The Assassination of John Lennon

Founding Member of the Beatles Shot by Mark David Chapman

Picture of John Lennon and Yoko Ono
Portrait of Japanese-born artist and musician Yoko Ono and British musician and artist John Lennon. (December 1968). (Photo by Susan Wood/Getty Images)

John Lennon — founding member of the Beatles, and one of the most beloved and famous music legends of all time — died on December 8, 1980, after being shot four times by a crazed fan in the carriageway of his New York City apartment building.

Many of the events that led to his tragic and untimely death remain unclear and decades after his murder, people still struggle to understand what motivated his killer, 25-year-old Mark David Chapman, to pull the trigger on that fateful night.

 

Lennon in the 1970s

The Beatles were arguably the most successful and influential group of the 1960s, perhaps of all time. Nevertheless, after spending a decade at the top of the charts, producing hit after hit, the band called it quits in 1970, and all four of its members – John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, and Ringo Starr -- moved on to launch solo careers.

Throughout the early ‘70s, Lennon recorded several albums and produced hits like the instant classic Imagine. He had moved permanently to New York City with his wife Yoko Ono and taken up residence at the Dakota, a fancy, old apartment building located at the northwest corner of 72nd Street and Central Park West. The Dakota was known for housing many celebrities.

By the mid-1970s, however, Lennon had given up music. And though he claimed he did so to become a stay-at-home dad to his newborn son, Sean, many of his fans, as well as the media, speculated the singer might have sunk into a creative slump.

Several articles published during this period painted the former Beatle as a recluse and a has-been, who seemed more interested in managing his millions and holing up in his decadent New York apartment than in writing songs.

One of these articles, published in Esquire in 1980, would prompt a pudgy, disturbed young man from Hawaii, to travel to New York City and commit murder.

Mark David Chapman: From Drugs to Jesus

Mark David Chapman was born in Fort Worth, Texas on May 10, 1955, but lived in Decatur, Georgia from the age of seven. Mark’s dad, David Chapman, was in the Air Force, and his mom, Diane Chapman, was a nurse. A sister was born seven years after Mark. From the outside, the Chapmans looked like a typical American family; however, inside, there was trouble.

Mark’s dad, David, was an emotionally distant man, not showing his emotions even to his son.  Worse, David would often hit Diane. Mark could often hear his mom screaming, but was unable to stop his dad.  In school, Mark, who was a bit pudgy and not good at sports, was picked on and called names.

All these feelings of helplessness led to Mark having strange fantasies, starting very early on in his childhood.

By the age of ten he was imagining and interacting with an entire civilization of tiny people he believed lived inside the walls of his bedroom. He would have imaginary interactions with these little people, and later came to see them as his subjects and himself as their king. This fantasy continued until Chapman was 25, the same year he gunned down John Lennon.

Chapman managed to keep such strange tendencies to himself, however, and seemed like a normal youngster to those who knew him.

Like many who grew up in the 1960s, Chapman was swept up in the spirit of the times and by age 14, was even using heavy drugs like LSD on a regular basis.

At age 17, however, Chapman suddenly proclaimed himself a born-again Christian. He renounced drugs and the hippie lifestyle and began attending prayer meetings and going to religious retreats.  Many of his friends at the time claimed the change came so suddenly they saw it as a type of personality split.  

Soon after, Chapman became a counselor at the YMCA—a job he relished with fervent devotion—and would remain there into his twenties. He was highly popular with the kids in his care; he dreamed of becoming a YMCA director and working abroad as a Christian missionary.

Problems

Despite his successes, Chapman was undisciplined and lacking in ambition.

He briefly attended community college in Decatur, but soon dropped out due to the pressures of academic work.

He subsequently traveled to Beirut, Lebanon as a YMCA counselor, only to be forced to leave when war broke out in that country. And after a brief stint at a camp for Vietnamese refugees in Arkansas, Chapman decided to give school another try.

In 1976, Chapman enrolled at a religious college under the encouragement of his girlfriend, Jessica Blankenship, who was very devout and whom he had known since the second grade. However, he lasted only one semester before dropping out once more.

Chapman’s failures at school caused his personality to undergo yet another drastic change. He began to question his purpose in life and his devotion to his faith.  His changing moods also put a strain on his relationship with Jessica and they broke up soon after.

Chapman became increasingly despondent about these events in his life. He saw himself as a failure at everything he tried and frequently spoke of suicide. His friends were concerned for him, but could never have anticipated what this shift in Chapman’s temperament portended.

Down a Dark Path

Chapman was looking for a change and at the encouragement of his friend Dana Reeves—an aspiring policeman—decided to take shooting lessons and obtain a license to carry firearms. Soon after, Reeves managed to find Chapman a job as a security guard.

But Chapman’s dark moods continued. He decided he needed to change his surroundings and moved to Hawaii in 1977, where he did attempt suicide but failed, ending up at a psychiatric facility. After two weeks as an outpatient there, he obtained a job in the hospital’s print shop and even volunteered on occasion in the psych ward.

On a whim, Chapman decided to take a trip around the world. He fell in love with Gloria Abe, the travel agent who helped book his round-the-world trip. The two frequently corresponded through letters and upon returning to Hawaii, Chapman asked Abe to become his wife. The couple married in the summer of 1979.

Although Chapman’s life seemed to be improving, his downward spiral continued and his increasingly erratic behavior concerned his new wife. Abe claimed Chapman began drinking heavily, was abusive towards her and would frequently make threatening phone calls to complete strangers.

His temper was short and he was prone to violent outbursts and would engage in screaming matches with his coworkers. Abe also noticed Chapman became increasingly obsessed with JD Salinger’s seminal 1951 novel The Catcher in the Rye.

The Catcher in the Rye

It is unclear when exactly Chapman discovered Salinger’s novel, The Catcher in the Rye, but one thing is for certain, by the late ‘70s it was beginning to have a profound affect on him. He identified deeply with the book’s protagonist, Holden Caulfield, an adolescent who railed against the seeming phoniness of the adults around him.

In the book, Caulfield identified with children and saw himself as their savior from adulthood. Chapman came to see himself as a real-life Holden Caulfield. He even told his wife he wanted to change his name to Holden Caulfield and would rage about the phoniness of people and of celebrities in particular.

Hatred of John Lennon

In October of 1980, Esquire magazine published a profile on John Lennon, which portrayed the former Beatle as a drug-addled millionaire recluse who had lost touch with his fans and his music. Chapman read the article with increasing anger and came to see Lennon as the ultimate hypocrite and a “phony” of the very type described in Salinger’s novel.

He began reading everything he could about John Lennon, even making tapes of Beatles’ songs, which he would play over and over for his wife, changing the tapes’ speed and direction. He would listen to them while sitting nude in the dark, chanting, “John Lennon, I’m going to kill you, you phony bastard!”

When Chapman discovered Lennon was planning to release a new album—his first in five years—his mind was made up. He would fly to New York City and shoot the singer.

Preparing for the Assassination

Chapman quit his job and bought a .38-caliber revolver from a gun shop in Honolulu. He then bought a one-way ticket to New York, told his wife goodbye, and departed, arriving in New York City on October 30, 1980.

Chapman checked into the Waldorf Astoria, the same hotel Holden Caulfield stayed at in The Catcher in the Rye, and set about seeing some sights.

He frequently stopped at the Dakota to ask the doormen there about John Lennon’s whereabouts, without luck. The employees at the Dakota were used to fans asking such questions and generally refused to divulge any information about the various celebrities who resided in the building.

Chapman had brought his revolver to New York, but figured he would buy bullets once he arrived. He now learned only residents of the city could legally purchase bullets there. Chapman thus flew down to his former home in Georgia for the weekend, where his old buddy Dana Reeves—by now a sheriff’s deputy—could help him procure what he needed.  

Chapman told Reeves he had been staying in New York, was concerned for his safety, and needed five hollow-nosed bullets, known for causing immense damage to their target.

Now armed with gun and bullets, Chapman returned to New York; however, after all this time, Chapman’s resolve had diminished. He later claimed that he had a type of religious experience that convinced him what he was planning was wrong. He called his wife and told her, for the first time, what he had planned to do.

Gloria Abe was frightened by Chapman’s confession. However, she did not call the police but simply implored her husband to return home to Hawaii. He did so on November 12.

Chapman’s change of heart did not last long. His strange behavior continued and on December 5, 1980, he once again departed for New York. This time, he would not be back.

Second Trip to New York

Upon his second trip to New York, Chapman checked into a local YMCA, because it was cheaper than a regular hotel room. However, he was not comfortable there and checked into the Sheraton Hotel on December 7.

He made daily trips to the Dakota building, where he befriended several other John Lennon fans, as well as the building’s doorman, Jose Perdomo, whom he would pepper with questions about Lennon’s whereabouts.

At the Dakota, Chapman also befriended an amateur photographer from New Jersey named Paul Goresh, who was a regular at the building and well known to the Lennons. Goresh chatted with Chapman and would later comment how little Chapman seemed to know about John Lennon and the Beatles, considering he had claimed to be such an avid fan.

Chapman would visit the Dakota regularly over the next two days, hoping each time to run into Lennon and commit his crime.

December 8, 1980

On the morning of December 8th, Chapman dressed warmly. Before leaving his room he carefully arranged some of his most treasured belongings on a table. Among these items was a copy of the New Testament in which he had written the name “Holden Caulfield” as well as the name “Lennon” after the words “Gospel According to John.” 

He arranged the items for maximum effect, expecting the police to come looking through his room after his arrest.

After leaving the hotel, he bought a fresh copy of The Catcher in the Rye and wrote the words “This is my statement” on its title page. Chapman’s plan had been to say nothing to police after the shooting, but to simply hand them a copy of the book by way of explaining his act.

Carrying the book and a copy of Lennon’s latest album Double Fantasy, Chapman then made his way to the Dakota where he stood chatting with Paul Goresh.

At one point, a Lennon associate, Helen Seaman, arrived with Lennon’s five-year-old son Sean in tow. Goresh introduced Chapman to them as a fan who had come all the way from Hawaii. Chapman seemed elated and gushed about how cute the boy was.

John Lennon, meanwhile, was having a busy day inside the Dakota. After posing with Yoko Ono for famous photographer Annie Leibovitz, Lennon got a haircut and gave his last ever interview, which was to Dave Sholin, a DJ from San Francisco.

By 5 p.m. Lennon realized he was running late and needed to get over to the recording studio. Sholin offered the Lennons a ride in his limo since their own car had not yet arrived.

Upon exiting the Dakota, Lennon was met by Paul Goresh, who introduced him to Chapman. Chapman handed over his copy of Double Fantasy for Lennon to sign. The star took the album, scribbled his signature, and handed it back. 

The moment was captured by Paul Goresh and the resulting photograph—one of the last ever taken of John Lennon—shows a profile of the Beatle as he signs Chapman’s album, with the killer’s shadowy, deadpan face looming in the background. With that, Lennon entered the limo and headed for the studio.

It is unclear why Chapman did not take that opportunity to kill John Lennon. He later recalled he was waging an inner battle. However, his obsession with killing Lennon did not abate.

Shooting John Lennon

Despite Chapman’s inner misgivings, the urge to shoot the singer was too overwhelming.  Chapman remained at the Dakota well after Lennon and most of the fans had left, waiting for the Beatle to return.  

The limo carrying Lennon and Yoko Ono arrived back at the Dakota around 10:50 p.m. Yoko exited the vehicle first, followed by John. Chapman greeted Ono with a simple “Hello” as she passed. As Lennon passed him, Chapman heard a voice inside his head urging him on: “Do it! Do it! Do it!”

Chapman stepped into the carriageway of the Dakota, dropped to his knees, and fired two shots into John Lennon’s back. Lennon reeled. Chapman then pulled the trigger three more times. Two of those bullets landed in Lennon’s shoulder. The third went astray.

Lennon managed to run into the Dakota’s lobby and clamber up the few steps leading to the building’s office, where he finally collapsed. Yoko Ono followed Lennon inside, screaming he’d been shot.

The Dakota’s night man thought it was all a joke until he saw the blood pouring from Lennon’s mouth and chest. The night man promptly called 911 and covered Lennon with his uniform jacket.

John Lennon Dies

When the police arrived, they found Chapman sitting beneath the gate’s lantern calmly reading Catcher in the Rye. The killer made no attempt to escape and repeatedly apologized to the officers for the trouble he had caused. They promptly handcuffed Chapman and placed him in a nearby patrol car.

The officers did not know the victim was the famous John Lennon. They simply determined his wounds were too serious to wait for an ambulance. They placed Lennon in the backseat of one of their patrol cars and drove him to the emergency room at Roosevelt Hospital. Lennon was still alive but barely able to respond to the officers’ questions.

The hospital was made aware of Lennon’s arrival and had a trauma team at the ready. They worked diligently to save Lennon’s life, but to no avail. Two of the bullets had pierced his lungs, while a third had hit his shoulder and then ricocheted inside his chest where it had damaged the aorta and cut his windpipe.

John Lennon died at 11:07 pm on the night of December 8, due to massive internal hemorrhaging.

Aftermath

The news of Lennon’s death broke during ABC’s televised Monday night football game when sportscaster Howard Cosell announced the tragedy in the middle of a play.

Soon after, fans from all over the city arrived at the Dakota, where they held vigil for the slain singer. As the news spread around the world, the public was shocked. It seemed a brutal, bloody end to the ‘60s.

Mark David Chapman’s trial was short, as he had pled guilty to second-degree murder, claiming God had told him to do so. When asked at his sentencing if he wanted to make a final statement, Chapman stood up and read a passage from Catcher in the Rye.

The judge sentenced him to 20-years-to-life and Chapman remains imprisoned to this day, having lost several appeals for his parole.