The Murder of John Lennon
The musician was not the only target on his killer’s list.
John Lennon and Yoko Ono via Wikimedia Commons
When David Bowie stepped out on stage on the 9th of December 1980, there were three empty seats in the front row. He was performing in The Elephant Man at the Booth Theatre on Broadway and the play was only running for another month. Most celebrities had already been to see him in the title role, but his good friend and collaborator John Lennon and his wife were due to watch him perform that night.
John and Yoko never saw the play, and neither did the owner of the third seat, Mark David Chapman.
The Beatles formed in 1960 in Liverpool, England and John, Paul, George and Ringo quickly rose to fame in their hometown. Their first hit Love Me Do in 1962 cemented their place in the music industry and their popularity began to grow outside of Liverpool. By 1964, the band had reached international fame and Beatlemania began to spread across the ocean to the United States. The hits kept coming and the foursome ended up releasing 13 albums in just seven years.
In 1970, after the dissolution of the band’s relationship, they decided to go their separate ways and broke up. All four released solo music that decade, having varying degrees of success, with Ringo Starr’s album Starr being the only album to feature all four Beatles individually.
John and Yoko moved to New York in 1971 and had a successful music career in their own right. The couple took part in protests and activism, which saw the FBI compile a file on the musician. Richard Nixon also tried to get John deported from America due to his vocal stance on the Vietnam war, as Nixon thought the musician would hinder his chances for re-election.
The paperwork was filed, and John spent years protesting the deportation and eventually won in 1975. By that point, Nixon was out of office and no one in government cared about John Lennon’s activism.
John took a step back from music that year when their son was born and eventually returned in 1980 when he and Yoko released Double Fantasy, their fifth album collaboration. A few weeks later, John Lennon was dead.
Mark David Chapman was born in 1955 in Fort Worth, Texas. The family moved around and ended up settling in Decatur, Georgia, where his parents’ marriage began to unravel. His father had a temper, and the couple would fight constantly, causing Chapman to socially withdraw.
He found solace in the Beatles and in narcotics, and he and his mother would fight endlessly over his using. School offered no respite from the tension at home and Chapman was bullied due to his lack of athleticism. At 16 years old, Chapman was introduced to a tele-evangelist at school and became a born-again Presbyterian. He joined the South DeKalb County YMCA and offered counselling to children.
“He was a man who liked to be with people, and got along well with co-workers. He was a good worker and a go-getter. He was an all-around good guy.” — Community-relations director, Paul Tharp, in New York Magazine.
His colleagues liked him and he worked hard, which was cemented when he was awarded Outstanding Counsellor at work. But Chapman was beginning to change, as were his views on the Beatles.
During an interview with London newspaper The Evening Standard, John Lennon had claimed that the Beatles were “more popular than Jesus”. Though it raised few eyebrows in the UK, it was reprinted in American teen magazine Datebook and fans across America were not as amused, retrospectively including Mark Chapman.
The interview in 1966 now had different connotations due to Chapman’s newfound belief in God, and he became incensed by the remark. He also began to read Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye and fixated on the novel’s narrator, Holden Caulfield, whose rebellious nature appealed to Chapman. The book has been hailed as the icon of teenage uprising for generations of readers and has been unfailingly listed as one of the best novels of its time. Chapman graduated high school in 1971 and left for Chicago, where he played the guitar at local Presbyterian churches. He travelled to Lebanon, on his own dime, to help refugees and work as a councillor, where his colleagues said he was a key member of the organisation.
“He was really caring with the refugees and he worked his tail off to do everything exactly right. He was a super kid.” — Program Director, YMCA, David Moore in Monday Morning Memo.
Chapman enrolled at Covenant College in Georgia, following his girlfriend, Jessica, but he quickly dropped out after missing assignments and due to guilt from sleeping with other women. He returned to his job working with Vietnam refugees in Arkansas but soon left as his depression worsened.
From there, he went on to get a job as a security guard, which gave him a permit to carry a weapon. He didn’t stay in the job for long and suddenly moved to Hawaii in 1977.
While in Honolulu, Chapman tried to end his life twice and both times he ended up at Castle Memorial hospital in Kailua. After voluntarily checking himself into a mental facility, he ended up working at the hospital full-time as a maintenance worker. In 1978, after believing he’d got through his depression, Chapman planned a trip around the world, and while booking the expedition, he met his future wife, Gloria Abe, the travel agent assigned to his account.
He was emotionally and physically abusive to his new wife and was controlling over her every move. He began to drink heavily and bought expensive artwork, all the while listening to the Beatles loudly on repeat at home.
As 1979 came to an end, Chapman quit his job at the hospital and took work as a security guard again. His personality had begun to regress, and he was struggling with his obsession with John Lennon and his depression once more. He now saw the musician as a ‘phony’ who didn’t value his music and instead only regarded the infamy and money that came with it.
Mark Chapman flew to New York in October 1980 with a gun in his checked luggage. He’d bought the Charter Arms .38 revolver before leaving Hawaii and was planning to kill John Lennon on his trip to the city, but he didn’t go through with it. He returned to his home and told his wife about his plans claiming he’d thrown away the gun.
On the 6th of December 1980, Chapman flew back to New York. In his luggage, he had the gun, ammunition and 14 hours of the Beatles music on cassettes.
The driver who picked him up from the airport spoke to the media about Chapman’s odd behaviour. According to Mark Snyder, Chapman told him that he was John Lennon’s sound engineer and that he and Paul McCartney were planning to make an album together soon. While in New York, Chapman also ran into musician James Taylor. Taylor told The Telegraph that the 25-year-old was ‘glistening with sweat’;
“His eyes were darting all over the place and dilated like crazy. To me the guy seemed either drugged or in a manic break of some sort… [I thought] Man, there are some freaky people in New York. And that’s as much as I thought of it. He was just someone who knew me who I didn’t know; someone who had an agenda that I knew I couldn’t deal with. I just knew that I needed to get away from him.”
But Chapman wasn’t after James Taylor, and he continued to plan his attack on his target.
John and Yoko lived in the Dakota, an apartment building on the corner of 72nd and Central Park West. Its residents at the time included composer Leonard Bernstein, singer Roberta Flack as well as scientists and other stars. The couple owned several apartments in the complex, which created resentment amongst its residents.
The Dakota via Wikimedia Commons
Because of the building’s inhabitants, it wasn’t unusual that Mark Chapman waited outside to catch a glimpse of John Lennon. He’d met their child’s nanny earlier that day and shook Sean Lennon’s hand while hanging around outside the building.
Around 5.00 pm on the 8th of December, John and Yoko exited the building and headed towards their waiting limousine. The couple were off to the recording studio and Chapman approached John with Double Fantasy in hand and asked him to sign it. A nearby photographer waiting to photograph residents of the building captured the exchange.
John Lennon signs Mark Chapman’s record via rarehistoricalphotos.com
John signed the record and asked Chapman, “Is that all?”, yes, that was all Chapman wanted at that point, and John continued to the waiting car with Yoko. Mark Chapman waited for him to return.
Chapman had left the little belongings he’d brought with him in his hotel room, but he had bought a new copy of The Catcher in the Rye, in which he’d written on the first page;
“This is my statement”
He spent the next few hours reading the book, waiting for the car to return.
At around 10.45 pm, John Lennon and Yoko Ono arrived home in the car. As the couple went to enter the building, Mark Chapman pulled out the revolver, crouched down and fired five shots. Four of the bullets hit John in the back and shoulder and he fell to the ground, outside the entrance to the building.
“A voice in my head said ‘do it, do it, do it, do it’. I aimed at his back and pulled the trigger five times and all hell broke loose in my mind.” — Mark Chapman told BBC News.
Chapman calmly put the gun on the ground and pulled out his novel and began reading again. When the police arrived, Chapman didn’t resist arrest and went quietly in the police car.
Realising the severity of John Lennon’s injuries, he was rushed to Roosevelt hospital in a police car but was pronounced dead on arrival after losing 80% of his blood. He was just 40 years old.
The next morning, the world found out that the icon had been murdered. News outlets dedicated shows to John and images of him graced the front covers of most newspapers. Fans flocked to the Dakota, leaving flowers and cards outside the police cordons.
Mark Chapman was charged with second-degree murder and was transferred to Bellevue hospital, where he was evaluated by dozens of doctors, most of which diagnosed Chapman with various mental illnesses. Some said he had paranoid schizophrenia, others believed he was a manic depressive, but they struggled with a definitive diagnosis, but in the end, it didn’t matter.
Mark David Chapman via abcnews.com by Chip East
The night before his trial, Chapman retracted his insanity defence and decided to plead guilty to the murder. On the 24thof August 1981, Mark David Chapman was sentenced to 20 years to life in prison and was ordered by the judge to receive mental health care while he served out his sentence.
Chapman was transferred to Attica Correctional Facility in New York, where he worked in the kitchens and as a legal clerk. He refused to do any interviews for six years but eventually went on the record with Larry King and Barbara Walters in 1992.
Mark Chapman had a list of other potential targets which included Johnny Carson and Elizabeth Taylor. In an interview with In The Studio, David Bowie told Redbeard that detectives confirmed that he was next on Chapman’s list;
“Chapman had a front-row ticket to ‘The Elephant Man‘ the next night. John and Yoko were supposed to sit front-row for that show, too. So the night after John was killed there were three empty seats in the front row. I can’t tell you how difficult that was to go on. I almost didn’t make it through the performance.”
In the 40 years since the death of John Lennon, a lot has happened. In 2000, Yoko Ono founded the John Lennon Museum in Japan, and in 2002, Liverpool’s airport was renamed Liverpool John Lennon Airport.
Mark Chapman has been denied parole eleven times, with his next hearing scheduled for 2022. During his 2020 hearing, Chapman apologised to the parole board, stating; “I assassinated him, to use your word earlier because he was very, very, very famous and that’s the only reason and I was very, very, very, very much seeking self-glory, very selfish.” The 65-year-old now resides in Wende Correctional Facility and it still married to Gloria Abe. They’re allowed to spend 44 hours a year together.
Multiple shootings have been associated with Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye, including Ronald Reagan’s assassination attempt by John Hinckley, and it has been taken off the English reading syllabus in various schools across the United States, since its publication as a novel in 1951.
Although the Beatles were only together for ten years, they had a profound effect on the industry and are regarded as the most influential band in music history. The cultural impact the band’s music had on future acts we know of today and paved the way for British acts in America.
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