On January 29, 1989, the Washington Post published an obituary of Robert Knudsen, which stated in part:
Robert LeRoy Knudsen, 61, a retired photographer with the White House staff, where he served for 28 years, died Jan. 27 at the Bethesda Naval Hospital after a heart attack. He lived in Annandale. Mr. Knudsen had provided photographic coverage of every president from Harry Truman to Richard M. Nixon, and his photographs chronicled most of the major events at the White House for nearly three decades. He photographed President Truman’s election in 1948 and the election of President Eisenhower in 1952. His pictures included Eisenhower’s meeting with Nikita Krushchev in 1959, the first steps of John F. Kennedy Jr., and President Kennedy’s autopsy. Mr. Knudsen photographed the weddings of Linda and Luci Johnson and Tricia Nixon’s White House wedding. He accompanied President Nixon on his historic trips to China and the Soviet Union in 1972, and photographed Nixon’s farewell in 1974.
Two days later, the New York Times published an obituary of Knudsen, which stated in part:
Mr. Knudsen worked on the White House photography staff in five administrations: Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon. Among his most celebrated photographs were the first pictures of John F. Kennedy’s son, John Jr., walking in the Oval Office at the age of 18 months in May 1962. He photographed the 1948 and 1952 elections of Harry S. Truman and Dwight D. Eisenhower, the historic 1959 meeting between Eisenhower and Nikita Khrushchev, the autopsy of the slain President Kennedy in 1963, President Nixon’s 1972 trips to China and the Soviet Union, Mr. Nixon’s 1974 farewell in the wake of the Watergate scandal and the White House weddings of three daughters of Presidents, Lynda and Luci Johnson and Tricia Nixon.
The pertinent parts of those two obituaries, insofar as this article is concerned, are the following:
Washington Post: “He photographed … President Kennedy’s autopsy.”
New York Times: “He photographed … the autopsy of the slain President Kennedy in 1963.”
According to information provided to the Assassination Records Review Board (ARRB) in the 1990s by Knudsen’s wife and children, on the afternoon of November 22, 1963, the day President Kennedy was shot in Dallas, Knudsen received a telephone call summoning him to Andrews Air Force Base, where the president’s body was being delivered from Dallas on Air Force One.
His family said that Knudsen was gone for three days. When he returned home, he told his family that he had photographed the autopsy of President Kennedy. He also told them that he could not provide any further information because he had been sworn to secrecy. Mrs. Knudsen told the ARRB that her husband treated classified information just like the military does — that he would take it to the grave with him without ever revealing it to anyone.
In 1977, a national photography magazine, Popular Photography, published an interview with Knudsen in which he stated that he had photographed the president’s autopsy and that it was “the hardest assignment of my life.”
No one has ever questioned the integrity, veracity, or competence of Robert Knudsen. He was highly respected, both personally and professionally. It would difficult to find a more credible witness than Robert Knudsen.
There is one big problem, however: Knudsen did not photograph the president’s autopsy. The official autopsy photographer was John T. Stringer, a highly respected autopsy photographer for the U.S. Navy who taught photography at the Bethesda Naval Medical School. It is undisputed that Stringer photographed the president’s autopsy and that Knudsen wasn’t even at the autopsy.
What then are we to make of this? Why would Knudsen make up a story that could easily be exposed as false? Why would he take the chance of sullying the reputation for integrity that he had built up over the decades? Why would he risk a highly prestigious job as a White House photographer by lying about having been the official photographer for the Kennedy autopsy? Why would he give a false story to a national photography magazine knowing that it would be easy to expose the falsity of it? Why didn’t anyone in the U.S. military, which conducted the president’s autopsy, come forward and expose Knudsen’s story as false?
In the 1970s, Knudsen was summoned to testify before the House Select Committee on Assassinations, which was reinvestigating the Kennedy assassination. During his testimony, Knudsen was shown autopsy photographs that are in the official autopsy record.
According to his wife and children, Knudsen returned home and indicated to his family that autopsy photographs he had been shown during his testimony were fraudulent. He said that there were clearly some shenanigans going on and that if anything were ever to blow up, he wanted his family to know that he had had nothing to do with it. Protecting his integrity within his family was obviously extremely important to Robert Knudsen.
If Knudsen was telling the truth, and there is no reason to doubt that he was, then it is clear that on the weekend of the assassination, he photographed a procedure that he believed was the president’s autopsy and that he was made to believe was the president’s autopsy but actually wasn’t the president’s autopsy. It is also clear that whoever convinced Knudsen to believe that he was photographing the official autopsy also swore Knudsen to secrecy by telling him that the entire procedure he was photographing was classifed.
The mystery of Robert Knudsen is compounded by the testimony before the ARRB of Saundra Spencer. She was a U.S. Navy petty officer who worked in the U.S. Navy’s photography lab in Washington, D.C., in 1963. She had a top-secret security clearance and worked closely with the White House on top-secret, classified photographs. No one has ever questioned the integrity, professionalism, and competence of Saundra Spencer. As with Knudsen, it would be difficult to find a more credible witness than Saundra Spencer.
The reason that Spencer was summoned to testify before the ARRB in the 1990s is that the ARRB had learned that on the weekend of the assassination, she had been asked, on a top-secret basis, to develop autopsy photographs of President Kennedy’s body. Pursuant to the culture of secrecy and classified information in the military, Spencer kept her role in developing those autopsy photographs secret for some 30 years, until she was summoned to testify before the ARRB.
During her testimony, Spencer was shown the official autopsy photographs of the President’s body. After carefully examining them, she testified directly and unequivocally that the autopsy photographs in the official record were not the ones that she developed on the weekend of the assassination. She stated that the autopsy photographs she developed showed a large exit-sized wound in the back of President Kennedy’s head, which matched what treating physicians at Parkland Hospital had stated. The photographs in the official record show the back of Kennedy’s head to be fully intact. A large exit-sized wound in the back of the president’s head would, of course, imply a shot fired from the president’s front.
After Spencer’s testimony before the ARRB, no one came forward to challenge, question, or dispute the truthfulness and accuracy of her testimony.
What are we to make of Knudsen and Spencer?
There are two conclusions that can be reasonably drawn: First, the official autopsy of President Kennedy, which was carried out by the U.S. military, was fraudulent and, second, there is no conceivable innocent explanation for having carried out a fraudulent autopsy.
For more information, see my book The Kennedy Autopsy.