Chapter 16: New Views on the Same Scene
A look at the various efforts to simulate and explain the President's head wounds, and a discussion of why they fall short
For reasons beyond my grasp, the first image in each chapter sometimes
fails to appear. If there's nothing up above, don't despair; you can still see the image here
Reading the Test Skulls
In order to determine if the rifle found in the school book
depository was capable of creating President Kennedy’s wounds, Dr. Alfred
Olivier of Edgewood Arsenal was hired by the Warren Commission to perform a
series of tests. He testified before the Commission on May 6, 1964. In his testimony, Olivier admitted he was
surprised by the damage created by the 6.5 mm ammunition, and introduced a
photograph of a skull as Exhibit 861. This was what was left of a
gelatin-filled skull after it had been fired upon by a rifle like the one purportedly belonging to Oswald. Olivier noted that the bullet hitting this skull broke into pieces and that these pieces
resembled the bullet fragments recovered from Kennedy’s limousine. He also acknowledged that the bullet striking this skull missed
its mark and hit the back of the skull slightly closer to its side than the
reported entrance on Kennedy.
There are reasons to doubt Kennedy's wounds were accurately replicated, however. Since, as subsequently acknowledged by Larry Sturdivan, who worked with Olivier, the shooters were trying to make the bullet follow the Warren Commission’s proposed path, entering low in the occipital bone and exiting above the temple, we can only assume the skulls were turned slightly to the left of these shooters. This, in turn, makes it reasonable to assume that the damage to the bullet and skull cited by Olivier came as a result of the bullet’s striking the thick occipital bone almost on edge along the curvature behind the ear. (A bullet striking skull bone on edge meets more resistance and is more likely to explode). Even if the bullet’s striking the skull 4 mm to the right of the supposed entrance and at a greater angle than if the bullet were coming from the sniper’s nest was irrelevant, however, Sturdivan’s admission that they were trying to re-create the wounds, as opposed to analyzing the position of Kennedy’s skull in relation to the sniper’s nest and shooting at the supposed entrance to see what happened, is telling. It indicates, as with so many of the other tests performed for the Warren Commission, that they were not testing to see if a shot from the sniper’s nest would be likely to create the wounds described by the doctors, but were instead trying to create evidence demonstrating that it did. This was to no avail. In opposition to both the Warren Commission’s determination that a bullet entering low on the back of the President’s skull left a small round hole on the bone (when viewed from the inside), and the HSCA’s determination that the bullet entering near the cowlick left a similarly small round hole on the bone, the bullet in Olivier’s test shattered the entire right side of the skull, from entrance to exit.
When one studies Wound Ballistics of 6.5 mm Mannlicher-Carcano Ammunition, Olivier's report on his tests, issued in March 1965, one finds more reason to doubt that the tests proved what they were designed to prove. In figure A12 of the report the profiles of three additional skulls are revealed. While the damage is extensive in each one, there is no evidence that a bullet sailed upwards and blew out the top of a skull, the purported course of the bullet striking Kennedy. In fact, even though the skulls were aligned to make the bullet exit the top of the skull (as admitted by Sturdivan) all the shots blew out near the right eye socket. It is also intriguing that there is only one picture portraying the bullet’s entrance on the bone in Olivier’s report, and that this small entrance was directly in the middle of the occipital bone. Perhaps this is an indication that NOT ONE of the bullets striking an inch to the right of the EOP left anything similar to the small round entrance on the bone observed by the doctors at the autopsy. This might make one wonder if this entrance was even created by a Mannlicher-Carcano rifle. When one realizes that the 56 page report, which has 4 pages of cover sheets, 2 pages of temperature readings, and a 7 page distribution list, fails to list the ten test skulls with a break down by entrance location, entrance size, exit location, exit size, and whether or not the bullet broke-up--which was only the most important data obtained by Olivier’s tests--one’s suspicions should only grow It should be noted here that when Dr. Olivier testified before the Warren Commission, he was asked by Arlen Specter the exact entrance location on the skull displayed in Exhibit 861, and that he’d consulted a notebook he’d brought along, which had been locked up in a safe. Why this data failed to make the report, which was classified Confidential and not released to the public until 1973, is a matter of conjecture. When one looks back on Olivier’s testimony of May 6, 1964, and realizes that he testified accurately at that early date on the three tests described in the March 1965 report, and that no further tests were conducted, however, one should rightly suspect that his report was deliberately delayed and not given to the Warren Commission or released among its papers.
It seems likely from this that someone in the know knew Olivier's tests failed to support the shooting scenario pushed by the Warren Commission.
Howard Donahue, a ballistics expert, also had his doubts that Olivier's tests accurately replicated Kennedy's wounds. In August 1977, Donahue was interviewed on radio station WBAL. He told his interviewer that in the late sixties “I went and visited the laboratories at Edgewood Arsenal and talked to Dr. Olivier himself. Now he had fired ten shots into ten inert skulls from Oswald’s rifle. Now, an inert skull is a human skull which has been filled with gelatin. None of these skulls showed the giant, enormous, macerating effect that Kennedy’s head showed. And then I began to look at the two holes in his head. And I realized it couldn’t have come from Oswald’s rifle. And then a strange pattern of events started to occur that everything that supported the Warren Commission was easily obtainable for evidence and that which contradicted it was not available.”
While the skull presented by Olivier in his Warren Commission testimony had had its right side blown off, Donahue concluded it was not as "macerated" as Kennedy's skull. This suggests that the skull fragments blasted from Olivier's test skulls were larger and more contiguous than the fragments blasted from Kennedy's skull, some of which were never found.
Single-assassin theorist extraordinaire Dr. John Lattimer conducted some skull tests of his own. In a February 1976 article in Surgery, Gynecolgy, and Obstetrics, and then again in his 1980 book Kennedy and Lincoln,
he presented another test skull upon which Mannlicher-Carcano ammunition
had shattered. Since Lattimer only presented a lateral photo of this skull, it’s
impossible to compare the size of the bullet’s entrance to that measured at the
autopsy. Still, as there appears to be
some sort of wire holding the back of the skull together where the bullet is
presumed to have entered (Lattimer was aiming for the cowlick entrance), it
appears this skull exploded, much as Olivier's Exhibit 861.There was certainly no small entrance in the back of the head leading
to a huge gaping defect in the front.
The suspicion that this skull showed one massive wound, and that Dr. Lattimer had wired the back of the skull together for this photo, moreover, was later proven correct by...Dr. Lattimer. During his appearance at the '93 Chicago conference on the medical evidence Dr. Lattimer presented a second photo of this skull. This photo showed that the skull wound actually started at the back of the head, near the cowlick entrance, and stretched all the way to the forehead. Despite Lattimer’s assertions that the
damage to this skull was similar to Kennedy’s, and that it confirmed the Clark Panel's
interpretation of the head wound, both the photo he'd used previously and the second photo of this skull showed that the left side of this test skull was
blown out nearly as badly as its right. Conversely, the fragments of the assassin’s bullet, despite supposedly
entering Kennedy’s skull less than an inch from its mid-line, were not believed
to have crossed the mid-line of his brain.
Shooting Skulls off Ladders
And yet Lattimer fails to note this problem in his article. Instead, he boasts "In each
instance in which a bullet struck one of our skulls in a slightly
tangential manner, as with the skull wound of President Kennedy, the
bullet apparently deformed enough to cause a larger wound of exit and a
large soft-tissue cavity inside the confined brain case with tremendous
pressure, which then expanded after the bullet had left and blew the
calvarium into several fragments, many of which went upward and forward
for distances as great as 20 to 30 feet, as in frame 313 of the
Well, hold it right there... "as great as 20 to 30 feet?" The fragment exploding upward in frame 313 was almost certainly the Harper fragment, which was found on the grass roughly 80 feet from the impact location. An 11-19-75 letter from Lattimer to Emory Brown (found in the Weisberg Archives), far worse, reveals that Lattimer knew the lack of scalp on his test skulls increased the magnitude of the "blast" in his test firings by as much as a factor of 4. So where does he get off pretending his simulations came anywhere near replicating the explosion of bone shown on frame 313? And why does he repeat in his summary that in his tests fragments of bone "flew 20 to 30 feet upward out of the skull, as with President Kennedy." Was he afraid to acknowledge any inconsistency?
Apparently so. The only inconsistency acknowledged in the article is one he blames on others. In his
article, he reports: "There was a discrepancy between the drawings
in the Warren Commission Report, which indicated relatively minor skull
wounds, and our knowledge from our wartime and research experience that
much more severe wounds were to be expected from this type of military
rifle bullet. It was this discrepancy which had led to our initial
skepticism about the accuracy of the Warren Commission Report, as
reflected by the illustrations of the President's wounds."
Well, this is
a bit bizarre. Lattimer reported no such discrepancy between the
drawings of the head wound and the autopsy photos after visiting the
archives in 1972. Even stranger, in interviews conducted after his
visit, he'd intimated that it was the drawings of the single-bullet
trajectory that had previously given him so much concern. As the
autopsy photographs prove that Kennedy's large head wound, as initially observed, DID resemble the wound in the Commission's drawings in the Warren Report, moreover, it seems possible Lattimer was simply blowing smoke. The skulls on which he fired, with no restrictive scalp, exploded to a far greater extent than the autopsy photos prove Kennedy's skull exploded, and rather than admit this, he sidestepped the issue by claiming the drawings created for the Warren Commission were inaccurate. Methinks the man a weasel.
An article in the November 1998 edition of the Dealey Plaza Echo provides more background on Lattimer and his skull tests. When asked by British researcher Russell Kent why he didn’t shoot his skulls from elevation in order to replicate the supposed trajectory in Dealey Plaza, Lattimer replied “He was leaning forward a bit.” So much for his concern for accuracy. Lattimer also claimed “We did know the exact location of the wound of entrance. The prosectors did not have the time to study the X-rays the way we did. Why do you say that the face is blown off? The forehead was blown off, not the face. The bulk of the skull jumped back at the gun; the other fragments were smaller.” When asked about the damage to a particular skull he'd claimed was a “Duplication of Kennedy’s Head Wound” Lattimer responded “I was distinguishing our skull wounds with those of Dr. Olivier where the right side of the face was removed when the “lower” impact point was used.”
From this it’s clear that Lattimer believed Olivier’s use of the “lower”
impact point was the cause of his failure to exactly replicate Kennedy’s wounds. Since Lattimer also claimed he knew “the
exact location of the wound of entrance,” one might rightly assume that
Lattimer went to his grave convinced that the higher entrance in the cowlick first proposed by
the Clark Panel was the authentic entrance location on Kennedy’s skull. But one would be wrong. On August
14, 2006, researcher/writer John
Canal, who is convinced that the
autopsists were correct about the “low” entrance wound, informed this writer that
Lattimer had officially changed his opinion about the entrance. Canal posted
two e-mails from Lattimer on the alt.assassination.JFK newsgroup. These reflected that Lattimer had indeed
changed his opinion. On March 24, 2004, Lattimer wrote Canal: “It does seem to
me that you and your colleagues have made great progress in investigating these
points, and the curved track in the brain is not only reasonable but is
probably demonstrable.” On April 27, 2004, Lattimer wrote
Canal: “I do not think that the
correction about the exact point of entry into Kennedy's head would merit any
action from a government official, but (we) would benefit from an article
correcting the whole matter, which you could refer to in the literature.”
The man who once claimed he’d “duplicated” Kennedy’s head wound while firing
at the “high” entrance location had thereby acknowledged his tests were irrelevant, as
he’d been firing at the wrong entrance location.
When one actually watches Lattimer’s skull tests, however, one should conclude that they are anything but irrelevant. They are, in fact, strong evidence that the shooting did not occur as purported. For one, the clouds of debris exploding from the skulls in Lattimer’s tests inevitably obscure the entire skull. The explosion of blood apparent in the Zapruder film, on the other hand, appears exclusively on the front half of the skull. Researcher Sherry Gutierrez, a professional blood-spatter analyst, has written about this issue extensively. On August 18, 2006, in an online post, she told the Education Forum: “The velocity and volume of the blood leaving the impact site as back spatter has much less velocity than blood leaving exit wounds as forward spatter; and the back spatter droplets only travel about 3-4 feet from the source…Back spatter does not travel more than 3 or 4 feet and is often described as a multitude of minuscule blood droplets that resemble an atomized spray or mist.” As back spatter moves slower than forward spatter, and stays closer to the impact location, one should wonder where this back spatter is in the Zapruder film. While there appears to be some mist around the back of Kennedy’s head, this mist is almost certainly related to the large exit defect, which has traveled slightly forward since impact.
(If the skull fragment in Z-313 is traveling at 200 feet per second, as seems reasonable, the bullet impacted at least 1/30 of a second prior to frame 313, as the fragment is 6 or 7 feet above Kennedy in Z-313. This 1/30 of a second delay would place the impact near the middle of the space between Z-312 and Z-313, which were taken 1/18 of a second apart. As the limousine was traveling at 8-9 mph when the bullet impacted, which translates to roughly 12 feet per second, this means the limo traveled at least 5 inches from the moment of impact. This means the supposed entrance on the back of Kennedy’s head, at the actual moment of impact, was roughly 5 inches behind its location in frame 313. So where is the back spatter from the “low” entrance noted at the autopsy and currently accepted as the only entrance on the back of the skull by both Lattimer and HSCA ballistics expert Larry Sturdivan? There is no cloud of bloody mist out behind Kennedy’s collar.)
There is another troubling aspect to Lattimer’s skull tests—the fact that he shot them off ladders. As pointed out by Wallace Milam, the ladders absorbed the forward momentum of the bullet, and rocked forward. The skulls, meanwhile, basically bounced off the ladders back towards the shooter. By placing his skulls on ladders, Lattimer could thereby falsely claim his tests proved that the “back-and-to-the-left” motion of Kennedy’s head in the Zapruder film was a normal response to a shot fired from behind, and that the “Jet Effect” from the exploding brain matter caused Kennedy’s head to fly backwards.
But Milam is not the first man to dispute the theories behind Lattimer’s work. After showing the HSCA two of the skull simulations performed by Olivier in 1964, Larry Sturdivan, the HSCA's wound ballistics expert, testified: “As you can see, each of the two skulls that we have observed so far have moved in the direction of the bullet. In other words, both of them have been given some momentum in the direction that the bullet was going. This is amplified, however, in these skulls because they are not tied to a human body.”
Lattimer’s sneaky ladder trick fooled Sturdivan into repudiating his testimony, however. In his 2005 book The JFK Myths, Sturdivan wrote “Dr. John Lattimer conducted some skull shots that resembled the Biophysics Division’s simulations, but for which the skulls were filled with animal brain tissue. In his shots, all skulls fell back from the table in the direction of the shooter. Evidently, the lack of a jet effect from the stiff gelatin in the Biophysics Lab’s simulation was a bit misleading and there was enough of a jet effect to move Kennedy’s head back after its forward surge.” Sturdivan missed that Lattimer’s skulls were sitting on the tops of ladders, not tables.
Shooting Melons Off Tables
The TV show Bullshit did shoot something off a table, however: a melon. In a 2005 episode purportedly debunking that Kennedy was killed by anyone other than Oswald, they shot a melon to demonstrate that bullets enter small and exit big, and that Kennedy's wounds could easily be replicated. To show that there was no mystery to Kennedy's back-and-to-the-left movement following the head shot, moreover, they showed the melon falling backwards in slow motion after impact.
They were bullshitting their audience, of course. (People seem to forget that the hosts of the show, Penn & Teller, are first and foremost magicians--illusionists.) That they performed multiple takes in order to perfect their trick is confirmed by the fact that in the long shot melon goo flies out and knocks a pink hat off another melon, but in the slow-motion shot that followed the hat never moves. From what I can gather, the trick works like this: 1) the bullet strikes the melon, imparting energy into the melon, and explodes from the far side of the melon; 2) a portion of this energy is projected downwards as the melon expands; 3) this causes the melon to recoil slightly from the table; 4) due to there now being far more melon missing by the exit than at the entrance of the bullet, however, the primary motion of the melon is to roll backwards and re-establish equilibrium; 5) the poorly secured table, recoiling from the expansion of the melon forwards, tilts back towards the shooter; 6) the melon rolls off the edge of the extremely small table. TA DA! If the table had been a larger table the melon would barely have moved. If the table had been solidly secured and had not tilted backwards the melon would barely have moved. If the melon had had a flat bottom it would barely have moved.
Of course, there's also the fact that a melon isn't a skull. As the forward momentum created by a bullet's impact is in large part determined by the amount of energy expended while entering and exiting the object receiving the impact, and as a skull is many times more difficult to penetrate than a melon, it only makes sense that a skull would be the recipient of far more forward momentum than a melon. An online paper by mechanical engineer Tony Szamboti estimates that a human skull pierced by a bullet will receive 50-100 times the amount of energy and forward momentum as a melon pierced by a bullet. I suspect he's right. I mean, you can't exactly pierce a skull with a toothpick, can you? This simple fact, apparently overlooked by Nobel Prize-winning physicist Luis Alvarez in his own studies, helps explain why the skulls fired on by Alfred Olivier's team in 1964 moved in the direction of the bullet far better than team member Larry Sturdivan's subsequent guess that the gelatin was to blame.
In fact, when one thinks of it, there was a lot that Alvarez, Lattimer, Sturdivan, and the producers of Bullshit!, for that matter, overlooked. In 1978, Mrs. John Nichols, the wife of forensic pathologist Dr. John Nichols, who'd recently passed on, delivered the results of his most recent shooting simulations, in which Mannlicher-Carcano ammunition was fired upon melons and cadaver specimens. (This paper can be found on the Baylor University website.) Nichols' conclusion read: "This study did not demonstrate the jet effect and would lead us to reject the jet effect as the basis for President Kennedy’s backward head movement." It detailed, moreover, that, among other things: 1) "All target movement was in the direction of bullet flight path"; 2) melons fired upon while sitting on a stand exhibited "bullet entry and exit spray," but did not move upon impact; and 3) "Movement of all cadaver specimens was away from gun."
And that wasn't all those peddling the jet-effect have over-looked. In 1996, Stanford Physicist Art Snyder and his wife Margaret attended the JFK Lancer Conference in Dallas and played some films in which watermelons had been fired upon. Some of these tests had been conducted by Dr. Doug DeSalles in 1994. In any event, these films, subsequently discussed in a 1998 article by the Snyders in Skeptic Magazine, and a Fall 1999 article by DeSalles in the Kennedy Assassination Chronicles, demonstrated an important point missed (or ignored) by Alvarez. While melons did indeed fly back toward the rifle when fired upon by 30.06 rifles firing soft-nosed ammunition (as claimed by Alvarez), they failed to do so when fired upon by Mannlicher-Carcano rifles firing full-metal jacket ammunition. This suggested that the "Jet Effect" identified by Alvarez, and used by single-assassin theorists everywhere to support that Kennedy's back-and-to-the-left motion after being struck suggested the shot came from behind, was directly related to the break-up of the bullet within the melon. As subsequently explained by Szamboti, the break-up of the transiting bullet creates a large temporary cavity expanding in all directions from the bullet. As the bullet exits the melon in pieces, it leaves a large hole, and the forward pressure is released. This, then, leaves the backward pressure pushing against a relatively intact back of the melon, and BINGO, it flies backward.
Thus, Kennedy's back-and-to-the-left movement can be explained by the "jet effect", provided the skull was as soft as a melon-rind, and the bullet broke up within the skull. For only through both circumstances could a tremendous amount of pressure push against the back of the skull without being offset by the forward movement of the skull upon impact.
There's also this: if the rapid expansion of a temporary cavity within the skull caused Kennedy's back-and-to-the-left movement, shouldn't pressurized blood and brain have spurted back out the bullet's entrance?
And so it turns out the melon test on Bullshit was not a waste of time and melon... It once again demonstrated that matter DOES fly back from a bullet's entrance. The melon sprayed fluid backwards from the entrance as well as forwards from the exit. As Zapruder frame 313, taken within a split second of the bullet's impact, was tested by the ITEK Corporation in 1976 and found to show no signs of spray from the back of Kennedy's head, the melon test supports the possibility that Kennedy was not struck on the back of the head at frame 313.
The JFK Myths
Let’s go back to Larry Sturdivan’s September 8, 1978 HSCA testimony. As the HSCA didn’t have the budget or the desire to test the wound ballistics of 6.5 mm Mannlicher-Carcano ammunition, they relied on the tests performed in 1964 by Alfred Olivier and Edgewood Arsenal. Since Sturdivan was actively employed at Edgewood Arsenal, and had assisted in the 1964 tests, he was given the responsibility of explaining wound ballistics to the committee, and how the tests performed in 1964 were still relevant.
In his testimony, Sturdivan presented photos of yet another test skull to the Committee. In order to show that a bullet creating a small entrance could indeed leave a large exit, Sturdivan presented a skull with a small entrance at its back and a blown-out face in front. It was entered into evidence as F-306. This skull had been one of Olivier’s test skulls from 14 years earlier. That the bullet in this test was fired into the thick occipital bone at the back of the skull cut into its value as evidence, however. The HSCA had, after all, relied upon their pathology panel to determine the location of the entrance on the back of Kennedy's skull, and had determined it to have been four inches higher than the entrance on the skull in the photos.
The trajectory of the bullet striking this skull was even more problematic. While the bullet striking Kennedy's skull was purported to have created a large defect at the top of his skull after entering the back, and striking nothing but brain, the bullet creating the large defect apparent on Sturdivan's exhibit had undoubtedly struck the bones in back of the face. This would most certainly have led to the creation of secondary missiles, and a much much larger defect.
The photos were nevertheless revealing. Since the bullet striking low on this skull had exited the face, the photos demonstrated that a bullet fired straight into the skull and striking low on the skull would most likely exit low on the skull, and not sail upwards and out the top of the skull, as so many current supporters of the single-assassin theory, including Sturdivan himself, now contend.
In 2005, Sturdivan released a book explaining his new views. While the book’s full title was The JFK
Myths: A Scientific Investigation into
the Kennedy Assassination, and it did indeed debunk many myths, both conspiracy
and otherwise, it added a few myths of its own. Here, Sturdivan explained the failure of the 1964 test bullets to simulate Kennedy's wound by asserting that
the test skulls were dried, and that a living skull would be more resistant,
and that a bullet striking such a skull would be more likely to sail upwards and explode from the top of the head. Maybe someone should tell Sturdivan that bullets don't sail upwards and explode from the tops of live skulls, either.
At another point, when discussing the 1964 tests, Sturdivan writes “the Biophysic Lab test skulls do not show extensive cracking from the entry holes, even though the dried skulls used in the tests were more brittle than live bone (indicated by more explosive fragmentation at the site of the explosive post-shot rupture). Figure 51 is a typical entry hole from this series. Some had a small crack through the body of the occipital plate similar to this one. Each had, at most, a single crack that ran across the entry hole. None had multiple, displaced cracks radiating from the entry hole.” Sturdivan thereby suggests that the comparatively small entrance hole observed on the back of Kennedy's skull was not unexpected. A close comparison of Figure 51, which depicts the same skull as HSCA Exhibit F-306, with the four Edgewood Arsenal Biophysic Lab test skulls shown on the Reading the Test Skulls slide, however, reveals that the skull in Figure 51 is far from typical. The backs of all four skulls on the Reading the Tests Skulls slide appear to have suffered extensive fractures or are missing bone.
This is most curious. When one reads Dr. Olivier’s 1965 report on these tests, one finds that the bullets fired into the ten test skulls “broke up to a greater or lesser degree in at least nine of the skulls.” This “at least nine” is unduly vague. If it was more than nine skulls than that would mean ten skulls, which would mean EVERY skull fired upon, right? If the bullet broke up in every skull then shouldn’t that have been mentioned? Since the photo in Figure 51 was the only photo of a bullet entrance in Olivier’s 1965 report and the only photo of a bullet entrance in Sturdivan’s 1978 testimony and the only photo of an entrance in Sturdivan’s 2005 book, one can’t help but be suspicious it was in fact far from typical, and was, in fact, a photo of the entrance on the only skull where the bullet did not break up.
Sturdivan’s failure to depict the exit defect in Figure 51 is also suspicious. Since Sturdivan is now of the opinion the bullet entered low on Kennedy’s skull in the Humes entrance, and then curved sharply upwards, perhaps he was trying to conceal that NOT ONE bullet curved upwards in such a manner in the 1964 tests, even though “at least nine” of the bullets broke up in the skull. and even though Olivier, by Sturdivan’s own admission, used “stiff gelatin” that would accentuate such a curve.
Sturdivan’s treatment of the bullet fragments and x-rays is also revealing. Here is how he described the bullet fragments on the x-rays during his 1978 HSCA testimony: “this case is typical of a deforming jacketed bullet leaving fragments along its path as it goes. Incidentally, those fragments that are left by the bullet are also very small and do not move very far from their initial, from the place where they departed the bullet. Consequently, they tend to be clustered very closely around the track of the bullet.” Later, he was asked by Congressman Fithian if a bullet fragment will always develop a lift. He said: “it will move in the direction it is yawing. If it yaws upwards, then it will tend to move upward. If it yaws down, then it would tend to move down….Unfortunately, the entrance yaw is unpredictable as to direction, so you really can’t predict whether it is going to go upward, downward, or to the right or left.” He then defended the high entrance proposed by the HSCA forensic pathology panel, the very entrance he now says doesn’t exist. He said: "There is extensive deformation at the top of the skull which indicates the radial velocity that was imparted to the tissue, broke it open and, therefore, relieved the pressure at the top…You would presume then, that the soft tissue, which was badly damaged, would have moved somewhat in the direction of that relieved pressure and. therefore, would be displaced somewhat upward from the original track. So I would place the original track as being somewhat lower than the trail of fragments indicated through there, certainly not much lower…there is no indication of any track in the lower half of the skull. It was definitely in the upper part.” After showing films of the skull tests to the committee, he returned to this theme and once again defended the HSCA entrance as the most logical entrance. He said: “Once the bullet enters the soft material within the skull, the radial velocity is imparted and the effect is exactly the same no matter at what point it enters. The only effect might be in which portion of the skull is actually blown out. In other words, it might blow out a little higher and a little more toward the top if the bullet entered a little more toward the top rather than blowing out on the side as is indicated in the second exhibit.”
So, after recently deciding that the bullet entered in the low entrance described at the autopsy, how does Sturdivan now view the x-rays and bullet fragments? In the JFK Myths, he claims: “many of the fragments deposited in the President’s brain were flushed out, along with the brain tissue, as the large amounts of blood flowed out of the explosive wound in the side of his head, in the car and in Parkland. It is evidently some of these that were deposited on the bone flaps by clotting blood that show as a “trail” of fragments near the top of the lateral view. This “trail” does not show on the frontal view, and is much higher than the FPP’s reconstructed trajectory. (Note: FPP=Forensic Pathology Panel) In fact, at the apparent location of these fragments there was no brain matter in which the fragments could be embedded.” Yes, he has once again completely reversed himself, not only on the wound location, but on elementary wound ballistics. While bullet fragments previously did “not move very far from their initial, from the place where they departed the bullet,” now “many of the fragments deposited in the President’s brain were flushed out, along with the brain tissue, as the large amounts of blood flowed out of the explosive wound in the side of his head.”
While Sturdivan is undoubtedly within his rights to change his mind, when he uses his experience as the HSCA’s ballistics expert to sell his book, and refutes a number of the HSCA’s key findings, and fails to tell his readers that his testimony was vital to these findings, he crosses a line, in my opinion. At one point in the JFK Myths, he writes: “One hesitates to disagree with the opinions expressed by three panels of expert pathologists who had the autopsy pictures and x-rays to study.” And yet at an other point he admits “The wound ballistics consultant from the Army’s Biophysics Division (the author of this book) was invited to participate in two of the FPP’s meetings. During several meetings, the FPP, a few members of the HSCA staff, and other consultants reviewed all the evidence from the autopsy, including the photographs, x-rays, and clothing.” In an ideal world, he would have followed this admission with a mea culpa grande, confessing that he proceeded to give congress information in sworn testimony he now believes inaccurate. But alas, he ignores this fact completely. While he is, by all accounts, a nice man, Sturdivan’s credibility on the JFK assassination ballistics evidence is undoubtedly debatable. He has, after all, given conflicting statements regarding the location of the entrance wound, the location of the exit wound, and the movement of bullet fragments within the skull. What’s left?
The Sturdivan School of Wound Ballistics
Funny I should ask. The climactic moment of Larry Sturdivan’s HSCA testimony
came when he showed several slow-motion films taken in 1964. These slow-motion films depicted the shooting
simulations conducted by Dr.
Olivier. Sturdivan’s testimony
on these films started out badly: “The movies were taken at approximately 2200 pictures per
second. Since the projectile is moving at roughly 2,000 feet per second, we
could expect a motion of about 12 inches, 12 to 14 inches between frames as the
bullet comes in.” (Olivier’s report on these simulations states: “Figure A5,
part B, shows the camera and lights used to record the sequence of events at a
film speed of 4,,000 frames/sec.” Sturdivan’s book concurs “the movie was taken
at the framing rate of 4,000 frames/second, over 200 times faster than the
Zapruder film.” The distance traveled by
the bullet between frames was therefore more like 6 inches.) Sturdivan continued: “the bullet has come in
from the left, has impacted the skull through the scalp stimulant and is now
within the skull. As you can see, the
radial velocity that is imparted at the first part of the track has begun to
crack the back piece of the skull. This
is the very next frame. It shows the
fragmented bullet and fragments of the skull being blown away from the front of
the skull…. Pieces of the bullet have exited the skull. It is hard to tell whether they have actually
gone out of the frame or whether they be incorporated into that white mass
which is mostly bone but with a little bit of gelatin tissue stimulant in it."
"As you can see, the radial velocity has already begun to fracture the skull extensively along and across the suture lines.” Later, Sturdivan would answer Congressman Declan Ford by stating “the skull began to fragment while the bullet was still in passage and so, therefore, you might say that the skull began to come apart almost immediately within microseconds of the impact, continuing to fracture and move forward.”
In the JFK Myths, Sturdivan expands upon his testimony, and publishes a few frames from one of his skull test films as Figure 33. He dismisses that a large wound on the back of Kennedy’s head would be indicative of a shot fired from the front by claiming: “This argument is predicated on the assumption that the injury was an exit. It was not. The reader might already have noted that Figure 33 shows what actually happened. The bullet entered the back of the skull and exited in a small spray at the front in the space of one frame of the high-speed movie. Only after the bullet was far down-range did the internal pressure generated by its passage split open the skull and relieve the pressure inside by spewing the contents through the cracks. A similar explosion would have taken place if the bullet had gone through in the opposite direction. The only way to distinguish the direction of travel of the bullet is to examine the cratering effect on the inside of the skull at entrance and on the outside of the skull at exit. Thus, whether the explosion was more to the side or back is completely irrelevant.” He then discusses Kennedy’s skull: “Like the simulations at Edgewood Arsenal, the center of the blown-out area of the president’s skull was at the midpoint of the trajectory—not at the exit point. The midpoint is the point at which the bullet has fully deformed and is giving up the energy at the maximum rate—that is, pushing outward with the maximum force. At its actual point of exit toward the front of his head, the fragment had lost half its velocity and a small amount of mass (more than three quarters of its energy). His forehead was not torn open. The pressure inside the skull at the bullet’s exit location was not high enough to cause the front portion of the skull and scalp to rupture, but the x-rays do show that throughout the president’s skull the individual bony plates were separated at the suture lines and fractured between sutures almost as extensively as those in the simulations.”
So there you have it. Sturdivan contends that the large defect at the top of Kennedy’s head did not come as a result of the bullet's actual exit from the skull, but was created instead by the energy it released en route to the exit.
In retrospect, this should not be surprising. The HSCA Forensic Pathology Panel, we should recall, concluded that the bullet exited nearly intact from the beveled piece of bone in the "mystery photo," and that the other half of this exit was found on the large bone fragment found on the floor of the limousine. This left no explanation for the explosion of skull visible in frame 313 of the Zapruder film, especially when one considers that the panel concluded that the bone fragment seen exploding upwards came from a location posterior to the large bone fragment found in the limousine, and on the far side of this fragment from the exit defect.
Even more alarming than Sturdivan's simply making an assertion that the temporary cavity made by the bullet exploded the skull, however, is that he presents this as though this is what one would normally expect from the impact of a high-velocity
bullet on a skull. Now, is this assertion supported by the simulation films he cites as support for his theory? I don't believe so. Well, what about the writings of others, then? Here, once again, I’m saying no.
One reason to doubt Sturdivan is his contention that at the “actual point of exit” the bullet had lost only “a small amount of mass.” He overlooks that the copper base of this bullet was found in the front seat of the car, empty of all lead, and that the nose of this bullet was found several feet away. As it would be most unusual for a jacketed bullet to enter a skull intact but break up upon exit, it seems obvious the bullet broke up upon impact, and that the lead fragments seen on the x-rays broke off from the middle of the bullet. If Sturdivan fails to appreciate this obvious conclusion, there's no telling what else he's overlooked.
Actually, there is some telling what else he's overlooked, and here it is... The skull test films depict large fractures running from the entrance locations on the backs of the skulls to the coronal sutures near the fronts of the skulls. Such a fracture line does not appear on Kennedy’s
worse, while the bullets in the skull
tests exploded from the forehead, Kennedy's face remained intact. Although Sturdivan has recently proposed that
the bullet striking Kennedy curled upwards and exploded out the top of his skull, the exhibits he placed into evidence before congress fail to support this conjecture, and he has offered no subsequent tests as support for this proposition.
Sturdivan also fails to see that his basic assertion just isn't true. He states “Like the simulations at Edgewood
Arsenal, the center of the blown-out area of the president’s skull was at the
midpoint of the trajectory.” But this is 100% wrong. The available films show that, even though, as Dr. Olivier explained to the
Warren Commission, "you don’t have
the limiting scalp holding the pieces in," (Some studies have concluded that scalp is as
much as 50% as strong as bone) the mid-point of the trajectory in
the test skulls fractured and separated at the sutures, but did not blow out.
While the final skull test frame in the JFK Myth's Figure 33 shows the skull coming apart and might leave one with the
impression that the skull blasted apart, this is an inaccurate impression. When
one watches the full simulation as HSCA Exhibit 306, (frames of which are shown above) one sees that the
mid-part of the skull regained its form and that the skull, in fact, ended up with a large hole on the back of the head at the entrance and an even larger hole on the front of the head at the exit, with NO hole whatsoever at the top of the head. This is shown below.
And this wasn't an isolated case. It was the same or worse with the other skulls. None of the simulations had a large defect at the top like the one on Kennedy’s
skull. On NONE of the simulations did a
large bone fragment explode upwards as seen in Zapruder frame 313. With but what appears to be one exception, the entrances were not small holes on the bone approximately the width of the bullet, but gaping holes an inch or more in diameter. Sturdivan's testimony was thereby refuted by...the very exhibits introduced to support his testimony.
Yes, We Can Can
Even more surprising, the skull tests were not the only films shown by Larry Sturdivan in his 1978 HSCA testimony that refuted his testimony. To support his statements about the explosion of the president’s skull, he showed the committee Exhibit 304, a slow-motion film of a high-speed bullet piercing a tomato can. He describes this film as follows: “The picture will be much the same as those with the skull. The bullet will be coming in from the left, will strike the can and you will see pieces of the can moving toward the right in the direction of the bullet, but you will also see pieces of the can moving in other directions. Notably the top of the can will be moving back toward the left in the direction from which the bullet came. You notice the backsplash as the bullet has entered the left-hand side of the can. The material is beginning to move back out. This is called the backsplash of the projectile.” Yes, you read that right. Sturdivan pointed out to the committee that a bullet entering a skull would create a backsplash of material from the entrance.
Vincent J.M. DiMaio, in his book Gunshot Wounds, described this phenomena as well. He asserted: “As the bullet enters the body, there is a “tail splash,” or the backward hurling of injured tissue.” This should make one wonder once again why there is no backsplash visible in frame 313 of the Zapruder film.
While one might venture that the backsplash remained visible for but a
brief moment, and was already dissipated within the 1/30th or so of a
second between the impact of the bullet on Kennedy's head and the
exposure of frame 313, Sturdivan's tomato can film proves this
unlikely, as the backsplash visible in the Exhibit 304 is still visible long after the amount
of forward splash has peaked.
This splashy and colorful simulation is also of interest because it helps debunk the myth that Kennedy's head flew backwards due to the "jet effect". Notice that, in the frames of Exhibit 304 above, while the top of the can flew back towards the shooter, the larger mass of the can flew forwards in the direction of the bullet. If one were to hold that this movement came from a "jet effect" response to the backsplash, one would then be forced to return to the last question: where is the backsplash in the Zapruder film, and why didn't its "jet effect" thrust Kennedy's skull forwards?
In his testimony before congress, Sturdivan offered his own explanation for the back-and-to the-left movement of the President’s skull in the frames following Z-313. He testified: “Now the extreme radial velocity imparted to the matter in the President’s head, the brain tissue caused mechanical movement of essentially everything inside the skull, including where the cord went through the foramen magnum, that is, the hole that leads out of the skull down to the spinal cord. Motion there, I believe, caused mechanical stimulation of the motor nerves of the President, and since all motor nerves were stimulated at the same time, then every muscle in the body would be activated at the same time. Now in an arm, for instance, this would have activated the biceps muscle but it would also have activated the triceps muscle, which being more powerful, would have straightened the arm out. With leg muscles, the large muscles in the back of the leg are more powerful than those in the front and, therefore, the leg would move backward. The muscles in the back of the trunk are much stronger than the abdominals and, therefore, the body would arch backward. The same phenomena has been observed many times by hunters in the Southwest where I came from.”
To support these statements he showed the committee Exhibit 309, a slow-motion film of a goat being shot in the head. He testified: “First we will observe the neuromuscular reaction, the goat will collapse then, and by the wiggling of his tail and the tenseness of the muscles we will see what I think has been called the decerebrate rigidity, and that takes place about a second after the shot and then slowly dissipates and you will see the goat slump, obviously dead.”
film progressed, he narrated: “Four
one-hundredths of a second after that impact then the neuromuscular reaction
that I described begins to happen; the back legs go out, the front legs go
upward and outward, the back arches, as the powerful back muscles overcome
those of the abdominals. That was
Later, when questioned by Congressman Declan Ford, he disputed that the direction of Kennedy’s head movement would have any correlation to the direction of travel of the bullet impacting his head: “The direction that was imparted by the bullet going forward would have been overcome by the neuro-muscular reaction in about four-hundredths of a second, if we can believe what happened to the animal would be the same in the human being….Four one hundredths of a second, I think, is well between frames on the Zapruder film. So we wouldn’t expect to see any forward motion of the head before we saw the violent reaction. In other words, there was very little time to move forward before he began to move backward.” Sturdivan, therefore, failed to attach any significance to the slight forward movement of Kennedy's head between frames 312 and 313 of the Zapruder film, the movement most single-assassin theorists cite as proof the bullet was fired from behind.
Still later, Sturdivan dismissed another favorite theory of the single-assassin crowd, and rejected the possibility that the cause of the
back-and-to-the left motion apparent in the Zapruder film was the “Jet Effect” proposed by Dr. Luis Alvarez and Dr. John Lattimer. He testified: “It is possible that there would have been
enough momentum lost in a forward direction that the skull might have moved
backward or at least not move forward as rapidly as it would have otherwise.
However, if you recall, in the skull films, most of the momentum was in the
side causing the skull to have a reaction in the opposite direction. But
each of the skulls did move forward in
the direction that the bullet took.” I wonder how many of today's
single-assassin theorists accepting that the forward movement of
Kennedy's skull between frames 312 and 313 and the purported "jet effect" afterward demonstrate
that the head shot was fired from behind even know that their champion
ballistics expert testified before congress that their "proofs" were
Sturdivan's explanation had a not insignificant problem of its own. Both his testimony and his goat film suggested that the neuro-muscular reaction he proposed would affect all limbs. Dr. Werner Spitz of the HSCA medical panel shared Sturdivan’s analysis; years earlier, he'd told the Rockefeller Commission: “The subsequent backward movement of the President’s head can be explained by sudden decerebration. This position is well known as “decerebrate posture.”
Well, Blakiston’s Pocket Medical Dictionary describes “decerebrate posture” as: “The limbs are stiffly extended, the head retracted…” This suggests that, if Kennedy’s movements were related to a neuro-muscular response, his arms would have straightened out as well as his legs.
They did not; they remained by his side, bent at the elbow, precisely as they were before the bullet impacted on his skull.
As Sturdivan also stated that the goat fell dead, and Kennedy
is reported to have lived for more than 20 minutes after he was shot,
there is real reason to doubt that Kennedy straightened up as a
neuro-muscular response, or that his legs were extended due to sudden
But I am not alone in my skepticism. In recent years, Sturdivan's testimony about the neuro-muscular response has come under fire from a most unexpected source: Sturdivan himself. Although he still proposes that Kennedy's body lurched backwards as a neuro-muscular response to the bullet's impact, he now asserts that the rapid acceleration of Kennedy's head backwards after 313 came not from this response, but from the...jet effect. In the JFK Myths, he declares: “Dr. Ken Rahn has used the position of the back of Kennedy's head as plotted in Josiah Thompson’s book to calculate the velocity and acceleration of the head after the explosion at Zapruder frame 313. Kennedy’s head is accelerated rapidly forward (the momentum of the bullet) then rapidly backward, nearly to its original position. The motion is far too soon to be a neuro-muscular response. It had to be from the physics.” Sturdivan then proposes that the Jet Effect had an effect and that Dr. Olivier’s tests at Edgewood Arsenal failed to reveal this effect as a consequence of his ballistics gelatin being just too darned stiff.
Well, no surprise, there’s a problem with this. Sturdivan testified
before congress that the neuro-muscular reaction takes place within
4/100 of a second. 4/100 of a second is less than one frame of the
Zapruder film. The bullet impacts on Kennedy mid-way between Z-312 and
Z-313 in the Zapruder film and by Z-315 he is already heading
back-and-to-the left. This means the response took approximately 2
frames or, since the Zapruder film was running at 18.3 frames per
second, roughly 1/9 of a second. 1/9 of a second is, of course, roughly
11/100 of a second, more than 2 ½ times as long as Sturdivan said it
took for a neuro-muscular reaction to occur. And yet Sturdivan now says
the reaction comes far too soon for the reaction to be a neuro-muscular
reaction. This means that either a) Sturdivan misled congress, or b)
he’s so anxious to fit in with Warren Commission supporters like
Lattimer and Rahn that he’ll say almost anything, or c) he doesn’t
really know what he’s talking about.
I’m leaning towards “c.” After all, Sturdivan:
- testified before congress that the entrance wound was on the upper part of Kennedy’s skull, but then changed his mind.
- testified before congress that small bullet fragments don’t stray very far from the bullet’s path, but then changed his mind.
- testified before congress that the forward movement of Kennedy's skull between frames 312 and 313 did not reflect that the bullet impacting his skull had been fired from behind, but then changed his mind.
- testified before congress that the rapid backward movement of Kennedy's skull following frame 313 was most logically a neuro-muscular response to the impact of a bullet, but then changed his mind.
- testified before congress that the inch or so of flesh overlying Connally’s rib would substantially slow a bullet, so that a bullet striking Connally’s rib would suffer much less damage than a bullet striking a much-smaller goat’s rib, but that the five and a half inches of flesh in Kennedy’s upper back and neck would hardly slow a bullet at all.
Perhaps it’s time we make up our own minds…