Fifty Years Later, Mystery Shrouds Questions Regarding the Whereabouts of JFK’s Brain

A new book by James L. Swanson details the legacy of JFK, the life of his accused killer, and the lingering theories about what happened in the days after his death.

Photo via Associated Press

Photo via Associated Press

Best-selling author and presidential assassination expert James Swanson—he’s written books about both Lincoln and John F. Kennedy—thinks that, on the 50th anniversary of the death of country’s 35th president, people should focus less on the actual incident and more on the legacy that was left behind.

“What really happened that day is that a wife lost her husband, two little kids lost their father, and America lost its president. And we have lost touch with the meaning of that,” said Swanson. “I think it’s very important that we not remember November 22 as Lee Harvey Oswald Day, or just as assassination day—we should use it to remember the real John Kennedy and his life.”

Swanson also happens to think it’s important that people know about Kennedy’s brain disappearing prior to his funeral.

The president’s legacy (and whereabouts of his brain) are all detailed in Swanson’s latest book, End of Days: The Assassination of John F. Kennedy, a true-crime thriller that explores his relationship with Jackie Kennedy Onassis and what America could have been like if Oswald didn’t pull the trigger 50 years ago today.

“I created an hour-by-hour, moment-by-moment—sometimes a second-by-second—account of the last days of Lee Harvey Oswald and John F. Kennedy,” he said.

Here, Swanson talked to us about all of that, and how he debunks the conspiracy theories that often overshadow one of the greatest American presidents of our time.

Part of your book claims that JFK’s brain was stolen before his burial, and that it’s still missing. What’s the deal with that theory?

There is no doubt whatsoever that President Kennedy was buried without his brain. The government records and reports prove that that is so. After autopsy, the brain was placed in a stainless steel cylinder with a screw-top lid. Then the brain was stored in a Secret Service locked file cabinet in the Executive Office of the President. Then—it’s truly bizarre—I almost hate that this is true, because the Kennedy assassination has been so marred by myths, false stories, wild conspiracy tales, that the story of the missing brain seems to feed into that. It can’t be denied the brain is missing.

So it’s still gone?

After it was stored in the locked cabinet in the Executive Office of the President, it was transferred to a room at the National Archives, where Evelyn Lincoln, JFK’s former personal secretary, was working to organize his personal papers and artifacts. Not only was the brain there, but in a foot locker that contained the brain, there was placed also dozens of medical glass slides from the autopsy, tissues samples, blood samples, and bone fragments. Then, it was discovered, of all days, on Halloween of 1966, that not only the brain, but the entire locker and autopsy materials had vanished. And those materials have never been seen since. We have no idea where they are. What is not known with certainty is who took the brain and the other medical materials and why. Based on everything that I have studied, I do have an opinion on who took the brain, and why.

And who is that?

Robert Kennedy. And aided by his secretary. Now, I do not believe that he took the brain as part of a conspiracy to conceal hidden evidence of the assassination. Some conspiracy theorists argue that the brain was stolen to conceal evidence that the president was also shot from the front [of the head]. That is not true. The president was not shot from the front. He was also not shot by anyone on the grassy knoll. There would have been no reason for Robert Kennedy to conceal evidence of a frontal wound because there was no frontal wound.

If not to cover up a conspiracy, why would he take his brother’s brain?

To preserve his brother’s legacy, and image, and legend. John F. Kennedy was very sick through much of his life. He was in great pain, he was taking multiple medications. That was never known to the American people. The true state of his health had always been concealed from the American people.

Why would he lie about his health?

JFK presented this image of vigor and health. It’s possible that if the American people knew the true extent of JFK’s medical problems, he might not have been elected president in 1963. For political reasons, JFK decided the explosive knowledge of the true state of his health needed to be kept from the American people. I believe what Robert was doing with the removal of these medical materials and autopsy materials was simply an attempt to preserve the false image of health that JFK had presented to the American people.

Like you said, a missing brain plot-twist has probably led to some conspiracy theories about why it disappeared. But do you think access to the brain would tell historians more about JFK’s life and death?

Access to the brain would tell us nothing more than we already know. Historians have pierced the veil about his medical health and issues. The rediscovery of the missing brain and materials would not be a smoking gun that would reveal unknown secrets. We would learn no secrets. They would not reveal hitherto unknown secrets.

If it holds no big secrets, why is it still missing? Where do you think it is?

I don’t know. I don’t know. Some people think that [Robert Kennedy] placed the cylinder next to the coffin [when the grave was opened in the 1960s]. But there was no photographic evidence that documents that. He was not seen carrying a cylinder. It’s mere speculation by some. And if, in fact, he did return the metal cylinder, it doesn’t explain what happened to the dozens of glass slides—the tissues samples, the blood samples, the bone fragments. I really don’t know. It’s a great mystery what happened to these materials.

But there was definitely no conspiracy.

It’s completely well documented. There is no doubt whatsoever that JFK was buried without his brain. It’s simply a fact that the brain and other autopsy materials were found missing from the National Archives. The facts indicate it’s true.

That’s not the only conspiracy that has been floated in the last 50 years. What’s your take on other theories about the day of his assassination?

What’s far more disturbing [than the missing brain theories] is people still believe in these other conspiracy theories about that day. They range from the grassy knoll to a second Oswald imposter being there. Many of these theories are in complete and utter conflict with each other; to this day, no one has proven with real, hard evidence that any of these are true. What is known is that dozens of facts and pieces of evidence all point to Lee Harvey Oswald. The tragic thing about the conspiracy theories is this: They have distracted us from what really happened on November 22. They have distracted us from the human emotion and sadness and tragedy of that day. He was a great patriot who believed with every fiber of being that American greatness and in American exceptionalism. He would have been horrified at how the 1960s turned out between his death in 1963 and the end of the decade.

How do you think things could have been different for America if he weren’t murdered?

We will never know what would have happened if John Kennedy had lived. Would there have been riots in the cities? Would there have been racial unrest? Would there have been war protests? Would Martin Luther King have been assassinated? Would his brother Robert Kennedy have been assassinated? We just don’t know. That’s one of the big frustrations about that day. The what if. What would he have done with the rest of his presidency? Would America have been better if JFK had lived? I’m convinced it would have been. But it’s hard to know specifically.

You said it’s important that people remember that day for more than the assassination. One of the things that’s common and we have heard a lot is that something like this, people remember detail-by-detail what they were doing that day, 50 years later. Why do people capture that so well?

The assassination of John Kennedy was the most tragic event in American history since the murder of Abraham Lincoln. That’s the reason why it was seared into the memory of the American people. They couldn’t believe that something so terrible had happened, and it was the first mass media event—the first American tragedy that the electronic mass media was able to unite the entire nation. The news swept across the country in less than hour. It was a stunning blow. It was a moment of instantaneous change. It sent people into a depression of unprecedented mourning and sadness that we had not seen since the murder of Abraham Lincoln. That’s why people remember where they were, that’s why people know what they were doing, and why families pass these stories down from generation to generation.