The JFK 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
The three military pathologists in the autopsy of John F. Kennedy autopsy, Navy Capt. James Humes, Navy Cmdr. J. Thornton Boswell, and Army Lt. Col. Pierre Finck, were faced with a quandary. After they concluded the autopsy, the number of bullet wounds exceeded the number of shots supposedly taken by the accused assassin, Lee Harvey Oswald.
Initially, the pathologists concluded that Kennedy had suffered two wounds — one to the head and one to the back. Those two wounds, plus Gov. John Connally’s wounds, suggested three shots, matching the three shell casings that had been found in the sixth floor of the Texas School Book Depository, from which place Oswald had supposedly taken his shots. (That’s assuming, of course, that Connally’s multiple wounds were all caused by one shot.)
But after the autopsy was concluded (and after FBI agents Frank O’Neill and Jim Sibert had left the morgue), Humes learned from Parkland Hospital physician Dr. Malcom Perry, who had helped try to save the president’s life in Dallas, that there was another bullet wound, this one in the front of the neck. That made a total of four shots to be accounted for and, even worse, the neck wound implied that someone had shot the president from the front.
Humes came up with a way to resolve the problem, although his hypothesis did not make it into the final autopsy report. He posited that Kennedy’s wound in the front of his neck had been caused by a bullet fragment from the bullet that was thought to have hit him in the head.
There is a reference to Humes’s hypothesis in a transcript of an executive session of the Warren Commission that was held on January 27, 1964, a transcript that the commission classified as “top secret.” In his book Inside the Assassination Records Review Board [AARB], Douglas Horne quotes the following excerpt from that top-secret document (Horne, volume 3, page 865; J. Lee Rankin was staff director of the Warren Commission and Rep. Hale Boggs was a member of the Warren Commission):
Mr. Rankin: Then there is a great range of material in regard to the wounds, and the autopsy and this point of exit or entrance of the bullet in the front of the neck, and that all has to be developed much more than we have at the present time. We have an explanation there in the autopsy that probably a fragment came out the front of the neck … and the bullet, according to the autopsy didn’t strike any bone at all, that particular bullet, and go through…. [Horne’s emphasis.]
Rep. Boggs: I thought I read that bullet just went in a finger’s length.
Mr. Rankin: That is what they first said….
A partial transcript of this top-secret Warren Commission executive session is available here.
So under this scenario, the three military pathologists again thought the wounds accounted for the three shots supposedly fired by Oswald — one to Kennedy’s back and one to his head (which exploded a fragment through the front of his neck, i.e., his throat) — and then the one that hit Connally, for a total of three.
The theory that a bullet fragment had exited the neck, however, never made it into the final autopsy report, for two possible reasons:
One, the Dallas doctors had unequivocally stated that the wound in the front of Kennedy’s neck reflected an entry of a bullet, not the exit of a bullet fragment. That is, the wound was a small round hole, which indicated that a bullet had entered from the front. In a press conference on the afternoon of the assassination, Parkland physician Perry was unequivocal:
Question: Where was the entrance wound?
Perry: There was an entrance wound in the neck. As regards the one on the head, I cannot say.
Question: Which way was the bullet coming on the neck wound? At him?
Perry: It appeared to be coming at him.
Perhaps more important, however, was the film of the assassination that Dallas businessman Abraham Zapruder had taken with his home-movie camera. Zapruder’s film established that the president raised his arms in response to the neck wound before he was hit by the fatal head shot. Thus, since the neck wound came first and the head shot second, there was no possibility that the bullet that hit Kennedy in the head exploded a fragment that exited through the front of his neck.
Although the Bethesda pathologists had not seen the Zapruder film, the FBI, the Secret Service, and the CIA all had copies of it during the weekend of the assassination. The FBI had acquired it from Zapruder on the day of the assassination. According to Horne, ARRB investigations in 1997 established that the Secret Service delivered a copy of the Zapruder film to the CIA’s top-secret photographic-processing center at a Kodak plant in Rochester, New York, during the weekend of the assassination (Horne, volume 4, pp. 1221–43).
While there is no direct evidence that the Secret Service advised the Bethesda pathologists that their theory that a bullet fragment had exited Kennedy’s neck would not work, the possibility certainly exists, given that the Secret Service was playing a major role in the autopsy. As I indicated in “The Kennedy Autopsy, Part 5,” Boswell stated that the three pathologists had gotten “in dutch” (i.e., into trouble) with the Secret Service over their handling of the neck wound. Moreover, don’t forget that Secret Service agents Roy Kellerman and William Greer had handled the second of the three Kennedy casket deliveries into the Bethesda morgue, as detailed in my article “The Kennedy Casket Conspiracy.” In any event, the theory that a bullet fragment from the head exited the front of Kennedy’s neck was obviously abandoned, because it never made it into the final autopsy report.
So the pathologists were back to square one: four bullets — one in Kennedy’s back, one through his head, one in the front of his neck, and one in Connally — while only three shots were thought to have been taken by Oswald.
Humes resolved the matter by discovering a new wound after the departure of FBI agents O’Neill and Sibert. The newly discovered wound was in the back of Kennedy’s neck, which seems to have transited through the neck, exiting from the front. That conclusion was expressed in an interview conducted in 1978 by the House Select Committee on Assassinations of Army 2nd Lt. Richard Lipsey, who served as military aid to the commanding general of the Military District of Washington, Gen. Philip C. Wehle. According to Horne (volume 3, page 857),
The autopsy conclusions Lipsey was privy to can be summarized as follows: President Kennedy was shot three times from behind (not twice, as Dr. Humes was quoted as concluding prior to midnight by the FBI in its reports)…. The head shot entered the back of the head…. A second bullet entered very high up on the back of the neck and exited from the throat…. A third bullet entered at the bottom of the neck, or high in the back, and did not exit.
So the numbers now matched up — well, except for Connally’s wounds. There were Kennedy’s head wound, his neck wound caused by a bullet that was supposed to have entered from the back of his neck and exited through his throat, and the back wound. But Connally’s wounds obviously still meant a fourth shot.
A solution was ultimately offered by Warren Commission attorney Arlen Spector, who came up with the theory that became famous as the “magic bullet” theory. According to the magic-bullet theory, Oswald fired his gun in a right-to-left trajectory, and the bullet went through the back of Kennedy’s neck, exited the front of his neck, turned right to enter Connally’s back, crushed a rib, exited the front of Connally’s chest, went through his wrist, and lodged in his thigh, after which it plopped out of his leg and deposited itself on Connally’s gurney, where it was later found by a hospital employee.
What was magical about the bullet was not simply its trajectory but also the fact that after doing so much damage to Kennedy and Connally, it ended up in virtually pristine shape. In fact, the bullet was only slightly damaged at the base of the bullet. Here’s a picture of what has also become known as the “pristine bullet”:
Perhaps most magical of all, however, was that fact that not one trace of flesh or blood was found on the bullet.
Needless to say, it would difficult to find a more magical bullet than that. It comes as no surprise that experimental tests conducted with similar bullets under similar circumstances have never been able to reproduce the pristine quality of the magic bullet. Such tests have always ended up with mangled bullet fragments, which is what we should expect, given the hardness of people’s ribs and wrist bones. As Horne points out, however, bullets fired into water have produced bullets similar in condition to the magic bullet, including the absence of blood or flesh on the bullet.
Unfortunately for the Bethesda military pathologists, however, their problems over the number of wounds in Kennedy’s body weren’t over. On the day after the assassination — and after the body had already been embalmed and delivered to the White House — the news media were reporting that a bystander during the assassination — James Tague— had been hit in the face by another bullet that had ricocheted off a street curb. Even worse, photographs were being published showing Tague’s bleeding face.
Do you see the problem?
That meant, once again, that there were four shots to account for — one to Kennedy’s head, one to his back, one through his neck (that was postulated to have hit Connally), and, now, the one that hit Tague.
But Oswald was said to have fired only three shots.
How did the military pathologists resolve this new problem? We’ll examine that in the next segment.