Gary L. Aguilar, MD and Kathy Cunningham
May 2003


Two Shots from Behind: Evidence from the Autopsy


To the layman it may seem that an autopsy of a gunshot victim produces the sort of unambiguous evidence that leaves little doubt about the cause of death: the type bullets – jacketed vs. unjacketed, their caliber, the direction from which they flew, and so on. Unfortunately, that is often not the case, even when the examiner is specially trained in gunshot autopsies.

That kind of specialist is called a “forensic pathologist,” an expert in “unnatural” death, such as death due to gunshots, knife wounds, etc. The nonspecialist pathologist is called an “anatomic” or “general” pathologist, and is expert in “natural” death – heart attacks, strokes, cancer, and the like. To achieve forensics credentials an anatomic pathologist undergoes additional years of training beyond the qualifications required for an anatomic pathologist. It is widely recognized that it is best for gunshot victims to have the benefit of forensic expertise. For only with the additional training does an autopsist obtain the requisite skills to unravel these often-difficult cases.

Kennedy’s Autopsy: Its Performance and the Evidence From It

Unfortunately, JFK’s autopsy was performed at Bethesda Naval Hospital, a hospital inexperienced in “unnatural death” autopsies, like JFK’s. [JFK’s physician, Admiral George Burkley, advised Jackie that it would be best if the autopsy were performed at “a military hospital for security reasons,” and so she chose the Naval Hospital because of JFK’s prior Navy service.[30]] The surgeon in charge was an anatomic pathologist, Navy Commander James H. Humes, MD. So was his second in charge, Commander J. Thornton Boswell, MD.

Lyndon Johnson being sworn in as President aboard Air Force I in Dallas, beside Jacqueline Kennedy, prior to the return flight to Washington and the autopsy of President Kennedy's body at Bethesda Naval Hospital.
(White House Photo - LBJ Library)

Thirty minutes after the autopsy had begun, a properly credentialed, Army forensics pathologist, Colonel Pierre Finck, MD, arrived from the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology to lend a hand. But by that time Humes and Boswell had already removed JFK’s brain, and forensically important evidence may well have been lost. But even Finck wasn’t what the occasion called for. During the previous two years prior to examining JFK, Finck had performed no autopsies. His job at the AFIP was to do armchair reviews of autopsies others had done. Furthermore, his “outsider,” Army status, didn’t enhance his position in JFK’s Navy morgue.

Describing his predicament as a lower-ranking Army officer in a Navy morgue, Finck later admitted, “They were admirals, and when you are a lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Army you just follow orders.”[31] The famed New York City coroner Milton Helpern, MD, has laid out the problem particularly well: “Colonel Finck’s position throughout the entire proceeding was extremely uncomfortable. If it had not been for him, the autopsy would not have been handled as well as it was; but he was in the role of the poor bastard Army child foisted into the Navy family reunion. He was the only one of the three doctors with any experience with bullet wounds; but you have to remember that his experience was limited primarily to ‘reviewing’ files, pictures, and records of finished cases. There’s a world of difference between standing at the autopsy table and trying to decide whether a hole in the body is a wound of entrance or a wound of exit, and in reviewing another man’s work at some later date in the relaxed, academic atmosphere of a private office … .”[32]

So three inadequately prepared pathologists rolled up their sleeves to unravel the complex mysteries of JFK’s murder. The key to the case was to determine from which direction the bullets had come and whether there was evidence of more than one gunman. If the autopsy had proved shots from different directions, the verdict of conspiracy would have been inevitable. The final conclusions, however, were decidedly against conspiracy. Both of the shots that hit JFK, the pathology report said, had come from a single source – above and behind JFK. But how was that conclusion derived? It is likely that the background information the pathologists were given played a role in their decision-making.

Autopsy report of President John F. Kennedy.
(reproduced in ARRB MD #3 and Warren Report, p. 538. See also Warren Commission's analysis of JFK's wounds in WR p. 85-92).

“Three shots were heard and the President fell forward bleeding from the head,” the autopsy report stated. It continued with, “According to newspaper reports (‘Washington Post’ 11/23/63) (sic) Bob Jackson, a Dallas Times Herald Photographer (sic), said he looked around as he heard the shots and saw a rifle barrel disappearing into a window on an upper floor of the nearby Texas School Book Depository Building.”[33] Kennedy’s reaction to the fatal shot and the observations of a witness became part of the autopsy evidence that the shots had come from behind. Using credible background information concerning the scene of a murder in autopsy reports is neither improper nor is it unusual. However, in this case the information turned out to be as inaccurate as it likely was influential.

An 8-mm film of the shooting taken by a bystander, Abraham Zapruder, shows that JFK’s didn’t fall forward with the fatal shot, but that he rocked abruptly backward. Kennedy’s rearward lurch later convinced legions of skeptics that Kennedy had been shot from the front, just as the autopsists had obviously believed his forward motion indicated a shot from behind. The Warren Commission fed this confusion.

In discussing Kennedy’s movement in the Warren Report, the Commission wrote, “shots resounded in rapid succession. The President’s hands moved to his neck. He appeared to stiffen momentarily and lurch slightly forward in his seat. A bullet had entered the back of his neck … Another bullet then struck President Kennedy in the rear portion of his head, causing a massive and fatal wound. The President fell to the left into Mrs. Kennedy’s lap.”[34] Thus, JFK’s most startling and obvious motion to the rear was not revealed while his all but imperceptible forward motion was emphasized. The obvious goal of the selective emphasis was to support the theory of a shot from behind. The crux here is not whether forward or rearward motion establishes the direction of fire, a point on which few experts agree. It is that inexperienced pathologists had been fed misleading information that encouraged them to look toward the rear to find the source of Kennedy’s demise, and also that the Warren Commission gave a misleading account of JFK’s motion to keep the public focused on the culprit they’d placed behind the President.

It is not unreasonable, therefore, to wonder whether the surgeons’ conclusions would have been any different if they had heard the truth: that JFK had rocked violently backward with the fatal shot, and that there were credible reports that shots had been fired from both the front and the rear. We will never know, of course. But Kennedy’s motion wasn’t the pathologists’ only consideration. Kennedy’s wounds had their own tales to tell: the complex fatal skull wound, and a back wound that seemed connected to one in JFK’s throat below his Adam’s apple.

The autopsy report is tentative about the meaning of Kennedy’s back and throat wounds, but more definitive that the fatal head wound was a result of a single shot fired only from behind JFK.

JFK’s Back and Throat Wound – Presumptive Evidence

Regarding the back wound, the autopsy report says, “The second wound presumably of entry is that described above in the upper right posterior thorax. Beneath the skin there is ecchymosis (bruising) of subcutaneous skin and musculature. The missile path through the fascia and musculature cannot be easily probed. The wound presumably of exit was that described by Dr. Malcolm Perry of Dallas in the low anterior cervical region.” The report claimed that there was a third point of reference that connected the two wounds in the pathologists’ minds: a bruise that was visible at the apex of JFK’s chest cavity after JFK’s lungs had been removed. Thus the bullet direction was inferred: back entry, passage across the top of the chest cavity, exit through the throat. But this route was never proven.

Despite wide press coverage about it on the day of the murder, the pathologists said that when they began the autopsy later that night, they were completely in the dark that JFK had sustained a throat wound. They said they only learned of it the next day when one of the Dallas doctors told Humes during a phone conversation that he had enlarged a small wound in JFK’s throat in the emergency room in order to insert a tracheotomy tube to help JFK breathe.

So the pathologists claimed that during the time they had access to JFK’s remains, they only knew that JFK had what they believed was an entrance wound in the back with no exit wound, and a tracheotomy wound in the throat. They were also convinced that the bullet must have come out somewhere, because X-rays had shown there was no whole bullet left anywhere inside JFK’s body. Given that JFK’s personal physician, Admiral George Burkley, had made retrieving bullet evidence one of the primary goals of the autopsy, the absence of any bullets in JFK’s body posed a huge problem. The only explanation that they said had occurred to them during the autopsy was that perhaps a bullet had entered JFK’s back shallowly and was later massaged back out the back wound during cardiopulmonary resuscitation at Parkland Hospital.

In other words, when JFK’s body left the morgue, they were supposedly still uncertain about the fate of the missile that they believed, perhaps from press reports, had hit JFK in the back. The “massaged back out” theory was not really satisfactory. It was only after a call to Dallas the next morning, the story goes, that the lights finally went on and they could see that the bullet that had entered the back must have exited JFK’s throat. [This inference explains the autopsy report’s twice employing the term “presumably.”] Given their alleged confusion, they might easily have lifted the darkness themselves by surgically dissecting and tracking the back wound to see where the bullet went. But they didn’t, and perhaps with good reason. In 1969 Pierre Finck testified that a non-physician general who was in the morgue had ordered the pathologists not to dissect JFK’s back wound (see Finck’s testimony, below).

Were the Autopsists Ignorant of Kennedy’s Throat Wound During the Autopsy?

Finck’s troubling testimony aside, is it reasonable to believe that the pathologists were ignorant of JFK’s throat wound that horrid night? There had been ample coverage of the President’s wounds, including his throat wound [see below] in contemporaneous television and radio reports that were monitored by virtually the entire nation. Moreover, JFK’s personal physician, Admiral George Burkley, had remained with JFK from the shooting, to the frenzied, futile efforts at the hospital and on through the grim vigil in the morgue. By all accounts, the admiral worked closely with the emergency surgeons in Dallas, conferring with Malcolm Perry, MD, who performed the tracheotomy, and Kemp Clark, MD, the physician who pronounced JFK dead.[35] He also dwelt at length with his fellow Navy physicians who labored in the morgue.

Is it reasonable to assume that neither Dallas doctor told Burkley about one of JFK’s wounds, or that the admiral kept the autopsists in the dark about one of JFK’s wounds? To do so would have been a violation of one of the most uniformly observed, time-honored practices in medicine: a physician’s providing pertinent medical information to his consulting colleague. And even if Burkley had kept mum, would everyone in the crowded morgue, including the three Secret Service agents [Kellerman, Greer and Hill, who had been with JFK throughout] have neglected to mention what everyone else in the country had been told about JFK’s throat wound? Improbably, Kennedy’s autopsists have steadfastly insisted that they were, in fact, oblivious of the throat wound until the next morning’s call to a doctor in Dallas, Malcolm Perry, MD. There is evidence that both supports and challenges their ignorance. But as with most witness testimony, there are conflicts and inconsistencies aplenty.

The Case for the Autopsists Being Ignorant of Kennedy’s Throat Wound During the Autopsy

First, not only have Humes and Finck said they were entirely unaware (Humes, as we will see, has hinted otherwise, and Boswell has been equivocal), there is no mention of a wound in JFK’s throat in the FBI’s report on Kennedy’s autopsy, though the agents were present until JFK was turned over to the embalmers at about 1AM.[36] Nor were microscopic specimens taken from the throat tissues, as they were of the wounds the surgeons tellingly biopsied for documentation purposes. Nor is there a word about Kennedy’s throat wound in the report filed by JFK’s physician George Burkley on 27 November 1963.[37] 

FBI report of JFK's autopsy, written by agents James Sibert and Francis O'Neill, Jr.
(see ARRB MD #44)

In an interview with Warren skeptic Harrison Livingstone, one of Boswell’s technical assistants, James Curtis Jenkins, revealed that he was himself unaware of a throat wound. “I was real surprised at the fact later on that that [the tracheotomy site] was supposed to have been a bullet wound.”[38] Furthermore, two doctors from Parkland Hospital, Malcolm Perry and Robert McClelland, told the ARRB that Humes’ call of inquiry came in on Saturday morning, not the night of the autopsy. If the autopsy team had truly known of the throat wound on the night of the autopsy, Humes would scarcely have had to call Perry about it the next day.

Finally, what possible motivation would the surgeons have had for pretending to be ignorant of something so important, especially since many of the people in the room might already have heard about it, and since it would have quieted what was described as a spirited discussion about the mystery of the whereabouts of the bullet that had entered Kennedy’s back ?

The  Case for the Autopsists Not Being Ignorant of Kennedy’s Throat Wound During the Autopsy

The absence of word about Kennedy’s throat wound in the FBI report is far from proof of the surgeons’ ignorance. It only proves the doctors either didn’t know about the throat wound before the agents left, or that the surgeons kept quiet, and perhaps with good reason. Given their manifest lack of expertise in this sort of work, the surgeons might have wanted kept to their own counsels, lest they later be forced to confront an accurate, federal accounting of their errors and misjudgments. Moreover, the agents didn’t stick it out the entire night; they left the morgue at about 1:00 AM. And although by then the morticians were busy at work, there is evidence the autopsists were still engaged.

Internal CBS memorandum reporting on Dr. Humes' admission that a path had been traced from back wound to throat wound during the autopsy.
(see ARRB MD #16)

In the mid 1960’s, Humes confided to a personal friend that, as a once-secret, internal Columbia  Broadcasting System memo put it, “Although initially in the autopsy procedure the back wound could only be penetrated to finger length, a probe later was made – when no FBI men were present – that traced the path of the bullet from the back going downwards, then upwards slightly, then downwards again exiting at the throat. One X-ray photo taken, Humes said, clearly shows the above, as it was apparently taken with a mental probe stick of some kind that was left in the body to show the wound’s path.”[39]

While several tantalizing details in this account will be explored in more detail later, its relevance here is that the agents didn’t see everything the surgeons saw or did. Moreover, unless they’d had some word about a bullet wound in the throat, Humes would hardly have passed a probe from the back to JFK’s throat if he’d had no reason to believe a wound lay there.

What, then, about the report of the President’s physician? If he actually knew, why is Burkley also silent on the throat wound? It turns out that Burkley is silent about all of JFK’s wounds; his report concerns itself more with what Burkley did than what he saw. For example, regarding Kennedy’s injuries, Burkley speaks only about what he witnessed at Parkland: “I immediately entered the room, went to the head of the table and viewed the President. It was evident that death was imminent and that he was in a hopeless condition.”[40] It is scarcely a surprise Burkley is mum about the throat wound when he says nothing about JFK’s huge skull injuries.

And, finally, what about Boswell’s technician, Jenkins? Boswell was never asked whether he confided in Jenkins during the autopsy. So, in light of the tenseness of the situation, it is quite possible that Boswell could have known of the wound, or strongly suspected it, without telling Jenkins about it. In fact, Boswell’s subsequent statements seem to bear that out.

A reasonable case can be also made for the opposite conclusion: that knowledge of the throat wound had indeed seeped into JFK’s morgue. Perhaps the earliest evidence comes from a respected outsider. Although as per his custom he does not name his source, the famously well-connected historian William Manchester may have been the first to come up with it in his 1967 book, The Death of a President.

Manchester discovered that the course of events that makes the most sense to us today is in fact what actually happened: that the autopsy team had indeed heard Perry’s comments on the afternoon of the murder, and that they had dutifully communicated with Dallas during the post mortem.

They had heard reports of Mac Perry’s medical briefing for the press, and to their dismay they had discovered that all evidence of what was being called an entrance wound in the throat had been removed by Perry’s tracheotomy. Unlike the physicians at Parkland, they had turned the President over and seen the smaller hole in the back of his neck. They were positive that Perry had seen an exit wound. The deleterious effects of confusion were already evident. Commander James J. Humes, Bethesda’s chief of pathology, telephoned Perry in Dallas shortly after midnight, and clinical photographs were taken to satisfy all the Texas doctors who had been in Trauma Room No. 1.”[41] (authors’ emphasis. One imagines that Manchester intended to convey that the autopsists hoped the pictures would satisfy the Texas doctors that the throat wound Perry had called an entrance wound was instead an exit wound.)

Transcript of Nov. 22 afternoon press conference given by Parkland Hospital physicians Dr. Malcolm Perry and Dr. Kemp Clark.
(see ARRB MD #41)

Manchester gave a compelling reason for the autopsists’ concern about comments emanating from the doctors in Dallas: “Bethesda’s physicians anticipated that their findings would later be subjected to the most.”[42] Ironically, Dallas was generous with reasons for a searching scrutiny of the autopsists’ claimed ignorance of the throat wound.

Parkland witness, Paul Peters, MD, told Boston Globe journalist, Ben Bradlee, that “We did find out almost immediately (sic) after President Kennedy was taken to Bethesda that there was a hole in the neck that we had not seen a the time … But it was only a few (sic) hours later when we began to get calls back to (sic) from Bethesda … See it was only, it was only going to be a few (sic) hours before I would know that the bullets were fired from behind.”[43]

Author Harrison Livingstone reported another Parkland source for nighttime contact between the morgue and Dallas. In a 1991 interview, Livingstone said that Parkland Hospital nurse Audrey Bell told him, “Dr. Perry was up all night. He came into my office the next day and sat down and looked terrible, having not slept. I never saw anybody look so dejected! They called him from Bethesda two or three times in the middle of the night to try to get him to change the entrance wound in the throat to an exit wound.”[44]

In 1966 even Dr. Boswell himself weighed in, echoing Manchester by apparently disgorging to a stringer for the Baltimore Sun, who reported that, “before the autopsy had began, the pathologists had been apprised of JFK's wounds and what had been done to him at Parkland. In particular, Boswell said: ‘We concluded that night that the bullet had, in fact, entered the back of the neck, traversed the neck and exited anteriorly.’”[45] (author’s emphasis) Under oath in 1996, Boswell told the ARRB much the same thing. “Did you reach the conclusion that there had been a transit wound through the neck during the course of the autopsy itself?”, he was asked. “Oh, yes,” Boswell answered.[46] [On the other hand, Pierre Finck told the ARRB that at the end of the evening they had not concluded a throat transit.[47]]

But regarding what they knew before they plunged in,  Boswell seemed to give a slightly different version to the ARRB than he had the Baltimore Sun. He was asked, “Prior to the time you first saw the President Kennedy’s body, had you heard any communications about the nature of the wounds that he had suffered?” “I don’t think specifically. I think just the fact that he had a head wound,” Boswell responded.[48]

Boswell kept to Humes’ claim the calls to Dallas happened the next day. “When was the first conversation with doctors in Dallas?” he was asked in 1996 by the ARRB.

“Saturday morning,” Boswell answered.[49] 

Boswell’s account seems to contradict the comments of another pathologist who was present during the autopsy, though not as a member of the surgical team, Robert Karnei, MD.

During an interview, author Harrison Livingstone clumsily commented to Karnei about the autopsists’ alleged ignorance: “They didn’t know there was a bullet hole in the throat. All they saw was the trach (sic) incision.”

Karnei: “Right. Once they talked to the doctors in Dallas, this is around midnight, I think.”

Livingstone: “No, it was the next day when he called Perry.”

Karnei: “Next day?”

Livingstone: “Yes. The body was already gone.”

Karnei: “I was convinced they talked to somebody that night, and finally decided that had to be the exit wound. Pierre Finck, I think, talked to somebody … For some reason I thought they had discovered that around midnight. Maybe it was the next day.”[50]

Karnei was not the only morgue physician who was confused about information from Dallas and when the team had decided there had been a bullet wound in JFK’s throat.

In the suppressed HSCA interview of autopsy radiologist Dr. John Ebersole, Ebersole told the medical panel that Humes was in telephone contact with Dallas doctors during the autopsy.
(see ARRB MD #60. p. 64)

After a telephone interview with the autopsy radiologist, John Ebersole, MD, David Mantik, MD, Ph.D. reported that, “Ebersole had told me during our first conversation that they had learned about the throat wound from Dallas that night. In prior conversations, he had also stated that he had learned of the projectile wound to the throat during the autopsy – that, in fact, he had stopped taking X-rays after that intelligence had arrived, because the mystery of the exit wound – corresponding to the back entrance wound – was solved.”[51] Moreover, Ebersole told the HSCA that the two hospitals had communicated by phone during the autopsy.[52]

By the later stages of the autopsy, Admiral Burkley was apparently talking to others about a wound in JFK’s throat, according to a Bethesda witness reported by author David Lifton. On 11/29/63, Coast Guardsman George Barnum wrote up a memo that concerned a conversation he had had with Admiral Burkley at Bethesda Hospital on the night of the autopsy. Barnum reported that Burkley had told him Kennedy had been hit twice, “The first striking him in the lower neck and coming out near the throat … .”[53] Barnum’s account is incomprehensible without accepting that Burkley’s remark suggests that either there was knowledge of the throat wound or, as per Boswell and Karnei, that a throat wound had been inferred by the autopsy team. Either way, Humes’ assertion to the Warren Commission to the effect a throat wound only dawned on him the next day, after a call to Dallas, seems open to dispute. Other witnesses add to the doubts.

General Philip C. Wehle's personal aide,[54] Richard A. Lipsey, a witness to the autopsy, told the HSCA that sometime during the autopsy the prosectors concluded that three bullets had struck the President. “Lipsey said that one bullet entered the upper back of the President and did not exit,” the HSCA reported, and that, “one entered in the rear of the head and exited the throat; and one entered and exited in the right, top portion of the head, causing a massive head wound.”[55] Although this is not what finally made it into the autopsy report, it is hard to understand how a non-physician would recall linking the head wound to the throat wound unless he’d heard of a wound in the throat from the surgeons.

Then there is the odd answer of tracheotomist, Malcolm Perry, MD, one that called to mind Dr. Peters’ previously cited comment that, “it was only a few (sic) hours later when we began to get calls back to (sic) from Bethesda”:

Arlen Specter asked: “And will you relate the circumstances of the calls indicating first the time when they occurred.”

Perry: “Dr. Humes called me twice on Friday afternoon, separated by about 30-minute intervals, as I recall.  The first one, I, somehow think I recall the first one must have been around 1500 hours, but I'm not real sure about that; I'm not positive of that at all, actually.”

Specter hastened to correct Perry, following up with:

Specter: “Could it have been Saturday morning?”

Perry: “Saturday morning – was it?  It's possible.  I remember talking with him twice.  I was thinking it was shortly thereafter.”[56]

While Perry’s turnabout may have come completely from the heart, that his instantaneous recall of a contact on Friday happened to match the recollections of so many others is surely quite a coincidence. As we will see, one is tempted to speculate beyond coincidence when one views this exchange in the context of Perry’s testifying, inaccurately, that the press had distorted his comments that Kennedy’s throat wound appeared to be an entrance wound.

Finally, there is the fascinating story of Robert Livingston MD, Professor of Neurosciences Emeritus at the University of California San Diego. On 11-22-63, he was the Scientific Director of both the National Institute for Mental Health, and the National Institute of Neurological Diseases and Blindness. Livingston claims that on the afternoon of the assassination he telephoned the Navy Hospital in Bethesda and, at his request and because of his position, he was put through to James Humes. Livingston claims, “After introductions, we began a pleasant conversation ... I told him that the reason for my making such an importuning call was to stress that the Parkland Hospital physicians' examination of President Kennedy revealed what they reported to be a small wound in the neck, closely adjacent to and to the right of the trachea. I explained that I had knowledge from the literature on high-velocity wound ballistics research, in addition to considerable personal combat experience examining and repairing bullet and shrapnel wounds. I was confident that a small wound of that sort had to be a wound of entrance and that if it were a wound of exit, it would almost certainly be widely blown out, with cruciate or otherwise wide, tearing outward ruptures of the underlying tissues and skin.

“I stressed to Dr. Humes how important it was that the autopsy pathologists carefully examine the President's neck to characterize that particular wound and to distinguish it from the neighboring tracheotomy wound.

“I went on to presume, further, that the neck wound would probably not have anything to do with the main cause of death – massive, disruptive, brain injury – because of the angle of bullet trajectory and the generally upright position of the President's body, sitting up in the limousine.  Yet, I said, carefully, if that wound were confirmed as a wound of entry, it wound prove beyond peradventure of doubt that that shot had been fired from in front--hence that if there were shots from behind, there had to have been more than one gunman.”

Livingston discussed the assassination with Humes for seven to ten minutes by his estimate, but was cut off when Humes cordially explained to him that the FBI insisted that the phone call had to be terminated. Although Livingston’s story was first reported by author Harrison Livinstone, the professor repeated his story under oath during depositions taken for an ultimately victorious libel suit brought by Parkland physician-skeptic, Charles Crenshaw, MD, against the American Medical Association.

Final Speculations About What the Autopsy Surgeons Knew

A case can be made for either knowledge or ignorance of Kennedy’s throat wound during the autopsy. The preponderance of evidence, and the weight of commonsense, however, seem to tip the scales toward there having been knowledge, if only toward the end of the autopsy, when all logical explanations for the presence of a body with a bullet hole but no bullet had been exhausted save the obvious: it had left the body. It is difficult to believe that the surgeons would have for long taken seriously Humes’ idea of an all but unheard of phenomenon: that the bullet had the force and accuracy to find its target, but not the energy to penetrate it far enough to prevents its expulsion with CPR.

But why would the surgeons have pled ignorance? Put another way, What demanded they play ignorant while they still had access to the President? A certain answer seems impossible, but a couple of possibilities come to mind. First, had the surgeons had clear knowledge both back and throat wounds, it’s likely they would have felt obligated to trace the track(s) by dissecting the wounds, if only to insure that the tracks were connected. There was apparently considerable doubt during the autopsy that they did connect. For the FBI report states that the autopsists found there was a 45-degree downward track from the inshoot at the back.[57] Had surgical dissection confirmed so steep a path, the team would have then faced explaining the whereabouts of two penetrating bullets from different directions and, of course, the implications.

Moreover, as will be discussed, under oath Pierre Finck testified that an unnamed Army general who was in the morgue, but who was not a doctor, had ordered them not to dissect JFK’s back wound. It is not as if the doctors were looking for excuses not to do surgical dissections, or abiding family concerns. As Finck put it in an interview for JAMA in 1993, “The Kennedy family did not want us to examine [Kennedy’s uninjured] abdominal cavity, but the abdominal cavity was examined.”[58][59] And indeed, JFK was completely disemboweled. Thus, Kennedy’s uninjured organs got a thorough vetting while his injured organs were given a complete pass.[60]

This course might have seemed reasonable to a nervous general. But one imagines it had the potential to make the surgeons nervous about having to later explain their surgical selections under the searching scrutiny of medical peers who hadn’t been in the morgue or the military. By feigning ignorance, the autopsists would have been able to neatly evade two problems: first, the unpleasant task of informing a meddlesome superior officer, the unnamed Army general, that they had no choice but to get scalpel proof of whether Kennedy’s wounds had one author or two; second, having to later answer colleague questions about their peculiar decision making.

JFK’s Fatal Skull Wound

Warren Commission Exhibit 386, showing purported bullet entrance locations in the head and neck. Note the "low" location of the head entrance wound, a position disputed by later investigations. Note also the right-side location of the large wound, which nearly all autopsy witnesses said actually extended well into the rear of the head.
(see WH16, CE 386)

Whereas the official autopsy report merely infers entrance and exit in his non-fatal wounds, it is confident about the direction of fire that killed JFK. “Situated in the posterior scalp,” declares the autopsy report, “approximately 2.5 cm. laterally to the right and slightly above the external occipital protuberance is a lacerated wound measuring 15 x 6 mm. In the underlying bone is a corresponding wound through the skull which exhibits beveling of the margins of the bone when viewed from the inner aspect of the skull.”

When “beveling” is visible in bone it often establishes a bullet’s direction. For as when a BB hits a pane of glass, leaving a small hole at the point of entry and a larger, cone-shaped, or beveled defect on the inside of the pane, so too does a bullet often leave a smaller defect at the point it strikes the bone, and a larger “beveled” defect on the other side of the bone. Besides noting the presence of beveling in the occipital bone, the autopsy report also says that X-rays “of the skull reveal multiple minute metallic fragments along a line corresponding with a line joining the above described small occipital wound and the right supraorbital ridge.”[61]

Finally, the bullet’s direction was further corroborated by the presence of ‘reverse beveling’ in a skull fragment dislodged from the front of JFK’s skull: There was a smaller defect on the inside of the dislodged skull fragment, and a larger one toward the outside, as would have been expected if the bullet, after having traveled through JFK’s head, then struck the inside of JFK’s skull as it exited.

Thus the Warren Commission’s proof that the bullet that killed JFK had hit him from behind consisted of three mutually corroborating findings:

1. An inward beveled wound in the occipital bone where the bullet entered,

2. An outward beveled wound in a bone fragment from the front of JFK’s skull and,

3. A trail of bullet fragments from the occipital entrance to the point of exit in the front of JFK’s skull – above his right eye (the “supraorbital ridge” is the bone above the eye.)

But as we will see, these hard facts from JFK’s autopsy turned out to be pretty soft. Years after the Warren Commission closed up shop, experts looked at JFK’s purportedly original autopsy photographs and X-rays and determined that JFK’s pathologists were grossly in error specifying a low spot in occipital bone as the site the fatal shot struck. The actual location, they said, was 10-cm higher; and it was in a different bone, the parietal bone. This colossal error – if indeed it was an error – had occurred in a field – the backside of the skull – that, in humans, measures but 12-cm, top to bottom.

Lateral X-Ray taken during the autopsy of President Kennedy. A trail of apparent metal fragments exists near the top of skull. This trail originates well above the "low" entrance location noted by the autopsy doctors, and also above the "high" location posited by the Clark Panel and HSCA investigations.

Besides that, another huge error was discovered: the current set of autopsy X-rays don’t show a trail of bullet fragments going from the low occipital bone entrance wound to the front of the skull, as reported in the autopsy report. Instead, the visible trail is much higher. Some of the later experts said that that this higher trail lined up nicely with the higher entrance location, and thus corroborated the theory the bullet had entered JFK’s skull higher than originally reported. But, as will also see, the actual trail is significantly higher than even that new, higher location.

But the Warren Commission never learned about any of the problems with its own autopsy case, because it never bothered to actually look at JFK’s autopsy X-rays and photographs, or to even have independent experts look at them.[62] Thus the only “hard” autopsy proof the Commission had that the shots had come from behind was – and to a great extent continues to be – that there was inward beveling in the bone at the back of JFK’s skull. How certain can anyone be of that?

In 1964, the pathologists’ word was gospel, and it was considered unreasonable to doubt it. Not any longer. To believe today that the autopsy proves the direction of fire one has to believe, ironically, that the autopsists were terribly wrong. In other words, one has to believe that the same men who completely missed the correct, and obvious, location of the high skull entrance wound they had meticulously photographed, as well as the unambiguous location of the fragment trail on X-rays, were nevertheless right about subtle beveling features that proved the fatal shot had struck from behind.

But we are getting ahead of the story. What concerns us now is whether the Warren Commission did an adequate job with the relatively small slice of autopsy data it chose to examine. The record suggests that the Commission regarded JFK’s autopsy report as holy writ, and that it brooked no challenge to that orthodoxy. To illustrate this, we will turn first to JFK’s controversial throat wound.

Next: I-B. The Warren Commission Examines Kennedy's Medical/Autopsy Evidence

[30] Affidavit of Admiral George Burkley. In: Warren Commission Exhibit # 1126, p. 6. 22H93-97..

[32] Quote cited in: Josiah Thompson. Six Seconds in Dallas. New York: Bernard Geis Associates for Random House, 1967, p. 198.

[35] Affidavit of Admiral George Burkley. In: Warren Commission Exhibit # 1126. 22H93-97.

[36] See affidavit by FBI agents Sibert and O’Neill, reproduced in: Harold Weisberg, Post Mortem. Frederick, Maryland, 1975, p. 532 – 536. Also reproduced in ARRB Medical Document # 44.

[37] Affidavit of Admiral George Burkley. In: Warren Commission Exhibit # 1126. 22H93-97.

[38] Harrison Livingstone. High Treason 2. New York: Carroll & Graf, 1992, p. 228.

[39] CBS Memorandum from Bob Richer to Les Midgley, 1/10/67. Reproduced in: The Effectiveness of Public Law 102-526, The President John F. Kennedy Assassination Records Collection Act of 1992, 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.

[40] Affidavit of Admiral George Burkley. In: Warren Commission Exhibit # 1126. 22H93-97.

[41] William Manchester. The Death of a President. New York: Penguin Books, 1977, p. 432 – 433.

[42] William Manchester. The Death of a President. New York: Penguin Books, 1977, p. 432 – 433.

[43] Tape recorded interview of 1 May 1981; transcript supplied by Harrison Livingstone.

[44] Harrison Livingstone. High Treason 2. New York: Carroll & Graf, 1992, p. 121.

[45] Richard H. Levine, 25 November 1966, page 1.

[50] Harrison Livingstone. High Treason 2. New York: Carroll and Graf, 1992, p. 186.

[51] See transcript of David Mantik’s interview with John Ebersole in: James Fetzer, ed., Murder in Dealey Plaza. Chicago: Catfeet Press 2000, p. 437.

[52] HSCA Agency File # 013617. Also reproduced in ARRB Medical Document # 60.

[53] David Lifton. Best Evidence. New York: Carroll & Graf, 1980, p. 671.

[56] 6H16. [Mr. SPECTER. And did you and I sit down and talk about the purpose of this deposition and the questions which I would be asking you on the record, before this deposition started?

                [Dr. PERRY. Yes; we did. 6H18.]

[57] FBI report of Sibert and O’Neill. In: Harold Weisberg, Post Mortem. Frederickburg, Maryland, 1975. Also reproduced in ARRB Medical Document # 44.

[58] Dennis Breo. JFK’s death, part III – Dr. Finck speaks out: ‘two bullets, from the rear.JAMA Vol. 268(13):1752, October 7, 1992. Also reproduced in ARRB Medical Document #23, See p. 1752.

[59] Without citation, this episode was also cited by Gus Russo in: Live by the Sword. Baltimore. Bancroft Press, 1998, p. 325.

[60] Breo, Dennis. JFK’s death – the plain truth from the MDs who did the autopsy. JAMA, May 27, 1992, vol. 267:2794, ff. Also reproduced in ARRB Medical Document # 22.

[62] Actually, Earl Warren himself apparently glanced at the autopsy pictures, and the Commission had them in its possession at one point, as noted by Rankin in an executive session on January 27, 1964 (see p. 193 of the transcript of that executive session). And Arlen Specter admitted in a U. S. News and World Report interview on 10/10/66 that he was shown one photograph that, though not authenticated, was said to have been of Kennedy’s back.