Where is JFK’s brain, and all of the other autopsy specimens?


During the autopsy at Bethesda Naval Hospital, the brain and numerous other parts of the body were removed for preservation (WC D 77, p. 2 <text>). A number of days afterwards, the body specimens were examined in the hospital by the autopsy pathologists. The brain was also photographed at this time. The findings of this examination were summarized in the 12/6/1963 supplementary autopsy report (WC Vol. 16, p. 987 <text>).

Sketch reproduction of one of the official brain photographs: https://history-matters.com/archive/jfk/hsca/reportvols/vol7/html/HSCA_Vol7_0070b.htm

The Forensic Pathology Panel of the House Select Committee on Assassinations attempted to trace the chain of custody for all of the body specimens, but could not locate them or fully explain their disappearance (HSCA Vol. 7, p. 23, 3/29/1979, Medical Panel Report, Section III. Chain of Custody of the Materials Acquired During the Autopsy <text>).

Kennedy's personal physician Dr. George Burkley, along with the head of the Secret Service Protective Research Division Agent Robert I. Bouck, told the HSCA that after the supplemental examination, they took the specimens and stored them in a locked file cabinet located in the Executive Office Building in Washington, D.C. (ARRB MD 123 – HSCA Memorandum # 002237 from Jim Kelley and Andy Purdy, dated September 6, 1977, to Ken Klein, Subj: Interview with Robert I. Bouck; HSCA 180-10104-10271, Burkley's 11/28/1978 affidavit to the HSCA)

On 4/22/1965, a letter from Senator Robert F. Kennedy requested that Dr. Burkley transfer the autopsy materials to the custody of Mrs. Evelyn Lincoln, former personal secretary of John F. Kennedy (ARRB 7/24/1996). Senator Kennedy personally instructed Mrs. Lincoln to not give the materials to anybody without his written approval. In the words of the HSCA Forensic Pathology Panel, "This demonstrates Robert Kennedy's firm control over the disposition of the materials" (HSCA Vol. 7, p. 23, Medical Panel Report, Section III. Chain of Custody of the Materials Acquired During the Autopsy, Part III. Subsequent History of Materials <text>).

On 4/26/1965, Dr. Burkley and Agent Bouck met with Evelyn Lincoln in room "409" of the National Archives I Building in Washington, D.C. to deliver the specimens (ARRB MD 122; ARRB MD 70; ARRB MD 120). The items were catalogued in a list. Among them were containers of photographic film and prints from the autopsy and supplemental examination, x-rays, the detached handle of the first casket used to carry the body, as well as "1 plastic box, 9 by 6 1/2 by 1 inches, paraffin blocks of tissue sections", "1 plastic box containing paraffin blocks of tissue sections plus 35 slides", "A third box containing 84 slides", "1 stainless steel container, 7 by 8 inches in diameter, containing gross material", and "3 wooden boxes, each 7 by 3 1/2 by 1 1/4 inches, containing 58 slides of blood smears taken at various times during President Kennedy's lifetime" (ARRB MD 70). Burkley told the HSCA that the brain was carried in the 7 x 8 inch stainless steel container (HSCA 180-10104-10271, Burkley's 11/28/1978 affadavit).

From the report on Evelyn Lincoln's 7/5/1978 interview by the HSCA:

Mrs. Lincoln recalled a visit to her office in the National Archives by Dr. George Burkley and Mr. Robert-Bouck to bring some materials. She recalls the men bringing in a group of materials (possibly in one or more cardboard boxes) and laying them down on the floor in front of her desk. She recalls there being a long flat box with a number of manila envelopes on top of it with a number of different sizes of little boxes on top of the envelopes.

Mrs. Lincoln recalled that she didn't have a lot of notice that the materials were coming, saying she received a call from Dr. Burkley saying he would be over with some materials. She believes he arrived with one or two men. She recalls lifting up the box with all the materials in it and carrying them into the back security room and laying them on top of one of the file cabinet safes. Shortly thereafter, probably within a day, Mrs. Lincoln and her assistants obtained a "flat trunk" from the Archives staff and put the materials into the trunk and put the trunk into the Security Room. She said she has a specific recollection of lifting all the materials up and placing them into the trunk at the same time.

Mrs. Lincoln's assistants at the time were George Dalton and Joe Giordano. She also said that "Boots' Miller (first name George) worked for her for a while but she wasn't sure if he was working at that time. Mrs. Lincoln was shown the receipt that Dr. Burkley gave her for the items and said it seemed to be accurate in terms of the day, April 26, 1965, and in terms of the general amount and types of containers she received. However, while Dr. Burkley told her in advance or at the time of transfer that the materials were related to the autopsy of the President, she did not know exactly what the materials were, nor did she open any of the containers to see if the receipt Dr. Burkley gave her corresponded to the materials she received. Mrs. Lincoln said she was very close to Dr. Burkley and took his word that all the materials were present.

This is when the autopsy specimens were last accounted for. Things get a lot murkier from this point on.

Lincoln told the HSCA that "approximately a month or less" after the specimens were delivered to her, she then handed over the footlocker and two keys to Angela Novello, personal secretary of Robert F. Kennedy.

Mrs. Lincoln said she was telephoned by Bobby Kennedy approximately a month or less after this transfer and told that he was sending Angie Novello, his secretary, over to the Archives to move the trunk which Dr. Burkley had brought. They apparently wanted the materials moved to another part of the Archives, presumably to some location where Robert Kennedy was storing other materials.

Shortly thereafter, Angie Novello came to Mrs. Lincoln's office on the fourth floor of the Archives with Herman Kahn and one or more of his deputies to take the trunk. Mrs. Lincoln said she had Ms. Novello sign a receipt for the materials (which was Mrs. Lincoln's custom whenever Angie Novello came to the Archives to obtain materials, even when at the behest of Robert Kennedy). Mrs. Lincoln is certain that she prepared the release for Ms. Novello's signature and kept the release among her materials. She does not know what happened to the receipt but assumes it is with the other receipts that Angie Novello signed, possibly under the name "Bobby Kennedy."

The HSCA could not locate the receipt Lincoln said she addressed to Novello.


I then questioned Mrs. Lincoln in more detail concerning the trunk containing the autopsy materials and the disposition of the trunk. Mrs. Lincoln said the trunk was about two and a half feet by one foot high and she had a vague recollection that it was grey. She said she received the trunk from Archives personnel and received two keys for it. During the time between receiving the autopsy materials and putting them in the trunk she kept the materials in the Security Room on a file cabinet. Mrs. Lincoln said she had no intention of looking inside the various containers because she was very upset about the assassination of the President and was upset at the prospect of having to handle the autopsy materials. She said, however, she was very careful with them and noted that they fit neatly into the trunk. It is her present recollection that Dr. Burkley brought the receipt listing in detail the items she received. She is certain she didn't write any such receipt or have one typed. She also didn't remember reading the receipt very closely. When shown the receipt she had a general sense that the number of boxes referred to corresponded, at least roughly, to the materials she received and viewed in front of her desk and later moved to the file cabinet and later to the trunk itself. She acknowledged that she signed a brief note written at the bottom of the receipt Dr. Burkley gave her acknowledging that she received the materials. She said she did not recall ever seeing the documents which accompanied the autopsy materials.


Mrs. Lincoln noted that when she gave the materials to Ms. Novello she gave her both keys to the trunk. Until she gave the keys to Ms. Novello she had kept them locked in her desk and kept the trunk locked in the security room each night. She says to her knowledge the trunk was never opened during the time it was in her office spaces. It was Mrs. Lincoln's sense that Angie Novello knew where Robert Kennedy kept things in the Archives and said it was most likely in an area under Mr. Kahn's supervision and control.

(ARRB MD 128, HSCA Interview Report (#009823) dated July 5, 1978, prepared by Andy Purdy, concerning results of Interview of Mrs. Evelyn Lincoln)

The story of the footlocker was told differently when Lincoln was interviewed for the New York Times years earlier: "Mrs. Lincoln, who is now in a staff job at the House of Representatives, said that Admiral Burkley delivered a locked chest to her at the Archives and that a few days later Angie Nevelle, Robert Kennedy's secretary, arrived and took it away. Mrs. Lincoln said that she had not looked inside the chest or read Admiral Burkley's inventory" (New York Times, 8/27/1972, Mystery Cloaks Fate Of Brain of Kennedy by Fred P. Graham). Did Mrs. Lincoln obtain a footlocker to store the specimens herself, or were they already in a footlocker when they were delivered to her?

Between 1966-1968, when the Department of Justice was focusing some attention on reviewing the medical evidence (New York Times, 1/17/1969, Inquiry Upholds Warren Report by Fred P. Graham; HSCA Vol. 7, p. 1 <text>), Attorney General Ramsey Clark tried to contact Robert F. Kennedy in hopes of gaining access to the specimens, but Robert "was not sympathetic to the Government's need to acquire the autopsy material". Then, Clark had heated negotiations with Kennedy family representative Burke Marshall, former Assistant Attorney General (HSCA Vol. 7, p. 23 <text>). Clark reportedly told the HSCA that he "had only requested transfer of the autopsy photographs and X-rays and did not recall any discussions with Robert Kennedy about any other autopsy materials" (Outside contact report of Ramsey Clark, May 9, 1978, House Select Committee on Assassinations (JFK Document No. 008159); HSCA Vol. 7, p. 23 <text>). According to a 10/29/1966 letter from Burke Marshall to the General Services Administration's Lawson Knott, the Kennedy family finally agreed to give the U.S. Government the autopsy x-rays, photographic film, photographic prints, as well as the late President's clothing (ARRB MD 112).

The specimens were first realized to be missing on 10/31/1966, according to a report from the National Archives and Records Administration titled "Inspection of Materials Relating to the Autopsy of President. John F. Kennedy". According to the report, Burke Marshall and Evelyn Lincoln met with several other government representatives, including Angela Novello, in room "6-W-3" at the National Archives I Building in Washington, D.C. The footlocker was presented, and Novello "produced a key" to unlock it. The footlocker was found to be empty except for a few papers. These papers included "a carbon copy of the letter from Robert F. Kennedy to Burkley on April 22, 1965", "the original letter from Burkley to Lincoln on April 26, 1965, which also listed on the itemized inventory list the materials present at that transfer", and inexplicably "three large manilla envelopes of material which appeared to be copies of military service records of the late President" (ARRB MD 111). In 1972, forensic pathologist Dr. Cyril Wecht was granted permission to search the autopsy materials at the National Archives. Wecht quickly alerted the media that the body specimens were missing (New York Times, 8/27/1972).

Evelyn Lincoln told the HSCA that she could not remember the 10/31/1966 meeting, nor could she remember seeing the footlocker after handing it to Angela Novello "approximately a month or less" after acquiring the specimens from Burkley on 4/26/1965 (ARRB MD 128). Angela Novello claimed in her 8/29/1977 HSCA interview and her 10/30/1978 affidavit that she could not remember ever being associated with any autopsy materials, nor could she remember handling any footlocker, nor the keys to such a footlocker (HSCA Vol. 7, p. 23 <text>).

Although the specimens of the body are missing, the x-rays, photographic film and photographic prints associated with the autopsy still survive in the storage of the National Archives. The HSCA Forensic Pathology Panel could not offer any documentation explaining how this transaction occurred (HSCA Vol. 7, p. 23 <text>). Unless more documents resurface, there may never be a full explanation. The Panel ultimately drew attention the statements of Burke Marshall, suggesting that Senator Robert F. Kennedy could have intentionally hidden or destroyed the body specimens: "Marshall said Robert Kennedy was concerned that these materials would be placed on public display in future years in an institution such as the Smithsonian and wished to dispose of them to eliminate such a possibility"… "Marshall emphasized that he does not believe anyone other than Robert Kennedy would have known what happened to the materials and is certain that obtaining or locating these materials is no longer possible" (Outside contact report, Burke Marshall, May 18, 1978, JFK Document No. 008514; HSCA Vol. 7, p. 23 <text>).

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