The Magic Bullet: Even More
Magical Than We Knew?
Gary Aguilar and Josiah Thompson
Among the myriad JFK assassination controversies, none more cleanly
divides Warren Commission supporter from skeptic than the “Single
Bullet Theory.” The brainchild of a former Warren Commission lawyer,
Mr. Arlen Specter, now the senior Senator from Pennsylvania, the
theory is the sine qua non of the Warren Commission’s case that
with but three shots, including one that missed, Lee Harvey Oswald
had single handedly altered the course of history. [Fig.
Mr. Specter’s hypothesis was not one that immediately
leapt to mind from the original evidence and the circumstances
of the shooting. It was, rather, born of necessity, if one sees
as a necessity the keeping of Oswald standing alone in the dock.
The theory had to contend with the considerable evidence there
was suggesting that more than one shooter was involved.
For example, because the two victims in Dealey Plaza, President
Kennedy and Governor John Connally, had suffered so many wounds
– eight in all, it had originally seemed as if more than two slugs
from the supposed “sniper’s nest” would have been necessary to
explain all the damage. In addition, a home movie taken by a bystander,
Abraham Zapruder, showed that too little time had elapsed between
the apparent shots that hit both men in the back for Oswald to
have fired, reacquired his target, and fired again. The Single
Bullet Theory neatly solved both problems. It posited that a single,
nearly whole bullet that was later recovered had caused all seven
of the non-fatal wounds sustained by both men.
1. CE #399. Warren Commission Exhibit #399, said to have caused
both of JFK’s non-fatal wounds and all five of the Governor Connally’s
wounds, is shown in two views, above left. Arlen Specter theorized
the bullet had followed a path much like the one shown at right.
(National Archives photo)
But the bullet that was recovered had one strikingly peculiar feature: it had
survived all the damage it had apparently caused virtually unscathed itself.
The shell’s near-pristine appearance, which prompted some to call it the “magic
bullet,” left many skeptics wondering whether the bullet in evidence had really
done what the Commission had said it had done. Additional skepticism was generated
by the fact the bullet was not found in or around either victim. It was found
instead on a stretcher at the hospital where the victims were treated.
Mr. Specter’s idea was that, after passing completely through JFK and Governor
Connally, the bullet had fallen out of the Governor’s clothes and onto a stretcher
at Parkland Hospital. But it was never unequivocally established that either
victim had ever lain on the stretcher where the bullet was discovered. Nevertheless, studies done at the
FBI Laboratory seemed to unquestionably link the missile to Oswald’s rifle,
and the FBI sent the Warren Commission a memo on July 7, 1964 detailing how
it had run down the bullet’s chain of possession, which looked pretty solid.
According to the FBI, the two hospital employees who discovered the bullet originally
identified it as the same bullet six months later in an FBI interview
That a bullet, fired from Oswald’s weapon and later identified by hospital witnesses,
had immediately turned up on a stretcher in the hospital where the victims were
treated struck some as perhaps a little too convenient. Suspicions it had been
planted ensued. But apart from its peculiar provenance, there was little reason
in 1964 to doubt the bullet’s bona fides. But then in 1967, one of the authors
reported that one of the two hospital employees who had found the bullet, Parkland
personnel director O.P. Wright, had told him that the bullet he saw and held
on the day of the assassination did not look like the bullet that
later turned up in FBI evidence. That claim was in direct conflict with an FBI
memo of July 7, 1964, which said that Wright had told an FBI agent that the
bullet did look like the shell he’d held on the day of the murder.
For thirty years, the conflict lay undisturbed and unresolved. Finally,
in the mid 1990s, the authors brought this conflict to the attention
of the Assassinations Records Review Board, a federal body charged with
opening the abundant, still-secret files concerning the Kennedy assassination.
A search through newly declassified files led to the discovery of new
information on this question. It turns out that the FBI’s own, once-secret
files tend to undermine the position the FBI took publicly in its July,
1964 memo to the Warren Commission, and they tend to support co-author
Josiah Thompson. Thompson got a further boost when a retired FBI agent,
in a recorded telephone interview and in a face-to-face meeting, flatly
denied what the FBI had written about him to the Warren Commission in
A Bullet is Found at Parkland Hospital
The story begins in a ground floor elevator lobby at the Dallas hospital where
JFK and John Connelly were taken immediately after being shot. According to
the Warren Commission, Parkland Hospital senior engineer, Mr. Darrell C. Tomlinson,
was moving some wheeled stretchers when he bumped a stretcher “against the wall
and a bullet rolled out.”
He called for help and was joined by Mr. O.P. Wright, Parkland’s personnel director.
After examining the bullet together, Mr. Wright passed it along to one of the
U.S. Secret Service agents who were prowling the hospital, Special Agent Richard
Johnsen then carried the bullet back to Washington, D. C. and
handed it to James Rowley, the chief of the Secret Service. Rowley,
in turn, gave the bullet to FBI agent Elmer Lee Todd,
who carried it to agent Robert Frazier in the FBI’s Crime Lab.
Without exploring the fact that the HSCA discovered that there
may have been another witness who was apparently with Tomlinson
when the bullet was found, what concerns us here is whether the
bullet currently in evidence, Commission Exhibit #399, is the
same bullet Tomlinson found originally.
The early history of the bullet, Commission Exhibit #399, is
laid out in Warren Commission Exhibit #2011. This exhibit consists
of a 3-page, July 7, 1964 FBI letterhead memorandum that was written
to the Warren Commission in response to a Commission request that
the Bureau trace “various items of physical evidence,” among them
#399 [Fig. 2]. #2011
relates that, in chasing down the bullet’s chain of possession,
FBI agent Bardwell Odum took #399 to Darrell Tomlinson and O.P.
Wright on June 12, 1964. The memo asserts that both men told Agent
Odum that the bullet “appears to be the same one” they found on
the day of the assassination, but that neither could “positively
identify” it. [Figs. 2,
2. C.E. 2011. Chain of possession of #399(FBI Letterhead
Memo Dallas 7/7/64)
Positive identification” of a piece of evidence by a witness means that the
witness is certain that an object later presented in evidence is the same one
that was originally found. The most common way to establish positive identification
is for a witness to place his initials on a piece of evidence upon first finding
it. The presence of such initials is of great help later when investigators
try to prove a link through an unbroken chain of possession between the object
in evidence and a crime.
Understandably, neither Tomlinson nor Wright inscribed his initials on the stretcher
bullet. But that both witnesses told FBI Agent Odum, so soon after the murder,
that CE 399 looked like the bullet they had found on a stretcher was compelling
reason to suppose that it was indeed the same one.
However, CE #2011 included other information that raised questions
about the bullet. As first noted by author Ray Marcus,
it also states that on June 24, 1964, FBI agent Todd, who received
the bullet from Rowley, the head of the Secret Service, returned
with presumably the same bullet to get Secret Service agents Johnsen
and Rowley to identify it. #2011 reports that both Johnsen and
Rowley advised Todd that they “could not identify this bullet
as the one” they saw on the day of the assassination. # 2011 contains
no comment about the failure being merely one of not “positively
identifying” the shell that, otherwise, “appeared to be the same”
bullet they had originally handled. [Figs. 2,
Thus, in #2011 the FBI reported that both Tomlinson and Wright
said #399 resembled the Parkland bullet, but that neither of the
Secret Service Agents could identify it. FBI Agent Todd originally
received the bullet from Rowley on 11/22/63 and it was he who
then returned on 6/24/64 with supposedly the same bullet for Rowley
and Johnsen to identify. Given the importance of this case, one
imagines that by the time Todd returned, they would have had at
least a passing acquaintance. Had it truly been the same bullet,
one might have expected one or both agents to tell Todd it looked
like the same bullet, even if neither could “positively identify”
it by an inscribed initial. After all, neither Tomlinson nor Wright
had inscribed their initials on the bullet, and yet #2011 says
that they said they saw a resemblance.
Last two pages of 7/7/64 FBI memo to Warren Commission, as published
in C.E. #2011. Note that FBI states that both Dallas witnesses
said #399 looked like the bullet they found on 11/22/63.
And there the conflicted story sat, until one of the current authors published
a book in 1967.
Two Different Accounts from One Witness
Six Seconds in Dallas reported on an interview
with O.P. Wright in November 1966. Before any photos were shown
or he was asked for any description of #399, Wright said: “That
bullet had a pointed tip.”
“Pointed tip?” Thompson asked.
“Yeah, I’ll show you. It was like this one here,” he said, reaching
into his desk and pulling out the .30 caliber bullet pictured
in Six Seconds.”
As Thompson described it in 1967, “I then showed him photographs
of CE’s 399, 572 (the two ballistics comparison rounds from Oswald’s
rifle) (sic), and 606 (revolver bullets) (sic), and he rejected
all of these as resembling the bullet Tomlinson found on the stretcher.
Half an hour later in the presence of two witnesses, he once again
rejected the picture of 399 as resembling the bullet found on
Figure 4. In an
interview in 1966, Parkland Hospital witness O.P. Wright told
author Thompson that the bullet he handled on 11/22/63 did not
look like C.E. # 399.
Thus in 1964 the Warren Commission, or rather the FBI, claimed
that Wright believed the original bullet resembled #399. In 1967,
Wright denied there was a resemblance. Recent FBI releases prompted
by the JFK Review Board support author Thompson’s 1967 report.
A declassified 6/20/64 FBI AIRTEL memorandum from the FBI office
in Dallas (“SAC, Dallas” – i.e., Special Agent in Charge, Gordon
Shanklin) to J. Edgar Hoover contains the statement, “For information
WFO (FBI Washington Field Office), neither DARRELL C. TOMLINSON
[sic], who found bullet at Parkland Hospital, Dallas, nor O. P.
WRIGHT, Personnel Officer, Parkland Hospital, who obtained bullet
from TOMLINSON and gave to Special Service, at Dallas 11/22/63,
can identify bullet … .” [Fig. 5 - Page
1, Page 2]
Whereas the FBI had claimed in CE #2011 that Tomlinson and Wright
had told Agent Odum on June 12, 1964 that CE #399 “appears to
be the same” bullet they found on the day of the assassination,
nowhere in this previously classified memo, which was written
before CE #2011, is there any corroboration that
either of the Parkland employees saw a resemblance. Nor is FBI
agent Odum’s name mentioned anywhere in the once-secret file,
whether in connection with #399, or with Tomlinson or with Wright.
Figure 5. Declassified FBI memo reporting neither
Tomlinson nor Wright could identify “C1” [#399] as the bullet
they handled on 11/22/63.
[Page 1, Page
A declassified record, however, offers some corroboration
for what CE 2011 reported about Secret Service Agents Johnsen
and Rowley. A memo from the FBI’s Dallas field office dated 6/24/64
reported that, “ON JUNE TWENTYFOUR INSTANT RICHARD E. JOHNSEN,
AND JAMES ROWLEY, CHIEF … ADVISED SA ELMER LEE TODD, WFO, THAT
THEY WERE UNABLE TO INDENTIFY RIFLE BULLET C ONE (# 399, which,
before the Warren Commission had logged in as #399, was called
“C ONE”), BY INSPECTION (capitals in original). [Fig.
Convinced that we had overlooked some relevant files, we cast
about for additional corroboration of what was in CE # 2011. There
should, for example, have been some original “302s ” – the raw
FBI field reports from the Agent Odum’s interviews with Tomlinson
and Wright on June 12, 1964. There should also have been one from
Agent Todd’s interviews with Secret Service Agents Johnsen and
Rowley on June 24, 1964. Perhaps somewhere in those, we thought,
we would find Agent Odum reporting that Wright had detected a
resemblance between the bullets. And perhaps we’d also find out
whether Tomlinson, Wright, Johnsen or Rowley had supplied the
Bureau with any additional descriptive details about the bullet.
6. Suppressed 1964 FBI report detailing that neither of the
Secret Service agents who handled “#399” on 11/22/63 could later
In early 1998, we asked a research associate, Ms. Cathy Cunningham,
to scour the National Archives for any additional files that might shed
light on this story. She looked but found none. We contacted the JFK
Review Board’s T. Jeremy Gunn for help. [Fig.
7] On May 18, 1998, the Review Board’s Eileen Sullivan, writing
on Gunn’s behalf, answered, saying: “[W]e have attempted, unsuccessfully,
to find any additional records that would account for the problem you
8] Undaunted, one of us wrote the FBI directly, and was referred
to the National Archives, and so then wrote Mr. Steve Tilley at the
National Archives. [Fig. 9]
On Mr. Tilley’s behalf, Mr. Stuart Culy,
an archivist at the National Archives, made a search. On July 16, 1999,
Mr. Culy wrote that he searched for the FBI records within the HSCA
files as well as in the FBI records, all without success. He was able
to determine, however, that the serial numbers on the FBI documents
ran “concurrently, with no gaps, which indicated that no material is
missing from these files.”
[Fig. 10] In other words,
the earliest and apparently the only FBI report said nothing about either
Tomlinson or Wright seeing a similarity between the bullet found at
the hospital and the bullet later in evidence, CE #399. Nor did agent
Bardwell Odum’s name show up in any of the files.
7. Letter to Assassinations Records Review Board requesting
a search for records that might support FBI’s claim that hospital
witnesses identified #399.
8. ARRB reports that it is unable to find records supporting
FBI claim Parkland Hospital witnesses identified #399.
9. Letter to National Archives requesting search for additional
files on C.E. #399.
10. Letter from National Archives disclosing no additional
files exist on C.E. #399.
[editor's note: Dr. Aguilar followed up in 2005 with the National Archives,
asking them in letters dated March
2 and March
7 to search for any FBI "302" reports that would have
been generated from CE399 being shown to those who handled it. On March
17, 2005 David Mengel of NARA wrote back reporting that additional
searches had not uncovered any such reports.]
Stymied, author Aguilar turned to his co-author. “What does Odum have
to say about it?” Thompson asked.
“Odum? How the hell do I know? Is he still alive?”
“I’ll find out,” he promised.
Less than an hour later, Thompson had located Mr. Bardwell Odum’s home address
and phone number. Aguilar phoned him on September 12, 2002. He was still alive
and well and living in a suburb of Dallas. The 82-year old was alert and quick-witted
on the phone and he regaled Aguilar with fond memories of his service in the
Bureau. Finally, the Kennedy case came up and Odum agreed to help interpret
some of the conflicts in the records. Two weeks after mailing Odum the relevant
files – CE # 2011, the three-page FBI memo dated July 7, 1964, and the “FBI
AIRTEL” memo dated June 12, 1964, Aguilar called him back.
Mr. Odum told Aguilar, “I didn’t show it [#399] to anybody at
Parkland. I didn’t have any bullet … I don’t think I ever saw
it even.” [Fig. 11]
Unwilling to leave it at that, both authors paid Mr. Odum a visit
in his Dallas home on November 21, 2002. The same alert, friendly
man on the phone greeted us warmly and led us to a comfortable
family room. To ensure no misunderstanding, we laid out before
Mr. Odum all the relevant documents and read aloud from them.
Again, Mr. Odum said that he had never had any bullet related
to the Kennedy assassination in his possession, whether during
the FBI’s investigation in 1964 or at any other time. Asked whether
he might have forgotten the episode, Mr. Odum remarked that he
doubted he would have ever forgotten investigating so important
a piece of evidence. But even if he had done the work, and later
forgotten about it, he said he would certainly have turned in
a “302” report covering something that important. Odum’s sensible
comment had the ring of truth. For not only was Odum’s name absent
from the FBI’s once secret files, it was also it difficult to
imagine a motive for him to besmirch the reputation of the agency
he had worked for and admired.
11. Recorded interview with FBI Agent Bardwell Odum, in which
he denies he ever had C.E. #399 in his possession.
Thus, the July 1964 FBI memo that became Commission
Exhibit #2011 claims that Tomlinson and Wright said they saw a resemblance between
#399 and the bullet they picked up on the day JFK died. However, the FBI agent
who is supposed to have gotten that admission, Bardwell Odum, and the Bureau’s
own once-secret records, don’t back up #2011. Those records say only that neither
Tomlinson nor Wright was able to identify the bullet in question, a comment
that leaves the impression they saw no resemblance. That impression is strengthened
by the fact that Wright told one of the authors in 1966 the bullets were dissimilar.
Thus, Thompson’s surprising discovery about Wright, which might have been dismissed
in favor of the earlier FBI evidence in #2011, now finds at least some support
in an even earlier, suppressed FBI memo, and the living memory of a key, former
FBI agent provides further, indirect corroboration.
But the newly declassified FBI memos from June 1964 lead to another
unexplained mystery. Neither are the 302 reports that would have
been written by the agents who investigated #399’s chain of possession
in both Dallas and Washington. The authors were tempted to wonder
if the June memos were but expedient fabrications, with absolutely
no 302s whatsoever backing them up.
But a declassified routing slip turned up by John Hunt seems
to prove that the FBI did in fact act on the Commission’s formal
request, as outlined in # 2011, to run down #399s chain of possession.
The routing slip discloses that the bullet was sent from Washington
to Dallas on 6/2/64 and returned to Washington on 6/22/64. Then
on 6/24/64, it was checked out to FBI Agent Todd. [Fig.
12] What transpired during these episodes? If the Bureau went
to these lengths, it seems quite likely that Bardwell Odum, or
some other agent in Dallas, would have submitted one or more 302s
on what was found, and so would Agent Elmer Todd in Washington.
But there are none in the files. The trail ends here with an unexplained,
and perhaps important, gap left in the record.
Figure 12. FBI
routing slip. Note that #399 was sent from Washington to Dallas
and back again, and that FBI agent Todd checked out the bullet
on 6/24/64, the day it was reported the Secret Service Agents
told Todd they could not identify #399. [See Fig. 5 (page
1, page 2)
and Fig. 6.] (Courtesy
of John Hunt)
Besides this unexplained gap, another interesting question remains:
If the FBI did in fact adjust Tomlinson and Wright’s testimonies with
a bogus claim of bullet similarity, why didn’t it also adjust Johnsen
and Rowley’s? While it is unlikely a certain answer to this question
will ever be found, it is not unreasonable to suppose that the FBI authors
of #2011 would have been more reluctant to embroider the official statements
of the head of the Secret Service in Washington than they would the
comments of a couple of hospital employees in Dallas.
In a memo to the Warren Commission [C. E. #2011] concerning
its investigation of the chain of possession of C.E. #399, the FBI reported
that two Parkland Hospital eyewitnesses, Darrell Tomlinson and O. P. Wright,
said C.E. #399 resembled the bullet they discovered on the day JFK died. But
the FBI agent who is supposed to have interviewed both men and the Bureau’s
own suppressed records contradict the FBI’s public memo. Agent Odum denied his
role, and the FBI’s earliest, suppressed files say only that neither
Tomlinson nor Wright was able to identify the bullet in question. This suppressed
file implies the hospital witnesses saw no resemblance, which is precisely what
Wright told one of the authors in 1967.
What we are left with is the FBI having reported
a solid chain of possession for #399 to the Warren Commission. But the links
in the FBI’s chain appear to be anything but solid. Bardwell Odum, one of the
key links, says he was never in the chain at all and the FBI’s own, suppressed
records tend to back him up. Inexplicably, the chain also lacks other important
links: FBI 302s, reports from the agents in the field who, there is ample reason
to suppose, did actually trace #399 in Dallas and in Washington. Suppressed
FBI records and recent investigations thus suggest that not only is the FBI’s
file incomplete, but also that one of the authors may have been right when he
reported in 1967 that the bullet found in Dallas did not look like a bullet
that could have come from Oswald’s rifle.
The eighth wound, JFK’s head wound, accounted for one of the bullets. And evidence
from the scene and from a home movie taken of the murder by a bystander, Abraham
Zapruder, suggests that a third bullet had missed entirely.
Josiah Thompson. Six Seconds in Dallas. Bernard Geis Associates for
Random House, 1967, p. 161 – 164.
 The President’s
Commission on the Assassination of President John F. Kennedy – Report.
Washington, D.C.: U. S. Government Printing Office, 1964, p.
81. See also 6H130
See also: Thompson, J. Six Seconds in Dallas. New York:
Bernard Geis Associates for Random House, 1967, p. 155.
See Ray Marcus monograph, The Bastard Bullet.
Text of email message from Josiah Thompson to Aguilar, 12/10/99.
Thompson, Josiah. Six Seconds in Dallas. New York: Bernard Geis Associates
for Random House, 1967, p. 175.
5/11/98 email message from Eileen Sullivan re: “Your letter to Jeremy Gunn, April 4, 1998.”
Personal letter from Stuart Culy, archivist, National Archives, July 16, 1999.