Friday, 01 April 2016 15:38

John Lattimer Never Quit: The Thorburn Business

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Milicent Cranor debunks the "Thorburn" position invoked by Lattimer to explain JFK's movement at Z313.

(A longer version of this article was published several years ago.)

The location of Kennedy’s back wound is a major obstacle for the Single Bullet Theory (SBT). It is the first of several dots that needed to be connected – all at a downward angle: (1) the alleged sniper’s nest, (2) the back wound, (3) the throat wound, (4) Governor’s Connally’s back wound (the exit in the front is not questioned), and (5) his wrist wound.

Shall I burden the SBT with yet one more dot? (6) The little fragment that ended up in Connally’s thigh not far beneath the skin – and the mysteriously large, 10 mm, round, corresponding hole in his pant leg.

The back wound was just too low. If the bullet actually went through JFK’s torso and exited his throat – it would have done so at an upward angle. For that bullet to have reached Connally’s pants, he would need to have lifted his leg rather high in the air, above his seat.

I doubt that even John Lattimer could have found a way to show that on the Zapruder film. (But who knows what went on when the president’s car went behind the Stemmons sign? Maybe Dale Myers could do another study, proving that Connally did raise his leg high above the seat while the car was out of sight.)

Lattimer found a way to raise Kennedy’s back wound, up, up, up – all the way to the sixth cervical vertebra (C-6), a tremendous feat.

In 1977, he published a paper (1) in which he claimed the movements of Kennedy’s arms and hands – he seems to be trying to grab his throat – are symptoms of damage at the C-6 level. To give this paper more authority, he put the names of two other prominent doctors on it: Edward Schlesinger, a neurosurgeon, and H. Houston Merritt, a neurologist. He wrote:

"The precision with which the signs of a spinal cord lesion fit with the other evidence (loose fragments) that the tip of the transverse process of C-6 (not C-5 or C-7) had been struck by the bullet ... " (p. 287)

To prove it, the authors cited a nineteenth century paper (2) on a patient treated by neurologist William Thorburn, a patient who fell backwards, and was found with his arms in a strange, unnatural position, a position that was, presumably, similar to Kennedy’s. The paper was illustrated with an elegant drawing of the Thorburn patient. Lattimer’s caption read:

“Fig. 4. Illustration from William Thorburn's original article ... showing the peculiar position assumed by the elbows immediately after an injury at the level of C-6 ... ”

Years later, the back wound apparently moved downward a bit. In his 1993 paper (3) in the Journal of the AMA, Lattimer repeats some of his earlier claims, but instead of asserting the lesion was at the C-6 level, he said it was in “a vertebra in the lower portion of his neck.” But he continued to make false statements in comparing Kennedy to the Thorburn patient.

“Finally, by frame 236, President Kennedy has assumed the reflex position illustrated by Thorburn almost 100 years ago ... ” (p. 1545)

But Thorburn wrote of his patient,

“ ... the elbows were flexed, the shoulder abducted and rotated outward, and the hands and arms fell into the position indicated in the annexed engraving ... ” (p. 511).

According to the Zapruder film, Kennedy’s shoulders were never abducted (rotated outward). They were adducted (rotated inward)

There are several things wrong with this paper:

  • Kennedy’s arms were never in the position of the Thorburn patient.
  • Dr. Thorburn never said his patient’s elbows were in this position “immediately” after the injury. The patient was not brought to him until four days after the accident. He was not moving his arms and hands. They were locked into that position. If anyone saw his immediate reaction, it was not reported.
  • There is no rigorous treatment of how Kennedy’s allegedly reflexive movements were distinguished from voluntary ones.
  • How much can be determined from just a few frames on a film?
  • As is typical of all of Lattimer’s papers, he presents comments to support the government approved narrative with inappropriate certainty.

I called Dr. Schlesinger and questioned him. At first he made a half-hearted attempt to defend the paper. But as I persisted in pointing out the glaring discrepancies – he suddenly confessed he had never even seen the Zapruder film. Nor had he read the paper that Lattimer had finally published. (This isn’t especially suspicious or unusual. Doctors have put my own name on papers that I have not read. But it was a great mistake to trust a doctor like John Lattimer.) The following comments reveal the depth of his involvement:

“I've never seen it (the Zapruder film) ... I had conversations with Dr. Lattimer about it and told him to look into the Thorburn business ... I wasn't consulted when it was written ... when he wrote a paper about it, I found that it was neurologically unsophisticated, and so I told him about the possibilities ... ” (Schlesinger, 1995)

Dr. Schlesinger gave me one last bit of information. It concerned the distinguished neurologist, H. Houston Merritt, M.D., whose name was also on the paper:

“And Merritt had nothing to do with it. Nothing.” (Schlesinger, 1995)

I described this interview to Dr. Richard A.R. Fraser, a neurosurgeon who was at the New York Hospital - Cornell Center. He listened to the tape, recognized the voice of his old friend and colleague, and called him up to discuss it. Dr. Schlesinger confessed to him that when I called, he was in his backyard having a cocktail. Apparently, he felt foolish.


  1. Lattimer, J.K., Schlesinger, E.B., Merritt, H.H. (1977) “President Kennedy's spine hit by first bullet.” Bulletin of the New York Academy of Medicine 53, pp. 281-291.
  2. Thorburn W. (1886-1887) “Cases of injury to the cervical region of the spinal cord. Case I-Fracture-dislocation between the Fifth and Sixth Cervical Vertebrae – Complete Paralysis of all Nerves below the Fifth Cervical – Death.” Brain 9, pp. 510-543.
  3. Lattimer, J.K. (1993) “Additional data on the shooting of President Kennedy.” Journal of the American Medical Association 269 (12), pp. 1544-1547.
Last modified on Saturday, 29 October 2016 17:06
Milicent Cranor

Milicent Cranor is currently a senior editor at She has been a creative editor at E.P. Dutton (fiction, non fiction); comedy ghostwriter; co-author of numerous peer-reviewed articles for medical journals; editor of consequential legal and scientific documents; former member of the American Mensa Society. Milicent was a frequent contributor to Probe.

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