Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Who Killed James Forrestal?

When a former Secretary of Defense plunges to his death news and speculation will run rampant. James Forrestal’s plunge from a window at Bethesda Naval Hospital sent shocks throughout official Washington and the nation at large. Naval officials lost no time in establishing an investigation looking into the death. Unfortunately the report was sequestered until released by a Freedom Of Information Act request which has shed some new light on the case. However, after carefully examining its contents, we believe that James Forrestal killed himself.

The conclusion of suicide is not an easy one to make especially in the case of such a personage as Mr. Forrestal who whether reviled or admired commanded respect and attention. Many strange details uncovered at the time of the investigation and later provided abundant grounds to suspect foul play. In fact enough evidence existed that police officials should have been investigated to determine the sufficiency of the evidence for a conclusion of suicide.

Time Of Death

The drama started during the very early hours of May 22, 1949 when Hospitalman 2d class William Eliades heard a loud thud coming from across the room where he was reading a magazine. He rushed to the bacteriology lab to find the cause of the sound when looking out the window he saw a body lying face down. At the same time LT Dorothy Turner who was a nurse working the nearby towers also heard a loud thud. She hurriedly made rounds to see if her patients were all right.

In the mean time Eliades went onto the 3d floor ledge to check the pulse of the body but found none. Shortly thereafter LT JG Francis Westneat arrived on the scene whereupon he pronounced the man dead.

Concurrently Dorothy Turner realizing that Forrestal was under watch in tower 16 ran to LT Regina Harty who was the nurse in charge of Forrestal to determine his whereabouts. They ran down to his room, flipped on the lights only to discover Hospital Apprentice Robert Harrison groping around in the dark looking for Forrestal with Hospital Apprentice Edwin Utz’s flashlight after Utz came to him in Forrestal’s room from the nursing station to perform a bed check requested by the Information Desk. Forrestal was not in the room but his bed had broken glass and Turner noticed the slippers with a razor blade next to them.

Harrison went to the galley about 15 minutes later where he notice the window open and the screen pulled away.

Soon camera men were photographing the body on the ledge while hospital officials notified senior commanders and the county coroner who provided authorization to move the body into the morgue where it was identified as that of James Forrestal. The body was clad in pajamas and found with a bathrobe sash tied around its neck.

The Investigation

Hospital officials lost no time in convening an investigation which Rear Admiral M D Willcutts launched with a panel of five physicians. They began hearings later in the day by going to the morgue to identify the body for the record and request an autopsy to be performed. The following day they began closed door testimony from twenty witnesses who had material knowledge about both the patient and the activities in the hospital on the night of the death.

The Doctors

The doctors told a very consistent story about Forrestal’s mental condition which was described as reactive depression from as early as Forrestal’s consultation with Dr. William Menninger and Dr. George Raines in Hobe Sound, FL. The latter was a Naval doctor who was the physician in charge of Forrestal’s case and care. The story was so consistent it sounded rehearsed.

The doctors stated that Forrestal was a very fatigued and depressed man who carried potential of suicide though no suicidal acts occurred in Hobe Sound or at the hospital. Forrestal was admitted to the Bethesda Naval Hospital on April 2, 1949 after first flying to Hobe Sound for rest on March 29. However Robert Lovett a friend who lived on Jupiter Island noticed that he was sleepless, restless, depressed – a diagnosis with which Forrestal agreed and called his former aid Ferdinand Eberstadt to come to him in Florida with Dr. Menninger of Topeka, KS. All agreed that Forrestal required immediate hospitalization and had him flown to Bethesda.

He was admitted under suicide precautions though not necessarily suicidal. Dr. Raines prescribed insulin sub-shock therapy to keep him sedated and constant 24 hour observation with someone assigned to his room. Two other interns, Dr Robert Deen and Dr David Hightower were to stay in the adjoining room to provide immediate care if required.

Doctors Raines and Stephen Smith conducted lengthy therapeutic interviews in order to assess and treat the mental stresses plaguing Forrestal. They testified that Forrestal did not show any suicidal thoughts nor did he have any specific suicidal ideation though Dr. Raines stated that were Forrestal to commit suicide he would chose hanging or pills. He specifically stated that Forrestal would not choose jumping or razor blades. He related a story where Forrestal handed him a razor blade. He asked what it was for. Forrestal told him that it was proof that he would not use a razor blade to kill himself.

The testimony uniformly confirms that Forrestal did not pose a specific suicidal danger although it was certainly risk which they needed to manage. In time Forrestal began to recover in a slow steady though erratic manner. His progress warranted the relaxation of initial restrictions which forbade leaving his room and visitors. The doctors testified that such relaxations were essential for reconnection with the world and development of self confidence.

The Corpsmen and Staff

The corpsmen, Price and Harrison, testified that though Forrestal’s behavior on the day of suicide was peculiar it was not outside the norms of previously established boundaries and was thus not cause for alarm. However Price noted that Forrestal was heavily pacing that evening in a way that he had not previously seen and had opened the window of the adjoining room which was also somewhat out of the ordinary because he raised the blinds to the top. They both noted that he did not take his sleeping pills which, again, was not terribly unusual as he had recently developed a pattern of sporadic consistency in taking them.

Because of Forrestal’s restlessness the corpsman and nurse recommended a consultation with Deen to determine how to handle it. Forrestal had been up for orange juice and coffee and then asked who had just visited his room after Harty left after a routine check. That seems to have been the straw which broke the camel’s back for them but Deen after consulting with Harty determined that the choice for taking the sleeping pills should be Forrestal’s.

The rest of the night staff who interacted with Forrestal that night stated that beyond these quirks he was in good spirits though not ebullient; showed friendliness to Utz; and seemed to show no troublesome aberrations.

The Pathologist

The board called Dr William Silliphant last who was the pathologist who conducted the autopsy. He stated that Forrestal died from injuries resulting from a fall from a high place. He enumerated multiple injuries and traumas consistent with such a fall. But when the board asked him about strangulation he emphatically denied asphyxiation or strangulation as a cause or factor in death stating that absolutely no evidence was found for it.

Wrap Up

After hearing all of the witnesses the board called back Raines to find out why Raines left town when Forrestal was at a vulnerable stage in his recovery. Raines had previously said that the most dangerous point in suicidally risky patients is when depression lifts and patients begin to recover their vitality as was clearly happening with Forrestal. He had used this to explain and exculpate his actions. Raines recycled the script that he needed to allow his patient more autonomy and independence in order to facilitate recovery and confidence. The board meekly acquiesced.

The board concluded its investigation within less than two weeks which was summarized by a Finding of Facts which essentially said that the treatment was consistent with state of the art psychiatric care, the patient died from severe traumas from a fall, and that no negligence could be attributed to the staff. The report was reviewed and slightly amended to fix the precise time of death and then locked away for 60 years.

Evidence For Murder

The silence was as deadly as the fall because it begat incessant speculation about the death. Was it murder, an accident, or really suicide? The gossip columnists were vicious with even some administration officials suggesting questions many years later during their oral histories at the Harry S. Truman Library.
The board clearly did not have any forensic competence even though they were highly qualified doctors. Some of the suspicious findings to emerge over time which did not have satisfactory answers included

  • Broken glass in Forrester’s bed
  • Broken glass on rug
  • A hand written poem by Sophocles by a hand other than Forrestal’s
  • Scuff marks on the window sill in the kitchen
  • An immediate sterilization of Forrester’s room
  • Suppression of the autopsy and the Board of Investigation Report
  • Forrestal’s improvements versus a sudden regression and lack of suicidal evidence
  • The new corpsman assigned
We admit being troubled by these artifacts and had assumed at one point that they revealed an open and shut case of foul play. However, we delved into additional evidence, particularly the Nurse’s Notes to synchronize the testimony with Forrestal’s state of mind. Those Notes hold the key to unlocking the testimony.

The Nurse’s Notes

As part of watching Forrestal 24 hours per day, the corpsmen assigned to Forrestal maintained a detailed log documenting his medication, feeding, and behavior. It included insightful observations about his activity as well as very mundane things such as bowl movements. The notes are not necessarily exhaustive especially when continuous 24 hour surveillance was cut back. Nonetheless they are a running history of the man in as much detail as one could want.

After reading through them one gets a strong sense of Forrestal’s mind and recovery. Certain indicators stand out strongly such as appetite, outside interests, and physical activity. While progressing through the Notes one starts to sense the rhythm and expected behavior at certain shifts in Forrestal’s engine. The day of death exhibited a number of low keyed but disturbing differences from the pattern which had been developing.

A couple of weeks before his death, Forrestal asked the corpsman if his conversations between him and doctors were recorded. The corpsman told him no but Forrestal did not accept that. He became so insistent that the Corpsman invited him to call the Doctor which he did. Still not entirely satisfied he made yet another search of the room for recording devices. He found none and eventually gave up but the interesting activity preceding this outburst was an intense spasm of pacing.

Raines told the BOI that Forrestal expressed an acute concern over the press reports of his hospitalization and the rumors which certain columnists had been spreading. Sometimes it was too painful to hear so Forrestal asked Raines to listen and summarize the radio broadcast. After comparing the two episodes I developed the opinion that Forrestal began to fear for his reputation and thought that some of the details of his hospitalization had been leaked to the press. I suspect that reports got out but cannot say if it was deliberate or who let them out. Forrestal had relatively few visitors with family, President Truman, and Secretary of Defense Johnson being the most notable. There was only one other or possibly two others beyond these visitors.

Another typical behavior of Forrestal’s was to wake between 5:15 -06:00 and remain awake. On the day of his death he awoke, asked what time it was, then pulled the sheets back and rolled back to sleep for another 60-90 minutes, something which he had never done before. I was quite alarmed when I read that.

The corpsmen note that Forrestal was very quiet during the day. At that point in his stay they usually noted something about his mood and various conversations he might make but on this day it was almost a solemn quiet. Again, the persistence of the Notes in this vein also struck me as uncharacteristic. Although he ate well he did not eat as well as he had and ignored his extra feeding which by that point was very uncharacteristic. Raines notes at one point that although Forrestal gained 5 pounds it was still quite short of the 20 or so pounds he had lost over the past several months.

Perhaps the most disturbing comment Forrestal made on the Saturday morning of his death was that he did not want to see his planned visitor. According to Dr Deen he actually saw Paul Strieffler, his business manager, for a short time but his attitude of wanting to cancel the visit was contrary to his attitude of the past few weeks where outside visits seemed to put him in a good mood.

Both Price and Harrison recorded heavy pacing as we mentioned previously. We have seen that this activity was a sign of heightened agitation. Forrestal also refused his sleeping pills which when accompanied by his pacing indicated that he was in no hurry to go to sleep. Pace also testified to Forrestal raising the window and blinds as high as possible in the adjoining bed room but when Pace approached him he let them down stating that he did not want to get him in trouble.

Forrestal also did two uncharacteristic things by asking for orange juice and then drinking coffee. For someone who was not falling asleep but who should have been long asleep this was not a good idea. In fact Forrestal was caught in the galley by Utz alone. He drank the coffee then went to bed. But when the Nurse came by for a routine checkup he asked Harrison who just left showing again that sleep was far from his mind. Normally he would have been long asleep.

Putting It Together

We, the doctors, and corpsmen noted that these activities viewed in isolation would have not violated the pattern which Forrestal had recently shown but considered together they raised a big bright red flag. It is my belief that Forrestal was in some measure embarrassed by the press coverage which would diminish his future credibility in whatever endeavor he chose to pursue. His life had been so absorbed in his work which he recently lost that it seemed improbable that he could resume a self-respecting life. His statements and actions clearly signaled premeditation of suicide which he saw as the only remedy of his predicament.

But what about those suspicious evidences noted above? Let’s start with the scuff marks. The scuff marks were probably made by Forrestal in struggling to open the window. Other testimony mentioned that some of the windows were difficult or impossible to open. He more than likely put one of his slippered feet on the sill to gain better leverage. He may have been interrupted from flying out the window when Utz came in with coffee to which Forrestal ad-libbed with a late midnight coffee break – something without precedent for him.

The broken glass in his bed is a puzzle – it is hard to know the significance of that. Maybe it was plan B or a decoy. Maybe Forrestal broke something in frustration. In any event the slippers and razor blade are significant. The razor blade was a message to Raines that he still had that option but was not interested in using it.

The poem was never properly handled by the BOI. It clearly is not written by Forrestal. Perhaps he had his son or wife write it. Maybe his Butler brought it to him on a visit. In any event, I believe that Forrestal did leave it. Although he does not strike me as one interested terribly much in poetry he did well in English and classics in school and he did have a reputation as an intellectual.

The broken glass on the rug could have been accidentally left from the cleanup of Forrestal’s room later that day. The room should have been preserved for clues for criminal intent but it now all seems moot.

The board could have quelled a lot of latter day speculation and confusion if it had released its report in its entirety but there were understandably sensitive and private data in it so its release would not have been in the interest of Forrestal’s family – especially his sons.

And what about the noose around his neck? That too was a playful reminder to Raines of their conversation where stated that he would die by hanging himself but that either he had changed his mind or that the facilities for hanging were not satisfactory. In essence, the razor blade and noose were Forrestal's sad farewell to his psychiatric caregiver who was not available for him at his deepest moment of need.

We also laid out the movements of each actor in the testimony to see where they were at each moment from midnight to 02:00 and realized that there was too much movement and too little time for a team of assassins to enter the room and toss Forrestal out the window. Raines was right when said that Forrestal was still quick after all these years.

The End

It thus seems to us, after consolidating the evidence, that instead of using the razor by Forrestal’s slippers we should use instead the razor given to us by Occam – to wit: the simplest explanation is to be preferred over the more complex especially when it is sufficient to explain phenomena.

We are open to continued exploration of the role of murder in Forrestal’s death but we feel that the evidence provides satisfactory explanation of suicide.

Medical Records of James Forrestal
Autopsy of James Forrestal
Wilcutts Investigation of Death
Copyright 2009, David Bonn


Mark said...

Apart from the incredible writing style the above contains a number of factual errors and omissions of which the following is the most serving to its conclusion: “... when the Nurse came by for a routine checkup he asked Harrison who just left showing again that sleep was far from his mind.” I'm not sure what it means exactly but after the orange juice and coffee the Nurse’s Notes continue 10 minutes later:
... 12:45 am -- Pt in bed resting.
... 1:00 am -- Pt sleeping.
... 1:30 am -- Pt awake. Pt sat up in bed a second and then laid back down. When asked if he wanted his sleeping capsule, Pt replied “I was asleep and I just woke up. I’ll go back to sleep without it.”
Which, if corpsman Harrison is to be believed, were Forrestal’s last words.

An easy to read version of the Nurses’s Notes is available at
The Nurse’s Notes

Tony Bonn said...

I do not believe that my article contained any factual errors nor were there any substantive omissions - certainly none of the type which would alter the thesis.

Mark said...

The link to the Nurse's Notes above is obsolete. The new link is as given here.

Rac said...

Certainly it's hard to prove murder, because we do not have anyone seeing him being killed. His brother thought he was killed and his chaplain was told by a corpsman at the hospital he was killed.

The facts you discussed do not really prove one way or the other, either.

Your idea that they gave him the poem because he liked poetry seems odd. The poem was incomplete. It was only written out in 11 of its lines and there were many more lines left. Why give someone an incomplete poem as a present. Anyway, he had the book with the poem in it right there, so why would he need a written copy.

There are lots of strange things about the case. At the least, the press was not correct in reporting major things about it, like when it wrongly said the poem stopped at the word Nightingale. And the investigation was also mistaken, for example in disturbing the scene as you said.

Tony Bonn said...

an eye witness is not required to judicially prove murder.

the facts we provided support the suicide theory. having read the hospital records and the predictions of his doctors, suicide is the most reasonable explanation.

in addition, the evidence found at the site of his body reinforces the conclusion, as does the evidence found by the window where he jumped.

we requested through foia the hospital records in order to prove murder, but the evidence pointed overwhelmingly to suicide.

the fact of the matter is that forrestal was nervously exhausted and in a parlous state of mental health which prompted Truman to dismiss him with compassion.

if you read our site, you will note that we have a propensity for conspiracy, but simply found it lacking in this case. believe me, there are plenty of more serious conspiracies to chase.

Lee Anderson said...

Did anyone check the glass found in the room for prints?

Tony Bonn said...

There was very little forensic analysis done of Forrestal's room or of the kitchen and window from where he jumped. I am nearly certain that no finger prints were taken of glass. His room was promptly cleaned after police investigators reviewed it.