Gary L. Aguilar, MD and Kathy Cunningham
May 2003


Challenging Press Accounts

Early press reports from the emergency doctors in Dallas said that JFK had suffered an entrance wound in the throat, and a massive wound in the head.[63] The Commission of course concluded that JFK’s throat wound was not an entrance wound, but one of exit: it was the site through which the bullet that had hit JFK in the back exited his body on its way toward John Connally. What concerns us is not the interesting question of whether it was in fact an entrance wound, but how the Commission handled the early reports that said it was an entrance wound.

The Commission wrote, “Considerable confusion has arisen because of comments attributed to Dr. Perry concerning the nature of the neck wound. Immediately after the assassination, many people reached erroneous conclusions about the source of the shots because of Dr. Perry’s observation to the press ... Commenting on his answers at the press conference, Dr. Perry testified before the Commission: ‘I expressed it [his answers] as a matter of speculation that this was conceivable...’. Dr. Perry’s recollection of his comments [having been misrepresented by the press] is corroborated by some of the news stories after the press conference. The New York Herald Tribune on November 23, 1963, reported as follows: ‘Dr. Malcolm Perry … said he saw two wounds – one below the Adam’s apple, the other at the back of the head.’ He said he did not know if two bullets were involved. It is possible, he said, that the neck wound was the entrance and the other the exit.”[64]

In essence, the Commission was saying that the controversy only arose because the media was sloppy. However, Dr. Perry’s verbatim statements paint a different picture, one of the sloppiness on the parts of the New York Herald Tribune and the Commission.

Dr. Perry took over the care of JFK’s labored breathing from an associate, Charles Carrico, MD.[65] To help, he surgically enlarged the throat wound through a tracheotomy incision to insert a breathing tube. If only out of professional interest, if not in the interest of accurately assessing the wounded site he intended to further violate with a potentially dangerous incision on a living President, it makes sense to suppose that Perry probably took a reasonable peek at the President’s throat wound before plunging his knife. On 11-22-63, at 3:16 PM CST, barely two hours after JFK was pronounced dead, Perry appeared with Kemp Clark, MD, the professor of neurosurgery who had pronounced JFK dead.

A newsman asked Perry: "Where was the entrance wound?" 

Perry: "There was an entrance wound in the neck..."

Question: Which way was the bullet coming on the neck wound?  At him?" 

Perry: "It appeared to be coming at him."...

Question: "Doctor, describe the entrance wound. You think from the front in the throat?" 

Perry: "The wound appeared to be an entrance wound in the front of the throat; yes, that is correct.  The exit wound, I don't know. It could have been the head or there could have been a second wound of the head. There was not time to determine this at the particular instant."[66] (emphasis added)

Transcript of Nov. 22 afternoon press conference given by Parkland Hospital physicians Dr. Malcolm Perry and Dr. Kemp Clark. Dr. Perry's actual statements contradict the Warren Commission's allegations that he was misreported.
(see ARRB MD #41)

On 11/22/63 UPI reported that Perry had said, “There was an entrance wound below the Adam's apple.”[67] The New York Times reported, “... Dr. Malcolm Perry … [said] Mr. Kennedy was hit by a bullet in the throat, just below the Adam's apple … This wound had the appearance of a bullet's entry ... .”[68] On 11/23/63, the Dallas Morning News reported, “The front neck hole was described as an entrance wound,” and it quoted Perry to say, “It did however appear to be the entrance wound at the front of the throat.” These press accounts, and others like them, accurately reflect the fact that at no time during the press conference did Perry allow for any other possibility than that the throat wound was an entrance wound.

How did the Warren Report describe Perry’s press conference statements? It reported, “Dr. Perry... stated to the press that a variety of possibilities could account for the President's wounds.”[69] (Emphasis added) Whereas numerous press reports had accurately described Perry’s belief the wound was one of entrance, the Warren Report cited only the New York Herald Tribune’s vague and less accurate version. Ironically, Perry wasn’t easily dislodged from his original position.

The day after the murder Boston Globe medical reporter, Herbert Black, asked Perry how the throat wound could have been an entrance wound if the gunman was behind the President. Perry answered, “It may have been that the President was looking sideways with his head thrown back when the bullet or bullets struck him.”[70]  [It is of interest that, after discussing what was visible in the Zapruder film, Life Magazine offered this same explanation on December 18th for JFK’s throat wound – that JFK had turned toward the sniper’s nest just before being shot.[71] The Zapruder film, however, discloses no such turn. Neither the Warren Commission, nor Life Magazine, nor the government, ever corrected Life’s error. This mischaracterization became but one of many exhibits cited by skeptics in criticizing the media’s handling of JFK murder.[72] [73]]

The Warren Commission's Arlen Specter was concerned about published reports from Perry's press conference. Presuming Oswald’s guilt, Specter had proposed a theory that would defend that assumption, the so-called “Single Bullet Theory.” This theory explained how it was that both JFK and Connally could be seen in the Zapruder film to have been wounded in too short a time for Oswald to have fired twice. The answer? Lucky Oswald hit both with one shot, the single bullet causing all seven of the nonfatal wounds sustained by both victims.

In fact, although Specter himself has admitted that his supervisor, Commission counsel Norman Redlich, had banned pretestimony interviews,[74] Specter nevertheless interviewed Perry before he testified to the Warren Commission. He indicated that he would obtain recordings of Perry's public comments for Perry to review “prior to his appearance, before deposition or before the Commission,” which, Specter acknowledged, he had been unable to do.[75] Under oath, Perry repeatedly answered apologetically, and inaccurately, about how the press had misreported his explanation of JFK’s throat wound. After the Commission suggested Perry be furnished the suspect press reports, so that Perry could correct the errors,[76] Specter asked Perry for the second time during his appearance for clarification.

“Was it (the throat wound) ragged or pushed out in any manner?” Perry astutely replied, “the edges were neither cleancut, that is punched out, nor were they very ragged ... I did not examine it very closely.” [77] (emphasis added) No Commissioner was impolite enough to ask Perry why he would have made an incision on a President’s bleeding throat without taking a careful look at it. Nor did they remind the doctor that only a few minutes earlier, before Specter had made his preferences so plain, Perry had admitted that the throat wound’s “edges were neither ragged nor were they punched out, but rather clean.”[78] The Commission apparently either never examined the verbatim transcript of Perry’s press conference, or it neglected to discuss what Perry actually said, in either case settling instead for Perry’s Specter-abetted finger pointing. The libel against the press thus went unchallenged.

The Dallas Doctors “Endorse” the Single Bullet Theory

Ever the lawyer, Specter was still not satisfied. He undertook to further bolster his controversial theory by posing the following questions to Perry:

Mr. Specter: “Based on the appearance of the neck wound alone, could it have been either an entrance or an exit wound?”

Dr. Perry: “It could have been either.”

Mr. Specter: “Permit me to supply some additional facts, Dr. Perry, which I shall ask you to assume as being true for purposes of having you express an opinion.

“Assume first of all that the President was struck by a 6.5 mm. copper-jacketed bullet fired from a gun having a muzzle velocity of approximately 2,000 feet per second, with the weapon being approximately 160 to 250 feet from the President, with the bullet striking him at an angle of declination of approximately 45 degrees, striking the President on the upper right posterior thorax just above the upper border of the scapula, being 14 cm. from the tip of the right acromion process and 14 cm. below the tip of the right mastoid process, passing through the President's body striking no bones, traversing the neck and sliding between the large muscles in the posterior portion of the President's body through a fascia channel without violating the pleural cavity but bruising the apex of the right pleural cavity, and bruising the most apical portion of the right lung inflicting a hematoma to the right side of the larynx, which you have just described, and striking the trachea causing the injury which you described, and then exiting from the hole that you have described in the midline of the neck.

“Now, assuming those facts to be true, would the hole which you observed in the neck of the President be consistent with an exit wound under those circumstances?” (Emphasis added)

Dr. Perry: “Certainly would be consistent with an exit wound.”[79]

In this example of Specter’s “begging the question” with Perry – assuming as true all the unproven elements of the speculative theory he was asking Perry’s opinion about – the lawyer made it crystal clear that there was only one answer that would do, one  that left his pet theory unwounded. And this wasn’t the only time Specter pursued this tact with key medical witnesses. He posed this same question to all the Dallas doctors he interviewed: Charles Baxter, MD [6H42], Robert McClelland, MD [6H38], Charles James Carrico, MD [3H362], Marion Thomas Jenkins, MD [6H49], Gene Coleman Aiken, MD [6H66], Robert R. Shaw, MD [4H113], Charles Gregory, MD [4H127], and George T. Shires, MD [6H110].

This was not the only way the Commission used the Dallas doctors to keep Oswald in its crosshairs.

Selecting and Eliminating Testimony

Sylvia Meagher was the first to point out that, to buttress the Single Bullet Theory, the Commission had selectively and misleadingly cited the opinions of three Dallas doctors who had treated Governor Connally’s wounds in Dallas: Drs. Robert Shaw, Charles Gregory and George Shires. The Commission wrote:

“In their testimony, the three doctors who attended Governor Connally at Parkland Hospital expressed independently their opinion that a single bullet had passed through his chest; tumbled through his wrist with very little exit velocity, leaving small metallic fragments from the rear portion of the bullet; punctured his left thigh after the bullet had lost virtually all if its velocity; and fallen out of the thigh wound.”[80]

Meagher observed that the Commission’s claim accurately reflects what these witnesses had said during their first, 3/23/64, Commission interview. But that was before they had seen the Zapruder film, the stretcher bullet (CE #399), and other key physical evidence. The Commission’s account, however, doesn’t reflect the fact that they radically altered their view after they were allowed to see this evidence.[81] 

Photograph of CE 399, the "magic bullet" alleged to have caused seven wounds in two men. Note that the "nick" near the tip is due to the FBI's removal of metal for testing purposes.
(National Archives Photo)

During his second Commission interview on 4/21/64, Dr. Shaw said, “I feel that there would be some difficulty in explaining all of the wounds [both Kennedy and Connally had sustained] being inflicted by bullet Exhibit 399 without causing more in the way of loss of substance to the bullet or deformation of the bullet.”[82] Appearing with Dr. Shaw, and next to be questioned before the Commission, Dr. Gregory was treated to Specter’s famous begged question about the throat wound that asked him to assume one bullet had done all the damage. Despite Specter’s clear signals, Gregory, who, like Shaw, had also seen the additional evidence, remained skeptical. He answered, “I am not persuaded that this (the Single Bullet Theory) is very probable ... .”[83] [84] Despite this unambiguous dissent, two years later Arlen Specter was still telling the press that, as he put it in a U. S. and News Report interview, “all of the doctors who attended the Governor thought [the same bullet had inflicted all of the nonfatal wounds].”[85]

Dr. Shires, the third physician involved, was, as Meagher put it, “never recalled, never shown the Zapruder film or the stretcher bullet, or given the opportunity to reconsider his opinion in the light of physical evidence he had never seen or taken into account. The assertions about the stretcher bullet are no less deceptive than their deviation from the facts.” “Predictably,” Meagher added, “this author’s letters to General Counsel J. Lee Rankin requesting a clarification of these misstatements have gone unanswered.”[86]

Again, the issue is not whether Arlen Specter’s Single Bullet Theory accurately explains what happened, but whether the Commission honestly investigated – asking unbiased questions and following the evidence where it led, as opposed to pushing and shaping the evidence to fit predrawn conclusions and attract public support. The Commission’s examination of JFK’s fatal skull wound is no more inspiring than Specter’s performance with the nonfatal wound.

The Commission and JFK’s Skull Wound

Drawing of JFK head wound made under direction of Dr. McClelland of Parkland Hospital, Dallas.
(see ARRB MD #264)

The exact nature, size, and position of the President’s wounds are central to the official theory of the crime. They have been a source of controversy since Josiah Thompson first published a diagram prepared with the advice of one of the treating doctors in Dallas that depicted a blowout exit wound in the back of JFK’s head.[87] (See Figure 2)

But in 1964 there was no controversy about them. The Commission accepted at face value the pathologists’ claim that JFK had a right-sided, ‘parieto-temporo-occipital’ skull wound. In layman’s terms, this is a wound that involves the right rear side of the head. The controversies began in 1968, with the Clark Panel’s determination that the fatal bullet had struck JFK’s skull 10-cm higher than reported in the original autopsy report. Given that, from top to bottom, the back of the skull measures only 12-cm., it is difficult to dismiss a 10-cm discrepancy as unremarkable, negligible. The controversy might have surfaced in 1964 if the Commission had examined JFK’s autopsy photographs and X-rays, an inexcusable omission noted early on by Sylvia Meagher[88] and others.

Concern at the family’s fear that a public display of such horrifying images would be a disservice to the memory of the slain President was the stated justification for keeping them secret. The problem could have been avoided by appointing a panel of experts to review the pictures, but this was not done. Instead, James Humes, MD, JFK’s chief autopsist, commissioned drawings of JFK’s wounds by an artist  – H. A. Rydberg – who, Humes testified, “had no photographs from which to work and had to work under our description, verbal description of what we had observed.”[89] (See Figure 1)  The Commission never explained why, in working with the artist to prepare the diagrams, Humes was not allowed to see the photographs he had taken, nor even, inexplicably, the hand-written autopsy notes the autopsy team had written on the night of the autopsy. As will be discussed, Rydberg’s images depict a JFK head wound that is in apparent conflict with the autopsy report.

Warren Commission exhibits 385 (left), 386 (center), and 388 (right). Produced by H.A. Rydberg under the direction of JFK autopsy physician Dr. James Humes, these drawings made by represent the Commission's view of the paths of two bullets that struck Kennedy.
(see Warren Commission Volume 16, CE 385, CE 386, and CE 388).

The Warren Commission’s Experimental “Duplication” of JFKs Skull Injuries 

The tendency of the Commission to see only what it wanted to see in the evidence is nowhere more apparent than in the tests that were performed in 1964 to duplicate Oswald’s feat. In a section of the Warren Report entitled, “Wound Ballistics Experiments,” the Commission reported that “an extensive series of tests were conducted by the Wound Ballistics Branch of the U.S. Army” at Edgewood Arsenal, Md.[90] These experiments, the Commission said, “blew out the right side of the (test) skull in a manner very similar to the head wounds of the President.”[91]

Using Oswald’s rifle, appropriate ammunition and human skulls, the Commission’s ballistics expert, Dr. Alfred Olivier, undertook to duplicate JFK’s wounds. Firing from a position above and behind them, he aimed at the same low spot in the rear of his test skulls that matched the entrance point specified in JFK’s autopsy report. Describing Commission Exhibit # 862 – a photograph of a blasted skull from his tests – Olivier testified, “This particular skull blew out the right side in a manner very similar to the wounds of the President  … We found that this bullet could do exactly – could make the type of wound that the President received.”[92]

Warren Commission Exhibit 862, in which Dr. Alfred Olivier of Edgewood Arensal "duplicated" JFK's head wound.
(see WH17, CE 861 and 862)

The Commission’s photographs show a bullet entrance just above the test skull’s EOP, as specified in the autopsy report. The exit wound involved virtually the entire right side of the skull, including a good portion of the right forehead, the entire bony eye socket, and part of the cheekbone.[93] (See Figure 3) JFK, by contrast, had no injuries to any of those areas, either described in the autopsy report, or depicted in the Rydberg diagrams approved and published by the Commission. (See Figure 1) [Nor are any visible in the set of autopsy photographs that are at the National Archives. (See Figure 4)] But had Oswald in fact fired the fatal shot the way the Warren Commission said he had, it’s likely the offending bullet would have blown out of JFK’s face in a manner similar to these tests.

The gross discrepancies between the Commission’s Rydberg diagram and autopsy report, as compared with the “experimental duplication,” require no particular expertise to appreciate. Yet they apparently escaped the notice of the Warren Commission and its expert, Dr. Olivier.

Artistic Ballistics

It is likely, however, that even in 1964 there was at least some awareness of this problem. At the moment of the fatal shot in Zapruder frame 312, JFK is clearly seen sitting in a slight chin-downward position. Had his chin been dropped low enough, a shot from above and behind hitting the base of JFK’s skull might fit with a blowout exit wound on the right side of JFK’s head, rather than one blowing out through his face. But for the ballistics to work, JFK’s chin would have to have been dropped quite a bit lower than it appears in the film. The film proves that the Commission’s ballistics just don’t work. And even in 1964 it seems someone was aware they didn’t work.

As Thompson first pointed out in 1967, it turns out that the Commission artistically obscured the whole issue with an explanatory diagram. Drawn as if taken from the Zapruder frame 312, the Commission’s Rydberg diagram depicts the supposed path of the fatal bullet at the moment of impact.[94] In the image, JFK’s chin is dropped so low that the bottom-rear of his skull is tilted up enough for the bullet to enter the skull low and yet exit through the right side. But as Thompson made crystal clear by putting both the Rydberg diagram and the relevant Zapruder frame on the same page,[95] the Commission’s diagram exaggerates how far Kennedy’s head was tipped. In Zapruder frame 312,  JFK’s head is not tipped down nearly enough for a shot from Oswald’s position to work out ballistically. (See Figure 5)

There is more than one irony to this episode. The Commission reported that, “Based on information provided by the doctors who conducted the autopsy, an artist’s drawing depicted the path of the bullet through the President’s head, with his head being in the same approximate position [as the Zapruder frame].”[96] To support its case, the Commission published both Zapruder frame 312 and the discrepant Rydberg diagram. Yet, as with the “experimental duplication” of JFK’s skull wounds, neither the commissioners, nor even the Commission’s ballistics expert, made any public acknowledgement that there was a conflict. What’s more, internal correspondence reveals that the Commission grasped the importance of getting the ballistics right in Rydberg’s diagram. In a once-secret, May 24, 1964 memo, Specter wrote Commission chief counsel J. Lee Rankin, advising that, “The films and X-rays should be viewed in conjunction with Commission Exhibit 389 (a photo of the frame of the Zapruder frame 312, taken immediately before the frame showing the head wound) (sic) and Commission exhibit 390 (the frame of the Zapruder film showing the head wound) (sic) to determine for certain whether the angle of declination is accurately depicted in Commission Exhibit 388 [Rydberg’s image].”[97]

Either the commissioners didn’t make this comparison, or they didn’t notice there was a discrepancy, or they forgot to mention the obvious: JFK’s actual head tilt was insufficient for the ballistics of a shot from Oswald’s supposed position to work out. In other words, if he had been hit as supposed by the Commission, Kennedy would have looked more like one of Dr. Olivier’s skulls than Rydberg’s diagram.

On the left is a portion of Zapruder film frame 312, the last frame before the fatal head shot. At the right is a crop of Commission Exhibit 388, rotated to roughly match the actual tilt of Kennedy's head. Compare this with the exaggerated tilt presented in the unrotated CE 388 (shown previously in this article). Note how, at the actual rotation, a rear-to-front bullet would be traveling upward!
(rotated CE 388 courtesy Stewart Galanor)

The Unimportance of the Single Bullet Theory

The Commission was not above downplaying, if not misrepresenting, controversial aspects of the wounding to bolster the Single Bullet Theory, the sine qua non of its sole assassin hypothesis.

It wrote: “Although it is not necessary to any essential findings of the Commission to determine just which shot hit Governor Connally, there is very persuasive evidence from the experts to indicate that the same bullet which pierced the President's throat also caused Governor Connally's wounds.”[98] This statement is not quite the whole truth. The Commission’s whole case for Oswald’s guilt hinged on just one bullet having hit the Governor – namely, the same bullet that had hit JFK in the back. Moreover, the statement fails to reflect the fact its experts were divided.

Two informed experts who had actually rejected the Commission’s theory, Drs. Robert Shaw and Charles Gregory, were said by the Commission to have supported it, as noted above. When Arlen Specter asked Dr. Humes, “could that missile [Warren Exhibit #399] have made the wound on Governor Connally’s right wrist?” Humes answered, “I  think that most unlikely … The reason I believe it most unlikely that this missile could have inflicted either of these wounds [Connally’s wrist wound or JFK’s head wound] is that this missile is basically intact; its jacket appears to me to be intact, and I do not understand how it could possibly have left fragments in either of these locations [JFK’s head or Connally’s wrist].”[99] Humes also said, “ I think that extremely unlikely” that it was CE 399 that had lodged in Connally’s thigh,[100] which was the seventh of the seven wounds required of CE 399 by the Commission’s theory. Humes’ forensic consultant, Pierre Finck, MD, backed him up.

Specter asked Pierre Finck, “[C]ould [399] have been the bullet which inflicted the wound on Governor Connally’s right wrist?”

“No,” Finck replied, “for the reason that there are too many fragments described in that wrist,” the problem being, as Finck put it, “there was practically no loss of this bullet.” [101]

In explaining its preference for the Single Bullet Theory, the Commission neglected to offer an explanation for why it chose to ignore the dissent of its own experts. In fact, it did not even acknowledge the dissent. But this oversight was eclipsed by the Commission’s failure to admit how dependent its lone-gunman scenario was on a single bullet having hit both men.  If all the nonfatal damage could not be explained by only one bullet, Oswald could not have fired all the shots, and the Commission’s case would have collapsed. The reasons were simple.

Only three spent shells were found in “Oswald’s perch.” One bullet had shattered JFK’s cranium. A second bullet was assumed to have missed entirely, an assumption that was forced on the Commission by filmed evidence. Because of an intervening tree, the Warren Commission argued that no shot was possible until Zapruder frame 210. JFK is seen reacting at Z-225, or earlier, Connally at Z-236, if not earlier. (After viewing the Zapruder film, Connally testified he was hit between between Z-231 and Z-234.[102]) So, but one bullet was left to explain all the wounds.

If the shot that hit Kennedy’s back had not also hit Connally, then at least one more shot from a different assassin than JFK’s is required to explain the governor’s five wounds. For with the Zapruder film running at 18.6 frames per second, Oswald’s rifle could not have been fired twice in the 1.4-second span between the first possible shot at Z-210, and when Connally is wounded at no later than Z-236. Despite these inflexible constraints, the Commission nevertheless reported that it was not crucial to its reconstruction that one bullet hit both men.

The Commission’s claim is particularly interesting because the authorities were almost certainly aware it was untrue when they wrote it. We know that because the commissioners had themselves eloquently detailed these exact same Zapruder-based constraints in the Warren Report.[103] Nevertheless, in a U. S. News and World Report interview two years later, the father of the Single Bullet Theory was still pushing this Commission myth. “Actually,” Arlen Specter said, “the single-shot theory is not an indispensable factor for the Commission’s conclusion.”[104]

Destruction of original autopsy evidence?

In JFK’s autopsy, as with any post mortem, the contemporaneously gathered data from the examination, usually recorded in hand-written, even bloodstained, autopsy notes, carries the greatest scientific and evidentiary weight. These notes detail the measurements of wound sizes and locations, the organ weights and appearances, all the raw data that serve as the basis for conclusions about the cause of death. It is difficult to overstate the importance of such information. Without a reliable base record of fact, conclusions are less certain.

Certificate in which Dr. Humes admitted destroying "certain preliminary draft notes" related to JFK's autopsy. In 1996, Humes admitted under oath that the destruction included original autopsy materials.
(see ARRB MD #9, and also his 1996 ARRB testimony, p. 128 - 139)

On August 2, 1998, the Associated Press reported an important new ARRB finding that raised questions about the original autopsy record: “Under oath [before the ARRB], Dr. Humes, finally acknowledged under persistent questioning – in testimony that differs from what he told the Warren Commission – that he had destroyed both his notes taken at the autopsy and the first draft of the autopsy report.”[105] The Review Board had extracted Humes’ sworn admission of something that had long been known: he had burned both a preliminary draft of the autopsy report, which he had told the Warren Commission about, and he had also destroyed original autopsy notes taken on the night of the autopsy, something Humes had kept from the Warren Commission, if not one of the Commission’s lawyers.

Only three groups of original, hand-written autopsy papers have survived. One of the three is autopsist Boswell’s so-called autopsy “face sheet ” – notes that were made about Kennedy’s wounds by the surgeons during the autopsy. The other two consist of scribbled notes Humes made after the autopsy: the first, after he had called Dallas the day after the autopsy to learn, supposedly for the first time, that JFK had a wound in the throat upon arrival at the hospital; the second, a hand-written draft of the final autopsy report. The surviving hand-written draft of the autopsy report is apparently the second of two drafts. Humes claims that he incinerated the first draft in his fireplace. Except for the first, torched draft of the autopsy report, Humes swore that no other notes ever existed. And he swore that he surrendered all the surviving notes. 

Arlen Specter asked Dr. Humes, “Are there any notes which you made at any time which are not included in this group of [three sets of surviving] notes?”

Humes: “Yes, sir; there are … In the privacy of my own home, early in the morning of Sunday, November 24th, I made a draft of this [autopsy] report which I later revised, and of which this represents the revision. That draft I personally burned in the fireplace of my recreation room.”

Specter followed with: “And these represent all the notes except those you have already described which you destroyed?”

Humes: “That is correct, sir.”[106] (author’s emphasis)

Humes later admitted, on more than one occasion, that in fact this answer was not correct. The ARRB report was but the first official acknowledgement that Humes had destroyed more than a first draft autopsy report. He had also destroyed original notes taken during the post mortem.

Humes’ concession contradicted not only his testimony in 1964, it also contradicted two affidavits he had signed within 48 hours of the assassination, a fact the ARRB did not acknowledge, and may not have even realized. By affidavit dated 24 November 1963, Humes “certified” over his signature that he had “destroyed by burning certain preliminary draft notes relating to” JFK’s autopsy,”[107] but that otherwise, “all working papers associated with [JFK’s autopsy] have remained in my personal custody at all times. Autopsy notes and the holograph draft of the final report were handed to Commanding Officer, U.S. Naval Medical School, at 1700, 24 November 1963.”[108]

Thus, Humes certified having destroyed “preliminary draft notes” prepared while drafting his autopsy report at home. But this affidavit, the substance of which he repeated to the Warren Commission, does not mention the destruction of original autopsy notes from the night of the autopsy. Humes implies quite the  opposite. For “all working papers” and “autopsy notes” had not remained with him until he turned them over to his superior. He destroyed some of them, including notes he took himself on the night of the autopsy, and perhaps also those of his consultant, Finck. (Such an act, of course, would have been medico legally frowned upon had it occurred in a civilian autopsy of even the most undistinguished murder victim.)

Arlen Specter’s Solution

Former Commission counsel Senator Arlen Specter believes he recently solved the mystery. The cover of his book, Passion for Truth, published in 2000, announced that the book presented “the first public disclosure of why JFK’s autopsy surgeon burned his notes.” Specter produced a long quote of Humes coming clean. He had torched some, but not all, of the notes written during the autopsy because they were stained with JFK’s blood. He did so, Specter discovered, because Humes feared the stained notes would become objects of morbid curiosity in the same way the doilies on President Lincoln’s chair had so become, stained as they were with the blood of John Wilkes Booth’s treason.[109]

But this apparently isn’t what Humes told Specter originally. Neither the offensive blood spots nor Lincoln’s name came up at all when Specter premiered Humes’ original justification for his arson in an interview for U.S. News Report in 1966.

An interviewer asked: “Were there preliminary autopsy reports or memoranda of any kind that were destroyed?”

Specter: “Yes, the record is plain that there had been a series of notes taken by Dr. Humes at the time of the actual performance of the autopsy which had been destroyed when he made a written-handwritten-autopsy (sic) report on Sunday, November 24 … he did not quite have the perspective of a historian who is culling the  premises with a fine-tooth comb. He had never performed an autopsy on a President, and he was using his best judgment under the circumstances never dreaming that loose handwritten notes would become a subject of some concern. That matter was of concern immediately to his superiors, and he was questioned on it. He made a formal report on it, and he explained his reasons fully before the Commission.”

Interviewer: “Is [Humes’] testimony in the open record – for the public to read?”

Specter: “It is absolutely.” [110]

But as we’ve seen, Humes’ admission that he had destroyed his own autopsy notes is absolutely not in the open Commission record – in his testimony or anywhere else. Moreover, Humes’ so-called “formal report” about the destruction can be no other but the 11/24/63 affidavit discussed above, which says nothing about Humes’s burning original autopsy notes. Nevertheless, Specter’s comments are noteworthy because they make it clear that Humes did privately cop to him about it, justifying his arson without invoking Lincoln or loathsome blood splotches. Nor, it appears, was Humes invoking them to others in that era.

In a mid-sixties conversation with a personal friend, a Mr. Jim Snyder, Humes gave much the same version he’d originally given Specter. A buzz started about Humes’ revelations because Jim Snyder just happened to be with the Washington bureau of CBS. Based on Snyder’s private discussions with Humes, an internal CBS memo dated 10 January 1967 detailed that, “Humes’ explanation for burning his autopsy notes was that they were essentially irrelevant details dealing with routine body measurements, and that he never thought any controversy would develop from his having done this.”[111] Here again, no mawkish mention of Lincoln or ugly blood.

May 27, 1992 article in Journal of the American Medical Association, in which Dr. Humes repeated the "Lincoln-blood spots" story as a rationale for destroying autopsy notes.
(reproduced in ARRB MD 22).

Specter’s “discovery” of Humes’ touching rationale suggests that Specter’s passion for truth exceeds his passion for fact checking. Humes’ “Lincoln-blood spots” story appeared in JAMA in the controversial May 27, 1992 issue.[112] Neither Specter nor his fact-checkers noticed it, apparently. But the story was even staler than that. Humes had slipped this same improbable story to the HSCA in 1978,[113] and to John Lattimer, MD in 1980.[114] In fact, on page 196 of his book, Kennedy and Lincoln, Lattimer reproduced a photograph of Lincoln’s chair, adorned the stained doily, and captioned with Humes’ sweet story.

Besides Humes’ inconstancy, there is at least one other reason to suspect Humes’ tender tale isn’t true. Boswell’s “face sheet” autopsy notes, the ones Humes did not destroy, also bear the President’s bloodstains. That fact prompted an amusing exchange when ARRB counsel Jeremy Gunn asked Humes, “Do you see any inconsistency at all between destroying some handwritten notes because they contained blood on them but preserving other handwritten notes that also had blood on them?” “Well,” Humes answered, “only that the others [that he destroyed] were of my own making. I didn’t – wouldn’t have the habit of destroying something someone else prepared.”[115] Notes Finck prepared on the night of the autopsy happen also to be missing. So unless someone else in the military destroyed Finck’s notes, Humes must have done it. For according to the records, including his own affidavit,[116] it was Humes who took sole possession of all the notes, including Finck’s.[117]

The Context of the Warren Commission’s Investigation of Kennedy’s Autopsy Evidence

It is useful to put the Commission’s handling of the President’s medical and autopsy evidence into the context of its overall management of the murder investigation. Its work on the latter was far from exemplary. So unexemplary, in fact, that the Commission’s shortcomings later gave rise to scathing criticism not only from the predictable, omnipresent malcontents, but also, extraordinarily, from two independent groups of experienced government investigators – those of the 1976 Senate Select Committee (eponymously named the Church Committee after its chairman, Senator Frank Church), and the House Select Committee on Assassinations (HSCA) in 1978.

Though the mainstream press has repeatedly lauded the Warren Commission, it has been oddly quiet about these remarkable, official rebukes. This, despite the fact they amounted to no less than the government twice, independently, impugning its own work. The HSCA’s comment that, “It is a reality to be regretted that the [Warren] Commission failed to live up to its promise,”[118] pretty much sums up the conclusions of both the Church Committee and the HSCA. The reasons both groups found for the failure are as similar as they are straightforward. The Warren Commission never assembled an independent investigative staff of its own. Instead, it unwisely turned to the FBI, and to a lesser extent, to the Secret Service and the CIA. The interests of these agencies happened to lay with a no conspiracy finding, lest they be accused of failure to foil the worst-case scenario.

“The Committee has developed evidence,” the Church Committee concluded, “which impeaches the process by which the intelligence agencies arrived at their own conclusions about the assassination, and by which they provided information to the Warren Commission. This evidence indicates that the investigation of the assassination was deficient and that facts which might have substantially affected the course of the investigation were not provided the Warren Commission or those individuals within the FBI and the CIA, as well as other agencies of Government, who were charged with investigating the assassination.”[119] Regarding the FBI’s endeavors, the House Select Committee was blistering: “It must be said that the FBI generally exhausted its resources in confirming its case against Oswald as the lone assassin, a case that Director J. Edgar Hoover, at least, seemed determined to make within 24 hours of the of the assassination.”[120]

Hoover, it turns out, succeeded in swiftly disseminating his pre-investigative epiphany to a powerful lobby, one that closed ranks, minds evidently shut, even before the first Commission member had been appointed. “Almost immediately after the assassination,” the Church Committee said, “Director Hoover, the Justice Department and the White House ‘exerted pressure’ on senior Bureau officials to complete their investigation and issue a factual report supporting the conclusions that Oswald was the lone assassin … .”[121] That conclusion has found abundant confirmation in a flurry of formerly suppressed documents, many of which were only unsealed finally in the 1990s.

Memo of 11-25-63 from Assistant Attorney General Katzenbach to Bill Moyers of the White House, asserting that "the public must be satisfied that Oswald was the assassin; that he did not have confederates who are still at large; and that the evidence was such that he would have been convicted at trial." The investigation was at this point 3 days old, and Oswald had been murdered only the day before.
(see Katzenbach memo)

For example, in an 11/24/63 memo to LBJ, Homer Thornberry, an associate of the acting Attorney General Katzenbach, reported that, “I have talked with Nick Katzenbach and he is very concerned that everyone know that Oswald was guilty of the President’s assassination.”[122] The next day, in a memo to presidential assistant Bill Moyers, Katzenbach himself urged that, “the public must be satisfied that Oswald was the assassin; that he did not have confederates who are still at large; and that the evidence was such that he would have been convicted at trial.”[123] As historian Michael Kurtz has observed, the day before Katzenbach wrote this memo, on the same day Thornberry dispatched his communiqué, Hoover had called presidential adviser Walter Jenkins and had said, anticipating Katzenbach, “The thing I am concerned about, and so is Mr. Katzenbach, is having something issued so we can convince the public that Oswald is the real assassin.”[124][125] [Additional internal FBI memos, literally from the day of the murder, reflect the same monogamous passion for Oswald evident in Hoover’s, Katzenbach’s and Tornberry’s memos. This is explored in detail in an essay by author Aguilar, Max Holland Rescues the Warren Commission and The Nation.[126])

Perhaps Katzenbach was guided by his belief that, as he explained it to the HSCA, “[T]here is no investigative agency in the world that I believe compares with the FBI then [in 1963] and I suppose it is probably true today.”[127] And so, “very simply, if that [Oswald’s guilt] was the conclusion that the FBI was going to come to, then the public had to be satisfied that was the correct conclusion.”[128]

Such faith is difficult to fathom. As second-in-command to mob arch nemesis, Bobby Kennedy, one might have expected Katzenbach to have had a less exalted view of the Bureau chief. For by the time he took control of the Kennedy case, Hoover had already been exposed as a bit of a laughingstock for opining that organized crime didn’t exist in America. And by the time Katzenbach testified to the HSCA, the Bureau had gone on record declaring that it had proved Nixon innocent of Watergate after what then-Attorney General Richard Kleindienst, with unintended irony, had described as the greatest FBI effort since the assassination of President Kennedy.[129]

Katzenbach’s personal judgments aside, the Warren Commission apparently did not have the sort of cooperative relationship with the FBI one might have wished for in so important an investigation. “The evidence,” the HSCA discovered, “indicates that Hoover viewed the Warren Commission more as an adversary than a partner in a search for the facts of the assassination.” The HSCA’s chief counsel, Robert Blakey, an experienced criminal investigator and prosecutor himself, was impressed with neither the Commission’s vigor nor its independence from the FBI. “What was significant,” Blakey has written, “was the ability of the FBI to intimidate the Commission, in light of the bureau’s predisposition on the questions of Oswald’s guilt and whether there had been a conspiracy. At a January 27 [1964] Commission meeting, there was another dialogue [among Warren Commissioners]:

John McCloy: … the time is almost overdue for us to have a better perspective of the FBI investigation than we now have … We are so dependent on them for our facts … .

Commission counsel J. Lee Rankin: Part of our difficulty in regard to it is that they have no problem. They have decided that no one else is involved … .

Senator Richard Russell: They have tried the case and reached a verdict on every aspect.

Senator Hale Boggs: You have put your finger on it. (Closed Warren Commission meeting.)”[130]

FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover
(LBJ Library Photo)

Hoover may have succeeded in intimidating the Commission by employing one of his favorite dirty tricks. “[D]erogatory information pertaining to both Commission members and staff was brought to Mr. Hoover’s attention,” the Church Committee discovered.[131] During an appearance before the HSCA in 1977, no less than Warren Commission chief counsel J. Lee Rankin sheepishly conceded, “Who could protest against what Mr. Hoover did back in those days?”[132] Apparently not even presidential appointees.

Thus, with the exposes of the Church and Select Committees, the government has itself granted one of the more potent criticisms of Warren Commission skeptics: that its final conclusions had been determined even before work had commenced. Looked at this way, the reasons for the Commission’s inattention to clear conflicts in the medical and autopsy evidence can be seen as of a piece with the Commission’s general disinterest in anyone other than Oswald, an orientation that is well explored in the works of skeptics such as Sylvia Meagher, Harold Weisberg, Josiah Thompson, Henry Hurt, Peter Dale Scott, Robert Blakey, etc.

Warren Commissioners delivering the completed Report to President Lyndon Johnson.

Next: II. The Justice Department Investigates JFK's Autopsy

[63] New York World-Telegram and Sun, 11/23/63, p. 2. and The New York Times, 11/24/63, p. 2. col. 6.

[65] Commission Exhibit # 392. In: Report of the Warren Commission on the Assassination of President Kennedy (Warren Report). New York: A Bantam Book, 1964, p. 483.

[66] Verbatim transcript of press conference interviews with Drs Malcolm Perry and Kemp Clark, from LBJ Library. Obtained by Kathy Cunningham. Also reproduced in ARRB Medical Document #44.

[67] Quoted in: Lifton, David. Best Evidence. New York: Carroll & Graf, 1980, p. 56.

[68] Quoted in: Lifton, David. Best Evidence. New York: Carroll & Graf, 1980, p. 56.

[70] Boston Globe, November 24, 1963, p.9.

[71] Paul Mandel, End to Nagging Rumors: the Six Critical Seconds. Life Magazine, 12/18/63, p. 52F, col. 2.

[72] Robert Hennelly and Jerry Policoff. How the Media Assassinated the Story of JFK. Village Voice, 3/12/92.

[73] Barbie Zelizer. Covering the Body – The Kennedy Assassination, the Media, and the Shaping of Collective Memory. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1992. See especially pages 109, 120, and 241, ref. #50, where Zelizer points out that the New York Times and Washington Post praised the Warren Report before they could have had time to study it.

[74] Specter, Arlen. Passion for Truth. New York: William Morrow, an imprint of Harper Collins Publishers, 2000, p. 77. 

[81] Sylvia Meagher, Accessories After the Fact. New York: Vintage Books, a division of Random House, 1992, p. 167 – 168.

[83] 4H127 & Op. cit. #1, p. 169.

[84] See also Harold Weisberg’s discussion of Gregory’s testimony, in: Whitewash. New York: Dell Publishing, 1966, p. 309.

[85] Interview with Arlen Specter, U. S. News and World Report, 10/10/66, p. 57.

[86] Sylvia Meagher, Accessories After the Fact. New York: Vintage Books, a division of Random House, 1992, p. 170.

[87] Josiah Thompson. Six Seconds in Dallas. New York: Bernard Geis Associates for Random House, 1967, p. 107.

[88] Sylvia Meagher, Accessories After the Fact. New York: Vintage Books, a division of Random House, 1992, p. 143.

[95] Josiah Thompson. Six Seconds in Dallas. New York: Bernard Geis Associates for Random House, 1967, p. 111.

[97] HSCA Record # 180-10108-10333, Agency file # 002961.

[104] “Overwhelming Evidence Oswald was Assassin” – Interview With Arlen Specter, Assistant Counsel, Warren Commission. U. S. News and World Report, October 10, 1966, p. 57.

[105] Mike Feinsalber, “JFK Autopsy Files Are Incomplete.Associated Press, August 2, 1998, 11:48 a.m. EDT.

[107] See “CERTIFICATE” signed by “J. J. Humes,” 11/24/63, and cosigned by George Burkley, MD. Reproduced in: Weisberg, Harold, Post Mortem. Frederick, Maryland, 1975, p. 524. Also reproduced in ARRB Medical Document #9.

[108] See “CERTIFICATE” signed by “J. J. Humes,” 11/24/63, and cosigned by George Burkley, MD,. Reproduced in: Weisberg, Harold, Post Mortem. Frederick, Maryland, 1975, p. 525 Also reproduced in ARRB Medical Document #10.

[109] Arlen Specter. Passion for Truth. New York: William Morrow, 2000, p. 78 – 79.

[110] Arlen Specter interview, U.S. News and World Report, 10/10/66, p. 50.

[111] From an internal CBS MEMORANDUM (sic) dated 10 January 1967 written from Bob Richter to Les Midgley, reproduced in: Hearing Before the Legislation and National Security Subcommittee of the Committee on Government Operations House of Representatives, One Hundred Third Congress, First Session, November 17, 1993,  p. 233. Also reproduced in ARRB Medical Document #16.

[112] The American Medical Association paid an out of court settlement of nearly one quarter of a million dollars to Parkland Hospital surgeon Charles Crenshaw, MD to settle a defamation suit brought in the wake of an article that was published by the associations’ journal, JAMA on May 27, 1992. A full account of this appears in: Charles Crenshaw, Trauma Room One. New York: Paraview Press, 2001. The JAMA article is reproduced in ARRB Medical Document #22.

[114] See JAMA, as well as: John Lattimer. Kennedy and Lincoln. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich,1980, p. 194 - 196.

[116] See “CERTIFICATE” signed by “J. J. Humes,” 11/24/63, and cosigned by George Burkley, MD. Reproduced in: Weisberg, Harold, Post Mortem. Frederick, Maryland, 1975, p. 524. Also reproduced in ARRB Medical Document #9.

[117] Under oath to the ARRB on 5/24/1996, Finck testified that he had written notes during the autopsy, but that he did not leave the morgue with them in his possession. See: ARRB Deposition of Pierre Finck, p. 14 of “miniscript,” or page 5 of full text.

[122] Memorandum to the President, 24 November 1963, from Walter Jenkins, concerning subject, “Oswald.” Reproduced at the National Archives, from “COPY Lyndon Baines Johnson Library” (sic). Released at NARA, 8-5-00.

[124] Michael Kurtz. The Assassination of John F. Kennedy: A Historical Perspective. The Historian (1982), vol. 45, p. 1 – 19. See also, HSCA, vol. XI, p. 3.

[125] See HSCA vol. XI, p. 5, for good discussion.

[126] Gary Aguilar, Max Holland Rescues the Warren Commission and The Nation.

[127] Quoted by HSCA counsel, Gary Cornwell, JD, in: Real Answers. Spicewood, Texas: Spicewood Press, 1998, p. 150.

[128] Quoted by HSCA counsel, Gary Cornwell, JD, in: Real Answers. Spicewood, Texas: Spicewood Press, 1998, p. 151.

[129] Fred Emery. Watergate – The Corruption of American Politics and the Fall of Richard Nixon. New York: A Touchstone Book for Simon & Shuster, 1995, p. 217.

[130]  January 27 Warren Commission Executive Session transcript, p. 171. In: R. Blakey and R. Billings. Fatal Hour – The Assassination of President Kennedy by Organized Crime. New York, Berkley Books, 1992, p. 29. This testimony was also published in: Mark North. Act of Treason. New York, 1991, Carroll and Graf, p. 515 – 516.

[131] “[D]erogatory information pertaining to both Commission members and staff was brought to Mr. Hoover’s attention.” In: Final Report of the Select Committee to Study Governmental Operations, Book V, p. 47. Also cited by: Curt Gentry. J. Edgar Hoover – The Man and His Secrets. New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 1991, p. 549.