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 6 by Jacob G. Hornberger
There is considerable circumstantial evidence indicating that the conclusions reached by the three pathologists in the autopsy of John F. Kennedy were a work in progress, one that was evolving and developing even after the formal autopsy had been concluded and, in fact, even after Kennedy’s body had been embalmed and delivered to the White House.
Soon after the assassination, two FBI agents in the D.C. area — Francis X. O’Neill and James W. Sibert — were assigned to meet Air Force One at Andrews Air Force Base, accompany Kennedy’s body to the Bethesda morgue, monitor the autopsy, and retrieve any bullet fragments and deliver them to the FBI for ballistics analysis.
O’Neill and Sibert witnessed the autopsy proceedings after they formally began at 8:15 p.m., taking careful notes of what they were seeing and hearing. Four days after the autopsy — November 26, 1963 — they submitted a written report of what they had witnessed, a report that was not included in the Warren Commission Report. In fact, while O’Neill and Sibert were interviewed by Warren Commission staffer Arlen Specter, an interview that left a sour taste in the mouths of both agents, neither of the agents was summoned to testify before the Warren Commission, perhaps owing to what their report contained.
As Douglas P. Horne documents in detail in his five-volume work on the assassination, Inside the Assassination Records Review Board, the O’Neill-Sibert report contained autopsy conclusions that are significantly at variance with what became the final autopsy report. According to the O’Neill-Sibert report, by the end of the autopsy the pathologists had concluded that Kennedy had been hit by two shots, one in the back of the head and one in the back of the right shoulder. In fact, what many people don’t realize is that the FBI prepared its own official report on the Kennedy assassination before the Warren Commission submitted its report. The FBI report concluded that two bullets hit Kennedy from behind and one bullet hit Gov. John Connally, who was travelling in the Kennedy limousine (Horne, volume 4, page 1075).
Consider the following “face sheet,” which purports to represent the back of Kennedy’s body, that J. Thornton Boswell, one of the three official pathologists in the Kennedy autopsy, prepared as part of the official autopsy report. The little black spot near the middle of the back represents Kennedy’s back shoulder wound to which O’Neill and Sibert made reference in their report.
Now consider the following photograph of the back of Kennedy’s suit, which depicts a hole that seems to line up with the hole depicted in Boswell’s autopsy face sheet. (Recall that this was the suit that official autopsy pathologist Col. Pierre Finck was denied access to by an unidentified superior military official during the autopsy, as detailed in my article “The Kennedy Autopsy, Part 3”):
According to Horne, a telex to the FBI from O’Neill and Sibert shortly after they left the Bethesda morgue and their official report dated November 26, 1963, concluded that “the bullet entered the upper back ‘just below the shoulders’ and ‘about two inches to the right of the middle line of the spinal column’ and had apparently worked its way out of the president’s back at Parkland Hospital while external cardiac massage was being administered during the attempt to save his life.”
Secret Service agent Roy Kellerman was in the front passenger seat of the Kennedy limousine in Dallas. In their November 29, 1963, report of their interview with Kellerman, O’Neill and Sibert stated,
Upon turning his head to the left, he [Kellerman] observed President Kennedy with his left hand in back of him appearing to be reaching to a point on his right shoulder.
In volume 4 of his book (page 1039), Horne points to an interview of lab technologist James Jenkins, who participated in the Kennedy autopsy, that was conducted by assassination researcher William Law. Law asked Jenkins whether he recalled the location of the back wound. Jenkins replied,
Probably [reaching around and touching his own back] … I would say about T‑4 [i.e., the level of the fourth thoracic vertebra].
According to Horne (volume 4, page 1039),
Dr. Ebersole confirmed the same estimate of the back wound’s location — T‑4 — to Dr. David Mantik in a telephone interview before he died. Dr. Burkley identified the location of the entry wound in the back as T‑3 in the Navy Death Certificate he filled out and signed. Both of these locations appear to be consistent with the “low” holes in the president’s shirt and coat, and with the location of the entry wound made on the body chart by Dr. Boswell at the autopsy.
(Dr. John H. Ebersole, who was present during the autopsy, was assistant chief of radiology at Bethesda Naval Hospital. Dr. Mantik is an assassination researcher. Dr. Burkley, who was present both at Parkland Hospital and during the autopsy at Bethesda, was Kennedy’s personal White House physician.)
According to Horne, “Autopsy technician Paul O’Connor told interviewer William Law that the back wound was about three inches below the seventh cervical vertebra, and about one or two inches to the right of the spinal column, which appears to be entirely consistent with the vertical placement of this wound given by Burkley and Ebersole.”
How deep was the back wound? Not very deep at all, and the evidence indicates that it certainly did not exit the front of Kennedy’s body.
When Sibert testified before the Assassination Records Review Board (ARRB) in 1997, he stated (Horne, volume 3, page 699),
But when they raised him up, then they found this back wound. And that’s when they started probing with the rubber glove and the finger, and — also with the chrome probe. And that’s just before, of course, I made this call [to the FBI laboratory], because they were at a loss to explain what happened to this bullet. They couldn’t find any bullet. And they said, “There’s no exit.” Finck, in particular, said, “There’s no exit.” And they said they could feel it with the end of the finger — I mean the depth of this wound….
In 1996, the ARRB interviewed Navy pathologist Frederick Karnei, who was also present at the Kennedy autopsy. According to Horne (volume 3, page 851),
Dr. Karnei said that “about midnight” the prosectors still had not found a bullet track through the body, nor had they found an exit wound for the entry in the shoulder, and had only a bruise atop the right lung as further evidence of damage…. He said that Humes had concluded that two shots had hit the President from the rear….
In Law’s interview, Jenkins confirmed the nontransit nature of the back wound (Horne, volume 4, page 1040):
Humes probed it, to begin with, with his little finger. Humes has big hands. Humes is a big man. And then they used a probe. I could see his finger and I could see the probes behind the pleural area in the back [after the lungs and heart were removed] and it never did break into the pleural cavity. And the wound actually went down and stopped.
Thus, to summarize, by the time FBI agents O’Neill and Sibert left the morgue just before midnight, the official conclusions, according to the O’Neill-Sibert report, seem to have been that Kennedy was shot twice from the back — through the head and in the right shoulder. Although the conclusions didn’t address Connally’s wounds, the natural inference is that Connally was hit by a third shot.
Soon after the assassination and several hours before the autopsy, law-enforcement personnel found three shell casings on the sixth floor of the Texas School Book Depository, along with the rifle that had supposedly been used in the assassination. Moreover, within an hour and a half of the assassination, law-enforcement personnel had arrested and taken into custody the man suspected of assassinating Kennedy, Lee Harvey Oswald.
Thus, the two wounds described in the O’Neill-Sibert report — two shots into Kennedy, one in the back of the head and one in the back right shoulder that failed to transit through the body — along with a third shot that presumably hit Connally — matched the number of shots supposedly taken by Oswald.
However, sometime after the conclusion of the autopsy and after O’Neill and Sibert had left the morgue, the autopsy pathologists were presented with disquieting information. In a telephone conversation with Parkland Hospital physician Malcom Perry, who had participated in Kennedy’s treatment, Humes learned that there was another wound, a bullet hole through the front of Kennedy’s neck. Treating physicians at Parkland Hospital had even announced the existence of the neck wound at a press conference immediately after the president was declared dead. Consider the following portion of that press conference:
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.
Why was that information disquieting? Because a wound in the front of the neck obviously meant a fourth shot — and from the front. Yet Oswald supposedly fired only three shots — and all from the back.
Why hadn’t the autopsy pathologists noticed the bullet hole in the front of Kennedy’s neck? Because, they said, the wound had been obscured by a tracheotomy that had been performed by the Parkland physicians to help Kennedy breathe. It was only when Perry advised Humes that there was a bullet hole where the tracheotomy was done that the autopsy pathologists realized that they had missed another wound.
The revelation of the neck wound apparently caused considerable consternation in the autopsy room. Recall Finck’s testimony at the Shaw trial in New Orleans (as recounted in my article “The Kennedy Autopsy, Part 3,”) where Finck testified, with great reluctance, that a high military official, one whose identity he claimed he couldn’t remember, instructed him not to dissect the track of the neck wound.
Moreover, in 1977 Boswell made the following cryptic remark to Andrew Purdy, an attorney for the House Select Committee on Assassinations, which had opened an investigation into the Kennedy assassination as a result of widespread public skepticism surrounding the Warren Commission Report: “We got ourselves in dutch with the neck and throat wounds with regard to the Secret Service.”
“In dutch” means “in trouble.” Why would the pathologists get into trouble with the Secret Service over Kennedy’s neck and throat wounds? Indeed, under what authority was the Secret Service even participating in the autopsy, much less apparently chastising the pathologists regarding the bullet wound in the front of Kennedy’s neck?
In any event, the pathologists came up with an autopsy report that ended up reflecting a total of three shots, all from behind. We’ll examine the fascinating process by which they accomplished that, together with the role that the so-called magic bullet played, in the next segment.