JFK's head wound -- the Harper Fragment

Evidence of a Shot from the Grassy Knoll?

The Harper Fragment

The Harper Fragment was a piece of bone from John Kennedy's skull that was discovered in Dealey Plaza on the day after Kennedy was shot and killed. Many conspiracists have argued that it proves that Kennedy was shot from the front, for two supposed reasons:

Was the Fragment Occipital Bone?

Billy Harper, who discovered the piece of bone when he was in Dealey Plaza on November 23rd taking pictures, took the fragment to his uncle, a Dr. Jack C. Harper, and Dr. Harper took the bone to Methodist Hospital where is was examined by Dr. A. B. Cairns, who was chief pathologist. Cairns opinion was that "the bone specimen looked like it came from the occipital region of the skull." Conspiracy interpretation of source of Harper fragment

Conspiracy books ever since have quoted Cairns, and used his assessment as evidence of a frontal shot exiting the rear of the head. Author Josiah Thompson, in Six Seconds in Dallas, after citing Cairns, notes that:

It is difficult to understand how a shot from the rear could drive a piece of the occipital bone 25 feet to the left of the vehicles's path. It is not so difficult to understand how a shot from the right front exploding through the rear of the skull could produce precisely that effect. (p. 101)
A graphic from Robert Groden's book The Killing of a President (right) shows a typical conspiracist interpretation of the fragment.

But suppose Cairns was wrong? The Warren Commission failed to deal with this issue. However by 1977, when the House Select Committee on Assassinations began its work, the existence of the bone and its possible importance were well-known. The Committee's Forensic Pathology Panel studied the two photos of the fragment made at Methodist Hospital (Warren Commission Document 1395). Their assessment:

5. Attempted reconstruction of the skull fractures

(324) Paper cutouts were prepared to approximate the shape and size of the bone fragments demonstrated in X-rays Nos. 4, 5, and 6 and the photograph of the "Harper bone fragment." The panel attempted to locate the correct position of these fragments and then, using the paper cutouts, to place these bone fragments on a human skull for the purposes of reconstruction. The largest of the X-ray fragments — that on which outer beveling and tiny metal fragments are evident — completes a portion of the exit perforation, with the suture line fitting into the coronal suture; the Harper bone fragment completes the circular perforation in the suture line immediately superior to the temporal bone. No other exit or entrance perforation is identifled. (See fig. 29, a scale drawing of the frontal and right side of a human skull, which shows the displaced bone fragments and the extensive fragmentation of the skull.)

"Immediately superior to the temporal bone" is parietal bone, not occipital bone. Further, since the autopsy photos and x-rays showed occipital bone intact (although riven with fractures) at the time of the Bethesda autopsy, it was obvious that the Harper fragment could not be occipital bone.

Dr. Joseph Riley, and neuroanatomist and conspiracy-oriented researcher, has done a more thorough and extensive examination of the issue. On the basis of several distinctive and identifying features, he judges the Harper Fragment to be parietal bone. These features include:

Thus, in spite of the initial judgment by Cairns, the clear weight of medical expertise sides with the Harper Fragment being parietal bone, and not from the back, but rather from the top and side of the head.

Where was the Harper Fragment Found?

If the Harper fragment was blown out of the back of Kennedy's skull, it might make sense that it would be found behind the location of the limo at the instant of the head shot. And indeed Groden and Livingstone, in High Treason (1989) inform us that this was the case:
A piece of bone found by Billy Harper, given to the Chief Pathologist at Methodist Hospital and identified as occipital bone, was found 25 feed behind and to the left of the car's position when the President was hit in the head, according to the Secret Service. (p. 198)
In support of this claim, Groden and Livingstone cite Warren Commission Document 5.

Unfortunately, the document referred to happens to be an FBI report (not a Secret Service report) of a November 26th interview with Harper's uncle, Dr. Jack Harper, by Special Agent Kennedy Jackson (Josiah Thompson, Six Seconds in Dallas, p. 301). It says that "the bone was located approximately 25 feet south of the spot where President KENNEDY was shot" [emphasis added]. Indeed, Harper told another FBI agent the exact same thing when interviewed the following July (Commission Document 1395).

Since the limo was headed southwest at the instant Kennedy was hit in the head, "south" would have been to the left and in front of the limo. If "south" is being used imprecisely, the spot might be directly left of where Kennedy was hit, or even to the left and behind. But nothing in the source document says "behind" or even implies "behind."

Having used the "behind and to the left" story once, Groden apparently could not resist telling it again, and upping the ante. In The Killing of a President (1993), he says that "The bone was determined to have been 35 [sic] feet behind and to the left of the President's car at the time of the head shot" (p. 34). That's right. He's added ten feed to the distance!

The FBI report is not, however, the final word on the location of the fragment. Researcher Milicent Cranor, in 1997, managed to locate William Harper and ask him to mark on a map the location of the fragment. Harper placed the "approximate location" well forward of the location of the limo at the time of the head shot, and to the left. Note that the map he marked is turned upside down, and his notation is consistent with what he told the FBI: the fragment was south of the limo location.

Of course, Harper's 34-year old memory could be inaccurate, and it's possible — but only barely — that an animal moved the bone between the time Kennedy was shot and the time Harper discovered it over 24 hours later. However, a location forward of the limo is supported by a close analysis of the Zapruder film by the Itek Corporation. In examining the explosion of Kennedy's head in frame 313 and adjacent frames they note:

There is no question that the explosion from the bullet impact radiates matter in all directions. The fine matter can be seen surrounding the President's head. However, the major direction of this matter is just forward of the President's head. The major, or large particles which are actually measurable on the film, and have contiguous boundaries which hold together during flight, all radiate in a forward direction [emphasis in original]. ("John Kennedy Assassination Film Analysis," Itek Corporation, May 2, 1976, Lexington, Mass., p. 56)

Thus the anatomical evidence that shows the Harper fragment to be parietal bone, the witness testimony places the fragment forward and to the left of the limo, and the evidence of the Zapruder film shows all visible fragments going forward. Given that Kennedy's head was rotated to the left a few degrees at the time of the head shot, it would be impossible for a fragment from the occipital area to be blown forward of the limo, and quite difficult for it to be blown to the left of the limo and onto the grass of the Dealey Plaza infield. In sum, the weight of the evidence shows the Harper fragment to be parietal bone and it provides little, if any, evidence for the back of Kennedy's head being blown out.

Barb Junkkarinen provided a very useful critique of a draft of this page.
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