Conspiracy books, videos and movies like Oliver Stone's "JFK" regale their audience by claiming "all those witnesses" who heard shots from the Grassy Knoll in Dealey Plaza. Sometimes the numbers quoted sound like hard information, but usually they can't stand up to scrutiny.

51 Witnesses?

Let's start with something really silly. This article, by Harold Feldman claims that 51 witnesses heard shots from the Grassy Knoll. This claim was repeated in "JFK," mouthed by Kevin Costner (playing Jim Garrison) as he addressed the jury in the Clay Shaw conspiracy trial. Unfortunately, Feldman doesn't list the 51 supposed Grassy Knoll witnesses, and his assessment of the witnesses he does list is wildly at variance with their actual testimony in many cases.

Pie Chart -- Thompson's tabulation

The article is from John Kelin's Fair Play web site.

Josiah Thompson

Less silly, but still heavily inflated is the tabulation done by Josiah Thompson for his book Six Seconds in Dallas. Thompson admitted that a large number of witnesses heard shots coming from the Texas School Book Depository, but he claimed a larger number of witnesses who had heard shots from the Grassy Knoll. The pie chart at right shows that Thompson categorized 33 witnesses, or 51.6% of his sample, as hearing the shots coming from the Grassy Knoll. This number of Knoll witnesses is reasonably accurate (as we shall see) but Thompson radically undercounted Depository witnesses.

The table below lists some representative errors that Thompson made:

Some of Thompson's Classification Errors
Witness Thompson Classification Correct Classification What Witness Said
Bobby Hargis Knoll Uncertain "There wasn't any way in the world I could tell where they were coming from." 6H294-295
Nellie Connally Uncertain Depository Heard shots from the "right" and turned around to see JFK with arms to throat. 4H147-149. Told CBS that she heard shots from "behind us, over my right shoulder."
Amos Lee Euins Uncertain Depository Reported seeing shooter in Depository, 2H201-210
Charles Hester Knoll Depository Shots "definitely came from in or around" the Texas School Book Depository. Decker Exhibit No. 5323
Hurchel Jacks Knoll Depository After turn on at Houston and Elm, shot came from "right rear" CE 1024
Marilyn Sitzman Uncertain Depository Told Deputy John Wiseman shots came from "Old Sexton Building" [Depository] Decker Exhibit No. 5323
Emmett Hudson Knoll Depository Said shots came from "the rear of the President's car and above it" 7H564
Mrs. R. A. Reid Uncertain Depository A Depository employee, she said shots had "come from our building." CE 2003, p. 54
Abraham Zapruder Knoll Uncertain Said he had no opinion of where the shots came from "by the sound" . . . "there was too much reverberation. There was an echo which gave me a sound all over" 7H572

Pie Chart -- House Select Committee

House Select Committee

The next important tabulation of earwitness testimony came from the House Select Committee on Assassinations. They found only 20 witnesses who actually believed they heard the shots from the vicinity of the Grassy Knoll, and 46 who thought the shots came from the direction of the Depository. See House Select Committee, Volume 2, p. 122.

Their willingness to acknowledge the large number of witnesses who heard shots from the Depository was a huge improvement on Thompson's tabulation. But unfortunately, the House Select Committee undercounted Grassy Knoll witnesses. They apparently did this by demanding a high degree of precision from witnesses in order to count them in the category "Grassy Knoll." But unfortunately, witness testimony is often quite vague.

Stewart Galanor

A recent conspiracy-oriented tabulation comes from Stewart Galanor, author of Coverup. Galanor claims 52 Knoll witnesses, although he admits that there were 48 Depository witnesses (see right). Stewart Galanor tabulation

Galanor has done students of the assassination an important service by putting selected testimony from the witnesses online.

Galanor inflates the number of Knoll witnesses by a few dubious classifications, and by his decision to classify every witness who saw "smoke" in Dealey Plaza as a Knoll witness even if they didn't believe they heard any shots from the Knoll. Galanor believes that the "smoke" was evidence of a Grassy Knoll shooter, but in reality the witnesses mentioned "smoke" and "steam" and "motorcycle exhaust." The "smoke" could very easily have been exhaust from one of the police motorcycles in the motorcade, or even cigarette smoke from men behind the stockade fence (where cigarette butts were found).

The simple fact is that modern firearms don't emit large clouds of smoke that hang in the air, as Oliver Stone discovered when he was filming the movie "JFK." Failing to find a rifle that emitted the needed cloud of smoke, he had a special effects man blow smoke from a bellows.

Definitive Tabulation

In an attempt to correct the deficiencies of earlier tabulations, I enlisted several students in my class on the Kennedy assassination to go through the testimony with a "fine tooth comb." I then reviewed the assessments the students had made, and changed a handful that I thought to be inaccurate. In 2013, a few witnesses who had not been identified nor included in any previous tabulation were added. The witnesses were identified David Von Pein and John Reagor King on the newsgroup alt.assassination.jfk, and Kyle Whelton meticulously tracked down the primary sources on their testimony. Pie Chart -- McAdams/POSC 191 Tabulation

The results are presented in the pie chart at right, and the detailed data can be found here.

As can be seen, 33 witnesses believed that the shots came from the Grassy Knoll (or at least the direction of the Knoll), and 64 thought the shots came from the Depository (or at least, in that direction). Eight witnesses thought the shots came from a location entirely distinct from the Knoll and the Depository (including two who thought the shots came from inside the car!), and three witnesses thought they heard shots from two locations. Witnesses who didn't know, or couldn't distinguish between the Knoll and the Depository are excluded.

This "two locations" number is exceedingly important.

There is overwhelming evidence that at least some shots were fired from behind the motorcade. Several witnesses saw a shooter, or at least a gun in the sixth floor sniper's nest window. The medical evidence is clear that both Kennedy and Connally were hit from behind (regardless of whether either was also hit from the front). Once we understand that at least some shots came from behind, it is hard to see how shots could also have come from the Grassy Knoll without more witnesses reporting shots from more than one direction. It begins to look like some were confused about the direction of the shots.

John and Nellie Connally describing source of shots

Some Witnesses Are Better Than Others

Some of the best witnesses are those who were riding in the motorcade. Not only did they have clear lines of sight to both the Depository and the Grassy Knoll (making them less likely to be confused by echos), but many of them also showed a high degree of presence of mind in a traumatic situation.

Key examples: John and Nellie Connally, who were riding with John and Jackie Kennedy in the presidential limo. In the 1960s, they gave their account of the source of the shots in an interview with CBS.

You can see a streaming video clip of John and Nellie Connally (128K ISDN or better connection) by clicking here, or click here to download the clip to your hard drive. (You may need to right-click and pick "Save Link As.") Either way, you'll need the Real Media player to see these clips.

All witnesses are fallible, but John and Nellie are two of the best.

Does Any of This Matter?

In reality, witness perceptions about the direction of shots have only limited value. One standard forensics text notes:
It is extremely difficult to tell direction by sound of discharge of a firearm. . . . (Hatcher, Jury, and Weller, Firearms Investigations, and Evidence, First Edition, 1935, pp. 419-420)
So even if the majority of witnesses did hear shots from the Depository, that's not particularly strong proof of anything. But:

How Many Shots?

Pie chart -- number of shots

But how many shots did the witnesses hear? Overwhelmingly, only three. And of those who did not hear exactly three shots, more heard fewer than heard more than three shots. Remember, most conspiracy scenarios require six or eight shots.

Could the majority of the witnesses be wrong, and the shots have come from the Knoll? Of course. But conspiracy books, videos, and movies like "JFK" that imply that all or most of the Dealey Plaza witnesses thought the shots came from the Grassy Knoll are not being honest.

Tabluation of number of shots done by Joel Grant


Return to Kennedy Assassination Home Page