On November 8, 1960, millions of Americans went to the polls in what would become one of the closest Presidential elections in American History: John Fitzgerald Kennedy versus Richard Milhous Nixon.
That morning, Kennedy voted in Boston and Nixon voted in Whittier, California. The candidates had spent months canvassing the nation, working to get every last vote — and every last vote was needed. For the past several weeks, Kennedy and Nixon had criss-crossed the country, debated one another, and been working non-stop to be elected the 35th President of the United States.
After they voted that day, there were results to monitor, precincts to watch, election day problems to take care of, and many other things to worry about. Imagine being on the cusp of the Presidency — with a 50/50 chance of being elected the next President of a superpower in the grip of the Cold War, with the threat of Communism and nuclear weapons hanging over your head, and the hopes of hundreds of millions of people pinned on either your victory or defeat. Imagine being in the position of John F. Kennedy or Richard Nixon on November 8, 1960. What would you do?
John F. Kennedy put the control of his campaign in the hands of his younger brother, Bobby, and then took a nap.
And Richard Nixon took a road trip to Mexico.
Once Nixon voted that morning at a private home in a quiet Whittier neighborhood, he had been scheduled to head to the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles (where Bobby Kennedy would be assassinated eight years later) for the Election Day vigil and the long wait for the returns which would indicate whether he would be moving into the White House or facing an early retirement.
Nixon was finished voting by 8:00 AM and hopped into his black Cadillac limousine to be driven to the Ambassador. Several blocks away from the polling place, Nixon ordered the limousine to stop. Along with a military aide and a Secret Service agent, Nixon jumped out of the limo and into a white convertible follow-up car driven by an officer from the Los Angeles Police Department. Nixon took the LAPD officer’s place, got behind the wheel and ditched the press which had been following him.
Driving to La Habra, California, Nixon made a quick visit with his mother, making sure she had voted for her son in the Presidential election. Nixon drove south along the Pacific Coast Highway, with no specific destination. He stopped for gasoline in Oceanside and told a gas station attendant — startled to see the Vice President of the United States on a joyride on the very day that he stood for election as President — “I’m just out for a little ride.” Nixon confided that it was his only source of relaxation.
As the group of four men, with Nixon in the driver’s seat, reached San Diego — over two hours away from Nixon’s campaign headquarters at L.A.’s Ambassador Hotel — Nixon pointed out that he hadn’t been to Tijuana in at least 25 years.
As David Pietrusza wrote in his recap of Nixon’s road trip, “Richard Nixon — the ultimate control freak — was winging it on the most important day of his life.” Not only that, but the sitting Vice President of the United States and the man who many Americans were choosing to become the next President, impulsively decided to leave the entire country while those voters were still at the polls.
In Tijuana, Nixon and his party headed to a restaurant called Old Heidelberg. Despite the fact it was owned by a German, Border Patrol agents told Nixon that it was the best place in Tijuana for Mexican food. Joined at the last moment by Tijuana’s Mayor, Xicotencati Leyva Aleman, Nixon, his military aide, a Secret Service agent, and an average LAPD officer ate enchiladas in Mexico while John F. Kennedy took a nap in Hyannis Port, Massachusetts.
When Nixon’s press secretary Herb Klein was asked about the missing candidate, he had to tell reporters that Nixon often took some private moments on hectic days such as Election Day. Really, though, Klein had no clue where Nixon was, eventually admitting that the Vice President was “driving around without any destination”.
After lunch in Tijuana, Nixon and his companions headed back north towards the United States border crossing. The LAPD officer took over driving duties as Nixon sat in the convertible’s passenger seat. A shocked Border Patrol guard shook hands with the Vice President and asked the man who was currently on the ballot for the Presidency, “Are you all citizens of the United States?”.
Nixon and company drove to the Mission of San Juan Capistrano, which Nixon called “one of my favorite Catholic places” on the day he faced the only successful Catholic candidate for the Presidency in American History. Nixon took his three companions on a quick, informal tour of the Mission. “For a few minutes, we sat in the empty pews for an interlude of complete escape,” Nixon later recalled.
The missing candidate and his three road trip buddies arrived back in Los Angeles before the election results started rolling in. Nixon had to explain his trip to reporters who had been searching for him all day. “It wasn’t planned. We just started driving and that’s where we wound up.”
In his Memoirs, Nixon didn’t go too far into explaining why he escaped on Election Day, but a paragraph about that day is pretty illuminating:
”After one last frenetic week, it was over. Since the convention in August I had traveled over 65,000 miles and visited all fifty states. I had made 180 scheduled speeches and delivered scores of impromptu talks and informal press conferences. There was nothing more I could have done.”
Except escape to Mexico while JFK slept.
Lincoln and Kennedy are more iconic figures because Lincoln led the country through the Civil War and was murdered just days after Lee surrendered to Grant and Kennedy and his young family truly felt like a page in American history had been turned and the country was moving forward with the first President born in the 20th Century. There was also a bigger shock with the Lincoln and Kennedy assassinations. Lincoln was the first President to be assassinated, many people saw him as almost the symbolic final casualty of the Civil War, and his funeral was a national event with stops in over a dozen American cities over twenty days. JFK was shot to death in front of many people (including his wife), in the middle of the day, in a major American city, and the man charged with his assassination was himself murdered just two days later live on national television.
Garfield and McKinley weren’t quite as charismatic as Lincoln or Kennedy, and they hadn’t made as much of an impact on daily American life as Lincoln and Kennedy. Garfield had only been President for a couple of months and McKinley was a low-key figure — an able, popular President, but not as beloved by as many people as Lincoln or Kennedy. But it is important to note that, at the time of their assassinations, Garfield and McKinley were widely mourned by the American people, much like Lincoln and Kennedy were. Their deaths just didn’t have as lasting of an impact.
Another possible reason for the differences in the assassinations might be the immediate impact. The Lincoln and Kennedy assassinations were sudden and their deaths were immediately shocking. Lincoln was shot late in the evening of April 14, 1865, there was no hope of recovery, and he died early the next morning. Kennedy was basically killed instantly. He was still breathing when he reached the hospital, but there wasn’t a single person who expected him to survive the massive head wound that he suffered.
With Garfield and McKinley, neither President died instantly. In fact, at some point following their respective shootings it was believed that Garfield and McKinley both might survive their wounds. Garfield was shot on July 2, 1881 and survived until September 19th. In reality, President Garfield didn’t die directly from his gunshot wounds — he died from infections introduced into his body by doctors who probed his wounds with their dirty fingers and unsterilized instruments. McKinley didn’t survive his shooting nearly as long as Garfield did, but he lingered for 8 days after being shot on September 6, 1901, dying on September 14th. Garfield and McKinley rallied enough while fighting for their lives that it raised hopes that they might survive. Indeed, they would have survived with better medical care. When Ronald Reagan was shot in 1981, his wounds were far more serious than those which killed Garfield and McKinley.
So, while the nation was still stunned and devastated by the deaths of Garfield and McKinley, they didn’t have the same immediate impact as the deaths of Lincoln and Kennedy. With Garfield and McKinley, the American people had a little bit of time to prepare for the worst. That didn’t necessarily make it easier to accept, but I think it possibly softened the blow.
Another possibility is that the assassins of Garfield and McKinley were both captured, brought to trial, convicted, and executed. John Wilkes Booth very nearly made his way to the Deep South and possible escape after shooting Lincoln but he was cornered and killed rather than being arrested and tried. And, of course, Lee Harvey Oswald was murdered while in police custody which helped perpetuate conspiracy theories about the JFK assassination that a majority of Americans believe are true.
She was trying to run for her life from a moving limousine?
Either way, good to know that you have all the answers. Most of us just had to venture the best conclusion possible from all the various sources that we’ve studied. We’re not lucky enough to get such definitive information as you seem to have. Did you get your details straight from Jackie? You must have considering how certain you are about exactly what happened.
It’s good to know that there’s a real-deal JFK assassination expert out there to settle everything. Hopefully, all of the questions I get about the Kennedy assassination will now be sent to you — “blowhan” — so that I can focus on a subject I actually know something about. I mean, why the hell should I struggle to answer (probably incorrectly, am I right?) dozens of questions about JFK’s assassination when we have the expertise of “blowhan” available?
It’s a good day for knowledge, everybody. Knowledge wins because “blowhan” is here to drop it all over us.
Different people have different answers about that. Jackie Kennedy had no memory of climbing on the back of the limousine, even when she was shown photographs of her doing so, but she was obviously in shock.
Some say that Jackie was trying to climb out of the limo. Some say that she was trying to help Secret Service agent Clint Hill climb into the limo.
But, most likely, she was just trying to retrieve pieces of President Kennedy’s skull and brain matter, as morbid as that might sound. In the limo, she tried to put JFK’s brains back into his head as she cradled it. And, in the trauma room at Parkland Hospital, Jackie went up to one of the doctors and actually handed him parts of JFK’s skull and brain matter that she had cupped in her hands.
I never liked (John F.) Kennedy. I hate his father. Kennedy wasn’t so great a Senator…However, that no good son-of-a-bitch Dick Nixon called me a Communist and I’ll do anything to beat him.
Harry Truman, on why he was supporting JFK in 1960 despite having some reservations about whether Kennedy was prepared for the job.
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As a Southerner, I am happy to know that a fellow Southerner is in the White House who is concerned about civil rights…LBJ is a man of great ego and great power. He is a pragmatist and a man of pragmatic compassion. It just may be that he’s going to go where John Kennedy couldn’t.
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., suggesting that LBJ seemed far more willing to fight for civil rights than JFK ever had, following a one-on-one meeting with President Johnson less than two weeks after the Kennedy Assassination
Mothers all want their sons to grow up to be President, but they don’t want them to become politicians in the process.
John F. Kennedy
Many men are great, but few capture the imagination and the spirit of the times. The ones who do are unforgettable. Four administrations have passed since John Kennedy’s death; five Presidents have occupied the Oval Office, and I feel sure that each of them thought of John Kennedy now and then and his thousand days in the White House.
And sometimes I want to say to those who are still in school and who sometimes think that history is a dry thing that lives in a book: Nothing is ever lost in that great house; some music plays on.
I’ve even been told that late at night when the clouds are still and the moon is high, you can just about hear the sound of certain memories brushing by. You can almost hear, if you listen close, the whir of a wheelchair rolling by and the sound of a voice calling out, ‘And another thing, Eleanor!’ Turn down a hall and you hear the brisk strut of a fellow saying, ‘Bully! Absolutely ripping!’ Walk softly, now, and you’re drawn to the soft notes of a piano and a brilliant gathering in the East Room where a crowd surrounds a bright young President who is full of hope and laughter.
I don’t know if this is true, but it’s a story I’ve been told. And it’s not a bad one because it reminds us that history is a living thing that never dies. A life given in service to one’s country is a living thing that never dies — a life given in service, yes.
History is not only made by people; it is people. And so, history is, as young John Kennedy demonstrated, as heroic as you want it to be, as heroic as you are.
Ronald Reagan, speech given at a fundraiser for the JFK Library at the home of Senator Ted Kennedy, McLean, Virginia, June 24, 1985
When we got into office, the first thing that surprised me most was to find that things were just as bad as we’d been saying they were.
John F. Kennedy, 1961
In my essay, Waking Up In Dallas, I noted that John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon, who faced off in the 1960 Presidential election, had once been close friends dating back to when they were freshmen in Congress in 1947. Although their relationship was changed by the 1960 Presidential campaign, Nixon was deeply troubled by Kennedy’s assassination and wrote Jacqueline Kennedy this letter hours after President Kennedy’s death:
In this tragic hour Pat and I want you to know that our thoughts and prayers are with you.
While the hand of fate made Jack and me political opponents I always cherished the fact that we were personal friends from the time we came to the Congress together in 1947. That friendship evidenced itself in many ways including the invitation we received to attend your wedding.
Nothing I could say now could add to the splendid tributes which have come from throughout the world to him.
But I want you to know that the nation will also be forever grateful for your service as First Lady. You brought to the White House charm, beauty and elegance as the official hostess of America, and the mystique of the young in heart which was uniquely yours made an indelible impression on the American consciousness.
If in the days ahead we could be helpful in any way we shall be honored to be at your command.
Several weeks later, the widowed former First Lady responded to Nixon’s letter. Jackie’s response was handwritten, featuring the odd punctuation she often used in her handwritten notes, and remarkably prophetic. A year earlier, Nixon had announced that he was leaving politics after a disastrous loss in a bid to become Governor of California. Coming just two years after his narrow defeat to JFK, Nixon’s political career looked to be finished. He and his family moved to New York where Nixon joined a prestigious law firm and seemed to be removing himself from the political world.
Even in the midst of her mourning, Jackie recognized that JFK’s death might be the opening Nixon would need to make a political comeback and finally realize his goal of becoming President. Jackie might have recognized this before Nixon did himself. Her political instincts were sharp and her foresight was incredible, but her letter was also heartbreaking as she warned of the dangers that could come with the Presidential prize:
(Punctuation, phrasing, and spelling is as it was in Jackie’s original handwritten letter.)
Dear Mr. Vice President —
I do thank you for your most thoughtful letter —
You two young men — colleagues in Congress — adversaries in 1960 — and now look what has happened — Whoever thought such a hideous thing could happen in this country —
I know how you must feel — so long on the path — so closely missing the greatest prize — and now for you, all the question comes up again — and you must commit all you and your family’s hopes and efforts again — Just one thing I would say to you —if it does not work out as you have hoped for so long — please be consoled by what you already have — your life and your family —
We never value life enough when we have it — and I would not have had Jack live his life any other way — thought I know his death could have been prevented, and I will never cease to torture myself with that —
But if you do not win — please think of all that you have — With my appreciation — and my regards to your family. I hope your daughters love Chapin School as much as I did —
Jackie Kennedy’s predictions in her heart-wrenching letter were correct. In 1968, Nixon was elected President.
No worries. Here’s what you missed earlier and can catch up on as we mark the 50th anniversary of President John F. Kennedy’s assassination:
•The assassination of President Kennedy took place fifty years ago and will resonate forever in America’s memory, but the violent act that changed the course of history took place in an instant. For a very detailed history of that moment, check out 11.22.1963: One Minute In Dallas.
•What happened to the coffin that President Kennedy’s body was transported in from Dallas to Washington, D.C. on Air Force One? It’s not the coffin that contains his remains today at Arlington National Cemetery. Learn what happened in Burial At Sea: The Odyssey of JFK’s Original Casket.
I hope that you guys have enjoyed the posts today. I appreciate the feedback I’ve received and would love to hear your thoughts. To close things out this evening, I’ll hit the inbox and answer your questions for a special JFK Q&A. If you have JFK or JFK-related questions, feel free to try to squeeze them in.
It was approximately 1:00 PM when a man called Vernon B. O’Neal of O’Neal’s Funeral Home and asked for the best casket that O’Neal had available. The man on the phone, simultaneously calm and tense, needed the coffin quickly and O’Neal had a slight problem. Of the 18 people who worked at O’Neal’s Funeral Home, 17 of them were out to lunch. After all, it was a beautiful Friday day for November in Texas.
O’Neal picked out a solid-bronze coffin with white satin lining tagged at a sales price of $3,995 from his storeroom and waited for three more of his employees to return from lunch. The bulky Handley Brittania casket from the Elgin Casket Company weighed over 400 pounds when it was empty and O’Neal certainly couldn’t lift it into his Cadillac hearse by himself. Once he had it loaded, he rushed to Parkland Memorial Hospital on the most important delivery of his career.
The man who had ordered the casket, Clint Hill, was a Secret Service agent and less than an hour earlier he had climbed on to the back of a moving limousine to try to get to the subject he was charged to protect. He was unsuccessful. The casket was for the President of the United States, John Fitzgerald Kennedy.
When the casket arrived at Parkland Hospital, O’Neal was met by agents from the Secret Service and some of President Kennedy’s aides. They helped O’Neal push the coffin into the hospital and down a corridor towards Trauma Room One where the President had been officially pronounced dead just minutes earlier. One of the President’s aides and the doctor who had just worked on Kennedy tried to distract the President’s grieving wife so that she wasn’t anguished further by the sight of the coffin that her now-dead husband was about to be placed in.
Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy refused to turn away and begged to be let into the Trauma Room to see her husband once more. The doctor didn’t want her to see anything else, but Jackie insisted, telling the doctor “How can I see anything worse than what I’ve seen?” and pointing out that “His blood is all over me!” The doctor let her in the Trauma Room as O’Neal wheeled the casket inside and she placed her wedding ring on JFK’s finger before retreating back to the outer hallway once again.
Vernon O’Neal was horrified when he saw the condition of the President’s body. Blood was everywhere and a gaping wound exposed brain matter which was seeping out of John F. Kennedy’s head. Not wanting to damage the beautiful and expensive casket that he had picked out for the President, O’Neal and several emergency room nurses went to work. The bottom of the inside of the coffin was lined with a plastic mattress covering and the President’s body was wrapped in a bed sheet. The nurses went even further and spent 20 minutes carefully wrapping President Kennedy’s head in numerous white bed sheets so that blood didn’t seep through and stain the lining of the casket.
After Kennedy’s body was placed in the coffin, preparations were made to leave Parkland Hospital and take the President back to Air Force One at Dallas’s Love Field so that they could transport him back to Washington, D.C. As the Secret Service and the President’s aides (many of whom were longtime, close friends of JFK) wheeled his casket towards the exit, they were stopped by Dr. Earl Rose, the medical examiner for Dallas County, Texas. In 1963, it was not a federal crime to kill the President of the United States. Because of this, there was no federal jurisdiction for John F. Kennedy’s murder — only local. Despite the scale of the crime to the nation, it was technically just another murder in Dallas, Texas on November 22, 1963 (because of the laws at the time, on a purely legal basis, the murder of Dallas police offer J.D. Tippit about 45 minutes after Kennedy’s shooting was a far more serious crime than the President’s assassination). Because of this, Dr. Rose informed the men escorting the President’s body that they needed to leave it in Dallas. Rose noted that he needed to autopsy the body before they took it anywhere. To Dr. Rose, a homicide victim was a homicide victim and he had a job to do.
The Secret Service was incredulous and President Kennedy’s loyal aides were even angrier. In the corridor of Parkland Memorial Hospital, things got tense. Rose found himself in a shouting match with the Secret Service and some of Kennedy’s aides. Even the doctors at Parkland sided with the Secret Service and pleaded with Rose to release the body so that they could take the President back to Washington. A justice of the peace arrived, with the power to overrule the medical examiner. But he didn’t. The justice of the peace said that Kennedy would have to be autopsied in Dallas and ensured the Secret Service that it wouldn’t take any more than three hours.
Again, tempers flared and the men in the hallway at Parkland were close to fisticuffs as the medical examiner, Dr. Rose, literally blocked the casket’s path with his body in order to keep it inside the hospital. When the President’s close aide, Kenny O’Donnell, appealed to the medical examiner and the justice of the peace for compassion for Jackie Kennedy and an exception for this case so that they could return the dead President to Washington and get Jackie out of Texas as quickly as possible, the justice of the peace, Theron Ward, refused.
"It’s just another homicide as far as I’m concerned," said the justice of the peace.
O’Donnell lost his temper, “Go fuck yourself! We’re leaving. Get the hell out of the way.”
With that, the Secret Service and all the President’s men pushed forward. The medical examiner, the justice of the peace, and several Dallas policemen were forcibly shoved out of the way by Secret Service agents who were ready to draw their guns, if necessary. Jackie Kennedy was close by, her hand softly guiding the President’s bronze casket as it was removed from the hospital and placed in the hearse which raced en route to Love Field and Air Force One.
When the entourage arrived at Air Force One, they found a plane completely encircled by heavily armed Secret Service agents. The plane’s powerful engines were running, ready to lift off at any moment and push Dallas and everything that happened there behind them as quickly as possible. Fearing the unknown and suspecting a possible conspiracy to decapitate the entire government, the shades were drawn down over the windows throughout the aircraft in order to protect against any further possible attacks. On the plane was Lyndon Johnson, soon-to-be sworn in as the 36th President of the United States, and awaiting the arrival of Jackie and the body of the deceased President. The Secret Service and the President’s aides struggled with the extraordinarily heavy casket as they maneuvered it up the steps to Air Foce One and into a holding area in the back of the plane cleared out by removing two rows of seats.
Jackie remained with President Kennedy’s casket from almost the entire time she boarded Air Force One until it landed at Andrews Air Force Base near Washington. The only exception was prior to the plane taking off from Dallas when she stood — still wearing her blood-stained pink Chanel dress — on one side of Lyndon Johnson as he took the oath of office as the new President, his hand resting on JFK’s book of Catholic missals, which had been found in JFK’s private cabin by aides rummaging for a Bible for the oath-taking ceremony.
For four hours, Air Force One flew in a dark cloud of sadness towards the nation’s capital. New President Johnson made numerous phone calls, including calls to the slain President’s mother, Rose, and brother, the Attorney General Bobby Kennedy. In flight, LBJ also hastily made preparations for meetings upon landing in Washington. In the back of the plane, a silent vigil was held around John F. Kennedy’s casket by Jackie and the President’s aides, who were so close to Kennedy that they were often referred to as the “Irish Mafia”.
President Kennedy’s personal physician, Admiral George Burkley, suggested to Jackie that JFK’s body be taken to Bethesda Naval Hospital upon arrival in Washington for the autopsy. Jackie showed great compassion herself on that terrible flight. She insisted that Bill Greer drive the vehicle carrying the President’s casket to Bethesda. Greer was grief-stricken and apologetic during the flight because he had been driving JFK’s limousine in Dallas and made no attempt to speed up or take evasive maneuvers when shots were first fired. Greer felt partly responsible for President Kennedy’s death and Jackie wanted to show her confidence and appreciation in his service to her late husband.
When Air Force One arrived at Andrews Air Force Base after dark on November 22, 1963, Bobby Kennedy rushed on to the plane and directly to Jackie to comfort his sister-in-law, blowing past President Johnson and snubbing LBJ as the new President attempted to offer his condolences to JFK’s devastated brother. The dead President’s aides and Secret Service detail rebuffed a military casket team who arrived to remove the President’s coffin from the plane. Instead they formed a personal honor guard and handled Kennedy’s casket themselves, awkwardly placing it on to a catering lift and lowering it to the ground so that they could place it in a waiting Navy ambulance from Bethesda. Jackie, with her husband’s blood still clearly visible on her bare legs, and Bobby climbed into the back of the ambulance with JFK’s casket and drove straight to Bethesda as President Johnson made a statement for the millions of Americans watching the arrival ceremony on live television.
The motorcade transporting the body of President John F. Kennedy from Andrews Air Force Base to Bethesda Naval Hospital for his autopsy arrived right around the same time that President Lyndon Johnson’s helicopter landed on the South Lawn of the White House from Andrews so that the new President could take the reins of the government of a nation in shock. As trusted members of his “Irish Mafia” helped to remove Kennedy’s casket from the Navy ambulance, Jackie Kennedy and RFK headed upstairs at Bethesda where private suites were set aside for their comfort and friends and family were waiting to help with the comforting.
Across town, the new President prepared to charge into his new duties. During the flight home from Dallas, Lyndon Johnson had summoned Cabinet members, diplomats, Members of Congress, current White House aides, former White House aides, and anybody else who had any inkling of what powered the Executive Branch, to meet him at the White House upon his arrival for consultation, directions, and mutual support. Upon arriving at the White House, Johnson briefly spent a moment by himself in the Oval Office before leaving and walking with aides to the neighboring Old Executive Office Building. LBJ didn’t feel right with immediately setting up shop in the Oval Office just hours after President Kennedy’s death. Instead, Johnson decided to use his Vice Presidential office in the OEOB for the meetings he planned on holding that night.
Before those meetings began, however, President Johnson took a moment for a brief pause in his frenetic assumption of the Presidency. Requesting a few minutes of privacy, LBJ sat down at his desk in the OEOB and wrote two short letters which became the first pieces of correspondence of the Johnson Administration — letters which the young recipients couldn’t even read yet:
"Dear John—It will be many years before you understand fully what a great man your father was. His loss is a deep personal tragedy for all of us, but I wanted you particularly to know that I share your grief—You can always be proud of him. Affectionately, Lyndon Johnson"
"Dearest Caroline—Your father’s death has been a great tragedy for the Nation, as well as for you at this time. He was a wise and devoted man. You can always be proud of what he did for his country. Affectionately, Lyndon Johnson"
The casket containing the father of those two young children had been wheeled into the hallways leading to Bethesda Naval Hospital’s morgue. Despite the fact that this was being done in a completely secure, private, inner sanctum of the famed military hospital, the casket was that of a man who had started the day as Commander-in-Chief of the United States Military. Out of respect and duty, an honor guard lifted the coffin from a gurney and carried it through the halls and into the brightly-lit, antiseptic autopsy room where doctors prepared to examine the lifeless body of the 35th President of the United States.
When President Kennedy’s casket was opened, it became readily apparent that the hard work of Vernon O’Neal and the nurses at Parkland Hospital in Dallas to protect the inside of the expensive coffin was unsuccessful. The makeshift bandage which had been carefully wrapped around Kennedy’s head did not prevent seepage after all. Blood soaked through the sheets which made up the “bandage” and the inner lining of Kennedy’s ornate casket was obviously damaged. It was a surreal, eerie sight in the autopsy room as John F. Kennedy was removed from his coffin and placed on the stainless steel autopsy table at Bethesda. The 35th President was naked and seemed to be in remarkably good physical condition for a 46-year-old man who was known to suffer from serious health problems. Most shocking for those in the room during the autopsy, however, was the fact that this seemingly young and vital President who had inspired a new generation was now very much dead with a massive gunshot wound to the head that exposed the part of his brain still contained within it and left the top of his skull jaggedly disfigured with missing pieces of bone and flesh. Kennedy’s eyes were fixed open, staring vacantly into space with dilated pupils that could no longer envision ambitious goals for his nation. The mouth which formed his famous words, framed his most inspirational messages, and spoke that unmistakable Boston accent now hung open, forever silenced and permanently paralyzed in a final expression which seemed to mirror the mood of the entire country: a combination of shock, pain, horror, and perplexity.
The pathologists who performed John F. Kennedy’s autopsy finished their work shortly after midnight on November 23, 1963. Photographs and drawings were taken of Kennedy’s body during the autopsy, and when the autopsy was finished, morticians from one of the capital’s finest funeral parlors arrived on the scene. A team from Gawler’s Funeral Home entered the autopsy room at Bethesda Naval Hospital to embalm the President and attempt to make him presentable. The casket that brought JFK back to Washington from Dallas would not work. While the casket from O’Neal’s was a beauty from the exterior, the interior was a mess. All of the safeguards attempted by O’Neal and the Parkland nurses in Dallas were not quite enough to protect the inside of the Handley Brittania from the gruesome wound that had killed the President.
The question many might have is why would there be such a need to make John F. Kennedy’s remains presentable when JFK was obviously in no condition to be viewed? Why couldn’t they simply close that beautiful Handley Brittania casket that was purchased in Dallas and bury Kennedy in the container which carried him back to Washington?
At the orders of Jackie Kennedy, aides went to the Library of Congress in the hours after President Kennedy’s body returned to Washington, D.C. and researched the historic, iconic, epic state funeral of Abraham Lincoln – the first American President to be assassinated, almost exactly a century earlier. Kennedy’s funeral preparations would be steeped in tradition and either perfectly replicate or closely mirror the funerals of other fallen American Presidents including Lincoln, James Garfield, William McKinley, Warren G. Harding, and Franklin D. Roosevelt. As information about these past Presidential funerals (along with the funerals of famous Congressional and military leaders throughout United States history) was brought forward, one constant was apparent: in almost every case, the fallen leader was viewed by a grieving public in an open casket display. For many Americans, streaming past the open casket of a former President or American military hero was an opportunity to pay tribute, look upon the face of a fallen hero, and find closure in another storied chapter of American History.
Yet, as much as Jackie wished to replicate Lincoln’s funeral, she was dismayed at the thought of an open casket for John F. Kennedy. Jackie had seen what the assassin’s bullet had done to her husband. As Kennedy’s motorcade raced to Parkland Memorial Hospital in Dallas minutes after the shooting, Jackie wouldn’t allow doctors and Secret Service agents to remove President Kennedy’s body from the limousine until an agent covered Kennedy’s head with his suit jacket, shielded the President from the view of others, and preserved some of the dignity that was so important to the Kennedy image. As the morticians from Gawler’s worked on JFK, Jackie once again expressed her wish that her husband’s coffin would be closed. Bobby Kennedy, however, didn’t think that the decision was up to the family. RFK felt strongly that JFK belonged to the people, too, and that the American people would want their opportunity to say goodbye.
Following his assassination in 1865, Abraham Lincoln’s remains embarked on an epic, 20-day-long train trip that retraced the route he took to Washington in 1861 prior to his Inauguration. In major cities throughout the Northeast and Upper Midwest, hundreds of thousands of Americans turned out to pay their respects to their “martyred” President. Embalming was a relatively newly-mastered American art at the time of Lincoln’s death – a technique which had been much-improved upon and much-practiced during the Civil War when young men frequently died far from home and families looked to preserve their fallen loved ones so that they could have one last look at them before they were laid to rest.
However, even today, embalming can’t guarantee perfect preservation for an extended amount of time. In 1865, there were definitely some worries about Lincoln’s extended, national funeral. After all, the warm weather of spring had started throughout the United States and Lincoln would be honored with open casket viewings by Americans in well over a dozen cities between Washington, D.C. and Springfield, Illinois in the twenty days after his death. Some people worried whether it was appropriate to view Lincoln’s corpse at all considering the fact that he had died from a gunshot wound to the head. Lincoln’s wound was far less devastating visually than Kennedy’s. The bullet that killed Lincoln had entered his brain, but did not exit Lincoln’s skull. The only damage visible was a black eye from bruising of the facial bones close to where John Wilkes Booth’s bullet had lodged in Lincoln’s brain. Undertakers accompanied Lincoln’s body on the funeral train back to Springfield and as time passed, they certainly became necessary. Lincoln’s face blackened considerably by the time his remains reached Springfield – partly from the facial bruising, partly from the dirt and dust of twenty days exposure to the elements, but also partly due to the beginning stages of decomposition. At some cities, the undertakers who accompanied Lincoln home would brush his face with chalk to make him more presentable to the citizens who came to pay their respects. In a few cities, it also became necessary to surround Lincoln’s casket with fragrant flowers and spray the area with heavy perfumes for reasons that I’m sure aren’t too difficult to surmise.
John F. Kennedy was not going to be viewed by the public for twenty days in over a dozen cities throughout the country and the funeral industry had made even larger strides in the century since Lincoln’s death. However, JFK was severely disfigured by the bullet that killed him. Unlike in Lincoln’s case, the bullet that tore through Kennedy’s skull and brain also exited his head, causing major damage that would be difficult for even the most-skilled mortician to disguise. The team from Gawler’s were perhaps the best in the business, but it wasn’t simply a matter of brushing some chalk or cosmetic makeup on Kennedy’s face to cover up some bruising or minor discoloration. Entire pieces of JFK’s skull were missing and parts of the President’s head needed to be synthetically reconstructed. The morticians also had to pack his skull with cotton and Plaster of Paris in the place of his brain — parts of which were removed during the autopsy and other parts of which were in countless places including (but not limited to) the fabric of his wife’s Pink Chanel dress, the windshields of the motorcycle cops escorting his motorcade in Dallas, the backseat and trunk of his limousine, and all over Dealey Plaza in Dallas.
The mortuary team from Gawler’s took over three hours to work on President Kennedy, clean him up, dress him (in a bluish-gray pinstriped suit with a white shirt, black shoes, and blue tie with dots), place him in a brand-new casket and put a rosary in the hands of the nation’s only Catholic President. A little after 4:00 AM, President Kennedy, his widow and Bobby Kennedy arrived at the White House after a solemn motorcade through the darkened streets of Washington. In the first nod to Lincoln’s funeral, JFK’s flag-draped casket was carried by an honor guard into the East Room of the White House and placed on a replica of the black catafalque that Lincoln’s coffin once rested on. After Kennedy’s casket was situated in the East Room, Jackie Kennedy and Bobby Kennedy entered the room and asked that the lid be opened. Both Jackie and Bobby were exhausted and emotionally drained, and Jackie was still wearing the Pink Chanel dress that she had cradled her dying husband’s head in. The front of her dress was smeared with the dried blood and brain matter of the President. As ghastly as the sight was, Jackie continually refused to change, noting that she wanted everyone to see what “they” did to her husband. As the casket lid was opened, Jackie snipped a lock of her husband’s hair with scissors and turned to Bobby, saying, “It isn’t Jack” – once again alluding to her wish that the casket remain closed.
Jackie left the East Room and headed upstairs to the White House Residence to finally change her clothes and attempt to sleep. In the East Room, Bobby remained near his brother’s coffin with a couple of friends, close aides, and Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara. The stoic RFK – always much tougher than his older brother – was a wreck by this point, after attempting to stay strong and supportive throughout the night for his stunned sister-in-law. Bobby had not yet looked at JFK’s remains. To finally make the decision about whether or not JFK would have an open casket, RFK took a look at his brother’s face. When he saw Jack in the coffin, RFK immediately agreed with Jackie’s feelings, “She’s right. Close it.” While the team from Gawler’s had done an admirable job of repairing the massive trauma to the President’s head, JFK was virtually unrecognizable as the man he once was. To those who saw his body as the casket was briefly open in the East Room early that morning, it was apparent that the American people wouldn’t want to remember their fallen President in that way – as if he were a wax museum knock-off of the real John F. Kennedy. The funeral ceremonies over the next few days would all be closed casket and the nation would remember JFK as the young, lively, inspirational President that he had been for so many Americans.
Since the assassination of John F. Kennedy in 1963, there have been so many unanswered questions and theories and allegations. Many are the result of sloppy work on behalf of the government in the hours following the shooting, during the autopsy, after the autopsy, and in the failure to protect the suspected assassin, Lee Harvey Oswald, as he was being transferred to a new facility to face charges of murdering President Kennedy and Dallas Police Office J.D. Tippit. Evidence has been lost or misplaced, and some records remain sealed until 2017 – 54 years after the assassination and 100 years after JFK’s birth.
There is one aspect of this story that received some closure, however, and that is what happened to JFK’s original casket – the expensive Handley Brittania coffin that Clint Hill ordered from Vernon O’Neal’s Funeral Home in Dallas in the hectic minutes after President Kennedy was pronounced dead.
After JFK’s autopsy at Bethesda Naval Hospital and the hard work by the mortuary team from Gawler’s Funeral Home to make him presentable, President Kennedy couldn’t be placed back in the beautiful but bloodstained bronze coffin that had carried him home from Texas. Gawler’s had brought with them to Bethesda another elegant casket fit for a President – a $3,160 Marsellus 710 coffin that was crafted from “hand-rubbed, five-hundred-year-old African mahogany”. It was that flag-draped casket from Gawler’s that John F. Kennedy, Jr. saluted and Americans saw being laid to rest in Arlington National Cemetery.
The history of Vernon O’Neal’s casket did not end that night at Bethesda when President Kennedy was transferred to a different coffin. Gawler’s Funeral Home took possession of JFK’s original casket after they placed him in the undamaged casket that their mortuary team had brought to Bethesda Naval Hospital following Kennedy’s autopsy. Whether it was as a morbid souvenir or simply due to confusion about what to do with it, Gawler’s stored JFK’s original coffin in a warehouse in Washington, D.C. In January 1964, less than two months after JFK’s burial, Vernon O’Neal submitted a bill to the federal government for $3,995 for the casket that Secret Service Agent Clint Hill ordered in Dallas and JFK was transported to Washington in.
The government felt that O’Neal’s bill was “excessive”, particularly since he had merely delivered the casket to Parkland Hospital in Dallas and had not performed any other funeral services such as embalming, chapel services or transportation of mourners. O’Neal lowered the price by $500, but the government still had an issue with the $3,495 price tag. What Vernon O’Neal actually wanted was the casket itself. O’Neal had received offers of $100,000 by parties interested in collecting and displaying the casket as a unique relic of the slain President. For the Kennedy Family – still reeling from the assassination and its aftermath – the last thing they wanted was a spectacle surrounding a bloodstained coffin that JFK had spent just a few hours in. At the family’s urging, the federal government paid O’Neal (he received $3,160 for his services on November 22, 1963) and the General Services Administration took possession of the object in 1965.
In September 1965, the House of Representatives passed a bill which required the government to preserve any objects related to the Kennedy Assassination which might contain evidentiary value. Several days later, Representative Earle Cabell from Texas sent a letter to Attorney General Nicholas Katzenbach (who had replaced Bobby Kennedy at the Justice Department a year earlier). In his letter, Congressman Cabell suggested that the casket had no value for anyone other than “the morbidly curious”. Since the Kennedy Family “did not see fit to use this particular casket in the ultimate interment of the body”, Cabell felt that it was “surplus” material owned and controlled by the federal government. To shut down those who might be “morbidly curious”, Cabell recommended that the casket “be declared the proper property of the USA and, as such and in keeping with the best interest of the country, be destroyed.”
The Kennedy Family agreed with Congressman Cabell’s sentiments and Attorney General Katzenbach ensured everyone that the casket had no evidentiary value, no good reason for display or storage, and that it was the property that the government had the right to dispose of in whichever way it sought fit. On February 18, 1966, several members of the Air Force picked the casket up from a secure building at the National Archives just a few blocks from the White House. The casket was placed in an Air Force truck and transported to Andrews Air Force Base – the very place that the casket had originally landed in Washington with President Kennedy inside of it less than three years earlier. At Andrews, the Air Force team from the 93rd Air Terminal Squadron loaded the coffin on to a C130 transport plane.
To dispose of the casket, the Air Force had decided to take it to a place that JFK had once considered being buried: the Atlantic Ocean. Kennedy loved the sea and was said to have considered being buried at sea when he died. Of course, we know that Kennedy was buried at Arlington National Cemetery instead, but for many reasons, the Atlantic Ocean was the perfect place for the disposal of the casket that had brought him back to Washington following his assassination.
The Air Force wanted to ensure the integrity of the casket and not allow it to become a souvenir by someone who happened to come across it floating in the ocean or washing up on the shore. The C130 flew about 100 miles east of Washington, D.C. and descended to about 500 feet above the water. Before taking off, the Air Force had drilled over 40 holes into the casket and filled it with three 80-pound sandbags. It was also secured inside of a wooden crate and sealed shut in a manner so that it wouldn’t break apart upon hitting the water.
At approximately 10:00 AM, the C130’s tail hatch was opened and the casket was pushed out of the aircraft. Parachutes softened its fall and the coffin began to sink instantly. The airplane circled the drop zone for about 20 minutes to make sure that the coffin didn’t resurface, but they had no reason to worry. The Air Force had chosen an area of the Atlantic that saw very little air or sea traffic, and the casket settled in about 9,000 feet of water. The Kennedy Family was relieved that they no longer had to worry about a bloody casket going on display somewhere for the “morbidly curious”.
Coincidentally, in 1999, President Kennedy’s son, John F. Kennedy, Jr. was killed when the plane he was flying crashed. After his body was recovered and identified, JFK Jr.’s remains were taken out into the Atlantic Ocean – just a few hundred miles from the drop zone of his father’s original casket – and buried at sea.