David Wrone's book THE ZAPRUDER FILM

Did Conspirators Steal and Mutiliate the Body of John F. Kennedy?

David Lifton’s Body Alteration Theory

by David R. Wrone

[From The Zapruder Film: Reframing JFK's Assassination, pp. 133-137]

[Lapses such as support of Zapruder film alteration theories] on Lifton’s part are far too frequent. Other examples can be found in Best Evidence, the most startling of which is Lifton’s claim that his unnamed conspirators actually stole JFK’s corpse, altered it to fit with evidence implicating Oswald, and then surreptitiously returned it. In this far-fetched and unsubstantiated scenario, the conspirators – while the presidential party in Air Force One prepared to return to Washington in those minutes just prior to and during LBJ’s swearing-in ceremony in the front cabin – took the body from the bronze casket at the plane’s rear and put it in a body bag they had hidden in an unidentified place on the plane. When the plane reached Washington, they furtively removed the body from an opening on the darkened far side of the plane, while the empty bronze casket was removed on the other side in view of the crowd and in the light of cameras, then placed in an ambulance for the official motorcade. The covert team then supposedly transported the body by helicopter to Walter Reed Army Hospital, where they manipulated it to suggest only shots from the rear (thus making Oswald the sole assassin). Then they rushed the body in a plain gray shipping coffin by a black hearse to Bethesda Naval Hospital, where the empty bronze casket had been taken and where the conspirators entered through a rear gate and then placed the body back in its original casket, without detection by the Secret Service, hospital officials, or the Kennedy family. Unfortunately for Lifton, the actual evidence contradicts his charges at every point.

First, no opportunity to steal the body existed on the plane. Lifton omits from his account that the body was wet, dripping in blood and other fluids that, when lifted from the coffin, would have left telltale signs and alerted aides, crew, and guards. Endnote Parkland hospital nurse Doris Nelson testified that when placing the corpse in the casket “extensive bleeding from the head [occurred] and they had wrapped four sheets around it but it was still oozing through.” Endnote The cloth beneath the president was soaked, and a plastic form was laid on it to prevent seepage through the casket. Further, when the pallbearers placed the coffin on board, steel wrapping cables were placed around it and its lid to prevent shifting during takeoff and landing and in case of air disturbances in flight, as must be done to cargo on airplanes for safety. Removing and replacing such cables would have required time and opportunity that were unavailable to any would-be conspirators.

In addition, the casket was under ample armed guard at all times during the flight, a fact that Lifton neglects to mention." Endnote Secret Service agent Richard Johnsen discreetly stood a few feet away in the hallway entrance, Endnote while Brigadier General Godfrey McHugh, JFK's aide, stood at attention beside the casket throughout the trip and during the swearing-in ceremony. Endnote

Lifton, however, states that soon after the casket was placed on board, McHugh left it to check on why the plane had not departed, allowing conspirators to steal the body. But immediately upon the publication of Best Evidence, McHugh wrote a letter to Time magazine in which he denied Lifton's claim that he had left the body unattended. Endnote

Finally, most of JFK's aides and clerical staff were in the rear of the plane, with key aides sitting close by the casket from the moment it was secured at the rear of the plane. Endnote But Lifton does not mention this. Endnote In fact, he asserts the Kennedy people all went forward to the swearing-in ceremony, thus leaving the casket without protection. That assertion, however, runs counter to evidence provided by LBJ’s secretary, Marie Fehner, Endnote and by the Secret Service, Endnote both of whom were ordered to record the names of all attendees at the swearing-in ceremony. Both lists show that the majority of JFK’s aides and staff were not present, a fact also confirmed by Cecil Stoughton, White House photographer, who snapped over a dozen photographs of the ceremony. Endnote Especially given the tiny size of the forward cabin, how could it have been otherwise? Endnote

No army helicopter at Andrews Air Force Base secretly ferried the corpse to Walter Reed Hospital. Endnote Aside from the presidential helicopter, the only other one present brought in Lieutenant Sam Bird's casket team, Endnote something noted both in William Manchester’s Death of a President and in the Military District of Washington records for November 22, sources with which Lifton was quite familiar. Endnote Nor was the far side of the plane darkened to shield the furtive removal of JFK’s corpse. Instead, it was bathed in klieg lights, and thousands of persons watched along the fence that bent backward along that side, providing, in effect, a well-lit and very public stage for any would-be body snatchers.

Nor did any vehicle, much less the alleged black hearse, pass through the back gate of Bethesda. As proof to the contrary, Lifton cites some navy men at Bethesda who said they saw an ambulance come up Fourteenth Street from Walter Reed Hospital. Endnote But their testimony is somewhat suspect because there is no Fourteenth Street leading out from Reed; a section of that street was eliminated when the hospital was constructed.

Also, Colonel Russell Madison was stationed at Bethesda and left each day through that gate as a shortcut home, except on the late afternoon of November 22, when he found the gates shut and padlocked with no guard posted who could be countermanded by officers to open it. Endnote That, of course, made it fairly difficult for any body-snatching vehicle, already on a very tight schedule, to deliver its goods as described by Lifton.

Officials never lost contact with the casket, so the replacement of the allegedly altered corpse was impossible. General McHugh was always close to the coffin, Endnote never losing contact with it from the time it was unloaded from Air Force One until the ambulance parked at the mortuary jetty, where he assisted in its removal. In addition, FBI agents James W. Sibert and Francis X. O’Neill Jr. met the plane, watched the casket being removed and placed in the ambulance, followed it in the third car of the motorcade, kept the casket constantly in sight from the airport to the hospital, and then helped unload the casket and witnessed the autopsy. A key paragraph in their official report states as follows:


The president’s body was removed from the casket in which it had been transported and was placed on the autopsy table, at which time the complete body was wrapped in a sheet and the head area contained an additional wrapping which was saturated with blood. Following the removal of the wrapping, it was ascertained that the president’s clothing had been removed and it was also apparent that a tracheotomy had been performed, as well as surgery of the head area, namely, in the top of the skull. All personnel with the exception of medical officers needed in the taking of photographs and x-rays were requested to leave the autopsy room and remain in the adjacent room. Endnote

Their comment regarding the body’s condition matched the description testified to by the Dallas nurses who placed him in the coffin, information also absent from Lifton’s account. Nurse Diana Bowron: “We wrapped some extra sheets around his head so it wouldn’t look so bad.” Endnote Nurse Margaret Henchliffe: “We . . . wrapped him up in sheets [and] he was placed in the coffin.” Endnote

On “surgery to the head” Sibert and O'Neill were mistaken, as Sibert later testified before the House Select Committee in 1977. “It was thought by the doctors [at the autopsy] that surgery had possibly been performed in the head-area,” but “this was determined not to be correct following detailed inspection and when the piece of bone found in the limousine was brought to the autopsy room during the later stages of the autopsy.” Endnote

Admiral George Burkley, President Kennedy's physician, and two Secret Service men who had been in the Parkland Hospital emergency room with JFK, as well as others, were in the autopsy room, sitting in the amphitheater audience. They had seen the corpse at Parkland and would have spotted any alterations immediately. Additionally, the X-ray photographs of the skull show jagged lines, not the clean, sharp lines of an operation. Endnote

Nor was there any gray coffin used to spirit away JFK's corpse, although such coffins used for interring deceased military personnel were hardly unusual at Bethesda. The fact remains – based on witness testimony – that JFK’s body was indeed transported in a bronze casket, from which it was not removed until its arrival at Bethesda.

Finally, it should go without saying that the complex logistics involved in perpetrating such an incredible feat would have required a large cast of conspirators able to communicate with each other and respond at a moment’s notice to shifting events. Among other things, it was not until Air Force One approached Washington that Jacqueline Kennedy made the decision to use Bethesda for the autopsy, which would have required conspirators to place duplicate teams at both Walter Reed and Bethesda. Furthermore, some conspirators had to have been on board the airplane to steal the body, fly it to Walter Reed, work on it there, transport it to Bethesda, and switch it to the bronze casket. The large but indeterminate number of conspirators would most likely have had to include air traffic controllers, enlisted men, military officers, special technicians, and medical personnel, all working together covertly and able to maintain silence forever. Under the weight of all these improbabilities, Lifton’s erroneous claims collapse.

It never happened. The body was not stolen.

The Zapruder Film: Reframing JFK's Assassination, © 2003 by the University Press of Kansas


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