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 13, 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 13, 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. 

Now, some might have their doubts that the good folks at Edgewood Arsenal, a key unit in the Army's weapons testing center at Aberdeen Proving Ground, would play politics in such a manner. But a quick bit of research on the history of weapons testing in general, and the weapons tests performed at Aberdeen Proving Ground in particular, could make a cynic out of anyone. Just prior to his studying the wound ballistics of the Mannlicher-Carcano rifle, Dr. Olivier conducted a similar series of tests on the American M-16 and Russian AK-47. His report on these tests helped the Army choose the M-16 as its standard weapon. And yet, the initial deployment of the M-16 in Vietnam was considered a disaster, with guns jamming in bad weather, and with its unusually small bullets failing to stop the enemy as promised. Young men died, questions were raised and modifications became necessary.

And that wasn't the last time those testing weapons at Aberdeen came under criticism, or were suspected of cuddling up with weapons manufacturers at the expense of the common soldier and tax-payer. In the 1980's, they were right back in the fire, this time for testing and re-testing the Bradley Fighting Vehicle, while failing to re-enact anything close to combat situations, and failing to properly assess the casualty rate. 

And that's not even to raise the awful specter of Edgewood Arsenal's history. You see, the name Edgewood Arsenal is a bit misleading. It started as a mustard gas producer in WWI, and continues to make and test chemical warfare agents today. From 1955 to 1975, the bulk of Dr. Olivier's career, it conducted chemical warfare tests on soldiers as well as animals.

So it's not out of line to assume Olivier and his bosses colored their tests in order to please their client--in this case, the Johnson Administration.

And it's not out of line to assume someone in the know knew Olivier's tests failed to support the shooting scenario pushed by the Warren Commission. 

Howard Donahue, a ballistics expert, had his own 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, Gynecology, 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 Zapruder movie."

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 about 100 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 aka Sherry Fiester , 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.

Of course, Milam is not the first 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 her husband's 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 concluded: "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. 

Now, let's pause for a second. If that's all there is to it--that the "jet effect" studied by Alvarez and endorsed by the HSCA as an explanation for the movement of Kennedy's head after the head shot was achieved through a unique combination of factors--that were not present in the Kennedy assassination--shouldn't Alvarez, a Nobel prize-winning physicist, have been smart enough to figure this out? Well, yeah, I would hope so.

He was. On 10-17-13, at the Passing the Torch Conference in Pittsburgh, Josiah Thompson revealed that, with the assistance of Paul Hoch, a one-time student of Alvarez's, he had recently gained access to Dr. Alvarez's notes on his melon studies. Well, get ready for a shock. According to Thompson, Alvarez performed two series of tests before he was able to get the melon to fly back toward the bullet as demonstrated in his film. On 6-29-69, using all-lead 30.06 hand-loaded bullets designed to travel 3,000 fps (that is, far more powerful and explosive bullets than those used in the assassination), he fired on: tape-wrapped 4-7 lb. melons, which rolled backward; jello-filled coconuts, which flew forward; a jello-filled plastic jug, which flew forward; an 11-pound watermelon, for which the notes are unclear, and a water-fllled plastic jug, which flew forward. This was unsatisfactory. He then returned to the field on 2-15-70 and fired on: gelatin-filled rubber balls, which flew forward; water-filled plastic bottles, which exploded; and a taped pineapple, which shattered mostly to the side. This was also unsatisfactory. On 5-31-70, Alvarez came back a third time; this time, he fired on tape-wrapped 1.1-3.5 lb. melons (most of which were much smaller than the human head), and received the results he desired. 

Now, it's not as if Alvarez was unaware of how this looked. After conducting these tests, Alvarez considered writing an article on his results for Physics Today, but did not, due to the reluctance of Hoch, who was to be his co-author. In 2019, Hoch e-mailed me his exact words to Alvarez. In a 10-21-70 letter to Alvarez, he warned:

“The difference between the melons and a skull and between the bullets we used and Oswald’s are great; sufficiently so that I do not think we can deduce that a skull would support a recoil large enough to overcome the forward impulse when struck by a single bullet under the conditions of the assassination. The principal difference, I think, is that a skull hit by a fully jacketed bullet might be driven forward by the energy lost upon impact with the bone much more than a melon, where there might be rather little energy as the bullet passes through the skull... As long as we do not do a careful simulation—with a skull, authentic ammunition, etc.—we do not know what to expect from a skull under such circumstances."

And it's not as if Hoch tried to conceal the variety of tests they'd performed from the research community. On 10-23-70 he sent a 25-page report on the tests to a number of critics, including David Lifton, Sylvia Meagher, Josiah Thompson and Harold Weisberg. Here is the fourth paragraph from this report:

“When we first decided to do an experiment to see if a recoil was not only consistent with momentum conservation (as we know it was) but also physically possible, Alvarez suggested as a target a melon strengthened with tape. It should be noted that we did not go around shooting at various targets until we found one that worked. We felt that a taped melon and a head would have in common the following essential features: a shell strong enough to resist shattering (i.e. we expected that if a melon were taped it would develop reasonably small entry and exit holes), and contents that were soft but not liquid. When melons were unavailable, and to try out other targets, we shot at targets without these features, and we feel that our observations suggest that our intuition about the necessary properties was correct. An untaped melon or a coconut typically shattered, leaving only small fragments scattered in many directions. Water-filled plastic bottles tended to go forward, but not directly forward; the large amount of water sprayed out made it difficult to tell if there was a jet recoil effect. The gelatin in a rubber ball was, I suggest, too cohesive to jet out. We filmed one untaped pineapple being shot, and although it shattered one large piece was driven backwards and another went perpindicular to the bullet path: this is not what one would expect from a naive application of Newton’s laws, but on the other hand we did not see a recoil of most of the target. (This is why I call these results “inconclusive —not because they did not prove what we ‘wanted’ them to prove.)"

So...while it's tempting to claim Alvarez fudged his tests, the reality appears to be more nuanced than that. He wanted to see if the "Jet Effect" was a "thang." He shot a variety of items and showed that, under certain circumstances, it was indeed a "thang." But Hoch convinced him that shooting melons was insufficiently similar to shooting skulls, and that the tests were, as a result, inconclusive. And it was left at that...

...until 1976, when Robert Groden showed the Zapruder film on TV, and sent the country-a-talkin' about the backwards snap of Kennedy's head in the film, which many if not most felt suggested a shot from the front. Apparently, this angered Dr. Alvarez, and he felt a response was required. He unearthed his results from 6 years earlier. And he published them...

That Dr. Alvarez was not above deception, however, was demonstrated by Dr. Gary Aguilar at the AARC Conference in 2014. In the aftermath of Thompson's 2013 revelation that Alvarez had fired upon multiple items before settling on the small melons he would later discuss, Aguilar went back and read Alvarez's original article on his melon tests. This was published in the September, 1976 issue of the American Journal of Physics. In the article, Alvarez claimed: "It is important to stress that a taped melon was our a prior best mock-up of a head, and it showed retrograde recoil in the first test. If we had used the 'Edison Test" and shot at a large collection of objects, and finally found one which gave retrograde recoil, then our firing experiments could be reasonably criticized. But as the tests were actually conducted, I believe they show it is most probable that the shot in 313 came from behind the car."

Well, this, as we've seen, was misleading. Sure, Alvarez had fired upon melons in his first test, but the results were unsatisfactory, and he fired upon numerous other items before firing upon much smaller melons--melons much smaller than a grown man's head, mind you--and achieving the desired results. His article hides this fact. One might even say his article was bullshit.

Which brings us back to Penn and Teller... It turns out that the melon test on Bullshit was not a total waste of time, and melon.... A close look at the test shows that melon goo sprayed out from both the entrance and the exit! Well, this is as expected. 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 on Bullshit thereby supports that Kennedy was not struck on the back of the head at frame 313.

Strange, but true.

And no, that's not the name of Penn and Teller's next TV series.

Although perhaps it oughta be...with its first installment on zombie lies about the Kennedy assassination that just won't freakin' die. 

Haag Wild!

Yes, unbelievably, the November 2014 issue of the Journal for the American Federation of Toolmark Examiners featured an article supporting the jet effect by one Lucien Haag (a disciple of Dr. Lattimer's), who'd had a recent brush with celebrity via some really bad TV shows rushed out for the 50th anniversary of the assassination. (These deceptive TV appearances are discussed in detail, here.) And, yes, unbelievably, this article featured the same ole, same ole, jet effect nonsense, with melons falling backwards off of blocks when they become imbalanced, and watermelon goo spraying backwards towards the rifle, as well as forward with the bullet. 

But there was a level of nastiness in the article that felt a bit new...that suggested this article was more like a temper tantrum than anything anyone studying the Kennedy assassination should be forced to take seriously.

I mean, Haag actually complained that "Conspiracy advocates appear totally unaware of Dr. Lattimer's work and quickly criticize Professor Alvarez's photo-documented demonstrations due to his use of a .30 caliber rifle (rather than a 6.5mm (.26 caliber) rifle) with an impact velocity greater than that of a 160-gr WCC bullet when fired at the head shot distance. They have also claimed that generation of the rearward velocity of the struck melons was greater than that of President Kennedy's head. But, they either missed the point or were unwilling to concede the point that he repeatedly produced a retro-propulsion of his simulated heads by means of a perforating bullet that accelerated and propelled a significant quantity of the target out the exit side of his targets. The point is not the magnitude of the effect but the direction--rearward!" 

Uhh, wrong. The point is not the direction of the effect, as claimed by Haag, but that the effect was directed. I mean, really. The rearward movement of some melons upon impact with a bullet is of no importance whatsoever if the direction of this movement was achieved through deception, by DELIBERATELY using a more powerful rifle than used in the assassination, and DELIBERATELY using ammunition designed to explode upon entrance, and DELIBERATELY simulating Kennedy's skull with a melon much smaller than the average human head. Er, scratch that, it is of importance. It PROVES that the jet effect had no basis in reality that Alvarez could discover and that he'd fudged the results of his tests.

Now, the possibility exists that Haag was simply clueless about Alvarez, and did not realize Alvarez had been thoroughly discredited by Thompson the year before. He seems pretty isolated, so we can grant him that. But that shouldn't excuse his pretending "conspiracy advocates" are unaware of Lattimer's tests, when they are well aware of Lattimer's tests. And that shouldn't excuse him for failing to mention the tests performed by Nichols, the Snyders, and DeSalles, which helped discredit Alvarez, or the more recent presentations of Thompson and Aguilar. That's just bad scholarship. At best. Or big fat lying. At worst.

Now, sadly, I suspect the latter. It seems quite the coincidence that but one year after Thompson discredited Alvarez, Haag should appear with an article defending Alvarez, and simultaneously attacking what he calls "Josiah Thompson's "theory'" (the notion heads move in the direction of a bullet, and that the Zapruder film thereby suggests a frontal shot), which would more honestly be associated with the tests performed for the Warren Commission.

In any event, Haag's disdain for Thompson and those of a similar mindset is made more than clear in the article. After discussing "Thompson's theory" he railed: "The constant and repeated use of the phrase 'conspiracy theory' is inappropriate; The term 'theory' means that the proponent has demonstrable physical facts and repeatable experimental results to support his or her explanation. They have none. Their 'theories' become hypotheses at best, or are simply claims to promote and sell books, make movies or appear as invited speakers before naive audiences unequipped to challenge their claims."

Well, yikes, that's just plain bizarre, seeing as Haag, with no previous association with the assassination, as a writer or researcher, was able to make numerous paid TV appearances in the run-up to the 50th anniversary, and has since that time spoken on the assassination before largely under-informed professional organizations. I mean, just who is he thinking of, beyond himself? Josiah Thompson? Nope, afraid not. Thompson has made bupkus off his many years of research on the assassination. The one book he published on the shooting, Six Seconds in Dallas, has long been out of print, and whatever profits it could have brought him were soaked up eons ago by a lawsuit related to his use of the Zapruder film in the book.

In any event, Haag's article then takes an even stranger turn. After defending Alvarez against those darned critics, who thought shooting melons was a dishonest way to re-create the head shot, Haag describes shooting some melons of his own...and sides with the critics! Yep, as hard as it may be to believe, Haag actually admits that when he shot fiber glass-wrapped melons with full metal jacketed bullets like those supposedly used in the assassination, the bullets "failed to expand or fragment during their penetration of the melons" and that, as a consequence "the melons (which were free to move) remained in place, and the entry and exit holes were small." Well, HELLO, Mr. Haag, this was precisely the point made by Nichols, Snyder, DeSalles, and THOMPSON.

So what does Haag do next? Does he admit it's even a wee bit fishy to him that the full metal jacketed bullets didn't work, and that Alvarez just so happened to use hunting ammunition in his tests? No, are you kidding? This is Lucien Haag here, a man on a mission to debunk those theorists, scratch, hypothesists. He then relates "The noses of subsequent WCC Carcano bullets were slightly compromised to expose the soft lead cores for the subsequent shots. Just as with an impact to thick bone, these modified bullets immediately deformed and fragmented as they entered the melons, resulting in large exit defects and the expulsion of large quantities of the internal contents."

In other words...As the award-winning Alvarez before him, Haag FUDGED HIS TESTS!

Well, great googly moogly! What hubris! Haag criticizes Alvarez's critics, then admits they were  RIGHT, and then tries to spin this as being of no importance whatsoever.

And what unscientific claptrap! I mean, just how "compromised" were these bullets? And how many tries did it take Haag get it 'right'? And, come to think of it, where's the scientific data reflecting that the degree of compromise Haag inflicted upon these bullets truly reflected the amount of damage these bullets would incur upon striking "thick" bone? And what did he mean by "thick bone", anyhow? Was he simulating a shot to the occipital bone, as described in the autopsy report? Or a shot to a much thinner region of the parietal bone, as proposed by the Clark Panel? Did he even know? And, oh yeah, by the way, why didn't Haag just tape a piece of "thick" bone to the impact location on the melon to begin with, and leave the bullets alone?

I think we know. It is ironic beyond belief that Haag, in a series of tests for an article designed to refute that the bullet striking Kennedy at frame 313 of the Zapruder film could have been a frangible or exploding bullet, or fired from the front, "compromised" his bullets to make sure they would explode, and claimed he did so in order to replicate the presumed behavior of a non-compromised full-metal jacketed bullet fired from behind. It is ironic and just plain bizarre.

Haag then dug himself an even deeper hole. While arguing that the bullet striking Kennedy could not have been a frangible bullet, as a frangible bullet would leave pieces of the copper bullet jacket within the skull, he claimed: "the x-ray films only show numerous small lead fragments, some of which were recovered and later compared to the lead from the WCC 6.5mm Connally/stretcher bullet and the fragmented WCC 6.5mm Carcano bullet from the presidential limousine...No copper jacket fragments were found in the President's brain during the autopsy."

Well, this was a steaming pile of...nonsense. First of all, the x-rays could not differentiate between lead fragments and copper fragments. And second of all, over 40 fragments were observed on the x-rays, only two of which were recovered and compared to the recovered bullets. Haag's pretending that we know none of these fragments were bits of copper jacket is thereby pure bull, a bald-faced lie as bad as any lie told by "conspiracy advocates". One can only guess then that he believes the readers of the AFTE Journal are a "naive audience unequipped to challenge" his many false "claims".

The man, in my opinion, is a liar. May he return to the desert from which he sprang.

And may he take his mighty melons with him.

The JFK Myths

Let us now return’s 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.

The sharp curve proposed by Sturdivan just isn't reasonable. Crime Scene: Inside the World of the Real CSIs (2007) quotes a forensic anthropologist along these lines. It confirms: "People love to think that bullets go and they bounce around and then they go in some other direction... People forget that these bullets are moving in feet per second. They're gonna go in a straight line until they stop, or they hit a brick wall, or they lose their energy... Right before it stops, the bullet loses energy and it can be diverted. But people have all these theories... What you do do, if you line those wounds up, you find out that there really is a straight line."

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 skull. Even 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.

Yes, Sturdivan's tomato can film is something to treasure. It should be put on display like a Warhol. It's of interest not only because of the readily noticeable backsplash in the film, but because it helps debunk the myth that Kennedy's head flew backwards as a consequence of a "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.











As the 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 it.
















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 nonsense.

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 decerebration.

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:

  1. testified before congress that the entrance wound was on the upper part of Kennedy’s skull, but then changed his mind.
  2. testified before congress that small bullet fragments don’t stray very far from the bullet’s path, but then changed his mind.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.

And, guess what, it appears that Sturdivan changed his mind about this as well! Yep, in 1978 he claimed a neurological response had caused Kennedy to jolt back and to the left after the head shot; in 2005 he said he'd been mistaken and that it was the jet effect that caused this response; and then in 2013 he reversed himself again (or so it would appear). When asked about Kennedy's movements after the head shot by the producers of PBS' NOVA, Sturdivan replied: "The tissue inside [Kennedy's] skull was being moved around. It caused a massive amount of nerve stimulation to go down his spine. Every nerve in his body was stimulated...since the back muscles are stronger than the abdominal muscles, that meant that Kennedy arched dramatically backwards." As pointed out by researcher Martin Hay, moreover, this was nonsense, as Kennedy's head snapped back, and his body followed.

While Sturdivan is a nice guy, it seems clear that, as a lot of nice guys, he has great difficulty making up his mind, and then sticking to it. Or even making much sense to begin with...

He is, after all, the guy who told congress that the inch 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 then that we make up our own minds…

(In November 2018, Mysteries at the Museum, a TV program broadcast on the Travel Channel, tried to resolve the 40 year jet effect/neuromuscular reaction debate through an interview with a weather scientist named Nick Nalli, who'd paid to publish an online article on the subject earlier in the year. Although the program insisted Nalli's article was a "brand new analysis" of the issue, it was, in fact,  nothing new. Nalli, who cited no actual experience with gunshot wounds or wound ballistics, observed what had long since been apparent--that the back and to the left motion of Kennedy's head followed the bullet's impact by two frames or so, which was too early for it to have come as a result of a neurological reaction. So he regurgitated the HSCA's conclusion--that the back and to the left movement observed in the Zapruder film started as a response to the jet effect first proposed by Alvarez, and then continued due to the neuromuscular reaction first described by Sturdivan. Well, this was old news, which is to say, no news at all.)