The JFK 100

The President's Autopsy

Were sinister forces controlling the President's autopsy?


A critical moment in Oliver Stone's JFK is the interrogation by New Orleans District Attorney Jim Garrison (Kevin Costner) of Lt. Col. Pierre A. Finck (Peter Maloney), one of the three pathologists who conducted the autopsy of John F. Kennedy.


FLASHBACK TO: the Bethesda autopsy room in 1963. The room is crammed with military officers, Secret Service men and, at the center, three intimidated doctors. Pictures are being taken as they remove bullet fragments.

The three Bethesda Naval Hospital doctors picked by the Military left something to be desired inasmuch as none of them had experience with combat gunfire wounds. Through their autopsy we have been able to justify eight wounds -- three to Kennedy, five to Connally -- from just two bullets, one of these bullets the "magic bullet."

CUT TO: Jim in court with a series of drawings indicating with arrows entry and exit wounds to Kennedy's neck and head. Dr. Finck is on the stand, erect, very precise, and irritated.

Colonel Finck, are you saying someone told you not to dissect the neck?

I was told that the family wanted examination of the head.

As a pathologist it was your obligation to explore all possible causes of death, was it not?

I had the cause of death.

Your Honor, I would ask you to direct the witness to answer my question. Why did Colonel Finck not dissect the track of the bullet wound in the neck?

Well, I heard Dr. Humes stating that -- he said . . .
FLASHBACK TO: Bethesda autopsy room.

Who's in charge here?

I am.

I don't remember his name. You must understand it was quite crowded, and when you are called in circumstances like that to look at the wound of the President who is dead, you don't look around too much to ask people for their names and who they are.

But you were a qualified pathologist. Was this Army general a qualified pathologist?


JIM (V. O.)
But you took his orders. He was directing the autopsy.

No, because there were others. There were admirals.

JIM (V. O.)
There were admirals.

Oh yes, there were admirals -- and when you are a lieutenant colonel in the Army you just follow orders, and at the end of the autopsy we were specifically told -- as I recall it was Admiral Kenney, the Surgeon General of the Navy -- we were specifically told not to discuss the case.(1)


Did sinister conspiratorial forces control the autopsy of the President?

With newly declassified documents and recent interviews, longtime researcher Gus Russo has cleared up much of the controversy surrounding the events at Bethesda Naval Hospital.

Russo writes:


The Kennedy Autopsy

In the cramped quarters of the presidential jet, Jackie Kennedy spent the trip to Washington sitting by her husband's coffin. John Kennedy's personal physician, Dr. George Burkley, knelt in the aisle, and delicately broached the practical decisions that had to be made. Foremost in Burkley's mind was the choice of an autopsy site. Burkley explained that, for security reasons, the autopsy venue should be a military facility. The only ones in the immediate area of Andrews Air Force Base, where the plane would land, were Bethesda Naval Hospital and Walter Reed Army Hospital.

"Of course, the President was in the Navy," whispered JFK aide Godfrey McHugh. "Of course. Bethesda," came Jackie's decision. She would later inform Bobby, "I don't want any undertakers. I want everything done by the Navy."

In November 1963, Dr. James Humes was the lab director at the Bethesda Naval Hospital. In the wake of the presidential assassination, Humes, who was home early that day, was busy calling invitees to cancel a dinner party he and his wife had scheduled for that evening. The assassination had hit the Humeses like many other Americans -- like a loss in the family -- and clearly that evening was an inappropriate time to go ahead with a party. As Humes' wife Ann was telling one friend of the party's cancellation, an emergency operator broke through with a call for James. The caller, at 5:15 PM, was Admiral Edward Kenney, the Surgeon General of the Navy. "Jim, you'd better hurry over to the hospital," said Kenney.

Dr. J. Thornon Boswell was Bethesda's Chief of Pathology. On the afternoon of November 22nd, he was going over autopsy slides with pathology residents when he received a similar call. Like Humes, Boswell was informed that the president's autopsy was to be performed at Bethesda. In 1992, Boswell gave a rare interview to the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), in which he described his reaction:


I argued, "That's stupid. The autopsy should be done at AFIP [five miles away at Walter Reed Army Medical Center]." After all, the AFIP was the apex of military pathology and, perhaps, world pathology. I was told, "That's the way it is. Admiral Burkley [the president's personal physician] wants Bethesda." . . . I was told that Jackie Kennedy selected Bethesda because her husband had been a Navy man.


It was an inconsolable Bobby Kennedy who at 7:30 that evening met the incoming Air Force One carrying his dead brother and his grieving sister-in-law, Jackie. Given what is now known about the practical consequences of the day's tragedy, Bobby could well have been experiencing brain-numbing inner turmoil -- if, in the farthest recesses of his grief-stricken consciousness, he considered them for only a microsecond. That weekend was supposed to have been so much different: by mutual decree, the Lyndon Johnson so despised by the younger Kennedy would soon be wrapping up his final year in the Kennedy administration; with [designated Castro assassin Rolando] Cubela on his way to Havana, and [anti-Castro ally Manuel] Artime in Central America, the equally despised Fidel Castro seemed to be even more endangered.

Instead, Bobby was now addressing Johnson as "Mr. President." The realization may have begun to creep in that El Presidente Castro would outlive them all. Worst of all was the unthinkable possibility that this was all Bobby's fault -- that one of his schemes had backfired. [For more information, see Russo's book, Live by the Sword.] It was against this real world backdrop that Bobby, accompanied by Jackie, rode in the ambulance transporting Jack's body to the Navy's medical facility just outside Washington. The oft-considered October 1964 election now seemed to belong to another universe. Bobby's world had been turned upside down in every way imaginable.


Bobby Continues To Protect His Brother  

"The Kennedy who was really in charge in the [autopsy] tower suite was the Attorney General."

-- William Manchester, author, The Death of a President

"It is true that we were influenced by the fact that we knew Jackie Kennedy was waiting upstairs to accompany the body to the White House and that Admiral Burkley wanted us to hurry as much as possible."

-- Dr. James J. Humes, 1992


While President Kennedy's body was taken to the autopsy suite, the Kennedy entourage was escorted to a 17th floor suite in the hospital tower. Dr. John Walsh, Jackie's obstetrician, arrived, and quickly noticed the unmistakable signs of nervous exhaustion in the widow. She turned to him saying, "Maybe you could just give me something so I could have a little nap." Walsh proceeded to inject her with 100 milligrams of Visatril. The formidable dose had absolutely no effect. Walsh thought, "I might just as well have given her a shot of Coca-Cola."

In addition to choosing the autopsy venue, the Kennedys also attempted to limit the extent of the autopsy, and to rush those performing it. From their 17th floor room, where they were in phone contact with the autopsy suite, Bobby and Jackie Kennedy exerted their influence over the proceedings.

There were still other components to the Kennedy family's "presence" at Bethesda. In 1993, Dr. Pierre Finck, who assisted in the autopsy, described the president's autopsy as only "adequate," and "not as complete as some other autopsies I have done." When pressed for details, Finck stated that neither the abdominal cavity nor the organs of the neck were examined. In addition, no mention was made of adrenals, pituitary, thyroid, parathyroid, larynx, trachea, ureters, urinary bladder, testes, prostrate, gastrointestinal tract, or spinal column. Finck explained that the Kennedy family did not want a "complete" autopsy, adding (contradictorily, it seems), "The Kennedy family did not want us to examine the abdominal cavity, but the abdominal cavity was examined."

Dr. Robert Karnei was present and assisting at most of the autopsy. In 1991, regarding the internal organs that were not dissected, Karnei stated flatly:


They [Boswell and Humes] were not allowed to do that . . . Robert [Kennedy] was really limiting the autopsy . . . We had to get permission all the time from Mrs. Kennedy to proceed with the autopsy . . . Jim [Humes] and Jay [Boswell] were really handicapped that night with regards to performing the autopsy . . . I think it was as complete as they were allowed to do.


Karnei later testified that two days after the autopsy, the Kennedy family circulated a statement that he and all others present were asked to sign. The statement was a pledge that no one would discuss the details of what they saw at the autopsy for twenty-five years. Like everyone else, Karnei obliged.

Complicated homicide autopsies have been known to last for two days. But when John Kennedy's autopsy had been in progress for just two hours, Bobby Kennedy, in his suite on the 17th floor, began growing impatient. It was 10 PM and he was ready to leave with his brother's body. Godfrey McHugh spoke with Bobby by phone and assured him the doctors would be finished by midnight.

In his later testimony, McHugh stated that Bobby Kennedy frequently phoned the autopsy suite, inquiring "about the results, about why the autopsy was taking so much time, and about the need for speed." McHugh said that even after informing Kennedy that the autopsists would need a few more hours, Bobby called frequently to ask why it was taking so long. According to Captain John Stover, the Commander of the Bethesda Naval Medical School, Bobby went so far as to periodically visit the autopsy room during the procedure, further heightening the pressure on the investigators.

Dr. Boswell testified that JFK's physician, Dr. Burkley, made it clear that he didn't want a report on the adrenals. Burkley was in constant phone contact with Bobby and Jackie. An FBI agent present confirmed that, to this point, there was "no question that Burkley was conveying the wishes of the Kennedy family."

The above accounts, taken together, demonstrate a family's abnormal concern over the details of a murder autopsy. There is little doubt about the reason for the Kennedy family intrusions. It was indeed a coverup, but not of the assassination.

During the 1960 primary campaign for president, questions about JFK's health had been raised from many quarters, including that of Lyndon Johnson, then a Democratic rival for the party's nomination. The American public, traditionally sensitive about the health of their candidates, was assured that Kennedy was in fine shape. They were further assured that rumors of his having Addison's disease, about which the voters were particularly concerned, were incorrect.

In fact, the assurance was entirely false. In recent years, it has been learned -- from Kennedy's own autopsists -- that Kennedy's adrenals had atrophied to the point where they had practically evaporated, leaving only a few trace cells behind. The Journal of the American Medical Association summarized the importance of this finding:


The Nixon vs. Kennedy presidential election of 1960 was extremely close; a scant 0.17% (114,673) of voters separated the victor from the loser. The mental and physical health of a presidential candidate in 1992 -- or in 1960 -- is of great political concern to the electorate. But had the American people been told that one candidate had suffered for more than 13 years from an incurable, potentially fatal, although fully treatable disease and that there were potential serious adverse effects of treatment, would the election results have been different?


When asked about Kennedy's adrenals in 1992, Dr. Finck curtly cut off this line of questioning, saying, "Don't even ask. There were no wounds in the abdomen; the adrenal glands have nothing to do with the wounds and the assassination of the President." Asked the same question, Dr. Humes answered, "I am not prepared to answer this question now . . . At some time in the near future, Jay [Boswell] and I will have to sit down and write for history our report on the condition of the President's adrenal glands." In 1996, Boswell admitted to the Assassinations Record Review Board that Humes in fact promised the Kennedy family attorney, Burke Marshall, "that we would not discuss the adrenals until all the members of the Kennedy family were dead."

Of even more potential embarrassment was the fact that JFK suffered from severe and persistent venereal disease -- gonorrhea, specifically. Long-rumored, this fact became conclusive when the notes of JFK's physician, Dr. William Herbst, were made available at the Kennedy Library in Boston in 1992. Those notes clearly reveal his treatment of Kennedy's massive "gonococcal infections."

Herbst was originally called in 1950, after the renowned Lahey Clinic of Boston had failed to halt Kennedy's VD infection. Not only did the clinic admit failure, but so did Herbst, who treated JFK for 10 years before passing the baton to Dr. Janet Travell, the new President's personal physician. The available medical record shows that Kennedy continued to receive massive doses of penicillin (600,000 units at a time) throughout his presidency, including one injection on the very day of the Bay of Pigs invasion.

Thus, on the evening of November 22, decisions were made by Robert Kennedy to perpetuate the lie of JFK's health history -- a move that also served to consolidate the myth of Camelot. For years, this secrecy fed the flames of rumors about a government-based conspiracy. In 1998, after an exhaustive review of the events, the Assassinations Record Review Board concluded that, "[in] protecting the privacy and the sensibilities of the president's family -- the legacy of such secrecy has caused distrust and suspicion."

Before leaving the autopsy suite, Dr. Finck was specifically instructed by the Surgeon General of the Navy not to discuss the case without first coordinating with Robert Kennedy. That directive was bolstered two weeks later, on December 6, when Bobby Kennedy directed JFK's personal physician, Dr. Travell (over her strong objections), that "all correspondence which deals with a personal medical matter should be regarded as privileged information, and should not go to the Central Files."



Article continues below.


Lt. Col. Pierre A. Finck


The Flawed "Autopsy of the Century"

It was under these extreme pressures that the overwhelmed autopsists proceeded. Political realities and personal considerations dominated. Much of the controversy that would later surround the JFK autopsy focused on the competence of Drs. Humes and Boswell. In fact, given what they were charged to determine, they were competent. "My orders were to find the cause of death," Humes later recalled. And therein lies the crux of the controversy.

There is a fundamental difference between a pathological autopsy (as performed by Humes and Boswell) and a legal-forensic autopsy performed in murder cases. Although Humes and Boswell determined the cause of death, a bullet to JFK's head, they were not precise enough for medical-legal standards -- which they weren't told to consider. (In truth, the doctors should have been prescient enough to undertake this type of autopsy without being so directed.) As a result, the President's head was not shaved, and the brain not sectioned. These procedures would have determined the exact point of entrance and trajectory of the fatal wound.

The doctors made at least two other clear mistakes: First, they attempted to track the angle of Kennedy's back wound with their fingers. Considered an unpardonable breach of medical protocol, this action made the wound impossible to accurately describe. Secondly, the Bethesda staff didn't consult with the Dallas doctors prior to the autopsy. If they had, their initial impressions about the wound to Kennedy's back, and their subsequent investigation, would have been very different. The Dallas emergency crew, in performing a tracheotomy, had obliterated the exit wound in the front of Kennedy's throat. Therefore, those given the job of describing Kennedy's wounds didn't see even one of them. It wasn't until a discussion the following day with Dallas that the Bethesda doctors realized their oversight.

Dr. Michael Baden, a former New York Medical examiner, recently summarized the performance of the Bethesda physidans. "In 1963, there was little appreciation for the difference of the two very different types of autopsies available," explains Baden. "There was the usual hospital one, which is what the President received, and there was the forensic one. Most people mistakenly thought a pathologist was a pathologist."

Years later, when Dr. Pierre Finck testified about the disconcerting presence of the military at the autopsy; another conspiratorial thread was woven. According to some, Finck's testimony is evidence of military control of the autopsy. What Finck may not have realized was that the military men were all aides to the dead President. [See also The JFK 100: "26 trained medical personnel at Parkland Hospital."]

In 1992, Dr. Humes recalled the scene: "The President's military aides from the Air Force, Army, and Navy were all present, and they were all in dress uniforms, but they weren't generals and their influence on the autopsy was zero," Humes recalled. "The only high-ranking officer was Admiral Burkley [JFK's personal physician] and he left shortly after the autopsy began to join Jackie and Bobby upstairs." Dr. Finck recently expressed his agreement with Humes, saying, "I saw generals, but they did not interfere with the autopsy. There was no military interference."(2)


Click here for the report of the House Select
Committee's investigation of the autopsy.

Click here for detailed information
on the medical evidence.



Copyright © 2001 by David Reitzes


You may wish to see . . .

The JFK 100: "26 Trained Medical Personnel at Parkland Hospital."


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1. Oliver Stone and Zachary Sklar, JFK: The Book of the Film (New York: Applause, 1992), pp. 157-59. All quotations are from the shooting script and may vary slightly from the finished motion picture. In reality, Lt. Col. Finck's cross-examination was conducted by Assistant District Attorney Al Oser, not Jim Garrison.

2. Gus Russo, Live by the Sword (Baltimore: Bancroft, 1998), pp. 323-28.



You may wish to see . . .

The JFK 100: "26 Trained Medical Personnel at Parkland Hospital"


Back to the top

Back to The JFK 100

Back to Oliver Stone's JFK

Back to Jim Garrison menu

Back to JFK menu


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