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A Cruel and Shocking Act: The Secret History of the Kennedy Assassination

A Cruel and Shocking Act: The Secret History of the Kennedy Assassination

by Philip Shenon

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A groundbreaking, explosive account of the Kennedy assassination that will rewrite the history of the 20th century's most controversial murder investigation

The questions have haunted our nation for half a century: Was the President killed by a single gunman? Was Lee Harvey Oswald part of a conspiracy? Did the Warren Commission discover the whole truth of what happened on November 22, 1963?

Philip Shenon, a veteran investigative journalist who spent most of his career at The New York Times, finally provides many of the answers. Though A Cruel and Shocking Act began as Shenon's attempt to write the first insider's history of the Warren Commission, it quickly became something much larger and more important when he discovered startling information that was withheld from the Warren Commission by the CIA, FBI and others in power in Washington. Shenon shows how the commission's ten-month investigation was doomed to fail because the man leading it – Chief Justice Earl Warren – was more committed to protecting the Kennedy family than getting to the full truth about what happened on that tragic day. A taut, page-turning narrative, Shenon's book features some of the most compelling figures of the twentieth century—Bobby Kennedy, Jackie Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, J. Edgar Hoover, Chief Justice Warren, CIA spymasters Allen Dulles and Richard Helms, as well as the CIA's treacherous "molehunter," James Jesus Angleton.
Based on hundreds of interviews and unprecedented access to the surviving commission staffers and many other key players, Philip Shenon's authoritative, scrupulously researched book will forever change the way we think about the Kennedy assassination and about the deeply flawed investigation that followed.
A Washington Post Notable Nonfiction Book of 2013

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781429943697
Publisher: Holt, Henry & Company, Inc.
Publication date: 10/29/2013
Sold by: Macmillan
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 640
Sales rank: 230,898
File size: 13 MB
Note: This product may take a few minutes to download.

About the Author

Philip Shenon, the bestselling author of The Commission: The Uncensored History of the 9/11 Investigation, was a reporter for The New York Times for more than twenty years. As a Washington correspondent for The Times, he covered the Pentagon, the Justice Department and the State Department. He lives and writes in Washington, DC.

Read an Excerpt

A Cruel and Shocking Act

The Secret History of the Kennedy Assassination

By Philip Shenon

Henry Holt and Company

Copyright © 2013 Philip Shenon
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4299-4369-7



Within hours of the return of the president's body to Washington, evidence about the assassination began to disappear from the government's files. Notes taken by military pathologists at the autopsy, as well as the original draft of the autopsy report, were incinerated.

Navy Commander James Humes, MD, said later he was appalled that his handling of the hospital paperwork on the night of Saturday, November 23, might be portrayed as the first act of a government-wide cover-up. Still, he admitted, he should have known better. "What happened was my decision and mine alone," he recalled. "Nobody else's."

At about eleven that night, the thirty-eight-year-old pathologist took a seat at a card table in the family room of his home in Bethesda, in the Maryland suburbs of Washington, and prepared to read through his notes from the morgue. He assumed he would be there for hours, writing and editing the final autopsy report. He had lit a fire in the fireplace, which provided some warmth on an early winter night.

The night before, he had led the three-man team of pathologists who conducted the president's autopsy at Bethesda Naval Medical Center. There had been no time during the day on Saturday to finish the paperwork, he said. So now he sat alone, hoping to find the energy to complete the report in peace. He needed to present a final copy to his colleagues for their signatures; they were under orders to deliver the report to the White House by Sunday night.

Humes was exhausted. He had managed a few hours of sleep that afternoon, but he had not slept at all Friday night. "I was in the morgue from 7:30 in the evening until 5:30 in the morning," he said later. "I never left the room."

It was on Friday afternoon, with the terrible reports still pouring in from Dallas, that Humes, Bethesda's highest-ranking pathologist, learned that he would oversee the postmortem of the president. He was told to expect the arrival of the corpse in a few hours' time. Jacqueline Kennedy had initially resisted the idea of having an autopsy; the vision of her husband's body lying on a cold, steel dissecting table seemed one more horror in a day already full of them. "It doesn't have to be done," she told the president's personal physician, Admiral George Burkley, as they flew in Air Force One from Dallas to Washington. She was sitting with the president's casket in the rear compartment of the plane. Burkley, who had proved himself a loyal and discreet friend to the Kennedy family, gently convinced her that there had to be an autopsy. She had always taken comfort from the fact that he was a fellow Roman Catholic, and an especially devout one, and at this moment she would trust his advice above almost all others'. He reminded her that her husband had been the victim of a crime and that an autopsy was a legal necessity. He offered her the choice of the Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington or the navy's hospital in Bethesda. The two hospitals were only eight miles apart. "Of course, the president was in the navy," Burkley reminded her.

"Of course," she said. "Bethesda."

The selection was a decision that even some navy doctors questioned. The veteran army pathologists at Walter Reed had far more experience with tracing bullet wounds than did their counterparts in the navy. (It was a simple fact that soldiers were more likely than sailors to die from gunshots.) Commander J. Thornton Boswell, another Bethesda pathologist, was assigned to assist Humes, and he thought it "foolish" to do the autopsy at the navy hospital given the other resources nearby. He thought the president's corpse should have been taken to the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology in downtown Washington, a Defense Department research center that handled complex medical-legal autopsies from all branches of the military. Neither Humes nor Boswell had credentials in forensic pathology, the branch of pathology that focuses on violent or unexpected deaths, so a third member was added to the team: Dr. Pierre Finck, a forensic pathologist from the Armed Forces Institute. Finck was a lieutenant colonel in the Army Medical Corps.

What might recommend Bethesda was the autopsy room itself. The whole morgue had just been renovated and outfitted with sophisticated medical and communications equipment. "We had just moved into it a couple of months before," Humes recalled. "It was all brand new." The autopsy room was spacious by the standards of military hospitals, about twenty-five by thirty feet, with a steel dissecting table fixed to the floor in the center. The room also functioned as an auditorium, with a viewing stand along one wall that allowed as many as thirty people—usually medical residents or visiting doctors—to view procedures. There was, in addition, a closed-circuit television camera so audiences across the street at the National Institutes of Health and down the road at the medical clinic at Andrews Air Force Base could observe at a distance. (Humes said later he wished someone had switched on the camera that night, to end the "ludicrous speculation" about what had gone on.) The morgue included large refrigerated closets able to store as many as six corpses, as well as a shower area for the doctors. The night of the president's autopsy, the pathologists would need every square inch of space.

The president's body arrived at about seven thirty p.m. The bronze casket was wheeled in from a loading ramp off the street. The corpse was gently removed from the casket and—after X-rays and photos of every part of the body—was placed on the autopsy table, where it would remain for most of the next ten hours. The wounds to the skull were not immediately visible since the head had been covered with sheets in Dallas. After removing the blood-soaked cloth, Humes ordered that all the sheets be laundered immediately. "We had a washing machine in the morgue, and he stuck those in," Boswell recalled. Humes worried from the start that something taken from the autopsy room would turn up as a grizzly souvenir in some rural sideshow—"he didn't want those appearing in a barn out in Kansas sometime."

The autopsy was a "three-ring circus," Boswell complained. Dozens of people—navy doctors and orderlies, X-ray technicians and medical photographers, Secret Service and FBI agents, military officers and hospital administrators—were either in the morgue or pressing at the door to be let in. The pathologists said the Secret Service agents who had accompanied the body to Bethesda, including some who had been in Dallas that day, were frantic with nervous energy. The man they had sworn to protect, even at the cost of their own lives, was dead. What were they protecting now? "Those people were in such an emotional state that they were running around like chickens with their heads off, and we understood their situation," Boswell said later.

Burkley, the president's physician, had accompanied the body to Bethesda, and initially he tried to take control of the autopsy. As a rear admiral, he would normally have been in a position to give orders to the lower-ranking navy pathologists, but his medical training was as an internist and cardiologist, and his recommendations met with angry resistance from Humes and the other pathologists. At first, Burkley tried to argue that a full autopsy was unnecessary. He said that since the presumed assassin, Lee Harvey Oswald, was under arrest in Dallas and there seemed little doubt about his guilt, there was no need for procedures that might severely disfigure the president's corpse. He knew the Kennedy family was weighing whether to leave the casket open for a viewing of the body before burial. Burkley wanted to limit the autopsy to "just finding the bullets," Boswell said.

Humes rejected the admiral's idea as absurd, given the danger that something important might be missed in a hasty postmortem, and Burkley backed down, although he insisted they move quickly. "George Burkley, his main concern was, let's get this over with as fast as we could," Humes said later, recalling his annoyance. Burkley appeared worried above all about the delay's effect on Mrs. Kennedy, who was waiting with Robert Kennedy and other family and friends in the hospital's VIP suite on the seventeenth floor. She had announced she would not leave Bethesda until she could take her husband's body with her. Humes said he cringed at the thought of what she must be going through; he knew she was still wearing the bloodstained pink suit he had seen on television. (She had refused to change out of the clothes, in fact. "Let them see what they have done," she had told Burkley defiantly.) Still, much as he felt sympathy for Mrs. Kennedy, Humes felt rushed by her presence in the hospital. "It did harass us and cause difficulty," he remembered.

Burkley had another request of the autopsy doctors, and on this point he was insistent. He asked Humes to promise that the pathologists' report would hide an important fact about the president's health, unrelated to the assassination. He wanted no mention of the condition of Kennedy's adrenal glands. The White House physician knew an inspection of the adrenals would reveal that the president—despite years of public denials—suffered from a chronic, life-threatening disorder, Addison's disease, in which the glands, which sit on top of the kidneys, did not produce enough hormones. Kennedy might have given the appearance of ruddy good health, but Burkley knew that was often a result of makeup and other staging for the cameras. The president survived because of daily hormone supplements that included high doses of testosterone.

Humes, eager to begin, agreed. "He promised George Burkley that we would never discuss the adrenals until all of the then-living members of the Kennedy family were dead, or something like that," said Boswell, who went along with the plan, even though it was a blatant violation of protocol. Days after the autopsy, Burkley returned to Humes with another secret request, this one about the handling of the president's brain, which had been removed from the skull for analysis after the autopsy. As Burkley had asked, Humes delivered the brain, which had been preserved in formalin in a steel pail at Bethesda, to the White House so that it could be quietly interred with the president's body.* "He told me flat out that the decision had been made and that he was going to take the brain and deliver it to Robert Kennedy," Humes recalled.

Humes's work on the night of the autopsy was hampered for other reasons. In the hours after the president's death, the fear that the assassination was the work of a conspiracy, and that the conspirators might strike again, was a topic of fevered discussion in the hallways at Bethesda. As Humes and his team set to work, they overheard colleagues talk about how the Russians or the Cubans might be behind the murder, and how Lyndon Johnson, sworn in hours earlier as president, could be the next target.

The doctors began to worry for their own safety. If there was a conspiracy, the killers might want to hide the truth of exactly how the president had died. Was it possible the Bethesda pathologists might also be silenced, or their evidence seized and destroyed? "It seemed like there might be some sort of cabal" behind Kennedy's death, Boswell remembered thinking. "Anybody was likely to be killed." Humes's superior officer was so alarmed by the potential threat that he ordered Boswell to make sure that Humes, who had taken responsibility for writing the autopsy report, got back to his house safely. "So I got in my car behind Jim Humes, and I followed him home," Boswell said.

When Humes finally walked through his front door at about seven a.m., he had no opportunity to collect his thoughts, let alone sleep. He was scheduled to drive his son to church that morning for the boy's First Communion—Humes was determined to be there—and he knew he needed to return to Bethesda within a few hours for a telephone call with the doctors at Parkland Memorial Hospital in Dallas who had tried, futilely, to save Kennedy's life. Humes later conceded he should have left the autopsy room and spoken with the Parkland doctors at some point Friday night, but he was under too much pressure to finish. "There was no way we could get out of the room," Humes said later. "You have to understand that situation—that hysterical situation—that existed. How we kept our wits about us as well as we did is amazing to me."

The call on Saturday to Dr. Malcolm Perry, the chief Parkland doctor to attend to Kennedy, resolved a central mystery for Humes. There had been no question among any of the doctors in Dallas or Bethesda about Kennedy's cause of death—the massive head wound from a bullet that blew away much of the right hemisphere of his brain, an image captured in awful photographs. The mystery was over what appeared to be the first bullet to hit the president, which entered his upper back or neck and should have remained relatively intact as it passed through soft tissue. Where had it gone? The Bethesda pathologists could find no obvious exit wound.

Humes and his colleagues struggled with the question for hours; it was one reason why the autopsy took so long. "I x-rayed the president's body from head to toe for the simple reason that missiles do very funny things occasionally in a human body," Humes said. Bullets often zig and zag once they strike flesh, even if fired from a direct angle, he explained. "It could have been in his thigh or it could have been in his buttock. It could have been any damn place." As they worked, Humes and the others talked about the unlikely possibility that the bullet had fallen back out of the entrance wound as the president's heart was massaged to try to restore a beat—speculation that made its way into the report of FBI agents observing the autopsy.

During the phone call, Perry had an explanation for the missing bullet. The Parkland doctors had performed a tracheotomy, cutting into the president's badly damaged windpipe to allow him to breathe, exactly where there had been a small wound in front of the throat, near the knot of his tie. Perhaps that was where the bullet had exited? "The minute he said that, lights went on and we said, a-ha, we have some place for our missile to have gone," Humes said. The tracheotomy, he assumed, had destroyed evidence of the exit wound. The doctors could never be certain where that bullet had finally landed, but at least they now thought they knew where it had gone—out of the president's throat.

* * *

That Saturday night, as Humes sat at his card table near the fireplace in his family room, he noticed the streaks of blood—the president's blood—that stained each page of his notes from the autopsy room, as well as each page of the draft autopsy report. He later recalled being repulsed by the stains.

Slowly, carefully, he began transferring the information from his notes to clean sheets of paper. "I sat down and word for word copied what I had on fresh paper," Humes said later. It took hours. His well-thumbed copy of Stedman's Medical Dictionary was at his elbow: he wanted no spelling errors on the report that he would give to the White House.

Only Humes knew what motivated him to do what he did next. Were there embarrassing errors in the original autopsy report and in his notes that he wanted to correct? Did he adjust the location of the entry and exit wounds of the bullets? Beyond his promise to Burkley to eliminate any reference to the president's adrenal glands, did he leave out other information? Was he ordered to? Whatever the reason, Humes decided—as he sat there at the card table—to destroy every piece of paper in his custody, except the new draft. He was determined, he said, to keep the bloodied documents from falling into the hands of "ghouls."

Years later, he admitted that he did not fully understand the implications of his actions, and he acknowledged that they might have helped feed the conspiracy theories that dogged him the rest of his career. He tried to reconstruct his thinking: "When I noticed these bloodstains were on these documents that I had prepared, I said, nobody's going to ever get these documents."


Excerpted from A Cruel and Shocking Act by Philip Shenon. Copyright © 2013 Philip Shenon. Excerpted by permission of Henry Holt and Company.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents


Title Page,
Copyright Notice,
PART 1 NOVEMBER 22–29, 1963,
Author's Note,
Also by Philip Shenon,
About the Author,

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