By Max Holland and Johann W. Rush
Within hours of John F. Kennedy’s assassination on November 22, 1963, the Kodak film exposed by Abraham Zapruder became the most important home movie ever made. The 26 seconds-long moving picture, it was thought, captured in full the shooting and death of a president. Or as Life magazine (which purchased the rights to the Zapruder film) put it in 1966, “Of all the witnesses to the tragedy, the only unimpeachable one is the 8-mm movie camera of Abraham Zapruder, which recorded the assassination in sequence.”
The truth turns out to be more complicated. Yes, Zapruder filmed the death, but he did not capture the entire shooting sequence for posterity. It is fallacious to conflate the film with everything that happened, to believe that the rifle fire commenced only after the Dallas dressmaker decided to turn on his camera.
It is indisputable that the Zapruder film graphically depicts, in so-called “Z” frames that have become iconic, the second and third shots Lee Harvey Oswald fired from the sixth floor of the Texas School Book Depository. By frame Z 225, John Kennedy and Texas governor John Connally are reacting violently, and within milliseconds of one another, to being wounded by Oswald’s second shot as the presidential limousine emerges from behind a sign that briefly obscured Zapruder’s view. About 4.9 seconds later, Z 313 captures, in all its gore, the third and fatal shot that opened up Kennedy’s head as if a small stick of dynamite had been placed in his right ear.
The majority of ear- and eyewitnesses in Dealey Plaza, however, heard three shots, and Dallas lawmen found three expended cartridge cases afterward in the assassin’s perch. Accordingly, the Zapruder film has always been pored over, as if it were a Rosetta stone, by students of the assassination looking for equally persuasive visual evidence that would reveal the timing of the pesky first shot. The presidential limousine was much closer to Oswald’s rifle during the first shot, yet paradoxically, this bullet missed everything.
Estimates as to which Zapruder frame coincided with the first shot have gyrated over the decades. The moment the first shot occurred also dictates, of course, the total amount of time Oswald had to fire all three shots, and how much time elapsed between them. Now, after more than 43 years, there may finally be a rational explanation that squares with the most important and salient facts.
The first federal panel to investigate the assassination, the Warren Commission, actually chose not to hazard a guess about when the first shot occurred, emphasizing instead that there had to be at least 2.3 seconds between shots. Ultimately, the Commission’s cautious arithmetic from 1964 suggested the entire shooting might have taken as long as 8.3 seconds, or as little as 5.6 seconds.
Three years later, CBS News, after a year-long investigation, was much more confident about which shot missed. It was the first one, according to anchorman Walter Cronkite. And in its four-part documentary that aired on consecutive nights in June 1967, CBS suggested that the first shot had been fired at Zapruder frame 186, making the shooting sequence 6.9 seconds long.
Some 12 years later, however, the House Select Committee on Assassinations (HSCA), while concurring that Oswald’s first shot was the errant one, estimated that it had been fired as early as Z 158. That lengthened the entire shooting sequence to approximately 8.5 seconds long. Subsequently, in what was considered by many to be the definitive account of the assassination, Gerald Posner, in his 1993 book Case Closed, posited that the errant first shot was fired at Z 160. That slightly shortened the shooting sequence to 8.4 seconds. In the 13 years since Posner’s book, moreover, several highly respected students of the assassination have weighed in with reputable, but subtly different, analyses of the first shot’s timing. Their estimates have led to total elapsed times of around 8.8, 8.4, and 8.6 seconds.
As the timing of the first shot wanders, the Zapruder film begins to resemble a Rorschach test rather than a Rosetta stone.
More to the point, it turns out that all of these estimates, regardless
of their underlying rationale, rest on a common and unexamined premise:
that since the second and third shots were captured by the Zapruder
film, the first one must have been, too.
We believe that is not the case.