In this excerpt from his new book, A Cruel and Shocking Act: The Secret History of the Kennedy Assassination, a veteran investigative journalist Phillip Shenon reveals what happened to the original autopsy notes in the Kennedy assassination case, and why they ended up in a fireplace.
President Kennedy’s body had not even been laid to rest before evidence about his assassination – and about the man accused of being his assassin — began to disappear from the government’s files. The night after his murder, a Navy pathologist pushed the president’s original autopsy report into the fireplace of his home in the Maryland suburbs of Washington.
The doctor, Navy Commander James Humes MD, insisted years later that he was appalled that his decision to destroy the autopsy report, as well as to incinerate all of his notes from the morgue, would be portrayed by conspiracy theorists as the first act of a monstrous government cover-up of the truth about the assassination. Still, he admitted, he should have known better. “What happened was my decision and mine alone,” he said later. “Nobody else’s.”
Humes led the three-man team of pathologists who had conducted the president’s autopsy at the Bethesda Naval Medical Center on the evening of Friday, Nov. 22, just hours after President Kennedy was gunned down in Dallas. Jacqueline Kennedy had initially opposed the idea of having an autopsy; the vision of her husband’s body on a cold, steel dissecting table seemed one more horror in a day already full of them. “It doesn’t have to be done,” she told the president’s personal physician, Rear Admiral George Burkley, as they flew in Air Force One from Dallas to Andrews Air Force Base, outside Washington. But Burkley gently reminded her that her husband was the victim of a crime, and that an autopsy was a legal necessity. He offered her the choice of the Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington or the navy’s hospital in Bethesda. The two hospitals were only eight miles apart. “Of course, the president was in the Navy,” Burkley reminded her.
“Of course,” she said. “Bethesda.”
The selection of Bethesda was a decision that even some navy doctors questioned. The veteran army pathologists at Walter Reed had much more experience in tracing bullet wounds than did their counterparts in the navy. (It was a simple fact that soldiers were more likely than sailors to die from gunshots.) Another Bethesda pathologist, Commander J. Thornton Boswell, was assigned to assist Humes, and he thought it was “foolish” to do the autopsy at the navy hospital given the resources elsewhere in Washington. Neither Humes nor Boswell had credentials in forensic pathology, the branch of pathology that focuses on violent or unexpected deaths, so a third member was added to the team: Dr. Pierre Finck, a forensic pathologist who was a lieutenant colonel in the Army Medical Corps.
What might recommend Bethesda was the autopsy room itself. Just weeks earlier, the whole morgue had just been renovated and outfitted with sophisticated medical and communications equipment. It was spacious by the standards of military hospitals, about twenty-five by thirty feet, with a dissecting table fixed to the floor in the center. A closed-circuit television camera had been installed so audiences across the street at the National Institutes of Health and down the road at the medical clinic at Andrews Air Force Base could observe at a distance. Humes said later he wished someone had switched on the camera that night, to end the “ludicrous speculation” about what had gone on.
The autopsy was a “three-ring circus,” Boswell complained later. Dozens of people – navy doctors and orderlies, X-ray technicians and medical photographers, Secret Service and FBI agents, military officers and hospital administrators – were either in the morgue or pressing at the door to be let in. Admiral Burkley, who accompanied the body to Bethesda, initially tried to take control of the autopsy. He argued that a full autopsy was unnecessary since the presumed assassin, Lee Harvey Oswald, was under arrest, and there appeared to be substantial evidence of his guilt. There was no need, Burkley said, for procedures that might severely disfigure the president’s corpse. Humes rejected the idea of a limited autopsy as absurd, given the danger that something important might be missed. Burkley backed down, although he insisted that the pathologists complete their work as quickly as possible. He appeared worried above all about the delay’s effect on Mrs. Kennedy, who was waiting with Robert Kennedy and other family and friends in the hospital’s VIP suite on the 17th floor. Humes said he cringed at the thought of what she must be going through; he knew she was still wearing the bloodstained pink suit he had seen on television. Whatever his sympathy for Mrs. Kennedy, however, Humes felt rushed by her presence at the hospital. “It did harass us and cause us difficulty,” he said.
The president’s body arrived at the hospital at about 7:30 p.m. The bronze casket was wheeled in from a loading ramp off the street. The corpse was gently removed from the casket and – after X-rays and photos of every part of the body – was placed on the autopsy table, where it would remain for most of the next ten hours. The wounds to the skull were not immediately visible since the head had been covered with sheets in Dallas. After removing the blood-soaked cloth, Humes ordered that all of the sheets be laundered immediately. “We had a washing machine, and he stuck those in,” Boswell recalled. Humes worried from the start that something taken from the autopsy room would turn up as a grisly souvenir in some rural sideshow – “he didn’t want those appearing in a barn out in Kansas sometime.”
Humes would not sleep at all on Friday night. “I was in the morgue from 7:30 in the evening until 5:30 in the morning,” he said. “I never left the room.”
When he finally got home, walking through his front door at about 7 a.m. Saturday, he had no chance to collect his thoughts, let alone sleep. He was scheduled to drive his son to church that morning for the boy’s First Communion – Humes was determined to be there — and he then needed to return to Bethesda on Saturday for a telephone call with the doctors at Parkland Memorial Hospital in Dallas who had tried, futilely, to save Kennedy’s life. The call to Dr. Malcolm Perry, the chief Parkland doctor to attend to Kennedy, resolved a central mystery for Humes. There had been no question among any of the doctors in Dallas or Bethesda about Kennedy’s cause of death – the massive head wound from a bullet that blew away much of the right hemisphere of his brain, an image captured in awful photographs. The mystery was over what appeared to be the first bullet to hit the president, which entered his upper back or neck and should have remained relatively intact as it passed through soft tissue. During the autopsy, Humes and his colleagues struggled with the question for hours. “I x-rayed the president’s body from head to toe for the simple reason that missiles do very funny things occasionally in a human body,” Humes said. The bullet was nowhere to be found, and there was no obvious exit wound. As they worked, Humes and the others pathologists talked among themselves about the unlikely possibility that the bullet had fallen back out of the entrance wound as the president’s heart was massaged to try to restore a beat – speculation that made its way into the official reports of FBI agents observing the autopsy.
During the phone call, Perry had an explanation for the missing bullet. The Parkland doctors had performed a tracheotomy, cutting in the president’s badly damaged windpipe to allow him to breathe, exactly where there had been a small wound in the front of the throat, near the knot of his tie. Perhaps that was where the bullet had exited? “The minute he said that, lights went on and we said, a-ha, we have some place for our missile to have gone,” Humes said. The tracheotomy, he assumed, had destroyed evidence of the exit; the bullet had gone out of the president’s throat.
That afternoon, Humes managed a few hours of sleep, but he needed to get back to work that night – to write out the final autopsy report. At about 11 p.m., he set up a card table in his family room. There was a fire in the fireplace, which provided some comforting warmth on an early winter night. He assumed he would be there for hours, writing and editing the document, which needed to be presented to his colleagues the next afternoon for their signatures; they were under orders to deliver the report to the White House by Sunday night.
As he picked up his paperwork from the autopsy room, he noticed the streaks of blood – the president’s blood – that stained every page of his notes, as well as every page of a draft autopsy report that he had prepared in the morgue. He was repulsed, he said. Slowly, carefully, he began transferring the information from his notes to clean sheets of paper. “I sat down and word for word copied what I had on fresh paper,” Humes said later. His well-thumbed copy of Stedman’s Medical Dictionary was at his elbow; he wanted no spelling errors on the report hat he would give to the White House.
Only Humes could know for certain what motivated him to do what he did next. Was it only the blood stains that worried him? Where there embarrassing errors in the original autopsy report and in his notes that he wanted to correct? Did he alter the location of the entry and exit wounds? Was he ordered to? Whatever the reason, Humes decided – as he sat there at the card table – to destroy every piece of paper in his custody, except the final draft. He was determined, he said, to keep the bloodied documents from falling into the hands of “ghouls.”
Years later, he admitted that he did not fully understand the implications of his actions, and he acknowledged that he might have helped feed the conspiracy theories that would follow him for the rest of his career. He tried to reconstruct his thinking that night: “I noticed these bloodstains were on these documents that I had prepared, I said, nobody’s going to ever get these documents.” Humes gave the paperwork a final look before standing up and walking to the fireplace. He dropped the bloodstained pages of the original draft autopsy report into the fire and watched as the flames turned the paper to ash. He pushed his handwritten notes from the morgue into the fire, as well. “Everything that I had exclusive of the report, I burned,” he said later. “I didn’t want anything to remain. Period.”
Philip Shenon is a veteran investigative journalist who spent most of his career at The New York Times. His new book, A Cruel and Shocking Act, began as an attempt to write the first insider’s history of the Warren Commission, but it quickly became something much larger and more important when he discovered startling information that was withheld from the Warren Commission by the CIA, FBI and others in power in Washington.
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