Was the Gentleman in the Dorsal Recumbent Position?


The black and white JFK autopsy photograph above appeared in the book "Best Evidence" and ultimately came from a Secret Service agent named Fox.  The original photograph was color but black and white will do here.  The color photograph was used to make a (mostly) realistic drawing that appeared in the Warren Commission Report.  The black and white photo came oriented as shown and was confusing until I rotated the image 90 degrees, as happens when the image is clicked, and then it made sense.  A person was not reaching over a towel in front of JFK's head to pull his head up.  JFK is lying on his side on a reflective metal table and a person in a smock has a hand on JFK's head for unknown reasons.  Three things become immediately apparent when the photo is rotated (as happens when the image is clicked).  That's the way the photo was taken, that's the way to take such a photo, and the people who took the photos knew that.  A body was on its side can be made relatively stable so that it does not take much effort to hold it in place.  The correct orientation of the black and white photo was determined by many long ago, but not everybody applied that finding to the color photo.  When the color photo is rotated by clicking one can see that it was the same shot with a slightly different pose.  A little piece of the smock is visible at the very top.  That picture (or drawing made from it) has been presented in an incorrect orientation since the Warren Commission.  Supposedly it was authenticated.  Was it presented in the correct orientation then or were those authenticating it mentally rotating it?  JFK autopsy pathologists Humes and Boswell were interviewed by the HSCA Medical Panel in 1977. Humes was asked to explain the color photo (or the drawing). He seemed to get a bit testy but in his clearest explanation he said

The gentleman was in the dorsal recumbent position on an autopsy table, not the greatest photographic position in the world, and we had to hold his head up. One of us is lifting the head, flexing the neck if you will, by holding the scalp and to show the wound where it was in relation to the man's head.

This page depicts various body positions including dorsal recumbent and lateral recumbent. These apply to live patients so it is not clear what the terms mean in the context of an autopsy. Did Humes really mean supine rather than recumbent?  Did he mean the body was lying flat on the table before the head was lifted? The entry wound was purported to be on the back of the head, but that part was on the table, so they had to pull the head up to make the entry wound visible.  There are some variations of "dorsal recumbent" on the page but in all of them the back of the head is hidden so the head would have to be lifted to reveal a wound there.  Somehow Humes description of the action in the photo was subsequently interpreted as somebody pulling up sagging scalp to reveal the entry wound but the scalp seems to somehow be a handle for pulling the head up in the original version.  Humes was describing a fictitious scene and there doesn't seem to be a chance that he really believed the photograph was taken as he said. Humes was not distinguished as an autopsy pathologist but surely he had experience with autopsy photos and x-rays. He must have had some experience with images being displayed in the wrong orientation. I doubt that he ever saw a photograph taken the way he said that one was and that if, upon being asked to position a supine body for a side shot of the back of the head, a purportedly qualified person started grabbing the head and trying to pull it up then that person would be revealed as an imposter. Any proper explanation of that photograph should have begun with, “you need to rotate that photo 90 degrees”, so why did Humes not say that?  That he really believed that photo was made with somebody grabbing the head by the scalp and pulling the head up is simply not credible so why was Humes confabulating?  The first question to answer is why the image was displayed in an incorrect orientation. Not long after I first started looking at the black and white photo in the correct orientation, I started to see an intact head with chunks of bone sitting on it. There appears to be a hole below the bones but that area does not really look different than the other dark areas when compared directly. The image below has the bones blacked out (it is also brightened) to show that the bones also contribute to the perception of a hole. The hand is casting a shadow below the bones and that enhances the appearance of a hole as well. The hair below the “hole” is bunched or spiked up to increase the contrast at the edge. I think the illusion of a hole is stronger when the head is upright but the illusion of a hinged flap that once filled the hole is greatly enhanced since the fragments would have to be attached or else they would fall off. The purpose of the rotation was to produce a more convincing (or perhaps less gory than the real thing) image of a blowout wound in the front.

  Tom Robinson, one of the morticians who worked on JFK, was also interviewed by the HSCA and had some interesting observations. He said that JFK had a three inch, round but irregular hole in the back of head that allowed him so see facial bones with the brain removed. He thought there was already a hole from the bullet but it had been enlarged by the physicians. Apparently Robinson thought the brain was removed through the hole in the back of the head. He seemed to make his three inch estimate of the size of the hole based on missing skull. He did not say there was missing scalp to the HSCA but did to the AARB. He does say that a rubber sheet was placed in the back of JFK's head to fill the hole and the scalp was stitched to it. Robinson also said when asked if any part of the head was shaved, “No. In fact, we wanted the hair there to hide as much as possible. Putting the head into the pillow of the casket would have hidden everything.” His use of “would have hidden” implies he did not actually see the pillow hiding the defect with JFK in the casket though he might have meant it would have done so had JFK been viewed in an open casket. There were numerous witnesses to a large defect in the back of JFK's head who saw him before the autopsy (Gary Aguilar, 1994). Otherwise, one might argue that the morticians cut a hole in the head between the time the picture was taken and when Robinson saw the body. It is possible that a hole was blasted out of the skull with a smaller hole produced in the scalp. If the picture was taken after the head was reconstructed, it would show the scalp sewn to the rubber dam except where scalp was missing. There we would see rubber. Whether or not JFK's head was filled with plaster of Paris or something similar is hazy, but the small white spot near the hairline looks like it could have resulted from a leak while the body was flat on the table. If so, the photos were definitely taken after reconstruction had begun.


The image on the left shows the color photo with a cropping from the black and white. The orientation of the head appears to be slightly different and the hand is position is different, but they appear to be the same shot with slightly different poses. The white band on the left of the black and white is off the picture. The color photo shows a ruler which does not seem to measure anything. Interestingly, the area covered by the ruler is just out of frame in the black and white. Could there be stitching or rubber showing there? Presumably, there were full sized, color versions of each pose available. Why was one chosen over the other? The hole looks more convincing in the black and white but that might be, at least in part, due to it being a better copy. The hand in the color photo looks more like it is pulling the head up than the hand in the black and white which looks a bit flaccid. Perhaps that is why it was chosen.

Tom Robbins also said that the morticians and pathologists worked together to restore JFK's head.  Perhaps the pathologists stayed even longer, stacked some of the skull fragments on JFK's head and made a hoax photo for the purpose of demonstrating that JFK was shot in the head from behind.  Humes was describing the fictitious scene created when the photo is rotated because he was continuing the hoax but who was the target?  I don't believe the photo was made for the general public or that the perpetrators thought it was good enough for that purpose. The morticians' work was universally panned by those who saw JFK in his casket
Sandra Spencer



The following exchange occurred during Tom Robinson's interview with the HSCA. 

Purdy          : Did you draw any autopsy face sheets, sketches or anything like that?
Robinson    : No, which is something we always did.
Purdy          : Why didn't you this time?
Robinson    : I never saw the file, like I said everything was done to protect the family as far as we were concerned.   

I did not find a previous reference.  Jackie got a very close view of the back of JFK's head and her shock is visible in the Zapruder film.  She would have known it was a hoax so it doesn't seem the hoax could have been perpetrated on the Kennedy's.  Clint Hill, the Secret Service agent who jumped on the car after the shooting, said that he realized at the hospital that Jackie was not letting anybody take JFK from her because she didn't want anybody to see how bad the damage was.  He put his jacket over JFK's head and she let them take him.  Jackie might have wanted sanitized autopsy photos in case some had to be made public but would she prioritize appearances over actually solving the case?  I don't believe so unless there was substantially more involved than is seen on the surface.  Perhaps the Kennedy family had something to conceal related to the assassination.