There are a lot of stories being told and re-told today, the 50th anniversary of the assassination of John F. Kennedy. Here’s a really interesting story you might not have heard of: how researchers recreated the assassination scene 15 years later, but in a very specific way: they tried to recreate not what it looked like, but what it sounded like.
The story is pretty complicated. In 1975, the Zapruder film–the motion picture record of the assassination–was shown on TV for the first time. This sparked interest and questions from the American public about whether there was evidence of a plot to kill Kennedy. Feeling pressured, Congress set up a new investigation, the House Select Committee on Assassinations (HSCA). Created mainly to throw a bone to the public, the HSCA had a limited mandate, limited budget and a sunset provision: it had to re-investigate the JFK shooting and issue its report by January 3, 1979.
The HSCA, established in 1977, chugged along for most of its tenure, reviewed the evidence and concluded, quite naturally, exactly what the Warren Commission had concluded in 1964: that there was no evidence of a conspiracy to kill JFK. Then suddenly, at the end of a September 1977 hearing in front of the HSCA, a noted amateur assassination researcher told the panel she knew of a tape that had supposedly been taken on November 22, 1963 from the motorcycle microphone of a Dallas police patrolman who was in the motorcade. The policeman’s microphone had been stuck in the open position and the tape recorded the assassination. The amateur researcher said there were the sounds of seven gunshots on the tape. If true, this was a bombshell. It was proven Oswald fired only three shots, the third one of which killed President Kennedy. If there was evidence someone else was shooting in Dealey Plaza, this proved there was a plot.
The House Select Committee on Assassinations, seen here deliberating in 1977, was surprised by the revelation of a tape that supposedly proved there were more than three shots in Dealey Plaza in 1963.
The HSCA obtained the “motorcycle tape” and turned it over to professional acousticians to study. The chief scientist of an acoustic analysis company, Dr. James Barger, decided the best thing to do would be to recreate the assassination scene, fire guns from various places, tape them, and analyze the tape in comparison with the “motorcycle tape” to see if the indications on that tape matched the control test. It’s key to understand here that the sounds on the “motorcycle tape” were not identifiable as gunshots to the human ear. Researchers only suggested they might have been gunshots from the sound wave patterns they found in analysis; to the human ear the “gunshots” sounded like crackles or pops of static, not clear gunfire.
On Sunday, August 20, 1978, the auditory recreation of the assassination scene took place. Microphones were strategically placed all over Dealey Plaza, calculated to be in the places most likely to represent the position of the policeman’s motorcycle, and sharpshooters at the School Book Depository and the “grassy knoll” readied their test firings. It didn’t look like much to the crowd gathered. There was no limousine, no JFK stand-in, no motorcycles. But the audio reconstruction seems to have been eerily accurate.
The control tapes of the August 20 test were analyzed against the motorcycle tape. Predictably, audio experts couldn’t agree on the results. It was a numbers game: the wave patterns of the sounds on the motorcycle tape sort of resembled the known control gunshots from the August 20 recreation, but it was all about the probabilities of whether those sounds really were gunshots or not. The HSCA couldn’t get a straight answer. There was another problem: the clock was ticking toward January 3 and the HSCA had already blown its budget on the expensive recreation, so there wasn’t much chance of hiring new experts to evaluate the results.
In December 1978 the HSCA hurriedly changed its final report, which up until the last minute had said there was still, after 15 years, no evidence of a conspiracy. The new report, criticized ferociously by many Committee members, said there probably was a conspiracy–but that conclusion was based solely on the motorcycle tape evidence and the testimony of experts that one particular sound on that tape, proven to not be one of Oswald’s three shots from the Book Depository, had a 95% chance of being another gunshot. (The experts who so testified later severely qualified this judgment). Suddenly the newspapers went wild: US government finds evidence of a conspiracy to kill JFK!
The acoustic reconstruction of the JFK assassination was proven false, unlikely enough, by this: a disposable cardboard record distributed in a 1979 edition of Gallery magazine with an article on the investigation.
This conclusion, though, began to collapse almost immediately. By process of elimination the HSCA had narrowed down to one person the policemen who could have been riding the motorcycle with the stuck microphone that day. That policeman had testified that he might have been, but privately he was pretty sure he wasn’t. He also thought, as other Dallas policemen and some of the acoustic researchers, that the motorcycle tape wasn’t even of the assassination at all–that it might have been taken a minute after Kennedy was shot. Furthermore, an FBI report in 1980 on the motorcycle tape criticized the acousticians and said their conclusions about that fourth shot had no scientific basis.
The controversy was finally solved by a random guy off the street: a rock musician named Steve Barber, 24 years old, from Shelby, Ohio. While all of this controversy about the motorcycle tape was going on, the soft-core porn magazine Gallery put out an issue in 1979 which included a thin disposable phonograph record of excerpts of the motorcycle tape. Barber was a hi-fi enthusiast, and when he listened to the cheap record in 1980, he thought he heard the voice of another officer saying something on the radio channel that could only have been said after the assassination. Barber wrote a letter to the National Academy of Sciences pointing this out. A new study was done on the motorcycle tape, and it was conclusively proved that Barber was right. So was the Dallas police officer who thought the motorcycle tape was recorded after the assassination, not during it–and that the stuck microphone was not even in Dealey Plaza at all, but somewhere else nearby. The HSCA’s acoustic “evidence” of a fourth shot turned out to be a chimera.
Thus, it turned out that the elaborate and expensive audio reconstruction of the assassination in August 1978 was all for nothing. There were no gunshots on the motorcycle tape. It was something else entirely, most likely just crackles on the tape itself. Sometimes the sound of history can be misleading.