Josiah Thompson graduated from Yale University in 1957. He served in Underwater Demolition Team 21 before returning to Yale for graduate work. Thompson got his MA in 1962 and Ph.D. in 1964 and was later hired by the Philosophy Department.
After studying in Denmark Thompson returned to the United States in 1965 to teach at Haverford College, outside Philadelphia. In 1967 he published The Lonely Labyrinth, a book on the Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard.
Thompson took a keen interest in the assassination of John F. Kennedy and in 1967 Thompson published Six Seconds in Dallas - A Micro-Study of the Kennedy Assassination. In the book Thompson argues that four shots were fired by three gunman. Two shots were fired from the Texas Book Depository, a third, from the Dallas County Records Building, and a fourth from the grassy knoll. One hit Kennedy in the back, another hit John Connally, and the third and fourth hit the president in the head.
Thompson continued to work at Haverford College and in 1973 published his second book on philosophy, Kierkegaard. He abandoned academic life in 1976 and moved to California where he became a private investigator. In 1988 he published Gumshoe: Reflections in a Private Eye, an account of his life as a private-eye.
Over the last 30 years Thompson has investigated over a hundred murder cases. He participated in the defense of Bill and Emily Harris in the Patty Hearst kidnapping, and of Huey Newton on murder and assault charges. His most recent high-profile cases include being investigator for Timothy McVeigh in the Oklahoma bombing trial and investigating the bombing of environmental activists Judi Bari and Darryl Cherney.
In recent years Thompson has been highly critical of those researchers such as James H. Fetzer, David Mantik, Jack White and David Lifton who have argued that the Zapruder Film was tampered with soon after the assassination.
There was Mary Ferrell in Dallas, Penn Jones just outside Dallas, Sylvia Meagher in New York City, Paul Hoch in Berkeley, Cyril Wecht in Pittsburgh, Vince Salandria in Philadelphia, Harold Weisberg in Maryland, Ray Marcus and David Lifton in Los Angeles... and many, many more. A housewife, a lawyer for the school board, the editor of a small paper, a graduate student, a young professor, a WHO official. We were little people. People who had only a few things in common - inquiring minds, an unwillingness to be intimidated by public attitudes, more than a little tenacity, a bit of modesty and a willingness to laugh at oneself. None of us had any money or hoped to make any money out of this. We were doing it for its own sake. We formed a community... the closest thing to a true community of inquiry that I've ever known.
We shared information on a transcontinental basis. I still remember the excitement with which Vince Salandria and I received our copy of the Sibert-O'Neill Report from Paul Hoch! None of us gave a damn for credentials because - as we put it - "There are no Ph.Ds in assassination research."
According to the Commission's "single-bullet" theory, the missile that wounded the Governor had first transited the President's neck. Following this transit, it entered the Governor's back, making a 1.5 centimeter hole before shattering his fifth rib and blowing out an exit hole 5 centimeters wide. The bullet continued on to smash Connally's forearm and wrist, splintering the radius bone at its largest point and leaving along its path a trail of bone and metal fragments. This bullet finally embedded itself in the Governor's thigh, leaving behind two small fragments before falling out on the stretcher. According to the Commission, the bullet that accomplished all this - that shattered two bones and caused seven separate wounds in two people - was Commission Exhibit 399.
Critics of the Report have argued against this conclusion on two grounds. First, they point to the minuscule loss of CE 399's substance and to the conviction of two of the autopsy surgeons that 399 could not have caused the Governor's wounds for the simple reason that more metal was found in his wrist than was missing from 399. Second, they point to 399's undeformed state as evidence that it could not have caused the damage ascribed to it. The second argument is much stronger than the first.
Permit me to bolster R. H. Popkin’s brilliant reconstruction of the Kennedy assassination (July 28) by adding to his account certain facts which have just recently come to light.
(a) Commission Exhibit 399 - Popkin states that “there is no evidence that the Commission could obtain anything like pristine No. 399 in any of its tests.” Actually, there is one test performed by the Commission which did produce two bullets virtually identical with 399. In order to get control rounds for use in ballistics comparison tests Special Agent Frazier test-fired two bullets from Oswald’s rifle. Although Frazier indicates only that he test-fired the rifle to get these rounds, it is standard ballistics practice to obtain such rounds by firing into a long tube of cotton waste. When we look at the two bullets so produced, we find they appear to be virtually identical with 399. Although the Commission appears not to have realized it, a test had been performed which indicated quite clearly that 399 was a plant, that its most likely source was the test-firing of Oswald’s gun into cotton.
(b) The Autopsy Report - The disparity between the final autopsy report and the FBI reports of Dec. 9th and January 13th is explained as due to a reconstruction of the wounds by the autopsy doctors on November 23rd and 24th. Since FBI agents were not present at these subsequent conferences, the FBI was naturally ignorant of the reconstruction. Such an explanation seems plausible only as long as there is no substantive discrepancy between what the FBI observers say they saw at the autopsy, and what the doctors later report. Such a discrepancy emerges from an examination of the report on the autopsy submitted by the two FBI agents who were present.
This report is entitled Autopsy of Body of President John Fitzgerald Kennedy. Five pages single-spaced, it was dictated by Agents Francis X. O’Neill and James W. Sibert on 26 November 1963. The following citation gives the salient characteristics of Kennedy’s wounds as they were observed by agents O’Neill and Sibert:
Upon completion of X-Rays and photographs, the first incision was made at 8:15 p.m. X-Rays of the brain area which were developed and returned to the autopsy room disclosed a path of a missile which appeared to enter the back of the skull and the path of disintegrated fragments could be observed along the right side of the skull. The largest section of this missile as portrayed by X-Ray appeared to be behind the right frontal sinus. The next largest fragment appeared to be at the rear of the skull at the juncture of the skull bone.
The Chief Pathologist advised approximately 40 particles of disintegrated bullet and smudges indicated that the projectile had fragmentized while passing through the skull region.
During the autopsy inspection of the area of the brain, two fragments of metal were removed by Dr. Humes, namely, one fragment measuring 7 x 2 millimeters, which was removed from the right side of the brain. An additional fragment of metal measuring 1 x 3 millimeters was also removed from this area, both of which were placed in a glass jar containing a black metal top which were thereafter marked for identification and following the signing of a proper receipt were transported by Bureau agents to the FBI Laboratory.
During the latter stages of this autopsy, Dr. Humes located an opening which appeared to be a bullet hole which was below the shoulders and two inches to the right of the middle line of the spinal column.
This opening was probed by Dr. Humes with the finger, at which time it was determined that the trajectory of the missile entering at this point had entered at a downward position of 45 to 60 degrees. Further probing determined that the distance traveled by this missile was a short distance inasmuch as the end of the opening could be felt with the finger.
Inasmuch as no complete bullet of any size could be located in the brain area and likewise no bullet could be located in the back or any other area of the body as determined by total body X-Rays and inspection revealing there was no point of exit, the individuals performing the autopsy were at a loss to explain why they could find no bullets.
A call was made by Bureau agents to the Firearms Section of the FBI Laboratory, at which time SA Charles L. Killion advised that the Laboratory had received through Secret Service Agent Richard Johnson a bullet which had reportedly been found on a stretcher in the emergency room of Parkland Hospital, Dallas, Texas. This stretcher had also contained a stethoscope and pair of rubber gloves. Agent Johnson had advised the Laboratory that it had not been ascertained whether or not this was the stretcher which had been used to transport the body of President Kennedy. Agent Killion further described this bullet as pertaining to a 6.5 millimeter rifle which would be approximately a 25 caliber rifle and that this bullet consisted of a copper alloy full jacket.
Immediately following receipt of this information, this was made available to Dr. Humes who advised that in his opinion this accounted for no bullet being located which had entered the back region and that since external cardiac massage had been performed at Parkland Hospital, it was entirely possible that through such movement the bullet had worked its way back out of the point of entry and had fallen on the stretcher.
Also during the latter stages of the autopsy, a piece of the skull measuring 10 x 6.5 centimeters was brought to Dr. Humes who was instructed that this had been removed from the President’s skull. Immediately this section of skull was X-Rayed, at which time it was determined by Dr. Humes that one corner of this section revealed minute metal particles and inspection of this same area disclosed a chipping of the top portion of this piece, both of which indicated that this had been the point of exit of the bullet entering the skull region.
On the basis of the latter two developments, Dr. Humes stated that the pattern was clear that the one bullet had entered the President’s back and had worked its way out of the body during external cardiac massage and that a second high velocity bullet had entered the rear of the skull and had fragmentized prior to exit through the top of the skull. He further pointed out that X-Rays had disclosed numerous fractures in the cranial area which he attributed to the force generated by the impact of the bullet in its passage through the brain area. He attributed the death of the President to a gunshot wound in the head.
On the basis of these observations by O’Neill and Sibert a host of questions must be directed to the doctors who signed the final, undated autopsy report:
(1) How does a wound “below the shoulders and two inches to the right of the spinal column” become the neck wound pictured in Commission Exhibits 385 and 386?
(2) How does a wound whose terminus “could be felt with the finger” become a transit wound with its exit in the President’s throat? Surely to “reconstruct” a wound in this fashion is to falsify it.
(3) What happened to what O’Neill and Sibert describe as “the next largest fragment” which they located “at the rear of the skull at the juncture of the skull bone”? Nowhere in the autopsy report or in the testimony of any of the autopsy doctors do we find mention of this bullet fragment in the President’s skull. This is a significant omission since the location of such a fragment might prove difficult to resolve with the official theory of a hit in the right occipital region exiting through the roof of the skull.
(4) Why does O’Neill and Sibert’s fully detailed report contain no mention of the small entry hole in the back of the President’s head? In testimony before the Commission, Dr. Humes indicated that this wound had been examined in detail. He described its measurements as 6 by 15 millimeters, located it as “2.5 centimeters to the right and slightly above the external occipital protuberance,” and told how the scalp had been reflected and the underlying bone examined. How is it possible that O’Neill and Sibert simply missed this important wound and its meticulous examination by Dr. Humes? When we pursue the matter of this head wound we find that O’Neill and Sibert were not alone in failing to notice it. For when we examine the testimony of the Dallas doctors and nurses together with that of the Secret Service and FBI agents who witnessed the autopsy (with the exception of an ambiguous answer from Roy Kellerman) no one except the three doctors who signed the autopsy report claim to have seen this entry hole in the President’s head. Does it exist? I don’t know. But there is a miraculously simple way to find out. The government need only produce the 11 X-Rays, 22 color photos, and 18 black and white prints which O’Neill and Sibert report were taken during the autopsy.
Thompson, who was in Yale graduate school at the time, had his own doubts in the first days after the assassination - they were brought on by more or less the same aspects of the case that bothered the other critics - and, briefly, he was even moved to act on them. “The first flash over the radio was that Oswald was caught and seemed to be a left-winger - in Dallas! It sounded crazy. We went to a friend’s house that Saturday night, and he said, ‘Oswald will never live to stand trial.’ And then we drove down to Washington on Sunday, to go through the Capitol Rotunda, and we heard the news about Ruby on the car radio. There was a mixture of frustration and anger and despair. So many people in this long quiet line had the same feeling. We all thought, ‘It’s almost going to break. This is too blatant and obvious. There are bright newsmen working on this thing.’ Well, of course, it didn’t break. Then, on Wednesday, the New York Times published an article based on an interview with one of the Dallas doctors that said quite clearly that there was an entry hole in the front of the President’s throat. The same day, Life came out with some frames of the Zapruder film, and from those it was quite obvious that at the time of the shooting the President was facing away from the Book Depository.
When the Warren Report was published, some ten months after the assassination, most Americans seemed to accept its conclusions, most editorialists praised it for its thoroughness and clarity, one or two reviewers criticized it as taking the form of a brief for the prosecution, and perhaps a dozen obscure citizens, unaware of each other’s existence, began to pore over it to prove that it was wrong. Eventually, of course, critical books were written on the Report by professional journalists such as Léo Sauvage, an American correspondent for Le Figaro, and Sylvan Fox, the former city editor of the World-Telegram & Sun; Mark Lane, the author of Rush to Judgment, and Harold Weisberg, the author of Whitewash and Whitewash II, became more or less professional critics; Edward Jay Epstein, whose book on the alleged bungling of the Warren Commission investigation, Inquest, is generally considered the single greatest contribution to making criticism of the Report respectable, entered the field through the orthodox routine of scholarship - in order to earn a Master’s degree by analyzing the workings of a governmental commission; and James Garrison, operating on the premise that the Warren Commission failed to fulfill its duties, launched an investigation of his own as district attorney of New Orleans. But in the two and a half years between the assassination and the publication of Epstein’s book, most of the hours spent examining the official version of the President’s murder were spent by people who had no professional reason for their interest and no plans to make a full-time career out of criticizing the Warren Report. They tend to refer to themselves (and the professionals) as “investigators” or “researchers” or, most often, “critics.” They are also known as “assassination buffs.”
If altered, the Zapruder film would be an example of a more general phenomenon: the alteration of physical evidence by the authorities in a criminal case. Yes, it does happen. Not often. In fact, it's almost unique. In over twenty years of experience as a criminal investigator, I've seen it happen only once or twice. But it does happen...
Now let's take a photograph of a crime. First, you'd have to know exactly how you wanted to alter it. Secondly, you'd have to be sure no other copies - no negative hidden away, no second copy residing in someone else's possession - existed. Thirdly, you'd have to be sure that no other photographs taken by anyone else later would surface to expose the alteration.
With these considerations in mind, consider whether you would undertake to alter the Zapruder film. First, you'd have to know exactly what you wanted to show in your alteration. Second, since the film in question was a movie, you might very well have to alter not just one frame, not just one sequence of frames, but many. Thirdly, what about the other films? At least thirty-eight people were taking pictures that day in Dealey Plaza. At the very least, the Muchmore and Nix films also would have to be altered. The Muchmore film was purchased by UPI on Monday, November 25th, and shown the following day on WNEW-TV in New York City. On Friday, November 29th, the Nix film was also purchased by UPI and shown the next week in theater newsreels.
But the critical problem for anyone thinking of altering the Zapruder film is not the Muchmore and Nix films. It is all the other films you don't know about - films developed outside Dallas by people from out-of-state who just happened by...or by foreign tourists who would get their films developed in their home countries. Any one of these unknown films could expose your alteration.
If one sat down for a long, long time it would be difficult to come up with a situation where alteration was more unlikely than in a film of the assassination of President Kennedy - a murder occurring at noon in a public square in front of hundreds of witnesses, an unknown number of whom were taking photographs of it.
Unlikely? Yes. Foolhardy? Yes. Impossible? No.