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Bugliosi Fails to Resuscitate the Single-Bullet Theory

by Jerry McKnight

The Warren Commission concluded that there was only one gunman involved in the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. This assertion rested on what in the JFK assassination literature is called the “single-bullet theory.” This theory, as Vincent Bugliosi rightly points out, “is a sin qua non” to the Commission’s single assassin and essential supporting contention that Texas Governor John Connally and Kennedy were hit by the same bullet. In his book, Reclaiming History, Bugliosi embraces the single-bullet theory without fear or trembling [1]. This theory, largely the creation of Arlen Specter, asserts that one shot entered the back of the President’s neck near the right shoulder, transmitted his neck without striking bone, exiting through his shirt collar and tie, and entered Connally’s chest under his right arm pit, smashing four inches off his fifth rib before exiting under his right nipple, then smashing through his right wrist, and finally penetrating his left thigh just under the skin before it came to a stop.

Bugliosi’s assertion that the single-bullet theory is based on substantial or irrefutably convincing evidenced is so removed from reality as to defy caricature or parody.

The first FBI laboratory reports on Kennedy’s clothes revealed that the holes in his coat and shirt submitted to both X-ray and spectrographic analysis showed traces of copper (bullet metal) around the edges of the holes. This was forensically consistent with JFK having been shot in the back with copper-jacketed ammunition. The same tests run on Kennedy’s collar and tie showed no bullet metal was found in the surrounding fabric. Rather than admit that the slits in the President’s collar and nick in his tie were not caused by an assassin’s bullet, the FBI lab report noted that the slits had the “characteristics of an exit hole for a bullet fragment.” (My italics). [2]

Crop of photo of FBI exhibit 60, JFK's shirt
Crop of photo of FBI exhibit 60, JFK's shirt. As Harold Weisberg noted in Never Again, the picture shows slits cut by a nurse, not bullet holes. Further, the slits would not coincide when the shirt is buttoned, the one under the button being below the opposite slit. Dr. Carrico told the Commission that JFK's neck wound was above the collar - the slits are clearly not.
(view enlarged version)

The FBI knew that the origin of the slits and the nick in the tie were not caused by a bullet fragment, but it was essential to stay on message: The official story decided upon over the weekend of the assassination was locked into all three shots originating from above and to the rear of the presidential limo, so the FBI was willing to go the extra mile and pretend that a fragment from the bullet that struck Kennedy from the rear caused the “holes,” (the report’s description) in the collar and the nick in the tie.

However, the inescapable fact is that the FBI and the Secret Service maintained from the outset that the shooting scenario was three shots and three hits: JFK was hit by two bullets and a separate shot hit Connally. While this disagreement remained secret there is nothing in the released official record indicating that either agency altered its conclusions to bring them in line with the Warren report. [3] Clearly both the FBI and the Commission’s shooting scenarios could not have been right. (In fact, neither was.) But Reclaiming History makes no credible effort to resolve this contradiction and salvage the single-bullet explanation, the Commission’s “sin qua non” for the Warren report’s lone assassin conclusion. It must be noted that according to the official record, the FBI, the Commission’s investigative arm, made no bones about the fact that it believed the Commission’s explanation of the shooting was impossible. [4]

It was politics, and only politics, that drove and shaped the evidence in the

government’s investigation into the Kennedy assassination. For example, in March 1964 Commission counsel Arlen Specter went to Parkland Memorial Hospital to depose doctors, nurses, and administrators involved in treating the stricken President and the Texas Governor. Dr. Charles J. Carrico was the first physician to examine the agonal Kennedy, whose breathing was spasmodic and his color cyanotic (bluish gray), symptoms associated with a terminal patient. Because time was critical the attending nurses took scalpels and cut off Kennedy’s clothes. In their haste to free the patient from his clothes one of the nurses nicked the tie and left two slits in his shirt collar. As Carrico explained to Specter the use of scalpels was “the usual practice” in a medical emergency of this nature. Allen Dulles, who accompanied Specter to Dallas, asked Carrico twice to show him the location of the hole in Kennedy’s anterior neck. The Parkland doctor responded on both occasions locating a point above the collar line. So Specter had unimpeachable first-hand testimony that would have persuaded any good faith investigation to have ruled out the Commission’s single-bullet explanation. [5]

Bugliosi attempts to validate the Commission’s single-bullet construction is really a fatuous exercise in trying to make the worst appear the better case. He cites a 1965 memorandum from Dr. Pierre A. Finck, one of the Bethesda Naval Hospital prosectors, to his commanding officer in which the Army pathologist contends that there was a "bullet hole perforating both flaps of the [Kennedy] shirt, right and left." [6] It is necessary to point out that Finck and the other prosectors did not see Kennedy’s clothes until March 1964 when Specter made them available in preparation for their appearances before the Commission. Even more to the point, according to Finck when he attempted to examine the President’s clothes during the Bethesda autopsy he was blocked by an "officer who outranked me told me that my request was only of academic interest." It was during the autopsy when Finck’s examination of the collar would have had some legitimate evidentiary value, not four months later. [7]

If the FBI had a reasonable doubt or even a fleeting suspicion that the “holes” or perforations in JFK's collar were caused by a bullet or a missile fragment, it would have subjected the collar to testing to determine whether the “holes” or slits overlapped or coincided and whether the fibers around the perforations were pointing in or out. The specialist who would have conducted these tests was SA Paul M. Stombaugh, the FBI’s chief hair and fiber expert. Stombaugh did appear before the Commission but during his lengthy testimony not a single question was asked about an examination of JFK’s collar and whether in his expert opinion the slits or “holes” in the collar overlapped or coincided. [8]

Was Stombaugh ever tasked to make an examination of JFK’s collar and tie? According to Robert A. Frazier, the FBI’s firearms expert, Stombaugh ran tests on JFK’s collar and tie at Frazier’s request. In 1977 Frazier was deposed in a FOIA suit brought by prominent JFK assassination researcher Harold Weisberg. Frazier was under oath and admitted that Stombaugh ran tests on the collar and tie. He also admitted that Stombaugh made a report of his findings. Whatever the results, that report in not in the Warren report or the 26 volumes of testimony and exhibits. Frazier also intimated that the nick in the President’s tie was result of a knife or scalpel cut. [9]

The Warren Commission, despite all the testimony and evidence to the contrary

insisted: “These two holes fell into alignment on overlapping positions when the shirt was buttoned.” [10] Commission exhibits include photographs of Kennedy’s coat (CE 393), his shirt (CE 394), and the tie (CE 395). What the Commission did not include was a picture of the collar because it dared not. The slits (not holes) clearly do not coincide and any claim of alignment is patently untrue. [11]

In its own unique way Reclaiming History is a masterful prosecution brief. But in his crusading zeal to reclaim the Warren Commission for History the author has allowed his critical faculties to go on French leave. His command and understanding of the relevant facts surrounding the single-bullet theory are so minimal that it approaches the vanishing point. Perhaps we should expect this given his profession in the law. Lawyers are paid for parading experts before juries, not for presenting the evidence. When it comes to the single-bullet explanation all of the convincing evidence and testimony is stacked against Bugliosi. [12]


[Editor's note: A series of emails by Todd Vaughan and others raised various objections to this essay. In the interests of furthering understanding of the testimony and issues regarding the shirt slits, I have summarized the points made by Vaughan and included a response by Jerry McKnight. - Rex Bradford]

Points raised in emails by Todd Vaughan:

1. The single bullet theory does not hold that the bullet that exited the President’s throat exited “through his shirt collar and tie”; rather it exited through the shirt collar and only nicked the tie.

2. Governor Connally’s back wound was not "under his armpit"; it was to the left of it. Dr. Shaw stated that the wound was "just medial to the axilliary fold or the crease of the armpit." (ed. note: see 4H 104).

3. Connally's right wrist was wounded, not his left wrist. [This was a typo and was immediately corrected in the original essay]

4. Dr. Carrico in his testimony does not twice indicate a point above the collar line as the location of the throat wound. This statement is made by questioner Dulles, and Carrico states that the wound was "Just about where your tie would be." 3H 361-362

5. Dr. Carrico never indicated that scalpels were used to cut off JFK's clothing; the essay's statement that "As Carrico explained to Specter the use of scalpels was “the usual practice” in a medical emergency of this nature" is unfounded. Thus McKnight's statement that Arlen Specter never asked nurses Diana H. Bowren or Margaret M. Henchcliffe about scalpels is meaningless.

6. Todd Vaughan questioned the whole idea that the slits were made by a scalpel, noting that "As for the overall suggestion that the slits in the collar were made by a scalpel, can anyone imaging the absurdity of trained medical professionals hurriedly trying to cut off a snug tie and shirt collar with a razor sharp scalpel? One slip and, presto, the patient winds up with a wound they did not come into the emergency room with. Having worked on an ambulance and been present many, many times in a hospital emergency room, I can assure anyone that a scalpel would never be used for such a job. In emergency situations clothing is cut off with scissors, sometimes specially designed scissors for just such a purpose. In the case of the shirt collar it wound have been quicker to rip it open than try and fumble around cutting it with a scalpel."

7. McKnight's claim that the slits do not line up with one another is refuted by not only FBI agent Robert Frazier, but also independent researchers David Mantik. Jean Davidson in an email noted that Dr. Robert Artwohl also confirmed this.

Further emails discussed Harold Weisberg's statement in PostMortem that Carrico confirmed to him that the wound was above the collar, and skepticism about Weisberg's reporting.

Jerry McKnight's Response to Todd Vaughan

I have already noted that I had made a mistake when I had the bullet going into Connally’s left wrist when clearly it was his right. Mea culpa. Mea culpa.

Now he takes me to task on the matter of the location of the small hole in JFK’s anterior neck. He asks: “So exactly where does Dr. Carrico say that the wound was ‘above the collar line.’ ” Just to clarify it is McKnight who attributes to Carrico that the wound is above the collar line. I am not putting words into Carrico’s mouth, as Vaughan seems to imply as he sets them up inside quotation marks. This is based on Carrico’s response to a query from Dulles as to where the wound was located. According to Dulles, Carrico put his “hand right above where your tie is? What that says to me is that the anterior neck wound was above the collar line. Vaughan can cut it anyway he wants to fit his predispositions but to me Carrico’s meaning is clear.

It is too bad Specter didn’t ask Carrico to specify: Do you mean above the collar line or did the bullet exit through the collar and damage the tie? Or some variation to bring essential clarity to this critical issue. After all, Specter was a Philadelphia lawyer and an assistant district attorney in that city when he was appointed to the Commission. He knew his way around a courtroom and how to question witnesses. He had to realize that Carrico’s testimony on this matter was absolutely crucial to the Commission’s contention (actually the official case against Oswald as the lone assassin) that all the shots came from the rear of the presidential limousine and that one bullet hit both JFK and Connally. In this regard, if there was ever a key witness in the government’s case Carrico certainly was that witness. He was the only trained medical witness to observe the position of the President’s neck wound in relationship to his collar line and tie before the emergency room nurses removed JFK’s clothes. Why did Specter fail so woefully in not following up on Dulles’ questions to get Carrico to go on record in plain English with the exact location of Kennedy’s anterior neck wound—-was it above the shirt or did a missile go through the collar and nick the tie. One can only wonder if the issue would ever have come up at all if Dulles had not introduced it.

(Parenthetically, Specter passed up on another opportunity to perhaps bring some essential closure on this key issue when he questioned emergency room nurse Margaret Henchliffe (see 6H 141). Specter asked her when she first saw the President, “Did you see any wound anywhere on his body?” Henchliffe recalled JFK’s massive head wound and “just a little hole in the middle of his neck.” Specter could have asked (taking his prompt from Dulles, if he was keen to know) whether she saw this wound before she and nurse Bowron used scalpels to remove his clothes and, if so, was the wound above or through his collar line. Needless to say Specter did not go there.)

I did not add to my argument that Harold Weisberg interviewed both Carrico and Perry at Parkland Hospital on 12/1/1971. His notes on the conversation that Carrico acknowledged that he was talking about a scalpel when he told Specter “...I proceeded with the examination and the nurses removed his clothing as is the usual procedure.” (3H 359) Nurse Diane Bowron told Specter “...Miss Henchliffe and I cut off his clothing.” (6H 136) The instrument used was a scalpel, Carrico told Weisberg. The record of this conversation can be found in the Weisberg Subject Index File under “Dr. Carrico,” items 02 and 03.

I would just point out to Vaughan who took me to task on endnote 11 when I faulted Specter for not asking the emergency room nurses whether they used scalpels or scissors in cutting off JFK’s clothes. I did not include Bowron’s statement in the piece on Bugliosi. That was my own oversight. I add it now just to keep the record accurate. I added scalpels because of Carrico’s confirmation that scalpels were used in his 1971 conversation with Weisberg.

When Kennedy was wheeled into Trauma Room One Carrico was the first doctor to examine the patient. JFK had a heartbeat, no palpable pulse, and his respiration spasmodic; in fact, he was moribund. Whatever relief was possible speed was essential and a sharp scalpel in the hands of a trained emergency room nurse like Henchliffe was used to remove his coat, shirt, and tie.

The Weisberg archive is open to any one with an interest. Vaughan is free to access Weisberg’s conversations with Carrico and Perry. If he provides Rex an address I’ll mail him Weisberg’s notes on his 12/1971 conversation with Carrico.

Two other points: Vaughan contends that JFK autopsy photos clearly shows that the tracheotomy incision was located at a point of JFK’s anterior neck

that corresponds exactly with the holes in the collar and the nick in the tie. To my mind this assertion has only a loose relationship with the facts. In these ghastly state-of-death photos Kennedy is naked, at least from the waist up, and his head rests in a brace of sorts that slightly elevates the head and seems to stretch his neck. The point is that it is hasty and overbold to make any definitive statement that the wound in his throat in these photos corresponds with the slits or holes and the nick in his tie. The inarguable fact is that Dr. Carrico is the only trained medical observer who saw the anterior neck wound in relationship to JFK’s shirt collar and tie and then only when the body was in a prone position.

Finally, Vaughan cites Dr. David Mantik who reported that he had occasion to examine JFK’s shirt collar and found that “the slits aligned perfectly.” He couples this confirmation with the exact same observation made by FBI Agent Robert Frazier. He neglects, of course, to explain why the FBI hair and fiber expert Paul M. Stombaugh was never asked about the Kennedy shirt collar. I make it clear that Frazier ordered Stombaugh to test to determine whether the slits coincided and if the fibers around the holes were pointing inward or outward, but that report is not in the Warren report or the 26 volumes. The Commission never asked Stombaugh about the results of the tests when he appeared as a witness.

Why didn’t the Commission include a picture of Kennedy’s collar to support its single-bullet construction? It included pictures of the President’s shirt, tie, and coat.

FBI tests revealed that the holes in Kennedy’s coat and shirt showed traces of copper around the edges of the holes. The bullet (CE# 399) that the Commission contended entered Kennedy’s back, exited his neck and caused all of Connally’ nonfatal wounds was copper jacketed. A forensic ballistic report showing that spectrographic analysis of the copper jacket metal from CE# 399 and the copper wipe or traces around the coat and shirt were determined to have a common origin would have provided the government with the “killer facts” to proclaim that the single-bullet explanation was an established fact and not a theory.

There never was such a report.

The absence of this kind of supporting material leads to a conclusion that is as inconspicuous as a tarantula on an Angel food cake: The single-bullet theory is inconsistent with the physical evidence.

By way of postscript: Dr. Mantik emailed Gary Aguilar on 6/12/2007 and noted confirmed that the “holes in JFK’s shirt aligned perfectly” but the holes “looked more like a scalpel incision though than a bullet hole.” I would invite anyone interested to take a look at a clear FBI photo of the Kennedy shirt collar and whether the slits do coincide. There is a pretty clear photo in Harold Weisberg’s PostMortem on p. 598.

[1] Bugliosi, Reclaiming History, xx and xxix.

[2] Director FBI to SAC Dallas, Urgent, 11/26/1963, FBI HQ JFK File, 62-109060-421; Jevons to Conrad, 11/26/1963, FBI HQ JFK Assassination File, 62-109060-1086; Hoover to James J. Rowley, Chief of U.S. Secret Service, 12/5/1963, FBI HQ JFK Assassination File, 62-109060-1781.

[3] For the FBI’s three shots and three hits scenario see “Investigation of Assassination of President John F. Kenned, November 22, 1963,” Federal Bureau of Investigation, United States Department of Justice, J. Edgar Hoover, Director (This is the first Warren Commission document and is referred to as CD 1.) The report was rushed and slipshod. It spent fewer than 60 words describing the assassination. For more on the shoddy nature of the report see Gerald D. McKnight, Breach of Trust: How the Warren Commission Failed the Nation and Why (University Press of Kansas, 2005), 27-28.

[4] In 1966 the media drew attention to these irreconcilable discrepancies about the shooting. When this was brought to Hoover’s attention he wrote on the bottom of the memo, “We don’t agree with the Commission as it says one shot missed entirely & we contend all three shots hit.” See Rosen to DeLoach, 11/22/1966, FBI HQ JFK Assassination File, 62-109060-4267. For a more detailed treatment of this issue see McKnight, Breach of Trust, Chapters 8 and 9.

[5] “Investigation of the Assassination of President John F. Kennedy, Hearings Before the President’s Commission on the Assassination of President Kennedy” (Washington D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1964), Volume III, 361-362 for Carrico’s exchange with Specter and Dulles. (Hereafter cited as 3H 361-362).

[6] Reclaiming History, pp. 400-401.

[7] See Finck’s revised November 1963 “Summary” to General Blumberg, Otis Historical Archives, National Museum of of Health and Medicine, AFIP, 3. I have the same reservations about Hoover’s assurances to Commission chief counsel, J. lee Rankin, that the “ragged slitlike hole [sic] and the ends of the torn threads around the hole were bent outward.” “Characteristics,” the director insisted, “typical of an exit hole for a projectile.” Note that Hoover used the term “projectile,” which could be any object in motion and avoids bullet, which is telltale. The FBI boss, the man formally in charge of the investigation into the JFK assassination, was careful not to ascribe to any single-bullet construction. In any FBI document or testimony the Bureau’s party line was always to use the term “projectile” or “fragment” but never a bullet when referring to the slits in JFK’s collar.

As mentioned above, Hoover and the FBI have maintained that there were three shots. Two hit Kennedy and a separate bullet struck Connally. Hoover to Rankin, March 23, 1964, FBIHQ Oswald File, 105-82555-2788.

[8] For Stombaugh’s April 3, 1964, Commission testimony see 4H 56-88.

[9] For Frazier’s February 1977 deposition see Harold Weisberg vs. U.S. Department of Justice and U.S. Energy Research Development Administration, Civil Action 75-226, U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, February 24, 1977, 61-62. The suppression of Stombaugh’s report and the FBI photo of JFK’s collar is only exceeded by the Commission’s conscious exclusion from the report and the 26 volumes JFK’s two-page death certificate, signed by his personal White House physician, Dr. George G. Burkley. The reason for this Orwellian humbuggery is that the death certificate locates JFK's back wound at the third thoracic vertebra. This official document destroyed the Commission's essential assertion that JFK and Connally had been struck by the same bullet. A missile entering Kennedy's back at a downward angle of 45 degrees and striking no bone could not have altered it trajectory to exit from his throat and then enter Connally's back.

[10] Warren Commission Report, 92.

[11] The best picture of the FBI photograph of Kennedy’s shirt collar can be found in Harold Weisberg’s Never Again (New York: Carroll and Graf, 1995), 245; there is also one in Breach of Trust. [editor's note: see photo reproduced within essay.] The FBI did include a clear picture of the shirt collar in the report on the assassination it sent to President Johnson. A quick examination of Kennedy’s coat (CE 393) he was wearing that day in Dallas vividly reveals the great tears made by scalpel-wielding nurses to prepare Kennedy for emergency medical attention. Specter questioned both of the emergency room nurses, Diana H.Bowren (6H 134ff) and Margaret M. Henchcliffe (6H 139ff), but he never asked them if they used scalpels to remove JFK’s clothes.

[12] My purpose was limited to disclosing why the single-bullet theory had self-destruct written all over it before the Warren Commission was forced in the summer of 1964 to create its own reality with an out-of-the-blue solution to a political problem. The problem was the need to impose upon the American people a credible official explanation of the Kennedy assassination: that Lee Harvey Oswald was the lone assailant and there was no foreign or domestic conspiracy; at least none that the Commission was able to uncover.

The operational word here is limited. The author is aware that there is much more to the single-bullet construction that is absolutely essential to the Commission’s assertion that the crime was the act of a lone nut. For instance, I do not go into detail on why the FBI (and the Secret Service) never agreed with the Commission about the basic facts of the shooting that day in Dealey Plaza. I say nothing about the FBI’s failure to collect Connally’s clothes for months when it rushed JFK’s clothes to FBI Washington in a C-130 U.S. Air Force cargo plane in the early morning hours of November 23. By the time Connally’s clothes were in evidence they had been dry cleaned and any crucial evidentiary value had been compromised. I say nothing about the fortuitous discovery of CE #399 and the “magic” of this magical bullet and its Olympian-like romp through the bodies of JFK and Connally, the track of devastation it left in both victims but still managed to emerge in almost pristine condition. Having spared the reader these details there was no occasion to remark on the unique unanimity that all the medical doctors connected in some way with the victims’ wounds suffered in the Dealey Plaza shooting, all refused to believe in the magic that the Commission attributed to CE #399—Humes (2H 375-6), Boswell (2H 376-377), Finck (2H 382), Shaw (4H 114), Gregory (4H 127 conceded possibility but not probability), and Joseph Dolci, the Army’s to ballistic man (Breach of Trust, 195).

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