The Assassination of John Lennon

The Beatles was the most popular musical group in all of human history. John, Paul, George, and Ringo are a study in what happens when you take four regular guys and make them rich and famous beyond all imagining. Given their circumstances, it’s a wonder they didn’t turn out worse than they did.

Young John Lennon’s childhood was chaotic and difficult. Here he is shown with a small friend.

We focus this day on John. John Winston Ono Lennon was born in October of 1940 to Julia Stanley Lennon during the London Blitz. He was so named after the esteemed Prime Minister. John’s father Alfred was a Scottish merchant seaman who was gone for long periods supporting the war effort. He sent money back for Julia and the child until 1944 when he went absent without leave. When he finally returned six months later John’s mother was pregnant by another man, and their tenuous marriage unraveled. At age five young John was forced to publically choose between his parents. The resulting chaos undoubtedly scarred the child.

John’s musical proclivities were obvious at a young age.

John had a tumultuous childhood. He was communally raised by five different female family members. Along the way, he learned to play the banjo and eventually the guitar. His aunt Mimi once opined of his inexpensive acoustic guitar, “The guitar’s all very well, John, but you’ll never make a living out of it.”

John Lennon was the most outspoken of the four Beatles. His radical positions on the Vietnam War made him enemies within the US government. There was once an effort to have him deported as a result.

Throughout his formative years, John cultivated a reputation as a troublemaker. Though he was clearly exceptionally gifted, he admitted that he was the kid that other kids’ parents worried about. When he was eighteen John’s mother Julia was struck by a car and killed.

The Music

Stuart Sutcliffe left the Beatles to attend art school. He tragically died unexpectedly at age 21 of a cerebral aneurysm.

There have actually been six Beatles. Stuart Sutcliffe played bass, and Pete Best was the original drummer. In what has got to be the world’s most profound lost opportunity Sutcliffe’s interest waned, and he dropped out.

Pete Best was pushed out of the Beatles and replaced for reasons that remain a bit murky.

Pete Best was fired and replaced with Ringo Starr. This unfortunate turn of events inspired the hilarious Rainn Wilson comedy The Rocker.

The evolution of the Beatles either followed or drove the evolution of youth culture around the globe.

The Beatles made music for eight years. Their stage personas evolved from fairly restrained, well-dressed gentlemen to drug-using hippie counterculture activists. Along the way, they developed a spectacular international following. Among every large group of human beings, a small percentage of them will be tragically unbalanced. Certain attributes of the Beatles meteoric success now began to plant some dark seeds.

John’s chaotic worldview and not insubstantial ego were eventually his undoing.

In March of 1966 Lennon was quoted as having said in an interview with the Evening Standard, “Christianity will go…it will vanish and shrink…We’re more popular than Jesus now—I don’t know which will go first, rock and roll or Christianity.” 

Mark David Chapman was a delusional zealot who took what he read in the news way too seriously.

This bit of sacrilege didn’t make much of a splash in the UK. However, on our side of the pond, the more puritanical Americans took enormous umbrage. There were formal burnings of their records, and the Ku Klux Klan took an interest. Among those deeply offended by John Lennon’s god complex was one Mark David Chapman.

The Shooter

Mark David Chapman represented the toxic combination of mental illness and suboptimal home life.

Mark David Chapman was an Air Force brat whose service member father was distant and abusive. He showed delusional traits from a young age and began dabbling in drugs at 14. That same year he ran away from home and lived alone in Atlanta for two weeks.

Chapman became fixated on the JD Salinger novel The Catcher in the Rye.

In 1971 Chapman became active in the Presbyterian church and seemed to be turning his life around. He worked on a variety of mission projects and was described as hard-working, friendly, and genuine. Around this time Chapman read JD Salinger’s novel A Catcher in the Rye, and he began to go off the rails.

As Mark David Chapman grew older he became more and more unstable.

The subsequent years were tumultuous for Chapman. He attempted suicide, ended and started relationships with women, traveled literally around the world, and qualified as an armed security guard. He began drinking heavily and, incensed by Lennon’s obvious atheism and blasphemous proclamations, began plotting his demise.

The Killing

Chapman’s choice of targets ultimately boiled down to geography.

Chapman had his theological nexus with Lennon, but his proposed hit list was both long and variegated. Paul McCartney, Johnny Carson, Elizabeth Taylor, George C. Scott, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, and Ronald Reagan were all targeted. He later admitted that he had picked Lennon because he was convenient.

Lennon is seen here with Chapman some five hours before Chapman killed him.

Chapman bought a Charter Arms .38 Special revolver and traveled all the way from New York City to Atlanta to secure hollowpoint rounds to feed it. Chapman had already been to NYC once before to kill Lennon but changed his mind and went home. On the day of the shooting, he posted himself outside of the Dakota apartment building where Lennon lived with Yoko One and his son Sean. Earlier that day Chapman visited with five-year-old Sean and his nanny while they were out taking a walk.

The album that Lennon autographed for Chapman was later found in a planter outside the Dakota apartment building. It eventually sold for $1.5 million at auction.

On the afternoon of December 8, 1980, Chapman caught Lennon and Ono outside their apartment building as they were heading to a recording session. They apparently had a fairly pleasant exchange, and Lennon autographed a copy of the album Double Fantasy for Chapman. Lennon and Ono returned home around 1050 pm. Chapman was still standing outside the building.

Chapman killed Lennon outside the Dakota apartment building where he lived with Yoko One and his son Sean.

There were rumors that Chapman called Lennon’s name, but he later denied any recollection of that. Without a great deal of fanfare, Chapman fired five rounds from his inexpensive .38 Special revolver. The first missed Lennon and struck a window in the building. The other four connected. Lennon staggered into the lobby of the building with blood pouring from his mouth.

The first two hollowpoint rounds struck the singer in the left side of his back. The other two hit his left shoulder. Two rounds passed through his body, and another ended up in her left arm. The fourth lodged in his aorta near the heart.

These are the glasses Lennon was wearing when he was killed.

One round severed Lennon’s subclavian artery. Another severely damaged his aorta and aortic arch. Lennon’s left lung was also badly perforated. Surgeons at Roosevelt Hospital performed an emergent open-chest heart massage to no avail. A post mortem evaluation estimated that Lennon lost 80% of his blood volume before he died.

When police arrived Chapman had placed his weapon on the ground and stood calmly reading The Catcher in the Rye. He was arrested without incident.

The Gun

The Undercover .38 was Charter Arms first successful offering. This is the gun used by Chapman to kill Lennon.

Douglas McClenahan was a gun designer who had previously worked for Colt, High Standard, and Ruger before starting Charter Arms in 1964. His first revolver was the five-shot short-barreled Undercover model ultimately used by Chapman. Unlike other contemporary designs, McClenahan built his revolvers around a one-piece frame for strength, reduced the number of parts in the mechanism, and introduced a novel safety device.

The transfer bar ignition system, shown on the right, adds an extra measure of safety to a revolver’s mechanism.

According to its website, Charter pioneered the transfer bar ignition system used in most modern revolvers today. As opposed to the exposed firing pin of more traditional wheelguns, this transfer bar system ensures that the firing pin cannot contact the cartridge unless the trigger is pulled fully to the rear.

The gun used by Chapman currently resides in a modest museum run by the NYPD.

The Charter Arms Undercover .38 is a snub-nosed five-shot wheelgun of conventional layout. The cylinder release presses forward in the manner of Smith and Wesson guns and allows the cylinder to pivot open to the left for reloading. Chapman’s Undercover sported slightly oversized grips and an unshrouded ejector rod. The actual assassination gun is retained by the New York City Police Department and is on display in the small museum associated with their Forensic Investigation Division.

The Charter Arms Undercover .38 remains in production today. This is the gun used by Chapman.

Charter Arms went bankrupt in the 1990s but was resurrected some years later by the Ecker family in Shelton, Connecticut. This new company succumbed to nuisance lawsuits and closed its doors in 2005. A subsequent restructured Charter Arms still produces revolvers today.

Denouement

The Beatles both reflected and personified the Age of Aquarius.

In the final years of the Beatles, John Lennon developed an abiding enthusiasm for the hallucinogen LSD. The drug’s influence on such Beatles classics as Strawberry Fields Forever, All You Need is Love, I am the Walrus, and, obviously, Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds seemed to me to, if anything, improve their work. As an aside, Lennon recorded Twist and Shout, a personal favorite, in 1963 while suffering from a wretched head cold. If you listen to the song closely you can hear it.

Mark David Chapman pled guilty to murder in the second degree and was sentenced to 20 years to life imprisonment. He has been considered for parole and denied every other year since 2000. He is held in solitary confinement for his own protection and is granted one 48-hour private conjugal visit with his wife on prison grounds each year.

Nearly a quarter-million fans packed Central Park to pay their respects to John Lennon.

John Lennon’s death triggered an outpouring of grief around the planet on an unprecedented scale. Three fans committed suicide after the murder. Yoko Ono had Lennon cremated and refused to hold a service. Ono had to ask grieving fans singing outside the Dakota to leave as they were keeping her awake. She later requested a ten-minute period of silence to commemorate her late husband. 225,000 mourners subsequently gathered in Central Park to take part. Annie Leibovitz’ iconic portrait of a naked Lennon embracing Ono was shot on the day he died at age 40, gunned down in cold blood by a psychotic fan.

This iconic image graced the cover of Rolling Stone magazine. It was shot on the day Lennon was killed.

Charter Arms Undercover

Caliber .38 Special
Barrel Length 2 inches
Weight 16 ounces
Capacity Five
Finish Blued

About the author: Will Dabbs was born and raised in the Mississippi Delta, having been immersed in hunting and the outdoors since his earliest recollections. He holds a degree in Mechanical Engineering from the University of Mississippi and is the product of a traditional American nuclear family. Where most normal American kids get drunk to celebrate their 21st birthday, Will bought his first two machineguns. Will served eight years as an Army Aviator and accumulated more than 1,100 flight hours piloting CH47D, UH1H, OH58A/C, and AH1S helicopters. He is scuba qualified, has parachuted out of perfectly good airplanes at 3 o’clock in the morning, and has summited Mt. McKinley, Alaska–the highest point in North America–six times (at the controls of a helicopter, which is the only way sensible folk climb mountains). For reasons that seemed sagacious at the time he ultimately left the Army as a Major to pursue medical school. Dr. Dabbs has for the last dozen years owned the Urgent Care Clinic of Oxford, Mississippi. He also serves as the plant physician for the sprawling Winchester ammunition plant in that same delightful little Southern town. Will is a founding partner of Advanced Tactical Ordnance LLC, a licensed 07/02 firearms manufacturer and has written for the gun press for a quarter century. He writes solely to support a shooting habit that is as insensate as it is insatiable. Will has been married to his high school sweetheart for more than thirty years and has taught his Young Married Sunday School class for more than a decade. He and his wife currently have three adult children and a most thoroughly worthless farm dog named Dog.

{ 8 comments… add one }
  • Matt August 2, 2019, 12:53 pm

    “Two rounds passed through his body, and another ended up in her left arm.” Should be, his left arm.

  • Fred Gasparino July 31, 2019, 12:16 pm

    I bet John Lennon believes in God now.

    • Tim McVeigh November 27, 2020, 12:54 pm

      Yes, and what a loving god this monster surely is.

  • Daniel Testa July 29, 2019, 5:42 pm

    I have transfer bars on two Iver Johnson revolvers from 1894 and 1912, long before Charter Arms.

  • Norm Fishler July 29, 2019, 5:29 pm

    I’ll never forget the morning he was shot. I was working as a union carpenter east of Bellevue, WA and walked into the job shack early that morning, feeling more than a little down after hearing of Lennon’s demise on the radio. I sat down on a bench and someone across the room boomed out, “Gawd dam hippie bassard! Somebody shoulda shot his ass a long time ago.” Not everybody was upset at the hearing of the news.

  • Neil J July 29, 2019, 10:59 am

    So he used hollow point ammunition , but it is not said what make.

    • Ej harbet August 3, 2019, 3:12 pm

      The recovered bullets look like 158grain lead semiwadcutter hollowpoint +ps
      In my opinion the most effective 38 round although some +p+ 110jhps could be slightly better.

  • James Hagood July 29, 2019, 9:00 am

    Dr. Dabbs I enjoy your articles especially with your background in medicine and firearms. Your articles are very well researched. Keep em coming!

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