WHY THE ZAPRUDER FILM IS AUTHENTIC
Presented in Dallas on Friday, 11/20/98 by
Dr. Josiah Thompson
(As transcribed by Clint Bradford. Original file at his http://www.jfk-info.com/thomp2.htm)
Preface (by C. Bradford)
Educated at Yale, Josiah Thompson received
his Ph.D. in philosophy in 1964. In between studies, he spent
a couple of years in the Navy with Underwater Demolition Team
21. He taught at Yale and then Haverford College and rose to the
rank of Professor of Philosophy.
In 1976, he resigned his tenured professorship
to work as a private investigator in northern California, starting
his own investigations firm in 1979.
In the past twenty years, he has participated
in cases ranging from child kidnapping to white collar crime and
insurance defense. He has investigated over one hundred murder
cases, eighteen of them carrying the death penalty. His investigation
of a 1991 Virginia case persuaded then-Governor Wilder to commute
a death sentence to life-imprisonment on the eve of the scheduled
A number of his cases have garnered national
attention. He participated in the defense of Bill and Emily Harris
in the Patty Hearst kidnapping, and of Huey Newton on muthomp2.htmrder and assault charges. He also participated
in the successfuldefense of Chol Soo Lee on murder charges (an
ABC-TV "20/20" segment and basis for the film, "True
Believer"), and was defense investigator for attorney Stephen
Bingham (acquitted on five counts of murder in the "San Quentin
Six" case). His most recent high-profile cases include being
investigator for Timothy McVeigh in the Oklahoma bombing trial
and investigating the bombing of environmental activists Judi
Bari and Darryl Cherney.
His hardcover 1967 and paperback 1976
publications of Six Seconds in Dallas - A Micro-Study of the Kennedy
Assassination live up to their sub-titles' promise: "Six
Seconds in Dallas is infuriating," reviewed the Los Angeles
Times, "for it suggests the kind of analytical study the
Warren Commission failed even to attempt." His 1988 book,
Gumshoe: Reflections in a Private Eye, has been called "the
best book ever written about the life of the private eye."
The text below covers several points
raised in the "Zapruder alteration" debate. Dr. Thompson
walks us through what devious persons would have thought if they
decided to undertake the alteration of the Zapruder film. Then
he provides us with a "Zapruder Film Possession Timeline."
He next debunks two re-hashed assertions that were recently published
in James Fetzer's "Assassination Science" - first, that
the NPIC possessed the Zapruder film on November 22, 1963, and
second, Fetzer's tendency to pull facts out of context from others'
works to suit his needs - and forsake the original authors' intent.
- Clint Bradford, 11/24/98
Question from panel Chairperson
DR. THOMPSON: Before turning to the Zapruder film in particular,
I want to situate it under a more general horizon.
If altered, the Zapruder film would be an example of a more
general phenomenon: the alteration of physical evidence by the
authorities in a criminal case. Yes, it does happen. Not often.
In fact, it's almost unique. In over twenty years of experience
as a criminal investigator, I've seen it happen only once or twice.
But it does happen. In fact, right now I have a death-penalty
case where I think it happened. Let me tell you about it.
[Here follows a brief description of the possible substitution
of a cartridge case by the investigating officer in a murder case.]
Whether or not a substitution was made in this case is not
the point. What is the point is the considerations that would
make such a substitution plausible, that would make someone even
try it: Note first that the crime scene cartridge case was in
the custody of the person carrying out the substitution. Note
second that, since the cartridge case was linked to no other evidence
in the case, once the substitution was made there was no way for
it to be discovered. Note third that the person who substituted
the cartridge case knew exactly what he had to prove by the substitution.
Now let's try on another hypothetical example for size. Let's
say that a particular letter is found at a crime scene. Let's
say that that letter was the output of a computer at a remote
location. Let's also say that the investigating officer had some
incentive to change the wording in the letter. If you were that
investigating officer, what questions would you ask yourself?
Wouldn't you first ask whether there were other copies of the
letter? Had the writer kept a copy in a safe place or given it
to someone else? Was the text of the letter kept on the computer?
Even if it had been deleted from the hard drive of the computer,
was there a backup somewhere? The alteration of evidence in a
criminal case is a desperate act. Would you take that chance if
you knew that irrefutable evidence of the alteration might turn
up somewhere else? And how could you ever be sure?
Now let's take a photograph of a crime. First, you'd have to
know exactly how you wanted to alter it. Secondly, you'd have
to be sure no other copies - no negative hidden away, no second
copy residing in someone else's possession - existed. Thirdly,
you'd have to be sure that no other photographs taken by anyone
else later would surface to expose the alteration.
With these considerations in mind, consider whether you
would undertake to alter the Zapruder film. First, you'd have
to know exactly what you wanted to show in your alteration. Second,
since the film in question was a movie, you might very well have
to alter not just one frame, not just one sequence of frames,
but many. Thirdly, what about the other films? At least
thirty-eight people were taking pictures that day in Dealey Plaza.
At the very least, the Muchmore and Nix films also would have
to be altered. The Muchmore film was purchased by UPI on Monday,
November 25th, and shown the following day on WNEW-TV in New York
City. On Friday, November 29th, the Nix film was also purchased
by UPI and shown the next week in theater newsreels.
But the critical problem for anyone thinking of altering the
Zapruder film is not the Muchmore and Nix films. It is all the
other films you don't know about - films developed outside Dallas
by people from out-of-state who just happened by...or by foreign
tourists who would get their films developed in their home countries.
Any one of these unknown films could expose your alteration.
If one sat down for a long, long time it would be difficult
to come up with a situation where alteration was more unlikely
than in a film of the assassination of President Kennedy - a murder
occurring at noon in a public square in front of hundreds of witnesses,
an unknown number of whom were taking photographs of it.
Unlikely? Yes. Foolhardy? Yes. Impossible? No.
What makes it impossible is the actual provenance of the film
itself. Recall above the example which showed the foolhardiness
of faking a letter if you were not in possession of all the copies.
This situation is repeated with respect to the Zapruder film.
For a minute, come along with me as we plot Zapruder and his film's
movements over that crucial weekend thirty-five years ago...
NOVEMBER 22, 1963
Abraham Zapruder arrives at the offices of Jennifer Juniors. Marilyn
Sitzman and Lillian Rogers persuade him to retrieve his 8 mm.
movie camera from his home.
Zapruder returns to his office after retrieving his camera.
Zapruder films the assassination from a pedestal in Dealey Plaza.
Zapruder returns to his office and locks the camera in his safe.
Reporter Harry McCormick takes Secret Service Agent Forrest Sorrels
to Zapruder's office. Emotionally upset, Zapruder agrees to furnish
Sorrels with a copy of his film - if Sorrels will agree that the
copy is only for use by the Secret Service and that it would not
be shown or given to any media. Sorrels agrees.
Together with Zapruder's partner, Irwin Schwartz, Sorrels, McCormick
and Zapruder drive to Dallas Morning News. Since they can't process
the film, they walk to WFAA-TV. Zapruder is interviewed live;
Schwartz is photographed with the camera.
A police car takes Sorrels, Schwartz, Zapruder and McCormick to
the Kodak plant. Zapruder makes arrangements for the processing
of the film. Phil Willis meets Sorrels at the Kodak plant and
also agrees to furnish the Secret Service with copies of his 35
mm. slides. Sorrels gets a phone call and leaves for Dallas Police
3:15 pm (est.)
The processed film is shown to fifteen to eighteen people. To
have copies made, Zapruder must take camera original to Jamieson
4:00 pm (est.)
Zapruder has three (3) copies made by the Jamieson Company. He
requests affidavit that no more copies were made.
4:30 pm (est.)
Zapruder returns to Kodak plant with the original and three (3)
copies. He has the three (3) copies processed and requests affidavits
from Kodak personnel that only three (3) copies were processed.
Richard Stolley and Tommy Thompson of LIFE fly in from Los Angeles.
LIFE stringers Patsy Swank and Holland McCombs learn that Zapruder
has film of the assassination. Forrest Sorrels receives two of
the three first generation copies and assures Zapruder they will
be used only for official purposes by the Secret Service.
Stolley sets up offices in the Adolphus Hotel and begins calling
Zapruder's home at fifteen minute intervals. Zapruder, shaken
by the day's events, drives aimlessly around Dallas.
Secret Service Agent Max Phillips sends one of the two copies
to Secret Service Chief Rowley in Washington, D.C. In an accompanying
note, Phillips says that "Mr. Zapruder is in custody of the
Stolley reaches Zapruder at home and asks to come out and view
the film. Zapruder declines. They agree to meet the next morning
at 9:00am at Zapruder's office.
Stolley is waiting at Zapruder's office when Zapruder arrives.
The film is screened for Stolley. Stolley agrees that LIFE will
pay Zapruder $50,000 in two installments for print rights to the
film. Stolley leaves with the original and perhaps the remaining
copy. The original is sent to Chicago where the LIFE editorial
staff has assembled to prepare the new issue to be on the newsstands
the following Tuesday, November 26th. During the preparation of
black and white copies, the original is broken in several places
by photo technicians. Splices are made.
At some time this weekend, a copy of the film is sent to New
York where it is viewed by C.D. Jackson, publisher of LIFE. Jackson
decides to acquire all rights to the film and so instructs Stolley.
Since copies cannot be made in Dallas, Gordon Shanklin, FBI SAIC
in Dallas, is instructed to send the copy the FBI obtained from
Sorrels by commercial flight to Washington, D.C. Shanklin does
so, at the same time requesting that the FBI Lab make three, second-generation
copies, one for Washington and two for the Dallas Field Office.
Zapruder may have screened the film for Forrest Sorrels and
other law enforcement agents.
Stolley meets with Zapruder in the offices of Zapruder's lawyer.
The negotiations end with LIFE purchasing world-wide rights to
the film for $150,000.
During these negotiations, Dan Rather is shown the film. He
neglects to make an immediate bid but elects to check with New
York first. During a radio broadcast with Richard C. Hottelet
and Hughes Rudd, Rather describes the film which he has "just
returned from seeing." Later that day, Rather describes his
viewing of the film on the CBS Evening News. Rather could only
have seen this film at this time if Zapruder had retained one
copy and provided Stolley with only the original the previous
LIFE begins newsstand distribution of the November 29th issue.
At the same time, various LIFE editors order up prints of the
film for viewing in their offices. I was shown one of these in
October 1966. Since control was lax, bootleg copies began to circulate.
What emerges from this chronology is a single important fact: At no time during this hectic weekend did the original of the
film ever leave the custody and control of Abraham Zapruder and
LIFE magazine. Two first-generation copies were provided to
Forrest Sorrels of the Secret Service in the late afternoon of
November 22nd . One of these copies was shipped to Washington
that night. The other was turned over to the FBI and sent by commercial
air to Washington the next day. But the original stayed with Zapruder
until the morning of November 23rd when Dick Stolley walked out
of Zapruder's office with it under his arm. That original remained
under LIFE's custody and control until it was given back to Zapruder's
family in the 1970s.
But how do we know that LIFE did not conspire in the alteration
of the film? As it is impossible to prove any negative, so
it is impossible to prove this negative. But there is no shred
of evidence that it happened. On Monday, November 25th, many millions
of LIFE magazine copies went into the mails to subscribers with
black and white frames from the film, and, about the same time,
copies of the film began appearing in editors' offices. Had the
conspiratorial alteration of the film by LIFE and the government
already taken place? If not, it would have been too late. With
unknown copies floating around, the toothpaste could no longer
have been put back in the tube.
Recently, another thread in the fabric has become visible.
On Saturday morning, November 23rd, 1963, Zapruder sold just print
rights to LIFE for $50,000. Other media were clamoring at Zapruder's
heels, and two days later he sold additional rights to LIFE for
$100,000 more. Are we to believe that Zapruder - always a shrewd
businessman - had let Stolley walk out of his office with both
the original and the last first- generation copy? How would Zapruder
be able to negotiate with the media for the remaining rights to
Had he given up his last copy of the film, then Dan Rather
could not have viewed the film in the offices of Zapruder's lawyer
on the morning of November 25th. Had he given up the last copy
of his film, he could not have shown the film numerous times to
Forrest Sorrels and others over that weekend.
Recently, a new fact has come to light via the inquiries of
the AARB. Their report disclosed that "...the Zapruder family's
company possessed a third, first-generation copy of the Zapruder
film." If Zapruder retained a first-generation copy of the
film, then there was no time ever when the toothpaste could have
been put back in the tube. You say that Zapruder and LIFE could
both have cooperated with the government in the alteration of
the film? You can say this if you will. You can believe it, I
suppose... But I can't. I think it's silly.
At this conference two years ago, Professor James Fetzer declared
that a "historical turning point" had been reached:
The alteration of the Zapruder film had been proven! When my colleague
here, Hal Verb, had the temerity to disagree, the Professor told
him he was "irrational." When earlier this year, I had
the temerity to disagree, I was told by the Professor that "...you
have thereby discredited yourself as a commentator on these matters."
Well, Professor Fetzer is a commentator here today and you
will be able to judge his commentary. But since he is here, I
want to close by taking up two of his contentions. First, that
the original of the Zapruder film was sent to the National Photographic
Interpretation Center on the evening of November 22nd. Second,
that famed eyewitness identification expert Elizabeth Loftus has
produced findings showing that salient details of events are remembered
with 98% accuracy and completeness.
In a recent email to me, Professor Fetzer wrote:
"A study that appears in ASSASSINATION SCIENCE [states
that] the film appears to have been in the hands of the National
Photographic Interpretation Center run by the CIA already Friday
night, where an original and three copies were struck and then
returned to Dallas in time for a small group of reporters, including
Dan Rather, to view the film in a preliminarily-edited version."
The study referred to is by Mike Pincher and Roy L. Schaeffer.
These writers manufacture out of whole cloth a flight of "at
least the original and one copy" from Dallas to Andrews Air
Force Base on the night of the 22nd and a return flight of the
altered film to Dallas in the early morning hours of November
23rd. They do this without a single fact to support their fancy.
They even cite the Max Phillips note (quoted above), but never
tell the reader that Phillips also pointed out that "Mr.
Zapruder is in custody of the 'master' [read 'original'] film."
They - and apparently Professor Fetzer - have simply misinterpreted
the so-called "CIA 450 Documents" discovered by Paul
Hoch in the early 1980s. These documents recount the preparation
of four photo briefing boards for government officials based upon
NPIC's analysis of the film. The question at issue is the timing
of the shots. The selection of frames for the briefing boards
makes clear that NPIC is looking at the same film we see today.
Telltale information is found on page six of the documents
which refer to the December 6, 1963 issue of LIFE. Hence, the
examination was carried out not on November 22nd - but sometime
in December 1963. The copy of the film analyzed was the Secret
Service copy, whose agents stayed with the film while the briefing
boards were prepared. AARB located and interviewed two former
employees of NPIC who stated that internegatives were made of
only single frames to be mounted on briefing boards and that they
never "reproduced the film as a motion picture."
Professor Fetzer makes his second claim in his own recognizable
style. He wrote to me:
"On Table 3.1 of Elizabeth Loftus, EYEWITNESS TESTIMONY,
appears a summary of research with 151 subjects which reports
that, when a group of subjects considered what they were observing
to be salient or significant, they were 98% accurate and 98% complete
with respect to their observations, which reinforces their importance
as evidence. Even though you appear to accept the widely-held
belief that eyewitness testimony is unreliable, Loftus' findings
provide one more striking indication that opinions that are popular
are not always true.
"Indeed, to think that a view must be true because
it is widespread is to commit the FALLACY OF POPULAR SENTIMENTS...
While you have cited an appropriate expert in Elizabeth Loftus,
you have misrepresented her findings concerning eyewitness testimony
in relation to the assassination of JFK... Indeed, David [Mantik]
offers a calculation that, whenever dozens of witnesses all recall
an event...in the same way then they are almost certainly correct.
If a single witness has a 2% chance of being wrong, then if all
ten witnesses report the same event, the probability they are
all wrong is 02 to the 10th power or 10 to the minus 17th, which
There are so many errors in these few lines that it is difficult
to know where to begin.
First of all, these are not Elizabeth Loftus' findings, but
the account of an experiment published in the Harvard Law Review
by Marshall, et al. entitled, "Effects of Kind of Question
and Atmosphere of Interrogation on Accuracy and Completeness of
Testimony." The focus of the study is not "salience"
or "accuracy" or "completeness" - but, rather,
methods of interrogation. Elizabeth Loftus cited the study in
her book - but these are not "her findings."
Had Professor Fetzer taken the trouble to look at the article
he cites, he would have recognized that the "salient items"
were not picked out by the people tested in the experiment, but
by staff members and high school students. Hence, he misspeaks
in saying, "...when a group of subjects considered what they
were observing to be salient or significant, they were 98% accurate
and 98% complete with respect to their observations."
It is Professor Fetzer's practice to ascribe nonsensical views
to people and then criticize them for holding them. Likewise here.
The Professor ascribes to me the silly idea that "...a view
must be true because it is widespread." Then he exposes me
as having committed "the fallacy of popular sentiments"
for holding such a silly idea. This isn't argument. It's just
Then there is Professor Fetzer's claim that I have "misrepresented"
Elizabeth Loftus' findings with respect to the Kennedy assassination.
It is not only I who "accepts the widely-held belief that
eyewitness testimony is unreliable," it is also Elizabeth
Loftus. In fact, it is precisely her work which brought about
this "widely-held belief." The cover of Eyewitness Testimony
states that the book "...makes the psychological case against
the reliability of the eyewitness."
This is the book's single, unifying theme. Eyewitness testimony
is both unreliable at its inception and subject to corruption
by later acquired information and questioning.
Since I'd worked with Elizabeth Loftus on two cases (most recently
the Oklahoma City bombing case), I asked her what she thought
of the use the Harvard Law article had been put to by David Mantik
and Professor Fetzer. She wrote back:
"It is fair to say that salient details are remembered
better than peripheral ones. Also, it is easier to mislead people
about peripheral details.
"It is WRONG [her emphasis], however, to say anything
like 98% of salient details are accurately remembered. If that
was shown in the Marshall case, it is only with those subjects,
with that stimulus material, in that study. We virtually never
make claims about absolute percentages because the real percentages
in any situation depend on so many other factors."
So much for my alleged misinterpretation of her views.
Next is Professor Fetzer's quotation of a statistical error
by David Mantik. Here, as in so many other things, he wraps himself
in David Mantik's skirts. But David Mantik is mistaken when he
"If a single witness has a 2% chance of being wrong,
then if all ten witnesses report the same event, the probability
they are all wrong is .02 to the 10th power or 10 to the minus
17th, which equals .00000000000000001!"
They both got it wrong. As Art Snyder will be able to explain
to you, they confused a Type I Probability (false negative) with
a Type II Probability (false positive). I am sure Professor Fetzer
will go on for hours in argument with Art Snyder about this. As
for me, I know zip about probability theory and find the important
point to be Elizabeth Loftus' "...it's wrong to say anything
like 98% of salient details are accurately remembered."
You may wonder why I've taken the time to attack Professor
Fetzer here. It is because he expresses a trend in assassination
research which I find odious.
His emphasis on credentials and the cult of expertise (or alleged
expertise) is demeaning to the tradition of inquiry we all share
as a community. When the final history of this case is written
it will be based on the canons of acute historical research. These
canons have nothing to do with how many initials you can hang
after your name or how often you're called "distinguished."
They have to do with the evidence you put forward for your
view and the reasonableness of the interpretations you hang on
that evidence. That's what Sylvia Meagher and I believed when
we started working together in the 60s. It was a long time ago
in virtually another country. It was 1965... 66... 67, and here
and there people were beginning to distrust what they'd been told.
There was Mary Ferrell in Dallas, Penn Jones just outside Dallas,
Sylvia Meagher in New York City, Paul Hoch in Berkeley, Cyril
Wecht in Pittsburgh, Vince Salandria in Philadelphia, Harold Weisberg
in Maryland, Ray Marcus and David Lifton in Los Angeles... and
many, many more. A housewife, a lawyer for the school board,
the editor of a small paper, a graduate student, a young professor,
a WHO official. We were little people. People who had only
a few things in common -- inquiring minds, an unwillingness to
be intimidated by public attitudes, more than a little tenacity,
a bit of modesty and a willingness to laugh at oneself. None of
us had any money or hoped to make any money out of this. We were
doing it for its own sake. We formed a community... the closest
thing to a true community of inquiry that I've ever known.
We shared information on a transcontinental basis. I still
remember the excitement with which Vince Salandria and I received
our copy of the Sibert-O'Neill Report from Paul Hoch! None of
us gave a damn for credentials because - as we put it - "There
are no Ph.Ds in assassination research."
Back then - with the might and majesty of the federal government
aligned with the news media in defense of the Warren Report -
performing assassination research was somewhat like doing research
on UFOs. It was not respectable. And so we formed our own community
and helped with each others' research and critiqued each others'
drafts. It's that community which still stands in my mind's eye
as the ideal - and it's that community to which I owe my loyalty.
That community lies at the farthest remove from "Assassination
Science" and its promoter.
Josiah Thompson, 11/98