Jack Abbott — A Killer with Influential Friends

From our English case last week, we cross the Atlantic to a very American one. Jack Abbott was a criminal convicted of murder among other crimes. His made some influential friends who argued for his parole, only for him to kill again shortly after getting out.

Jack Henry Abbott

Jack Abbott was born in Oscoda, Michigan during World War II. His father was an Irish-American soldier and his mother was a Chines-American former prostitute. After the war, Abbott senior deserted his family. In and out of foster care, he earned his first stretch in juvenile detention at age nine. At 16, he entered the Utah State Industrial School, a long-term detention facility.

Jack Abbot  (David Handschuh/AP)
Jack Henry Abbott  (David Handschuh/AP)

In 1965, when he was 21, Jack Abbott was in a Utah prison serving a sentence for forgery. There he stabbed another inmate, James Christensen, to death and wounded another. He claimed he killed Christensen to fend off a homosexual attack because Christensen wanted to make Abbott his “prison wife.” Another version of the story is that Christensen had ratted out Abbott to guards for having contraband in his cell. In his writings, however, Abbott gave probably the true reason: men who have killed other men, especially other prisoners, earn the most respect.

Jack Abbot continued to collide with the law. He received a three-to-twenty-year sentence for killing Christensen but escaped in 1971. Authorities caught him after he robbed a bank in Denver and sent him back to prison. Freedom had lasted a month. Spending much of his prison time in solitary confinement for disciplinary issues, Abbott read widely, included Marx, Engels, Lenin, Sartre, and Nietzsche.

Enter Norman Mailer

In 1977, author Norman Mailer was writing a book about Utah killer Gary Gilmore. Gilmore, like Abbott, was a career criminal who murdered two people four months after earning parole. His case became a cause célèbre when he refused to appeal his death sentence. Gilmore was the first person executed in the United States after the reinstatement of capital punishment. Mailer’s book, a novelized true crime story a la Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, was The Executioner’s Song. Published in 1979, it won the Pulitzer Prize the following year.

Norman Mailer helped Jack Abbot win parole (By Grlucas - Norman Mailer Society Conference 2006, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=63095348)
Norman Mailer (By Grlucas – Norman Mailer Society Conference 2006)

When Jack Abbott learned about Mailer’s project, he wrote the author and the two struck up a correspondence. Abbot claimed that Gilmore had embellished his experiences and offered to provide Mailer a truer picture of life in prison. Mailer was instrumental in getting Abbott’s letters to him published in book from as In the Belly of the Beast. Mailer was also instrumental in obtaining parole for Abbott. Other supporters who helped in the effort include actor Christopher Walken and actress Susan Sarandon, and The New York Review editor Bob Silvers.

In the Belly of the Beast is a collection of letters Jack Abbott wrote to Norman Mailer about life in prison
In the Belly of the Beast book cover

Jack Abbott Kills Again

Jack Abbott moved into a halfway house in New York City and rubbed elbows with some of Mailer’s literary friends. But he preferred spending time with lowlifes on the Lower East Side of Manhattan.

In the early hours of Saturday, July 18, 1981, Abbott and two women were at a the Binibon, a small restaurant on Second Avenue. Richard Adan, a 22-year-old actor and playwright working as a waiter, refused Abbott access to the employees-only restroom. Instead, Adan led Abbott outside to an alley to urinate where Abbott then stabbed him to death.

Fleeing New York, Abbott made his way briefly to Mexico. Not speaking Spanish proved to be a significant handicap. Therefore, he moved on to Louisiana, where he worked in the oil fields. A business owner recognized him and tipped off authorities.

During his trial for murder, Abbott repeatedly insulted Adan’s widow and claimed Adan “had no future as an actor.” His attorney, Ivan Fisher, managed to win an acquittal on murder charges, the jury convicting him of manslaughter instead. His influential supporters mostly stood by him, though. Mailer argued for a lenient sentence saying, “Culture is worth a little risk.” Cold comfort to the families of Adan and Christensen.

Epilogue

Following his return to prison, Jack Abbott saw his arty friends desert him. His second book, My Return, did not have the same glitzy reception as In the Belly of the Beast. Denied parole in 2001, hanged himself in his cell in February 2002, constructing a noose of bedsheets and shoelaces.

At the time, Norman Mailer defended his role in winning Abbot’s release. But in 1992, he told The Buffalo News 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.”

Jack Abbott may have had literary talent (the point is debatable). But in the final analysis, he was a violent psychopath whose purported talent won him undeserved freedom.

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