• John Constance

A President's Casket

Updated: Aug 19



As a long-time employee of the National Archives in Washington, DC, I had learned to never utter the words, “well, now I’ve seen it all”. The next day would surely dawn on a new, more unbelievable set of records that would defy logic and amaze the most veteran observer. Records are the footprints of humans, and we humans are rather unpredictable, to say the least.


In March of 1999, I received a call in my downtown office from Sharon Fawcett, Deputy Assistant Archivist for Presidential Libraries, and a colleague of many years. (Sharon was later Assistant Archivist for Presidential Libraries and retired in 2011 after a distinguished 34-year career). I was Director of Congressional Affairs at the time, in charge of all liaison duties with Capitol Hill and the care and feeding of our most important guardian angels in the Congress. This was one of those, “I think you need to come to my office” kind of calls, so I grabbed a yellow legal pad and headed down the hall to the Office of Presidential Libraries.


While the new National Archives at College Park, MD had opened in 1994, the leadership offices of the agency had stayed downtown. Not until John Carlin, former governor of Kansas, had been appointed by President Bill Clinton as the eighth Archivist of the United States, did the top brass begin migrating to College Park. The Maryland location was a shorter commute for Carlin, seemed “more like Kansas”, and the offices were outfitted with many more conveniences than the old ship downtown.


With this migration to College Park, came a rather thorough cleaning of office files. The Office of Presidential Libraries was no exception and had employed Mary Walton Livingston, a retired veteran archivist and iconic personality in the archives to assist them.


Mary Walton McCandlish Livingston was born in Alexandria, VA in 1914. She was a graduate of Sweetbriar College in Virginia and an early employee of the National Archives in the 1930’s. She left to raise her children, became a force in the Virginia civil rights movement of the 1950’s, and returned to the Office of Presidential Libraries in the 1960’s where she worked with distinction for over 30 years. She is probably best remembered for testifying before Congress regarding a backdated deed of gift for a donation of Richard Nixon’s vice-presidential papers to the government. Her testimony proved that the deed had been crafted by Nixon’s representatives to skate by a provision in a new law regarding Presidential Papers. Her testimony cost Richard Nixon $450,000 and was national news at the time. Mary Walton McCandlish Livingston died at Goodwin House in Alexandria, Virginia in 2007. She was 92.


Mary Walton (as she preferred to be addressed) was one of the first people that I ever met at the Archives. She interviewed me for a summer intern position in 1970. In an interesting workplace, with many interesting personalities, Mary Walton still stood out. A proper southern woman of her time, she wore a flower-festooned hat throughout the workday, and never left home without her white gloves. At 20 years old, I had not been in many job interviews, but I can say that neither before nor since have I been interviewed by anyone dressed like Mary Walton McCandlish Livingston.


The news that awaited me on that day in 1999 was that in cleaning out the office files, Mary Walton had done it again. With the characteristic thoroughness and integrity that had nailed Richard Nixon, she had turned up a file of significant records ironically concerning the man that denied Nixon the presidency in 1960, John Fitzgerald Kennedy.


With the file sitting in front of us, Sharon Fawcett outlined a new surreal story regarding the assassination of President Kennedy, a story layered on top of all the other stories of that November day in Dallas, Texas. Some of what follows were in the records, and some I have learned since that day.


The casket that was used to transport the President’s body from Dallas to Washington DC was not the casket in which he was buried.


The original casket was a 400-pound bronze model urgently ordered by Clint Hill of the Secret Service from a local funeral director, Vernon O’Neal and delivered in the O’Neil hearse to Parkland Hospital. Once the President’s body was transferred to the casket and loaded into the hearse, the Secret Service drove the hearse, with Mrs. Kennedy as a passenger, out to Love Field. Fearing a wider assassination plot, the Secret Service had transported President and Mrs. Johnson to the airport earlier and they were already aboard Air Force One.


When the hearse arrived plane side at Love Field, Hill, two other agents and several Kennedy staff members carried the casket up a set of Eastern Airlines roll-up steps to Air Force One. The casket was too large to easily fit through the cabin door and in maneuvering the heavy box through the narrow opening, one handle and some side trim on the casket were damaged. In addition to this exterior damage, the casket’s silk lining was later found to be blood stained when it was opened at Bethesda Naval Hospital, site of the autopsy of the President.


Joseph Gawler’s Sons were called on to provide a new casket and to assist with local arrangements in Washington, DC. Gawler’s is one of the oldest funeral establishments in the city. Started as a cabinet maker shop in 1850, it operated for over a hundred years on Pennsylvania Avenue and is now located on Wisconsin Avenue, NW. A technician from Gawler’s came to Bethesda Naval Hospital, surgically repaired bullet damage and embalmed the President on the autopsy table after the other procedures and photographs were completed. With the assistance of the attending Navy pathologists the technician transferred the President’s body to the new rosewood casket. That was the casket in which the President laid in state in the Capitol Rotunda and was buried at Arlington National Cemetery on November 25, 1963.


When Dallas Funeral Director Vernon O’Neal saw the televised state funeral, he immediately realized that the President was not being buried in the casket that he had delivered to Parkland Hospital on November 22. Two months later, in January 1964 he submitted a bill to the government for the casket ($3,995…later reduced to $3,495 after being challenged by the General Services Administration (GSA) as way over the retail list price) and made the first of many inquiries as to whether, in lieu of payment, he could get the casket back.


O’Neal was reportedly interested in either displaying the casket at his funeral home as an artifact or selling it to private collectors. At least one news article stated that he had been offered over $100,000 for this odd piece of history.


Initially, Gawler’s Funeral Home stored the original damaged bronze casket for the White House. Because of these troubling inquiries from O’Neal, Robert Kennedy, the Attorney General, asked Gawler’s to transport the casket to the National Archives for safe keeping. (We had been the family’s “sensitive storage site” of choice, having earlier received a trunk containing the autopsy slides from Bethesda and a steel container containing a “gray mass” which was always presumed to be a portion of the President’s brain matter).


A basement utility area in the National Archives Building at 7th and Constitution Avenue became the resting place of the casket for two years (1964-1966).


The ongoing concern that the casket could become an object of macabre iconolatry came to a head in February 1966 with a fascinating exchange of letters and reports that were the contents of this newly discovered file, which was now offered to me across the table by Sharon Fawcett.

As I flipped through the file, I read:


· A memo recounting a telephone conversation between then-Senator Robert F. Kennedy and General Services Administrator (and keeper of Federal property) Lawson Knott, Jr. in which Kennedy makes clear that he felt that the casket belonged to his family and could be disposed of any way they wanted.

· a letter from Senator Kennedy to his former Assistant Attorney General and now successor as Attorney General Nicholas Katzenbach making the same point.

· a related letter from Katzenbach to Knott, making it clear that the casket had no evidentiary value in the assassination and could, in the opinion of the Justice Department, be destroyed.

· letters to Robert McNamara, Secretary of Defense, to assist in the disposal.


Why on earth was the Department of Defense involved?


The proposed method of disposal was to drop the casket into the Atlantic Ocean.


That part of the file I had to read twice…looking up at my colleagues who were enjoying my moment of discovery. Everything up to this point seemed new and newsworthy, but the “drop the casket in the ocean” moment was a heart stopper.


The file contained the detailed maps and USAF flight plan for the disposal…advice as to how to ensure the casket did not break apart on impact (only to wash up in pieces on the shore) and preparatory steps to ensure that it would in fact sink to the deepest depths of the ocean. Holes would be drilled in the casket, three 80-pound bags of sand would be placed inside, and drone shoots would be deployed to ensure a soft landing on the surface of the water.


On February 18, 1966, the casket was picked up by the Air Force at the loading dock of the National Archives and transported in a plain white Ford Econoline van to Andrews Air Force Base. Apparently, all the preparations of the casket…the drilled holes, the sandbags, the crating, the drone chutes…were performed

when the casket was in the custody of the Archives.

This record of the operation was included in the file by John Steadman, special assistant to the Secretary of Defense, who was on the flight…


· At 8:38am, a C-130 airplane carrying the casket left Andrews and flew off the Maryland-Delaware coast. The plane descended to 500 feet and at 10:00am the 660-pound load was pushed out of the plane’s opened tail hatch.


· The parachutes opened shortly before impact and the entire rigged load remained intact and sank sharply, clearly, and immediately after impact…


· The plane circled for 20 minutes at 500 feet to ensure that nothing returned to the surface.


· The attached maps show the exact drop point…in 9,000 feet of water beyond the continental shelf.


It took a few minutes for this all to sink in (no pun intended) and to realize the impact of what was sitting on that table. With crazy conspiracy theorists running loose in the land, camo-wearing amateur historians who showed up in our research rooms, our congressional hearings, and in our worst nightmares, this was not a good moment for the Archives. Whenever new records were discovered among the 5 billion (yes billion) pages of our holdings, there was a portion of the public that always assumed a cover-up.


The Archives have relied on researchers for years to tell them what they have in their holdings. By the sheer volume of bulk accessions from the time the Archives opened its doors in 1935 right up until today, they never have had the manpower to look at every file, let alone every page. Records are appraised through sampling and as the word implies, archivists dip in and out of the holdings to assess their worth to history. Fascinating Lincoln documents, the famous “Nazi Gold” collection, and priceless autographs and records too vast to mention have been discovered, not by archivists, but by researchers doing their work.


However, this file was a bit different. It was Kennedy, it was sensitive, and it was discovered in a file cabinet 25 feet from the office of the head of Presidential Libraries. At some point in our recent storied past, someone in the office had known that it was there but had not passed on their knowledge. I could tell from the demeanor of my colleagues at the table that day that they were as shocked as I was.


Once I had recovered a bit, our professional conversation turned to provenance (a fancy archives term for “where did these come from”, “under what right do we have them”, and by extension, “what are the terms of release to the public”). Given the obvious fact that the memos were on Federal letterhead and had been made or received in the course of government business, they were obviously Federal records. Further, the fact that they were found in the offices of Presidential libraries, someone at some point clearly considered them related to the Kennedy collection.


All the records of the Kennedy presidency were transferred to the National Archives through a 1965 Deed of Gift. Through law and tradition, the records of the presidency were always owned by the former president. When George Washington packed up his records and carried them to Mt. Vernon in 1797, the die was cast. All future presidents would consider their official records their personal property. When the presidential library system was created, the National Archives needed to negotiate deeds of gift with all presidents from Herbert Hoover on, to secure transfer and release the records to the public. (After Watergate, the law was changed and from Ronald Reagan on, the records belong to the American people).


But these records were created after the deed of gift, and their control was likely ours. However, witness the opinion of Senator Kennedy in 1966 that a casket paid for with Federal funds, and stored in the National Archives, “belonged to the Kennedys” who could control its disposal. The Kennedys were always a bit more difficult to deal with on matters of ownership and control.

And by 1999, there was a new legal entanglement regarding these records. They were likely “Assassination Records” and under the aegis of a new law. (see my post “In the Room Where it Happened” for a full explanation of the John F. Kennedy Assassination Records Collection Act).


I don’t recall whether the Office of General Counsel at the Archives had been called in before or after I was briefed that day, but I do remember that it wasn’t a tough call…these were assassination records with no privacy or national security protections and would have to be released.


But first…I would have to tell Senator Ted Kennedy.


As I rode to the Hill that day, chauffeured in an Archives staff car, my mind had a thousand questions. Did the Senator know this story? Would Robert have filled in Ted, or saved his younger brother the pain of reopening old wounds? Surely Melody Miller, formerly a staffer for Senator Robert Kennedy, and now the most trusted aid to Ted, would know the story. However, we are talking about an interval of 33 years, an interval filled by deaths and scandals too numerous to recount. I soothed myself with the thought that in a lifetime of terrible news, this would be just another minor paragraph. But your brother’s casket dropped in the ocean? Oh my.


When I arrived, Melody led me into the Senator’s sitting room and we both sat on the long, federal style couch that dominated one wall. Shortly after the initial pleasantries, I handed her copies of all the records in the file and began describing them as she read along.


Melody didn’t betray any knowledge of records or of the events of 1963 or 1966 associated with the casket and I had enough sense not to ask. Her mood was appropriately serious and thoughtful as she reviewed each page and placed it back on the coffee table between us. When she had finished her review, I unwittingly changed the temperature in the room with the words, “these are obviously Assassination Records under the law, and…”


Her response was abrupt and direct and clearly telegraphed her deep appreciation for the impact of this little pile of papers. “How on earth do you come to that conclusion?” The briefing was over, and the debate had begun. Just in case, I had brought along a copy of the law and the broadened definition of assassination-related materials created in furtherance of the law by the independent Assassination Archives Review Board (AARB). With some trepidation I carefully reached into my briefcase to pull it out. Melody’s eyes followed this action and with a bit more control she asked, “Do you have a copy of the law?”


As we looked over the law and final Board report, I reminded Melody that the Congress and the Board had worked to make the definition as broad as possible so as not to leave the slightest impression that the government was excluding any evidence. Not only papers and photographs, audio tape and computer records, but even artifacts had been included. The definition was so broad that our General Counsel was 100 percent certain that these newly discovered papers would come under the definition.


Melody was not at all convinced and gave no ground on the release of the records. A casket is a casket and has no relationship to the assassination or the investigation whatsoever. And how the federal government chose to dispose of it three years after Dallas certainly has no relationship to assassination records. I promised to go back and review the matter again with our staff, but I left her with this thought. The National Archives will not dispose of the records, and they will surely be released someday. Without the benefit of an appropriate response from the President’s family, won’t it fuel a future cover-up fire and force yet another generation of Kennedy’s to have to deal with this? Wouldn’t the Senator prefer to get it over with now?


She responded that it would fuel more conspiracy crazies whenever it is released, so why feed the beast if we don’t have to?


I left the copies of the records for her to discuss with the Senator and told her that I’d be back to her in the morning. We shook hands, smiled, and parted again as probationary colleagues, but I knew there were some tough phone calls ahead.


As predicted, while arming me with some additional examples of records that had been judged assassination-related, the General Counsel wasn’t much help. He basically sat me down in the corner of the ring on a three-legged stool, hit me in the face with a wet sponge, and said, “get back in there kid”. We were going to release the records; it was just a matter of when and how.


Before my next call to Melody, I needed some good answers as to how we would release them.


My experienced and capable public affairs director, Susan Cooper had handled sensitive releases for years. Formerly of CBS News, Susan had been on both sides of the lens and had a great feel for the press world of Washington DC. When I approached her about this release, one reporter immediately came to mind. Deb Riechmann of the Associated Press had treated us fairly over the recent years and would have an immediate grasp of all the issues involved with these sensitive records. Giving her an exclusive would blanket the country with a balanced story and associate a name with the story that may comfort the Kennedy’s. While they had had quite a ride with the press over the years, President and Mrs. Kennedy had both been journalists and appreciated the true professionals in the craft. Deb was and is one such professional.


The next several phone calls with Melody were predictably unpleasant, but when it was clear that the Archives had no choice but to release the records, she shifted her professional gears and was ready to strategize. She was immediately against any press exclusive, with Deb or anyone else. I recall that she also objected to a release of these records by themselves and suggested that they be grouped with other records in the press release. This was something that we could work with, though we knew that a record concerning a presidential casket flying through the air and hitting the Atlantic Ocean was going to stand out, no matter how many records that we wrapped around it.


At the time we were processing many of the records in the JFK Assassination Collection, so having other records to release simultaneously was not a problem. However, the title of the press release, the wording of the press release, the order of the list of documents to be released (not first, not last, in the middle), and the description of the records regarding the casket were all negotiable in the eyes of Melody. And negotiate we did. As I look back on it now, we did nothing to damage our integrity, and had I been in Melody’s position, I would have done the same thing. She was always a pro, knew her job, and performed it 24/7. Protect the Kennedy flag.


The press release was issued on May 27, 1999, announcing a June 1 opening of the records at College Park. Demonstrating our independence and professional judgment, we had given a heads up to Deb Riechmann and directed her to Melody Miller for a quote on the day of public release. When asked about this incredible revelation, Melody responded that destroying the casket was appropriate and the unusual method was “in keeping with the tradition of President Kennedy’s naval service and his love of the sea.”


As predicted, the AP story dominated the national coverage and the story ran prominently in the Washington Post, New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Boston Globe, and the Chicago Tribune. It was a one-day tale for the responsible press, and once again churned up the bile of the crazies for some months afterward.


I remember a drop-by to see the Kennedy folks some weeks later, and Melody was available for a chat. The ever-active mind of Senator Kennedy had mused whether underwater exploration had become accessible enough to private citizens to launch a craft that could descend 9,000 feet to the ocean floor. It was on her to do list to find out, but not on the front burner. She just smiled.




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