate, and Iran-Contra. Hardly anyone asked, “Why is the military, rather than civilian authorities, conducting the autopsy? Why did they prevent the Dallas officials from conducting the autopsy?” It never occurred to most Americans that their government might be up to no good.
There is no question, however, but that military culture played a critically important role in the autopsy of John F. Kennedy’s body. Let’s examine how.