The JFK assassination: Meet the Mobile man who was at the ‘Cold Shoulder of History’

Updated: Nov. 18, 2019 at 10:00 PM CST
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MOBILE, Ala. (WALA) - A desire for adventure prompted Jim Jenkins to join the Navy in 1961 as an aviation cadet. Color blindness ended his dreams of flying fighter jets, though, so an interest in medicine led him to serve as a corpsman in the Navy.

Luck put him in the room during one of history’s most famous autopsies.

What Jenkins saw as doctors examined the wounds of slain President John F. Kennedy sparked doubts that stuck with him for decades – doubts he rarely spoke out loud until he wrote about the experience in “At the Cold Shoulder of History” last year. The book has helped fuel conspiracy theories.

“I think that before we even started the autopsy, there was a, you know, preordained results that – that would correlate with the single bullet (theory),” said Jenkins, who has lived in Mobile since 1991 when he became director of the hematology lab at the University of South Alabama.

An investigation headed by then-Supreme Court Chief Justice Earl Warren offered the notorious single-bullet theory to explain how one bullet from assassin Lee Harvey Oswald’s rifle managed to injure both the president and Texas Gov. John Connally as the convertible they were riding in cruised through Dealey Plaza in downtown Dallas on Nov. 22, 1963.

The Warren Commission’s findings have produced a legion of doubters over the ensuring five-plus decades. Jenkins is among them. His story is the first of five Gulf Coast connections to the assassination that FOX10 News will explore this week on the eve of the 56th anniversary of that fateful day in Dallas.

Jenkins pointed to a diagram he made during the autopsy, under the direction of Dr. J. Thornton Boswell, detailing the location of Kennedy’s gunshot wounds. Those locations conflict with the autopsy results published in the Warren report. Jenkins speculated that the change was made to increase the plausibility of the trajectory of the bullet from the Texas School Book Depository to Kennedy’s car.

“If it was from the Book Depository, it would have had to have gone that way, came back up, went out that way,” he said during an extensive interview.

Within hours of the shooting, authorities sent Kennedy’s body to Bethesda for the autopsy. It was a strange choice for a number of reasons, starting with the fact that jurisdiction over the body technically rested with local authorities.

Famed forensic pathologist Dr. Michael Baden, who led a team of experts that reviewed the autopsy about 15 years later, was blunt.

“The body was illegally removed from Texas,” he told FOX10 News. “The body belonged – the body should have been autopsied in Dallas. … The doctor in Dallas, the chief medical examiner, was an excellent pathologist who had done hundreds of rifle and gunshot wounds for autopsies.”

‘Least qualified to do the autopsy’

Jenkins said the Bethesda Naval Hospital was an unusual choice for another reason – the staff lacked experience in homicides. Then a fresh-faced 21-year-old, Jenkins had assisted on a few dozen autopsies. But none were homicides.

The same was true of the senior staff. The highest-ranking officer during the autopsy, Dr. James Humes, had never conducted an autopsy of a shooting victim.

“We were probably, actually, the least qualified to do the autopsy,” Jenkins said.

According to the Warren Commission, officials left the decision to first lady Jacqueline Kennedy, and she chose Bethesda because it was a Navy facility and her husband had been a Navy man.

Baden pointed to another possible reason for having a military facility do the autopsy. Perhaps, he said, then-Attorney General Robert Kennedy wanted to conceal the fact that his brother suffered from Addison’s disease. No reference to that appeared the autopsy report.

In his book and during the interview with FOX10 News, Jenkins described a number of irregularities he witnessed. For starters, he said, he was surprised when the president’s body arrived in a plain shipping casket and not the ornamental, bronze one that was loaded onto Air Force One in Dallas. Conspiracy-minded authors have speculated that Kennedy’s body was swapped with a decoy during the flight, or that it had been altered during the cross-country flight.

Humes, who directed the autopsy, stood by the official findings in testimony before the Warren Commission and again to the House Select Committee on Assassinations, which in the 1970s revisited the killings of Kennedy and civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr.

“It did not seem inconsistent to us if this bullet exited the anterior neck of the president, it had to go somewheres, and the person who was sitting in front of him was the former governor, and if it didn’t hit him, I for the world have no idea where it went,” Humes told House investigators.

But Jenkins described other irregularities, including Kennedy’s brain. He said part of his job during the autopsy was to help preserve the removed brain for further examination. He said the organ appeared far less damaged than what he would have expected given the fatal shot to the back of Kennedy’s head.

Beyond that, Jenkins said, something else didn’t seem quite right.

“It was different from what I normally had seen,” he said. “It seemed to be a little too small for the cranium.”

Not only that, Jenkins said, but the brain appeared to be older than one that had come from a man who died only hours earlier. He said he had trouble injecting a needle in the carotid artery to infuse the brain with a formalin solution.

“They were kind of shrunk, shriveled up,” he said. “And I was having a hard time trying to get the needles in without going through the wall of the vessel.”

Doubts about the Warren Commission have extended far beyond crackpots with wild conspiracy theories. The House Select Committee on Assassinations in 1979 concluded that Kennedy probably died as the result of a conspiracy based on auditory evidence that suggested someone fired a shot from in front of the president’s vehicle.

‘The Warren Commission was correct’

But the panel of pathologists led by Baden determined that the doctors in Bethesda got the medical evidence right – that Kennedy suffered two gunshot wounds from behind. The first shot from Oswald’s gun missed, Baden said. He said the second – derided by critics as the “magic bullet” sliced through Kennedy’s neck and into Connally’s thigh. The third was the fatal blow to the president’s head.

“Clearly, the Warren Commission was correct – two bullets from behind, and we further confirmed that with the other things that we found,” said Baden, a former New York City medical examiner.

Baden told FOX10 News that his team did not examine the casket, but he downplayed the significance of the body arriving in Bethesda in a different coffin.

“There was no evidence that the body was tampered with after it went into the first casket,” he said.

As for the brain, it went missing at some point after the autopsy.

“It was never clear where the brain was,” Baden said, speculating that the Kennedy family had it buried along with the slain president’s body.

Baden said there had been some discussion about exhuming the body, but he said the pathologists studying the case ultimately determined that they had all the information they needed.

The House Select Committee on Assassinations was one of four government investigations that followed the Warren Commission. All reached the same general conclusion. But that does not mean that the autopsy was without flaws, Baden said.

“There were various mistakes made,” he said.

Baden said the Secret Service intervened when a technician began taking autopsy photos. He said the agents exposed the film and sent him away, instead leaving the job to untrained FBI agents. The result, Baden said, is that the photos were not very helpful to his team of pathologists.

Baden also said the measurements of the wounds included on the diagram submitted to the Warren Commission were off by an inch or two.

And Baden said the military command structure complicated the autopsy. Although Humes was the senior officer, he had no experience with autopsies of gunshot victims. Another doctor, Dr. Pierre Finck, was an experienced pathologist but held a lower rank.

“Humes thought that if he did anything wrong, Pierre Finck would tell him, whereas Pierre Finck felt, told us that, well, he was there but he had no authority to tell him anything,” Baden said.