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Our Archives, Our Selves

A visit to see the papers of the Dallas medical examiner at JFK’s death

Today I took my students to the library to see Jack Ruby’s brain. We called up some other things from the Universtiy of Iowa library archives too: the toe tag that Lee Harvey Oswald wore to the morgue, the slides from his autopsy, and hundreds of newspaper clippings, records, and conspiracy theories related to John F. Kennedy’s assassination fifty years ago. The Dallas medical examiner at the time of the assassination, Earl F. Rose, collected it all, and he left it to the library after he moved to Iowa City in 1968 to join the University of Iowa faculty. I filled out a call slip, put on my gloves, and started unboxing files. Here is a test bullet fired from the gun that killed Oswald; a lock of Ruby’s hair; the hand-corrected autopsy reports; the gruesome photos that make our wonderful, sensitive librarian, Colleen Theisen, excuse herself, leaving me to wonder if I’m being a really good teacher or a really bad voyeur.

Earl F. Rose Papers, Special Collections Department, University of Iowa Libraries, Iowa City, Iowa
Jack Ruby's autopsy report, hand-corrected by Rose.

Jack Ruby’s brain, sliced and preserved on glass pathology slides, sits on the desk next to a 1640 edition of Ben Jonson’s plays and a 1689 edition of Andrew Marvell’s poems. The connection? All semester, my class has been exploring the way these seventeenth-century writers dealt with the wars and plagues that defined their era—the way they transformed trauma into art. I also bring my students to the library to prove to them that even in our digital age, the physical books, papers, and other objects we collect in libraries can tell us something irreplaceable about our histories and ourselves, and I’ll admit that calling up Jack Ruby’s brain was sort of a cheap trick. Here, at the fiftieth anniversary of JFK’s assassination, is a real chance to wow my students with my bibliographical skills. Using only the library finding aid, I can put the scalpel blades used for Oswald’s autopsy in your hands! You can’t do that using Google, can you?

You certainly can’t do it with a Massive Online Open Class (MOOC).  But of course this immediately raises the question of what, beside cheap thrills, we get out of our visit. Here are a few things I learned, along with my students:

Jack Ruby was small. None of us were born in 1963, but all of us had always pictured him as a big bruiser, with heavy jowls. The autopsy report notes that he was five feet eight inches tall and between 145 and 150 pounds.

Ruby had dandruff, but the report notes that “his oral hygiene is good.”

Lee Harvey Oswald had “grey-blue” eyes.

Earl F. Rose, as one my students put it, “became the most compelling part of the story.” As we unpacked each neatly labeled slide, each yellowing newspaper clipping, each letter documenting decades of press inquiries, we came to see that archives tell us as much about the people that collect them as about the events they document. 

Rose was thirty-six on the morning of November 22, 1963. He’d been in Dallas for six months. A high-school dropout from rural South Dakota, he’d joined the Navy during World War II, then come back to earn his GED and medical degree. He would eventually earn a law degree, too, perhaps because on November 22 he found himself caught in a moment of crisis for which none of his medical training or combat experience in the South Pacific could have prepared him.

Rose was on duty at Parkland Memorial Hospital when President Kennedy was pronounced dead. He had been hired to bring order, method, and protocol to the Dallas examiner’s office, and he was walking into the trauma room to perform and document the president’s autopsy when the first secret service agent stepped into his path. As Rose saw it, he was obliged by Texas law to investigate a homicide and establish “the chain of evidence.” Secret service agents said Rose had no jurisdiction. As the argument grew heated, and the jostling over Kennedy’s body began to grow ignominious, Rose backed down.

Everything he collected afterwards speaks to that moment. Rose obsessively gathered evidence at every subsequent step—but he’d missed the chance to establish the first, essential, link. The files he collected in later years, such as one labeled “Dark Humor,” show how persistently that legacy weighed on him. In this file, my students found a “Li’l Abner” cartoon that none of us could connect to the assassination in any way, except that it depicted two bumpkins holding guns. Another newspaper clipping was a “Far Side” cartoon that I once had in a desk calendar but that I’d never given much thought. The caption reads: “all forest animals, to this very day, remember exactly where they were and what they were doing when they heard that Bambi’s mother had been shot.”

After November 22, 1963, Rose experienced American culture through a filter of national trauma that was both generational and deeply personal. Although I never knew it, he lived just a few houses down on my own street, taking the same papers as me but interpreting them from a completely different perspective, until his death last year.

My students, like me, have heard about JFK’s assassination all our lives. We’ve studied it in classes, watched it on film, and heard about it from parents or grandparents as we listened dutifully or halfheartedly. But in the archives, we touched a hauntingly personal record of that history. And we left with new stories about our community, our country, and ourselves.

Blaine Greteman is a professor of English at the University of Iowa.