Jack Henry Abbott (January 21, 1944-February 10, 2002), US author and criminal

Born Rufus Henry Abbott in Oscoda, MI, he spent most of his life in prison, in and out beginning at age 9. Serving time for bank robbery, he killed another inmate and was hit was a lengthy sentence. When he heard Norman Mailer was writing The Executioner’s Song about executed killer Gary Gilmore, Abbott wrote to the author offering his expertise as a killer himself. Violence was always something Mailer was fascinated by - some suggest when he stabbed his second wife Adele in 1960 he was motivated by the desire to experience the nature of brutal violence. Whether Abbott, who educated himself in prison, wrote Mailer out of a desire for intellectual contact or to manipulate an influential figure to aid him, or a combination of the two, is a matter of contentious debate.

Mailer was fascinated by Abbott’s letters and thought he had something of an untutored, raw street genius on his hands. "We have the phenomenon of a juvenile delinquent brought up in reform schools who stabs another prisoner to death, takes drugs when he can, reads books in Maximum Security for five years until he can hardly stand, and then, like Marx, tries to perceive the world with his mind and come back with a comprehensive vision of society." Mailer got Abbott’s correspondence published in a revised form in 1981 as In the Belly of the Beast and Abbott became a literary celebrity.

A campaign to secure parole for Abbott was successful. Mailer assured prison officials that Abbott was skilled enough to make a living and that he had “the makings of a powerful and important writer”. He offered to employ Abbott as his secretary for a year. Abbott was released to a Manhattan halfway house in June 1981.

Readjusting to freedom was difficult for Abbott. He needed help with basic things like navigating the subway, ordering in restaurants, and shopping. It came to a head on July 18, 1981, when he stabbed 22 year old Richard Adan to death in an incident which he would later characterize as a tragic misunderstanding, but at other times seemed unrepentant about. Adan, a budding actor and playwright, was a waiter at the Binbon restaurant in the East Village, where Abbott entered with two companions searching for a restroom. Exactly what transpired is unclear, but it ended with Adan bleeding to death and Abbott fleeing the scene. Abbott spent two months on the lam drifiting from job to job before before being caught in Morgan City, LA.

Abbott returned to prison with another 15 year sentence and would spend the rest of his life there, penning another book, My Return (1987). In February 2002, he was found hanging from his bedsheet in his cell. His sister and his lawyer have expressed doubts that it was suicide, but prison officials say they found a note, the contents of which they have not yet disclosed.


Abbott, Jack Henry, In the Belly of the Beast: Letters From Prison, Random House, 1981.
Abbott, Jack Henry, and Naomi Zack, My Return, Prometheus Books (Buffalo, NY), 1987

New York Times, http://www.nytimes.com/2002/02/11/nyregion/11ABBO.html
Gale Literature Resource Center database

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