Gary L. Aguilar, MD and Kathy Cunningham
May 2003


The Core of the Forensic Case:  JFK’s Wounds

In view of what we know today, how solid is the forensic case that both shots were fired from behind by a single assassin? Though disputed by some skeptics who believe JFK may have been struck once in the neck and twice in the head, Kennedy is officially supposed to have been struck only twice. Assuming, arguendo, the official version, JFK’s two wounds will be considered separately.

The Back Wound

Bootleg version of JFK autopsy photo showing the back wound.

Kennedy’s first wound, his back wound, looks more like an entrance wound in the pictures than an exit wound because the edges of the would don’t gape outward. But then so, too, does his throat wound, and for the same reason. Both can’t be entrance wounds if there are no exit wounds, since any embedded bullets would have been picked up easily on the chest or neck X-rays, which are notable for the absence of bullets. So it (or they) must have exited somewhere. That is, unless the bullet(s) was/were extracted sometime between Dealey Plaza and Bethesda, and no autopsy  witnesses noted any wound in JFK’s body through which such a technically difficult retrieval could have been performed. Alternatively, if very improbably, the bullet(s) might have been some sort of self-dissolving missile(s), such as the “ice bullet” Humes had speculated about during the autopsy.

While a through-the-body-and-out hypothesis makes the most sense, there are problems aplenty with that theory. The Warren Commission and HSCA concluded that the first shot had struck in the back and passed on through JFK without hitting any bone. But in 1973 a pathology professor, John Nichols, MD, Ph.D., first pointed out that a straight line drawn between the supposed entrance wound in JFK’s back and the point of exit in the throat unavoidably passes directly through the hard bone of the spine (termed the “vertebral body” in anatomy textbooks).[334]

Closeup of the back wound.
(see HSCA Vol. 7,

The reason is simple: Oswald’s alleged position was not only above and behind Kennedy, but also to his right – 9 degrees, 21 minutes to the right by Nichols’ calculations. That means the bullet coursed leftward by slightly less than 10 degrees as it traversed Kennedy’s chest. and to the right of Kennedy. Oswald’s alleged position was measured at about 17 degrees above JFK at the moment of the back shot. (Nichols puts the “depressed angle” at 20 degrees, 23 minutes. But subtracting the 3-degree down slope of the street, the angle is about 17 degrees.) Had the bullet followed a strait line, its passage through the vertebra would have badly mutilated the bullet, and the one in evidence is virtually undamaged.

So for the required trajectory to work for an undamaged bullet, the bullet must have entered JFK’s back going very nearly directly forward, and not leftward toward the spine, or it would have struck the bony vertebra, deforming the bullet. Then, as it passed by the side of the vertebra near the “transverse process” of the first thoracic vertebra (which was fractured), the bullet must have been somehow nudged leftward toward its evident exit at the midline of JFK’s throat. That is, its initial trajectory must have sent it to the right side of the body of the vertebra, and its tissue interaction in the vicinity of the transverse process must have bent its course leftward, out through the  midline wound in JFK’s throat.

That “something” might have been the aforementioned, pinkie-like bone – the transverse process – that protrudes from the side of the thoracic vertebra. Other than that transverse process, there is nothing between JFK’s back wound and his throat wound but “soft tissue,” and so nothing else likely to alter the bullet’s course. The X-rays show that the transverse process of JFK’s first thoracic vertebra was in fact fractured,[335] and so its injury might explain the deviation. Though that transverse process was dainty enough that its fracture might not have damaged the bullet, the required leftward deviation of the bullet’s path threatens damage to the Single Bullet Theory.

The Commission’s trajectory assumes the bullet followed a virtual strait line path from Oswald’s perch to the right side of John Connally’s back. [Connally was sitting virtually directly in front of JFK.] But if the bullet’s path had in fact been bent leftward by its encounter with Kennedy’s transverse process, which is the only way it could have avoided his spine, the bullet was probably traveling too far to the left after it left JFK’s throat to have allowed it to hit the right side of Connally’s back, given Connally’s position in front of Kennedy. [This point is more easily understood diagrammatically. (See Figure 11)]

A second problem has to do with the course of the supposed back shot through Kennedy’s body. The HSCA’s ballistics experts concluded that, between the back and the throat, the bullet had carved an 11-degree upward track. Since Oswald was 17 degrees above Kennedy at the moment of the back shot, that means the bullet’s path was deviated upward by 28 degrees. Subtracting 3 degrees, because JFK’s limo was on was a 3-degree down slope, that still means that the bullet was pushed up 25 degrees during its encounter with Kennedy. This problem is scarcely diminished by the fact the same bullet then supposedly carved a decidedly downward path through Connally’s chest.

Sensitive to this problem, the HSCA argued that, although anatomically the bullet had indeed followed an upward track through JFK, the actual track was still downward relative to the positions of Oswald and Connally, and to the positions of the limousine and the street. The incongruity was thus dismissed as only apparent. That is, by the supposed fact that JFK was leaning forward at the moment of the back shot, and so the declining bullet left what only seemed to be an upward track through Kennedy’s body. Unfortunately for HSCA’s theory, the Zapruder film discloses that when Kennedy was first struck he was not leaning forward, he was sitting nearly bolt upright.

On the left is Warren Commission Exhibit 385, showing a downward trajectory but an entrance wound which had been "moved up" from the back into the neck. At the right is the HSCA's version, correctly placing the wound in the back but showing Kennedy leaning over, something the Zapruder film contradicts. Neither "solution" works.
(see CE 385 in WH16, and HSCA drawing in Vol. 7, p. 100)

The official White House death certificate, signed by Kennedy's physician Admiral George Burkley, placed the back wound at "about the level of the third thoracic vertebra." This document was not included by the Warren Commission in its tens of thousands of pages of published exhibits.
(see ARRB MD #6, p. 2)

Next, there is the problem of precisely where the bullet had struck JFK in the back. The official autopsy report, ambiguously, says: “Situated on the upper right posterior thorax, just above the upper border of the scapula there is a 7 x 4-millimeter oval wound. This measured to be 14 cm. from the tip of the right acromion process and 14 cm. below the top of the right mastoid process.”[336] Unfortunately, the two chosen landmarks, the acromion process of the shoulder and the mastoid process of the skull, are not fixed in position, and so permit different measurements depending on the body’s position.

The autopsy photographs and a fractured right transverse process of the first thoracic process, “T-1,” support the current, official view, that JFK was hit 3- to 4-cm to the right side of the middle of the 7th cervical vertebra. or perhaps the 1st thoracic vertebra. That would place it at the very top of the back, close to the midline. But even so simple a fact as that isn’t beyond dispute. On the night of the autopsy Boswell prepared a diagram of the backside of JFK, marking a bullet’s entrance well below either “C-7” or “T-1.” Though the Warren Commission did not print it, an identical version of Boswell’s diagram turned up which was signed as “verified” by the President’s personal physician, George Burkley,[337] who gave his own evidence for a lower wound. In the official death certificate, which Burkeley wrote on 11-23-64, the day before he saw and verified the low wound depicted on Boswell's face sheet, Burkeley wrote that, “A second wound occurred in the posterior back at about the level of the third thoracic vertebra.”[338] A good match for Boswell’s sketch. Other credible witnesses corroborated a lower wound:

·         Secret Service agent Glenn Bennett was riding the follow up car. He was the first to document, in contemporaneous notes, Kennedy taking the back shot. He wrote, “"I looked at the back of the President. I heard another firecracker noise and saw that shot hit the President about four inches down from the right shoulder."[339] The Warren Commission accorded his observations “substantial weight,” writing, "Although [Bennett’s] formal statement was dated November 23, 1963, his notes indicate that he recorded what he saw and heard at 5:30 p.m., November 22, 1963, on the airplane en route back to Washington, prior to the autopsy, when it was not yet known that the President had been hit in the back.”[340]

·         Clint Hill, the Secret Service agent who climbed aboard the President's limousine after the shooting, described the back wound to Representative Boggs under oath, "I saw an opening in the back, about 6 inches below the neckline to the right-hand side of the spinal column."[341]

·         John Ebersole, the morgue described the back wound in a recorded telephone conversation with David Mantik, MD, PhD in 1992, as, "to the right of T-4", the fourth thoracic vertebra - one vertebral space lower than Burkley's death certificate placed it.

·         The FBI agents who witnessed the autopsy described the wound in a formal report dictated on 11/26/63, saying, “Dr. Humes located an opening which appeared to be a bullet hole which was below the shoulders and two inches to the right of the middle line of the spinal column."[342] Moreover, after a 1977 interview with one of the FBI agents, Francis O’Neill, the HSCA interviewers reported, "O'Neill mentioned that he does not see how the bullets that entered below the shoulder in the back 'could have come out of the throat.'" In addition, O'Neill hand-sketched a 'profile' drawing of the 'back-throat' wound showing the back wound considerably lower than the throat wound.[343] The other FBI witness, James Sibert, also drew a sketch of JFK’s ‘back-throat’ wound for the HSCA in which the entrance site on the back is considerably lower than the throat wound.[344]

Finally, Kennedy’s throat wound was described by the Dallas doctors as a “puncture” wound, a wound that had the appearance of an entrance wound. In fact, as already discussed, the treating Dallas doctors were convinced early on that Kennedy’s throat wound had been an entrance wound. Normally, when bullets exit a body they leave skin wounds that are irregular, stellate, with slit-like margins that are generally free of abrasions.[345] Yet, before Malcolm Perry, MD had obliterated it with the tracheotomy, Kennedy’s was reportedly small, round and regular, an untypical appearance for a wound of exit.

Lattimer has theorized that Kennedy’s throat wound was so small because it was “shored.” That is, Kennedy’s tight shirt collar confined the skin around Kennedy’s throat, and so kept the tissues from gaping irregularly as the bullet exited. In support of his hypothesis, Lattimer reported on experiments in which he shot through freshly butchered pigs’ legs, using them because “the skin of pork legs is similar to human neck skin.”[346] Sure enough, Lattimer found that “exit wounds” closer to an experimental binding point, or shoring point, were smaller and more regular; those further away were larger and irregular.[347] However, the slits in JFK’s shirt are below the level where the collar button is,[348] and so below the spot where the shoring pressures would have had maximal effect in limiting the gaping of skin. And, as previously discussed, one of the treating doctors at Parkland has said that the shirt slits were the inadvertent result of a scalpel cut during the resuscitation effort. Moreover, Lattimer’s experiments on dead pigs, first reported in 1980, have since been superceded.

Information from experiments on more analagous living pigs, and from experience with living gunshot victims, reveals that there are key features of shored exit wounds that are notable by their absence in JFK’s throat. Anesthetized pigs shot through their “shored” bellies had abrasions (scratches) at the margins of the shored exit wounds 100% of the time; contusions (bruises), 63% of the time; and radiating lacerations around the wound margins 33% of the time.[349] Forensic pathologist Josephino Aguilar (no relation to either author) reported that, in humans, shored exit wounds have “abrasion collars” much like entrance wounds do, and they tend to have “radiating lacerations” at the wound margins. “In contrast to the entrance wound,” Aguilar wrote, “the supported exit wound shows a scalloped or punched-out abrasion collar and sharply contoured skin in between the radiating skin lacerations marginating the abrasion.”[350]

Neither an abrasion collar nor radiating lacerations were noted in the autopsy report’s description of JFK’s throat. Nor are they visible in the autopsy photographs. (Co-author Aguilar has inspected the originals at the National Archives.) Although the absence of such findings does not prove a bullet did not exit JFK’s throat, it establishes that Lattimer has overstated the case that his experiments prove it likely that one did.

Thus, neither Kennedy’s back wound nor his throat wound are unambiguous enough in appearance to definitively settle the question of the direction of the bullet. The scales tip toward an entrance in the back by the fact that the limousine’s windshield would probably have blocked a shot from the front that followed the apparent track through Kennedy’s body.

The Skull Wound

Then, how about his skull wound? What evidence is there for the direction(s) of that bullet or bullets?

1) The  beveling in JFK’s skull “proves” he was shot from behind.

As previously explored during the discussion of the Warren Commission’s conclusions, whereas Kennedy’s back wound was only presumed an entrance wound by the autopsy surgeons, his skull damage had a certain feature that was said to be indisputable proof the shot came from behind: “beveling” or “cratering.” This is nothing more than that bone damage from a bullet strike often resembles the damage to a plate of glass from a BB strike: a small hole on the outside, where the missile hit, a larger defect a “crater,” on the inside of the plate of bone, or glass, after the missile has passed through.

The autopsy report documented beveling from the first. It described a cone-shaped defect on the inside of the back of JFK’s skull and an outward-oriented beveled cone on a fragment of skull from the front of his head. An inward bevel at the back and outward bevel toward the front is the proof the bullet entered the skull through the back and exited through the front. Open and shut. It is the forensic Rosetta Stone of Oswald’s guilt, or so said Kennedy’s chief pathologist.

In the wake of the film JFK, JAMA published two non-peer-reviewed articles about the JFK medical evidence. The first was published in the May 27, 1992 edition, and featured an interview with Dr. Humes and Dr. Boswell.
(see ARRB MD #22)

In defending his findings in the Journal of the American Medical Association in 1992, Humes delivered an impassioned retort to skeptics: “In 1963, we proved at the autopsy table that President Kennedy was struck from above and behind by the fatal shot. The pattern of the entrance and exit wounds in the skull proves it, and if we stayed here until hell freezes over, nothing will change this proof. It happens 100 times out of 100, and I will defend it until I die. This is the essence of our autopsy, and it is supreme ignorance to argue any other scenario. This is a law of physics and it is foolproof - absolutely, unequivocally, and without question. The conspiracy buffs have totally ignored this central scientific fact, and everything else is hogwash.”[351]

Humes had good reason to affix such a heavy weight to this finding. To this day, no other single piece of autopsy evidence carries the weight beveling does: not the pathologists’ word that there was an obvious entrance hole in the back of the scalp, for clinical impressions of “soft tissue” injuries are often mistaken; not the movement of JFK’s skull after frame 313, which suggests a shot from the front in any case; not the spray of brain matter in the Zapruder film; not the autopsy X-rays or photographs, and certainly not the trail of fragments in JFK’s skull X-rays. All of the latter can be explained by shots from either direction, or both directions. Beveling carries the load. But it is far from a perfect indicator, especially in Kennedy’s case, and especially since even in the autopsy report the meaning of the beveling was, quite rightly, presented tentatively.

Despite Humes’ strong feelings on the subject, it turns out beveling is not exactly “100 times out of 100” reliable. Numerous exceptions have been documented in the scientific literature.[352] Moreover, in JFK’s case there were particular features that placed obstacles to proving that beveling was actually present. During his HSCA testimony, in a recorded call to one of the authors on March 30, 1994,[353] and to the ARRB, Boswell three times gave the same explanation of the complexities of the beveling at the back of JFK’s skull.

Warren Commission Exhibit 386 shows a head entrance wound which is distinct from the large right-side wound. Dr. Boswell told the HSCA in 1977 and the ARRB in 1996 that the entrance hole was actually inferred from beveling present on a late-arriving bone fragment which fit into a wound which was initially much larger than shown here, and which extended down to the entrance hole.
(see CE 386 in WH16, Dr. Boswell's HSCA interview in Vol 7., p. 246, and Dr. Boswell's ARRB deposition, p. 80)

They didn’t just observe a cone-shaped  hole in an otherwise intact plate of skull bone, like it appears in the Rydberg diagram. Instead, the beveling was present only on an edge of intact occipital bone. The rest of it was present on the edge of a bone fragment that arrived late during the autopsy, a fragment that “fit into” the rearward skull defect around the edge of the bullet hole. Boswell  told  the Review Board that the Rydberg diagram (See Figure 1) (which was drawn months after the autopsy,[354] and only from memory) “does not depict any of the skull wounds.”[355] Though the rear portion of Rydberg’s “skull” appears to show only a small entrance hole in otherwise intact occipital bone, the diagram, Boswell said, was meant only to show the appearance of the scalp in the rear, not the defect in the skull bone. The real defect in Kennedy’s skull, he explained, was far larger.

And so when he was wheeled into the morgue, JFK’s skull didn’t look like it appears in the Rydberg diagram – a hole in otherwise intact occipital bone. Instead, there was a continuous defect in skull bone – fore-to-aft –  measuring 17-cm. long, the number he wrote on the “face sheet” diagram while he worked on Kennedy’s body. (See Figure 11) Boswell said the inward beveling was detected at the rearmost portion of the 17-cm defect. Beveling was also asserted as evidence the missile had exited the front. The autopsy report said outward beveling was discovered in a late-arriving bone fragment, one that appeared to have been dislodged from the front of JFK’s skull.[356]

During his HSCA appearance, Boswell described it this way: They had to dissect JFK’s scalp to see the entrance wound in JFK’s skull bone, “But not too much,” Boswell explained, “because this bone was all gone and actually the smaller fragment fit this piece down here – there was a hole here, only half of which was present in the bone that was intact, and this small piece then fit right on there and the beveling on those was on the interior surface.”[357]

A few minutes later, Boswell elaborated: “There was a shelf and then a little hole came up on the side and then one of the smaller of the two fragments in that X-ray, when that arrived, we were able to fit that down there and complete the circumference of that bone wound.”[358] During a recorded call in 1994 (a copy of which is available at the National Archives), Boswell told one of the authors (Aguilar) the same thing: “The defect – the wound of entrance was at the base of that defect and the shelving on the inner surface of the bone was half on the intact portion of the skull and half on that fragment that we received from Dallas and replaced.”

Thus, detecting the point the fatal bullet struck the head required some reconstruction of JFK’s skull, and perhaps a little imagination, too. Because the presence of a bullet hole was evidently only detected after two pieces of JFK’s shattered occipital bone were pieced together and a gap, showing internal beveling, could be made out between them. If a hands-on, practicing forensic pathologist had come up with this complex and subtle reconstruction, which is really the only autopsy evidence proving a bullet had entered the backside of JFK’s skull, then perhaps great weight could be hung from it. But coming as it does from the inexperienced backbenchers running the show in JFK’s morgue, it can’t be said that the forensics proof of a bullet entering the rear of JFK’s skull is beyond question.

Nevertheless, the presence of inward beveling is accepted as an article of faith by current Warren loyalists, who also insist that the beveling wasn’t in occipital bone but rather 10-cm higher, in parietal bone. The other portion of the “iron clad” forensics case is the outward beveling there was in the front of JFK’s skull, indicating an exit. But here, too, the proof wasn’t found in JFK’s skull, but in a fragment: “At one angle of the largest of these [skull] fragments,” the autopsy report said, “is a portion of the perimeter of a roughly circular wound presumably of exit which exhibits beveling of the outer aspect of the bone … .”

So the case-clinching beveling turns out not to be quite so unambiguous after all. ‘Presumed’ beveling at the edge of a bone fragment can’t do the heavy lifting that a through-and-through hole in an otherwise intact plate of bone can. A shorn fragment can come from an irregular break, leaving what only appears to be beveling. It is possible, of course, that they were right about the beveling in Kennedy’s case. But only if the pathologists, whose other, myriad failings in this case seem to prove at least a temporary ineptitude, happened to have oriented two different fragments of bone in the correct manner, and if they were right about where in JFK’s skull the bony shards had originated.

Ironically, in accepting the currently held, “official” conclusions, one must hold that the same “anatomic pathologists” who are not to be trusted to tell the anatomy of the skull’s top from its bottom, to tell occipital bone from parietal, are nevertheless trustworthy about the presence of subtle beveling that appeared only after a complex reconstruction of pieces of JFK’s shattered cranium. Another requirement of the current view is that there was no loss of occipital bone. But in fact there is some pretty good indirect evidence there was such damage, and good evidence for Boswell’s reconstruction story as well. It comes from a pretty solid source.

2) JFK’s skull wound: 13-cm or 17-cm?

Boswell’s hand-written notes and diagram from the night of the autopsy, his so-called “face sheet,” are the only physician-prepared medical records that survived Kennedy’s autopsy. A single sheet, it has organ weights and both sides of a standing human figure on one side of the page. On the back of the page there is a free-hand diagram of the top of JFK’s skull. In the center of this skull diagram, one reads the notations “17” and “missing,” with an arrow pointing front-to-back. Also, one easily makes out the figure “10,” next to an arrow pointing right-to-left. Dr. Michael Baden asked Boswell about the diagram for the HSCA:

Baden: “Could you explain the diagram on the back [of Boswell’s face sheet]?”

Boswell: “Well, this was an attempt to illustrate the magnitude of the [skull] wound again. And as you can see it’s 10 centimeters from right to left, 17 centimeters from posterior to anterior.”[359]

The problem with Boswell’s testimony is the same problem with his face sheet diagram: it says JFK’s gaping skull wound measured 17-cm. while the autopsy report said it was 13-cm.

The autopsy face sheet prepared by Dr. Boswell during the autopsy.
(see ARRB MD #1)

How did a 17-cm skull defect on the night of the autopsy shrink in the autopsy report? Boswell told the HSCA, [360] the ARRB, and one of the authors (Aguilar, in a recorded call)[361] that it all had to do with the aforementioned beveled bone fragment. The skull defect started out at 17-cm., but after the fragment was replaced into the backside of JFK’s skull, the remaining gap then measured “only” 13-cm., the dimension cited in the autopsy report. Given that the larger number was taken down at the time of the autopsy, it carries even greater weight as evidence than the smaller figure in the autopsy report. And believing it doesn’t require the leap of faith one needs to believe that two bone fragments shared a beveled bullet hole. Or that nonspecialists properly oriented two bits of bone and so proved a bullet had passed between them in a certain direction. All one has to believe is that the pathologists knew how to use a ruler.

Thus, although Rydberg diagrammed a gaping skull defect involving a portion of the rear of the skull, a an earlier diagram, one adorned with specific dimensions and prepared by an examining doctor during the autopsy, suggests the rear portion of JFK’s skull wound was far larger than it appears in the artwork Rydberg drafted months after internment. In his testimony to the HSCA in the 70s, Boswell reaffirmed that JFK’s skull wound was larger than had been described in the autopsy report and depicted by Rydberg. And in 1996, Boswell amplified upon his original drawings by sketching JFK’s skull defect onto a three-dimensional model of a human skull. Diagrams prepared by the ARRB based on Boswell’s markings show, again, that Kennedy had a gaping skull defect from the middle of his occipital bone to his frontal bone. Most of the parietal bone on the right side was gone, as was a large segment of JFK’s occipital bone. (See Figure 12)

Drawing made from an actual skull model drawn on by Dr. Boswell during his 1996 ARRB deposition. Note the size of the head wound depicted here.
(see ARRB MD #209)

But based on interpretations of Kennedy’s skull X-rays, the Clark Panel, the Rockefeller and HSCA experts accepted that Kennedy’s occipital bone was fully intact except, perhaps, for bullet-caused cracks. Yet none of them, one imagines, would insist that Kennedy’s pathologists were incapable of taking a simple and key measurement, such as the 17-cm. measurement of JFK’s skull.

If, however, one grants that Boswell knew how to use a ruler, the preferred, higher entrance wound goes out the window, and with it flies the notion the occipital bone was fully intact. For if 17-cm. of bone was truly missing when they first unwrapped JFK’s head in the morgue, the defect had to involve occipital bone. Why? If one measures forward 17-cm. on a human skull from the lower, occipital bone location, the end of the ruler comes just to the edge of the hairline at the top of the forehead. Autopsy photos show damage to just about that point. But if, instead, one measures 17-cm. forward from the high parietal spot, the end of the ruler is waving in space in front of the forehead. There just isn’t 17-cm. of bone present in front of the higher location. Human skulls aren’t that long.

Neither the Clark Panel nor the Rockefeller experts ever acknowledged the 17-cm./13-cm. discrepancy. Only the HSCA did, when Baden asked Boswell about it. After Boswell explained, however, none of the HSCA’s forensic consultants, who had accepted that there was no bone missing below the high entrance wound in parietal bone, recognized the threat Boswell’s original measurement posed to the theory a bullet entered JFK’s skull higher.

To recap: Boswell’s autopsy notes and his testimony illuminate two important controversies: First, the evidence for beveling at the back of JFK’s skull is far from overpowering. Second, a 17-cm. skull defect in JFK’s head poses significant obstacles for the upwardly revised inshoot location that has passed for dogma among all the official investigators except those who actually held JFK’s skull in their hands. Incompetent or no, JFK’s pathologists have been firm that the fatal bullet entered JFK’s skull low, not high.

3) JFK’s pathologists deny any bullet entered JFK’s skull high

Humes’ comments regarding the supposed higher wound during his HSCA testimony are particularly telling. After several failed attempts to get both Humes and Boswell to agree the inshoot was high, the HSCA’s Charles Petty, MD had another go with Humes, this time concerning the possibility a red spot in the autopsy photos visible at the top of JFK’s otherwise pristine rear scalp was the inshoot. Gazing together at the photograph showing the all but unblemished rear of JFK’s skull, Humes, with Boswell sitting alongside him, responded: “I don’t know what that [red spot] is. No. 1, I can assure you that as we reflected the scalp to get to this point, there was no defect corresponding to this in the skull at any point. I don’t know what that is. It could be to me clotted blood. I don’t, I just don’t know what it is, but it certainly was not any wound of entrance.”[362] Similarly, Pierre Finck, has always insisted that the skull wound was low in JFK’s skull.

But the HSCA was not yet finished with Humes. Apparently after some behind-the-scenes arm-twisting, Humes adjusted his position during a second, highly visible, appearance before the committee, in televised public hearings held more than a year after his interviews with the medical panel. This time he testified without Boswell or Finck at his side. Regarding the controversial question of the fatal bullet’s path, the HSCA subsequently wrote, “The (forensic) panel continued to be concerned about the persistent disparity between its findings (of a high skull entrance wound) and those of the autopsy pathologists (of a low wound) and the rigid tenacity with which the prosectors maintained that the entrance wound was at or near the external occipital protuberance. Subsequently, however, in his testimony before the Select Committee, Dr. Humes agreed that the defect was in fact in the (high) ‘cowlick’ area and not in the area of the brain tissue (a low smudge on the photograph identified by the prosectors as the wound of entrance, and by the forensic panel as ‘brain tissue’).”[363]

It is worth noting that, despite pressure from the HSCA to “come around,” neither Boswell nor Finck ever agreed the bullet had hit JFK’s skull high. Moreover, during his sworn testimony before the Assassinations Records Review Board in 1996, Humes disavowed his apparent HSCA reversal. When asked “In which bone was the entrance wound?” Humes answered, “Occipital bone.”[364] Similarly, Boswell and Finck also told the ARRB the wound was low.

4) JFK’s skull X-rays – proof of the high wound?

As previously discussed, Kennedy’s X-rays don’t prove exactly where in his skull the fatal bullet struck. Perhaps the most distinctive finding in the skull X-rays, one that is said to offer a clue on the point of entrance, is the largest bullet fragment in Kennedy’s body. It is visible on the “anterior-posterior” X-ray as a very dense, 6.5-mm object that sits squarely in the middle of the right bony eye socket, or “orbit.”

This AP (Anterior-Posterior) X-Ray from JFK's autopsy shows a 6.5mm notched circular object just left of the nose; this is alleged to be a cross-sectional fragment of the bullet which struck the head. Several implausibilities surround this object, as noted herein.

Of course, the object is not really “in” the eye socket; it is in the rear of the skull. It just “projects” through the orbit on the X-ray which “sees” through all the layers at once. On the lateral X-ray, the fragment is flattened against the posterior parietal bone. It is about 9-cm above the external occipital protuberance and 1-cm below a crack in the parietal bone of the skull, a crack through which, it is supposed, the bullet had pierced Kennedy’s cranium. It has been supposed that when Oswald’s bullet hit its mark, this fragment sheared off. By the time of the autopsy, as the argument goes, the bit had slid down to lay below the site of entrance.

Several things make this fragment intriguing. First, despite the fact the pathologists were charged with retrieving bullet evidence from JFK’s corpse for the expected trial of Oswald, they entirely ignored this, the largest, radio-opaque object in all of JFK’s X-rays. On the radiographs, it is flattened against the posterior  parietal bone at the back of skull, and so it would have been much more easy to locate during the autopsy than the two, smaller fragments the surgeons actually recovered from Kennedy’s brain. Not fishing out the big one was one thing, but why didn’t the surgeons even mention its existence anywhere in their reports, if only to say they looked for it but couldn’t find it? The mystery is deepened by the significance they themselves attached to getting precisely this kind of evidence.

For example, during his Warren Commission testimony, Humes took pains to explain the importance of extracting bullet evidence. And he was equally, if unintentionally, clear that he did not see the object that would today immediately draw the eye of any layman, to say nothing of a pursuing pathologist or radiologist. Humes told the Warren Commission that the X-rays revealed, “30 or 40 tiny dust like particle fragments of radio opaque material, with the exception of this one I previously mentioned which was seen to be above and very slightly behind the right orbit [bony eye socket]... .”[365] (emphasis added) The “one” he’d previously mentioned was the 7 x 2-mm fragment, which is visible in the X-rays to this day just where he said he saw it: above and very slightly behind the right orbit. In other words, he apparently didn’t see the far more obvious fragment that was visible smack dab “in the middle” of the orbit, or eye socket. Instead, he went after one less than half its size, and one that was above the orbit.

Given his apparently misdirected zeal, Humes ironically told the Commission that his goal was to land the big one. “(We performed) a careful inspection of this large defect in the scalp and skull...seeking for fragments of missile … .”[366] And, “(we tried to) seek specifically this fragment (the 7x2-mm anterior fragment) which was the one we felt to be of a size which would permit us to recover it. (sic).”[367] The far larger, and so more recoverable, fragment in the rear was embedded in the outer table of the skull. It would have been but the work of a moment to fetch it. By contrast, plowing through soft, dense brain matter for the smaller,  7 x 2-mm fragment might have ended, as such pursuits often do, in frustration, as brain matter often makes great camouflage. The question naturally arises: Might Humes have vainlygloriously embellished the doggedness of his pursuit for the Commission’s benefit? Apparently not.

Humes got unrehearsed corroboration from his associate Pierre Finck, MD, Secret Service Agent Roy Kellerman, the radiologist, John Ebersole, MD, as well as FBI agent Francis X. O'Neill. During his appearance before the HSCA, Finck was asked, “All right. Then the X-rays were taken fundamentally to find missiles or fragments thereof?” “Yes,” Finck answered.[368] Kellerman told the Warren Commission,  “The reason for it (the taking of numerous skull X-rays) was that through all the probing which these gentlemen were trying to pick up little pieces of evidence in the form of shell fragments, they were unable to locate any ... (except the 7 x 2-mm fragment) that was above the right eye... .”[369] (Kellerman was wrong here. A second, even smaller fragment of 3 x 1-mm was also removed.) Ebersole, in defending the use of portable X-ray equipment, as opposed to the technically superior fixed equipment in the radiology department, claimed, “...we felt that the portable X-ray equipment was adequate for the purpose; i.e., locating a metallic fragment (sic).”[370] Also, the HSCA's Andy Purdy and Mark Flanagan reported in a recently released HSCA document that “[FBI agent Francis] O’Neill mentioned that the doctors just wanted to obtain the large fragments (from the skull) and that many small fragments did exist.”[371]

Another possible explanation for the failure is that, what with the vagaries of such hunts, since the largest fragment is imaged “in” the eye socket in the A-P X-ray, while pursuing it they mistakenly picked up the smaller one just above the eye socket because it was close enough to have fooled them. While possible, there are multiple problems with this solution.

The 7 x 2-mm fragment they retrieved is easily seen above the orbit on both the A-P and lateral X-rays, exactly where Humes said he saw it (probably with the help of his attendant radiologist). Since the orbit is entirely enclosed by dense bone and not “open” in the back, it’s improbable there’d have been any confusion about the slug being “in” the orbit, or in the front anywhere. Then, there is the fact the pieces are different enough in shape that a mix-up doesn’t make much sense. Finally, the sharpness of the objects in the A-P X-ray would have suggested where they were that night in the morgue, just as they do now.

The closer to an X-ray film, the sharper an opaque object is rendered on the X-ray. The 6.5-mm object is sharply rendered, not fuzzy, because it was in the rear, and so close to the X-ray film when Kennedy’s head was placed against the film canister to take the A-P X-ray. The 7 x 2-mm fragment, by contrast, is “fuzzy,” indistinctly rendered, because it was far from the back of the head, and so from the film plane. While these factors may seem obscure to the general reader, they are routine considerations for autopsists and radiologists, especially when on the lookout.

It is of note that no prior expert had ever asked Humes how he and his whole team had managed to avoid hearing the biggest radiologic dog bark on that dark night. Humes’ odd deafness to this noise was among the mysteries that had most puzzled skeptics. Luckily, through the agency of the ARRB, skeptics got the opportunity to ask Humes about it. Among the questions skeptics suggested Humes be asked was one that Review Board counsel, Jeremy Gunn, JD, Ph.D., put directly to Humes: 

Regarding the semicircular, 6.5-mm fragment, Gunn asked, “Did you notice what at least appears to be a radio-opaque fragment during the autopsy?”

Humes answered, “Well, I told you we … retrieved one or two, and … the ones we retrieved I didn’t think were of the same size as this would lead you to believe.”

Gunn: “Did you think they were larger or smaller?”

Humes: “Smaller, smaller, considerably smaller ….”

Gunn: “Well, that was going to be a question, whether you had identified that (6.5-mm fragment) as a possible fragment and then removed it?”

Humes: “Truthfully, I don’t remember anything that size when I looked at these films. They all were more of the size of these others.

Gunn: “What we’re referring to is a fragment that appears to be semicircular.”

Humes: “Yeah.”[372]

Humes’ answer was seen by one of the more capable new skeptics, David Mantik, MD, Ph.D. as corroboration,  even vindication. In studies comparing the relative densities of bullet fragments and skull bones in Kennedy’s supposedly original X-rays, Mantik concluded that the A-P film had been embellished after the autopsy. Originally, Mantik believes, there was a small fragment where the 6.5-mm fragment now sits, and that the image was falsified by enlarging the size of that rearward opacity to just the right size to enhance a link to Oswald.[373] Thus, the autopsy team wasn’t deaf to the loud barks coming from the X-rays. Rather, there was no big bark from the images on the night of the autopsy. But apparently someone did hear a little dog barking during the post mortem.

The FBI agents report described a fragment at the rear of the skull which does not match that seen in the X-ray.
(see ARRB MD #44, p. 4)

The FBI agents who were in attendance at the autopsy described a fragment at the rear of the skull, a description that almost certainly came from the autopsists. No other rearward opacity is visible now in the X-rays that would fit the location the agents gave but the 6.5-mm piece. In their writeup, the so-called “Sibert and O’Neill” report, they said the rear fragment was the second largest fragment, not the largest. “The largest section (fragment) of this missile as portrayed by X-Ray appeared to be behind the right frontal sinus. The next largest fragment appeared to be at the rear of the skull at the juncture of the skull bone.” [374]

Thus, the autopsy team that was in hot pursuit had in fact noted a fragment in the rear, one that, except for size, is pretty aptly described by the layman’s expression “at the juncture of the skull bone.” But they apparently didn’t think it as worth excavating as the more anterior one. Mantik’s intriguing hypothesis, if nothing else, offers an explanation for how it was that a pack of  surgeons, who were perfectly capable of reading a simple X-ray, had apparently missed seeing the largest piece of physical evidence tying Oswald to the crime, an object so obvious today that even the nonspecialist’s eye can’t help but be drawn  to it. But if Mantik is right it wasn’t there to begin with, everything makes sense: the failure to retrieve, the failure to describe, Humes’ saying the largest fragment  was in front, that he didn’t remember seeing anything “that size” in the X-rays on the fateful night, the comments in the Sibert and O’Neill report, and Mantik’s densitometry findings. And yet there’s more.

The other thing that makes the 6.5-mm object interesting is that it has an apparently remarkably coincidental shape: except for a notch at one edge of it, it is a perfectly round, opaque semicircle. It measures 6.5-mm in diameter, the exact diameter of the bullets that fit Oswald’s rifle. This would be powerful ammunition for the prosecution were it not for the fact that both the nose and tail of the headshot bullet were reportedly found forward of Kennedy in the limousine. And if so, how then could a cross-section of the interior of the bullet have ended up plastered against the outside the skull after both the nose and tail of the same bullet had made it all the way through?

This peculiar finding was addressed in 1998 by one of the HSCA’s ballistics experts, Larry Sturdivan during an email exchange with author Stewart Wexler. Sturdivan opined that the 6.5-mm object could not possibly be a cross-section of an Oswald bullet. “No, I think it’s an artifact of some kind … [bullet] fragments could have been found anywhere but, wherever they were found, NONE (sic) would be disks 6.5-mm in diameter … Some have said it was a piece of the jacket, sheared off by the bone and left on the outside of the skull. I’ve never seen a perfectly round piece of bullet jacket in any wound … .” he wrote.[375] David Mantik, MD, Ph.D. placed considerable weight on Sturdivan’s learned contention that, whatever the 6.5-mm object was, it was not related to the bullet that did the dirty work.[376]

If indeed Oswald’s ammo did end up flattened against the backside of Kennedy’s skull, the only sensible explanation is that it must have been a bit from somewhere close to the nose of the bullet that just happened to flatten into a perfectly round, 6.5-mm notched pancake. If that is really what happened, then the fact its size and shape seem to tie it to Oswald is no more than astounding coincidence; for it could as easily have had a different shape. Similarly, if an artifact, it’s convenient size and shape is nothing but remarkable coincidence. But, as discussed, indirect evidence, including Mantik’s studies, offers an alternative, non-coincidental explanation.

On the left is CE 567, and at right is CD 569. These fragments were found in the Presidential limousine and are said to consist of the nose and tail of a bullet which struck President Kennedy in the head. CE 567 is the nose portion of a bullet, and CE 569 is the tail portion. Then did the nearly perfectly circular cross-section of bullet seen in the AP X-ray come from the part of the bullet between these mangled pieces?
(National Archives Photos)

Though a final answer to all questions about JFK’s autopsy findings is beyond this discussion, is there a brief way to reconcile the known facts and conflicts in the record? Loyalists would insist that all the problems are the result of simple error, nothing more; no reconciliation needed. But given the virtual unanimity between witnesses from Dallas and the morgue that there was a sizable defect in the rear of JFK’s skull, and given the contemporaneous measurement of JFK’s huge skull defect, another possibility suggests itself.

When the body arrived and they picked apart JFK’s skull wound, they found a gargantuan, 17-cm bony defect, and it involved the very rear portion of JFK’s skull, as described. But the inadequately trained team doing the examining took as gospel that, as they wrote in the autopsy report, three shots were heard and JFK fell forward, and that a lone rifle barrel was seen being retracted from an upper floor behind JFK. The pathologists could not have failed to have heard at least a few press reports of Oswald’s capture and the fact it was considered, even then, quite likely he had acted alone. So they had a body and “reliable” circumstantial evidence of shots coming only from behind. Armed with that background they arrived at predictable conclusions. None of the autopsy evidence is indisputable, and the trail of fragments is highly suggestive that, if there was a bullet strike from behind, there may also have been one from the right front. (For an elaboration of that possibility, the reader is referred to the work of David Mantik, previously cited.)

Ignoring the President’s personal physician

In a 1967 oral history, Kennedy's personal phsyician was asked if he agreed with the Warren Commission on the number of bullets that entered the President's body. Burkley replied "I would not care to be quoted on that."
(see ARRB MD #67, p. 18)

Although Dr. George  Burkley was intimately familiar with JFK’s medical history, had participated in the failed efforts at Parkland Hospital, had traveled with the body to the morgue, and then had watched the entire autopsy and embalming procedures, communicating with the family all along the way, he was ignored by official investigators. Burkley, however, long harbored private doubts.

During an oral history taken for the JFK Library on 10/17/67, Burkley was asked, “Do you agree with the Warren Report on the number of bullets that entered the President’s body?” Burkley answered, “I would not care to be quoted on that.”[377] Had Burkley accepted the Commission’s verdict, one imagines he would have come up with a slightly different answer. Yet this remarkable response from the physician closest to all the autopsy-related events elicited no official interest. Ten years later, Burkley was still troubled.

In early 1977, Burkley’s attorney, William F. Illig, contacted HSCA counsel Richard A. Sprague. Sprague’s needlessly suppressed memo recounts that Burkley wanted to get some information to the Select Committee. Namely, as Sprague put it, that “although he, Burkley, had signed the death certificate of President Kennedy in Dallas, he had never been interviewed and that he has information in the Kennedy assassination indicating that others besides Oswald must have participated.”[378] Given Burkley’s central vantage point, this was a hot investigative prospect if there ever was one. The staff of the HSCA wasn’t interested. But it did more than just ignore the lead. It shielded its own forensic consultants from the existence of this contact.

However Burkley wasn’t ignored completely. Nearly a year later, in January 1978, two HSCA counsels, D. Andy Purdy and Mark Flanagan, contacted Burkley. Their purpose was to extract an affidavit saying that that no one could have intercepted JFK’s body before it got to the morgue, and that JFK’s wounds had not been altered between Dallas and the post mortem.[379] Dutifully, Burkley wrote up an affidavit, declaring that, “[he, Burkley, had remained] in the ambulance with the President’s body in the casket and also on the plane; the casket was neither opened or disturbed in any way.” And also that, “There was no difference in the nature of the wounds” seen in Dallas compared to those seen in the morgue.[380]

Thus Burkley was pressed into the HSCA’s service to help refute the theory JFK’s body was intercepted so as to rearrange the wounds and erase evidence of a coconspirator. But questions about how Burkley knew that “others besides Oswald must have participated” drew none of Purdy or Flanagan’s attention. Nor did the HSCA staff members feel any obligation to pass this lead on to their own forensic consultants, the very chaps whose job it was to investigate such leads.

Burkley apparently remained a skeptic. Author Henry Hurt reported that, “In 1982 Dr. Burkley told the author in a telephone conversation that he believed that President Kennedy’s assassination was the result of a conspiracy.”[381] But when Hurt later contacted Burkley to arrange a face-to-face interview – two months after they had exchanged promising letters, “The doctor responded with an abrupt refusal to discuss any aspect of the case.” Burkley’s change of heart in 1982, as frustrating as it is, is still less unfortunate than the fact the HSCA’s physician experts were hampered by an HSCA staff that kept them ignorant of Burkley’s petition. Alas, the experts were similarly kept ignorant of other, key evidence. Would that ignorance alone explained all of the official misstatements and misperceptions of John F. Kennedy’s medical and autopsy evidence.

Next: Conclusion

[334] Nichols, John. Assassination of President Kennedy. The Practitioner, vol. 211(265):625-33, November, 1973.

[335] “There is an undisplaced fracture of the proximal portion of the right transverse process of T1.” Quote from the report of the HSCA consulting radiologist, G.M. McDonnel, MD, in: HSCA vol.7: 219.

[336] JFK’s autopsy report, in: Warren Report, see p. 3 of autopsy report.

[337] See discussion of this in: Weisberg,  Harold. Post Mortem. Frederick, MD, 1975, p. 310-311.

[338] Certificate of Death,” signed by George Burkeley, National Archives. RG 272. Reproduced in ARRB Medical Document #6, see p. 2.

[339] Warren Commission Exhibit, #1024, in 18H760 Also cited in The Warren Report, p. 111.

[340] Warren Report, p. 108. (Bantam books edition.).

[342] "Sibert and O'Neill report,” In: Weisberg, Harold. Post Mortem. Frederick, MD, 1975, p. 531-536. Also reproduced in ARRB Medical Document #44, see p. 4.

[343] HSCA interview of Francis O’Neill by D. Andy Purdy and Mark Flanagan, HSCA Record # 006185. Also reproduced in ARRB Medical Document #86, see p. 11.

[344] HSCA interview of James Sibert by D. Andy Purdy, HSCA rec.  # 002191. Also reproduced in ARRB Medical Document #85, see p. 9.

[345] Dixon, DS. Characteristics of Shored Exit Wounds. Journal of Forensic Sciences. Vol. 26(4), 1981, p. 691.

[346] Lattimer, John K. Kennedy and Lincoln. New York: Harcourt, Brace & Jovanovich, 1980, p. 232.

[347] Lattimer, John K. Kennedy and Lincoln. New York: Harcourt, Brace & Jovanovich, 1980, p. 232 – 236.

[348] See photograph of JFK’s shirt, in: Weisberg, Harold, Post Mortem. Frederick, Maryland, 1975, p. 597 – 598.

[349] Dixon, DS. Characteristics of Shored Exit Wounds. Journal of Forensic Sciences. Vol. 26(4), 1981, p. 694.

[350] Aguilar, Josephino C. Shored gunshot wounds of exit. American Journal of Forensic Medicine and Pathology, vol. 4(3), Sept. 1983, p. 199.

[351] Breo DL. JAMA. 267:2794. Reproduced in ARRB Medical Document #22, see p. 2794.

[352] As observed by David Mantik, MD, Ph.D. (personal communication), there are numerous cases from the scientific literature in which the documented beveling characteristics were the reverse of what might be expected from the known direction of wounding. While beveling may be a useful clue, it is far from Humes' "100 times out of 100". (Dixon DS. Keyhole lesions in gunshot wounds of the skull and direction of fire. J Forensic Sci 1982; 27:555-66. Coe JI. External beveling of entrance wounds by handguns. Am J Forensic Med Pathol 1982; 3:215-9. Baik S, Uku JM, Sikirica M. A case of external beveling with an entrance wound to the skull made by a small caliber rifle bullet. Am J Forensic Med Pathol 1991;12:334-6. Donohue ER, Kalelkar MB, Richmond JM, Teas SS. Atypical gunshot wounds of entrance; an empirical study. J Forensic Sci 1984; 29:379-88. Lantz PE. An atypical, indeterminate-range, cranial gunshot wound of entrance resembling an exit wound. Am J Forensic Med Pathol 1994; 15(1):5-9.)

[353] Aguilar’s recorded call with Dr. Boswell is available at the National Archives in College Park, MD.

[356] “At one angle of the largest of these [skull] fragments is a portion of the perimeter of a roughly circular wound presumably of exit which exhibits beveling of the outer aspect of the bone … .” Autopsy report in Warren Report, see p. 541.

[360] HSCA memo of conversation with J. T. Boswell, HSCA record # 180-10093-10430-, agency file number 002071, p. 6. Also reproduced in ARRB Medical Document #26, see p. 6.

[361] A copy of my recorded call to Boswell is available at the National Archives, and is available for public listening.

[362] HSCA interview with James H. Humes and J. Thornton Boswell, September 16, 1977. HSCA vol. 7:254.

[364] Disposition of James J. Humes, MD before the Assassinations Records Review Board, 13 February 1996, p. 110. This testimony reproduced also in: Fetzer J. Murder in Dealey Plaza. Chicago: Catfeet Press, 2000, p. 446.

[368] HSCA interview with Pierre Finck, 1978, p. 95. Reproduced in ARRB Medical Document #30, see p. 95.

[370] HSCA interview with John Ebersole, MD, 3/11/78, p. 6-7. Reproduced in ARRB Medical Document #60, see p. 6-7.

[371] HSCA document #006185, p.5. Reproduced in ARRB Medical Document #86, see p. 5.

[372] Jeremy Gunn ARRB interview with James Humes, 13 February 1996, p. 213-214. Reproduced in: Fetzer, J. Murder in Dealey Plaza. Chicago: Catfeet Press, 2000, p. 449.

[373] See: Mantik, David. The JFK Assassination – Cause for Doubt, an essay in: Fetzer, James. Assassination Science. Chicago: Catfeet Press, 1998, p. 120 - 137.

[374] Sibert and O'Neill report. In: Weisberg, H. Post Mortem, Frederick, Maryland, 1975, p. 534. Reproduced in ARRB Medical Document #44, see p. 3.

[375] Email message from Larry Sturdivan to Stewart Wexler, 3/18/98, 11:43 AM. Provided to authors by Stewart Wexler.

[376] See essay by David Mantik, Paradoxes of the JFK Assassination: The Medical Evidence Decoded. In: Fetzer, J. Murder in Dealey Plaza. Chicago: Catfeet Press, 2000, p. 266.

[377] Oral History Interview with Admiral George G. Burkley by William McHugh for the John F. Kennedy Library, 10/17/67. Reproduced in ARRB Medical Document #67, see p. 18.

[378] Memo to file by Richard A. Sprague, 3/18/77. HSCA record number 180-10086-10295, agency file number 000988.

[379] The letters “DSL” were hand written in marginal notations on internal HSCA memos pertaining to this Burkley affidavit. It is not clear whether these notations appear on the originals, or whether they were added later when retrieved from the files by researchers. If they were present on the originals, it is likely this represents a reference to David S. Lifton, the author of the book, “Best Evidence.” For Burkley’s memo seems specifically directed at refuting the “body alteration” theory Lifton was propounding to the HSCA. He finally published his theory two years later, in 1980.

[380] Affidavit of Admiral George Burkley, 11/28/78. HSCA record number 180-10104-10271. Agency file number 013416.

[381] Henry Hurt. Reasonable Doubt. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1985, p. 49.