Dec 18 1963: The Times and Post’s stories on the JFK autopsy that wasn’t

The first newspaper accounts of JFK’s autopsy, published on December 18, 1963, gave a consistent account of the gunfire that was widely believed at the time (and became the basis for the postcard from  Dallas reproduced here). But these accounts, published in the Washington Post and New York Times, vary dramatically from what pathologists later said. This version of the gunfire that struck JFK would be abandoned and forgotten by the two newspapers and defenders of the official story, all of whom later settled on a very different ballistic theory.

JFK Postcard
The original story of gunfire that was abandoned.

One possibility for this major discrepancy is that the Post and the Times stories were based on the original autopsy report that was later rewritten surreptitiously.

The Times story came from the Associated Press and was attributed to “a reliable source familiar with the autopsy findings.” The Post story was based on “the unofficial report of pathologists,” The stories were consistent with each other, both asserting that:

–Three shots were fired at the presidential limousine from behind.

—-The first shot hit President Kennedy in the shoulder and did not do majaor damage. The bullet “penetrated two or three inches,” according to AP’s account. It “hit him high in the back shoulder,” and caused “no critical harm,” said the Post, adding that the bullet  was recovered. (This account is consistent with the report of two FBI agents who observed the autopsy and said the chief pathologist James Humes had explored the back wound, found it was only two inches deep, and said the bullet had been recovered.)

Washington Post autopsy story
The Post reports on the autopsy that wasn’t

–The second shot wounded Texas Governor John Connally and caused five non-fatal wounds

–The third shot hit President Kennedy in the “lower back side… of the head” (Post) and killed him. AP’s source said the shot “entered the back of the skull and tore open his forehead.”

–The president’s throat wound resulted from fatal head wound. According to the Post, “a fragment from the bullet that hit his head coursed downward and emerged through the front of the throat.” AP’s source said the pathologists “concluded the throat wound was caused by the emergence of a metal fragment or piece of bone resulting from the fatal shot to the head.”

Ten months later the Warren Commission relied on the official pathologists’ report and the theorizing of Arlen Specter to describe a dramatically different scenario. The official story became:

–One shot missed the limousine entirely.

–One shot hit JFK in the back–not the shoulder. It had not stopped after two inches but had passed through his throat, and struck and passed through Governor Connally causing his  wounds. (This is the so-called Single Bullet Theory, which required ignoring the FBI report cited above.)

–One bullet hit JFK in the head, shattering the back of his skull but causing no damage to his forehead or to his throat.

Today, no serious scholar of JFK’s assassination believes in the scenario described by the Post and the Times. How did they get the story of JFK’s autopsy so wrong?

NYT autopsy story
The Times (via AP) reports on the autopsy that wasn’t.

There would seem to be only two possibilities: 1) that the “reliable source” who had access to the pathologists “unofficial findings” was misinformed about some aspects of autopsy; or 2) that the pathologists’  “unofficial findings” changed after these reports were published.

Either way, an allegedly authoritative source, trusted by major news organizations, provided an explanation of the assassination that would not survive serious scrutiny. And all of this happened before any JFK conspiracy theories were in circulation.

Are these stories simply an example of uncareful journalism or a source with bad information? Another possibility exists. In a Warren Commission executive session on January 27, 1964, Chief Counsel J. Lee Rankin said “we have an explanation there in the autopsy that probably a fragment came out the front of the neck,” a statement in perfect alignment with the original newspaper stories but most decidedly not in the autopsy report the Commission later published.

There is more to this story, including serious questions surrounding the chain of custody of the original autopsy report. Assassination Records Review Board analyst Douglas Horne wrote a pair of memos (here and here) on the chain-of-custody problem and the possibility that the autopsy report was rewritten.

This is, of course, a serious charge that would call into fundamental question the Commission’s integrity. But the alternative, that Rankin would make an egregious misstatement, which happened to match the story reported earlier, is a coincidence theory of monumental proportions. These stories are a reminder that the public’s confusion, doubt and suspicions about JFK’s assassination originated in the circumstances of the crime and the government’s inaccurate statements about them not in the writings of conspiracy theorists.

1 thought on “Dec 18 1963: The Times and Post’s stories on the JFK autopsy that wasn’t”

  1. Very interesting indeed. I’ve read everything I can get my hands on about the autopsy. This comes from an AP source, but in all my research on the autopsy witnesses, I can’t recall anyone saying “….and tore open his forehead.” Given the atrocious record of the media reporting on the JFK assassination, this does not surprise me. The CIA controls these newspapers and would be obvious suspects in this disinformation attempt. No witnesses reported any damage to the President’s face…

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