Murder Trial of Jack Henry Abbott

People v. Abbott, 449 N.Y.S.2d 853 (Sup. Ct. 1982)

Jack Henry Abbott was born the son of a soldier and a prostitute in 1944. Because of “failure to adjust” to foster care, he went to juvenile detention centers, then to reform schools. He was freed at age 18, wrote a bad check, and entered the Utah State Penitentiary, where he killed a fellow inmate and received another term.

“I am at this moment thirty-seven years old,” wrote Abbott. “Since age twelve I have been free the sum total of nine and a half months.”

That statement appears on page seven of In the Belly of the Beast. Part gritty memoir and part Marxist tract, the book resulted from a correspondence between Abbott and Norman Mailer, who considered Abbott a literary discovery and became champion of an effort to have Abbott released. In June 1981, prison officials paroled Abbott despite feeling that he was “angry and hostile” and “a dangerous individual.”

Six weeks later, Abbott went to a Greenwich Village eatery for breakfast and stabbed his waiter for telling him the restaurant had no customer restroom. Abbott testified at length about his hard luck: “They were out to get me!” he shrieked at one point. Convicted of first-degree manslaughter, Abbott received a sentence of 15 years to life. In a subsequent civil suit, the murdered waiter’s widow was awarded $7.57 million in damages, virtually all of Abbott’s royalties from In the Belly of the Beast.

Mailer later described his own actions regarding Abbott as “a study in false vanity.” Abbott was found hanged in his cell on February 10, 2002.