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.


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.


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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John Wesley Hardin: Ruthless Old West Killer

Last week I told you about modern-day killer Colin Ferguson. This week, we take a trip back to the old West to meet John Wesley Hardin. He’s not as famous as, say, Billy the Kid or Wyatt Earp (they had better publicists). But Hardin was a prolific killer. He claimed to have killed 42 men. Contemporary newspapers put the count at 27.

Ferrotype mirror image of John Wesley Hardin (Public Domain)
Ferrotype mirror image of John Wesley Hardin (Public Domain)

John Wesley Hardin — A Violent Boyhood

John Wesley Hardin entered the world near Bonham, Texas in 1853. His father, a Methodist preacher, named his son after the founder of the Methodist denomination. The Civil War broke out when Hardin was eight years old. The next year, when he was nine, he tried to run away with his cousin and join the Confederate army. His father dissuaded him with “a sound thrashing.”

John Wesley Hardin
John Wesley Hardin

When Hardin was 14, he got into a fight with classmate Charles Sloter, a boy Hardin described as a bully. Sloter wrote something on the chalkboard disparaging a girl at the school. History doesn’t record what the writing said, but Sloter then claimed Hardin had written it. Hardin denied it. According to Hardin, Sloter punched him and pulled a knife. Hardin had a knife of his own and stabbed Sloter in the chest and back, nearly killing him.

Hardin’s First Killing

In November 1868, Hardin and a cousin engaged in a wrestling match with a former slave named Major “Mage” Holshousen. During the match, Hardin and his cousin threw Holshousen to the ground, cutting his face. Hardin claimed that the next day, the former slave “ambushed” him as he rode past. Hardin then shot Holshousen five times with his Colt .44.

Union troops occupied Texas in the wake of the Civil War. More than a third of the state police were former slaves. Hardin’s father felt a fair trial for killing a black man would be impossible, so he urged Hardin to go into hiding. Some historians believe Hardin wouldn’t have had any problems with an all-white jury, but he left anyway.

John Wesley Hardin
John Wesley Hardin

According to Hardin, while he was on the run, authorities discovered where he was hiding. They sent three Union soldiers to arrest him. Hardin laid in wait for the soldiers and killed two of them with two blasts from a double-barreled shotgun. The third soldier ran, and Hardin pursued him. The soldier shot at Hardin, hitting him in the arm. Hardin shot the man dead with his pistol.

Outlaw on the Run

By now, John Wesley Hardin was a full-fledged outlaw. He roamed around Texas and, for a while, even taught school in the tiny town of Towash. The students had a reputation for being unruly and frightening off teachers. But Hardin earned their respect—and attention—by carrying a revolver to class.

On January 20, 1875 the Texas Legislature authorized Governor Richard B. Hubbard
to offer a $5,000 reward for the apprehension of John Wesley Hardin.
On January 20, 1875 the Texas Legislature authorized Governor Richard B. Hubbard
to offer a $5,000 reward for the apprehension of John Wesley Hardin.

Respectability wasn’t in Hardin’s future, though. On January 5, 1870 (some sources say Christmas Day, 1869), he got in a card game with Benjamin Bradley. He had a run of luck and Bradley threatened to “cut out his liver” if he won again. Hardin was not armed and left. Later, though, the two men found themselves facing each other in the street. The classic “walkdown” made famous by books and movies was, in fact, quite rare in the old West. They occasionally occurred, though, often among southern gunmen as a continuation of the idea of the “gentlemen’s dual.” Bradley fired and missed. Hardin shot Bradley in the head and chest, killing him.

John Wesley Hardin Kills a Man for Snoring

In the early 1870s, the fugitive John Wesley Hardin (using an alias) met James Butler “Wild Bill” Hickok. Hardin admired the lawman-gambler and the two became friends. Hardin claimed that on one occasion, Hickok arranged for one of Hardin’s cousins to escape from jail.

In 1871, Hickok was the town marshal of Abilene, Kansas, a rough-and-tumble Cowtown. On August 6, Hardin checked into Abilene’s American House Hotel after a night of drinking and gambling. Sometime during the night, loud snoring coming from the adjacent room occupied by Charles Couger awakened him. After shouted demands to “roll over” had no effect, Hardin drunkenly fired several shots through the wall. Although he probably intended only to wake Couger, one bullet pierced his heart, killing him instantly.

James Butler "Wild Bill" Hickok (Portrait taken in 1873 by George Gardner Rockwood at his New York studio three years before Hickok's death in Deadwood)
James Butler “Wild Bill” Hickok (Portrait taken in 1873 by George Gardner Rockwood at his New York studio three years before Hickok’s death in Deadwood)

Hardin—half dressed and still drunk—saw Hickok coming with four policemen. He escaped out a second-floor window onto the hotel’s roof, then jumped to the street. He hid in a haystack all night. The next morning, he stole a horse and escaped. He never returned to Abilene.

The incident apparently embarrassed Hardin. He later complained about the press he received from it and omitted it entirely in his autobiography.

Prison and Afterwards

Hardin evaded the law for several years. But on August 24, 1877, Texas Rangers and local lawmen accosted him on a train near Pensacola, Florida. Hardin attempted to draw a Colt .44 cap-and-ball pistol, but it caught in his suspenders. The lawmen knocked Hardin unconscious and took him prisoner.

Hardin went on trial for killing Brown County, Texas Deputy Sheriff Charles Webb. On June 5, 1878, he was sentenced to 25 years in Huntsville Prison. He attempted to escape–unsuccessfully—several times. Eventually, though, he adapted to prison life. He read and studied law. He also penned an autobiography in which he wildly exaggerated and even fabricated incidents in his life.

Harden was released from Huntsville prison in February 1894. He was forty years old. Eventually pardoned, he passed the state bar examination and earned a license to practice law.

The Death of John Wesley Hardin

In El Paso, Texas, lawman John Selman, Jr. arrested an acquaintance of Hardin’s and the two men got into a verbal altercation. That night, Hardin was playing dice in the Acme Salon. Selman’s father, 58-year-old John Selman, Sr., entered the saloon, walked up behind Hardin, and shot him in the head, killing him instantly. As Hardin lay on the floor, Selman fired three more bullets into him. John Wesley Hardin was buried the next day.

John Henry Selman, Sr.
John Henry Selman, Sr.

Selman stood trial for murder. He claimed self defense and got a hung jury. Before his retrial, though, he himself was killed in an argument over a card game.

John Wesley Hardin's grave in Concordia Cemetery, El Paso, Texas.
John Wesley Hardin’s grave in Concordia Cemetery, El Paso, Texas.

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Colin Ferguson: Sensational Shooting on the LIRR

In last week’s blog, we saw “Dapper” Dan Hogan. St. Paul, Minnesota’s “Irish Godfather” blown to kingdom come by a car bomb. This week, we look at Colin Ferguson and a scary shooting on a New York commuter train.

Colin Ferguson

Colin Ferguson was born in Jamaica in 1958. His father was a wealthy pharmacist and the managing director of a large pharmaceutical company. Young Colin had a normal upbringing, although one that was privileged by Jamaican standards. His high school principal described him as a “well-rounded student.” He graduated in the top third of his class.

Colin Ferguson in court.
Colin Ferguson in court.

His privileged life fell apart though when Colin was 20. First, his father died in a car crash in 1978. Then his mother died of cancer shortly thereafter. The deaths left the family fortune in shambles. In 1982, Colin left Jamaica for the United States.

In the US, Colin Ferguson met and married Audrey Warren, an American woman of Jamaican ancestry. He and his wife moved to Long Island, New York and had a son. There Colin attended a community college, making the dean’s list three times. However, Audrey sued for divorce in 1988 and won custody of their boy. Colin ended up living in what was essentially a flophouse in Brooklyn.

Terror on the Long Island Railroad

The Long Island Railroad is a series of commuter lines running from Manhattan’s Pennsylvania Station to Queens and Long Island. Several branches run to different destinations on the island.

Colin Ferguson staged his attack here, at the Merillon Avenue (LIRR station) in Garden City, New York (DanTD)
Site of the shootings, Merillon Avenue (LIRR station) in Garden City, New York (DanTD)

On December 7, 1993, Colin Ferguson boarded the third car of an eastbound train at the Flatbush Avenue station in Brooklyn. He carried a Ruger P89 handgun and a canvas bag with 160 rounds of ammunition. As the train approached the Merillon Avenue stations near Garden City he drew the gun and stood up. Then he opened fire. During the next three minutes, he walked slowly toward the front of the car shooting people on the left and the right. The New York Times wrote that he was “as methodical as if he were taking tickets.”

Ferguson emptied two 15-round clips during the shooting spree. As he was loading a third, someone yelled, “Grab him!” Michael O’Connor, Kevin Blum, and Mark McEntee tackled him and pinned him to a seat. These three and other passengers kept the shooter pinned down until Andrew Roderick, an off-duty LIRR policeman, boarded the train and handcuffed him.

Victims receive emergency attention at Merillon Avenue in Garden City after gunman Colin Ferguson fatally shot six people and injured 19 on an LIRR train (Newsday / Al Raia)
Victims receive emergency attention at Merillon Avenue in Garden City after gunman Colin Ferguson fatally shot six people and injured 19 on an LIRR train (Newsday / Al Raia)

The shooting spree left six people dead or dying. Nineteen other passengers suffered bullet wounds while two suffered injuries in the stampede of passengers trying to exit the train.

Colin Ferguson under arrest.
Colin Ferguson under arrest

Colin Ferguson on Trial

A Nassau County grand jury indicted Colin Ferguson in January 1994 on 93 counts. The district attorney announced that he would not accept a plea bargain. In March of that year, radical attorney William Kunstler and his partner, Ron Kuby, agreed to take the case on a pro bono basis.

Radical lawyer William M. Kunstler ca. 1989 (Joel Seidenstein). Kunstler volunteered to defend Collin Ferguson without fee.
Radical lawyer William M. Kunstler ca. 1989 (Joel Seidenstein)

Kunstler and Kuby decided to argue a “black rage” defense. They contended that racial prejudice he suffered in America had driven Ferguson temporarily insane. Apparently, even Ferguson himself found this offensive. The lawyers also questioned his competence to stand trial. But Ferguson insisted he was competent, although his bizarre courtroom behavior suggested otherwise. When his attorneys filed notice that they would pursue an insanity defense, he fired them and insisted on representing himself.

Ferguson conducted a disjointed an ineffective defense. His list of potential witnesses included President Bill Clinton, although in the end he called no witnesses. He argued that another person was the actual shooter, but every eyewitness identified him. His cross-examination often repeated witnesses’ statements, a legal no-no as it mostly reinforces the original testimony. And by failing to object to testimony and during closing arguments, he lost the right to appeal on those points.


Unsurprisingly, the jury found Colin Ferguson guilty of murder and attempted murder. Judge Donald E. Belfi sentenced him to 315 years and 8 months to life. He will be eligible for parole in August 2309.

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Dan Hogan — New Attack Kills “Irish Godfather”

Last week’s blog met Judge Joseph Force Crater who disappeared without a trace in 1930. This week’s blog introduces “Dapper” Dan Hogan, the so-called “Irish Godfather” of St. Paul, Minnesota. Like the judge, Hogan’s case remains unsolved.

St. Paul the Gangland Haven

St. Paul in the early twentieth century was one of the most corrupt cities in America. When John O’Connor became Chief of Police in 1900, he instituted what became known as the O’Connor Layover Agreement. The system was straightforward. Criminals could hide out in St. Paul if they followed three simple rules. First, they had to check in with O’Connor’s representative when they got into town. Second, they had to pay a small bribe. And third, they were not to commit major crimes within the city during their stay.

St. Paul police chief John O'Connor ca. 1912. Dan Hogan was O'Connor's "ambassador" to visiting criminals
St. Paul police chief John O’Connor ca. 1912

O’Connor’s first contact man was William “Reddy” Griffin. When criminals came to town, they would “check in” with Griffin at the Savoy Hotel and pay the required bribe. Griffin was O’Connor’s “ambassador” until he died suddenly of a stroke in 1913.

The Layover Agreement made St. Paul one of the most crime-free cities in America—for a while. But surrounding cities and towns suffered as crooks committed the crimes the planned in St. Paul there.

Dan Hogan Arrives on the Scene

Dan Hogan arrived in St. Paul around 1908. He began organizing crimes under the auspices of O’Connor’s system and became politically connected. He operated the Green Lantern, a saloon on Wabasha Street. The saloon catered to the underworld element and laundered their stolen money. It also had a casino and, during Prohibition, was a speakeasy.

"Dapper" Dan Hogan
“Dapper” Dan Hogan

Hogan took advantage of William Griffin’s death to become O’Connor’s “ambassador” to the criminals seeking shelter in St. Paul. However, O’Connor retired from the police force in 1920. The O’Connor Layover Agreement persisted for several more years, but it began to change in ominous ways. St. Paul’s crime rate, which had been low while O’Connor was active, began to climb.

A Car Bomb Kills Dan Hogan

On December 4, 1928, Dan Hogan got into his Paige coupe and stepped on the starter. A nitroglycerine bomb wired to the starter circuit exploded. Men both respectable and disreputable lined up at the hospital to donate blood, but Hogan slipped into a coma and died about 9:00 p.m.

A St. Paul newspaper reports Dan Hogan's death
A St. Paul newspaper reports Dan Hogan’s death

Hogan’s death marked the beginning of the end for the O’Connor Layover Agreement. The repeal of prohibition at the end of 1933 accelerated its decline. With prohibition gone, so were the profits from illegal liquor sales. Bootleggers turned to kidnapping for ransom. Once known for its lack of serious crime, St. Paul became infamous for its criminal activity. Thanks to a recently energized FBI and a crusading newspaper man, the O’Connor Layover Agreement finally ended in 1935.


The murder of Dan Hogan was an early instance of assassination by car bomb, a technique perfected in New York. Police never arrested anyone for the murder, and it remains officially unsolved. However, recently declassified FBI files reveal that the likely killer was Hogan’s underboss, Harry Sawyer.

Police identification card for Harry Sawyer
Police identification card for Harry Sawyer
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