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The Mystery of Humes' 'Disappearing' Autopsy Notes

"Dr. BOSWELL said that he believes he is the only one
who took notes during the autopsy.
" Boswell, interview Andy Purdy , August 17, 1977

Drs. Boswell, Humes & Finck

Commander Humes: " In privacy of my own home, early in the morning of Sunday, November 24th, I made a draft of this report which I later revised, and of which this represents the revision. That draft I personally burned in the fireplace of my recreation room." (Date)


"Q My question will go to the issue of
whether it was a draft of the report that was
burned or whether it was--

A I think it was--

Q --handwritten notes--

A It was handwritten notes and the first
draft that was burned."(date)


There is nothing suspicious about it. Commander James Humes USN, working late in his 'recreation room' to produce the report on the autopsy of President John F. Kennedy who had been shot to death in Dallas some 36 hours previously, threw a rough draft of the autopsy protocol into the fire. Admiral George Burkley, the White House Physician, had requested the report be delivered to him personally by 6pm, Sunday 24th. Humes was burning the candle both ends in an effort to get the report in on time.

John Kennedy was shot 12.30pm, Friday 22nd November 1963. He was rushed to Parkland Memorial Hospital, Dallas, where he was pronounced dead at around 1pm. He had sustained a massive injury to the head, and apparently a bullet through the neck.

His body was transported to Washington, and thence to Bethesda Naval Hospital, Maryland, where an autopsy was performed through the night, the body leaving to lie in state at around 5am Saturday morning.

The autopsy revealed, apparently, that the fatal shot to the head had entered '1 inch to the right & slightly above ' the external occipital protuberance, a bony landmark situated a little beneath the level of the top of the ears, centrally, at the back of the skull. At least, this was the location described in the autopsy report which Humes finally delivered to Burkley at 5pm that Sunday.

The location of the entry wound into the head

Clearly it was important to discover the site of that entry wound. The size and character of the wound would be expected to provide information on the caliber, speed and type of the fatal bullet. With further information about the exit point of the bullet and the position of the president at the time of the head shot, it might prove possible to reconstruct the trajectory, and thus to some extent pinpoint where the shot had originated.

According to the final version of the autopsy report :

"Situated in the posterior scalp approximately 2.5 cm. laterally to the right and slightly above the external occipital protuberance is a lacerated wound measuring 15 x 6 mm. In the underlying bone is a corresponding wound through the skull which exhibits beveling of the margins of the bone when viewed from the inner aspect of the skull."

This then was the entry wound found at Bethesda.

Clearly Commander Humes did not memorise all of the statistics noted in the report - there are more than 40 measurements given there for various weights, sizes & fluid capacities. He wrote it over an extended period, final revisions taking place in consultation with his colleagues Drs. 'J' Thornton Boswell & Pierre Finck in the office of his commanding officer at the very moment Jack Ruby put an end to the life of Lee Oswald in the basement of police headsquarters, Dallas. Where then, aside from memory, did the facts & figures noted at the autopsy reside, between the end of the autopsy & the writing of the report?

Not surprisingly, notes were taken during the autopsy, in accordance with standard practice. The record today, 37 years later, contains some such notes.

Arlen Specter, then a lawyer working for the Warren Commision, set up by President Johnson up to investigate the crime, held aloft certain papers (Which collectively entered the record as Commission Exhibit No. 397) as he questioned Humes under oath with regard to his actions and conclusions with respect to the autopsy:

Humes Testifies (1964)

Mr. Specter.
Now, Doctor Humes, I hand you a group of documents which have been marked as Commission Exhibit No. 397 and ask you if you can identify what they are?
Commander Humes.
Yes, sir; these are various notes in long-hand, or copies rather, of various notes in long- hand made by myself, in part, during the performance of the examination of the late President, and in part after the examination when I was preparing to have a typewritten report made.
Mr. Specter.
Are there also included there some notes that you made while you talked to Doctor Perry on the telephone?
Commander Humes.
Yes, sir; there are.
Mr. Specter.
Are there any notes which you made at any time which are not included in this group of notes?
Commander Humes.
Yes, sir; there are.
Mr. Specter.
And what do those consist of?
Commander Humes.
In privacy of my own home, early in the morning of Sunday, November 24th, I made a draft of this report which I later revised, and of which this represents the revision. That draft I personally burned in the fireplace of my recreation room.

Mr. Specter.
May the record show that the Exhibit No. 397 is the identical document which has been previously identified as Commission No. 371 for our internal purposes.
Is the first sheet then in that group the notes you made when you talked to Doctor Perry?
Commander Humes.
That is correct. sir.
Mr. Specter.
And do the next 15 sheets represent the rough draft which was later copied into the autopsy report which has been heretofore identified with an exhibit number?
Commander Humes.
That is correct. sir.
Mr. Specter.
And what do the next two sheets represent?
Commander Humes.
The next two sheets are the notes actually made in the room in which the examination was taking place. I notice now that the handwriting in some instances is not my own, and it is either that of Commander Boswell or Colonel Finck.

Mr. Specter.
And was that writing made at the same time that the autopsy report was undertaken; that is, did you review all of the markings on those papers and note them to be present when you completed the autopsy report?
Commander Humes.
Yes, sir. From the time of the completion of this examination until the submission of the written report following its preparation, all of the papers pertinent to this case were in my personal custody.
Mr. Specter.
Have you now described all of the documents which were present in that 397, Exhibit No. 397?
Commander Humes.
Yes, sir; with the exception of the certification to the fact that I, in fact, detailed them in my custody, and a certification that I had destroyed certain preliminary draft notes.
Mr. Specter.
And those represent all the notes except those you have already described which you destroyed?
Commander Humes.
That is correct...........

(Warren Commission Hearings, Vol. II, p. 348.)

So the documents Specter passed to Humes consisted of 1) 15 sheets consisting of the rough handwritten draft of the autopsy notes. 2). 'Boswell's Face Sheet' 3) Notes of Humes conversation with Dr Perry in Dallas (Saturday 23rd, am) 4) Two signed 'certifications' to the following facts: That 'all working papers have remained in' [Humes] 'custody at all times' ,and that he had burned 'certain preliminary draft notes' relating to the autopsy.

We can conclude then that as of 1964 Humes was maintaining that he 'personally burned' in the fireplace of his recreation room 'a draft of this report' , and ONLY 'a draft of this report'.

'Boswell's Face Sheet'

Inevitably, we then turn to the actual notes made in the autopsy room to find the source of the 40 odd measurements given in the autopsy report. It is a curious fact that though the body chart is marked with an upwardly pointing arrow at the supposed location of the head entry wound, and though a handwritten notation describes the wound as 'ragged, slanting', and the size of the wound is given (15 x 6 mm) , THERE IS NO MEASUREMENT TO BE FOUND ANYWHERE ON THE SHEET FOR THE EXACT LOCATION OF THE WOUND ON THE HEAD.

This somewhat astonishing discovery bears repeating. On the autopsy descriptive sheet ( 'Boswell's Face Sheet' is a name that seems to have developed by itself over the years, though it is not entirely Boswell's, & neither would it appear to be a 'face sheet', whatever that might be) the crucial measured details of the exact location of the bullet entry into the head are simply not there. We have no trouble at all in finding the measurement of an old healed scar on JFK's back, the result of an operation some years earlier. (15cm x 2cm). Nor a specified location for the entry wound into the high back/neck. ('14 cm from rt acromion 14cm below tip of rt mastoid process'). Nor the weight of the left kidney: 140gm. But unnaccountably, perhaps the most crucial measurement of the whole autopsy is simply missing. And since these notes are all that Humes had to work with (according to his sworn testimony to Specter, above), the question inevitably arises: where did the measurement 'approximately 2.5 cm. laterally to the right and slightly above the external occipital protuberance' found in the actual autopsy report come from?

"where the figure in the head wound came no such measurement He was not able to explain the autopsy report for the location of from in light of the fact that there was
on the autopsy face sheet. He said that the number possibly came from some other doctor or was remembered
by Dr. HUMES."

Boswell, interview Andy Purdy , August 17, 1977

See a detailed account of what is in the autopsy report that is not also noted in the Face Sheet

Were there any other notes?

In 1969 Finck testified under oath that he hinself made no notes, and that Boswell made the notes on the 'face sheet'. He then corrects this to say that he did take measurements and may have written them down, or read them out for the others to write down, but that he had no notes when he left the autopsy room. He says Humes & Boswell made notes at the autopsy.

There may be some semantic confusion here. When the pathologists are questioned, it appears to be generally assumed that if for example Humes made notes, then he made them on a piece of paper that was somehow designated 'Humes Use Only!'. A careful reading of the record indicates that it is more than likely that they all made notes on the same piece of paper, namely Boswell's sheet.

Here is Humes testifying in 1964:

"Mr. Specter. [in fact referring to the 'face sheet']
And what do the next two sheets represent?
Commander Humes.
The next two sheets are the notes actually made in the room in which the examination was taking place. I notice now that the handwriting in some instances is not my own, and it is either that of Commander Boswell or Colonel Finck. "

So in 1964 Humes was maintaining that the 'face sheet' was 'the notes', and that 'some of the writing was not his own', obviously giving the impression that some of the writing there was his own.

We move on ten years to find Humes testifying to the HSCA, and giving version two of the 'note burning' story:

Mr. CORNWELL. And you finally began to write the autopsy
report at what time?
Dr. HUMES. It was decided that three people couldn't write the report simultaneously, so I assumed the responsibility for writing the report, which I began about 11 o'clock in the evening of Saturday, November 23, having wrestled with it for 4 or 5, 6 hours in the afternoon, and worked on it until 3 or 4 o'clock in the morning of Sunday, the 24th.
Mr. CORNWELL. Did you have any notes or records at that point as to the exact location of the----
Dr. HUMES. I had the draft notes which we had prepared in the autopsy room, which I copied.
Mr. CORNWELL. Was the distance between the wound and the external occipital protuberance noted on those notes? '
Dr. HUMES. It was not noted in any greater detail than appears in the final report.
Mr. CORNWELL. So, the exact distance, then, above the external. occipital protuberacne was not noted--
Dr. HUMES. Was not noted, with the feeling, of course, that the photographs and X-rays that we had made would, of themselves suffice to accurately locate this wound.
Mr. CORNWELL. I only have one final question.
First, however, the notes are no longer in existence; is that correct?
Dr. HUMES. The original notes which were stained with the blood of our late President, I felt, were inappropriate to retain to turn in to anyone in that condition. I felt that people with some peculiar ideas about the value of that type of material, they might fall into their hands.
I sat down and word for word copied what I had on fresh paper.
Mr. CORNWELL. And then destroyed them?
Dr. HUMES. Destroyed the ones that were stained with the President's blood.

Note Humes says 'had the draft notes which we had prepared in the autopsy room'. He now maintains he copied these 'word for word' and then destroyed the bloodstained originals. This implies he burned notes made in part at least by Boswell & Finck, and that we should now be left only non-bloodstained copies of the original autopsy notes. On the first point, Humes will later (1999) contradict himself, and the second is contradicted by simply looking at the 'face sheet' which is itself markedly bloodstained.

Note also

"Mr. CORNWELL. Was the distance between the wound and the external occipital protuberance noted on those notes? '
Dr. HUMES. It was not noted in any greater detail than appears in the final report. "

.......... an absolutely classic piece of Humes-speak. His answer in fact doesn't answer the question. His answer leaves open the very real possibility that 'it was not noted' in any detail whatever. IE it was not noted at all. Which would of course be the case if the only notes he had were the notes on the 'face sheet'.

His story has undergone a radical transformation since 1964. One or other version must be untrue. Humes perjured himself in either 64 or 79.

Here's Boswell in 1999 (ARRB):

Q Did you ever see the notes that Dr. Humes took during the course of the autopsy?
A No. I'm trying to think what notes he might have taken. I don't see his handwriting on that.
Q You mean Exhibit 1? [the 'face sheet']
A Right. I don't think I saw any of his notes.

Here we have Boswell almost explicitly saying what I very much suspect. Humes in fact had no notes.

Q Was it ever the custom or practice to have somebody take minutes or notes of proceedings of an autopsy?
A Always.
Q Was there somebody who did that?
A Well, basically I was taking the notes, for the most part.
Q And by those notes, you're referring to Exhibit 1? [the 'face sheet']
A Right.

That's pretty close to coming out with it. 'Basically I was taking the notes'.

Lincoln's Chair

Humes gave Jeremy Gunn of the ARRB an eloborately gilded version of the 'note burning' tale he'd told the HSCA years before:

"Also in Greenfield Village, there is an old Illinois courthouse where Lincoln used to preside when he was circuit-riding judge. And in that courthouse was a chair that was alleged to be the chair in which Lincoln sat when he was assassinated in Ford's Theater. And the docent, in describing this chair, proudly spoke that here on the back of the chair is the stain of the President's blood. The bullet went through his head. I thought this was the most macabre thing I ever saw in my life. It just made a terrible impression on me."

Note that is has apparently been known since the trial of the Lincoln Conspirators that the stain on the chair is in fact merely hair-dressing.

"And when I noticed that these bloodstains were on this document that I had prepared, I said nobody's going to ever get these documents. I'm not going to keep them, and nobody else is ever going to get them."

The 'documents' were in fact due to be handed over to Admiral George Burkley, Kennedy's personal physician, at the White House, not the local freak show or a passing circus. Humes is asking us us to believe that he really thought Burkley, & by implication the Kennedy family themselves, were not to be trusted with this bloodstained' material. This despite the fact that Humes later announces that he delivered JFK's brain to Burkley, as if that were not gory enough. And despite the fact that he did not destroy the bloodstained Boswell 'face sheet'. In my opinion this yarn is simply a transparent lie.

" So I copied them--and you probably have a copy in my longhand of what I wrote. It's made from the original. And I then burned the original notes in the fireplace of my family room to prevent them from ever falling into the hands of what I consider inappropriate people. And there's been a lot of flack about this, that they're all part of a big conspiracy that I did this because I was involved in I don't know what I was involved. Ludicrous. That is what I did."

(Humes 'longhand copy' is actually rough draft of the autopsy protocol itself.)

more on the Terrible Chair

Finck's (yes, Finck's) Disappearing Notes

Lest anyone think Humes was the only one with 'note problems', here is a snippet of Finck's ARRB questioning:

" Q: Dr. Finck, I would like to show you another document that has been marked as [Exhibit # omitted] this deposition, and it is on its face an affidavit of Leonard D. Saslaw, Ph.D. And I wish that you would take a minute to read this affidavit. [Handing document to witness] MR. GUNN: We can go off the record.

[Discussion off the record.]

Q: Dr. Finck, have you had an opportunity to read the affidavit of Leonard D. Saslaw, Ph.D.?
A: Yes, I did.
Q: Let me quote from two paragraphs of the affidavit and then I will ask you if that helps refresh your recollection to any events.
Paragraph X states:
"I clearly heard Dr. Finck, who was speaking sufficiently loudly for his words easily to be overheard, complain that he had been unable to locate the handwritten notes that he had taken during the autopsy on President Kennedy. Dr.Finck elaborated to his companions with considerable irritation that immediately after washing up following the autopsy, he looked for his notes and could not find them anywhere. He further recounted that others who were present at the autopsy also had helped him search for his notes to no avail.............Dr. Finck concluded his story by angrily stating that he had to reconstruct his notes from memory shortly after the autopsy."
The question, Dr. Finck, is do these two paragraphs help refresh your recollection first on the question of whether you took notes during the autopsy?
A: I don't know."

I believe Humes may also have found himself in the embarrassing position of having to reconstruct his notes from memory. Dr. Pierre Finck also appears to have been less than completely honest with the ARRB. Jeremy Gunn establishes that Finck made notes from memory subsequent to the autopsy. He used these as a basis for his well known 'Letter to General Blumberg', detailing his own part in the autopsy proceedings. Where are these reconstructed notes? Finck is evasive to the point of claiming not to remember what papers on the case he held in his possession a mere few weeks before he was interviewed by Gunn.

more on Finck's bizarre testimony

What Else Is Missing From The 'Face Sheet'?

It would have been quite possible for Humes to have constructed his autopsy report using simply memory & Boswell's face sheet-except perhaps for two crucial pieces of information. Firstly, the exact location of the entry wound into the skull. And second, the exact sizes of the recovered metal fragments. (7 x 2mm and 3 x 1 mm).

But the exact measurements of the metal fragments (7 x 2mm and 3 x 1 mm.) are not stated on the reciept Sibert & O'Neill gave Capt. Stover, Humes superior. However they are stated in Sibert & O'Neill's report to be that exact size.

"22 Novenber 1963 From: Francis X O'Neill, Jr., Agent FBI ;James W Sibert, Agent, FBI

To: Captain J.H.Stover, Jr, Commanding Officer, U S Naval Medical School, National Naval Medical Centre, Bethesda, Maryland.
1). We hereby acknowledge reciept of
a missle [sic] removed by Commander James J. HUMES,MC, USN on this date.
(signed) Francis X O'Neill, Jr., James W Sibert"

If the hypothesis that Humes was working only from Boswell's sheet is correct, then the question is open: where did Humes get these measurements? Note also that the receipt is for 'a missle' (singular).

more on the 'face sheet' as a source of the autopsy measurements


In 1979 the HSCA Forensic Pathology Panel:

"......took note of the failure to record properly the findings during the procedure, particularly the measurements of the location of the entrance wound in the head, or even to retain the original notes from which the final report was prepared for reasons stated by Dr. Humes before the Warren Commission. The panel believes that the inability to examine such documentation in the event of legal dispute could adversely affect the outcome of subsequent criminal litigation. "

Reliability of the Autopsy Report.

Clark Report

HSCA Report

"One panel member, Dr. Rose, wishes to emphasize the view of the majority of the panel (all except Dr. Wecht) that the absence of injury on the inferior surface of the brain offers incontrovertible evidence that the wound in the President's head is not in the location described in the autopsy report. "

The HSCA and the Clark Panel put the entry 9 or 10 cm above that given in the autopsy report.

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