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The death of John Lennon: what happened?

As founder, co-vocalist and guitarist of The Beatles, John Lennon was, and arguably remains, one of the most iconic musicians in British history. Dominic Sandbrook explains how, on 8 December 1980, his life was cut short

Published: December 8, 2020 at 12:29 pm
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For musician John Lennon, the last day of his life began much the same as any other. The former Beatle had a photo shoot with the American photographer Annie Leibovitz in his apartment at the Dakota Building, New York, then an interview with a San Francisco disc jockey.


Shortly before 6pm, Lennon and his wife, Yoko Ono, left for the recording studio. On their way out, Lennon stopped to sign autographs for fans, as was his custom. Among them was a 25-year-old security guard from Hawaii, Mark David Chapman, who wordlessly handed over a copy of Lennon’s latest album. “Is this all you want?” Lennon asked, as he scribbled his name.

It was almost 11pm when Lennon’s limousine reappeared outside the Dakota Building. Almost as soon as the musician got out, he glanced towards the shadows, perhaps recognising the man he had seen earlier. And at that moment, Chapman opened fire. The first bullet missed; the next four all hit their target.

As Lennon lay bleeding, Chapman dropped his gun. By the time the police arrived, he was clutching a copy of JD Salinger’s book The Catcher in the Rye.

That day was a Monday and, bizarrely, it was the ABC commentators on the evening’s American football game who broke the news of Lennon’s death. Within moments the news had spread around the globe: thousands of fans gathered outside the Dakota Building while millions mourned across the world. Six days after the murder, some 30,000 people paid tribute in Liverpool, while a further 225,000 gathered in New York.

Chapman, a college dropout who had been a big Beatles fan before being born again, was sentenced to life imprisonment. He has had eight parole hearings since 2000, none of which have been successful.


This content first appeared in the December 2014 issue of BBC History Magazine


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