It was 31 years ago today that former frontman of The Beatles, John Lennon was killed by some deranged fellow from across the street of his New York appartment. Music (and the rest of the world) lost an icon that night.
At around 10:50 pm on 8 December 1980, as Lennon and Ono returned to their New York apartment in The Dakota, Mark David Chapman shot Lennon in the back four times at the entrance to the building. Lennon was taken to the emergency room of the nearby Roosevelt Hospital and was pronounced dead on arrival at 11:07 pm. Earlier that evening, Lennon had autographed a copy of Double Fantasy for Chapman.
Ono issued a statement the next day, saying “There is no funeral for John”, ending it with the words, “John loved and prayed for the human race. Please pray the same for him.” His body was cremated at Ferncliff Cemetery in Hartsdale, New York. Ono scattered his ashes in New York’s Central Park, where the Strawberry Fields memorial was later created. Chapman pleaded guilty to second-degree murder and was sentenced to 20 years to life; as of 2011, he remains in prison, having been denied parole six times.
John Lennon was an English musician who gained worldwide fame as one of the founders of The Beatles, for his subsequent solo career, and for his political activism and pacifism. He was shot by Mark David Chapman at the entrance of the building where he lived, The Dakota, in New York City, on Monday, 8 December 1980; Lennon had just returned from Record Plant Studio with his wife, Yoko Ono.
Lennon was pronounced dead on arrival at St. Luke’s-Roosevelt Hospital Center, where it was stated that nobody could have lived for more than a few minutes after sustaining such injuries. Shortly after local news stations reported Lennon’s death, crowds gathered at Roosevelt Hospital and in front of The Dakota. He was cremated on 10 December 1980, at the Ferncliff Cemetery in Hartsdale, New York; the ashes were given to Ono, who chose not to hold a funeral for him. The first report of his death to a national audience was announced by Howard Cosell, on ABC’s Monday Night Football.
Events preceding his death
8 December 1980
On the afternoon of 8 December 1980, photographer Annie Leibovitz went to Ono and Lennon’s apartment at 2:00pm to do a photo shoot for Rolling Stone magazine. Leibovitz promised Lennon that a photo with Ono would make the front cover of the magazine, but initially tried to get a picture with just Lennon alone. Leibovitz recalled that “nobody wanted [Ono] on the cover”. Lennon then insisted that both he and his wife be on the cover, and after taking the pictures, Leibovitz left their apartment at 3:30pm. After the photo shoot, Lennon gave what would be his last interview to a San Francisco DJ, Dave Sholin, for a music show on the RKO Radio Network. At 5:00 pm, Lennon and Ono left their apartment to mix the song “Walking on Thin Ice“; an Ono song featuring Lennon on lead guitar, at the Record Plant Studio.
Mark David Chapman
As Lennon and Ono walked to their limousine, they were approached by several people seeking autographs, among them, Chapman. It was common for fans to wait outside the Dakota to meet Lennon and ask for his autograph. Chapman, a 25-year-old security guard from Honolulu, Hawaii, had first come to New York to murder Lennon in October (before the release of Double Fantasy), but changed his mind and returned home. Chapman silently handed Lennon a copy of Double Fantasy, and Lennon obliged with an autograph. After signing the album, Lennon asked him, “Is this all you want?” Chapman smiled and nodded in agreement. Photographer and Lennon fan Paul Goresh took a photo of the encounter. Chapman had been waiting for Lennon outside the Dakota since mid morning and had even approached the Lennons’ young son Sean with the family nanny Helen Seaman as they returned to the Dakota in the afternoon, allegedly, according to Chapman himself, briefly touching the boy’s hand as he was introduced to the waiting ‘fan’ himself.
The Lennons spent several hours at the Record Plant studio before returning to the Dakota at approximately 10:50 pm. Lennon had decided against dining out so he could be home in time to say goodnight to his five-year-old son, Sean, before going to the Stage Deli restaurant with Ono. Lennon liked to oblige any fans who had been waiting for long periods of time to meet him with autographs or pictures, once saying during an interview with BBC Radio’s Andy Peebles, on 5 December 1980: “People come and ask for autographs, or say ‘Hi’, but they don’t bug you”. The Lennons exited their limousine on 72nd Street instead of driving into the more secure courtyard of the Dakota.
Mark David Chapman had become a born-again Christian in 1970, and was incensed by Lennon’s “bigger than Jesus” remark, calling it blasphemy. He later stated he was further enraged by “God”, and “Imagine”—even singing the latter with the altered lyric: “Imagine John Lennon dead.”
Jose Perdomo, the Dakota’s doorman, and a nearby cab driver saw Chapman standing in the shadows by the archway. Ono walked ahead of Lennon and into the reception area. As Lennon passed by, he looked at Chapman briefly and continued on his way. Within seconds, Chapman took aim directly at the center of Lennon’s back and fired five hollow-point bullets at him from a Charter Arms .38 Special revolver in rapid succession. Based on statements made that night by NYPD Chief of Detectives James Sullivan, numerous radio, television, and newspaper reports claimed at the time that, before firing, Chapman called out “Mr. Lennon” and dropped into a “combat stance“. But court hearings and witness interviews do not include either “Mr. Lennon” or the “combat stance” description. Chapman has said he did not remember calling out Lennon’s name before he shot him. The first bullet missed, passing over Lennon’s head and hitting a window of the Dakota building. However, two of the next bullets struck Lennon in the left side of his back, and two more penetrated his left shoulder. Three of the four bullets (the two to his left shoulder and one to his back) passed completely through and exited the front of Lennon’s body, resulting in a total of seven gunshot wounds. While all four shots inflicted severe gunshot wounds, the two gunshot wounds to Lennon’s back were fatal which were to his left lung and the left subclavian artery, near where it branches off of the aorta. Lennon, bleeding profusely from his external wounds and also from the mouth, staggered up five steps to the security/reception area, said: “I’m shot, I’m shot” and fell to the floor, scattering the arm-full of cassettes he had been carrying. Concierge Jay Hastings first started to make a tourniquet; but upon ripping open Lennon’s blood-stained shirt and realizing the severity of his multiple injuries, covered Lennon’s chest with his uniform’s jacket, removed his blood-covered glasses, and summoned the police.
Outside, doorman Perdomo shook the gun out of Chapman’s hand then kicked it across the sidewalk. Chapman then removed his coat and hat in preparation for the police arrival to show he was not carrying any concealed weapons and sat down on the sidewalk. Doorman Perdomo shouted at Chapman, “Do you know what you’ve done?”, to which Chapman calmly replied, “Yes, I just shot John Lennon.” The first policemen to arrive were Steve Spiro and Peter Cullen, who were at 72nd Street and Broadway when they heard a report of shots fired at the Dakota. The officers arrived around two minutes later and found Chapman sitting “very calmly” on the sidewalk. They reported that Chapman had dropped the revolver to the ground, and was holding a paperback book, J.D. Salinger‘s The Catcher in the Rye. Chapman had scribbled a message on the book’s inside front cover: “To Holden Caulfield. From Holden Caulfield. This is my statement.” He would later claim that his life mirrored that of Holden Caulfield, the protagonist of the book.
The second team, Officers Bill Gamble and James Moran, arrived a few minutes later. They immediately carried Lennon into their squad car and rushed him to Roosevelt Hospital. Officer Moran said they placed Lennon on the back seat. Moran asked, “Do you know who you are?” There are conflicting accounts on what happened next. In one account, Lennon nodded slightly and tried to speak, but could only manage to make a gurgling sound, and lost consciousness shortly thereafter.
Dr. Stephan Lynn received Lennon in the emergency room at Roosevelt Hospital. When Lennon arrived, he had no pulse and was not breathing. Dr. Lynn and two other doctors worked for nearly 20 minutes, opening Lennon’s chest and attempting manual heart massage to restore circulation, but the damage to the blood vessels around the heart was too great. Lennon was pronounced dead on arrival in the emergency room at the Roosevelt Hospital at 11:15 pm by Dr Lynn, but the time of 11:07 pm has also been reported. The cause of death was reported as hypovolemic shock, caused by the loss of more than 80% of blood volume. As Lennon was shot four times with hollow-point bullets, which expand upon entering the target and severely disrupt more tissue as they travel through the target, Lennon’s affected organs were virtually destroyed upon impact. Lynn stated, “If [Lennon] was shot in the middle of the operating room with a team of surgeons ready to work on him, he still wouldn’t have survived his injuries.”  When told by Lynn of her husband’s death, Ono started sobbing “Oh no, no, no, no… tell me it’s not true,” and was led away from Roosevelt Hospital by Geffen Records‘ president David Geffen in a state of shock.
Monday Night Football
Ono asked the hospital not to report that Lennon was dead until she had informed their son, who was at home at the time. Ono said she did not want her son to learn that his father was dead from the television.
Although the hospital had not confirmed the shooting nor Lennon’s condition, word was relayed to ABC News by Alan Weiss, a reporter from WABC-TV who had been taken to Roosevelt Hospital earlier that evening after suffering injuries from a motorcycle accident. Weiss was in the emergency room when Lennon was rushed in. He called in the news to the station’s assignment editor, Neil Goldstein, who relayed it to ABC News division and president Roone Arledge.
Arledge was also president of ABC Sports and the executive producer of Monday Night Football. That night’s contest between the Miami Dolphins and New England Patriots was still going on when Arledge received the news, and Arledge suggested to broadcast team Howard Cosell and Frank Gifford they announce Lennon’s death on air. Cosell expressed apprehension, but he was eventually convinced to make the announcement by Gifford. When the news was relayed to them the Patriots were driving to potentially score the game-winning points as the score was tied; the following transcript of what was said begins with thirty seconds remaining in the game as Cosell sets the stage for his announcement:
|“||Cosell: …but (the game)’s suddenly been placed in total perspective for us; I’ll finish this, they’re in the hurry-up offense.
Gifford: Third down, four. Foreman…it’ll be fourth down. Cavanaugh will let it run down for one final attempt, he’ll let the seconds tick off to give Miami no opportunity whatsoever. (whistle blows) Timeout is called with three seconds remaining, John Smith is on the line. And I don’t care what’s on the line, Howard- you have got to say what we know in the booth.
Cosell: Yes, we have to say it. Remember this is just a football game, no matter who wins or loses. An unspeakable tragedy confirmed to us by ABC News in New York City: John Lennon, outside of his apartment building on the West Side of New York City. The most famous perhaps, of all of The Beatles, shot twice in the back, rushed to Roosevelt Hospital, dead on arrival. Hard to go back to the game after that news flash, which, in duty bound, we have to take.
Sean was not watching TV that night, so Ono was able to break the news to him herself. The following day, Ono issued a statement: “There is no funeral for John. John loved and prayed for the human race. Please do the same for him. Love, Yoko and Sean.”
Lennon’s murder—considered by some to be an assassination due to his high profile—triggered an outpouring of grief around the world on an unprecedented scale. Sales of his music—both with the Beatles and as a solo artist—soared in the months following the murder. Lennon’s remains were cremated at Ferncliff Cemetery in Westchester; no funeral was held. Ono sent word to the chanting crowd outside the Dakota that their singing had kept her awake; she asked that they re-convene in Central Park the following Sunday for ten minutes of silent prayer. On 14 December 1980, millions of people around the world responded to Ono’s request to pause for ten minutes of silence to remember Lennon. Thirty thousand gathered in Liverpool, and the largest group—over 225,000—converged on New York’s Central Park, close to the scene of the shooting. At least two Beatles fans committed suicide after the murder, leading Ono to make a public appeal asking mourners not to give in to despair. Ono released a solo album, Season of Glass, in 1981. The cover of the album is a photograph of Lennon’s blood-spattered glasses. A 1997 re-release of the album included “Walking on Thin Ice“, the song the Lennons had mixed at the Record Plant less than an hour before he was murdered.
Chapman pleaded guilty to Lennon’s murder in June 1981, against the advice of his lawyers, who wanted to file an insanity plea. He received a life sentence, but under the terms of his guilty plea became eligible for parole after serving 20 years. Chapman has been denied parole at hearings every two years since 2000 and remains an inmate at Attica State Prison.
Memorials and tributes
Annie Leibovitz’s photo of a naked Lennon embracing his wife, taken on the day of the murder, was the cover of Rolling Stone‘s 22 January 1981 issue, most of which was dedicated to articles, letters and photographs commemorating Lennon’s life and death. In 2005 the American Society of Magazine Editors ranked it as the top magazine cover of the last 40 years. George Harrison released a tribute song, “All Those Years Ago“, which featured Ringo Starr and Paul McCartney in 1981. McCartney released his own tribute, “Here Today” on his 1982 album, Tug of War. Elton John, who had recorded the number-one hit “Whatever Gets You thru the Night” with Lennon, teamed up with his lyricist, Bernie Taupin and recorded a tribute to Lennon, entitled “Empty Garden (Hey Hey Johnny).” It appeared on his 1982 album, Jump Up!, and peaked at #13 on the US Singles Chart that year. When he performed the song at a sold-out concert in Madison Square Garden in August 1982, he was joined on stage by Ono and Sean.
In 1985, New York City dedicated an area of Central Park directly across from The Dakota as Strawberry Fields, where Lennon had frequently walked. In a symbolic show of unity, countries from around the world donated trees and the city of Naples, Italy, donated the Imagine mosaic centerpiece.
Lennon was honoured with a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 1991. In 1994, the breakaway autonomous republic of Georgia, Republic of Abkhazia, issued two postage stamps featuring the faces of Lennon and Groucho Marx, rather than portraits of Vladimir Lenin and Karl Marx, spoofing Abkhazia’s Communist past. On 8 December 2000, Cuba’s President Fidel Castro unveiled a bronze statue of Lennon in a park in Havana. In 2000, the John Lennon Museum was opened at the Saitama Super Arena in the city of Saitama, Japan (but closed on 30 September 2010), and Liverpool renamed its airport to Liverpool John Lennon Airport, adopting the motto, “Above us only sky”, in 2002. The minor planet 4147 Lennon, discovered 12 January 1983 by B. A. Skiff at the Anderson Mesa Station of the Lowell Observatory, was named in memory of Lennon. On 9 December 2006, in the city of Puebla, Mexico, a plaque was revealed, honouring Lennon’s contribution to music, culture and peace. On 9 October 2007, Ono dedicated a new memorial called the Imagine Peace Tower, located on the island of Viðey, off the coast of Iceland. Each year, between 9 October and 8 December, it projects a vertical beam of light high into the sky in Lennon’s memory.
Every 8 December a memorial ceremony is held in front of the Capitol Records building on Vine Street in Hollywood, California. People also light candles in front of Lennon’s Hollywood Walk of Fame star, outside the Capitol Building. From 28 to 30 September 2007, Durness held the John Lennon Northern Lights Festival which was attended by Julia Baird (Lennon’s half-sister), who read from Lennon’s writings and her own books, and Stanley Parkes, Lennon’s Scottish cousin. Parkes said, “Me and Julia [Baird] are going to be going to the old family croft to tell stories”. Musicians, painters and poets from across the UK performed at the festival.
In 2009, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s New York City annexe hosted a special John Lennon exhibit, which included many mementoes and personal effects from Lennon’s life, as well as the clothes he was wearing when he was murdered, still in the brown paper bag from Roosevelt Hospital. Ono still places a lit candle in the window of Lennon’s room in the Dakota on 8 December.
Two films depicting the murder of Lennon were released in close proximity of each other more than 25 years after the event. The first of the two, The Killing of John Lennon, was released on 7 December 2007. Directed by Andrew Piddington, the movie starred Jonas Ball as Mark David Chapman. The second film was Chapter 27, released on 28 March 2008. Directed by J. P. Schaefer, the film starred Jared Leto as Mark David Chapman. Lennon was portrayed by actor Mark Lindsay Chapman.