Why you should care
Because two of recent history’s most shocking crimes have some unexpected connections.
Welcome to The Thread, OZY’s chart-topping weekly podcast. In Season 4, The Thread explores the controversial criminal defense that ties together some of the most notorious crimes in history: not guilty by reason of insanity. Subscribe now to follow The Thread on OZY.com, Spotify, Apple, Himalaya or wherever you prefer to stream your audio.
The Greyhound bus ticket cost $117.80. It would take 25-year-old John Hinckley Jr. four days to travel from California to Washington, D.C., in March 1981. Along the way, the bus would pass through Las Vegas; Cheyenne, Wyoming; Chicago; Cleveland; Pittsburgh. Hinckley spent a lot of the journey eating junk food and slouching in the bus seat, watching the scenery outside his window. He also passed the time rereading The Catcher in the Rye, J.D. Salinger’s classic novel of teenage angst and alienation. Hinckley identified with the novel’s iconoclastic protagonist, Holden Caulfield, but he increasingly found himself identifying with another troubled figure: Mark David Chapman, the man who had murdered John Lennon just four months earlier.
Police had found Chapman reading Catcher at the crime scene just minutes after shooting the former Beatle. Lennon was Hinckley’s favorite musician, just as he had once been Chapman’s. But, like Chapman, Hinckley found himself pulled toward darker fantasies and the need to leave his mark upon the world. And, as it turned out, in addition to his Greyhound passage, he had punched his ticket with destiny on that cross-country journey. Hinckley didn’t know it himself yet, but he was on his way to try to assassinate Ronald Reagan, the president of the United States.
Hinckley’s story is the subject of episode three of Season 4 of The Thread, available this week on OZY.com, Apple Podcasts and elsewhere. In this latest season of The Thread, OZY’s hit podcast examines how some of history’s most notorious criminal defendants, including Hinckley, are linked by a common thread: the insanity defense. Hinckley’s story also connects with Season 1 of The Thread, on the murder of John Lennon … and the role played in his death by The Catcher in the Rye.
Like Mark David Chapman, John Hinckley was a 25-year-old loner.
History is filled with contingencies, fateful moments that pushed the course of human events in an entirely different direction. One of those occurred on June 6, 1944, D-Day, when a U.S. soldier named J.D. Salinger managed a difficult feat for Utah Beach that day: He survived. And so did the only copies of the first chapters of Catcher that he was carrying in his pack. Salinger lived through the war and lived to finish Catcher. But, thanks in part to the impact of his novel, others would die, most famously John Lennon. President Reagan nearly died too.
Like Mark David Chapman, Hinckley was a 25-year-old loner. “His troubles seemed to emerge in his teen years,” says Andrea Alden, author of Disorder in the Court: Morality, Myth and the Insanity Defense. “He had trouble socially.” Hinckley had spent the last New Year’s Eve — the one just three weeks after Chapman killed Lennon — drinking peach brandy alone and ranting into a tape recorder. The tapes with those recordings were found by federal agents in Hinckley’s Washington hotel room after Hinckley shot Reagan and three others on March 30. “I just want to say goodbye to the old year, which was nothing; total misery, total death, John Lennon is dead, the world is over, forget it,” officials later reported the inebriated Hinckley saying on the tapes.
Lennon had been an idol for Hinckley and many others his age, and Hinckley took his death hard. But there was another celebrity whom Hinckley was even more focused on: the actress Jodie Foster. Foster had played a teenage prostitute in Taxi Driver, the 1976 movie about an angry young man, who, spurned by a pretty young woman, purchases an arsenal of weapons and plots the assassination of a U.S. presidential candidate. Hinckley had seen the film at least 15 times and become obsessed with winning Foster’s love. He wrote the 19-year-old actress long love letters, called her on the phone and even went to visit New Haven while she was a student at Yale — where he planned to go after his cross-country journey to D.C.
One of the reasons that impressing Foster had become so urgent for the despondent Hinckley, as he made clear on one of the New Year’s Eve tapes, was Lennon’s death. “Anything that I might do in 1981 would be solely for Jodie Foster’s sake,” he reportedly said. “One of my idols was murdered, and now Jodie’s the only one left.” In another recording, Hinckley played the guitar and sang Lennon’s hit song “Oh Yoko!” substituting “Jodie” for “Yoko.”
Four months later, Hinckley checked into the Park Central Hotel in Washington with a copy of both Catcher and the book Strawberry Fields Forever: John Lennon Remembered in his suitcase. Like Chapman, he felt he had reached a breaking point. Hinckley had resolved to kill himself when he arrived at Yale, but after learning that Reagan would be at the Washington Hilton to give a speech, he started to fantasize about another way of committing suicide, in a shower of Secret Service bullets. Such a death would attract a lot more attention and demonstrate to Foster how much he loved her.
The morning of March 30, 1981, Hinckley stood in his hotel room. He loaded his gun and stashed it in the right pocket of his beige jacket. He placed a John Lennon pin into another pocket, then left the hotel and hailed a cab to take him to the Hilton. He, like Chapman, was about to leave his mark on history.