This Day in History (December 8)

Dec 8, 1980: John Lennon is murdered

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Singer John Lennon is shot and killed by Mark David Chapman outside his apartment building in New York City. After committing the murder, Chapman waited calmly outside, reading a copy of The Catcher in the Rye.

Chapman was a troubled individual who was obsessed with Holden Caulfield, the protagonist of J. D. Salinger’s novel about a disaffected youth, and with various celebrities. While working as a security guard in Hawaii, he decided that Lennon was a phony and, while listening to Beatles tapes, Chapman decided to plan his murder.

Chapman purchased a gun in Hawaii and then traveled to New York. Although he called his wife to tell her that he was in New York to shoot Lennon, she ignored his threats. Unable to buy bullets in New York due to strict laws, Chapman flew to Atlanta and purchased hollow-nosed rounds to bring back.

On the day of the murder, Chapman bought an extra copy of The Catcher in the Rye and joined fans waiting outside The Dakota, Lennon’s apartment building. That evening, as Lennon walked by on his way into the building, Chapman shot him in the back and then fired two additional bullets into his shoulder as the singer wrenched around in pain.

On June 8, 1980, just two weeks before he was scheduled to present an insanity defense at trial, Chapman pleaded guilty to murder and was sentenced to 20 years-to-life. Ironically, Chapman was sent to Attica prison, where–10 years earlier–rioting had inspired Lennon and wife, Yoko Ono, to record a benefit song to “free all prisoners everywhere.” In prison, Chapman became a born-again Christian and spent his time writing evangelical tracts for publication.

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This Day in History (October 18)

Oct 18, 1968: John Lennon and Yoko Ono arrested for drug possession

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John Lennon and Yoko Ono are arrested for drug possession at their home near Montagu Square in London, England. The arrests came at a tempestuous time for the couple. Only days earlier, an announcement was made that Ono was pregnant, creating a scandal because both Lennon and Ono were still married to other people. Her pregnancy ended in a miscarriage a few days after the arrest.

Detective Sergeant Norman Pilcher, the instigator behind the raid on Lennon and Ono, was an anti-drug zealot who would later arrest George Harrison and his wife on similar charges. While Lennon was frantically trying to get rid of the evidence, the police read a warrant through a bedroom window and then broke down the front door. Drug-sniffing dogs found 200 grams of hashish, a cigarette rolling machine with traces of marijuana, and half a gram of morphine. However, the couple denied that the drugs belonged to them.

When the matter finally approached trial, Lennon pleaded guilty because he was worried that Ono would be deported. He was fined £150 and warned that another offense would bring a year in jail.

This Day in History (October 7)

Oct 7, 1975: A New York judge reverses John Lennon’s deportation order

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On this day in 1975, a New York State Supreme Court judge reverses a deportation order for John Lennon, allowing him to remain legally in his adoptive home of New York City.

Protests against the Vietnam War had escalated significantly following the announcement of the Cambodia invasion on April 30, 1970, and the shooting deaths of four student protestors at Kent State just four days later. Many such gatherings would feature peaceful demonstrators singing Lennon’s 1969 anthem “Give Peace A Chance,” but others were more threatening. Newly relocated to New York City, John Lennon began to associate publicly with such radical figures as Abbie Hoffman, Jerry Rubin and Bobby Seale, and the White House reportedly grew concerned, according to the 2006 documentary The U.S. vs. John Lennon, over his potentially powerful influence with a generation of 18-to-20-year-olds who would be allowed, for the very first time, to vote in the 1972 presidential election. “I suppose if you were going to list your enemies and decide who is most dangerous,” Walter Cronkite would later say, “if I were Nixon, I would put Lennon up near the top.”

South Carolina Senator Strom Thurmond was of the same opinion, and it was a letter he wrote to the White House in his capacity as Chairman of the Senate Internal Security Committee that prompted the White House to action. An FBI investigation of Lennon turned up no evidence of involvement in illegal activities, but the matter was referred nonetheless to the Immigration and Naturalization Service, which began deportation proceedings against Lennon and his wife, Yoko Ono, on the basis of a 1968 marijuana conviction in England.

Leon Wildes, the immigration attorney who would handle Lennon’s case over the next four-plus years, would say of his client’s reaction to the case, “He understood that what was being done to him was wrong. It was an abuse of the law, and he was willing to stand up and try to show it—to shine the big light on it.” Lennon’s persistence in fighting the case finally paid off on October 7, 1975, with a court decision that left no question as to the real motives behind the deportation: “The courts will not condone selective deportation based upon secret political grounds,” wrote Judge Irving Kaufman, who also went on to say, “Lennon’s four-year battle to remain in our country is testimony to his faith in this American dream.”

Less than one year later, in June 1976, John Lennon got his green card.

This Day in History (August 24)

Aug 24, 1981: John Lennon’s killer sentenced

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On this day in 1981, Mark David Chapman is sentenced to 20 years to life for the murder of John Lennon, a founding member of The Beatles, one of the most successful bands in the history of popular music.

On December 8, 1980, Chapman shot and killed the 40-year-old singer, songwriter and peace activist, outside Lennon’s New York City apartment building, the Dakota, where he lived with his wife Yoko Ono and their young son Sean. Lennon, who was born on October 9, 1940, in Liverpool, England, shot to fame in the 1960s with The Beatles, whose multiple best-selling albums and hit films, such as A Hard Day’s Night (1964), turned the group into hugely influential global pop icons. After The Beatles broke up in 1970, Lennon embarked on a successful solo music career, writing and performing such songs as “Imagine” and “(Just Like) Starting Over.” He also directed a 1972 documentary film, also titled Imagine, which was a sometimes-surreal glimpse at a day in the life of Lennon and Ono, set to their music.

On the day of Lennon’s murder, Chapman, a Beatles fan who was born in 1955, spent the day hanging out near the musician’s apartment on West 72nd Street and Central Park West. Late that afternoon, a photographer captured a shot of Lennon as he stopped to autograph his Double Fantasy album for Chapman before walking with Yoko Ono toward a limousine waiting to take them to a recording session. Later that night, shortly before 11 p.m., the couple returned to the Dakota, where a waiting Chapman shot Lennon four times as the musician walked toward his building. Chapman stayed at the scene, reading The Catcher in the Rye, a book he was obsessed with, until the police arrived and took him into custody. Lennon was pronounced dead at Manhattan’s Roosevelt Hospital around 11:15 p.m.

Chapman initially entered a plea of not guilty by reason of insanity; however, he later decided to drop the insanity defense and plead guilty to second-degree murder. At his sentencing hearing on August 24, 1981, Chapman read from The Catcher in the Rye. Chapman’s requests for parole have all been denied and he continues to serve time at New York’s Attica State Prison.

Lennon’s iconic life, and his untimely death, have in recent years inspired several films, including Chapter 27 (2007), which starred a bloated Jared Leto as Chapman and chronicled the three days leading up to the assassination. The visual artist Sam Taylor-Wood will reportedly direct a Lennon biopic, Nowhere Man, to be filmed partially in Lennon’s hometown of Liverpool.