Jack Henry ABBOTT
Number of victims: 2
Date of murders: 1965 / 1980
Date of birth: January 21,
Victims profile:: A fellow inmate /
Richard Adan, 22
Method of murder: Stabbing
Location: Utah/New York, USA
Sentenced to fifteen years to life
on April 15,
Hanged himself in
his prison cell on February 10, 2002
Jack Henry Abbott
(January 21, 1944–February 10, 2002) was an American criminal
and author. He was released from prison after gaining praise for
his writing and lauded by a number of high-profile literary
critics, but almost immediately he committed a murder and was
locked up for the rest of his life.
He was born on a U.S. Army base
in Michigan to an American soldier and a Chinese woman. As a
child Abbott was in trouble with teachers and later the law, and
by the age of sixteen he was sent to a reform school.
Prison and release
In 1965, aged twenty-one, Jack
Abbott was serving a sentence for forgery in a Utah prison when
he stabbed a fellow inmate to death. He was given a sentence of
three to twenty years for this offense, and in 1971 his sentence
was increased by a further nineteen years after he escaped and
committed a bank robbery in Colorado. Behind bars he was
troublesome and refused to obey guard's orders and spent a lot
of time in solitary confinement.
In 1977 he read that author
Norman Mailer was writing about convicted killer Gary Gilmore.
Abbott wrote to Mailer and offered to write about his time
behind bars and the conditions he was in. Mailer agreed and
helped to publish In the Belly of the Beast, Abbott's
book on life in the prison system consisting of his letters to
Mailer supported Abbott's
attempts to gain parole, which were successful in June 1980 when
Abbott was released. He went to New York City and was the toast
of the literary scene for a short while.
Norman Mailer was subjected to
some criticism for his role in getting Jack Abbott released and
was accused of being so blinded by Abbott's evident talent for
writing that he did not take into account Abbott's propensity
In a 1992 interview in The
Buffalo News, Mailer said that his involvement with Abbott
was "another episode in my life in which I can find nothing to
cheer about or nothing to take pride in."
Murder and return to prison
On the morning of July 18,
just six weeks after getting out of prison, Jack Abbott went to
a small cafe called the Binibon in Manhattan. He clashed with
22-year-old Richard Adan, son-in-law of the restaurant's owner,
over Adan's telling him the restroom was for staff only. The
short-tempered Abbott stabbed Adan in the chest, killing him.
The very next day, unaware of
Abbott's crime, the New York Times ran a positive review
of The Belly of the Beast.
After some time on the run,
Abbott was arrested and charged with murdering Richard Adan. At
his trial in January 1982, he was convicted of manslaughter and
given fifteen years to life.
Apart from the advance fee of
$12,500, Abbott did not receive any profits from The Belly of
the Beast, as Richard Adan's widow successfully sued him for
$7.5 million in damages, which meant she received all the money
from the book's sales.
There was a tragic irony to
the murder, not lost on the community of aspiring writers and
actors in New York. While Abbott was an accomplished writer,
Adan was both an actor and a playwright, whose talent was just
beginning to be recognized: shortly before his murder his first
play had been accepted for production by the La Mama theatre
In 1987 Abbott published
another book titled My Return, which was not a success.
It contained a great deal of self-pity, but no remorse for his
crimes. In fact, Abbott blamed his crimes on the prison system
and the government and said he wanted an apology from society
for the way he had been treated.
He appeared before the parole
board in 2001, but his application was turned down because of
his failure to express remorse and his lengthy criminal record
and disciplinary problems in prison.
On February 10, 2002, Jack
Abbott hanged himself in his prison cell using a makeshift noose
constructed from his bedsheets and shoelaces. He left a suicide
note, whose contents have not been made public.
Jack Henry Abbot, 58
By Bruce Jackson
Buffalo Report 1 March
Jack Henry Abbott hanged himself
with a bedsheet and shoelace in Wende Correctional Faculty on
Sunday, February 10. At first his family was convinced he'd been
murdered. "He wouldn't have killed himself that way," his sister
told a reporter. Maybe a bedsheet and shoelace comprise an
improbable instrument for Abbott, but they're equally improbable
as a penitentiary murder weapon. In all the years I did research
in prisons I never heard of anyone being strung up by a bedsheet
and a shoelace. It's not how it's done.
Thus far, no evidence has turned up
suggesting anybody had a hand in hanging Jack Henry Abbott other
than Jack Henry Abbott. Two coroners, one hired by the state and
the other hired by the family, have called it suicide and the
prison authorities say they have a suicide note. They haven't
released the note and they haven't said why they won't let
anybody see it, but those guys adore secrets and maybe the note
said true bad things about them they don't want anybody to know.
Like Kaleida with the Hunter Group report.
Jack Henry Abbott spent the nine years before
his eighteenth birthday in Utah reformatories. He was free for
six months, then he was sent to the Utah penitentiary to do time
for writing bad checks. He got more felony time three years
later when he stabbed one inmate to death and injured another in
a prison brawl. He robbed a bank during a brief escape in 1971;
that earned him a nineteen-year federal sentence on top of the
state time. He was then twenty-five years old.
In 1978 Abbott began a lengthy correspondence
with Norman Mailer, who was at the time writing The
Executioner's Song (1979), a fictionalized biography of
executed murderer Gary Gilmore. Mailer got some of Abbott's
letters published in the prestigious New York Review of Books,
which led to publication of Abbott's first book, In the Belly
of the Beast (1982).
When Abbott came up for parole Mailer wrote a
strong letter on his behalf, not only saying he was fit for
release but that Mailer could guarantee him gainful employment
in New York. Abbott was transferred to a New York halfway house
in early in June 1981.
Diane Christian and I had done some research
on Death Row in Texas not long before that and we were
exchanging regular letters with several men on the Row. One of
them read In the Belly of the Beast and wrote us that "they're
the kind of letters somebody on the inside writes somebody on
the outside who doesn't know jack-shit about the penitentiary
and never will." He and several other men on the Row found the
book's success in New York proof of how easily conned people in
the free world were.
While Abbott was at the halfway house he was
the darling of New York literary society. He was on "Good
Morning, America," and went to fancy parties. I heard Mailer
talk about him several times on tv and remember thinking, "You've
found your own Gary Gilmore." Mailer had never gotten to meet
Gary Gilmore and I'd always thought that rankled him: he was
hired to work on Executioner's Song by Lawrence Schiller
after Gilmore's execution and he based his Gilmore dialog on
Schiller's extensive interview tapes.
With Abbott, he had his own his pet convict.
It was like those people who get a big animal you're not
supposed to have and show it to you on a leash with a jewel-encrusted
collar. You don't know if you're supposed to admire the animal
or them for having it on the leash with the jewel-encrusted
collar. Well, yes, you do know.
If Abbott had stayed out of trouble for eight
weeks, he would have gone on parole. He didn't make it. Six
weeks after he got to New York, he stabbed to death a waiter
named Richard Adan. Because of his previous record, Abbott
received the maximum sentence: 15 years to life. After he went
back to prison Abbott wrote a second book, My Return
(1987). That's a title that should have been used by Douglas
MacArthur about getting off the barge in Leyte or Charles de
Gaulle on having a cognac in Les Deux Magots after sitting out
WWII in London. Or some politician who had been voted out of
office and got back in again next time around because his
successor was worse than he'd been. My Return.
I didn't like the book, and said so in a review. Shortly
thereafter, a woman who had become involved with him after he
got the manslaughter sentence sent me a copy of the pro se
brief he'd sent to a New York judge a short time before. He was
asking the judge to set him free. In her cover letter she told
me that, like nearly everyone else, I'd failed to understand his
sensibility. She said that if I read his brief carefully I'd
have a better understanding of the kind of man Jack Henry Abbott
In that, she was correct, though I didn't
come to the understanding she had in mind. I was struck by the
fact that in the entire document Abbott wrote in the hope his
sentence would be set aside, he never referred to Richard Adan
by name. He referred only to "the deceased." The part that
especially caught my attention consisted of these two sentences:
There was never sufficient evidence
presented at my trial to support a finding of intent to kill.
The deceased in this case was inflicted a single wound under
circumstances which would have demanded the infliction of more
wounds, if the single wound had been inflicted with the intent
to kill and not merely to repel him.
I'll translate that into English for you: "They never proved I
meant to kill the guy. If somebody like me really wanted to kill
a guy like that, you think I'd stab him only once? Moi?" But
that's not what Jack Henry Abbott wrote. What he wrote was,
There was never sufficient evidence presented at my trial
to support a finding of intent to kill. The deceased in this
case was inflicted a single wound under circumstances
which would have demanded the infliction of more wounds, if
the single wound had been inflicted with the intent to
kill and not merely to repel him.
Jack Henry Abbott couldn't lie about the
facts of the killing (there were witnesses); the only issue was
the meaning of those facts. What impressed me about Abbott's
statement is how astutely he had used language so he could talk
about what happened without admitting any guilt or
responsibility for what happened. He slipped into the passive
voice, which has no actor, no agent. Things happen but nobody's
there doing them. Scientists write in the passive all the time
because they like to pretend the hand of humans didn't influence
what went on: "The measurements were taken and were observed to
be....Therefore, it was concluded that...."
We all do it when we feel the need. We don't
think, "I'm switching into the passive now" any more than an
experienced driver thinks about when to move the right foot from
the accelerator to the brake pedal. Little kids do it all the
time: "How did that plate full of cookies wind up on the floor?"
After reading Abbott's statement I understood
that there was in language a way to acknowledge events without
in any way accepting responsibility or accountability for them.
Language, I decided, had profound moral power that could appear
to recast the very facts its users purport to present.
"His life was tragic from beginning to end,"
Norman Mailer said in a prepared statement after he learned of
the suicide. "I never knew a man who had a worse life."
I don't know about that. Based on the two
books and the pro se brief, Jack Henry Abbott was a man
whose life made perfect sense to him, a man for whom the clumsy
organization of the world was proof of the world's continuing
inadequacy. I don't know what made him that way, why it was okay
for him to kill that guy in prison and that waiter in Greenwich
Village, and do all the other stuff he got locked up for. But
those are the things he did and that's the way he was, right up
to the end when he tied that bedsheet to the shoelace and quit
the game on his own terms in his own good time.
Mailer and the Murderer
By Sewell Chan - The New York Times
November 12, 2007
A tidbit from Charles McGrath’s lengthy obituary of Norman
Mailer, who died on Saturday, intrigued us: Mailer’s role in
helping to win parole for Jack Henry Abbott, a felon, in 1981.
Mailer championed Mr. Abbott’s release, citing the quality of
the prisoner’s writings, and he agreed to hire Mr. Abbott as a
research assistant. But Mr. Abbott went on to commit another
murder within weeks of his parole.
was one of the low points of Mailer’s long and storied life, as
a visit to The Times’s online archives show.
According to a detailed profile by M. A.
Farber of The Times, Mr. Abbott was born on Jan. 21, 1944, in
Michigan. His father, who was in the armed forces, was of Irish
descent; his mother, of Chinese. He spent most of his early
childhood in foster homes, and was placed in a school for
delinquent boys at age 12. In 1963, after being accused of
breaking into a shoe store and stealing some checks that he made
out to himself, he was sentenced to a maximum of five years in
prison at the Utah state penitentiary. In 1966, while serving
that term, he was given a concurrent sentence of three to 20
years for the fatal knifing of a fellow inmate. In 1971, he
escaped from prison and robbed a savings and loan association in
Denver. He was convicted of armed robbery and given a 19-year
He ended up, in 1979, at a federal
penitentiary in Marion, Ill., where he became an avid reader and
started a correspondence with Jerzy Kosinski, the Polish-born
novelist. By then, he had also sent a letter to Mailer, after
noticing in a newspaper article that Mailer was writing a book
based on the life of the convicted murderer Gary Gilmore, who
was executed in Utah. (The book, “The Executioner’s Song,” was
published in 1979 and is considered by many to be Mailer’s
masterpiece.) Mr. Abbott offered to help Mailer understand
prison life. “Mr. Mailer was deeply impressed with the literary
quality of Mr. Abbott’s subsequent letters, written by hand and
often 20 pages or more,” Mr. Farber wrote in The Times.
In 1980, The New
York Review of Books published a
selection from the letters, with a
brief introduction by Mailer. Erroll
McDonald, a young Random House
editor who was looking for new
talent, signed Mr. Abbott to a book
contract with a $12,500 advance. The
book would be made up of excerpts
from the letters to Mailer, who
would write a longer introduction.
Meanwhile, Mr. Abbott was trying to
obtain parole, but first he had to
complete his state sentence in Utah
for killing the inmate.
In January 1981,
federal authorities sent Mr. Abbott
back to Utah, where he was
automatically considered for parole.
By then, his book was being edited
for publication and he had a job
offer from Mailer as a research
assistant. In June, Mailer met Mr.
Abbott at the airport, and the
inmate, now free, was admitted to a
halfway house on East Third Street.
On the night of
July 17, Mr. Abbott and two women
were at the Binibon, a restaurant in
the East Village, when Mr. Abbott
got up from his table and asked
Richard Adan, a 22-year-old waiter
and aspiring actor, to direct him to
the toilet. Mr. Adan explained that
the toilet could be reached only
through the kitchen, and because the
restaurant did not have accident
insurance for customers, only
employees could use the bathroom. Mr.
Abbott argued with him. They took
their dispute outside, where Mr.
Abbott stabbed Mr. Adan to death,
early in the morning of July 18.
The following day,
July 19, The New York Times Book
Review, unaware of Mr. Abbott’s
crime, published a review of his
book, “In the Belly of the Beast.”
The reviewer, Terrence Des Pres, a
Colgate University professor, wrote
that the work was ‘’awesome,
brilliant, perversely ingenuous; its
impact is indelible, and as an
articulation of penal nightmare it
is completely compelling.'’
That same day,
the police announced that they were
searching for Mr. Abbott for killing
the waiter. Federal authorities
joined in the manhunt. Meanwhile, Mr.
Farber of The Times reconstructed Mr.
Abbott’s mental and emotional state,
through scores of interviews with
people who knew him and a review of
his medical and legal records, while
Michiko Kakutani, a cultural critic
for The Times, wrote an extended
essay about themes in Mr. Abbott’s
book and their relation to his
shocking new crime.
On Sept. 23,
1981, Mr. Abbott was seized in
Louisiana. He was indicted on Oct.
7. Mr. Farber weighed in with an
article chronicling the manhunt.
Mr. Abbott, who
chose to represent himself in court,
testified about his harrowing
experiences in foster care and in
prisons and admitted to the killing.
On Jan. 21, 1982, he was convicted
of first-degree manslaughter and on
April 15, he was sentenced to 15
years to life in prison.
At the time, many
people blamed not only Mailer, but
also Mr. Abbott’s book editor and
even Robert Silvers, the editor of
The New York Review of Books, for
having supported his release from
prison. But Henry Howard, the
waiter’s father-in-law, said it was
the criminal justice system, not
Mailer, that was at fault:
I’m not angry
at Mailer or Random House. It’s
their job to recognize writing
talent and they saw it in Jack
Abbott. My quarrel is with the
prison authorities, with the
Establishment. It’s their job to
decide who goes out of prison,
and not because of some pressure
from great writers or publishers.
Mr. Abbott came
out with a new book, “My Return,” in
1986. In 1990, Mr. Adan’s widow
filed a civil lawsuit against Mr.
Abbott, seeking $10 million in
damages. In court, Mr. Abbott
maintained that his attack on Mr.
Adan had been so quick that there
was no suffering. Again representing
himself, he cross-examined the widow,
at one point berating her for
weeping. On June 15, 1990, a jury
awarded Mr. Adan’s family $7.57
million in damages. (Mr. Abbott was
already barred from using any money
he earned from the Adan murder under
the so-called Son of Sam law, a New
York statute that prevents criminals
from profiting from any crimes they
On Feb. 10, 2002,
Mr. Abbott was found dead in his
prison cell in Alden, N.Y., near
Buffalo. He had committed suicide.