Jack Graham: Killer for Wealth and Revenge

Old West outlaw John Wesley Hardin, who we met last week, was a killer. But he made no bones about it. He even exaggerated the number of men he killed in his autobiography. This week’s subject is Jack Graham. Graham killed 44 people by blowing up an airliner in a scheme to collect his mother’s life insurance.

Jack Graham

Jack Graham (born John Gilbert Graham) was the child of his mother, Daisie’s, second marriage. He was born in 1932, when the Great Depression was at its worst. When his father died of pneumonia, his mother was destitute. Consequently, she sent young Jack to an orphanage.

John Gilbert "Jack" Graham
John Gilbert “Jack” Graham (FBI photo)

Daisie Graham married for a third time to Earl King, who died shortly afterward. Daisie used her inheritance from King to establish herself in business. Despite her new status as a successful businesswoman, though, she did not retrieve Jack from the orphanage. Mother and son remained estranged until 1954, when Graham was 22.

At the time Jack and Daisie reconciled, she owned a successful chain of restaurant. Graham worked for his mother at one of them, the Crown-A Drive-In in Denver. Their relationship remained rocky, however. Witnesses often saw the two arguing.

In 1955, a suspicious gas explosion destroyed the Crown-A Drive-In. Graham had insured the restaurant and collected on the property insurance. He probably caused the explosion, though this was never proven.

Bombing of United Flight 629

On November 1, 1955, Daisie King planned to travel to Alaska to visit her daughter, Graham’s older half-sister. She boarded United Airlines Flight 629 at Stapleton Airport, which was then Denver’s main airport. Unknown to Daisie, Graham had purchased $37,500 wort of life insurance policy from a vending kiosk in the airport ticket lobby. Such machines were common in airports until the 1980s.

Jack Graham used a similar machine to buy insurance policies on his mother's life.. An intact airport flight insurance vending machine in the collection of the Smithsonian's "America By Air" online exhibit.
An intact airport flight insurance vending machine in the collection of the Smithsonian’s “America By Air” online exhibit.

Flight 629 originated at New York’s LaGuardia Airport. The Douglas DC-6B named “Mainliner Denver” stopped in Chicago before flying on to Stapleton. At Denver, Captain Lee Hall, a World War II veteran, took command for the segments to Portland and Seattle. Hall took off from Stapleton Airport at 6:52 p.m. At 6:56, he made his last radio transmission to report he had passed the Denver omni (a flight navigation signal).

Jack Graham used a similar machine to buy insurance policies on his mother's life. Travel Insurance Kiosks at Detroit’s Willow Run Airport, 1954. Part of the “Old News” collection at the Ann Arbor District Library.
Travel Insurance Kiosks at Detroit’s Willow Run Airport, 1954. Part of the “Old News” collection at the Ann Arbor District Library.

Seven minutes later, the airplane was over Longmont, Colorado. It was then that Stapleton air traffic controllers saw two bright lights in the sky, north-northwest of the airport. The lights were visible for 30-45 seconds and both fell to the ground at the same speed. Next, they saw a flash bright enough to light up the base of the clouds (the ceiling was 10,000 feet). Controllers then contacted all aircraft in the area and accounted for all but one: Flight 629.

Investigation

Flight 629 broke apart while it was still in the air. Major parts of the wings, engines, and center ended up in two craters 150 feet apart. The aircraft had refueled at Stapleton and its load of fuel ignited on impact. It burned intensely for three days. Eyewitnesses described a violent mid-air explosion. This led to speculation that something other than pilot error or mechanical failure caused the crash.

The tail of the plane was discovered on a Colorado farm (FBI photo)
The tail of the plane was discovered on a Colorado farm (FBI photo)

The Civil Aeronautics Board (forerunner of the Federal Aviation Administration) led the investigation. They determined that the plane began to disintegrate near the tail. The explosion fragmented the aft fuselage in a way unlikely to have resulted from any aircraft system. There was also a strong smell of explosives on items from the number 4 baggage compartment in the rear.

Investigators soon discovered chemical byproducts of a dynamite explosion on some of the wreckage. The FBI, convinced that a bomb was responsible, began conducting background checks on the passengers. Investigators also theorized that the bombing may have been the result of a labor dispute between United and a local union. But they quickly discarded that theory.

The wreckage of Flight 229 was carefully laid out in a Denver warehouse, helping investigators solve the case (FBI photo)
The wreckage of Flight 229 was carefully laid out in a Denver warehouse, helping investigators solve the case (FBI photo)

The investigation turned to Denver locals. Daisie King was one of those locals and had also purchased flight insurance. In her purse, they found newspaper clippings about Mrs. King’s son’s 1951 arrest on forgery charges. The focused their attention on Jack Graham and learned that he held a grudge against his mother for placing him in the orphanage. They also found out about the restaurant explosion.

Jack Graham Confesses

A search of Graham’s house and car turned up wire and other bomb components matching those found in the wreckage. They also found an additional $37,500 insurance policy hidden in a small cedar chest. Graham told FBI agents that his mother had packed her own suitcase. However, Graham’s wife, Gloria told agents that he had wrapped a “present” for his mother on the morning of her ill-fated flight.

With evidence mounting and inconsistencies undercutting his story, Jack Graham confessed to placing the bomb in his mother’s suitcase.

November 28, 1955,  an unidentified sheriff's deputy escorts the handcuffed John Gilbert Graham, 23, out of a car for his arraignment on charges of dynamiting a United Airlines DC-6B which exploded and crashed near Longmont, Colorado, November 1st, killing all 44 persons on board, including Graham's mother. He was given a two-week continuance while his attorneys, newly appointed by the court, have time to study the case. (Image © Bettmann/CORBIS)
November 28, 1955, An unidentified sheriff’s deputy escorts a handcuffed John Gilbert Graham, 23, to his arraignment (Image © Bettmann/CORBIS)

Authorities were shocked when they discovered that no federal law made it illegal to blow up an airplane. Instead, they charged Graham with a single count, premeditated murder with his mother, Daisie King, as the victim. His defense tried to have his confession excluded but the court denied the motion. Regardless, a mountain of physical evidence left little doubt that Graham was the bomber. He was convicted and, after a few short delays, executed in the Colorado gas chamber on January 11, 1957.

Epilogue

As a result of the Flight 629 bombing, Congress passed a bill making the bombing of a commercial airliner a federal crime. President Dwight Eisenhower signed it into law on July 14, 1956.

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