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What Happened To First Casket President Kennedy Was Placed In After Shooting In Dallas?

November 24, 2013

President Kennedy’s head was wrapped to prevent blood loss from impacting the inside of the coffin he was placed in when in Dallas.  The efforts proved futile, as one might image.  Once in Washington a second coffin was bought for Kennedy.  But what happened to the first one?  A most amazing part of history.


After JFK’s autopsy at Bethesda Naval Hospital and the hard work by the mortuary team from Gawler’s Funeral Home to make him presentable, President Kennedy couldn’t be placed back in the beautiful but bloodstained bronze coffin that had carried him home from Texas.  Gawler’s had brought with them to Bethesda another elegant casket fit for a President – a $3,160 Marsellus 710 coffin that was crafted from “hand-rubbed, five-hundred-year-old African mahogany”.  It was that flag-draped casket from Gawler’s that John F. Kennedy, Jr. saluted and Americans saw being laid to rest in Arlington National Cemetery.

The history of Vernon O’Neal’s casket did not end that night at Bethesda when President Kennedy was transferred to a different coffin.  Gawler’s Funeral Home took possession of JFK’s original casket after they placed him in the undamaged casket that their mortuary team had brought to Bethesda Naval Hospital following Kennedy’s autopsy.  Whether it was as a morbid souvenir or simply due to confusion about what to do with it, Gawler’s stored JFK’s original coffin in a warehouse in Washington, D.C.  In January 1964, less than two months after JFK’s burial, Vernon O’Neal submitted a bill to the federal government for $3,995 for the casket that Secret Service Agent Clint Hill ordered in Dallas and JFK was transported to Washington in.                 

The government felt that O’Neal’s bill was “excessive”, particularly since he had merely delivered the casket to Parkland Hospital in Dallas and had not performed any other funeral services such as embalming, chapel services or transportation of mourners.  O’Neal lowered the price by $500, but the government still had an issue with the $3,495 price tag.  What Vernon O’Neal actually wanted was the casket itself.  O’Neal had received offers of $100,000 by parties interested in collecting and displaying the casket as a unique relic of the slain President.  For the Kennedy Family – still reeling from the assassination and its aftermath – the last thing they wanted was a spectacle surrounding a bloodstained coffin that JFK had spent just a few hours in.  At the family’s urging, the federal government paid O’Neal (he received $3,160 for his services on November 22, 1963) and the General Services Administration took possession of the object in 1965.

In September 1965, the House of Representatives passed a bill which required the government to preserve any objects related to the Kennedy Assassination which might contain evidentiary value.  Several days later, Representative Earle Cabell from Texas sent a letter to Attorney General Nicholas Katzenbach (who had replaced Bobby Kennedy at the Justice Department a year earlier).  In his letter, Congressman Cabell suggested that the casket had no value for anyone other than “the morbidly curious”.  Since the Kennedy Family “did not see fit to use this particular casket in the ultimate interment of the body”, Cabell felt that it was “surplus” material owned and controlled by the federal government.  To shut down those who might be “morbidly curious”, Cabell recommended that the casket “be declared the proper property of the USA and, as such and in keeping with the best interest of the country, be destroyed.”

The Kennedy Family agreed with Congressman Cabell’s sentiments and Attorney General Katzenbach ensured everyone that the casket had no evidentiary value, no good reason for display or storage, and that it was the property that the government had the right to dispose of in whichever way it sought fit.  On February 18, 1966, several members of the Air Force picked the casket up from a secure building at the National Archives just a few blocks from the White House.  The casket was placed in an Air Force truck and transported to Andrews Air Force Base – the very place that the casket had originally landed in Washington with President Kennedy inside of it less than three years earlier.  At Andrews, the Air Force team from the 93rd Air Terminal Squadron loaded the coffin on to a C130 transport plane.

To dispose of the casket, the Air Force had decided to take it to a place that JFK had once considered being buried:  the Atlantic Ocean.  Kennedy loved the sea and was said to have considered being buried at sea when he died.  Of course, we know that Kennedy was buried at Arlington National Cemetery instead, but for many reasons, the Atlantic Ocean was the perfect place for the disposal of the casket that had brought him back to Washington following his assassination.

The Air Force wanted to ensure the integrity of the casket and not allow it to become a souvenir by someone who happened to come across it floating in the ocean or washing up on the shore.  The C130 flew about 100 miles east of Washington, D.C. and descended to about 500 feet above the water.  Before taking off, the Air Force had drilled over 40 holes into the casket and filled it with three 80-pound sandbags.  It was also secured inside of a wooden crate and sealed shut in a manner so that it wouldn’t break apart upon hitting the water. 

At approximately 10:00 AM, the C130’s tail hatch was opened and the casket was pushed out of the aircraft.  Parachutes softened its fall and the coffin began to sink instantly.  The airplane circled the drop zone for about 20 minutes to make sure that the coffin didn’t resurface, but they had no reason to worry.  The Air Force had chosen an area of the Atlantic that saw very little air or sea traffic, and the casket settled in about 9,000 feet of water.  The Kennedy Family was relieved that they no longer had to worry about a bloody casket going on display somewhere for the “morbidly curious”.

Coincidentally, in 1999, President Kennedy’s son, John F. Kennedy, Jr. was killed when the plane he was flying crashed near Martha’s Vineyard.  After his body was recovered and identified, JFK Jr.’s remains were taken out into the Atlantic Ocean – just a few hundred miles from the drop zone of his father’s original casket – and buried at sea.

  1. Lisa permalink
    January 10, 2018 4:21 PM

    I love the history trivia you have on your blog. I looked under the trivia category and have enjoyed reading this morning.

  2. November 24, 2013 2:49 PM


    The story from Channel 3 was really something to see….I had no idea….never heard that before.


    come this to add to your comment.

    The mortuary team from Gawler’s took over three hours to work on President Kennedy, clean him up, dress him (in a bluish-gray pinstriped suit with a white shirt, black shoes, and blue tie with dots), place him in a brand-new casket and put a rosary in the hands of the nation’s only Catholic President. A little after 4:00 AM, President Kennedy, his widow and Bobby Kennedy arrived the White House after a solemn motorcade through the darkened streets of Washington. In the first nod to Lincoln’s funeral, JFK’s flag-draped casket is carried by an honor guard into the East Room of the White House and placed on a replica of the black catafalque that Lincoln’s coffin once rested on. After Kennedy’s casket is situated in the East Room, Jackie Kennedy and Bobby Kennedy entered the room and asked that the lid be opened. Both Jackie and Bobby were exhausted and emotionally drained, and Jackie was still wearing the Pink Chanel dress that she had cradled her dying husband’s head in. The front of her dress was smeared with the dried blood and brain matter of the President. As ghastly as the sight was, Jackie continually refused to change, noting that she wanted everyone to see what “they” did to her husband. As the casket lid was opened, Jackie snipped a lock of her husband’s hair with scissors and turned to Bobby, saying, “It isn’t Jack” – once again alluding to her wish that the casket remain closed.

  3. Solly permalink
    November 24, 2013 2:42 PM

    There was an interesting feature on the Friday “Live at Five” broadcast on Channel 3. The co-anchor Susan Siman’s father was an officer in the Navy. When news of the shooting came, he was out in the field drilling his troops in preparation for a state funeral. However, it was because Herbert Hoover was sick (he would die the next year). If anyone’s interested, the interview can be found here. Another interesting story is that when the officer was at the White House in preparation for the march to the Capitol with the president’s body, Jackie and RFK came in, went up to the coffin where it was on display, had it opened, and then RFK shook his head no, and Jackie also. The officer asked a Secret Service agent what that was about. He said there was a question as to whether there would be an open casket for the VIP visitation. My own story about “where was I?” when I heard, for some reason, I was off school with a friend, playing in my bedroom. Don’t know why, too early for a snow day, my parochial school didn’t have teachers’ conferences, maybe the nuns were on strike. Anywho, my friend and I, 8 years old, were concerned about whether the Germans would take advantage and invade. I can only figure out we focused on the Germans, rather than the Russians, because Combat! was a popular show on TV at the time.

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