In The Mysterious Death of Number Thirty-Five, longtime researcher Pat Speer was aided by two skillful technicians, director Braddon Mendelson and music composer Scott Douglas MacLachlan. These two men, especially the former, were very helpful in making Speer's documentary aesthetically pleasing.
(One of my pet peeves in the Kennedy research field is that many independent video productions e.g. Shane O'Sullivan's DVD RFK Must Die! look like they were made in 1965. That is, at about the skill and technical level of Emile D'Antonio's talking head film of Mark Lane's Rush to Judgment. With all the incredible advances in computer programming we have today, this is completely unnecessary. For a very reasonable price one can put together a slick looking production. And make no mistake, the skill in presentation makes a difference in the effective delivery of the message.)
In this regard, Speer was well served by his cohorts. This film should serve as a model for how to represent the research community in this digital day and age. It is not in the technical stratosphere of Robert Stone's Oswald's Ghost, but 1.) Speer didn't have Stone's bucks, and 2.) Speer has actually dug beneath the surface of the Warren Commission pabulum. And what he shows us is stark, black, and even worse, proved that way by their own words and deeds.
If you have read Part Four of my review of Vincent Bugliosi's Reclaiming History, you can see I used some of Speer's material in my critique of the former DA's discussion of President Kennedy's autopsy. Although Speer has a wider range of interest in the JFK case, he has spent most of his time studying the medical evidence. (Although this may be changing. In a recent appearance on Len Osanic's Black Op Radio, Speer hinted that he may be doing an essay on the legitimacy of the evidence found at the so-called sniper's nest.)
This documentary has five major sections. The first is an examination of some of the work of Dr. Michael Baden for the House Select Committee on Assassinations (HSCA). The second section deals with how the Warren Commission made the Single Bullet Theory (SBT) work. The third part is about the reaction of the government to the critical works about the Warren Commission, which emerged in 1966-67, and how high officials forced the pathologists to switch their stories and dissimulate in public. Part four deals with the true orientation of the famous "mystery photo" of the autopsy. It is sometimes called the "skull wound" photo. It is a crucial piece of evidence since allegedly it is the only photo taken of the skull with the scalp refracted and a hole evident. The last part of the documentary is a slide show, which Pat uses to discuss various pieces of medical evidence that are quite puzzling when they stand alone. So he places them in context with other exhibits to try and explain their meaning.
The first section is slightly humorous, in that it shows us an alleged authority tripping up over the evidentiary flip flops necessitated by upholding the official story. Speer shows us some rarely seen House Select Committee on Assassinations (HSCA) footage of Michael Baden up on a stage introducing the "Mystery photo". One reason the picture is called that is because the photo is posed and shot so badly that it is hard to orient the picture. Therefore it is not easy to orient as part of President Kennedy's head. Surely, Baden is clueless as to what it represents. When he placed the picture on an easel for public display, instead of placing it right side up, it was upside down. Which disorients top, bottom, left and right. We then watch as he begins to lecture about it, saying that it depicted the front of Kennedy's skull and the defect on it was a beveled wound of exit. He actually quotes pathologist Jim Humes as saying this. Yet, pathologists Humes, and Pierre Finck both originally wrote – and we see their original typed words on screen – that they could find no exit near that point. We then see how Baden got the HSCA artist to draw an illustration of a bullet exiting at this point – above the forehead on the right side – with no bone above that trajectory. Yet, as Speer informs us, the Ramsey Clark Panel – appointed to review the medical evidence in 1968 – also wrote that there was no exit in the forehead above the right eye.
Speer closes this section with what made these gyrations necessary. He poses this question: Why all this thrashing about by Baden in 1978? Didn't the original autopsy team of Humes, Finck, and Thornton Boswell identify what this photo really represented? The answer to that question is: Yes, they did just that. But here's the problem: Unlike Baden, they said the photo depicted the posterior of Kennedy's skull. Yep, not the front, but the back. So it was imperative that Baden change the positioning of the photo. If he left it as a posterior photo it would appear as an exit in the back of the head – which meant the shot came from the front. Anything exonerating Oswald was altered by Robert Blakey's HSCA. And Baden, like Arlen Specter, was eager to make a national name for himself. Therefore, he fumbled with the photo in public. Not really caring if it was right side up, upside down, or sideways. After all, he was just reading a script.
The second section deals almost exclusively with the Warren Commission and their struggle to make the SBT work – whatever the cost. The night of the autopsy, the pathologists could find no exit for the back wound. And the FBI report dutifully recorded this. But as the story goes – and as I wrote in my Bugliosi review there is reason to doubt it – Humes talked to the Dallas doctors the next day and discovered a tracheotomy incision was made over a neck wound. This now became the exit for the back wound.
Yet, at the Warren Commission executive session hearing of 1/27/64, Chief Counsel J. Lee Rankin exclaimed that the back wound was too low to match the throat wound. Knowing this, the Commission sent Specter into action. Humes and Boswell were sent to meet with a young medical illustrator named Harold Rydberg. Rydberg was supposed to draw illustrations of both the wounds in the head and the wound in the back. There was a serious problem with the meeting. Humes and Boswell came to meet him with nothing: no photos, sketches, measurements. And we know this to be true not just from Rydberg, but as Speer shows, through the notes of his commanding officer, Captain Stover. The doctors now instructed Rydberg to draw a fallacious portrait of the back wound to cure Rankin's problem. With nothing to go by except the pathologists' words, he did. Rydberg raised the wound in the back above the wound in the neck. (Speer even shows a Warren Commission internal memo where Specter admits there is a discrepancy between the Rydberg drawings and the actual wound locations.)
To underline Specter's perfidy, the film then moves to the Dallas reconstruction of the shooting. Specter later admitted that a Secret Service officer had shown him the autopsy photos that day. (There is a question about who it is. It may be Elmer Moore or Tom Kelley.) As shown in the film, the photo of Specter lining up this reconstruction used by the Commission does not reveal the accurate white dot on the model locating the back wound. But Speer shows us another photo, which does show it. And at this location, from the high sixth floor angle, the trajectory would not have exited the throat. It would have been too low. During his Warren Commission testimony of 6/4/64, FBI agent Lyndal Shaneyfelt was careful to dance around this issue saying that the trajectory "approximated" the entrance wound. But in private, Rankin was much more candid about the Commission's aim: "Our intention is not to establish the point with complete accuracy, but merely to substantiate the hypothesis which underlies the conclusions that Oswald was the sole assassin." (Memo of 4/27/64) Note the use of the word "hypothesis". Rankin knows they never proved their case. Even today, it is still shocking to read something as cavalier as that about the assassination of President Kennedy. Which clearly connotes the irresponsible attribution of murder to a man who was never allowed a defense.
The film goes on to show just how conscious the dog and pony show was. When Kelley testified before the Commission on 6/4/64, he let it slip that the wound was located in the shoulder area. Specter quickly covered up for him by saying it was actually in the neck. Speer tops this section off by repeating the declassified revelation that Commissioner Gerald Ford then changed the wording of the Warren Report by moving the location of the back wound from the back to the neck. The coda to this segment is the audiotapes of the famous phone call between LBJ and Commissioner Richard Russell. This is where they both admit that they don't believe the SBT. Which, ipso facto, makes them conspiracy theorists.
Section Three begins with the tumult caused in 1966-67 by the publication of books by authors who actually read the Warren Commission volumes and found them remarkably unconvincing. Speer here uses the famous memo from former Warren Commission counsel David Slawson, originally discovered by Gary Aguilar. Lawson worked in the Justice Department at the time, and he understood what was at stake – namely the undoing of the entire Commission, and the staff's pubic disgrace and humiliation. So Slawson wanted to head the critics off at the pass. On 11/20/66 he wrote to Attorney General Ramsey Clark, "If public opinion continues to develop as it has over the past few months, we may soon be forced with a politically unstoppable demand for a free-wheeling re-investigation of all aspects." Slawson had no intention of risking being tarred and feathered in public.
So what Slawson and Clark helped plan was a narrowly focused counter-attack. What this consisted of was bringing in the pathologists and rehearsing them on how to address the critic's points through the media. So in late 1966, Boswell was released from his vow of silence and allowed to talk to the press. And he now magically moved up the wound in the back to the neck so it would correspond more with the Rydberg illustration. Which, of course, it did not.
But further, the counter-attack fostered by Slawson now also employed his boss, Warren Commissioner John McCloy. In 1966 CBS had planned to air a public debate about the Commission's conclusions. This would give both sides equal time. But as this idea went up the corporate ladder, the concept was first smothered and then completely skewered. In 1967, McCloy was brought in to be a special, but secret adviser to the now infamous series. This Eastern Establishment paragon flew into Washington and met with people like Dean Rusk and Robert McNamara. Now, Pierre Finck was ordered back from Vietnam to join the two other autopsists for another viewing of the photos and x-rays. In January of 1967, Clark told LBJ that the doctors were defensive about their work and worried about their reputations. But he figured he could get them to sign affidavits in a couple of days. It took more cajoling and arm-twisting than that. It took five days. But by the end of January, the Mystery Photo had been reoriented. It was now rotated from the back to the front of the head.
Jeremy Gunn of the Assassination Records Review Board interviewed the pathologists about this reversal that took place from 1966 to 1967. To say the least, they were non-committal. They now had hazy memories about how it happened. As they should have. Because the affidavits they signed were not written by them. They were written by the Justice Department. The doctors were now reduced to the level of prop masters. And they reluctantly went along with it.
The last segment consists of Speer demonstrating through four landmarks in the photo that he has oriented the picture correctly. The autopsists originally had it right. It depicts the rear of the head. And through his study of the photo and the x-rays he believes that two shots hit the president's head, one from the front and one from behind. The small entrance wound is down low near the base of the skull. The larger exit wound is above it. This idea, originally expressed by Ray Marcus back in the mid-sixties, gets evidentiary back-up here. The film advances evidence concerning entrance and exit holes in the photos, x-rays, and with primary documentation. The fact that the pathologists were forced to retreat by Ramsey Clark, shows them professionally compromised for the third time in just four years. The first time was by the military the evening of the autopsy. The second time was by Specter and the Commission. The third time was by Clark and his preparations for the review suggested by Slawson.
The appendix to the documentary is a slide show in which Speer presents some fascinating exhibits in the medical evidence. These constitute neat little lessons in certain aspects of the case. In almost every instance, we see how drawings and exhibits were falsified in order to accommodate Oswald as the lone assassin. My favorite is Speer's critique of the HSCA's trajectory analyst Tom Canning. And how he had to alter his measurements and drawings in order to accommodate the medical evidence. Even to the point of shrinking Kennedy's head!
One of the best aspects of the film is the way the film-makers actually use the words of the investigators themselves to show their true intentions at the time. And this shows that the JFK/Oswald travesty was no accident. It was designed to deceive. Its not an original device by any means. It goes back to Marjorie Field's aborted sixties book The Evidence. But it's nice to see it used in a different medium.
I have two main criticisms of the show. First, I disagree with some of the interpretations of the evidence and testimony. Speer is trying to show how the official story – in and of itself – exonerates Oswald. In other words, he does what he does without questioning the validity of the actual evidence. In courtroom terms, it's called using your opponent's evidence against him. As I showed in my aforementioned critique of Reclaiming History, I disagree about the provenance of certain aspects of the evidence. For example, the 6.5 mm fragment that no one can recall from the night of the autopsy. Speer also believes the photos are completely genuine. Even the famous back of the head photo, which looks as if the pathologists reassembled the back of JFK's head. And afterwards, they then gave him a hair cut and combed his hair. Combed it right over that big hole that upwards of forty people saw in both Dallas and Bethesda. He may be doing this because he really believes it. Or perhaps he sees this as the safest, most acceptable, most mainstream way to challenge the official findings. Either way, in my view, it leaves certain matters unexplained. Secondly, although the documentary is good enough as far as it goes, I don't think it covered as much as it should have. In other words, it could have been longer and therefore more complete as to the medical evidence. I hope that another installment is issued.
But in spite of that, it's worth owning and watching. It has new and fascinating information in it. And it also reveals just how hard the forces of the cover-up must work to keep the autopsy evidence in this case in check. Because with the revelations of the Assassination Records Review Board and the work of people like Speer and others e.g. Gary Aguilar, David Mantik, Milicent Cranor, Randy Robertson, this area has become one of the greatest liabilities for upholders of the Warren Commission. And recall, this type of evidence is usually titled by rubrics like "hard evidence" or "best evidence". As is shown here, the so-called "best evidence" does the opposite of what the Warren Commission says it did. It exonerates Oswald and indicates conspiracy.