Chapter 5, Part 1:
Act of Desperation

Between the Signal and the Noise
by Roger Feinman

Best Evidence and the Decline of Pre–Publication Review

I was particularly revulsed at [sic] what I thought were his totally unnecessarily [sic] gory treatment of the medical aspects.

(Lifton, David. Letter to Sylvia Meagher, February 13, 1968) (Re: Jim Bishop’s book, The Day Kennedy Was Shot)

President Kennedy Was Shot Only From the Front

It is not a good enough conspiracy theory for David Lifton that President Kennedy might have been shot from two directions, or perhaps just from the rear, albeit not from Oswald’s alleged perch in the south easternmost corner window of the sixth floor of the Texas School Book Depository building. In Lifton’s view, Kennedy was shot from one direction only: the front of the limousine (BE, pp. 349-350) (all page references are to the original hard cover edition of Best Evidence).

Why this insistence upon rejecting any rear entry wounds? Lifton’s “logic” is that there were no shots fired from the rear simply because the shots were fired from the front, and because it would be easier to fabricate downward slanting trajectories by adding rear wounds to the President’s body later on. He never explains why the framing of Lee Harvey Oswald required that there be no rear shots, only front shots. (BE, see around page 363) He is, of course, impressed by the Zapruder film’s depiction of a violent backward jerk of Kennedy’s head and torso, but fails to explain how this justifies his assumption that there was no hit in the President’s back below the neck.

Everything Was Planned in Advance

The chief problem that Lifton encountered in attempting to prove his thesis was the apparent discrepancies between the accounts of the Parkland doctors, the accounts of the Bethesda doctors, and what the autopsy photos and X–rays allegedly show regarding the nature of the President’s wounds. In Lifton’s world, it is necessary that alteration was pre–planned.

A conspiracy to alter the President’s body before autopsy would, almost by definition, seek to accomplish its ends covertly, and in a manner that did not call attention to itself. Such a scheme would anticipate that President Kennedy might not die immediately, and that he would be ministered by doctors and nurses — whether at Parkland Hospital or elsewhere — all potential witnesses to the conspiracy’s effects. It simply would not do to have one set of medical witnesses available to testify at an inquest or trial, and explain how the wounds appeared to them, while another group of doctors from Bethesda gave a widely divergent description. Unless the Parkland witnesses were either killed or controlled, any such alteration scheme would necessarily attempt to achieve maximum congruity with their observations. Any changes made to the body would not fashion conflicts between the “Dallas evidence” and the autopsy evidence — only in the interpretation of that evidence as to the source and direction of the shots. The conspiracy would incorporate into its calculations that the Parkland doctors did not turn the President over on his back. Moreover, the Parkland doctors would have to be carefully questioned to test their observations — which, in fact, they were, both by the Secret Service, before it sent the “official” autopsy report to the FBI, and by Specter, before Humes and his colleagues testified.

Simple logic, as well as the indisputable history of the government’s handling of the medical evidence, both militate against Lifton’s before–the–fact, pre–planned scenario and in favor of an after–the–fact, ad hoc response to the developing situation. The necessity of any changes to the body therefore remains perplexing. To put the problem another way, was the conflict between Parkland and Bethesda a real conflict or a false conflict? If real, was it because the body was covertly altered before the autopsy?

Was the Body Altered? A More Balanced View

A reasonable argument can be made that the discrepancies between the two versions of the wounds are not so clear cut. To the presumed chagrin of Mr. Lifton and the Liftonites, the Parkland doctors and nurses are not in unanimity about how the head wound looked. According to the Boston Globe, which interviewed many of them in 1981, six agreed with the so–called McClelland drawing of a large, gaping wound in the occiput (including McClelland himself) that was first published in Josiah Thompson’s Six Seconds in Dallas. Six other doctors stated that the autopsy photo reproduced as a tracing in the House Committee on Assassinations volumes was consistent with their recollections. That photo showed no gaping wound in the rear of the skull. (“Dispute on JFK Assassination Evidence Persists Eighteen Years Later”, Boston Globe, June 21, 1981, Focus Section)

There was a Parkland doctor who saw something on the skull that Mr. Lifton and his fans erroneously insist no human eye has ever seen. Dr. Robert G. Grossman, a neurosurgeon, worked next to Dr. Kemp Clark at Kennedy’s head. He told the Boston Globe that he saw two separate head wounds: a large defect in the parietal area above the right ear, and a second, smaller wound located squarely in the occiput. Grossman suggested that the confusion surrounding the location of the massive head wound could be the result of the imprecision with which the term “occipital” is used: “There is this ambiguity about what constitutes the occipital and parietal area.… It’s very imprecise.” And, he said, it’s possible that his colleagues loosely used the word “occipital” in describing a wound that extended to the back fifth of the head, or that they assumed, without lifting up the head, that the defect did reach the back. (“Dispute on JFK Assassination Evidence Persists Eighteen Years Later,” Boston Globe, June 21, 1981, Focus Section)

Liftonites persistently ignore evidence discrepant with their claim that the Parkland witnesses are in unanimity on the appearance of the President’s head. They are quick to argue that if “X” number of witnesses did not see a wound in the occipital region consistent with the Bethesda autopsy report, there really was no such wound. On the contrary, that several witnesses say they did not see a wound is evidence for nothing more than that they failed to notice it. One man says he saw it, and his testimony is competent and sufficient proof that it was there.

Reconstructing the Head Wound

Lifton alleges that, during the Bethesda autopsy, the rear head entry wound was not fully apparent at first, but was reconstructed in its circumference with the bone fragments received by the pathologists during the late stages of the autopsy. He himself concedes that, if his theory is correct, the X–rays showing the hole had to have been made after the reconstruction (BE, pp. 533-34), and probably after midnight (BE, p. 526), rather than before the start of the autopsy as Humes has insisted.

Mr. Lifton bases this aspect of his theory of reconstruction upon a tenuous interpretation of ambiguous remarks by Humes and Boswell during a colloquy with some members of the HSCA’s forensic pathology panel while they were examining photographs. I have studied the transcript of that colloquy numerous times since its publication in 1979. It is unclear to me whether the pathologists were referring to piecing together the rear entrance wound, or to the wound that they maintain is an exit on the right–front of the head. At one point during the transcript, they state unequivocally that, apart from the entry wound, the occipital region was otherwise intact at the site of entry. The matter requires official clarification.

The Wound to the Back of President Kennedy’s Head

Mr. Lifton also generally argues that the main damage to the President’s skull was in the occipital region, and some of the top–back was blown off, but the top front was intact. [E.g., radiologist John Ebersole quoted as saying the front of the body (viz., the head) was intact. (BE, p. 546)] He argues that the conspirators enlarged the head wound during their removal of the brain for the purpose of extracting bullets.

Unfortunately for Mr. Lifton, a number of his autopsy witnesses describe the large wound in the head as being in the same posterior location where some of the Parkland doctors placed it. This, after the head was supposedly altered to remove evidence of a front–to–back hit. For example, radiologist John Ebersole said that when the body was removed from the casket there was a gaping wound to the back of the head, (BE, p. 543) and photographer John Stringer told Lifton that the main damage to the skull was in the occipital region. [Stringer’s account would appear to agree with both Godfrey McHugh (a “Bethesda witness” and the so–called “Parkland version”, although it disagrees with the autopsy photos. (BE, pp. 515 ff.) If the body was altered before autopsy, how were Ebersole and Stringer able to view this damage?]

The “Head Surgery” Thesis

In groping for the unifying theme in this fugue, Lifton found his key in the report of two FBI agents who attended the autopsy at Bethesda Naval Hospital, which became known as the Sibert–O’Neill Report. Lifton became unhinged by the “surgery to the head area” reference in Sibert–O’Neill, which may have been someone’s mere offhand (i.e., eyeball) reaction to seeing the wrapping on JFK’s head when his body was removed from its Dallas coffin.

Few of the hundreds of other researchers and writers who have pored over this document ever ascribed any greater significance to this language, but Lifton alleges that it signified to him (as early as 1966) a scheme to alter the President’s wounds to conceal the facts of the assassination. He spent the next fifteen years reasoning from this conclusion, which he dubs “trajectory reversal.”

Lifton’s reliance on the “head surgery” clause in the Sibert and O’Neill report rests on three implicit assumptions:

  • an autopsy pathologist made the statement; and
  • it was a diagnosis, not a question or an offhand response to some question; and
  • it was made truthfully and accurately

What evidence does he cite that Humes made the surgery remark? Only J. Edgar Hoover’s statement in November 1966 that the agents merely reported “oral statements” made by the autopsy physicians. (Hoover’s statement was published by The New York Times on November 26, 1966, at pages 1,25.) Lifton does not advise his readers that the entire thrust of Hoover’s statement was a response to early books critical of the Warren Report in the nature of downplaying the significance of the Sibert and O’Neill report. Five years after Lifton’s book was first published (but three years before he issued the Carroll & Graf edition), Jack Anderson reported an interesting revelation about the Hoover statement. Citing internal FBI memoranda, Anderson wrote that, contrary to the news media’s understanding at the time, Hoover’s statement was not prepared in response to press inquiries but at the specific request of President Johnson through Supreme Court Justice Abe Fortas. (Washington Post, April 1, 1985, page B13)

Furthermore, Lifton tells his readers that, “the only doctors present at the time the body was removed from the coffin were Humes and Boswell.” (BE, Chap. 12) The Sibert and O’Neill report defeats him, however, as Lifton clearly proves in the same chapter. Admirals Kenney, Galloway and Burkley were in the morgue, as were Captains Canada and Stover, all doctors.

How Did the “Surgery” Happen?

How did Lifton decide that “surgery” really occurred? He read a passage of Humes’ Warren Commission testimony to a neurosurgeon over the phone. Later, as recounted in Chapter 10, he visited in person with the pseudonymous UCLA neurosurgeon, “Dr. Morris Abrams”. In assisting the doctor’s understanding of the brain lacerations, Mr. Lifton supplied him with the knowledge that two metal fragments were recovered from the forward right side of the head. But he either omitted to tell “Abrams” or omits to tell us about the passage in Sibert and O’Neill’s report pertaining to the extensive metallic fragmentation (estimated at 40 particles) dispersed throughout the brain. Furthermore, while he presents the neurosurgeon’s comments as probative of surgery, Lifton was not dealing with a forensic specialist.

Lifton attempts to bolster his “surgery” thesis by arguing that Humes (to whom he attributes the surgery remark based on the hearsay public pronouncement of J. Edgar Hoover, see New York Times, November 26, 1966) was told a fragment of skull that had been brought into the autopsy room was “removed,” another factoid gleaned from the Sibert and O’Neill report. Of course, the word “removed” might easily have been a euphemism connoting “blasted out during the shooting.” Beyond Lifton’s semantic foolery, however, this purported analysis was devious because Sibert and O’Neill reported that the skull fragment was delivered “during the latter stages of the autopsy,” whereas someone reportedly made the surgery remark at the very beginning. Why wasn’t there enough room in a 747–page hard cover book, or any of the subsequent paperback editions, to include the full five–page Sibert and O’Neill report upon which Lifton builds his empire? The only reasonable answer is that readers would then be able to see what deceptive use David Lifton makes of it.

Autopsy Witness: Paul O’Connor

Unquestionably, Lifton’s chief witness in support of his “head surgery” theory is Paul K. O’Connor.

On the weekend of the assassination, O’Connor was a Navy 3rd Class Petty Officer attached to the National Naval Medical Center as a student medical technician. Before November 22, he had been working in the Bethesda morgue for six months on 24–hour duty. This meant that he was subject to call at any time.

O’Connor told me last year that, at approximately 2:00 p.m. on the afternoon of the assassination, he and his partner, James Curtis Jenkins, were in the morgue when the Commanding Officer of the National Naval Medical Center, Admiral Calvin Galloway, came in and told them that they would be getting “a very important visitor.” They immediately understood this to mean that President Kennedy’s remains were being brought to Bethesda for autopsy. Galloway also told them that they were confined to the morgue for the duration. This was O’Connor’s first experience in working with a gunshot victim as a “Med Tech” student at Bethesda. (Author’s Interview with Paul O’Connor, October 25, 1992)

Mr. Lifton’s account of the same introduction to O’Connor’s story omits his witness’s mention of “2:00 p.m.” Therein lies a problem, since Bethesda, Maryland, was one hour behind Dallas, Texas. If O’Connor is correct, officials at Bethesda knew that the autopsy would be held there at nearly the same moment that Dr. Kemp Clark pronounced President Kennedy dead at Parkland Hospital. This is not beyond the realm of possibility, but it does contradict the widely held belief among students of the assassination that Bethesda did not become the site of the autopsy until Jacqueline Kennedy selected it while en route to Washington aboard Air Force One.

My overall impression of O’Connor was that he is sincere and truthful to the best of his ability; that he remembers vignettes or anecdotes about the autopsy, some of which he has obviously discussed with other participants; but that he has great difficulty placing the events of that night into temporal or sequential order and context. Considering the passage of years, this is hardly surprising, neither does it serve to completely discredit his recollections. It does mean, however, that his statements must be evaluated with great care and caution.

I asked him about the “head surgery” clause in the Sibert–O’Neill report that Lifton expanded into a book:

You know something? That surgery of the head remark I think started with Sibert or O’Neill. Now what they meant by that, I don’t know, but it seems like it’s overridden everything else, and it gets involved — there was no surgery of any kind. And I know what surgery looks like.
Did you hear anyone ask a question like, “Did anyone do surgery to this head?” or was it a definite statement —
There was a question asked somewhat to that effect, but I don’t know who asked it, unless it was Humes. I don’t know what he was referring to though.

O’Connor allegedly told Lifton there was no brain in the President’s skull when the body arrived in the morgue; the cranium was empty. (BE, p. 601) What he told me, however, was that, “There was no brain, just brain tissue.” The difference between no brain, some brain, or very little brain shatters Lifton’s theory, which holds that the brain was surgically removed, then reimplanted, before the body reached the autopsy.

Mr. O’Connor’s partner that day, James Curtis Jenkins, has said that there was a brain in the President’s cranium when the body arrived. (Livingstone, Harrison. High Treason 2. Carroll & Graf, New York: 1991, p. 92 [and see, op. cit., at pp. 131-135, Livingstone’s detailed discussion of the conflicts he found in the statements of Jenkins and O’Connor regarding the handling of the President’s body prior to autopsy.])

[Note: Researcher and writer Jerry Policoff points out that, if Lifton’s reliance on O’Connor for the allegation that there was no brain is well placed, then the autopsy doctors lied when they purported to conduct a supplemental autopsy on the President’s brain two weeks after the assassination. Policoff maintains that Lifton cannot have it both ways, although that appears to be his frequent preference.]

The John Ebersole situation is both analogous to the sensation that Lifton makes out of O’Connor’s recollections, and illustrative of the perils and pitfalls in evaluating the accounts of witnesses who have come forward many years after the event. Ebersole was nominally the radiologist in charge of X–raying the President’s body and reading those X–rays. He told researcher Art Smith in 1978 that the throat wound was sutured at the outset of the autopsy. Lifton repeated the suture story as he obtained it from Smith. (BE, pp. 541, 606) Ebersole also recalled that the autopsy began at 10:30 p.m. that night (BE, p. 519). This allegation of the autopsy’s starting time was a clear error lacking any verification or corroboration, and it is universally contradicted by other available accounts. Lifton excuses Ebersole’s mistake, concluding that the throat wound was sutured sometime before what Ebersole thought was the start of the autopsy.

President Kennedy’s Throat Wound and Tracheotomy

Paul O’Connor, on the other hand, told Lifton that he saw an open tracheotomy wound, not a sutured one, in the anterior neck. (BE, pp. 601, 604) (O’Connor confirmed to me that he did not remember any sutures to the throat wound when the body arrived.) How does Lifton reconcile the divergent observations of O’Connor and Ebersole? He never satisfactorily resolves the problem in his book.

O’Connor explained to me, however, much more of the story than Lifton tells the readers of his book. O’Connor told me that the throat wound was sutured at the behest of the White House physician, Admiral Burkley:

When he came in he was very upset, very agitated …
When you say agitated, in what way? Do you mean grieving, or angry, or what?
Well just about all those emotions, okay? Boiled into one. [He] paced back and forth, paced back and forth, walked back and forth. He’d go over to the phone and call the tower.
How do you know he was calling the tower?
Well, later on we found out he was calling Bobby. Y’know, word gets around the hospital. So, he’d make his phone call and get back and say: “The Kennedy family wants you to do this, that, but don’t do this, that and the other.” So, he was talking to someone in the Kennedy family. We knew that because that’s what his words were. “The Kennedy family requests that you not do this, not do that, blah, blah, blah, blah.”
Did you personally overhear any of what he was saying —
Oh, yeah, sure.
— at the time?
But I, verbatim? I couldn’t really — I remember that one conversation involved the neck: To make sure the neck wound was sutured and cleaned up real nice, words to that effect — just leave it alone. We were prepared to dissect the neck, which meant we’d have to do more incisions.

When Ebersole’s account is taken in conjunction with O’Connor’s recollection of throat–wound suturing, it becomes more plausible that the throat wound was sutured that night, not when the body arrived but instead during the autopsy at the direction of Admiral Burkley. Ebersole, who was in and out of the room performing the tedious process of, first taking the X–rays in the morgue, and then leaving to develop them in another area of the hospital, therefore most likely did see a sutured throat wound that night, but is confused as to just when he saw it as the autopsy progressed. (At this writing, Ebersole is terminally ill. The author has been informed that Ebersole was recently interviewed by Dr. David Mantik, another researcher with impressive medical qualifications, and retracted the “suture statement.”)

In similar fashion, O’Connor, who admits that he left the morgue during the taking of preliminary X–rays, and at other times to get supplies, may be confused as to just when he noticed the nearly empty cranium.

The Absurdity of “Trajectory Reversal”

It is difficult to separate Lifton’s theory of the assassination and his concomitant conclusions about the medical evidence from his reconstruction of what he believes was done to the body of the President and how it was accomplished. The two areas are inextricably bound together; one predicates the other. To afford Lifton the full justice he is due, and to illustrate the grand sweep of his design, some abbreviated treatment of this aspect of his book is warranted.

Lifton has always been an advocate of the grassy knoll assassin(s). His Ramparts piece in 1967 was one of the early “classics” of the genre. The dilemma that confronted him (and everyone else who has dealt with this evidence) is that, notwithstanding the Zapruder film, the Perry news conference, and abundant eye– and ear–witness evidence, umpteen forensic specialists who examined the autopsy X–rays and photos before 1981 refused to lend their support to this theory.

Lifton’s “solution” to the crime arose as the expedient method of overcoming the obstacle of the autopsy photography and concluding his personal odyssey.

Lifton’s “solution” to the crime arose as the expedient method of overcoming the obstacle of the autopsy photography and concluding his personal odyssey.

The implication of Lifton’s theory of the assassination is that the alteration and reconstruction of the wounds, and the concomitant planting of bullet shells at the scene of the crime (and of a bullet on a stretcher at Parkland Hospital, see BE, p. 345) were necessary. His conspirators had advance knowledge of how President Kennedy would actually be hit by their infallible marksmen, and of what alterations to the President’s body would be required to conceal the facts of the crime. Lifton does not conceive of ad hoc improvisation (BE, pp. 362–64).

One assumption implicit in this argument is that Lifton’s conspirators were willing to gamble that a front shooter would hit his target, and that they never intended to shoot President Kennedy from other than in front. A further assumption is that the conspirators concluded it would be more desirable for them to fabricate downward trajectories than for a rear shooter to inflict them during the assassination.

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Roger Feinman: Between the Signal and the Noise

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