Dorothy Kilgallen

Dead in the Wake of the Kennedy Assassination

Dorothy Kilgallen: Mysterious Death?

If you believe what the conspiracy books tell you, and know little else about the case, then the death of Dorothy Kilgallen, like many deaths of people tangentially connected to the case, seems "mysterious."  Kilgallen, a gossip columnist for the New York Journal-American and a panelist on the popular game show "What's My Line" was found dead in her New York City apartment on November 8, 1965.

How was she connected to the Kennedy assassination, and why was her death "mysterious?" Conspiracy author Jim Marrs explains:

Whatever information Kilgallen learned and from whatever source, many researchers believe it brought about her strange death. She told attorney Mark Lane: "They've killed the President, [and] the government is not prepared to tell us the truth . . . " and that she planned to "break the case." To other friends she said: "This has to be a conspiracy! . . . I'm going to break the real story and have the biggest scoop of the century." And in her last column item regarding the assassination, published on September 3, 1965, Kilgallen wrote: "This story isn't going to die as long as there's a real reporter alove — and there are a lot of them."

But on November 8, 1965, there was one less reporter. That day Dorothy Kilgallen was found dead in her home. It was initially reported that she died of a heart attack, but quickly this was changed to an overdose of alcohol and pills. (Crossfire, p. 425)

How much of this is true, and how much of what's true is "mysterious?"

Let's start with the story as reported in Kilgallen's own paper, the Journal-American.

Dorothy Kilgallen, famed columnist of the Journal-American, died today at her home, 45 E. 68th St.  She was 52.

Miss Kilgallen died in her sleep.  She was found by a maid and a hairdresser who came to the home to keep a 12:15 p.m. appointment. Alongside her bed was a book which she apparently had been reading before falling asleep.

She had written her last column, which appears in today's editions, early in the morning and had sent it to The Journal-American offices by messenger at 2:30 am.

. . .

Miss Kilgallen's husband, actor and producer Richard Kollmar, and their youngest child, Kerry, were sleeping in other rooms when she died.

The article notes that Kilgallen's father said that Kilgallen "apparently suffered a heart attack." Marrs makes this out to be a sinister "story," but it clearly was the speculation of a grieving father who knew his daughter had been found dead with no evidence of foul play.

A week later, in the Nov. 15, 1965 number, the Journal-American quoted Assistant Medical Examiner James Luke on what happened:

The death of Dorothy Kilgallen, Journal-American columnist and famed TV personality, was contributed to by a combination of moderate quantities of alcohol and barbiturates, a medical examiner's report stated today.

. . .

As many personalities whose multiple duties and responsibilities demand unceasing attention, Miss Kilgallen experienced recurring tensions in meeting her deadlines for performances — both as a newspaperwoman and TV performer.

In his report today, Dr. James Luke, Assistant Medical Examiner, said that although Miss Kilgallen had only "moderate amounts of each," the effect of the combination had caused depression of the central nervous system "which in turn caused her heart to stop."

The details of Kilgallen's death are recorded in documents produced by the office of the Medical Examiner. These are National Archives Record Number 180-10071-10433 — Agency File number 007250 from the House Select Committee on Assassinations.

This set of documents includes the "Report of Death" form from the Office of Chief Medical Examiner, the "Autopsy Report" (with the autopsy being performed by Junior Medical Examiner James Luke with doctors Sturner and Baden present), a handwritten addendum to the "Autopsy Report" that gave the microscopic and chemical findings, and "Notice of Death" of the Office of Chief Medical Examiner of the City of New York.

Key points include:

  1. Her husband was with her in her New York east side apartment, although not in the same bedroom. 
  2. Her husband said she returned from "What's My Line" feeling chipper. She went to her bedroom. The next day he found her dead.
  3. The examination of the body at the scene found "no trauma" and "no signs violence" [sic].
  4. The autopsy found no injuries whatsoever that could account for her death, nor any evidence of a struggle nor (say) pills being forced down her throat.
  5. The cause of death in the autopsy says "PENDING FURTHER STUDY." A handwritten note below that says "Acute ethanol and barbiturate intoxication. Circumstances undetermined." This handwritten note was apparently based on the chemical findings, which were appended to the report. She had a blood alcohol level of 0.15, and barbiturate level that says "UV - 2.4 [illegible]" in the liver.
Conclusion? It's really impossible to believe some Oliver Stone scenario of hoods coming into her apartment and forcing a bunch of pills down her throat. Neither the alcohol nor the barbiturate level was absurdly high, as it would be with an intentional overdose. I suppose it's possible she committed suicide by mixing both alcohol and barbiturates intentionally, but this really looks like an accident.

And she seemed to be in good spirits the night she died. Quoting the Journal-American:

A member for years of the panel on the nationwide CBS TV show "What's My Line," Miss Kilgallen appeared with the panel last night.

She was at her usual best, asking probing questions and guessing the occupation of two of the five persons who appeared on the show.

"She was in excellent spirits and, as usual, right on the ball," said John Daly, moderator of the show.

Of course, the Journal-American would have a vested interest in presenting their columnist in the best light. But it's also true that the "Report of Death" quoted her husband saying she was "chipper" after appearing on "What's My Line."

Interestingly, she was working on a book to be titled Murder One. It was to be a compilation and study of all the trials she had covered — including the Sam Sheppard trial, the Wayne Lonegan trial, the Dr. Bernard Finch trial, as well as the trial of Bruno Hauptman. There is no mention in the article that the book would include the Jack Ruby trial, although it's very logical to assume it would have done so, since she had covered it and it was even more celebrated than the others (Journal-American, Nov. 8, 1965).

In fact, in the November 15, 1965 article, it is claimed that she was particularly happy that she had completed the preface to her book and submitted it to Bennet Cerf, fellow panelist on "What's My Line" and "a book publisher."

Still, if she had "broken open" the JFK assassination case, it's very hard to see why she would have relegated her earth-shaking information to a chapter in a book that covered a half-dozen or so murder cases, rather than writing a book on the assassination, or using her column to reveal the nature of the plot. In fact, she had written numerous columns on the assassination. None of the columns, however, contained any earth shaking information. Rather, they just repeated conspiracy factoids that had been, or soon would be, all over the JFK assassination literature.

Her claim that she was going to "break the case" appears to be nothing beyond professional bravado. She never claimed to "have broken" the case, or said "I know who the conspirators were." Whatever her high hopes, there is no evidence that she had any information dangerous to any conspiracy, nor that she would have been able to do what no reporter has done since.

Her death was thus yet another tragedy trivialized by conspiracist "researchers."

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