John Lennon

40th anniversary of John Lennon's death: who killed him, how and why?

Today marks the 40th year since the passing of John Lennon; father, husband, Beatle and anti-war hero. What’s the story behind his assassination?

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40th anniversary of John Lennon's death: who killed him, how and why?

John Lennon was born 9 October 1940 in Liverpool, England and died 8 December 1980 in New York City, USA. Lennon spent his heyday of eight extraordinary years between 1962 and 1970 in The Beatles earning a reputation as “one of the great rock rhythm guitarists” and co-creating a total of 213 songs, 188 of which are originals. This body of work to this day arguably remains proof of the most successful song writing partnership of all time between Lennon and his bandmate Paul McCartney.

The Beatles perform in a concert at the Budokan in Tokyo on June 30, 1966.

As a solo artist John Lennon went on to record another 150 songs, of which many, including Imagine, also went on to become colossal hits. When Lennon and his wife Yoko Ono separated for a year and a half in 1973, Lennon infamously sunk under and lost himself to an alcohol addiction. Following their reunion in 1975, Lennon entered a period - doomed to be his final years – in which he retreated from music and the spotlight, becoming a reclusive househusband.

In 1980, Lennon made a comeback album, Double-Fantasy, a critically acclaimed record celebrating his love for Yoko and featured songs written by her. Tragically this appeared to be the start of a new artistic chapter for Lennon. Just under a month before his murder, in an interview with the New York Times, he told the paper, "In a way, we're involved in a kind of experiment - could the family be the inspiration for art, instead of drinking or drugs or whatever? I'm interested in finding that out."

John Lennon and his wife Yoko Ono pose in New York. Today marks the 40th anniversary of John Lennon's assassination.

Who killed John Lennon, how and why?

On 8 December 1980, a man named Mark David Chapman from Hawaii shot 40 year old John Lennon as he was entering his apartment building – the Dakota - at close range, four times, with a .38 calibre revolver. Lennon died on the way to hospital.

Chapman, aged 25 at the time, who was soon diagnosed as borderline psychotic, had spent months planning the assassination. The murderer was famously carrying the JD Salinger book, Catcher in the Rye – which he later admitted identifying with because of its key themes isolation and loneliness - when he shot Lennon. Chapman was arrested at the scene without incident and imprisoned from that day on.

At the time, Chapman, a born again Christian, refused to plead insanity, instead stating that it has been “God’s will” that Lennon die. He said that he was angered by what he saw to be Lennon’s hedonistic lifestyle and an infamous quote Lennon made years earlier about the Beatles being “more popular than Jesus.” Chapman reportedly had lined up three other celebrities should he not have been able to assassinate Lennon that day, saying “I came up with whatever famous people I could.”

Though he was sentenced to 20 years to life imprisonment, Chapman has been denied parole 11 times and remains behind bars. In September 2020 at his parole hearing the killer admitted that he took Lennon’s life for the “glory” and claimed he deserved the death penalty.

"He was extremely famous. I didn't kill him because of his character or the kind of man he was. He was a family man. He was an icon. He was someone that spoke of things that now we can speak of and it's great.

"I assassinated him...because he was very, very, very famous and that's the only reason and I was very, very, very, very much seeking self-glory, very selfish. I want to add that and emphasise that greatly. It was an extremely selfish act. I'm sorry for the pain that I caused to her [Ono]. I think about it all of the time," Chapman said.

In denying Chapman parole, the panel commented that Chapman’s remarks were “disturbing…your actions represented an evil act. The fact that today, almost 40 years later, you can still speak of what you did as something that you felt was a positive and in your mind gave you 'glory' at the time, is disturbing for this panel."

Lennon’s legacy 40 years on

In the divided and fractured America - and indeed world - of 2020, John Lennon’s key message to unite and live in peace may feel both more relevant and more distant than ever. A devoted feminist and outspoken opponent to the Vietnam War, Lennon was at risk of being deported when Republican Richard Nixon was elected for a second term, due to Lennon’s extremely liberal political stance.

Though he constituted many personas, those close to Lennon during his final years as a husband and father have suggested that he would want to be remembered as that low-key incarnation of himself, should he have known he was going to be killed.

"If he knew he was going to die, and if he was able to choose the period of his life that would be the focus in the future, it would be this period," David Shefff told NBC News, a writer who interviewed Lennon during his final months, spending three weeks with him and his family. "He was so alive, and he felt that he had something important to say about raising his baby and marriage. That's the story he would want told, I think."

A champagne bottle with flowers adorns the 'Imagine' mosaic at the Strawberry Fields Memorial for John Lennon, in Central Park, NYC on December 3, 2020.

John Lennon is memorialised in “Strawberry Fields”, a section of New York’s Central Park across from the Dakota that his widow Yoko Ono landscaped in his honour. There is also a John Lennon memorial statue in central Liverpool, England.