Editor’s note: After this story published on Wednesday, new information was revealed about the autopsy. That information has been incorporated into this updated version.
In the early morning hours of Nov. 23, 1963, Dr. James J. Humes washed his hands after overseeing what is arguably the most controversial autopsy in modern U.S. history at Bethesda Naval Hospital, now Walter Reed National Military Medical Center.
The director of laboratories of the National Medical School in Bethesda took his notes of the proceedings to his Bethesda home and burned them after he said he hand-copied the records because, Humes later testified, they were stained with John F. Kennedy’s blood and “inappropriate to be turned over to anyone.”
“Having transcribed those notes … I destroyed those pieces of paper,” Humes, who died in 1999, testified in 1977 before a medical panel convened by the U.S. House Select Committee on Assassinations, one of several political bodies that investigated the killing. “I felt they would fall into the hands of some sensation seeker.”
But this week, the U.S. Navy Bureau of Medicine and Surgery released a transcript of an oral history interview conducted in 2001 that contradicts Humes’ statements.
Humes actually was ordered to destroy the notes by Rear Adm. George Burkley, who was at the autopsy as Kennedy’s personal physician, Dr. James Morningstar Young, a White House physician who also attended to Kennedy and was present at the autopsy, said in the interview with Navy historians.
Burkley made the order “at the request” of Kennedy’s brother, Robert, said Young, who passed away in 2008. One reason Young said he thought that order was made was to “keep the lid on the fact that President Kennedy really did have Addison’s disease,” a disorder that can be life-threatening in which the adrenal glands do not produce enough of certain hormones. Autopsy personnel could not find “evidence of any adrenal glands at all” in Kennedy’s body, Young said.
The burned autopsy notes controversy is one of many facets of the case that have fueled speculation of a cover-up and conspiracy over Kennedy’s death for the past 50 years. On this, the half-century anniversary, the autopsy in Bethesda continues to be one of the more controversial elements.
“Dr. Humes may have had his reasons for burning the original autopsy notes,” Philip Shenon, a former New York Times journalist and author of a new book, “A Cruel and Shocking Act: The Secret History of the Kennedy Assassination,” said in an interview. “But it was still jaw-dropping to discover what he did.”
Kennedy’s autopsy was riddled with mistakes and misrepresentations, said Gary L. Aguilar, a California ophthalmologist who lectures extensively on the medical evidence of the assassination. The Navy pathologists did not have specialties in forensic autopsies, and an Army pathologist who helped out had not done a hands-on autopsy in several years, he said.
“They were in way over their heads,” said Aguilar, a board member of the Assassination Archives and Research Center, a private organization in Silver Spring that preserves documents and other records on political assassinations. “They were basically honorable men who had to follow orders, or they would jeopardize their careers if they did not.”
Of the roughly 30 agents, military officers, medical personnel and others that the House assassinations committee determined were present in the Bethesda examination room 50 years ago, only a handful remain alive. Walter Reed does not have anyone still working there who can comment on the autopsy, said Katie Mollet, a medical center spokeswoman.
James Curtis Jenkins, one of the few present at the autopsy still alive, is scheduled to speak this weekend during a conference in Dallas on the assassination organized by JFK Lancer Productions and Publications.
Jenkins, who then was a lab technician at the Bethesda hospital and could not be reached for comment, told William Law, who interviewed Jenkins and others for his book, “In the Eye of History: Bethesda Hospital Medical Evidence in the JFK Assassination,” that physicians were ordered to “follow a scenario” during autopsy proceedings.
Jenkins said that any time doctors “stepped outside that scenario, they got slapped,” Law said in an interview.
In his 1977 testimony, Humes said he was “distressed” over allegations of being involved in a cover-up, which he called “totally ridiculous.” He reiterated his testimony before the Warren Commission, formed in 1964 by President Lyndon B. Johnson to investigate the killing. Humes said he believed only two gunshots struck Kennedy and both came from behind.
But when asked if he could say the shots came from above, Humes stopped short. Accused assassin Lee Harvey Oswald was thought by the Warren Commission to have shot at Kennedy from behind and above, from the sixth floor of the nearby Texas School Book Depository.
“I think behind is probably the most one can say from the anatomical findings,” Humes testified in 1977.
Humes expounded on the case during testimony in 1996 before the Assassination Records Review Board, formed by Congress to review decisions related to records on the assassination. He acknowledged burning an original draft of the autopsy report that was not stained with Kennedy’s blood because he “didn’t want anything to remain that some squirrel would grab on and make whatever use that they might.”
“That was my decision and mine alone,” Humes maintained.
Humes’ explanation for destroying the original notes seems “dubious at best,” Aguilar said. While destroying his personal notes, Humes preserved notes taken on an autopsy form that also had Kennedy’s blood, Aguilar said. The form was filled out by Dr. J. Thornton Boswell, chief of pathology at the Bethesda hospital in 1963, who also signed the autopsy report.
The third pathologist who signed the autopsy report, Pierre A. Finck, chief of the wound ballistics pathology branch at Walter Reed, complained about his autopsy notes being missing, Aguilar said. Humes testified that he took possession of all notes.
Boswell testified before the House committee in 1977 that Burkley imposed only one “immaterial” constraint on them. Authorities had “caught Oswald and that they needed the bullet to complete the case,” said Boswell, who died in 2010. “We were told initially that’s what we should do, is to find the bullet.”
After the pathologists determined there was no bullet inside Kennedy but only fragments, Burkley, who died in 1991, agreed that “we should continue and do a complete autopsy,” Boswell said.
Humes added that he understood Burkley’s position as he was concerned about the emotional state of the Kennedy family. “He was in hopes that the examination could achieve its goal in as expedient a manner as possible,” Humes said.
Humes and Boswell also testified that they had experience in doing autopsies of people who had died from gunshot wounds.
The autopsy was performed in the medical school morgue, then located in what is now the basement leading to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center Building 1. The scene in that examination room was “hysterical,” with a large contingent of officials and medical professionals in the room, Humes testified in 1977.
Kennedy’s wife, Jacqueline, and brother Robert remained at the hospital on the 17th floor VIP suite, and a crowd gathered outside on the grounds.
“How we kept our wits about us as well as we did is amazing to me,” Humes said. “There was no question but we were being urged to expedite this examination as quickly as possible. … We made every effort to put aside [such urgings] and approach this investigation in as scientific a manner as we could. But did it harass us and cause difficulty? Of course it did; how could it not?”
Shenon’s book describes how the morgue at the Bethesda hospital had been renovated with new equipment just a few weeks earlier.
“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,” Shenon wrote. “A closed-circuit television camera had been installed so audiences across the street at the National Institutes of Health … could observe at a distance.”
But no one switched on that camera for the Kennedy autopsy, which Humes later said he wished had occurred to help end speculation about the proceedings.
The House committee medical panel, headed by former New York City chief medical examiner Michael Baden, concurred with the Warren Commission and Bethesda autopsy pathologists that two bullets had struck Kennedy from behind. But there was a key dissenter, former Allegheny County, Pa., coroner Cyril Wecht, who disagreed that a single bullet struck Kennedy and then caused all of the wounds to Texas Gov. John Connally, who was riding in the car with Kennedy.
“Without the single-bullet theory, there cannot be one assassin, whether it is Oswald or anybody else,” Wecht testified in 1978. He also raised questions about the “remote” possibility of another shot fired from the right side or lower right rear that could have struck Kennedy at the same time a shot struck him in the back of the head.
Another controversial question related to the autopsy concerned whether a neck wound was an entrance or exit wound. Doctors and nurses in Dallas who tried to save Kennedy’s life described the neck wound as an entry wound, but Baden testified in 1978 that emergency room personnel are not “trained in distinguishing some of the fine points of differences between entrance and exit gunshot wounds because this does not have much pertinence to treatment and therapy.”
Committee panel members unanimously agreed the neck wound was an exit perforation, Baden said. He added that the wound was small and could have been mistaken for an entry wound partly because a bullet came out right beneath Kennedy’s collar and tie where the skin was “fairly firm.”
A recent Gallup poll showed that 61 percent of Americans believe others besides Oswald were involved in Kennedy’s killing. That’s down from 75 percent a decade ago.
Among those who professed questions in recent years was James W. Sibert, a former FBI agent who took notes in the Bethesda autopsy room for the federal agency. Sibert, who died in 2012, was quoted in numerous published reports as late as 2009 that he didn’t “buy the single-bullet theory.”
Law interviewed Sibert numerous times for his book, including at Sibert’s Florida home.
“He thought the back wound was too low to be part of the single-bullet theory,” Law said. “He said he often wondered if a shooter used an exploding bullet.”
Sibert also told Law that when Kennedy’s body reached Bethesda, his cranium appeared to be empty of a brain. The issue of what happened to Kennedy’s brain remains another mystery.
Humes and Boswell told the assassinations review board that they placed the remains of the brain in a stainless-steel container during the autopsy and then examined it two or three days later. Humes said he gave the brain remains to Burkley and did not see them again.
The remains reportedly were taken from the White House to the National Archives in 1965, according to the House assassinations committee, but they turned up missing in 1966.
The House assassinations committee “was not able to determine precisely what happened to the missing materials,” the panel said in its report. The committee added that Robert F. Kennedy “most likely acquired possession of, or at least personal control over, these materials.”
Many doubt such questions will ever be fully resolved.
“A lot of key witnesses and people who knew important information have died and taken evidence with them,” Shenon said. “It will likely remain a mystery.”