Whodunnit xxx: Conclusion

I asked M if Douglass or Salandria had responded to Bugliosi. He didn’t know. Once he’d concluded “no doubt was possible as to the fact of a conspiracy,” he said, “(I chose) not to waste my time with any author… unable to accept this simple truth.”
The on-line site www.maryferrell.com took on the challenge of rebutting Reclaiming History . It provided a repository of detailed analyses of bullet fragments, audiotapes of police radio transmissions, head and throat wounds, the whereabouts of various individuals within the book depository at the time leading up to the shootings, and a time-line of Oswald’s movements from then until Tippit’s shooting in order to prove Bugliosi wrong.
Some of these entries seemed more convincing than others. Some seemed beyond my comprehension in their technicality. Some seemed silly. The Salandria-connected journalist, Gaeton Fonzi, for instance, traced his disbelief in the Warren Commission to Arlen Specter’s failure to remember exactly where the bullet had struck Kennedy in the back when interviewed in 1966. (Fonzi went on to express his belief that anti-Castro Cubans, linked with the CIA agent who would write the novel in which the anti-CIA left kills Kennedy, and, less directly, with Oswald, were involved in… Well, Fonzi never said.) In fact, none of Mary Ferrell’s contributors moved beyond their particular areas of doubt to build an entire sequence of events to explain what occurred.
Certainly some threads in the Warren Commission narrative are more securely anchored to its fabric than others. Bodies must have aligned in a particular wayt. Oswald must have traveled from the depository at a certain clip in a certain way to encounter Tippit. But the narrative woven around these problematics seems sturdier than one involving two or three or four shooters, most unseen, most leaving no traces, most arrivals and departures unaccounted for.
Certainly, too, I have questions. Where, I wonder, was Oswald going when he left his room with no money and his pistol? I also wonder why Douglass and Salandria insist on eliminating Oswald from the shooting entirely. If he wasn’t firing his rifle, then the conspiracy needed two shooters in the depository, plus at least one on the knoll, raising the risk of someone being apprehended by one-third, not to mention all those Oswald doubles to falsely implicate him.
So it’s confusing. How do you sort it out? My own inclination is to give little weight to any individual eyewitness. Memories are too unreliable. Too many disagreements abound. Some witnessed may be entirely or partially correct , but simply by comparing their accounts you can’t tell which. (I think you can fairly discount the witness who heard shots being fired within the limousine, but beyond that…) The expert testimony is more compelling. Even though you can usually find an expert to testify on either side of any proposition, it is usually easier to decide which of these to believe. (And these beliefs, as they form, tend to lead credence to some eyewitnesses and cast doubt upon others.) And finally there is the objective evidence, like the X-rays and photographs and films. They show what they show, and when you dispute them, you are led into beliefs about forgeries and alterations and substituted body parts. I find it easier to believe in the alignment of particular bodies in a particular way.

When I began this venture, I asked about thirty friends if they believed the Warren Commission that Lee Harvey Oswald, acting alone, killed Kennedy. About half did. A quarter believed others did it; a quarter didn’t know what to believe. When I asked those in that half what influenced their doubts, I was referred to Oliver Stone, Mort Sahl, Stephen King. One said she was “not a great believer in the rational process.”
Two of those polled had read the one-volume Warren Report. (They split one pro, one con-.) None had read Douglass or Salandria or Bugliosi. This led me to reflect upon how little people – and I include myself – base their opinions upon. Yet we all have opinions about all manner of things of political and social import to which we hold strongly and about which we argue forcefully. But it takes a great deal of information to understand an issue. You can take an entire college course and still have understanding elude you. You can earn a PhD and still have other PhDs attack you in the NYRB.
Toward the end of Bugliosi’s book, I ran into this assessment of those who believe in the Kennedy conspiracy. “It’s essentially become a religious belief… and with religious beliefs, the believer knows the truth, so there has to be an explanation for everything that contradits that truth… In situations where even they can’t come up with an explanation, they shield themselves from the evidence by distorting or ignoring it.” Imagine my surprise – and delight – at seeing him voice, after 20 years of work, what I had divined by talking to M without undertaking any of it.
I also wondered if this 30-part effort had been necessary. Maybe not, but it was fun

Whodunnit xxvi: The Grassy Knoll

Vincent Salandria, with much enthusiasm but little specificity, said, “(M)any eyewitnesses, including skilled observers such as police officers and… Secret Service Agents… heard shots coming from… saw smoke emanating from… saw a man fleeing from… and smelled gunpowder in the grassy knoll area….” Salandria named none of these witnesses, though it is nice of him to show faith in the police and Secret Service, since both are agencies he elsewhere named as part of the conspiracy and/or its cover-up.
The knoll was to Kennedy’s right front. Among the other authors under consideration, David Talbot identifies the presidential aide Kenneth O’Donnell as someone who “distinctly heard at least two shots from the grassy knoll.” And James Douglass identifies a police officer who smelled gunpowder atop the knoll; Gordon Arnold, a 22-year-old soldier, who heard two shots fly over him while he lay on the grass; and Ed Hoffman, a 27-year-old deaf mute, observed a puff a smoke arise from what he realized was a rifle shot. He further observed the shooter toss the rifle to another man, who broke it down and stuffed it into a brown tool bag. The two men then walked off and lost themselves in the crowd.
Douglass is candid enough to say that it took Arnold 15 years to tell his story to a Dallas newspaperman. He omits saying that when he told it again for a TV documentary a decade later, Arnold had changed it significantly. Douglass also does not say that in film and photos of the area where Arnold says he was, he is not visible. As for Hoffman, he gave two contradictory accounts, neither mentioning the puff of smoke or the rifle – but saying the men were running from the book depository – to the FBI two days after the shooting. Ten years elapsed before he re-surfaced, adding these details and placing the men on the knoll. (Others have said no one exited from the knoll in the direction Hoffman said, and that it was jammed with traffic, bumper-to-bumper, making such an escape route unlikely. And, Buglosi explains in great detail that a modern rifle would discharge such a small amount of smoke when firing that it would be almost impossible to detect, particularly on a bright clear day like November 22, when it would blend with its background. If Hoffman saw anything, it was probably motorcycle exhaust.)

So, at best, Salandria’s “many… skilled observers” become one smeller of gunpowder, two hearers of two shots, and one spotter of smoke (and observer of but one shot). To put this in perspective, there were 4-500 people in Dealey Plaza. No one but Hoffman reported seeing anyone with a rifle in the area of the knoll. No rifle or bullet casings were recovered from there. Reverberations from the buildings in the area – not to mention hysteria and confusion – made it difficult to identify where the shots were coming from, but films of the motorcade show the Secret Servicemen immediately looking behind them when the shots are fired. Averaging two polls of people present that were taken subsequently, 35 thought the shots came from the depository; 30 thought they came from the knoll: two thought they came from both (significant, since we know shots came from the depository); 13 said someplace else; and 100 didn’t know. We have three surveys on the number of shots to consider. On overage 75% of the people heard three shots; 3.6% heard four shots; and about 10% heard two shots. So to believe there was a shooter on the knoll, since we know three shots were fired from the depository, one must believe the 3.6% and disbelieve the 86%

Whodunnit xxiv: The Magic Bullet (a)

Could Oswald’s second shot have entered Kennedy’s back and, as Salandria described its path – pass through his custom-tailored jacket and shirt, improbably “bunched together” in the Warren Commission’s formulation in order, the cospiracists suggest, to make the bullet holes in the garments align, and then turn in mid-air, strike Connolly in the back, travel down through his chest to fracture a rib and wrist, before ending up in his femur? (The “bunched” jacket particularly troubled Salandria, since he felt the accusation insulted the memory of his great-grandfather, a master tailor.)
The answer is “Duh, yea,” (though the actual bullet didn’t have to perform the contortions Salandria demanded of it). And I say this despite the governor and his wife believing separate shots struck him and Kennedy, and despite the F.B.I.’s having initially concluded the same thing, and despite, according to Bugliosi, the single-bullet business caused the “biggest disagreement” among the Warren commissioners. First of all, one may wonder how much credence to give the Connollys’ recall, their having been shot at – and hit – and all, while forming the memories they drew upon. Second, doesn’t it seem odd to see the F.B.I. being relied upon as a font of truth, since, according to Douglass, it had joined the cover-up by November 22. Third, the most skeptical commissioners, Russell, Cooper, and Boggs, had the worst attendance records. Russell, the record-setter, missed 88 of 94 sessions; and if anyone was going to cover things up to protect the joint chiefs, it would seem to have been he, the Chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee. Finally, “magic” or not, more than a little positive evidence says the second bullet did it.

Whodunnit xxii: Autopsy (a)

I’ll skip the claims that the x-rays of Kennedy’s skull were doctored to conceal its rear exit wound, or that his body was stolen and his wounds surgically altered prior to the autopsy to fit the official story, or that his brain was removed and replaced by someone else’s whose damage more clearly fit the same story, or that he survived the shooting and lived in a special wing of Parkland Hospital, or that he not only survived but attended Truman Capote’s Black and White Ball in 1966.
Instead, we’ll resume the cover-up with the autopsy performed on Kennedy at Bethesda Naval Hospital. There, Douglass writes, “military control” prevented the true wounds from being reported. (Vincent Salandria more colorfully calls the autopsy a “sham,” saying the doctors performing it accepted “orders of generals and admirals… (that) effectively aborted it.”) Salandria does not endnote his assertion, but Douglass cites a remark by Lt. Col. Pierre Finck, who assisted Cmmdrs. James Hughes and J. Thornton Boswell, in the procedure. As a witness called during the maliciously inept prosecution of Clay Shaw by New Orleans District Attorney James Garrison, Finck said he and his fellow naval doctors had to “follow orders” from the admirals present. Douglass omits that Finck later explained that he meant by this that the normal chain of command prevailed in the autopsy room, there was “no military interference” with the medical procedures that were carried out. Cmmdr. Humes agreed. He asserted he was in charge of the autopsy and that no one told him what to do.
A more significant omission by Douglass (and, it goes without saying, Salandria) is that 13 different pathologists evaluating Kennedy’s wounds for three subsequent investigations agreed unanimously with the Bethesda findings. The wound in the back of Kennedy’s head was an entrance wound.

Whodunnit xxi: Entry Wound (b)

Perhaps suspecting that people (See prior blog) might find Dr. Perry’s explanation of “Oops! I forgot to look” for his change of opinion about the entrance wound more convincing than the conjecture that he was tricked or frightened into it, Douglass – in a bit of bridge-too-far reasoning – calls in the support of Dr. Charles Crenshaw. (Crenshaw, readers will recall, had opined, based on his reviews of photos, that Rose Cheramie had been shot in the head, not struck by a car.) Crenshaw, a junior resident at Parkland, did not have to worry about manipulation or threats because, fearing for his life, he had kept his knowledge about what went down to himself until 1992. Then apparently overcome by courage, he published his own book. It related how he had observed two frontal entry wounds which had been altered to look like exit wounds.
Douglass does not say that several of Crenshaw’s colleagues at Parkland have stated he did not even enter the room until after the tracheotomy had obliterated the throat wound and that his account repeatedly overstated his role in what had taken place. Nor does Douglass say that Crenshaw also wrote that, while on duty following Jack Ruby’s shooting of Lee Harvey Oswald, he took a call from Lyndon Johnson saying he wanted a death bed confession from Oswald. And Douglass does not reveal that Crenshaw had told others that Johnson actually wanted him to kill Oswald, but his publisher had made him tone his manuscript’s accusations down. (Needless to say, White House records show no calls to Parkland while Oswald was in surgery.)
Again one must wonder about the ethics – an admiration of Thomas Merton, notwithstanding – of an author who would present such a warts-cleansed recapitualation as a factual representation.

Whodunnit xx: Entry wound (a)

A major – if not the major – point of the conspiracists is that at least one shot was fired from in front of the Kennedy’s limousine, while Oswald was to its rear. This shot, they say, entered Kennedy’s throat below the Adam’s apple and blew out the right rear portion of his head while exiting. Most conspiracists deny that any of Oswald’s shots – or in the Douglass/Salandria version any of the shots of the Oswald impersonator in the TBD – hit Kennedy in the head. (Some believe the president was hit in the head simultaneously – and coincidentally – from the front and rear.)
The case for the frontal entry would begins in Parkland Hospital where Kennedy was brought following the shooting. According to Douglass, 21 of 22 doctors, nurses and Secret Servicemen present reported a portion of the right rear of the president’s skull was missing. (It is odd to see Secret Servicemen considered as reliable here, since Douglass earlier had named them as complicit in the assassination.) Bugliosi’s response is that most of the doctors attending Kennedy were interns and residents. (More experienced staff physicians were at a conference elsewhere.) Besides, six, whom he names and quotes, did not agree on a rear exit wound. And all were primarily concerned with saving the president’s life. They only worked on him for 22 minutes. What is more, a tracheotomy performed by Dr. Malcolm Perry had obliterated the throat wound making it difficult to assess. Finally, none of the 22 were pathologists, and studies show that, in cases of multiple gun shot wounds, trauma specialists err 74% of the time in assessing entrance and exit wounds.
Douglass’s case is bolstered by Dr. Perry’s statement to a press conference later that day that the throat wound “appeared to be an entrance wound…” He would later tell the HSCA he reached this conclusion because it was small. “I didn’t look for any others,” he said, “so that was just a guess.” Bugliosi accepts this, noting that no one at Parkland had turned the president over, so no one observed that a hole in his back aligned with the hole in his throat consistent with its being an exit wound. Douglass believes Dr. Perry was “manipulated” by the committee into this retraction. He also believes Perry was “under stress” because an ex-Secret Serviceman, Elmer Moore, has said he had been ordered to threaten Dr. Perry to get him to change his testimony. (Neither Bugliosi, McAdams, nor Posner mention Mr. Moore.)

Whodunnit xvii: truth vs. agenda

That selective quoting (See blog of 8/1) stuck in my craw. Maybe it was because, as an attorney, I was taught that shit is unethical. (I don’t think it’s regarded highly by journalists or historians either.) Anyway, it turned my attention toward truth.
Here’s a minor example. In Salandria’s speech he attacked the media for publishing books which portrayed Kennedy as “a flawed and perverse person…” Salandria did not specify what perversities triggered his inner Falwell, but presumably he meant Kennedy’s sex life and drug use. Personally I think de-mythologizing public leaders is a public service. With JFK, my favorite discovery while doing my research was that, as early as the spring of 1962, he and a mistress were dropping acid. That set me wondering how much it contributed to his turning from Cold War warrior to the we-are-all-one anti-nuker which Salandria and Douglass emphasize in praising his policies.
But I digress. Salandria doesn’t care if the revelations about Kennedy are true. He decries them for being part of the cover-up, a character assassination intended to keep people from caring what happened to him by inferring “he deserved his fate.” (If so, it didn’t work. In a 2011 poll, Americans ranked Kennedy as their fourth greatest president.) Factual truth seems less important to Salandria than how these facts play within his preferred historical narrative. If they don’t advance it, he would, at a minimum, hide them.
He may also distort them. (To be cont.)

Whodunnit xiii: The Shootist (a)

The Warren Commission concluded that Lee Harvey Oswald, from a 6th floor window in the Texas Book Depository, fired three shots from a Mannlicher-Carcanno rifle he had purchased through the mail for $12.78. The first shot missed; the second hit Kennedy in the back and, after exiting, struck Gov. Connolly, who was riding in the limo with him, fracturing one rib and wrist. The third and fatal shot struck the right rear of Kennedy’s head. From film of the motorcade shot by Abraham Zapruder, a spectator, the Warren Commission determined 5.6 seconds elapsed between the first and third shots. The conspiracists say this couldn’t’ve happened.
Salandria dismisses as a “myth” the claim that a single “junk rifle” could have been responsible for the “fusillade” that “inflicted…(this) carnage.” Talbot regards as worth repeating the claim that Oswald could not have gotten off three shots in under six seconds. Douglass says little about the actual mechanics of the shooting, except to agree with the others that someone (or “ones”), firing from the grassy knoll in front of the limousine fired a shot that entered the front of Kennedy’s throat and exited through the rear, causing the massive damage there. I’ll get to the knoll and entry wound later.
But first, the rifle wasn’t “junk.” It was Italian army surplus, manufactured in 1940, one of a hundred Oswald’s dealer had bought $8.50 apiece. Probably it had been used. (I will resist the temptation to demean the Italian army’s fighting spirit by adding “minimally.”) But FBI experts had test fired it 47 times and found it “quite accurate.” The same model was still being used by the Italian rifle team in international competition, and it was every bit as accurate as the U.S. Army’s M-14.

Whodunnit xi: More Men in the Window

While we’re on the subject, let’s not overlook, as Douglass, Salandria, and Talbot do, Ronald Fischer and Bob Edwards, county employees, directly across from the TBD, who saw a slender, casually dressed white man, in his early 20s, in a 6th floor window, kneeling or sitting, surrounded by boxes in what-would-be-called “the sniper’s nest.” Not the 5th or 7th floor. Not with someone beside him. Not heavyset, in a hat and glasses.
Douglass does mention Howard Brennan, a 45-year-old pipefitter, who, according to Bugliosi, was 120 feet from the TDB – and farsighted. Before the motorcade arrived, Brennan saw a man on the sixth floor, seated on a window’s sill. After the first two shots, Brennan looked again and saw the same man, now standing, fire a rifle. Within the hour, Brennan described the man to the police: – slender, white, about 30 years old, and 5’10.” That evening he picked Oswald out of the police line-up. Douglass rejects this evidence because the window was only partially open, meaning the shooter had to have been kneeling or squatting, so Brennan could not have estimated his height. (The WC also reached this conclusion.)
Still, three out of four isn’t bad – and, actually, if you have seen someone’s head and torso, it isn’t out of the question, you could estimate his height. The Greeks, you will recall, believed you only needed a head to proportion someone exactly.

Whodunnit viii: Douglass (cont.)

What accounts for Douglass’s choices? Did he find the stories too delicious to resist? (Oliver Stone apparently did, utilizing another of Cherabie’s multiple versions – that she was thrown from a car, not a bar – to open JFK.) Was Douglass unconsciously motivated by doubt or fear or guilt to sabotage his own credibility? Does he have such faith in the strength of his convictions to believe they can carry the weight of such dubious tales? I know some among the conspiratorially minded who believe that the reason there are so many different conspiracy theories afloat is that the CIA has been sponsoring them in order to discredit by association the one true theory, which is whichever it is in which the CIA-accuser believes. I would not be surprised to read someday that Douglass was a CIA agent employed to undermine the truth of the National-Security-State-as-assassins theory by associating it with the doubt-inducing accounts of Cherabie and Vinson.

But I don’t dismiss Douglass.
Unspeakable is sincere and well-intentioned. It is the best-written of the four books I set out for consideration and better written than any of the other similarly themed books or articles to which my perambulations took me. Douglass, a 78-year-old non-violence activist and theologian, is a devotee of Thomas Merton, whose thinking gives his book a compelling spiritual dimension. (Merton, incidentally, along with Allen Ginsberg and Bertrand Russell, was among the “prominent personalities” mentioned by Talbot, who responded to a 1966 survey as doubting the Warren Commission’s findings. Dwight MacDonald and Norman Thomas sided with those who supported them.)
Douglass’s book is also, at least partially, persuasive. Coming from a family of Stevensonian Democrats and, in the early 1960s, more focused on civil rights than foreign affairs, (in which, I confess, I considered the United States a force of “good”), I regarded JFK as a foot-dragger, uncommitted to the progressive cause. And Douglass goes a long way toward convincing me that Kennedy is to be respected and commended for his efforts to move the country and the world toward peace.
But that doesn’t absolve the rest of Douglass’s case from analysis.