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The assassination of President John F. Kennedy in Dallas, Texas was indeed a national tragedy. but it also prompted years of speculation and investigation as to what actually happened that day in November of 1963, and who may have been involved. An official investigation headed by Chief Supreme Court Justice Earl Warren attempted to collect enough eyewitness testimony and forensic evidence to piece together the events surrounding the president's assassination. One controversial theory which supported the premise of a lone gunman was deemed the "single bullet theory", although those who believe there was a conspiracy called it the "magic bullet" theory.
According to most eyewitnesses to the shooting, there were three bullets fired at the president's open-air limousine. Under the lone gunman premise, the shooter, a man named Lee Harvey Oswald, fired all three of those shots from the sixth floor of a book depository building. It is believed that the first shot missed the president's car entirely, striking the pavement instead. Some occupants of the vehicle, however, testified that all three bullets struck at least one person. The Warren commission eventually concluded that the first shot did not cause any significant damage or injury.
In order to understand the single bullet theory, it may help to discuss the third bullet next. As President Kennedy and Texas governor John Connally lay slumped over from their injuries, a third shot struck Kennedy in the head and essentially exploded. The third shot was the fatal one, causing significant brain damage and blood loss. Despite the best efforts of the doctors at Parkland hospital, President Kennedy died within an hour of the shooting. Governor Connally did recover from his injuries, and was a vital eyewitness for the Warren Commission.
It was the second shot, however, which formed the basis of the "single bullet" or "magic bullet" theory. When Governor Connally was wheeled into emergency surgery, an orderly discovered a bullet on the gurney. It was widely assumed that this bullet had fallen out of Connally's thigh when he was transferred to the surgical table. This fully jacketed rifle bullet, in relatively pristine condition, was believed to the second shot fired at the president's vehicle. If Oswald had acted alone and there were only three shots fired from a single rifle, then this single bullet was responsible for a large number of injuries to both Kennedy and Connally.
According to the single bullet theory, Oswald's second shot must have pierced several layers of Kennedy's jacket, which was known to be bunched up around his neck moments before the shooting. This bullet went through the back of Kennedy's neck and exited near his trachea. In the famous Zapruder footage of the assassination, Kennedy can be seen clutching both hands at his throat. The bullet began to tumble, and entered Connally's back at a sideways angle.
Continuing with the single bullet theory, this bullet struck the tip of one of Connally's ribs, virtually shattering it. It still had enough energy to exit Connally's chest and smash through the bones and skin of Connally's wrist. Finally, this second shot superficially penetrated Connally's left thigh, where it remained lodged until it fell onto the gurney at Parkland. When the bullet was examined by experts, it had no signs of human blood, tissue or bone on it. The bullet was only slightly deformed on the butt end, but the tip of the bullet was remarkably intact and the rifling marks were undamaged.
Because many people found it unlikely that a single bullet could do all of that damage to skin, fabric and bone and still remain relatively pristine, the Warren Commission's single bullet theory generated a significant amount of debate. Some dubbed it a "magic bullet," since it would have had to perform a number of changes in direction in order to cause all of the injuries. Only by recreating the relative positions of Kennedy and Connally could the single bullet theory be proven plausible. Indeed, experts did conduct scientific recreations which proved that a bullet fired from above and behind the president's limousine could have passed through Kennedy's soft tissues with enough power to cause all of Connally's injuries.
There are critics who say the bullet found under Connally's body may have been from a completely different incident earlier that same day. The orderly who found the bullet could not be certain if the gurney had been thoroughly inspected and cleaned before Connally's arrival. Connally did testify that he saw a nurse place the bullet in her pocket shortly before his surgery. It is possible that the bullet received by the FBI was not the one recovered by the nurse in the emergency room. The total weight of the intact bullet combined with the weight of fragments discovered in Kennedy and Connally's bodies also came into question. The "magic bullet" would have been significantly heavier than the other bullets found in Oswald's sniper nest.
The single bullet theory has been investigated many times in the years following President Kennedy's assassination. Some studies demonstrated that the single bullet theory was plausible under the right set of circumstances, while others suggested that at least one more shot would have been required to cause all of the injuries. If Oswald was only able to fire off three rounds in the estimated 5.6 seconds of the attack, then a fourth bullet would suggest at least a conspiracy if not the presence of a second unknown gunman. In order for the single bullet theory to remain viable, there could only have been three shots fired by a lone gunman positioned above and behind the motorcade.
The debate over "magic bullets" and additional gunmen could continue for the foreseeable future, but the single bullet theory continues to be the official explanation for the non-fatal injuries suffered by Kennedy and Connally on that fateful day in November of 1963.
Frequently Asked Questions
What is the Single Bullet Theory in relation to the JFK assassination?
The Single Bullet Theory, also known as the "magic bullet theory," posits that a single bullet fired by Lee Harvey Oswald from the Texas School Book Depository caused all the non-fatal wounds to President John F. Kennedy and Governor John Connally. According to the Warren Commission, this theory suggests that the bullet entered Kennedy's upper back, exited through his throat, and then proceeded to hit Connally, causing multiple injuries. This theory is central to the conclusion that Oswald acted alone.
Why is the Single Bullet Theory controversial?
The Single Bullet Theory is controversial because it suggests a nearly straight-line trajectory through two bodies, with the bullet emerging in near-pristine condition. Critics argue that the bullet's trajectory and condition after inflicting multiple wounds are implausible. Additionally, some eyewitness accounts and forensic evidence have been interpreted as inconsistent with the theory, fueling ongoing debate and numerous conspiracy theories about the assassination.
How does the Single Bullet Theory explain the wounds to both Kennedy and Connally?
According to the Single Bullet Theory, the 6.5 mm copper-jacketed bullet entered President Kennedy's upper back, exited his throat, and then struck Governor Connally, who was seated in front of Kennedy. The bullet is theorized to have broken one of Connally's ribs, exited his chest, entered his wrist, and finally lodged in his thigh. This explanation is intended to account for the timing of the shots and the visible reactions of both men in the Zapruder film.
What evidence supports the Single Bullet Theory?
Evidence supporting the Single Bullet Theory includes the Zapruder film, which shows the timing of the reactions of Kennedy and Connally to their wounds, suggesting they were hit nearly simultaneously. Additionally, the bullet found on Connally's stretcher at Parkland Hospital, known as Commission Exhibit 399, is cited as supporting evidence due to its relatively undamaged condition, which some experts argue indicates a low-velocity impact consistent with passing through two bodies.
Have any official investigations endorsed the Single Bullet Theory?
Yes, the Single Bullet Theory was endorsed by the Warren Commission, the official government body that investigated the assassination of President Kennedy in 1964. The Commission concluded that the evidence supported the theory that a single bullet caused the non-fatal wounds to both Kennedy and Connally, which was a key element in their finding that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone. Subsequent investigations, including those by the House Select Committee on Assassinations, have also accepted aspects of the theory.