Kennedy's body on autopsy table at Bethesda

Could The Parkland Doctors Have Seen the Back of Kennedy's Head?

It's the famous "Stare of Death" photograph (right). John Kennedy lying face up on a gurney in the morgue at Bethesda Naval Hospital.

In the Parkland Emergency Room, Kennedy was likewise lying face up as the doctors efficiently, but hopelessly, went through the routine of trying to save his life. A generation of conspiracy authors has quoted the accounts of the Dallas doctors as evidence that the back of Kennedy's head was blown out — supposed evidence of a shot from the front.

Not surprisingly, conspiracy authors quote the doctors accounts very selectively. But what of the accounts that clearly seem to say the back of Kennedy's head was blown out? In interpreting the rather imprecise language of the Parkland doctors, it's important to keep in mind what they could have seen, and what they could not have seen.

Let's look at some of their accounts. In the following excerpts from testimony given to the Warren Commission, emphasis has been added:

Dr. BAXTER. . . . We then gave him or Dr. Perry and Dr. Clark alternated giving him closed chest cardiac massage only until we could get a cardioscope hooked up to tell us if there were any detectible heartbeat electrically present, at least, and there was none, and we discussed at that moment whether we should open the chest to attempt to revive him, while the closed chest massage was going on, and we had an opportunity to look at his head wound then and saw that the damage was beyond hope, that is, in a word — literally the right side of his head had been blown off. With this and the observation that the cerebellum was present — a large quantity of brain was present on the cart, well — we felt that such an additional heroic attempt was not warranted, and we did not pronounce him dead but ceased our efforts, and awaited the priest and last rites before we pronounced him dead. 6H41

Dr. BAXTER (again) . . . . The President had a wound in the midline of the neck.. On first observation of the remaining wounds, the temporal and parietal [note actually says "occipital" - ed.] bones were missing and the brain was lying on the table with extensive lacerations and contusions. The pupils were fixed and deviated laterally and dilated. No pulse was detectable, respirations were (as noted) being supplemented.

Due to the extensive and irreparable brain damage which was detected, no further attempt to resuscitate the heart was made. 6H44

Dr. PERRY. He was lying supine on the emergency cart directly in the center of the room under the overhead lamp. His shirt had been removed, and intravenous infusion was being begun in the right leg, I believe. Dr. Carrico was at the head of the table attaching the oxygen apparatus to assist in respiration.

I noted there was a large wound of the right posterior parietal area in the head exposing lacerated brain. There was blood and brain tissue on the cart. The President's eyes were deviated and dilated and he was unresponsive. There was a small wound in t he lower anterior third in the midline of the neck, from which blood was exuding very slowly. 6H9

Dr. JENKINS. . . . Now, Dr. Clark had begun closed chest cardiac massage at this time and I was aware of the magnitude of the wound, because with each compression of the chest, there was a great rush of blood from the skull wound. Part of the brain was herniated; I really think part of the cerebellum, as I recognized it, was herniated from the wound; there was part of the brain tissue, broken fragments of the brain tissue on the drapes of the cart on which the President lay. 6H48
Mr. SPECTER. Will you describe as precisely as you can the nature of the head wound?

Dr. JONES. There was large defect in the back side of the head as the President lay on the cart with what appeared to be some brain hanging out of this wound with multiple pieces of skull noted next with the brain and with a tremendous amount of clot and blood. 6H52-53

Mr. SPECTER. Did you have any opportunity specifically to look for a small wound which was below the large opening of the skull on the right side of the head?

Dr. CARRICO. No, sir; at least initially there was no time to examine the patient completely for all small wounds. As we said before, this was an acutely ill patient and all we had time to do was to determine what things were life-threatening right then and attempt to resuscitate him and after which a more complete examination would be carried out and we didn't have time to examine for other wounds. (3 H 361)

Mr. SPECTER. Was the President's body then ever turned over at any point by you or any of the other doctors at Parkland?

Dr. CARRICO. No, sir.

Mr. SPECTER. Was President Kennedy lying on the emergency stretcher from the time he was brought into trauma room one until the treatment at Parkland Hospital was concluded?

Dr. CARRICO. Yes; he was. (3 H 363)

Mr. SPECTER. Why did you not take the time to turn him over?

Dr. CARRICO. This man was in obvious extreme distress and any more thorough inspection would have involved several minutes-well, several — considerable time which at this juncture was not available. A thorough inspection would have involved washing and cleansing the back, and this is not practical in treating an acutely injured patient. You have to determine which things, which are immediately life threatening and cope with them, before attempting to evaluate the full extent of the injuries. (6 H 2-3)

Mr. SPECTER. With respect to the head wound, Dr. Akin, did you observe below the gaping wound which you have described any other bullet wound in the back of the head?

Dr. AKIN. No; I didn't. I could not see the back of the President's head as such, and the right posterior neck was obscured by blood and skull fragments and I didn't make any attempt to examine the neck. (6 H 66)

Dr. MCCLELLAND. As I took the position at the head of the table that I have already described, to help out with the tracheotomy, I was in such a position that I could very closely examine the head wound, and I noted that the right posterior portion of the skull had been extremely blasted. It had been shattered, apparently, by the force of the shot so that the parietal bone was protruded up through the scalp and seemed to be fractured almost along its right posterior half, as well as some of the occipital bone being fractured in its lateral half, and this sprung open the bones that I mentioned in such a way that you could actually look down into the skull cavity itself and see that probably a third or so, at least, of the brain tissue, posterior cerebral tissue and some of the cerebellar tissue had been blasted out. There was a large amount of bleeding which was occurring mainly from the large venous channels in the skull which had been blasted open.

[Then later]

Mr. SPECTER. Did you observe anything in the nature of a wound on his body other than that which you have already described for me?
Mr. SPECTER. In what position was President Kennedy maintained from the time you saw him until the pronouncement of death?
Dr. McCLELLAND. On his back on the cart.
Mr. SPECTER. On his what?
Dr. McCLELLAND. On his back on the stretcher.
Mr. SPECTER. Was he on the stretcher at all times?
Mr. SPECTER. In the trauma room No. 1 you described, is there any table onto which he could be placed from the stretcher?
Dr. McCLELLAND. No; generally we do not move patients from the stretcher until they are ready to go into the operating room and then they are moved onto the operating table.
Mr. SPECTER. Well, in fact, was he left on the stretcher all during the course of these procedures until he was pronounced dead?
Dr. McCLELLAND. That's right.
Mr. SPECTER. Then, at any time was he positioned in a way where you could have seen the back of his body?
Mr. SPECTER. Did you observe any gunshot wound on his back?

[Then later]

Mr. SPECTER. Did you observe the condition of the back of the President's head?
Dr. McCLELLAND. Well, partially; not, of course, as I say, we did not lift his head up since it was so greatly damaged. We attempted to avoid moving him any more than it was absolutely necessary, but I could see, of course, all the extent of the wound.
Mr. SPECTER. You saw a large opening which you have already described?
Dr. McCLELLAND. I saw the large opening which I have described.

More on Carrico

On March 5, 1981, C. James Carrico sent a letter to Ben Bradlee (Jr.) of The Boston Globe responding to a query from Bradlee. Bradlee had apparently asked him about the standard conspiracist claim that the doctors saw the "back of the head" blown out, and that this contradicted the autopsy photos.

In response to the Ida Dox drawing of the Back of the Head Photo, the one that shows no large defect, Carrico told Bradlee that:

". . . there is nothing in the pictures and drawings that is incompatible with the injury as I remember it."
He then continues:
"We never saw, and did not look for, any posterior wound. Our responsibility was to evaluate the wounds from the standpoint of what might be done to keep the patient alive. . . . The wounds as we looked at them were from the front and top with the patient laying on a gurney on his back."
Carrico then goes on to say he has enclosed a drawing of the wound. The drawing is indeed attached, and it shows the wound above the ear, and mostly posterior to the ear. It shows no part of the wound involving occipital bone. It shows no part of the wound anywhere near the External Occipital Protuberance.

In another letter from Carrico to Bradley, dated April 8, 1981, Carrico continues:

". . . the drawing which you have asked my opinion about [apparently the McClelland drawing] is, in part, commensurate with what I saw. Specifically, it was a very large wound as indicated in the drawing. However, I do not believe that the large wound was this far posterior since, one thing I can be certain of, is that we were able to see the majority, if not all of this wound, with the patient laying on his back on a hospital gurney. The location of the wound represented in the drawing suggests that it would barely have been visible, if visible at all, with the patient laying in such a position."
This exchange is from the archives of the JFK Library in Boston (accession number MS-81-74).

Then, in the early 1990s, author Gerald Posner talked to Carrico about the wound:

"We did say there was a parietal-occipital wound," recalls Dr Carrico. "We did say we saw shattered brain, cerebellum, in the cortex area, and I think we were mistaken. The reason I say that is that the President was lying on his back and shoulders and you could not see the hole, with scalp and brain tissue hanging back down his head, and it covered most of the occipital portion of his head. We saw a large hole on the right side of his head. I don't believe we saw any occipital bone. It was not there. It was parietal bone. And if we said otherwise, we were mistaken." (Case Closed, 309-10)
In spite of Carrico's quite consistent insistence that he could not have seen a back of the head wound, conspiracists have consistently classified him as a "back of the head" witness!

More Boston Globe Witnesses

While the Boston Globe got a letter from Carrico, they personally interviewed several of the other medical witnesses. The interviews were done by journalist Ben Bradlee, Jr. and Nils Bruzelius (apparently his research assistant). Tapes from these interviews can be found at the JFK Library in Boston (accession number MR-81-60).

Adolph Giesecke

Giesecke was interviewed on March 2, 1981 at Parkland Hospital. He was asked how he was positioned, and he said he was at Kennedy's right shoulder, and applied some electrodes. He was asked how Kennedy was positioned.
Q. "Flat on his back?"

A. "Facing straight forward."

Giesecke said he saw the wound, but didn't examine it. He was told "draw what you remember." He then went on to describe a:
A: ". . . large defect in the skull that measures maybe 10 cm. across by maybe 20 cm. long. The defect is in the right side of the skull extending from probably the occipital area and the area just above the mastoid process forward to the suture line between the parental [sic] and parietal bone and then superiorly almost to the midline."

Q: "You've drawn it primarily in the parietal area, haven't you?"

A: "Yep."

The interviewers were skeptical that witnesses could clearly see the extent of the wound, as reflected in the following exchange:
Q: "Were the borders of the wound fairly easy to distinguish or were they obscured either by tissue spilling out or by blood?"

A: "There was a pool of blood that the head was laying in . . . the posterior border was obscured because the head was laying in a pool of blood."

Paul Peters

Peters was interviewed by the Boston Globe on 4 March 1981.

Peters explained that he was located on Kennedy's right side at the abdomen. As the doctors were considering opening Kennedy's chest for open-heart massage, Jenkins suggested looking at the brain.

A: "We stepped up and looked inside the skull."

Q: "Was the wound readily visible even without moving the president's head?"

A: "Oh, yes, that's right, that's right."

Q: "Did someone at some point pick up the head in some fashion to try to get a closer look at it?"

A: "I think we inspected it carefully but I don't think anyone actually just . . . after we started the resuscitative efforts . . . picked up and moved it around much . . . at all."

Peters then added that somebody else might have done that at some other time without his noticing. In spite of his statement that he saw the wound without ever moving the head, he is counted as a "back of the head" witness by conspiracists.

Patricia Gustafson

Gustafson was interviewed at her home in Dallas on 3/4/81. She clearly described a wound in the occipital area. The interviewers then took up the question of how she could have seen such a wound.
Q: "You had to actually lift up the head?"

A: "I tried to apply the pressure bandage when I saw the wound, which could have been a little bit higher relating to his head being extended back somewhat."

The interviewers, obviously concerned that she could not possibly have seen the wound she drew without lifting up Kennedy's head, then pressed her on how she could see the wound.
A: "As well as I recall I did not lift the head up."
She then suggests she could have seen the back of the head because JFK's head perhaps extended off the end of the cart. When the interviewers return to the issue a bit later in the interview, she says she doesn't recall any position but flat on his back.

Gene Akin

Akin was interviewed in March of 1981, apparently at an airport.

Asked to describe the wound, Akin said it was a "hole as big as your fist" in the "right parietal region." The interviewers ask Akin whether he lifted the head up. He said he "didn't take that liberty." Akin said that the rear margin of the wound might have extended back further. Consistent with what he told the Warren Commission, he repeated he "never saw his brain in rear view." But conspiracists continue to list him as a "back of the head" witness.

The Assassination Records Review Board

The most recent series of inverviews with the Parkland doctors was conducted in the 1990s by the Assassination Records Review Board, and they continued to insist that any assessment of damage to Kennedy's head was difficult or impossible. The questioning was done by Jeremy Gunn.
GUNN: Now, I am approaching this as a layperson, which may be good or may be bad. I would have imagined myself if I had seen President Kennedy in Trauma Room 1 and this part of the skull — the part that's within Line 1 of Dr. Boswell — if this were missing, I would imagine it would be noticeable to me as a layperson that there is severe damage to the skull. Is — would that be a misperception on my part?
PETERS: Depends on which angle you approached him.
McC: From the front you might not —
PETERS: right.
McC: — think that.
PETERS: That's right.
GUNN: So none of you made observations that would — or maybe the question is: Did any of you see any appearance of damage by looking just at the scalp and just at the hair that would suggest that that much of the skull was missing, or were you even in the position to be able to —
JONES: Well I think you could see the top part of the head reasonably well. He had a very thick bushy head of hair —
JONES: — and it was difficult to see down through the hair.
JONES: I didn't see any indentation of the skull or anything like half of the top of the head was missing.
BAXTER: All matted with blood. Unless you were up there and directly examining it, I don't think anybody could make a statement from what I saw. I mean it was just one mass of blood and hair.
PETERS: I was amazed when I saw the first x-ray of the skull — the lateral skull of the extent of the fragmentation of the skull. I did not appreciate that I think because a lot of it was covered by scalp at the time we worked on him. We were doing a resuscitation, not a forensic autopsy.
Not only was Kennedy lying on his back, but the blood and brain tissue from his massive head wound rendered the whole thing a gruesome mess. The doctors were not doing an autopsy, therefore most of them paid very little attention to the wound.

So what did the doctors mean when they said "back" or "posterior" or "occipital" wound? It must have been something they could see without moving the president, with the back of his head lying flat on the stretcher. Quite simply, they could not have actually seen the area near the External Occipital Protuberance that conspiracists think was blown out. But then, everything behind the ears is "posterior," and also — depending on your perspective — "back." And the wound that the autopsy photos and x-rays show is indeed mostly "posterior."

Thanks to Barb Junkkarinen, who supplied the ARRB transcript quoted above, and Dave Reitzes, who brought some of the Warren Commission testimony to this writer's attention.
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