Winter break during my first year in college, I was introduced to my new stepmom Linda, a forensic pathologist who specialized in child homicide cases. Her interests may have been too gory for some kids. For me she was never the “wicked” stepmother. She became my loving second mom, my medical mentor—and my hero.
Here’s how I fell in love with her.
(An excerpt from my unpublished memoir)
Arriving at Linda’s house for dinner, we’re greeted by her teen daughters (my new sisters) who guide us through the foyer to the kitchen where I see Linda with a glass of wine.
Linda, a large-boned woman with olive complexion and short dark hair says, “So you must be Pamela. I’ve heard a lot about you.”
Just then I hear loud banging and notice Linda’s smacking slabs of raw meat with a spiked wooden hammer. I’ve never seen anyone hit meat in my life. And with such brute force. As a vegetarian, I’m both intrigued and sickened.
Lately I’ve been placing “Warning: DEAD animal in here” stickers on packages of ground beef in grocery stores. Part of a guerilla animal rights campaign. Just a friendly reminder for shoppers who might forget their food had a face and a family.
Why punch a dead animal with a hammer? And who’d want to do such a thing in front of house guests?
“What are you doing?” I ask in a loud voice.
“Tenderizing the steak.” She keeps pounding and pummeling the dead cow. “Got you pasta. I heard you’re vegetarian.”
“Okay, thanks.” I glance away from the scene and see a Betty Crocker cookbook on the counter partially covered by manila folders, one entitled “autopsy.” I wonder if there’s a dead child in there.
“A meat mallet breaks down the connective tissues to produce a tender steak,” Linda explains like a food scientist. “The pyramidal spikes disrupt the fascia and muscle fibers.”
I’m not gonna argue with a forensic pathologist holding a hammer. Maybe she’s had a tough day. Must be processing rage for the child’s killer with that mallet.
To me, Linda’s fascinating and a bit mysterious. She’s the original host of the murder mystery dinner. I can tell she’s mulling over her manila folders while masticating. She’s quirky like my Dad [also a pathologist]. Yet unlike Dad, she’s fearless. And her daughters are cool. Never had younger sisters. After dinner we hang out and play cards, then we’re invited to spend the night. I borrow some pajamas, get comfy, and head upstairs to the bathroom. I see a door ajar. Linda is in bed reading.
“Linda, thanks for dinner. What are you reading?”
“A second-opinion autopsy for a court case.”
Strewn about Linda’s lap are close-up photos of a trailer-park murder—blood-soaked blonde hair on a lady face down on the carpet.
“How can you look at dead people before bed?”
She smiles. “Been doing it a long time.” Winks at me. “Sleep well, Pam. See you in the morning.”
Linda’s tough, seems to be able to handle anything. Kind of reminds me of Dad studying late into the night though he was mostly reading big textbooks and looking at slides, not murder scenes.
In the morning, Linda and her daughters make us pancakes. As I’m dunking a bit of pancake in a dipping bowl of maple syrup, I’m told Linda’s been involved in some high-profile cases—even did the autopsy on Lee Harvey Oswald five years ago to make sure he wasn’t a Russian spy.
“Wow! You cut open the guy who killed JFK? How’d you get that case?”
“I was Dallas County Medical Examiner. Nobody else wanted to do it. I was the only person who hadn’t been sued and had copies of Oswald’s dental records.”
“I want to know everything!” I stop eating for a moment and lean in with absolute focus on every word about to exit her mouth.
“The exhumation turned into an international news carnival. On October 4, 1981, I got up early to be at Rose Hill Cemetery by five. Was met by security guards. Helicopters were flying above as backhoes began digging at 6:30. We unearthed the crumbling casket by eight. Water damage caused the old pine box to cave in at the top so we could see the body in there. We left the cemetery at nine with the hearse.”
“As Oswald’s hearse headed to Dallas, media assumed the autopsy would be at our medical examiner’s office by Parkland Hospital. More than 300 media surrounded the place like Santa Ana’s troops at the Alamo.” She pauses with a grin. “But we were at Baylor.”
“Ha! You ditched them, huh?”
“Dallas County opposed use of county property for Oswald’s autopsy so we found another site. Meanwhile at the cemetery people were jumping the fence to grab handfuls of dirt dug up by gravediggers, ya know, saving sod as souvenirs. Four-year anniversary of JFK’s assassination, Oswald’s gravestone was even stolen. They had to hire security to keep all the dirt from being dragged off his grave.” Linda stands up, grabs a folder from the livingroom, and hands me Oswald’s autopsy report—my very own copy to keep! While sipping my orange juice, I skim through the details:
“Upon entry into the casket a moderate malodor emanated from the decomposing body. As measured in the casket from superior skull to heel region on the left, a body length of 177 cm (69 1/2 in.) was obtained. A gold wedding band and a red stone ring were removed from the fifth digit of the left hand . . . A relatively intact pair of white with green diamond pattern boxer undershorts were also in position upon the body . . . diameter of the lower extremities was estimated at approximately one-third of the in life circumference. The intact skin upon the distal lower extremities had a friable consistency, was more dry than wet, shriveled, and parchment-like . . . ribs were markedly friable and crumbled with mild pressure. . . The head was removed from the remainder of the body by incision of the mummified soft tissue maintaining the skull . . .”
“So did you know right away it was him? The real Lee Harvey Oswald?”
“Within ten minutes I had the rings, gave them to his widow who was waiting in the next room. She confirmed these were the rings she had placed (by way of the embalmer) on her husband before his coffin was sealed on November 25, 1963. Finding those rings and the mist of mold covering his body, I had proof the remains hadn’t been tampered with. We snipped a wire that clamped his mouth shut for the last eighteen years, and his jaw came right off. Had two forensic odontologists (tooth sleuths) examine dental records that can be as exact as a fingerprint.”
Linda’s daughters get up to wash the dishes. I guess they’ve heard this story before.
“By 2:30 in the afternoon we completed the autopsy. Left Baylor at three and got Oswald back in the ground by four. Just before we departed the hospital, his wife gave me a gift—the red ruby ring. We slipped it back in the box with Oswald and that’s how the whole thing ends.”
Linda taps her TV remote and a pre-recorded videocassette begins to play the Norton Team press conference. Wearing a tan pant suit and gold-rimmed glasses, my new stepmom makes her world debut on international news:
“The findings of the team are as follows: We independently and as a team have concluded beyond any doubt—and I mean beyond any doubt—that the individual buried under the name of Lee Harvey Oswald in Rose Hill Cemetery is, in fact, Lee Harvey Oswald.”
(View video the Linda Norton Team press conference below)
I love this woman. She’s an American hero.
“If there’s a reasonable question that science can resolve, I feel it’s in the public interest to conduct the exhumation.”
“Did you ever think you’d find the Russian spy in Oswald’s coffin?”
“Pam, if I thought for a minute we’d find another body, or no body, I wouldn’t have taken the assignment. I didn’t want to spend the rest of my life in congressional hearings. It’s hard to make a living that way.”
Linda went to a place no woman had dared go before—her hands inside the most infamous killer in modern US history. Amid conspiracy theories and bad publicity no physician wanted to touch Oswald’s case, his body, or even think of wearing his ruby red ring. Yet so many seemed obsessed with revisiting every detail of the day JFK died.
* * *
I spent the summer after my first year of college as her “intern” assisting Linda with child homicide cases. When I got back to college for my sophomore year, she mailed me this letter:
“Dear Pam, Just thought I’d take time between exhumations to write you a note. If this disinterment business and re-exam of autopsied bodies continues I won’t have time to do anything else. Perhaps it’s just a fad that will pass but then there isn’t a lot of competition out there for this type of work. ‘Tis a shame you’re not closer to finishing all your training—I’m going to need a good forensic pathologist partner soon and you definitely have the sick, warped and perverted mind that it takes to be great in this field. Lord what a team we’ll make. What happened with the calculus deal? Be sure to keep me posted. Don’t hesitate to call collect any time you just feel like talking. Love ya, Linda”
I never became her forensic pathologist partner, though I credit Linda with much of my professional success. She continues to be a role model for me as an entrepreneurial woman physician who always spoke the truth and never feared controversy.
Pamela Wible, M.D., is a family physician who has devoted herself to doctor suicide prevention. She runs a doctor suicide helpline, maintains a registry of doctor suicides, and offers weekly peer support groups for traumatized physicians.