Josiah Thompson’s Last Second in Dallas (University of Kansas Press, 2021)
Josiah Thompson’s new book Last Second in Dallas could be a game changer, but probably won’t because of the opposition of both dedicated lone nuts, who will brand it another conspiracy book, and silly conspiracy theorists who will disagree with what he has to say.
Unlike both camps Thompson doesn’t claim to know who killed the President, and doesn’t try to pin the blame on anyone.
Instead he tries to compile the most significant evidence, witness testimony, forensic facts, ballistics and medical reports, acoustics, film and photos all together and at least try to assemble a clear and concise picture of the puzzle of what occurred at Dealey Plaza that day.
"This book has a twofold purpose," Thompson explains. "On the one hand, it is a personal narrative of my experiences over the past five decades of trying to figure out what happened. At the same time, it is a kind of detective story that ends up disclosing what I have found."
"Before beginning to read," Thompson cautions, "the reader should be warned. This book is about the final second of John Kennedy's life. What happened in that final instant is shown in all-too-graphic detail by the Zapruder film and the autopsy photos. It is profoundly unsettling for both author and reader to examine a man's death in such graphic detail. Yet we must. For it is in that last second of the shooting that a central reality of the event is to be found. We must immerse ourselves in theses details if we are to reach that reality, unsettling and uncomfortable as it may be."
As a first generation critic of the Warren Report conclusions, Thompson spices these technical details and bloody facts with his own personal experiences that explain how he got involved and still cares about this case.
From his time at Yale, enlisting in the military as a Navy UDT (Underwater Demolition Team) “Frogman,” graduate student in Philosophy, book on philosopher Soren Kierkegaard, decade long professorship at Haverford College, developing interest in the Kennedy assassination, being hired as a consultant to Life Magazine, authorship of the landmark Six Seconds in Dallas, more than two decades working as s PI – private investigator in San Francisco, in the Sam Spade tradition, and authorship of his work on hundreds of cases (including the Oklahoma City Bombing) in the book Gumshoe.
Thompson once said that of all the cases he worked on as a PI, there came a point in the investigation when some new piece of evidence or witness testimony led to the resolution of the crime, that is all of the case but one – the assassination of President Kennedy, which has remained an enigma, and not just for him.
After working on this book for ten years Thompson has tried to settle that issue by trying to put all of the key pieces of the Dealey Plaza puzzle together, throwing out the pieces that don’t fit, and aren’t even from this puzzle, and summarize what he has learned over the years.
In his Foreword to this book, Richard Rhodes, a former associate of Nobel laureate Luis W. Alvarez notes that Thompson’s first serious study was on Soren Kierkegaard, the Danish philosopher and “the grandfather of the modern philosophical movement known as existentialism,” which “is about understanding the meaning and mystery of our existence without anchoring it in unsupported certitudes. That seems to me what Thompson has spent his life pursing: giving up certitude…”
Rhodes says that he once supported Alvarez and the idea one lone nut killed the president, but is now convinced that Thompson is right, reversing the trend of former silly conspiracy theorist becoming dedicated lone nuts. "A careful reexamination of the forensic evidence in this book has changed my mind. I never would have imagined doing so, but for what it's worth, I now think the weight of the evidence supports Thompson's conclusions." Others should follow.
Unlike all dedicated lone nut advocates and most silly conspiracy theorists, Thompson doesn’t know who killed the president, but he’s figured out the basic forensics, at least to his own satisfaction.
And he’s willing to admit when he’s wrong, and correct his past mistakes, as he now recognizes that the shooting sequence wasn’t limited to six seconds, but more like eight to nine seconds, and the two inch forward movement of the president’s head wasn’t caused by what he initially thought.
There’s been a lot of new developments since the publication of Six Seconds in Dallas, most notably the Church Committee and House Select Committee on Assassination (HSCA), the latter of which commissioned a scientific study of the acoustic evidence, a tape recording of the shots resulting from a Dallas police motorcycle with a microphone stuck open during the assassination.
It has been falsely stated many times, mainly by dissenting congressmen who weren’t paying attention, that the HSCA conclusion regarding conspiracy was based entirely on the acoustical study, that they disagreed with. Committee chief counsel G. Robert Blakey wrote a book on the mob connections to the assassination, based on the HSCA findings, investigator Gaeton Fonzi focused on the CIA’s David Atlee Phillips, attorney Ed Lopez on the Mexico City charade, attorney Dan Hardway on the false attempts to blame Castro for the assassination, investigator Jack Moriarty on the Dallas aspects, in particular the murder of JD Tippit and the Collins Radio connections, among many other important leads to come out of the HSCA. So it isn’t true the acoustical study was the only basis for the HSCA conclusion regarding conspiracy.
While I don’t pretend to understand the math or equations that make up the acoustical study, or the government commissioned Ramsey Panel’s attempt to refute it, I trust Drs. Barger, Weiss, Ackensasy, and now Richard Mullen’s rebuttal of the Ramsey Panel’s refutation of the acoustic panel’s work, based entirely on Ohio drummer Steve Barber’s discovery of cross-talk between the two police channels.
Both Alveraz and Ramsey have discredited themselves, Alveraz for not being forthright about the extent of his experiments attempting to prove the so-called “Jet Effect,” with bullets forcing melons to fall back towards the direction of the shots, while Ramsey led a previous government panel that failed to affirm a satellite report of a joint Israel-South Africa explosion of a nuclear bomb in the ocean, assuring that he would go with what the government wanted rather than what was known to be true.
Led by Dr. Barger of BBN, the HSCA acoustic study arranged for the recording of rifles fired from both the Sixth Floor of the Texas School Book Depository (TSBD) and from behind the picket fence on the grassy knoll at Dealey Plaza, comparing them with the sounds of rifle fire on the DP dictabelt tapes. Then they took the results a step further by putting the sounds on an ocelliscope and measuring the echo patterns created by the shots, creating an acoustic fingerprint of Dealey Plaza.
I was in the Congressional hearing room when the acoustic team – Drs. Barger, Weiss and Ackensasy testified before the HSCA. When a congressman asked them what they would say if they were told the recording was not made at Dealey Plaza at the time of the shooting, one of them responded, “I would then ask to be taken to that location and expect to find an exact duplicate of Dealey Plaza,” because the echo analysis reflected on the gun reports bouncing off the buildings and walls of the plaza that were measured and matched.
When the Ramsey panel fell into a funk in refuting the acoustic study results they leaned on the findings of crosstalk on the tape discovered by Ohio rock drummer Steve Barber. While most people discarded the acoustics study completely, the three original scientists quietly stuck to their guns, and then Don Thomas published a refutation of the Ramsey panel’s conclusions in a British forensic journal, reviving the debate.
Thompson devotes more than one chapter to the acoustic issues, and includes articles by Dr. Barger and his BBN associate Richard Mullen as detailed appendix in the back of this book, but the issues are complex and important enough to deal with in detail separately, and I will.
Thompson embrases the HSCA acoustical study however, because it just may be the missing piece of the puzzle that fits, and together with the other forensic pieces, lead to the clear and concise portrait of what occurred at Dealey Plaza, and the eventual resolution of the crime. That’s because what the acoustical study says in regards to the timing and spacing of the shots fits quite nicely over the witness reports, and most importantly the Zapruder film.
Backtracking a little bit, what amazes me the most, and not mentioned by Thompson, is the fact that during his decade long tenure as a Haverford professor in Philadelphia, he was living in very close proximation with a number of other assassination related characters, including Warren Commission attorneys Arlen Spector and William Coleman, Marina’s biographer Priscilla Johnson, Ruth and Michael Paine, Michael’s mom Ruth Forbes Paine Young and her husband Arthur Young, the inventor of the Bell Helicopter, as well as John Judge, who was working at the Quaker Friends Peace Center. Since I lived in Camden, NJ, just across the river, I often visited Judge, so we were there together in very close proximity.
Priscilla Johnson attended Bryn Mawr College, just down the road from Haverford College, where Thompson taught. And was a member of Cord Meyer Jr.’s World Federalist organization at the same time Michael’s mom organized fund raisers for the pro-UN group. Michael Paine went to Swarthmore College, near Haverford and Bryn Mawr, all on the Philadelphia's Main Line. Michael met Ruth H. Paine at a folk dance. When they were married in Media, Pa., Arthur Young arranged for Michael to get a job at Bell Helicopter in Texas, so they relocated there. Ruth H. Paine later returned to Philadelphia and made a donation to the Quaker Friends Peace Center when John Judge called her on the phone requesting donations.
Just around the corner from where Michael and Ruth H. Paine were married in Media, local Vietnam War activists broke into the FBI office and stole their files, later distributing them to the media and exposing operations CHAOS and COINTELPRO, the FBI's penetration and operations against the anti-war activists. Of all the assassination related individuals living in Philadelphia at the time, one was more significant than the others in terms of steering Thompson towards Dealey Plaza - and that was Vincent Salandria.
When Thompson was arrested for distributing anti-war leaflets, he was bailed out by Salandria, an ACLU attorney as well as the lawyer for the Philadelphia school system. Salandria wrote some of the earliest published articles critical of the Warren Report conclusions, and turned Thompson on to the case and its multiple mysteries. Thompson became part of Salandria’s committee of correspondence, which included a number of key early researchers - Christoper Sharrett, E. Matin Schotz, Mary Ferrell, Penn Jones, Shirley Martin, Maggie Fields, Harold Weisberg, Ray Marcus, David Lifton, and others.
But Thompson wasn't satisfied. "As for the books already published about the assassination," he writes, "it struck me that virtually all had focused, in one way or another, on picking apart the Warren Commission's conclusions. None had looked at the core evidence in the case and tried to pull all the pieces together into a single whole. We had heard enough about how wrong the Warren Commission's reconstruction was, but what was right?"
Then Thompson and Salandria traveled to Washington DC together to visit the National Archives and view the Z-film, met archivist Marion Johnson, as I have, and obtained slides of the key frames of the film.
Thompson says that despite being an early mentor to him, they had a falling out over whether the throat wound in JFK’s neck was a bullet entry, as Salandria believed, but Thompson was less certain. I too got to know Salandria because of our mutual work on the Air Force One radio transmission tapes, and found him to be easy going and congenial and believe that the “falling out,” was more over Salandria’s belief that while the devil may be in the details, the government wants us to waste our time micro-analyzing the evidence rather than concluding what is quite obvious – there was a blatant conspiracy we should all just recognize.
Salandria told Gaeton Fonzi in 1975 that, "I'm afraid we were misled. All the critics, myself included, were misled very early. I see that now. We spent too much time and effort micro-analyzing the details of the assassination when all the time it was obvious, it was blatantly obvious that it was a conspiracy. Don't you think that the men who killed Kennedy had the means to do it in the most sophisticated and subtle way? They chose not to. Instead, they picked the shooting gallery that was Dealey Plaza and did it in the most barbarous and openly arrogant manner. The cover story was transparent and designed not to hold, to fall apart at the slightest scrutiny. The forces that killed Kennedy wanted the message clear: 'We are in control and no one - not the President, nor Congress, nor any elected official - no one can do anything about it.' It was a message to the people that their Government was powerless."
As for Thompson, he was uncomfortable with the fact that all of the pieces to the Dealey Plaza puzzle didn’t fit nicely together, and recognized that some of the pieces weren’t even part of the puzzle, and threw them out.
Thompson made a number of important determinations. Based on viewing the Z-film it is quite clear that JFK is struck in the head from the front, as if hit by a baseball bat. Eyewitnesses, including the Newmans and Holland, on the triple underpass, thought the shot(s) came from behind the picket fence on the grassy knoll, and many people and police ran there afterwards. Many ear witnesses said the first few shots were evenly paced, but the last two shots were close together, almost on top of each other – “Bam, Bam.”
While interviewing witness with Life Magazine editors, Thompson followed Holland down from the triple underpass to the area behind the picket fence, where someone had been standing, pacing back and forth as his footprints were embedded in the mud, and a pile of fresh cigarettes butts were left there.
At Parkland hospital Thompson traced the origin of CE399, the so-called magic bullet, and interviewed the orderly who found it and the hospital’s head of security, a retired 20 year Dallas policeman. It turns out that the bullet was found on a gurney not affiliated with either President Kennedy or Governor Connally, but a little boy who was brought in at the same time. And the security officer said the bullet that was turned over to him had a pointy tip, not the one in evidence today as CE399.
Thompson realized that the so called single bullet that supposedly hit JFK in the back, exited his throat and went on to inflict all of the wounds on Connally, did not kill the president, so he focused on the fatal head shot, and it’s multiple complexities. The last second in Dallas is the moment the president is struck in the head and thrown violently backwards, with blood spewn about, a piece of the scull flipped on the truck that Jackie retrieved and tried to put back in place, two other scull fragments that were later found on the ground, including the Harper fragment that came from the back of the head and has since disappeared. And most significantly the blood and brain matter that hit Secret Service agent Hill as he ran towards the limo and hit the motorcycle policeman riding to the left rear of the car.
While all of that clearly indicates a shot from the front, the clincher is the fact that Hill, the doctors at the Parkland emergency room and a number of those at the autopsy all describe a very clear grapefruit sized hole in the back of JFK’s head that was clearly an exit wound of a shot from the front.
Thompson quotes novelist Don DeLillo, who wrote about the assassination in his book Libra, as saying about the Zapruder film's key frame of the exploding head shot: "Are you seeing some distortion inherent in the film medium or in your own perception of things? Are you the willing victim of some enormous lie of the state - a lie, a wish, a dream? Or did the shot simply come from the front, as every cell in your body tells you it did?"
What puzzled Thompson however, are the bullet fragments that created a crack in the windshield, embedded in the chrome trim by the rearview mirror, were found on the floor of the limo and according to the doctor who operated on Connally, caused the wounds to his wrist. One piece of the puzzle is the fact that full metal jacketed bullets like CE399 and those believed to have been fired by the sixth floor gunman, don't fragment like the bullet that struck JFK in the head. That must have been a different type of bullet.
"It all came down to the threshold question: Was there more than one shooter? If the answer was yes, then that fact would show itself in the details of the shooting. Finding those details - if they existed - would be the task of my book. And if they did not exist, that too would make the book worthwhile."
The answer Thompson provides, as was presented to him by Keith Fitzgerald is that there were two almost simultaneous shots to the head, one from the front that killed him, as seen in Z-film frame #313,, and a second shot less than a second (.07) later from somewhere behind, that fragmented.
Dr. Cyril Wecht had previously speculated on two shots to the head, and wants proof of two gunman, and this might be it – especially because such a two head shot scenario can be seen in the Z-film and complimented by the acoustical study results as well as earwitness reports.
In 1978, Dr. Cyril Wecht, a member of the HSCA Forensic Pathology Panel wrote: "In my opinion, the medical evidence and other physical evidence and investigative data in this case do not rule out the possibility of another gunshot wound of JFK's head....A soft-nosed bullet, or some other type of relatively frangible ammunition that would have disintegrated upon impact could have struck the right side of JFK's head in the parietal region. Inasmuch as there is a large defect of JFK's skull in this area, it is not possible to rule out the existence of a separate entrance wound at this site."
My own research only concludes that the shot to the head that killed the president was not taken by the sixth floor gunman, whoever he was, but was taken by a well trained first class military sniper from either in front of the target or behind it, so it didn’t appear to be moving but was approaching or moving away from the shooter. First class snipers are trained to shoot for the head, and their motto is “one shot one kill.”
Almost all of what Josiah Thompson’s conclusions jive with my own, I don’t get so engrossed in the ballistic, medical, forensic or photo analysis, but I try to determine how the covert operation at Dealey Plaza was planned, put together and conducted.
As Thompson puts it: "There is no more effective ambush than a crossfire. With shots coming undeniably from two locations and likely a third....This was a highly sophisticated, devastatingly effective assassination: two bullets to the head and one to the back. Its vary audacity is its most compelling feature. Any speculation as to who did it and why must at least start with that fact."
I had known Thompson since the early 1990s from our participation at various conferences, but except for an occasional lunch with others and drinks in the hotel bar, I didn’t spend any considerable or quality time with him except for one occasion. It was after an anniversary November COPA conference in Dallas, when after the conference in the second floor ballroom of the Union train station, while the others sat down for dinner and an awards ceremony, Thompson and I left together to attend a media panel presentation at the Sixth Floor Museum.
Former Dallas mayor and TV reporter Wes Wise had invited me, as he had previously gave me a tour of Dallas assassination hot spots and videotaped an interview with me for the Sixth Floor Museum. I had been asked to give a talk to a college law enforcement class, and when the professor decided to take the entire class on a field trip to Dallas, I arranged for Wes Wise to give them his tour.
So Thompson and I left the COPA conference, walked down Houston Street, crossed the plaza and had a short but interesting conversation along the way. There was a classy wine and cheese reception before the panel discussion that included a handful of former local news reporters who covered the assassination. It was held on the seventh floor, and the college professor and his students were also there.
I mention all of this because if you get through this intense and instructive book, and the two appendixes on the acoustics, there are fifty-six pages of footnotes and sources. Many of these footnotes refer to specific documents and records mentioned in the text, and notes that for the seriously curious, they can be found in the Thompson Collection at the Sixth Floor Museum, not a bastion of silly conspiracy theories.
Peter Dale Scott once said at an early COPA conference that besides the usual assassination buffs - dedicated lone nuts who support the Warren Report conclusions, and the silly conspiracy theorists who try to pin the assassination on a likely suspects – LBJ, CIA, Mafia, KGB, Castro, etc., there was emerging a third class of independent researchers who don’t believe they know who killed the president, but keep an open mind, read all the books and records, and try to answer the outstanding questions that can and should be answered, however difficult.
Josiah Thompson is one of those different breeds of assassination buffs, as are a number of others – John Newman, Bill Simpich, Jefferson Morley, Larry Hancock, among others, and I would like to include myself in their number.
Mary Farrell once told me that she was convinced the assassination of President Kennedy will one day be resolved to a legal and moral certainty, not because of any government or official investigation, but by the joint work of independent researchers, and I believe her.
Josiah Thompson’s Last Second in Dallas is a foundation that can lead to a clear outline of the ambush at Dealey Plaza, identify the gunman, and the mastermind who planned and conducted the Dealey Plaza operation, though justice will never be served.
William Kelly is Research Coordinator for CAPA – Citizens Against Political Assassinations, Dr. Cyril Wecht Chairman, and a member of the board of David Talbot’s Truth and Reconciliation Committee. His email is email@example.com.
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