Proof that the Zapruder Film is Authentic

Josiah Thompson

Friday morning in Dallas dawned overcast and showery.

Although "Abe" Zapruder knew the president would be passing close to his office, he chose to leave his year-old movie camera at home. Later that morning, his longtime secretary, Lilian Rodgers, persuaded him to go home and get it. The camera was a top-of-the-line Bell & Howell, Model 414 PD 8 mm camera. He purchased it a year earlier to take movies of his grandchildren. In a family scene on the same spool of film that later would contain John Kennedyís death, Abeís grandson can be seen digging beside a tree in a backyard patio.

Shortly after noon, Zapruder wandered over to Dealey Plaza from the Jennifer Juniors offices on the fourth floor of the Dal-Tex Building. He was called "Mr. Z." by his staff and thatís what his receptionist, Marilyn Sitzman, called him as they made their way across the sun-splashed intersection of Elm and Houston Streets. Zapruder and Sitzman moved through the gathering crowd at the intersection and made their way to the concrete pergola and grassy slope of Dealey Plaza beyond. Once there, Zapruder ran his camera to test its windup spring.

"Well before the presidential motorcade came down the street," Marilyn told me in an interview for Life magazine back in 1966, "Mr. Zapruder ran a few frames of the film just with us standing there on the lawn." The frames show Sitzman in a tan wool dress standing by a bench where sit fellow Jennifer Juniors employee Beatrice Hester and her husband, Charles.

"Then he," said Marilyn, "I donít know if he had decided before or had picked a spot, but he went on top of the... what do you call it?"

I answered that it was a "concrete square."

"Yes," she continued. "Well, he stood up there and he asked me to come up and stand behind him Ďcause when he takes pictures looking through the telescopic lens he might get dizzy and he wanted me to stand behind him so in case he got dizzy I could hold onto him."

Marilyn described what she saw standing there on that concrete pedestal with her boss.

"We saw the motorcade turn the corner at Main onto Houston. He hadnít started taking pictures there then and we watched them as they came down Houston; and just as the motorcycles that were leading the parade came... started... came around the corner and started down the hill, he started taking pictures then. And thereís nothing unusual about it... there was nothing unusual until the first sound, which I thought was a firecracker, mainly because of the reaction of President Kennedy. He put his hands up to guard his face and leaned to the left, and the motorcade, you know, proceeded down the hill. And the next thing that I remembered correctly... clearly was the shot that hit him directly in front of us, that hit him on the side of his face."

Marilyn said this shot hit Kennedy "between the eye and the ear" and "we could see his brains come out, you know, his head opening. It must have been a terrible shot because it exploded his head, more or less."

Marilyn then described how she and Abe got down off the pedestal, ran down the hill in front of the pedestal and then made their way back into the pergola structure. They were photographed there first by AP photographer James Altgens and then by Art Rickerby of Life magazine.

As the confusion in the Plaza settled down, it was obvious that Zapruder and Sitzman on the pedestal were in a position to have seen everything. Dallas Morning News reporter Harry McCormick got to the Plaza about ten minutes after the shooting and tried to talk to Zapruder. "Abe" said he would only talk to federal investigators. McCormick went off to find a federal investigator.

Dallas Times-Herald reporter Darwin Payne heard about Zapruder probably from Marilyn Sitzman and Beatrice Hester who were standing across from the Depository in front of the Dal-Tex Building. Payne went to Jennifer Juniors and briefly interviewed Zapruder and tried to get publication rights to Zapruderís film. Rather quickly, McCormick showed up at Jennifer Juniors with Secret Service Agent Forrest Sorrels in tow. Sorrels later said Zapruder was quite emotional. Zapruder said he would give a copy of the film to Sorrels but it could only be used officially by the Secret Service and not given to any newspapers or magazines. Zapruder told Sorrels he expected to sell the film for a high price. McCormick offered Zapruder several hundred dollars for the film right there but Zapruder turned it down.

McCormick, Sorrels, Zapruder, plus Zapruderís business partner Erwin Schwartz, then went to WFAA-TV to get the film developed. WFAA-TV could not develop the film but put Zapruder on the air with program director Jay Watson. A still photo shows Schwartz sitting in the studio holding the Zapruderís camera while Zapruder described over TV what he had seen. Bert Schipp, chief photographer at WFAA-TV, called the Kodak lab and made sure they could process Zapruderís film.

A Dallas police car took Zapruder, Schwartz and Sorrels to the Kodak lab near Love Field. It was now getting close to 3:00 PM.. Phil Chamberlain met them upon their arrival at the lab. Dick Blair ran off the remaining film onto the camera take-up spool. The film was taken out of the camera and given to Kathryn Kirby. She perforated it with the number 0183 and passed it on to J. Kenny Anderson for processing. Zapruder remained in the lab with his film while all this was being done.

During processing of the film, SS Agent Forrest Sorrels left after receiving word that Lee Harvey Oswald had been arrested. Another Dealey Plaza witness, Phil Willis, and his family arrived with his 35 mm slide film for processing.

Zapruder, Phil Chamberlain and other employees saw the unslit 16 mm film run on a projector at twice normal speed to check for processing errors. Zapruder wanted to run it again. Chamberlain, however, afraid of damaging the film on the projector, told Zapruder there would be no charge for the processing and gave him the processed film.

Zapruder said he wanted to make copies of the 8 mm film for Forrest Sorrels. Kodak could not do this but suggested Zapruder take the film to Jamieson Films in central Dallas. Duplicating film would be the first choice for copying but neither Kodak nor Jamieson had any in 8 mm format. Instead, Chamberlain gave Zapruder the last three rolls he had of Kodachrome IIa (tungsten balanced). They each were 25-feet-long and would have to suffice for copying by Jamieson.

At Jamieson company, the film was copied on a Bell & Howell 5205 Model J continuous contact printer, which had been customized by Jamiesonís staff. As a result, the three copies were marked outside the frame with a "septum line" unique to this particular printer. The same filter pack was used to make all three copies with the exposures bracketed one-half stop apart.

Zapruder returned to the Kodak lab with his camera-original and three unprocessed copies. The copies were given lab ID numbers 0185, 0186 and 0187 and were processed immediately. Following processing, the camera-original was split to 8 mm and viewed at least once by Chamberlain, Zapruder and twelve to fourteen lab personnel. The film was watched in stunned silence except for an audible gasp when Kennedyís head exploded.

While Zapruder was having his film copied, Life magazine was moving resources to Dallas. In New York, Life managing editor George Hunt cancelled the print run on next weekís issue and sent editorial and photo lab staff to Chicago where a major portion of next weekís issue would be printed. Life editors Dick Stolley and Tommy Thompson flew into Dallas from Lifeís Pacific Bureau in Los Angeles and set up offices in the Adolphus Hotel. Meanwhile, Life stringer Patsy Swank had heard of Abraham Zapruder and his film and told Stolley. During the evening hours, Stolley started calling Zapruderís home at fifteen-minute intervals.

Meanwhile, Zapruder had tracked down Forrest Sorrels, head of the Dallas Secret Service office. He and Erwin Schwartz gave Sorrels two copies of the film while retaining the camera-original and the best of the three copies. At 9:55 PM that night, Secret Service Agent Max Phillips sent off one of these two copies to Chief Rowley in Washington. Very likely, it was that copy which National Photo Interpretation Center (NPIC) technicians studied later that weekend.

Somewhat dazed by the events of the day, Zapruder drove around aimlessly for one-half or three-quarters of an hour before arriving home at 11:00 PM. Stolley reached him at that hour and wanted to see the film that night. Zapruder put him off until the next morning. They would meet at 9:00 AM at Jennifer Juniors.

Stolley showed up at Jennifer Juniors an hour early at 8:00 AM. He persuaded Zapruder to show him the film and bought initial rights from Zapruder for $50,000. Stolley walked out of Zapruderís office with the camera-original and Zapruderís remaining copy. Stolley sent both to Chicago where editorial and photolab people were assembling.

The camera-original was worked on in Chicago over Saturday and Sunday. During this preparation work, it was accidentally broken in two spots (Z frames 156-157 and 207-212). Frames 208 through 211 may have been "cooked" or "burned" in a too-hot enlarger as the issue was being prepared. Since these frames survived on both the Life and the two Secret Service copies, it was of no great consequence. Thirty-one (31) frames were selected for black and white reproduction in the Life issue which would hit news-stands the following Tuesday. Millions of copies of Life started to roll off the printing presses in several cities Sunday night and Monday.

Meanwhile, back in New York, Lifeís publisher viewed the copy obtained by Stolley and instructed Stolley to buy worldwide exclusive rights from Zapruder. On Monday morning, Stolley met with Zapruder and his lawyer and negotiated the sale to Life of worldwide rights for $150,000. As early as Tuesday or Wednesday, copies were ordered from the Life photolab by editors and began to circulate. In Chicago, a private lab made a 16 mm black and white copy for Life. In Washington, D.C., another private lab made a 16 mm black and white copy for the Secret Service. The Secret Service made additional copies of their copies and these were circulated to other law enforcement agencies. That Monday, Dallas secret service agents asked if they could use the 16 mm projector owned by the local CBS affiliate (KRLD) to view the film. They brought over the film in 16 mm format and Bob Huffaker projected it for them. Huffaker remembered that Dan Rather of CBS News was there to watch it with the agents.

Over the next few weeks, the Zapruder film was at the evidentiary center of various law enforcement investigations. On November 29, 1963, SS Agent J.J. Howlett reported that using the Zapruder film he had been "unable to ascertain the exact location where Governor John B. Connally was struck." However, Howlett stated that "it had been ascertained from the movies that President Kennedy was struck with the first and third shots fired by the assassin, while Governor Connally was truck with the second." Both the initial Secret Service and FBI reports on the shooting reported it the same way, their analyses of the Zapruder film contradicting the later Warren Commissionís single-bullet theory.

The combination of what is seen on the Zapruder film and the minimum mechanical firing time of the rifle caused the Warren Commission extreme difficulties through the winter and spring of 1964. The camera-original of the film was brought to Washington on one occasion and screened by Herb Orth for various members of the Commission staff. In addition, slides of the film were provided by Life. However, nowhere in the voluminous Warren Report or its 26 volumes of testimony and exhibits will one find a single mention of the most obvious feature of the film ó the left, backward snap of Kennedyís head and body following the impact of a bullet to his head.

This one feature of the film was probably responsible for bringing about a reopening of the case in the 1970s. When Bob Groden showed a bootlegged version of the film on Geraldo Riveraís program, Goodnight America, the American public saw for the first time what had shocked Marilyn Sitzman. Sitzman had been transfixed by the gruesome explosion before her eyes and had not paid much attention to the movement of the Presidentís body under the impact of the fatal bullet. But the American public saw all this and it registered. A tidal wave of public outcry reached Congress. I was on Riveraís program with Groden that night (March 6, 1975) and worked that summer with him lobbying senators and representatives. The one part of our presentation that always evoked an audible intake of breath was the showing of the Zapruder film with its gruesome climax. Within a matter of months, the showing of this film and the revelations of the Church Committee prompted Congress to order a reinvestigation of the assassination.

The camera-original of the film now rests in the National Archives as well as the two first-generation copies provided by Zapruder to the Secret Service. The third and best copy of the film, which Zapruder retained and then gave to Dick Stolley on the morning of November 23rd, resides with other Zapruder material in the Sixth Floor Museum at Dealey Plaza. Zapruder died on August 30, 1970. Marilyn Sitzman died on August 11, 1993. Dick Stolley is alive and well in New York City where he worked for many years as editor of People magazine.

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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. For the last twenty-four years, I've made my living as a defense investigator in criminal cases. Some of these cases were quite celebrated and had quite large stakes on the table for the authorities. In these twenty-some years of experience, I've seen it happen only once or twice. But it does happen.

So letís ask ourselves: What conditions would have to be satisfied in order for it to make any sense for someone to alter or fabricate physical evidence?

Letís try a hypothetical case.

Letís suppose 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 for the authorities 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 letís take for an example 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 ó no negative hidden away, no second copy residing in someone else's possession ó existed. Thirdly, you'd have to be sure that no other photographs taken by anyone else would later surface to expose the alteration.

First, the problem of copies.

As shown above, the original of the film was processed and copies made under Zapruderís control on the afternoon of November 22nd. Within hours, two of these copies were given to the Secret Service who immediately began the copying process. One copy was sent to Washington that night with additional copies being made by a private lab in Washington for other law enforcement agencies. The next morning, Zapruder turned over the original and a first copy to Dick Stolley of Life magazine. These were flown to Chicago and immediately turned into enlargements for the Life issue then in preparation. By early Sunday, printing plants in various cities were printing millions of copies of Life containing 31 Zapruder frames. During the next week, the proliferation of copies of the film continued as both the Life photolab turned out copies for editors and a private lab in Chicago produced one or more 16 mm black and white copies. There was no way for anyone to control the ever-growing number of copies, any one of which could expose a potential forgery.

Next, the problem of other photographers.

At the same time that copies of the Zapruder film were being made in Washington, New York and Chicago, other photographers were having their film developed. Fetzer has claimed that the government laid a security net over photo development in the Dallas area, posting individual FBI agents to photo developing locations. This, of course, is nonsense. All the FBI did was ask photo developers to include a note in packets of developed film asking customers to contact the FBI if their photos showed anything relevant to the assassination. Many of the most important films of the assassination were still in their ownersí cameras when the proliferation of Zarpruder copies started. The FBI first learned of the Muchmore film, for example, when it was shown on the New York City station WNEW-TV just after midday on Tuesday, November 26th. Orville Nix's film remained in his camera until the weekend of November 30th/31st.

This is important because of an obvious fact which cannot be underestimated.

When a single event is photographed from different viewpoints, the various photos form a self-authenticating fabric. If any single photo is altered, it will no longer fit with the others. This self-authenticating fabric is precisely what we have with respect to the photographic record of Dealey Plaza on November 22nd. Several dozen photographers were taking still and movie film in and around the Plaza on November 22nd. Where correlations can be made, all of the other photographs and frames of film taken during the assassination correlate with each other and with the Zapruder film.

For example, the famous Altgens photo taken from the front of the presidentís limousine as it proceeds down Elm Street has been shown to be coincident with Zapruder frame 255. This means that the position of the limousine with respect to background objects, the position and demeanor of the occupants of the limousine, the position and demeanor of spectators... all these small details have to mesh if both are to be considered authentic. If there is any discrepancy between the two, then some degree of forgery may be suspected. Likewise, (1) with respect to the equally famous Moorman photo showing the limousine in the foreground with the grassy knoll behind and Zapruder and Sitzman on their pedestal, (2) with respect to the Muchmore and Nix movie films which show the assassination itself and the killing impact on Kennedyís head, (3) with respect to the Willis, Betzner and Towner photos. All these photos and movie film form a single, seamless tapestry. From different angles they present a single picture of what happened in Dealey Plaza on November 22, 1963. Since many of these films were still in their ownersí cameras at the time the Zapruder film genie escaped from the bottle, the fact that they match the Zapruder film establishes the authenticity of both.

With the sequential, detailed exposure of the fallacious arguments presented in The Great Zapruder Film Hoax, it becomes ever more clear that Fetzerís latest book is not just about the Kennedy assassination. Rather, it is about THE BIG CONSPIRACY of which the Kennedy assassination is only a part. The United States failed to go to the moon and constructed the moon photos on a sound stage. It was not an airliner but a DOD missile that crashed into the Pentagon on 9/11. Senator Wellstoneís plane was brought down by an electro-magnetic pulse weapon and even the space shuttle may have been downed by a similar weapon. These are views which Fetzer and some of his contributors have either proclaimed or backed. Fetzerís book not only exemplifies bogus science put to work in the service of a cult belief, it also offers a whole reservoir of urban myths surrounding the Kennedy assassination.

For true believers, it is not just the Zapruder film whose authenticity is a "hoax": (1) Other films and photos of the events in Dealey Plaza have been fabricated in whole or in part. (2) Physical evidence has been planted. (3) Bullets and cartridge cases have been changed while in government possession. (4) X-rays and photos of the Presidentís body have been altered and a fake brain has been substituted for the real brain. (5) The Presidentís body itself has been radically altered before being subjected to autopsy. (6) Two ó not three ó cartridge cases were found on the Sixth Floor of the Depository with a third added later. (7) A bullet made a through-and-through hole in the windshield and this hole was covered up by the Secret Service. And only for the truly paranoid.... (8) Dealey Plaza has been sprinkled with "listening devices" called "rain sensors" to spy upon the conversations of people like Jack White and John Costella.

There are solid, scientifically grounded reasons for believing that all the shots fired that day in Dealey Plaza did not come from the Texas School Book Depository. In the last few years, the work of Dr. Donald Thomas on the acoustics evidence has rocked earlier skepticism of this evidence back on its heels. It now appears that the chance of the sound impulse of the so-called "grassy knoll" shot being caused by random noise is not 1 in 20 but rather 1 in 200,000. Even more to the point, by applying the work of Dr. Michael Stroscio on the Zapruder film to the acoustics evidence, Thomas has been able to show a correlation between the sound and timing of five shots on Dallas Police Channel #1 and the timing of apparent shots in the Zapruder film. New analyses by Drs. Art Snyder and Erik Randich concerning neutron activation tests done on various bullet fragments show great promise. None of this meticulous, hard work would find a place in Fetzerís work. Rather, it appears in obscure peer-reviewed journals.

What is particularly odious to me is that Fetzerís work attempts to mimic the hard work of an earlier generation of private citizens who carried out a meticulous and rigorous investigation of the Kennedy case. It was nearly forty years ago, long before Professor Fetzer and his cohorts came on the scene. Calvin Trillin wrote about it in an article in The New Yorker entitled "The Buffs"(6/10/67; pp. 41-71).

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 and myself in Philadelphia, Harold Weisberg in Maryland and Ray Marcus 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 ó 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 believed that the government had cheated in their investigation but we werenít going to cheat in ours. We were going to follow the strict canons of historical research and believed that precisely that rigor would lead us to the truth. We didnít cite hearsay when we could go to the original source. We didnít publish muddy photos and then tell people what they should see in them. We didnít substitute our own speculations for actual evidence. Most importantly, we werenít looking for any dramatic sensations. 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.

Nothing could be farther from that community than the twisted logic and assassinated science of Fetzer's work.

Looking at the present book against the example of that community, one has to be reminded of Marx's prediction that somehow or other historical events get repeated first as tragedy and then as farce. If the HSCA investigation of the 1970s is seen as repeating the work of the buffs as "tragedy," Fetzer's latest compilation must be seen as repeating the whole thing as "farce!"