AT 7:30 P.M. ON NOV. 22, 1963, U.S. NAVY pathologists James Joseph Humes, then 39, and J. Thornton Boswell, then 41, entered the newly built morgue of the Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, Md., and watched as a bronze coffin with one broken handle was carried into the chamber. Opening the casket, the two men found, swaddled in sheets, the naked body of John F. Kennedy. They lifted the President’s corpse onto an examination table and, for the next four hours, studied the wounds that caused his death. Turning in their findings, Humes and Boswell then kept their silence for the next 29 years.
The multiplicity of conspiracy theories given new life recently by Oliver Stone’s JFK, however, has broken their patience. “I am tired of being beaten upon by people who are supremely ignorant of the scientific facts of the President’s death,” Humes says. Last week the respected Journal of the American Medical Association published articles based on extensive interviews with Humes and Boswell as well as four doctors who attempted to save Kennedy’s life in Dallas. They paint a compelling portrait not only of the medical evidence but of the doctors’ own feelings and of the sorrow and courage of Jacqueline Kennedy.
Humes and Boswell take particular umbrage at theories that the President was killed by two shots from the front and not from behind as their autopsy examination—and the Warren Commission Report, which was based on it—concludes. Pointing toward a glass pane, Humes says, “If a bullet or a BB were fired through that window, it would leave a small hole where it entered and a beveled crater where it exited. That is what [we] found when we examined the President’s skull. There was a small elliptical entrance wound on the outside of the back of the skull, where the bullet entered, and a beveled larger wound on the inside of the back of the skull where the bullet tore through and exploded out the right side of the head.” He adds, “If we stay here until hell freezes over, nothing will change this proof. It happens 100 times out of 100, and I will defend it until I die.”
Humes and Boswell dispel other myths as well. The President did not arrive in a body bag, as some accounts claim. Neither was the examination at the morgue stage-managed by generals. “The President’s military aides from the Air Force, Army and Navy were all present [in the viewing theater],” says Humes. “But they were not generals, and their influence on the autopsy was zero.” As for the restaging of the episode in Oliver Stone’s JFK, Humes tells his friend Boswell, “If you see this movie, believe me, you’ll need heavy sedation. The autopsy bears no relation to reality; the man they have playing me looks older than I am now.” Humes confirms that he burned his notes—but only after copying their contents verbatim at his home. The original paper, he says, was stained with the President’s blood. “I did not want them to become a collector’s item.”
All the doctors recall the pathos around them. In Bethesda, says Boswell, “the people who accompanied the President’s body to the morgue were the most disturbed and distressed people I had ever seen.” Adds Humes: “These people thought they had let the President down, and now their hero was gone.” Boswell had wondered why the body had come to Naval Medical Center in Bethesda instead of the more advanced Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C. “Later I was told that Jackie Kennedy selected Bethesda because her husband had been a Navy man.”
In Dallas, Dr. M.T. “Pepper” Jenkins, who had been at the President’s side in Parkland Memorial Hospital’s trauma room, remembers the First Lady still reeling from the shooting, which had occurred just five minutes earlier. With blood gushing down his jacket and onto his shoes, the chief of anesthesiology noticed “Jacqueline Kennedy was circling the room, walking behind my back. The Secret Service could not keep her out of the room. She looked shell-shocked. As she circled and circled, I noticed that her hands were cupped in front of her, as if she were cradling something. As she passed by, she nudged me with an elbow and handed me what she had been nursing in her hands—a large chunk of her husband’s brain tissues. I quickly handed it to a nurse.”
At 1:00 P.M., a Catholic priest was called in to perform the last rites, and the President was declared dead. As the room cleared and Jenkins disconnected tubes and ECG leads, he saw the First Lady come back in. “I retreated to a corner of the room. She kissed the President on the foot, on the leg, on the thigh, on the abdomen, on the chest, and then on the face. She still looked drawn, pale, shocked and remote. I doubt if she remembers any part of this. Then the priest began last rites in deliberate, resonant and slow tones, and then it was over.”