On November 22, 1963, John F. Kennedy, the thirty-fifth president of the United States, was shot and killed while riding in the back seat of a limousine in a motorcade passing through Dealey Plaza in Dallas, Texas. The shooting occurred at 12:30 p.m. Central Standard Time, just after the president's limousine made a 120-degree left-hand turn off of Houston Street onto Elm Street in front of the Texas Schoolbook Depository. Also injured was Texas governor John B. Connally, who was riding in the limousine's front seat directly in front of the president.
The shooting took place over a period of six to nine seconds. Only after the driver of the limousine, Secret Service agent Bill Greer, turned and saw what proved to be the fatal wound to the president's head did he speed up to exit the plaza and head to Parkland Memorial Hospital, where the president was pronounced dead in Trauma Room #1 at 1:00 p.m. Just an hour later, after a fifteen-minute argument involving Secret Service agents who were cursing and brandishing their weapons, the agents removed the president's body, in violation of state law because no forensic examination had been conducted. They took the body to Love Field, where it was placed on Air Force One, the president's plane, and flown to Washington, D.C. There, an autopsy was conducted at the Bethesda Naval Hospital.
Eighty minutes after the assassination , Lee Harvey Oswald, an employee at the Texas Schoolbook Depository, was arrested for shooting a police officer. That evening he was charged with the murder of the president, but he was never tried for the crime because just two days later, while in police custody, Oswald was shot and killed by Jack Ruby. On November 29, a week after the assassination, President Lyndon B. Johnson formed a commission headed by Earl Warren, chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, to investigate the assassination. In September 1964, the Warren Commission issued its report, concluding that Lee Harvey Oswald, acting alone, was the assassin. The commission further concluded that Oswald fired three shots from a window on the sixth floor of the book depository, where three shell casings and the rifle were found; that one shot likely missed the motorcade; that the first shot to hit Kennedy likely hit him in the upper back and exited near the front of his neck, then caused Governor Connally's injuries; and that the second shot to hit the president struck him in the head. All three shots, the commission concluded, came from the same location, above and behind the president.
In the decades following the assassination, the forensic evidence was examined and reexamined by numerous experts, many of whom disputed the Warren Commission findings. They raised troubling questions, many of them focusing on the "grassy knoll," a small sloping hill in front of and slightly to the right (west and north) of the president. Numerous witnesses claim to have heard at least one shot come from the grassy knoll, and photographs taken by people in Dealey Plaza that day give some credence to the claim that another gunman was positioned behind a picket fence on the knoll. These claims appear to have been substantiated by the report of the 1976–79 House Select Committee on Assassinations (HSCA), which relied on acoustical evidence to conclude that indeed a shot came from the grassy knoll, that Oswald did not act alone, and that he was likely part of a larger conspiracy, although the reach and extent of that conspiracy remain the subject of passionate debate.
A major focus for forensic examiners was the number, sequence, timing, and direction of the fatal shots. Connally sustained his injuries virtually simultaneously with Kennedy having been struck in the neck, raising the question of whether one or two bullets, and hence one or two shooters, caused the injuries to the two men. Standing at the center of the Warren Commission's conclusion that Oswald was the lone gunman is the so-called single bullet theory, a theory generally credited to commission member Arlen Specter, later a U.S. Senator. According to the commission, a single 6.5 mm Western Case Cartridge Company bullet, Warren Commission Exhibit 399, caused all of the nonfatal wounds both to Kennedy and, an instant later, to Connally. The single bullet theory was crucial to the commission's conclusion because it precluded the existence of another shooter. Oswald was using a bolt-action rifle, so it would have been impossible for him to fire two shots virtually simultaneously. Two bullets would have meant two gunmen.
The bullet in question was found in Parkland Hospital Trauma Room #2 on a stretcher on which Governor Connally had lain, although even this detail has been disputed. The path the bullet followed was complex, leading critics of the Warren Commission to refer to it not as the single bullet, but as the magic bullet. The commission concluded that it traveled downward at a net angle of 25 degrees and entered the president's back 2 inches (50 mm) to the right of his spine and 5.75 inches (146 mm) below his collar line, leaving a small (4x7 mm) reddish-brown to black abrasion on his collar that suggested that the bullet was traveling slightly upward when it entered his body. It then slightly fractured the sixth cervical vertebra; passed through his neck, shedding fragments; passed through his throat; and exited his body at the bottom edge of the Adam's apple. The bullet then continued on its course, entering Connally's back just below and behind his right armpit. It destroyed a portion of his right fifth rib, exited his body below his right nipple, then entered the outside of his right wrist, possibly striking his cufflink, which was never recovered. It broke his right radius wrist bone, leaving behind metal fragments, then exited the inner side of the wrist, entered the front side of his left thigh, and buried itself 2 inches (50 mm) in his thigh muscle, leaving behind a tiny (1.5–2 mm) fragment in his thigh bone. This bullet, which had passed through several layers of clothing and flesh and struck two bones, was found in nearly pristine condition, having lost only about 1.5 percent of its weight, after having apparently backed itself out of Connally's thigh.
In ballistics tests conducted with the same type of bullet, the only bullet that survived in a condition similar to the bullet in evidence was one fired into a tube of cotton. These tests, combined with the zigzagging course that the bullet would have had to follow, have led some forensics experts to dispute the single bullet theory, though many others note that a bullet can behave in strange ways when it hits its target and rapidly decelerates. Further, some forensic pathologists assert that the official medical record, both at Parkland and at Bethesda, is a record of inconsistencies, in large part because it was based on testimony not from forensic pathologists with experience examining gunshot wounds, but by emergency room physicians at Parkland and general pathologists at Bethesda. They note, for example, that at least three times the emergency room doctors referred to the wound in Kennedy's neck as an entrance wound rather than an exit wound. Numerous other details have been scrutinized, such as the path the bullet followed from Kennedy's back to his throat. Following this path, the bullet would have had to hit the president's spine, severely deforming the bullet. They note too that it was traveling upward when it exited the president's throat, but then downward when it entered Connally's body. Further, they note inconsistencies in testimony about where the bullet entered the president's back.
Forensic pathologists have also focused on the second, fatal bullet to the president's head. Their primary purpose was to determine the direction of the bullet and the angle at which it entered the president's head. Normally, a forensic pathologist relies on the beveling of bone, similar to the appearance of glass when a BB has passed through it, to confirm the direction of a bullet when it passes through bone. During the president's autopsy, pathologists had to reconstruct skull fragments, at least one of which is missing, to show that the beveling of the bone establishes that the bullet entered from above and behind, consistent with the conclusion at which the Warren Commission ultimately arrived.
One difficulty that forensics experts faced was reconciling this conclusion with the movement of the president's head and body captured on the so-called Zapruder film, a 26.6-second, 486-frame, 8 mm film shot by amateur cameraman Abraham Zapruder from Elm Street as the shots were fired. A frame-by-frame analysis of the Zapruder film suggests that when the president was struck by the first bullet, he was sitting in a position inconsistent with the bullet's supposed angle of entry (he would have had to have been leaning forward, but the film shows him sitting bolt upright). More significantly, the film suggests that when the second bullet hit him, the president was forced backward in a way more consistent with a shot from in front, not above and behind. Specifically, they note that when the bullet struck, the president's head moved slightly, about 1–2 inches (25–50 mm) forward and down. Then, as the wound in his head opened, his right shoulder twisted forward and up. Kennedy's torso then lurched quickly backward and to his left. He then bounced off the rear seat cushion and slumped lifelessly. If the autopsy findings and the Zapruder film are indeed inconsistent, this inconsistency raises for some the possibility that the source of the bullet was not Oswald's rifle on the sixth floor of the book depository, but elsewhere. For others, such an inconsistency represents unanswerable questions that may have arisen because of acceleration and deceleration of the limousine.
A sizable majority of Americans accept the crux of the Warren Commission's findings and regard inconsistencies as inevitable human error. Debate about these and other details suggest the monumental difficulty of establishing a clear, accurate, consistent forensic record of a crime that took place in front of hundreds of witnesses.
see also Autopsy; Ballistics; Bullet track.
The images are remarkably familiar. The convertible limousine winds its way through Dallas crowds; John F. Kennedy, America's youngest president, smiles and waves in the backseat; gunfire, three jerks, the limousine slows and then accelerates; Jackie Kennedy shrieks and covers her husband; an emotional Walter Cronkite tells the nation that its president has died, removes his glasses, and wipes his eyes.
On November 22, 1963, President John F. Kennedy was shot as he paraded through Dallas, Texas. That same afternoon, Dallas police arrested their suspect, Lee Harvey Oswald, an itinerant, self-described "Marxist-Leninist" who had lived in the Soviet Union. Within days, Oswald was also dead, shot by club-owner Jack Ruby on national television in the basement of a Dallas police station.
Kennedy's election to office marked, for some commentators, a new age in American political culture. "History with a capital H had come down to earth, either interfering with life or making it possible; and that within History, or threaded through it, people were living with a supercharged density: lives were bound up within one another, making claims on one another, drawing one another into the common project," Todd Gitlin explained, capturing the sense of immediacy that televised politics had brought to the American social sphere in the early 1960s. Americans knew Kennedy as "the television president," and their relationship with the man and his politics was infused with this sense of immediacy.
It should come as no surprise, then, that Kennedy's violent and sudden death moved the American public so dramatically. Kennedy's funeral rites were a profoundly public affair, broadcast on each of the nation's television networks, and witnessed in 93 percent of the country's television-viewing households. "America wept," New York Times columnist James Reston wrote, "not alone for its dead young President, but for itself. The grief was general, for somehow the worst in the nation had prevailed over the best."
What is surprising, however, is the range of responses the Kennedy assassination has elicited in the decades following. The official body convened to investigate the assassination, the Warren Commission, issued a report confirming that Lee Harvey Oswald was indeed the murderer and asserting that Oswald had acted alone. Almost immediately, critics began to contend that the scenario reconstructed in the Warren Report seemed unlikely at best, dismissing in particular the infamous "single bullet theory," which proposes that one bullet was responsible for multiple injuries to Texas governor John Connally, who was riding in the front seat of the car, and to the president. For many, Kennedy's death revealed a dark, conspiratorial underside to American politics. It was a loss of American innocence and a prototype for the turbulent decade that lied ahead. From them have come hundreds of conspiracy theories that attempt to account for Kennedy's killing.
Initially, these theories came largely from Europe. Soon, however, conspiracy theorizing on the Kennedy assassination became a cottage industry in America, with leftists charging that a pact involving American security forces, the Mafia, and even Kennedy's vice president, Lyndon Baines Johnson, killed the president, and rightists uncovering plots that involved the Soviet Union, the Civil Rights movement, and American Communists.
By no means the first, one of the most prominent of the Kennedy conspiracy theorists was New Orleans district attorney, Jim Garrison. Garrison charged New Orleans businessman Clay Shaw with conspiracy to kill the president and, in 1967, Garrison brought him to trial. Shaw was acquitted, but in 1991, filmmaker Oliver Stone gave Garrison's theory a second hearing before the American movie-going public. Stone's JFK is a fast-paced, paranoid film that mixes Abraham Zapruder's 8 millimeter amateur film of the Dallas shooting and other pieces of historical footage with staged material and describes the assassination plot as "a riddle wrapped in an enigma inside a riddle." It brought crankish conspiracy theorizing into the American spotlight, rekindled the debate over Kennedy's death (and generated a new debate of its own about the popular media's cultural authority and responsibility), and was a booming commercial success. Fifty million people saw JFK in movie theaters, and the film brought Stone two Academy Awards.
The spread of conspiracy theorizing about the Kennedy assassination may be due, in part, to what Richard Hofstadter has called "the paranoid style in American politics." Largely, however, it seems to stem from a more innocent source. Television beamed the drama of the Kennedy assassination and its aftermath directly into the homes of millions of Americans. It made the Kennedy funeral the most widely watched television event in American history. Every American who was alive at the time, it seems, knows where they were when Kennedy was shot. And that is because, in a sense, every American was there, in Dallas, with the President as he died.
Brown, Thomas. JFK: History of an Image. Bloomington, Indiana University Press, 1988.
Garrison, Jim. On the Trail of the Assassins. New York, Sheridan Square Press, 1988.
Gitlin, Todd. The Sixties: Years of Hope, Days of Rage. New York, Bantam, 1987.
Hofstadter, Richard. The Paranoid Style in American Politics, and other Essays. Cambridge, Harvard University Press, 1964, 1996.
Manchester, William. The Glory and the Dream: A Narrative History of America, 1932-1972. Boston, Little, Brown, and Company, 1973.
Zelizer, Barbie. Covering the Body: The Kennedy Assassination, the Media, and the Shaping of Collective Memory. Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1992.
KENNEDY ASSASSINATION. SeeAssassinations, Presidential .