Chapter 6, Part 2:
A Night at Bethesda

Between the Signal and the Noise
by Roger Feinman

The Phony Burial Theory

How, if at all, did Lifton’s conspiracy distract the participants in the autopsy from the fact that there were two caskets in the morgue? He implies they were told that the gray shipping casket contained the remains of a military officer awaiting burial. Harold Weisberg discusses the theory:

To promulgate his case of a shell game with caskets, Lifton makes a big thing of his representation that there was no corpse of a colonel for another casket and seeks to support this by alleging that he colonel was not buried in Arlington, as had been reported. To make this appear credible he had an associate call Arlington Cemetery and ask if a colonel had been buried the next day. He claims the response was that nobody was buried the next day. Inference, the stories were false.

The falsity is Lifton’s. He fails to inform that the next day was a Saturday and that there were not burials at all at Arlington on Saturdays.

(Weisberg, Harold. Letter to Edwin McDowell [New York Times], February 4, 1981)

Overview of The Two–Casket Entries/Two Audiences — Lifton’s Developing Theory (BE, pp. 585-586)

STEP ONE: 6:45 entry (gray casket) (first entry of the body).

  • What evidence does he have that the body was taken in at 6:45? His only source is Dennis David.
  • The Navy Ambulance arrives at the front entrance at 6:55 p.m. (I did not have this in my original essay and may not need it to make the point.)

STEP TWO: 7:05–7:17 p.m., Navy ambulance and MDW "chase"

  • Source: inference liberally drawn from Sibert & O’Neill–related FBI documents.
  • Lifton’s conclusion: the empty Dallas casket is brought to the morgue; Sibert & O’Neill barred; JFK’s body transferred to the Dallas casket and put in the “correct” ambulance.
  • 43 minutes elapse before,

STEP THREE: 8:00 p.m. casket team entry; MDW casket team and McHugh bring Dallas casket to morgue.

  • Sources: casket team interviews, Wehle, McHugh, et. al.
  • Conclusion: President’s body is brought to the morgue in the Dallas casket for the official autopsy. The body has already been altered.


  • What happened to the empty plain gray metal casket? Where did it go?
  • What if the casket team had caught up with the Navy ambulance before or during Step Two?
  • If the body had been altered at Walter Reed, why the first entry? Why not simply transfer the body from hearse to ambulance?
  • Who was the second casket entry intended to deceive?
  • How does McHugh get into the “correct” ambulance?
  • Isn’t Lifton ignoring the time that was required for initial measuring, X–raying and photographing of the remains before the first incision (7:17 p.m.–8:15 p.m.)? Dr. Humes, Secret Service Agent Kellerman and the FBI team of Sibert and O’Neill, as well as other witnesses, have told us that there was a period of initial X–raying and photography. Secret Service Agent Kellerman’s testimony before the Warren Commission seems to have accounted for this duration.
Mr Kellerman
Let’s come back to the period of our arrival at Andrews Air Force Base, which was 5:58 p.m. at night. By the time it took us to take the body from the plane into the ambulance, and a couple of carloads of staff people who followed us, we may have spent 15 minutes there. And in driving from Andrews to the U.S. Naval Hospital, I would judge, a good 45 minutes. So there is 7 o’clock. We went immediately over, without too much delay on the outside of the hospital, into the morgue. The Navy people had their staff in readiness right then. There wasn’t anybody to call. They were all there. So at the latest, 7:30, they began to work on the autopsy. And, as I said, we left the hospital at 3:56 in the morning. Let’s give the undertaker people 2 hours. So they were through at 2 o’clock in the morning. I would judge offhand that they worked on the autopsy angle 4–½, 5 hours.


Lifton concludes that the details are less important than establishing a break in the “chain of possession” (BE, p. 422). He is impatient with trifling details — and evidence.

Appraisal of the Facts

If ever there was a scheme such as Lifton’s to overthrow the Government of the United States, then only the Marx Brothers had the skill and impeccable timing to execute it. It seems that Lifton’s theorized covert operation was an open secret to nearly every serviceman on duty at Bethesda that Friday night. Lifton has exploited the fading memories of men who were, even then, frightened and perplexed by the whirlwind of history surrounding them. In the process, he has tried to convert understandable security precautions into a hopeless maze of intrigue. Essentially, however, Best Evidence produces no direct evidence of a single assertion forming a link in Lifton’s chain of irresponsible conjecture.

Lifton manipulates his facts in the interest of his system by seizing upon the minor details that he has gleaned from the minor players in the drama of that tragic weekend. His industriousness summons the sage admonition of one of our finest writers of history:

The contemporary has no perspective; everything is in the foreground and appears the same size. Little matters loom big, and great matters are sometimes missed because their outlines cannot be seen.

(Barbara Tuchman, When Does History Happen, New York Times Book Review, March 8, 1964.)

As Professor Wrone has concluded, “In hiding his determinative philosophy, his irrationalities, aberrations, and hasty, wrong judgments [Lifton] is dishonest with the reader … Best Evidence … is not the objective search of a scholar, plastic in formulation, changing with the evidence, honest with his past.”

Is it mere coincidence that this book appeared so soon after the House Committee investigation? There is a striking parallelism between the treatment accorded to Warren Commission critics by both HSCA Chief Counsel G. Robert Blakey and David S. Lifton. Blakey held a weekend conference with several Warren Commission critics in September 1977, purportedly to elicit their views under conditions of strict secrecy. He never called upon them again throughout the committee’s investigation, but after the committee had issued its findings, he cited this conference as evidence that he had given their critics their day.

Lifton picked the brains of the critics for fifteen years, adopted some of their approaches to the evidence as his own, and then purported in his journal of self–discovery to dismiss all of them. (“I felt isolated and, for the first time, saw the other Warren Report critics as mere tourists engaged in an academic exercise. I had found something fundamental — I had glimpsed the possibility of treason.”) (BE, page 240)

Both the HSCA and Lifton exonerated everyone in sight of complicity in the murder, and of the cover–up of the crime, leaving only sinister ghosts to blame for the assassination.

An Odd Official Silence

The sequestration of the House Committee’s files created the very environment that fostered the publication of Best Evidence.

Lifton’s allegations cast such a stain on the integrity and reputation of the national government and the rule of law that one might think a forthright response would by now have been made by the government.

Perhaps the official silence is due in some measure to the fact that Lifton’s book is not wholly without merit.

He mounts, for example, a searing indictment of the House Select Committee on Assassinations for its refusal to make public the contents of its behind–the–scenes interviews with various dramatis personae in the assassination controversy, a brazen step beyond even the Warren Commission’s penchant for secrecy. (None of this material is subject to disclosure under the Freedom of Information Act, which applies only to agencies of the Executive Branch.)

He also offers a painstaking and up–to–date analysis of the gross variance between what the autopsy X–rays and photos show, what the Bethesda doctors wrote in their report, and what the Parkland doctors in Dallas observed while vainly attempting to save the President’s life.

The Publishing Industry and the JFK Assassination

At bottom, however, Lifton’s book belies the conceit that the assassination of President Kennedy can be “solved” through evidence that is incomplete, ambiguous and thoroughly tainted. As the late Thomas Stamm suggested, preoccupation with such evidence is equivalent to focusing on the magician’s diversionary technique, which is intended to conceal and cannot explain the mechanics of his tricks. The tragic irony of David Lifton’s work is that, like the Warren Commission itself, he was constrained by the lack of solid fact to resort to speculative improbability in constructing a “logical” explanation for the assassination.

It is noteworthy that this technique achieved currency in several more recently published works.

Sadly, Lifton’s book inaugurated a trend in the publishing industry, whereby it has seemingly become impossible for a serious, responsible student of the assassination to see his work commercially published unless he posits a neat and fanciful solution to the crime, witness such books as Reasonable Doubt by Henry Hurt; Contract on America by David Scheim; Mafia Kingfish by John H. Davis; On the Trail of the Assassins by Jim Garrison, and — in the realm of fiction — Libra by Don DeLillo. To date, no critique of the methodology and conclusions of the House Select Committee on Assassinations comparable to earlier published books and articles about the Warren Commission’s Report has appeared in print, and it has grown increasingly unlikely that any will in the near future. Thus, the public controversy initially stirred by Edward Jay Epstein’s scholarly and understated book, Inquest, which began as a thesis for his Master’s Degree at Cornell University, has been fueled by pap. It is, to borrow the title of a popular song, “running on empty.”

The HSCA and Official Secrecy

Serious valid criticisms of the medical evidence in John Kennedy’s assassination have been raised by several researchers and authors, and the subject is indeed worthy of further study. Unfortunately, the erstwhile House Select Committee and the Congress as a whole blocked our access to those very materials which could appreciably advance our knowledge. These include staff counsel interviews, sworn depositions and affidavits of participants in the creation of the medical record — resources which cannot, by any stretch of the imagination, be regarded as highly classified or related to the protection of national security. The most logical step toward satiating our hunger for the solution to a case which cannot be solved through the available evidence is to demand access to that which continues to be withheld.

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Roger Feinman: Between the Signal and the Noise

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