Who Killed John Lennon? Tragic Death And Murder Explained

John Lennon’s murder in 1980 caused a worldwide outpouring of grief that matched the loss of a beloved world leader. Millions of fans stood for 10 minutes of silence and even radio stations across the world stopped broadcasts during it. What crime did the famous singer and member of The Beatles commit to be resigned to such a fate?

In this article, we’ll take a look at the man behind John Lennon’s death, dive into the night on which he was murdered, and peer into the aftermath of the void left behind by his passing. 

The Man Behind The Murder

December 9, 1980 – New York City Police Department mugshot of Mark David Chapman, the man who murdered John Lennon. Image source: New York City Police Department, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Mark David Chapman was born in Fort Worth, Texas, on May 10, 1955. His father was in the Air Force, and his mother was a nurse. He had a troubled childhood and would later state that he lived in fear of his father, telling interviewers that the father was physically abusive towards his mother and uncaring with him.

By the age of 14, he was using drugs and skipping out of school. His family moved to Georgia later on. At one point, he spent two weeks on the streets of Atlanta, Georgia, after running away from home. 

August 16, 2012 – Wine and hard liquor bottles photographed through a multiprism filter. Image source: Kotivalo, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

One early warning sign of mental issues in him was one of his first fantasies. He imagined himself having god-like powers and ruling over a group of tiny imaginary people living in the walls. He would later turn to alcoholism, survive a failed suicide attempt, and be treated for clinical depression. 

Not all was a bad omen with him though. He spent time as a summer camp counselor in South Dakota. He became an outstanding worker and one of the most popular counselors with the children. He also became a born-again Presbyterian in 1971.

February 24, 2014 – The Catcher In The Rye. Image source: Free for Commercial Use, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

He would eventually read J. D. Salinger’s novel The Catcher In The Rye and become obsessed with the book. It was hugely important for his personality, becoming the foundation of how he built his life as he modeled himself after the protagonist of the novel Holden Caulfield. 

After the murder of Lennon, Chapman would spend the rest of his life—so far—in prison. Despite legally having a parole hearing every two years, his potential release has been denied more than 12 times by hearing. 

Timeline of Events

January 21, 2014 – Colt Official Police .38 Revolver. Image source: The Smithsonian Institution, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Chapman allegedly began planning to kill Lennon three months before the event, though his plans would change quite often leading up to the murder. In 1980, he purchased a five-shot .38 caliber revolver in Honolulu, Hawaii. After discussing the best ways to transport the gun with the FAA, he learned that bullets could potentially be damaged in transit, so he flew to New York without any ammunition for the gun.

When he arrived in New York in October 1980 intending to kill Lennon, he flew to Atlanta to borrow bullets from a friend who lived there. Then he flew back to New York to begin his plans. 

Ordinary People (1980) Trailer #1 | Movieclips Classic Trailers

In New York, Chapman watched the film Ordinary People and was inspired to stop his murder plot. He flew back to Hawaii and told his wife about his obsession with killing the artist, showing her both the gun and bullets he had with him. They discussed getting him help and him returning to his faith, though she didn’t inform any authorities about his potential plans.

He later said that the commandment “thou shalt not kill” flashing on the television made him pause and rethink his plans. An appointment was made with a psychologist, but he didn’t show up and flew back to New York on December 6, 1980. 

May 8, 1971 – James Taylor in an ad in Billboard magazine. Image source: Ad on page 10 of May 8, 1971 Billboard magazine, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Lennon wouldn’t end up being the only famous person assaulted by Chapman on that trip. On December 7, he apparently attacked singer James Taylor at a subway station. The artist recounted the event like this:

“The guy had sort of pinned me to the wall and was glistening with maniacal sweat and talking some freak speak about what he was going to do and his stuff with how John was interested and he was going to get in touch with John Lennon.”

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That same night, Chapman phoned his wife and discussed getting help with his problems and growing closer to God again. This apparently had little effect on him, as his plot would finally go into motion the following day. 

On December 8, Chapman left his hotel room at the Sheraton Hotel, leaving behind almost all of his personal items. The most notable of these was a copy of The Catcher In The Rye, with a note in it. He wrote in the book: “This is my statement” and signed it as Holden Caulfield rather than with his own name.

March 9, 2019 – Sean Lennon. Image source: John Mathew Smith & www.celebrity-photos.com from Laurel Maryland, USA, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The entire morning was spent outside of Lennon’s home, known as The Dakota, mixing with fans and talking to the doorman. At one point, he apparently reached around the housekeeper to shake the hand of Lennon’s son Sean

I'm Losing You (Remastered 2010)

At 5 P.M., both Lennon and Yoko Ono left The Dakota for a recording session. Chapman, unlike other fans at the gate, didn’t say a word. He held out a copy of Lennon’s album Double Fantasy to be signed by the singer. While the musician signed it for him, amateur photographer Paul Goresh took a picture of the two together.

After the singer had left, Chapman tried to get Goresh to stay and hang out, as well as invited another female fan to go out with him that night. Both refused, though Chapman stated at one point that he likely wouldn’t have murdered Lennon that night if she had accepted or Goresh had stayed. 

November 2, 1980 – John Lennon and Yoko Ono, photographed by Jack Mitchell for the New York Times. Image source: Jack Mitchell, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

A few minutes before eleven that night, Lennon and Ono returned home. Rather than pull behind the security stop, the two got out of their limousine on the street. The couple walked past Chapman as they entered the archway of The Dakota’s front gate, with Lennon glancing up at him and likely recognizing him from earlier. Accounts differ on how the next events play out, so it’s unclear whether or not he was recognized or shouted out to The Beatles member before murdering him. 

What is sure is that Chapman drew the .38 from his coat pocket and fired five rounds at Lennon’s back. Four of them would strike the singer, with one going wide and striking a window on the home. The musician apparently stumbled forward to the reception area and muttered about being shot before falling to the ground. 

August 20, 2007 – .38 Special revolver cartridge. Image source: Malis, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

The doorman, Jose Perdomo, shook the gun out of Chapman’s hand and kicked it away. Others rushed to Lennon and summoned first responders while Chapman removed his coat to show he had no weapons and waited on the sidewalk for the police to arrive. Perdomo shouted at Chapman, asking him if he knew what he had just done. He responded only with “I just shot John Lennon.”

Chapman did not attempt to flee the scene, with the responding officers being quoted as saying he apologized to them for ruining their night. Lennon was rushed to the hospital but was pronounced dead upon arriving there. Attempts to resuscitate the singer would ultimately fail, with his official time of death being pronounced at 11:15 P.M. 

The Aftermath

March 31, 1969 – John Lennon. Image source: Joost Evers / Anefo, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

Reactions to Lennon’s death were visceral. From fans to stars, it took a massive toll on people and came as an absolute shock. Perhaps the most shocked people were the ABC broadcasters in charge of commenting for Monday Night Football.

Howard Cosell and Frank Gifford were informed of Lennon’s death as they called the game by news producer Alan J. Weiss, who had been at the hospital when the singer was brought in. Ono had asked that the news not be broken until she had told their son, though Weiss was unaware of this and relayed the news to the station. 

September 22, 1975 – Publicity photo of Howard Cosell from Monday Night Football. Image source: ABC TelevisionUploaded by We hope at en.wikipedia, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Just as a game-winning field goal was being lined up, Cosell became the first person to break the news of Lennon’s death to the public. He tried to avoid doing it, wanting to finish calling the game and try to hide his shock. Official confirmation would come only a few short minutes later. Radio stations across the nation switched to only broadcasting The Beatles’ or John Lennon’s music. 

Each of the surviving The Beatles’ members of course reacted to the news in their own way. George Harrison gave a fairly standard response, shocked and saddened by the loss of a friend. Ringo Starr traveled from The Bahamas to New York to comfort Ono and distract Sean. 

May 1, 1965 – Trade ad for The Beatles’ 1964 Grammys. Image source: EMI., Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Paul McCartney got some flack for his response to Lennon’s death. While his initial answers to interviewers were what you’d expect, he would be quoted as calling it a drag only a couple of weeks later. Fans rallied against it as being insensitive, though the musician explained his response by telling fans he couldn’t express his emotions, and it was overwhelming, leading to his rather indecent response. 

April 2006 – Picture of John Lennon’s Strawberry Fields Forever Memorial. Image source: Damzow, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Ono would be the lead voice of the grieving going forward. No funeral would be held for Lennon, his remains were cremated and his ashes were scattered in Central Park. Per her request, millions of fans paused on December 14, 1980, for 10 minutes of silence to remember him. That included a crowd of 30,000 in Liverpool and 225,000 in New York’s Central Park. At least three fans of The Beatles committed suicide in the wake of Lennon’s death, leading to Ono pleading for fans to not give in to grief. 

Chapman would also face justice in the aftermath of the murder. While his lawyers begged for him to plead insanity in court, he refused and pleaded guilty. When given an opportunity to address the court, he read a passage from The Catcher In The Rye. He was found guilty of second-degree murder and was sentenced to 20 years to life in prison. He would further be forced to undergo mental evaluations during his incarceration.  

Why Did He Do It?

It’s hard to actually profile a person based on the life they’ve had; it becomes even harder when they have no prior criminal record. Chapman had dealt with a lot of problems in his life, but leading up to Lennon’s murder, he had never run into trouble with law enforcement. 

God (Remastered 2010)

His faith is an integral part of why he hated Lennon so much. And while it may not be the biggest reason that he killed the singer, it certainly was the reason he began to hate the man. He was incredibly entrenched in his religious beliefs and was offended by comments and songs that Lennon wrote, feeling as though they were blasphemous and evil. This would come out in later interviews.

“I would listen to this music and I would get angry at him, for saying [in the song “God”] that he didn’t believe in God, that he just believed in him and Yoko, and that he didn’t believe in the Beatles.”

JD Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye - Summary & Analysis

Perhaps the biggest clue to the entire case is Chapman’s obsession with The Catcher In The Rye and the main character Holden Caulfield. Caulfield rages against hypocrisy and “phonies” in the novel, creating one of the book’s central themes. Chapman modeled himself after that character, so it’s no surprise that he would level the same type of criticism at Lennon, expressed through interviews after the murder took place. 

“This was another thing that angered me, even though this record had been done at least ten years previously. I just wanted to scream out loud, “Who does he think he is, saying these things about God and heaven and the Beatles?” Saying that he doesn’t believe in Jesus and things like that. At that point, my mind was going through a total blackness of anger and rage. So I brought the Lennon book home, into this The Catcher in the Rye milieu where my mindset is Holden Caulfield and anti-phoniness.”

October 9, 2005 – The Dakota where Yoko Ono and John Lennon lived. Image source: Art Anderson, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

He was even quoted in interviews discussing how he hated that Lennon spoke about love and peace, even writing songs about having no possessions and doing so while having millions of dollars and living a lavish lifestyle. 

But Chapman’s motivation is incredibly difficult to pin down. His parole boards, the judge at his trial, and even he himself have all said at one time or another that the murder was motivated by his hope to gain fame and notoriety.

July 1972 – Paul McCartney. Image source: ETH Library, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

In one of his parole hearings, he even said that at one time he had a hit list of other potential targets that included Paul McCartney, Ronald Reagan, Elizabeth Taylor, Johnny Carson, and other big names. In 2010, he was recorded saying that the only criterion for the list was them being famous. Lennon was only his choice because he could get to him the easiest. 

Envy and seeking fame seem to be Chapman’s biggest motivators, though he would lean on his religious beliefs and the personality he built from The Catcher In The Rye to justify his actions. 

September 29, 1974 – John Lennon being interviewed in Los Angeles. Image source: Tony Barnard, Los Angeles Times, CC BY 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

In the end, maybe the parole board had it right. Maybe Chapman murdered Lennon for no reason other than to gain public notoriety and find some sort of fame for himself. Or, just maybe, he was so invested in his spiritual beliefs that they caused him to commit the murder. It makes little difference either way, as the world lost one of the most legendary music artists in history, and Chapman will likely spend the rest of his lifetime in a jail cell.

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