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December 23, 2005

Where Were the JFK Autopsy Photographs Taken?

--by Allan Eaglesham

(Originally published in JFK/Deep Politics Quarterly XI(2) 30-36 January 2006)

A controversial aspect of the aftermath of the Kennedy assassination lies with the available photographs that were purportedly taken before and during the autopsy at the Bethesda Naval Hospital (BNH), Maryland. My objective here is not to revisit that controversy -- the degree to which the wounds in the photographs match the memories of those who witnessed the autopsy and of those who attended the president at Parkland Memorial Hospital in Dallas -- but rather to address just one component of it: were the photographs taken in the BNH morgue?
Author Harrison E. Livingstone's description of the left-profile photograph (Figure 1) in High Treason 2 (Carroll & Graf, New York, 1992) includes:

"Note the vertical grout line between the tiles where the hair meets the forehead. The tiles to the left side of it are not full-size, as though this were a composite photograph. The autopsy crew say there was no phone at that position on the wall alongside the table." (emphasis added)


Figure 1
A meeting in Dallas organized by Mr. Livingstone in 1991 was attended by autopsy technicians Paul O'Connor and James Jenkins and photographer Floyd Riebe. Part of the discussion is described in High Treason 2 as follows [1]:

"There was a moment of quiet as the men studied the autopsy photographs. Then the bomb exploded: 'This doesn't even look like the morgue!' Paul said.
'What?' I exclaimed.
'That's true,' Jenkins said. 'It doesn't look like the morgue [at Bethesda].'
Floyd Riebe said, 'No, I just noticed the floor.'
'What did the floor look like?'
'Well it was similar in design, but it was white!'The floor at Bethesda was stone tile. It was put in there so it would last for years.'
'What color was it?'
'It was white and black.'
'This area does not exist in that morgue,' Jenkins said.
'Does not!' Paul said. 'We have no wooden structures in the morgue.'
'The Bethesda floor had the small dots,' Floyd said. We saw them in the picture.
'We didn't have anything wooden in there,' Paul said.
'It does not look like the morgue,' Jenkins said."

This exchange is summarized by Livingstone as follows[2]: "All insist that the 'Death-Stare' picture of the president (Figure 2) was not taken in the morgue at Bethesda." (emphasis added)


Figure 2.
Yet, I do not deduce from the above discussion that there was consensus that the floor looks wrong. And the presence of the wooden structure (Figure 3)-- apparently a movable object -- does not preclude the possibility that the photograph was taken in the Bethesda morgue.

Figure 3.
At the meeting in Dallas, O'Connor and Jenkins also stated that they had no recollection of the metal head-brace visible in some of the autopsy photographs (see Figure 1); rather, a block was placed under the neck to support the head. Lack of recognition of the head-brace was repeated by O'Connor and Jenkins in interviews with William Law in the late 1990s [3,4].

In a discussion in his book Bloody Treason (Laurel, Rancho Santa Fe, CA, 1997), of the photograph in Figure 1, Noel Twyman states [5]:

"Paul O'Connor told me that the metal head rest...was not in use at the Bethesda autopsy room´... [Figure 2] shows a wooden structure... According to O'Connor, no such structure was present at the Bethesda autopsy room during the autopsy. This is evidence that the president's body was intercepted before it arrived at Bethesda and, during that time, [Figure 1] and other photos were taken." (emphasis added)


New Photographs

The obvious problem is that judgment of the appearance of the autopsy room in the available photographs of President Kennedy's body is filtered through decades of human memory. No other photographs have been unearthed that show the autopsy room as it was in 1963. Furthermore, that part of the National Naval Medical Center (NNMC) has been refurbished and the morgue is now in a different location. However, photographs taken at the autopsy on the body of Lieutenant Commander William B. Pitzer (WBP) -- who died at the NNMC on October 29, 1966 -- have become available* [6], some of which show details of the autopsy room.

(*Copies of the WBP autopsy photographs in the author's possession do not show the face or head of the deceased.)
Wall Telephone

One of the photographs of LCDR Pitzer's body is a left-profile close-up that reveals details, albeit blurred, of the wall behind (Figure 4). Close examination of the Kennedy left-profile photograph (Figure 1) shows that Mr. Livingstone misinterpreted the different tile sizes. Tile-size difference resulted not from photographic fakery but from the fact that they were on a support column (Figure 1, inset). The right-hand edge of the column is visible in Figure 4 (see "column corner"), casting a shadow on the wall to the rear. The corner of the back wall at a junction with a passage to an adjacent room (top left of Figure 1) is also visible in Figure 4 ("corner"), and, as in Figure 1, the base of the telephone slightly overlaps the top edge of the wall tiles.


Figure 4.
When the WBP photograph is laid over the JFK photograph such that the telephones are the same width (Figure 5), the wall corners at the passage to the adjacent room line up as do the right-hand edges of the support column. This is evidence that the photographs shown in Figures 1 and 4 were taken in the same room.

Figure 5.
Floor Tiles

The tiling on the autopsy room floor is visible in Figures 2 and 3, and in an overall shot of LCDR Pitzer's body on the table, part of the edge of which is shown in Figure 6. Similarity in the tiling is striking. Although it is impossible to determine whether tile size is the same in Figures 3 and 6, it appears that they are of similar dimensions. It is likely that the photograph shown in Figure 2 was taken in the same room as that in Figure 6.


Figure 6.
Metal Head-Brace

The picture from which Figure 6 was cropped -- an overall view of the body taken at the beginning of the WBP autopsy -- also shows a metal head-brace similar to that in Figure 1 (see Figure 7). It was removed for subsequent close-up pictures of LCDR Pitzer's body; the brace is absent but the attachment fixture on the autopsy table is visible in another photo-graph (Figure 8), and is similar to that in Figure 1.


Figure 7.

Figure 8.
Autopsy Table

The JFK back-of-the-head photograph in Figure 9 shows what may be a blood spot or a drainage hole on or in the surface of the autopsy table (black arrow). The autopsy table visible in a WBP photograph (Figure 10, left and bottom right) shows that the table surface comprised removable stainless-steel plates that had spaced drainage holes. By lining up the "spot" in Figure 9 with a drainage hole, the distance to the edge of the autopsy table is approximately the same in both photographs (Figure 10, top right vs. bottom right). A gap between the stainless-steel plates is visible in Figure 9 (white arrow). The photographs appear to be mutually consistent, and may show the same autopsy table.


Figure 9.

Figure 10.
Location of the Pitzer Photographs

The WBP autopsy report is typed on AUTOPSY PROTOCOL Standard Form 503, which doesn't have an entry for location, possibly because it was implied to have occurred at the NNMC. Two sources of documentary evidence tend to confirm that the autopsy on LCDR Pitzer's body took place at the Naval Hospital, NNMC, Bethesda, MD. In an FBI 302 report, the duty doctor (interviewed October 29, 1966, the day of LCDR Pitzer's death) is quoted as stating that the autopsy would be at the "National Naval Medical Center" on the morning of October 30 (Figure 11), and an investigation report by the Montgomery County Deputy Medical Examiner John G. Ball, dated October 29, 1966, states that the autopsy would take place at "Bethesda Naval Hospt." on October 30 (Figure 12).


Figure 11.


Figure 12.

However, one of the WBP autopsy photographs caused me to question whether it was taken in the Bethesda morgue. With reference to the cadaver, it has a point-of-view similar to that in Figure 2, but shows more of the torso. In the background, vertical lines are visible, the nature of which was unclear. Lightening the photograph revealed that the vertical lines were bars of a barrier or railing (Figure 13). I consulted a "view from the gallery" sketch of the BNH autopsy room made by Harold Rydberg [7] and, indeed, it includes such a barrier (Figure 14). Although his sketch shows a single horizontal bar, Mr. Rydberg recently told me that it "could have had vertical bars."


Figure 13.


Figure14.

William Law contacted Paul O'Connor and James Jenkins, seeking their recollections of any barrier. They agreed with Mr. Rydberg that one was situated in front of the gallery. Mr. O'Connor stated that it had no internal bars and Mr. Jenkins stated that the internal bars were vertical. I interpret their unanimity on the presence of a barrier to be consistent with what is seen in the Pitzer photograph. Furthermore, similar steps to the gallery are seen in Figures 2 and 13 (see Figure 15).

Figure 15.
Conclusion

The information presented indicates that the Kennedy-autopsy photographs shown in Figures 1, 2 and 9 were taken in the morgue at the Bethesda Naval hospital, National Naval Medical Center, Bethesda, MD. This does not preclude the possibility that the president's body was intercepted before it arrived at the Bethesda morgue; however, the case for interception should now be appraised on evidence other than the appearance of the autopsy room in Figures 1, 2 and 9.

The presence of the wooden object (Figure 3) and of the metal head-brace (Figures 2 and 9) do not exclude the possibility that these photographs were taken at the Naval Hospital. Paul O'Connor's and Jim Jenkins's lack of recollection of these objects in the autopsy room during the evening of 11/22/63 raises a different question: when were these photographs taken in the Bethesda morgue?

In a 1998 interview with William Law, technician Jerrol Custer said that the wooden object is the base of the portable machine with which he X-rayed the president's body [8]. Furthermore, Custer stated that the metal head-brace was removed prior to his taking X-rays [9]. This suggests that the wooden object and the metal head-brace were present early in the proceedings and both were removed for the autopsy proper, which may explain why O'Connor and Jenkins have no recollection of them; on the other hand, neither O'Connor nor Jenkins is of the opinion that the wooden object was a portable X-ray machine [10,11]. If the wooden object was not Mr. Custer's, the question is begged again: when were these photographs taken?


Acknowledgments

The forbearance and generosity of the donor of the WBP autopsy photographs are most gratefully acknowledged. I am thankful also to Harold Rydberg for kind permission to use his sketch, to William Law for contacting Paul O'Connor and James Jenkins on my behalf, and to Bernice Moore for suggestions that led to improvements in the text.


Notes

[1] Livingstone HE (1992) High Treason 2. Carroll & Graf: New York, pp. 291-292.
[2] ibid. p. 292.
[3] Law WM Eaglesham A (2004) In the Eye of History. JFK Lancer: Southlake, TX, p. 57.
[4] ibid. p. 91.
[5] Twyman NH (1997) Bloody Treason. Laurel: Rancho Santa Fe, CA, p. 241.
[6] Eaglesham A Hersh KF (2004) The Pitzer Case: Autopsy Photographs Released. JFK/Deep Politics Quarterly 9(2) 22-24. (Available here)
[7] Mr. Rydberg's drawing was made for In the Eye of History [3], but not included.
[8] Law loc. cit. p. 129.
[9] Law loc. cit. p. 113.
[10] Law loc. cit. p. 57n.
[11] Law loc. cit. pp. 90-91.


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