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Which JFK Assassination Artifact is Locked Away Until 2103?
The approaching fifty-ninth anniversary of the assassination of John Kennedy again has historians focusing on sealed government files at the National Archives and whether President Biden will order finally their full release.
The National Archive’s assassination collection, however, includes much more than paper files. It also is the repository for physical evidence, everything from Lee Harvey Oswald’s Mannlicher Carcano rifle to President Kennedy’s clothing. Researchers and historians who meet strict standards set by the archives can obtain access to view the physical evidence. I got permission in 1993, for example, to examine Warren Commission Exhibit 399, the single bullet that wounded both JFK and Governor Connally. However, there is one item to which no researcher has had access: the iconic pink Chanel-styled suit that the First Lady wore the day her husband was murdered.
In photos of the morning before the assassination, Jackie’s suit was a vivid reminder of the glamour and style that she and Jack had brought to Washington. The “sun just illuminated it,” recalled Clint Hill, the Secret Service agent assigned to the First Lady. Jackie had bought it from Chez Ninon, a Park Avenue salon that was one of her favorites, and she had worn it half a dozen times before Dallas.
The assassination at 12:30 unexpectedly made that suit a grim part of history.
The presidential limousine raced to Dallas’s Parkland Hospital with the wounded president.
“I stayed at the car,” an ob-gyn resident, Dr. Bill Midgett, told me. “Then it was a matter of Mrs. Kennedy letting go of the President. You couldn’t see the President’s head at this point.”
A Dallas police officer walked to the rear of the car.
“She was laying over him,” he recalls. “I gently grabbed her by both shoulders, and said, ‘Now c’mon, ma’am, c’mon out of the car, and let them take him inside.’ And she sat up and let go of him.”
“It was obvious that when she sat up in the car,” says Midgett, “she knew that people were there to assist her husband. When I could finally see the President, I thought he was dead. I never saw anyone with a head wound like that, with the amount of brain matter scattered about, that survived. We put the President on the gurney and wheeled him into emergency room one. Mrs. Kennedy would not leave his side. She went in with us as the gurney was rolled into the hospital, walking right beside him, holding his hand. She was absolutely deadpan quiet.
“One of the nurses offered to clean off her clothing, and she said, ‘Absolutely not. I want the world to see what Dallas has done to my husband.’ Someone else asked if she wanted to wait outside the emergency room while they worked on her husband, and she said no and went inside with the gurney.”
In photos taken of Jackie later that day, on Air Force One watching in disbelief as Lyndon Johnson was sworn in as president, and in the evening when she arrived at Andrews Air Force Base, she still wore the blood-stained suit. She had again resisted suggestions from her aides that she change or clean herself up.
The following day at the White House, the First Lady’s personal assistant, Providencia Paredes, put that suit and the navy shoes, bag, blood-spattered stockings, and navy blouse, in a dress box. All that was missing was the matching pillbox hat and white kid gloves the First Lady had worn. Those had somehow been lost in the bedlam of the previous day.
The box of clothing was sent initially to the Georgetown home of Janet Auchincloss, Jackie’s mother. The following summer it went to the National Archives, along with an unsigned note from Mrs. Auchincloss: “Jackie’s suit and bag — worn November 22, 1963.”
The Kennedys had not cleaned the suit. That is how the archives preferred it, ensuring its history was preserved. Leaving blood or other residue on clothing is the standard archival practice.
The archives knew that after Jackie’s 1994 death, the clothing belonged to her surviving heir, her daughter, Caroline Kennedy. In 2003, Caroline deeded the clothing to the archives with the stipulation that it not be seen by the public until at least 2103. When that date arrives, the Kennedy family can renegotiate the terms.
The Kennedys always worried that some of the family’s personal items connected to the assassination might become part of gruesome public displays. That concern was why Robert Kennedy later had JFK’s brain, removed during the autopsy, buried with his brother when JFK’s corpse was reinterred at Arlington Cemetery in 1967. The Kennedys were aware of the sometimes-morbid fascination with artifacts tied to violent history (Napoleon’s death coat and Lincoln’s suit were two that stood out).
At the archives, Jackie Kennedy’s pink suit and its accessories remain basically unchanged from the assassination. They are preserved in an acid-free container in a windowless room in which the temperature is maintained between 65 and 68 °F and the humidity set at 40 percent. The air is filtered six times an hour.
When it is available finally for public viewing in the twenty-second century, that blood-caked suit will be a vivid reminder of the horror of what happened in Dallas on November 22, 1963.
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