WHERE WAS PRESIDENT KENNEDY'S BACK WOUND?
Michael T. Griffith
@All Rights Reserved
The Warren Commission (WC) said that JFK had a wound of entrance at the base of his neck. The House Select Committee on Assassinations (HSCA), based on an analysis of disputed autopsy x-rays and photos, moved the wound about two inches downward. However, the evidence indicates this alleged "neck wound" was actually five to six inches below the neck, considerably lower than where the WC, and quite possibly a little lower than where the HSCA located it.
Clearly, the back wound's placement is vital because it foundationally concerns the single-bullet theory; and if the single-bullet theory is wrong, then there had to be more than one gunman firing at President Kennedy. According to this theory, a bullet (often referred to as the "magic bullet") struck JFK near or on the neck, exited his throat, and then went on to cause all of Governor John Connally's extensive injuries. Without the single-bullet hypothesis, there can be no lone-gunman scenario.
Just what is the evidence that the bullet in question struck the President at least five inches down in the back, and not in or near the neck?
* The holes in JFK's shirt and coat place the wound five to six inches below the collar line. The claim that his coat and shirt were hunched up on his back when the bullet struck in such a way as to make the proposed higher back wound line up with the clothing holes is not only far-fetched, but, in my opinion, is refuted by the photographic evidence, as even lone-gunman theorist Jim Moore concedes. This bunched-clothing theory will be dealt with at greater length further on in this article.
* Dr. Boswell's autopsy face sheet diagram shows the wound five to six inches below the neck. That face sheet, by the way, was marked "verified."
* The President's death certificate places the wound at the third thoracic vertebra, which corresponds to the holes in the coat and shirt. This document was also marked "verified."
* Dr. John Ebersole, who got a look at the back wound during the autopsy, said the wound was near the fourth thoracic vertebra (63:721). This is even slightly lower than where the death certificate places the wound.
* Secret Service agent Clint Hill, who was called to the morgue for the specific purpose of viewing Kennedy's wounds, said the entrance point was "about six inches below the neckline to the right-hand side of the spinal column" (18:77-78). Hill's placement of the wound corresponds closely to the location of the holes in the President's shirt and coat.
* The FBI's 9 December 1963 report on the autopsy, which was based on the report of two FBI agents who attended the autopsy (James Sibert and Francis O'Neill), located the wound below the shoulder (i.e., below the top of the shoulder blade) (18:83, 149-168).
* Three Navy medical technicians who assisted with the autopsy, James Jenkins, Paul O'Connor, and Edward Reed, have stated that the wound was well below the neck. Jenkins and O'Connor have also reported that it was probed repeatedly and that the autopsy doctors determined that it had no point of exit (10:260, 262, 302-303; 63:720).
* Floyd Riebe, one of the photographers who took pictures at the autopsy, recalls that the back wound was probed and that it was well below the neck (10:162-163, 302).
* Former Parkland nurse Diana Bowron, who washed the President's body before it was placed in the casket, has indicated that the back wound was two to three inches below the hole shown in the alleged autopsy photo of JFK's back, and this hole, by the HSCA's own admission, is about two inches lower than where the WC placed the wound. In other words, Nurse Bowron located the wound five to six inches below the neck, and at the same time challenged the authenticity of the alleged autopsy picture of the President's back. We will return to her account in a moment. (Some WC defenders argue that Bowron told the WC she didn't see any wound other than the large head wound. But if one reads her testimony carefully, it is clear she was speaking of the condition of Kennedy's body when she first saw it in the limousine. What she said in effect was that she didn't notice any wounds other than the head wound when she first saw his body lying in the limousine. See 6 H 136.)
* In the transcript of the 27 January 1964 executive session of the Warren Commission, we read that chief counsel J. Lee Rankin said the bullet entered Kennedy's back below the shoulder blade (63:632). Rankin even referred to a picture which he said showed that "the bullet entered below the shoulder blade" (68:78-79).
* Secret Service agent Roy Kellerman, who got a very good look at the President's body, said the wound was "in the shoulder."
* Three recently released HSCA wound diagrams place the wound well below the neck, and in fact in almost the exact same spot shown on the autopsy face sheet. The diagrams were drawn for Select Committee investigators by Kellerman, Sibert, and O'Neill, each of whom got a very good, prolonged look at the body. This shows that when Kellerman said the wound was "in the shoulder," he meant it was visibly below the top of the right shoulder blade. Each agent placed the wound well below the neck, and visibly below the throat wound.
The correct placement of the back wound destroys the single-bullet theory. Given the fact that the bullet entered JFK's back at a sharply downward angle, and at a point five to six inches below the neck (and thus well down on the back), there is no way it could have exited his throat, unless perhaps if it struck bone, but the chief autopsy doctor said he found no evidence that the missile had done so, and the HSCA's own medical panel agreed (69:272; 8:328; 6 HSCA 56). The only other way the missile could have exited Kennedy's throat is if JFK had been leaning far forward when the bullet struck. But photos show that the President was sitting more or less upright before the bullet hit him in the back. The Select Committee's own trajectory consultant said that Kennedy was leaning forward by no more than 18 degrees when the bullet struck.
Nor can it be claimed that JFK suddenly leaned far forward when the limousine was behind the Stemmons Freeway sign. The car was only behind that sign for nine-tenths of a second, and the Zapruder film shows Kennedy sitting upright as the car reemerges into view. As one member of the HSCA's medical panel indicated, not even the most talented athlete could have leaned back and forth that fast, much less JFK, who had a bad back and was wearing a back brace.
We know that bullet didn't exit the President's throat because we have solid, credible accounts from medical technicians and doctors who were at the autopsy that the back wound was probed repeatedly, both with fingers and with a surgical probe, and that no exit was found. James Jenkins, one of the medical technicians at the autopsy, has reported that he could even see the probe pushing against the lining of the chest cavity (14:477). "There was," he says, "no entry into the chest cavity."
Let us now address some of the arguments concerning JFK's back wound that have been advanced by lone-gunman theorists.
1. Dr. Burkley, the President's physician and the person who prepared the death certificate, mislocated the back wound.
If Burkley were the only one who placed the back wound five to six inches below the neck, this claim might have some plausibility, although it would require us to believe that Burkley made a rather puzzling error. But, Burkley's placement of the wound in the death certificate agrees with the holes in JFK's coat and shirt, with Boswell's face sheet diagram, with SSA Hill's placement of the wound, with Riebe's placement of the wound, with the location of the wound given in the FBI's report on the autopsy, with Dr. Ebersole's placement of the wound, and with the statements of four Navy medical assistants who saw the bullet hole in the back at the autopsy.
And then there is the recent interview with former
2. The photographic evidence shows that Kennedy's coat was bunched up on his back, thus explaining the low location of the holes in his shirt and coat.
The photographic evidence does not support the claim that Kennedy's coat was bunched in the required location or to a sufficient degree at around the time the bullet hit him. Josiah Thompson argues that Willis slide 5 "shows clearly that the President's clothing was NOT bunched at the time he was wounded in the back" (59:281, original emphasis). On the other hand, some motorcade photos do show a moderate bunch in Kennedy's coat, but this bunch was not large enough, and not in the right location, to explain the clothing holes.
Jim Moore, a staunch lone-gunman theorist, has taken the same position (3:154-155). He notes that the Betzner photo also refutes the idea that Kennedy's clothing was bunched, and he points out that the Willis and Betzner pictures both show the President's white shirt collar, "which would not be visible were his jacket bunched" (3:155).
Kennedy was one of the best-tailored presidents ever to occupy the White House, and if it is possible--but not probable--that he was wearing a suit jacket baggy enough to ride up five or six inches in the back when he waved his arm, it is inconceivable that a tightly buttoned shirt could have done the same thing. (61:27).
3. The alleged autopsy photos show the back wound where the HSCA located it, and the autopsy x-rays support the claim that the bullet exited the throat.
First of all, the x-rays prove nothing either way about the bullet's direction or entry point. One private radiologic expert studied the x-rays at the National Archives and concluded they show that no bullet could have gone straight from the back wound to the throat wound without crashing right into the spinal column.
Furthermore, Dr. Humes, in the Rydberg drawing, which he supervised, located the wound two inches higher than where the HSCA placed it. Dr. Boswell, on the other hand, prepared an autopsy face sheet diagram showing the wound five to six inches below the neck. Moreover, what about the several witnesses who saw the wound at different times and who all placed it very close to where Dr. Boswell located it? Are we to believe that every single one of these people mislocated the wound by three to four inches? Are we to believe that they couldn't tell the difference between a wound that was visibly below the top of the shoulder blade and one that was not? And what about the holes in the President's coat and shirt, which confirm the lower placement?
The alleged autopsy x-rays and photos have long been disputed and
questioned. As mentioned, former
The autopsists had x-rays taken of the whole body, partly in an attempt to determine the back wound's point of exit. None of the autopsy doctors initially reported seeing any evidence in the x-rays that the back wound had an exit point, much less that it exited the throat. Furthermore, the x-rays do NOT show the back wound's location.
4. The written measurements for the back wound, which were placed in the margin on Dr. Boswell's face sheet diagram, place the wound on the neck.
But the HSCA said the wound was nearly two inches lower than where Dr. Boswell later claimed it was. Furthermore, the written measurements for the back wound are penned in ink, whereas the rest of the face sheet is in pencil, indicating they were not written at the same time as the other face-sheet notations, which in turn suggests they were added at a later date. Sylvia Meagher makes a good point about the suspicious measurements:
. . . since the diagram purported to show the location of the wounds, it is hard to understand why those measurements were recorded in the margin--recorded only for this particular wound but not for other wounds, scars, or incisions, and written in heavier ink than the other notations found on the same diagram. (17:140-141, original emphasis)
Are we to believe that it is merely a coincidence that Dr. Boswell's dot for the back wound on the face sheet diagram just happens to conform to the location of the holes in JFK's shirt and coat? Are we also to attribute to chance the fact that Dr. Boswell's diagram places the wound in the same area that the death certificate locates it? Are we simply supposed to ignore the fact that Dr. Boswell's diagram of the back wound agrees with the testimony of several credible witnesses, including four medical technicians, one of the autopsy photographers, a doctor who attended the autopsy, and three federal agents?
5. The testimony that the surgical probe could be seen pushing against the lining of the chest cavity can be explained by assuming that the autopsy doctors accidentally created a false passage in their efforts to find an exit point.
The autopsists first probed the wound with their fingers, so they had some idea of the hole's general direction and angle. It is highly unlikely that they jammed the probe in so ineptly and inaccurately that they created a false passage.
6. The probing of the wound didn't reveal the wound's true path because the muscles involved had tightened and because the doctors didn't elevate Kennedy's arm to the position it was in when the bullet struck.
None of the autopsists said the body was so stiff that they couldn't conduct the probing. According to Dr. Robert Karnei, who assisted with the autopsy, the autopsists "tried every which way" to find the back wound's exit point with the probe (10:189). Dr. Karnei indicates they moved the body into different positions--they tried, he says, to "move it around." They also turned the body over. The autopsy doctors, adds Dr. Karnei, spent "a long time" trying to find the exit point. One could certainly infer from Dr. Karnei's account that the autopsists lifted JFK's right arm as they tried "every which way" to find the exit point.
It should be noted that before the autopsy doctors explored the back wound with the surgical probe, the chest was opened and the organs were removed, which was why the probe could be seen pushing against the lining of the chest cavity. The wound had no exit point. The autopsy pathologists could see this. So could Dr. Boswell's assistent, James Jenkins. This was why the autopsists were so certain on the night of the autopsy that the back wound was shallow and had no exit point. We know from new information from the investigation of the Assassination Records Review Board that on the night of the autopsy the doctors were absolutely positive, beyond any doubt, that the back wound had no exit point.
7. As the Warren Commission reported, the FBI determined that the hole in the front of JFK's shirt and the nick in his tie proved that a bullet exited Kennedy's throat. Therefore, the missile that struck him in the back must have exited the throat.
The shirt hole in question consisted of two overlapping slits. Robert Frazier, the FBI expert who examined the hole, stated that it could NOT be positively identified as a bullet hole. The Warren Commission itself admitted this. After advancing the claim that the "characteristics" of the hole "established" that it was an exit hole, the Commission turned right around and said:
. . . the irregular nature of the slit precluded a positive determination that it was a bullet hole. (WCR 92)
The Commission also said this about the hole:
However, the hole could have been caused by a round bullet although the characteristics were not sufficiently clear to enable the examining expert to render a conclusive opinion. (WCR 92, emphasis added)
The slits are indeed irregular. They are not the same length, nor are they the same shape--they are similar but not identical (84:244-245). It is more likely that they were with a scalpel by one of the nurses as they removed the President's shirt. Moreover, the slits are below the band of the collar, which refutes the theory that the throat wound was neat because the collar band kept the skin around the wound from stretching out and becoming torn. Another possibility is that the slits were made deliberately after the assassination in order to make it appear that a bullet had exited the throat.
Furthermore, no metallic traces of any kind were found around the hole in the shirt and the nick in the tie. Yet, such traces were found around the holes in the back of the coat and shirt. Additionally, according to Dr. Charles Carrico, who saw the throat wound before Kennedy's shirt and tie were removed, the bullet hole was ABOVE the knot of the tie.
The nick in the tie's knot presents a particularly severe problem for the single-bullet theory. Photographs of the knot show the nick to be visibly inward from the knot's left edge (84:247). What's more, the HSCA admitted that there was no hole in the back of the tie. How, then, could a bullet have produced this nick? If a bullet had exited JFK's throat and grazed the left edge of the tie's knot, the resulting nick would be on the edge of knot. Yet, photos of the tie clearly show the nick clearly inward from the left edge.
The tie might not be in its original configuration, since it was allegedly untied and then retied. However, even if the nick originally was on the knot's left edge, one would think the FBI would have been certain to photograph it in this configuration. One of the photos of the tie shows the nick almost dead-center in the middle of the knot. The other photos show the nick slightly farther to the left but still clearly inward from the knot's left edge. If the tie was in fact untied and then retied, the logical conclusion would seem to be that one of those photo shots of the tie was taken before the tie was untied and that the other was taken after it was retied.
There is some evidence that Kennedy's back wound had the appearance of an exit wound (63:42, 720). If that defect
was an exit wound, then it was almost certainly created by a bullet that
entered Kennedy's throat. Some researchers speculate there might have been two wounds in JFK's back, one of
entrance and the other of exit, and they point to the alleged autopsy photo of
the back as possible evidence of this. Another possibility is that the throat
bullet ranged downward into the chest and did not exit, which is what Dr. Kemp
In conclusion, I would like to quote from Henry Hurt's 1985 summary of the medical evidence as it relates to the single-bullet theory. Hurt, a former Rockefeller Foundation fellow, spent years investigating the assassination, and I believe his analysis of this issue is superb and cogent:
One of the most fragile underpinnings of the official version of President Kennedy's murder is the proposition that a bullet entered his back, passed through his body, exited from his lower neck, and went on to pass through Governor Connally. Official medical experts largely agree that this is what happened. If it did not happen this way, it is generally agreed, then there was a second assassin, and thus a conspiracy. The whole flimsy case becomes unglued. Enormous official effort has gone into trying to prove this particular point. Comedy has flashed through the outrageous as doctors arbitrarily moved the location of the back wound several inches upward so that it could be high enough to manage a logical exit from the front of the neck--even though the bullet, which the Warren Commission said hit no bones in Kennedy, was supposedly moving at a sharply downward angle when it entered Kennedy's back. It was a tough case to make, and few people ever believed the government's feeble account. Still, though, it is the official version.
Government officials and their supporters have worked over the years to maintain this legend. Some apparently perjured themselves in service to their cause. Meanwhile, a lone citizen was pursuing the question from quite a different angle. Of the millions of Americans who believed the official version to be a lie, Harold Weisberg set out to prove it so. Alone, he has come far closer to making his case on this point than the whole United States government has in defending its.
Weisberg did not focus on the location of the back wound. He accepted that the body chart drawn and later disavowed by Commander Boswell was correct in showing the back wound to be between five and six inches below President Kennedy's collar line. . . . Weisberg was far more interested in the wound in the front of the neck that was supposed to be the exit for the bullet in the back. The autopsy report, which was embraced by the Warren Commission, described this wound as being in the "low anterior neck."
That front neck wound, of course, was largely
believed to have been one of entry by those experienced observers at
The initial difficulty with the government's case was that the FBI laboratory--after spectrographic analysis--could find no metal traces on the tie or the neckband of the collar, traces that should have been there if a bullet had caused the damage.
The second major problem was one that often plagued the commission: a highly credible witness who saw and said things that contradicted the larger picture. Dr. Charles Carrico, the doctor who examined Kennedy in the emergency room before his shirt and tie were removed, testified to the Warren Commission (and later confirmed in an interview) that the anterior [front] neck wound was above the knot of his tie. A wound location this high in the front would render fatuous the whole teetering premise of the Warren Commission. (The commission ignored Dr. Carrico's testimony on this point, even though he was the doctor in the best position to have any direct knowledge.)
Weisberg pressed his case in court to have the National Archives release clear photographs of the President's shirt and tie, because the pictures that had been provided by the FBI to the Warren Commission were unclear and virtually worthless. The photographs finally disclosed to Weisberg show that the suggested bullet holes in the shirt's front neckband are not bullet holes at all. They are slits made by scalpels used by nurses to cut off the President's necktie. One nurse who cut off the clothing confirmed this, adding impressive evidence to Weisberg's observations. The other astonishing confirmation is that the bullet hole in the back of the shirt is precisely where the first body chart placed it. That chart had been ignored by the commission and disavowed by the doctor who prepared it.
The testimony of Dr. Carrico, combined with the revelations in the photographs, shows with absolute certainty to almost any layman that the bullet that entered Kennedy's back nearly six inches below his collar at a sharply downward angle could not possibly have exited from Kennedy's neck, above the collar, where Dr. Carrico saw the wound. (71:58-60, original emphasis)
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69. Walt Brown, "November 22, 1963: Origin of Media Apathy," Dateline:
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ABOUT THE AUTHOR:† Michael
T. Griffith holds a Masterís degree in Theology from The Catholic Distance
University, a Graduate Certificate in Ancient and Classical History from
American Military University, a Bachelorís degree in Liberal Arts from
Excelsior College, and two Associate in Applied Science degrees from the
Community College of the Air Force.† He
also holds an Advanced Certificate of Civil War Studies and a Certificate of
Civil War Studies from