Dark Corners Menu
Page launched
January 2, 2011


JFK 11/22/63:
Who Took the Pre-Autopsy Photographs?

James V. Rinnovatore
Allan Eaglesham

Early Presence in the Autopsy Room
Departure from the Autopsy Room
With a Metal Probe
With Fingers
Riebe Elsewhere
Robert Knudsen
William Pitzer
This is the third in a series of articles on events in the morgue at the National Naval Medical Center (NNMC), Bethesda, MD, on the evening of November 22, 1963. The first, published on this Website on May 20, 2009 [1] -- JFK 11/22/63: Body/Casket Chicanery at the Bethesda Morgue -- showed that the president's body entered the morgue at two separate times in different caskets, based on eyewitness accounts. The first entry was at 6:35/6:45 PM, when the body was in a plain shipping casket. The second entry was at approximately 8:00 PM, when the body was in the bronze, ceremonial casket in which it had originally been placed at Parkland Hospital, Dallas. The author (JVR) concluded that, during the period 6:35/6:45-8:00 PM, the head wounds were altered in the Bethesda morgue, during an unofficial "pre-autopsy"; a similar conclusion was published by Doug Horne in his magnum opus, Inside the Assassinations Record Review Board [2, e.g. pp. 1003-1006].

In the second paper in the series, published on this Website on April 13, 2010 [3] -- JFK 11/22/63: Where was the Throat Wound Altered? -- JVR concluded that the throat wound was altered at the Bethesda morgue at the same time as the head wounds, in contrast to a theory suggested by Doug Horne that the throat wound/tracheotomy was tampered with on Air Force One at Love Field, Dallas, just prior to takeoff [2, p. 997]. Derived from the collective accounts of Dennis David [3], Joe O'Donnell [1; 3] and Saundra Spencer [1; 3], JVR also concluded that, before the wounds were tampered with, photographs seen by these individuals were taken in the Bethesda morgue.

Who took those photographs? It may be surmised that the photographer was in the morgue when the president's body arrived at 6:35/6:45 PM and possessed the particular skills needed for autopsy photography.

We will provide evidence that John T. Stringer took the pre-autopsy photographs.

John Stringer was the photographer of record and Floyd Riebe his assistant during the official autopsy [4, p. 10; 5, p. 5; 6, pp. 34-37]. Mr. Stringer, a civilian, was director of medical photography at the Naval Medical School (a division of the NNMC), under the supervision of John Stover [4, p. 9]. Mr. Riebe, a hospital corpsman second class, was a student in the medical photography school, where some of his classes had been taught by Mr. Stringer [6, p. 7].

Early Presence in the Autopsy Room
On the afternoon of 11/22/63, after receiving official word from the chief of the day, Riebe called Stringer at home to advise him that the autopsy was to be done at Bethesda [6, p. 21]. Riebe gathered film, cameras, and other equipment [6, p. 22], and subsequently went to the main entrance to identify Stringer so that he could enter the hospital complex [6, pp. 21-22]. Stringer then asked Riebe to procure a strobe unit (electronic flash) [6, p. 24]. Presumably, Riebe took the strobe to the autopsy room where Stringer was waiting.

In a telephone interview in 1977, Stringer told staff members for the House Select Committee on Assassination (HSCA), Jim Kelly and Andy Purdy, that he received a telephone call from James Humes (one of the three doctors who conducted the official autopsy on President Kennedy's body) , who told him to come into work [4, p. 9]. Kelly and Purdy reported that Stringer stated that he was "present in the room where the autopsy was conducted between approximately 6:00 and 6:30 PM on the night of the 22nd and 3:00 to 3:30 AM on the morning of the 23rd" [4, p. 12].

In his ARRB deposition, Riebe stated, "We were in the room for maybe half an hour before they brought the casket in" [6, p. 27], which indicates a 6:05/6:15 PM arrival time. Since he had been describing their interaction, it follows that his use of "we" included Stringer, indicating that both men were in the autopsy room when the corpse arrived at 6:35/6:45 PM [1]. Thus, Riebe confirmed Stringer's recollection, expressed to the HSCA staff, that he (Stringer) arrived at about 6:15 PM [4, p. 12]. Riebe described a "very plain, inexpensive type casket" and that the president's body was "in a rubberized-type body bag" [6, pp. 29-30]. In his deposition to the Assassination Records Review Board (ARRB), Stringer said he was in the morgue when the body arrived [5, p. 66], describing the casket in vague terms as "metal" and "I think it was sort of brownish" [5, p. 67]. Unfortunately, he was not pressed to provide a more precise description of the casket. If, as Stringer claimed, he entered the autopsy room sometime between 6:00 and 6:30 PM, it is reasonable to conclude that he witnessed not only two entries of the body -- first in a body bag within a shipping casket, as described by Riebe [6, pp. 29-30] and others [1], and later in the bronze, ceremonial casket -- but also the chicanery that was necessary to replace the body in the ceremonial casket, after the pre-autopsy, and temporarily remove it from the autopsy room [1]. We agree with Doug Horne [2, p. 1003] and interpret Stringer's "metal/brownish" vagueness as implying that he witnessed only the arrival of the bronze ceremonial casket, finessing the fact that he had also witnessed the arrival of the shipping casket/body bag.

When asked how much time elapsed after the body was taken out of the casket before he began taking photographs, Stringer replied, "Oh, it must have been more than an hour by the time they took the X-rays. And they had to develop them and bring them back down" [5, pp. 66, 67]. We view this response as an obfuscation intended solely to answer the question as it applied to the official autopsy, which began at about 8:00 PM, while hiding the fact he took the pre-autopsy photographs much earlier. It is known that X-rays were still being taken after prosector Pierre Finck arrived at the morgue at 8:30 PM [7, pp. 70, 76]. And taking account of the time required to develop the film and examine them, X-raying was likely completed at approximately 9:30 PM. Thus, Stringer's response gives the impression that he started taking photographs at about 9:30 PM. If so, what had he been doing since he entered the autopsy room at 6:15 PM? We believe that he evaded the question as to when he started taking photographs so as to avoid, again, the controversial subject of the arrival of the shipping casket/body bag, which he witnessed.

Departure from the Autopsy Room
Mr. Stringer's recollection of having stayed in the morgue "until 3:00 to 3:30 AM" [4, p. 12] -- i.e. until completion of reconstruction by the morticians -- is contradicted by Mr. Riebe's account to the ARRB that he and Stringer left the morgue shortly after the autopsy was completed [6, pp.42-43], i.e. at about 11:00 PM [2, p. 1010-1011]. After returning their equipment to the photo lab, Stringer did some paperwork in his office and then went home, whereas Riebe remained in the lab because he was on duty that night [6, p. 43]. Doug Horne, who was present during their ARRB depositions, expressed more confidence in Riebe's account of their departure from the autopsy room than Stringer's [2, p. 237 n38].

Additional evidence corroborates Stringer's presence during the pre-autopsy phase. He told Kelly and Purdy that "the doctors had to crack the skull somewhat to get the brain out...they didn't have to saw it off" [4, p. 17]. This is significant because cracking the skull -- a highly unusual maneuver -- was not described in the autopsy report. No witness at the official autopsy (after 8:00 PM) described activity on the part of the prosectors that could be so described; it follows that this occurred during the pre-autopsy. The standard protocol to remove the brain during an autopsy is to saw the top off the cranium. Cracking the skull would create damage beyond what was originally caused by the bullets to the president's head, in effect masking the evidence of the original wounds. Two anecdotal accounts are consistent with Stringer's description of the skull being cracked, one describing "mutilation of the head area" [8] and the other describing a ball-peen hammer being used on the head [9].

With a Metal Probe
In his ARRB deposition, John Stringer stated that a metal probe was placed in the neck wound, front to back [5, pp. 191-192]. There is no discussion in the official autopsy report, or description by others present at the official autopsy of insertion of a metal probe into the throat wound. Technicians Paul O'Connor and James Jenkins, who were present during the official autopsy, described insertion of probes into the back wound [10, pp. 40, 74], but both men made it clear that the throat wound was not probed:

O'Connor: We weren't able to do certain critical things like probe the throat wound that we thought was a bullet wound. We found out it was a bullet wound years later [10, p. 45].
Jenkins: [When asked, "Did anybody tell you not to probe the throat wound?"] No, because we went through the whole autopsy on the premise that the throat wound was a trach [10, p. 78].

With Fingers
Not only was Stringer present when a metal probe was inserted into the throat, but he made the shocking declaration to the ARRB that he saw "the doctor" insert his fingers into the "tracheotomy wound" in an attempt to find bullet fragments [5, p. 191]. Given that a standard tracheotomy had been performed at Parkland Hospital, producing a wound of about an inch long [11, p. 238], the incision must have been enlarged to accommodate digital probing.

Riebe Elsewhere
Although Floyd Riebe was assisting Stringer, he did not witness probing of the throat simply because he was asked to leave the morgue soon after arrival of the body in the shipping casket [6, p. 32]. The only probing Mr. Riebe recalled was of the back wound by Dr. Finck [6, p. 38], who arrived in the autopsy room at about 8:30 pm [7, p. 70]. It is noteworthy that Riebe indicated to the ARRB that, after he had started taking general body photographs, "X-ray came in and we had to leave" [6, p. 32]. The use of "we" indicates that he and Stringer left the autopsy room at that stage. However, based on our previous discussion regarding Stringer's witnessing cracking of the president's skull as well as witnessing probing of the wounds with fingers and metal rods, we suggest that if Stringer left the morgue with Riebe, he returned shortly thereafter. Mr. Stringer's observations -- not witnessed by Messrs. Riebe, O'Connor or Jenkins, and not described in the autopsy report -- must have been made during the pre-autopsy timeframe.

If the throat wound were simply a tracheotomy, which Dr. Humes insisted was his belief throughout the autopsy [12, p. 76], it begs the question of why a metal probe was inserted, with digital manipulation to find bullet fragments. In his ARRB deposition, when asked, "Did you take any action at Bethesda that increased the size of the tracheotomy?" Humes provided this literally incredible response: "I don't think so. I don't believe so" [12, p. 174]. If, as Doug Horne has suggested, Humes officiated at the pre-autopsy [2, pp. 1004, 1169], then he (JH) must have known that the tracheotomy had been made over a bullet wound. That he did not treat the throat wound as such during the official autopsy indicates that he knew -- or at least suspected -- that it was a wound of entry.

Robert Knudsen
Although Mr. Stringer didn't think that he took photographs of the probe in the neck [5, p. 192], White House photographer Robert Knudsen, in a deposition to the HSCA, corroborated Stringer's description of the metal neck probe when he described developing a negative depicting probes through the president's body, one through the chest and one through the neck [13, p. 33]. Furthermore, the negative showed that the thorax was held erect [13, pp. 31-35] indicating that no "Y"-incision had been made at the time of the probing, otherwise the body would not have been erected; this points to a pre-autopsy timeframe. In fact, in none of the negatives or prints processed by Knudsen had the chest been opened [13, p. 40].

When asked when he first became aware of the existence of photographs of the autopsy of the president, Mr. Knudsen replied, "The morning following the autopsy" [13, p. 5]. Therefore, according to his HSCA testimony, Knudsen did not take photographs during the pre-autopsy or during the official autopsy [although see 14].

The possibility of Robert Knudsen being the photographer during the pre-autopsy has been discussed by Doug Horne [2, pp. 904, 905, 906, 1003 n3]. Mr. Horne indicated that one fact negating this possibility is that Mr. Knudsen told his son that he arrived at the Bethesda Hospital from Andrews Air Force Base via the motorcade, at about 6:55 PM [2, p. 1003 n3]. Horne concluded that this arrival time would not have been early enough for Knudsen to take photographs of the president's original wounds (before alterations). We agree, and believe that additional factors negate this possibility. Knudsen was a social photographer, who had never even seen autopsy photographs [13, p. 32]. Nor was he stationed at the NNMC.

Setting aside that Knudsen told his son that he arrived at the hospital in the motorcade from Andrews AFB, Horne offered the possibility that Knudsen rode in a Gawler's Funeral Home hearse from Andrews to Bethesda [2, p. 1004 n3]. Although this might have allowed Knudsen to arrive early enough to take the initial photographs, there is no evidence that a Gawler's hearse was at Andrews AFB. According to Joe Hagen, a manager at Gawler's, the original order was rescinded; they were directed not to go to Andrews AFB [2, p. 591]. The Gawler's personnel were told that the body/casket would be transported from Andrews by navy ambulance [2, p. 591]. It is known now that the bronze casket placed in a navy ambulance at Andrews was empty [1]. The body was likely transported by helicopter [2, p. 591], which accounts for its arrival at the NNMC well before the navy ambulance arrived from Andrews.

None of the photographs shown to Knudsen by HSCA staff member Purdy depicted probes. Moreover, toward the end of the deposition, Purdy said [13, p. 51]:

Also, there has not been previous evidence that there were either metal probes that were extended totally through the body, or that such probes were photographed through the body.

The suggestion that Knudsen was mistaken elicited uncertainty in his responses, of which the following are particularly revealing [13, pp. 52, 53]:

Why this [film depicting probes] sticks in my mind that there was one with these two probes through the body that nobody else recalls, it puts a question in my mind, and yet -- but I could not imagine where I could get the idea from, if I had not seen it. And yet it is starting to bother me now that there is nothing in the autopsy about it.

He added [13, p. 53]:

At this point, I am confused why it sticks in my mind so strongly that there was this photograph, yet nobody else recalls it, and it is apparently not in any report.

Knudsen's uncertainty and confusion indicate that he was not the photographer during the pre-autopsy when this event occurred. If he had photographed probes through the president's body, he would not have expressed doubt that he had, in fact, processed such film.

When asked whether he was aware that there were autopsy X-rays, Mr. Knudsen replied, "No, I do not know if any were ever taken" [13, p. 29]. Accordingly, we conclude that Knudsen was not present during the official autopsy since Messrs. Stringer and Riebe -- the official photographers at the autopsy -- knew that X-rays had been taken [5, p. 191; 6, p. 33] and Dr. Finck requested a "whole-body X-ray survey" after his arrival at 8:30 PM [7, pp. 70, 76] . If Knudsen was in the autopsy room at some point -- which we believe he was -- then he was there after the official autopsy was concluded. And if he took photographs of the body -- as claimed by members of his family [14] -- he did so during the reconstruction phase, thinking that he was participating in the autopsy. A similar scenario was suggested by Doug Horne [2, pp. 270, 593 footnote 4, 913].

William Pitzer
In a previous paper in this series, JVR suggested that the pre-autopsy photographs -- seen by Dennis David, Joe O'Donnell and Saundra Spencer -- were taken by William Pitzer [3]. This theory was based on Mr. David's account of seeing, in Pitzer's possession within a few days of the assassination, the photographs and a movie film showing the dead president [15]; also there is anecdotal evidence that Pitzer took a phone call at home at around 4:30 PM on 11/22/63 after which he left for the NNMC and did not return until the next day [16, p. 68]. In the absence of information on Lt. Pitzer's activities during the evening of 11/22/63, it cannot be ruled out that he exposed a movie film of the pre-autopsy activities while Mr. Stringer took photographs.

The only photographer known to have been continuously in the Bethesa morgue from about 6:15 PM on 11/22/63 until the completion of the autopsy was John T. Stringer. The available evidence indicates that not only did he take photographs during the official autopsy on President Kennedy's body, he also took photographs at a pre-autopsy, during which the president's wounds were altered.

We thank Doug Horne for reviewing this article and for his helpful, constructive comments.

[1] Rinnovatore, J. (2009) JFK 11/22/63: Body/Casket Chicanery at the Bethesda Morgue. https://manuscriptservice.com/BNH-chicanery/.
[2] Horne, D.P. (2009) Inside the Assassination Records Review Board. Self published.
[3] Rinnovatore, J.V. (2010) JFK 11/22/63: Where was the Throat Wound Altered? https://manuscriptservice.com/Throat-Wound/.
[4] HSCA Interviews by Purdy with Harper (8/8/77), Cairns (8/9/77), Burkley (n.d.), Humes (8/10/77), Stringer (8/12/77 and 8/15/77); document dated 8/17/77. http://history-matters.com/archive/jfk/arrb/master_med_set/md19/html/Image08.htm.
[5] Deposition of John T. Stringer to the Assassination Records Review Board. http://www.history-matters.com/archive/jfk/arrb/medical_testimony/Stringer_7-16-96/html/Stringer_0001a.htm.
[6] Deposition of Floyd Albert Riebe to the Assassination Records Review Board. http://www.history-matters.com/archive/jfk/arrb/medical_testimony/Riebe_5-7-97/html/Riebe_0001a.htm.
[7] ARRB MD30 -- Testimony of Dr. Pierre Finck to the HSCA Medical Panel. http://www.history-matters.com/archive/jfk/arrb/master_med_set/md30/html/Image00.htm.
[8] Mr. Stringer's description of cracking the skull is consistent with an account by an orderly of ejection of people from the autopsy room followed by hurried "mutilation" of "the head area." ARRB MD 45. ARRB Call Report of Interview of Jamie Taylor Re: JFK Autopsy. http://www.maryferrell.org/mffweb/archive/viewer/showDoc.do;jsessionid=530064E37E960473919F37CB74DDE71E?docId=626.
[9] Mr. Stringer's description of cracking the skull is consistent also with another second-hand account, from Paul O'Connor: in a telephone call he was told that "someone took a ball-peen hammer to the head" to disrupt the wound and the physical characteristics of the wound. "[T]he body was... put back in the coffin and taken around the corner and down back of the hospital to the morgue." Livingston, H.E. (1992) High Treason 2, pp. 270-271. New York: Carroll & Graf.
[10] Law, W.M., Eaglesham, A. (2004) In the Eye of History. Southlake, Texas: JFK Lancer Productions and Publications, Inc.
[11] Lifton, D.S. (1980) Best Evidence. New York: Carroll & Graf.
[12] ARRB Testimony of Dr. James Joseph Humes, 13 Feb. 1996. http://www.maryferrell.org/mffweb/archive/viewer/showDoc.do?docId=788.
[13] Deposition of Robert L. Knudsen to the HSCA, August 11, 1978. http://jfkassassination.net/russ/testimony/knudsen.htm.
[14] Robert Knudsen's statement to the HSCA -- that he became aware on the day after the assassination that photographs had been taken at the autopsy on the president's body [13, p. 5] -- is in apparent conflict with what members of his family told the ARRB, viz. that Knudsen had claimed to have photographed the autopsy [see page 4 of MD 230, http://www.history-matters.com/archive/jfk/arrb/master_med_set/md230/html/md230_0001a.htm. It is noteworthy that, in his HSCA deposition, Mr. Knudsen did not claim that he had taken the JFK autopsy photographs and said that he had never even seen autopsy photographs before developing those of President Kennedy's body [13, p. 32].
[15] MD 177 -- ARRB Call Report Summarizing 2/14/97 Telephonic Interview of Dennis David. http://www.history-matters.com/archive/jfk/arrb/master_med_set/md177/html/md177_0001a.htm.
[16] Heiner, K. (2004) Without Smoking Gun. Waterville, OR: Trine Day.


Top of the Page

Dark Corners Menu