The twisted case of Jack Graham
Updated: Mar 26, 2022
What drives someone to kill? It’s a question both psychiatrists and true crime enthusiasts have been asking for years, and the answer still isn’t 100 % clear. But perhaps an even darker question is ‘what drives someone to commit mass murder’? The killing of dozens or even hundreds of people at one time is a pretty frightening concept, because you never know when you might cross paths with a mass murderer at exactly the wrong time. Unfortunately, this happened to a group of 44 people all the way back in 1955. This is the story of Jack Graham.
Jack Gilbert Graham was born on January 23, 1932 in Denver, Colorado. His father died when he was three, and in the midst of the Great Depression, his mother, Daisie, struggled to raise him and his sister, Helen. Helen was eventually sent to a religious prep school and Jack to an orphanage.
Daisie remarried in 1941 to a man named John Earl King, making her ‘Daisie King.’ But Jack wouldn’t live with her for the rest of his childhood, which he spent moving back and forth between the orphanage and living with other relatives. He ran away from the orphanage several times to be with his mother, but was always returned. In April 1948, when Jack was 16, he used forged ID papers to join the Coast Guard, where he stayed until January 1949. Despite only having a ninth grade education, he was admitted to Denver University and somehow granted a diploma before enrolling, though I’m not sure how that worked.
In 1951, Jack was employed as a payroll clerk at a manufacturing concern. In March, he stole several blank checks from the company and filled them out. He cashed the checks, bought a truck with some of the money and fled in it. He was on the run for six months before being caught in Texas in September. He was charged there with “hauling whiskey in violation of Texas laws” and served 60 days in county jail before being taken back to Colorado to face sentencing for the forgery charges. In Colorado, Jack was told to pay over $3,000 in restitution. That’s where Daisie, who hadn’t done much for her son up to this point, came to the rescue. She agreed to pay part of the restitution and begged the judge to go easy on Jack. He ended up sentenced to five years probation. At some point later that year, Jack’s truck was run over by a train, though he did get a nice insurance payout for it.
Things weren’t all bad for Jack. He married a woman named Gloria in 1953, and the couple would go on to have two children. He worked as an equipment mechanic from January 1953 to December 1954. But then things slowly began to go downhill again…and they would only get worse.
Jack’s stepfather, John Earl King, died in 1954. Daisie and Helen, who had been living in Florida at the time, moved back to Denver in February 1955. Jack and Gloria had just had their second child, and Daisie had bought a house for them the previous year, which she also lived in upon returning to Colorado.
It’s not entirely clear how Jack lost his job in December 1954. But by 1955, the man who hadn’t lived with his mother since he was a toddler and had been on his own since he was 16 now found himself living with — and financially dependent on — her. In the spring of that year, Daisie opened a restaurant with the intent of letting Jack work there. But the restaurant wasn’t a huge success. Jack would later say that business did well when he was able to operate it, but it was a struggle. Early on, vandals did damage to the property.
In September of that year, there was an explosion at the restaurant. When investigators showed up at the scene, they found that there was a small amount of money missing from the register and some of the furniture had been broken. Police thought it might be arson but nothing could be proven. The explosion was ultimately determined to be accidental, caused by a gas leak. At this point, the restaurant had been losing money and Daisie wanted to sell it. But Jack, who would have no job or income, disagreed.
Helen would later say that her brother had “pent up violence,” that she didn’t think he was mentally sound and didn’t particularly like being around him. He was also violent. One incident left Helen with injured ribs after Jack knocked her down and kicked her in the chest. He also threatened to hit her with a hammer once, but she locked herself in a room to escape. One day in the summer of 1955, Jack woke up from a nap and couldn’t find his wife, Gloria, anywhere. He finally found her playing cards with Helen and Daisie and grew so enraged that he backhanded her several times. Daisie later said she was afraid he might hit her too.
But Daisie had problems of her own. Helen claimed her mother could never really be happy or satisfied with anything. She wasn’t very warm and loving, even insisting that Jack and Helen call her Daisie, rather than mom. Daisie also had severe mood swings and even attempted suicide at least once.
In November 1955, Daisie planned a trip to Alaska to visit grandchildren who lived there. She had a seat on United Airlines Flight 629, which was scheduled to leave Stapleton Airfield in Denver at 6:30 pm on November 1st.Sometime earlier that day, Jack brought Daisie a package, wrapped in paper, and said it was a Christmas present. Daisie packed it with the rest of her luggage.
At 5 pm that day, Jack drove Daisie to the airport. Upon their arrival, Jack used a vending machine to buy three separate life insurance policies, all on Daisie. He was the beneficiary of one, and Helen and Daisie’s sister were the beneficiaries of the other two. The one he was beneficiary of was the most expensive; he paid $1.50 for it and it was worth about $37,000. The other two were worth about $6,000 each.
Daisie was one of the few passengers to check luggage. When a worker told her her suitcase was too heavy, she was given two options: She could pay an extra fee, or unpack some of the luggage and have it shipped by freight. Jack stepped in and urged his mother to pay the fee and not open the suitcase, saying it would be easier.
Flight 629 took off at 6:52 pm, headed for a stop in Portland before reaching its final destination in Alaska. Jack would later say about his mother's flight: “I watched her go off for the last time. I felt happier than I ever felt before in my life.”
Around 7:03 pm, residents of nearby Longmont, Colorado reported seeing flashing lights and hearing an enormous crash. Seats with bodies in them fell from the sky and buried themselves in the ground of a sugar beet farm just outside the city. The bodies made indentations in the ground, some as deep as 8 inches. In addition to beets, potatoes had also been grown there. But for years to come, a local farmer would find airplane parts as well as other debris fromthe crash every time he tried to dig.
The 44 people on board Flight 629 — 39 passengers and 5 crew members — were all killed. For many of the passengers, it had been their first — and last — flight. The oldest victim was 81. There was also a pregnant woman on board — 22-year-old Carol Bynum. She and her husband, Brad, were returning home after celebrating their first anniversary. Their original flight had been cancelled, and they had subsequently been put on Flight 629.
But the story I find especially heartbreaking is that of the youngest passenger on board, 13-month-old James Fitzpatrick II. James was traveling to Japan with his mother to visit his father, who was in the Navy. It was the first time James’s father would be seeing his son since he had been born.
At the time Flight 629 crashed, air travel was still young. United Airlines had been working hard to promote it, hoping to encourage people to choose airplanes over trains. Airplanes had crashed before this, but Flight 629 would prove to be different.
At first, investigators thought the crash was an accident. When they found copper wire on the plane that seemed to suggest there was dynamite on board, they grew suspicious.
But who could have bombed Flight 629? Investigators were baffled. There was nobody particularly famous on the plane, nobody who could have been the target of an assassination. They examined every possible angle or lead they could think of, looking into disgruntled employees and customers, the backgrounds of the victims and passengers who cancelled at the last minute or were scheduled to be on the flight but didn’t show up. They pulled the records from the life insurance kiosks at the airport and interviewed family members of the victims. But all this lead to nothing.
It wasn’t until they looked into the checked luggage that they finally got a break. Of the 39 passengers, only three had checked any luggage. Only one suitcase had been heavy enough to potentially hold a bomb — and it was more damaged than any other piece of checked luggage. That suitcase belonged to Daisie King.
The FBI sent two agents to interview Jack and Helen. At first, they wondered if Daisie, who had suicidal tendencies, had actually been the one responsible. But those suspicions didn’t last long.Jack’s behavior after the crash is especially interesting. According to a neighbor, Jack hadn’t been able to eat or sleep after the crash, and had spent most of his time walking around the inside and outside of the house. However, the neighbor also told investigators that she’d overheard Jack speaking lightheartedly to his wife and sister about how the shotgun shells Daisie had packed with her for hunting were “[G]oing off in the plane every which way.”
Jack was also the first relative of a victim to call the United Airlines offices for details after the crash. When the official who answered told him everyone on board was presumed dead, Jack reportedly responded: “Well, that’s the way it goes.” Half an hour later, the official called back, realizing he needed more information from Jack. When Gloria answered the phone, she said her husband was in bed, fast asleep.
Upon searching Jack’s house, investigators found a newspaper clipping about his 1951 forgery charges. They also found wires that matched the bomb that had taken down Flight 629, and were eventually able to track down a man who had sold dynamite to Jack. Jack also initially told investigators he’d bought the cheapest insurance policies available, but this turned out to be a lie. And in addition to the $37,000 payout, he was set to inherit the restaurant and an additional $150,000 upon his mother’s death.
12 days after the crash, agents sat down to interview Jack again. When confronted with the evidence, he quickly broke down.
One day in the fall of 1955, Jack and Daisie had yet another fight while working at the restaurant. Jack, who had been abandoned by his mother as a child, now had to deal with her both as his landlord and his boss. At this point, all the resentment and anger that had festered toward her over the years finally boiled over.
Jack assembled the bomb himself, making sure there was a timer built in so it would detonate in the air. He made sure to take Daisie to the airport at the last minute and, once he got there, let her out and drove off to park. Once he was alone in the parked car around 6 pm, he started the bomb’s timer. Once inside the airport, he purchased the life insurance policies and convinced Daisie to pay the extra fee for her checked suitcase to avoid opening it and detonating the bomb there.
And that wasn’t it. He also confessed to causing the explosion at the restaurant in September, as well as purposefully leaving his truck on a train track, causing it to be destroyed so he could collect the insurance payout.
The day after his confessions, Jack Graham was arrested. At the time, there were no federal laws against bombing an airplane because it had never happened before. Flight 629 was, in fact, the first airplane sabotage in U.S. history.
On November 17, Jack was charged with first degree murder in the death of his mother. He pled ‘innocent’ and ‘innocent by reason of insanity, before, during and after the alleged commission on the crime.’ He was evaluated by court psychiatrists and found to be legally sane and, therefore, fit to stand trial.
There is one silver lining in this entire case that I feel is worth mentioning. Flight 629 was scheduled to leave at 6:30 pm, but didn’t take off until almost half an hour later. If it had left on schedule, it would have crashed in the mountains of Wyoming and determining the cause of the crash would have been next to impossible. Jack Graham may never have been caught.
His trial began on April 16, 1956. Hundreds of people lined up in the hallway outside the courtroom, hoping to get seats. Author Andrew J. Field would later call it “The O.J. Simpson trial of its day.”
The case went to the jury on May 5; they were out for just over an hour before returning with a verdict. Jack Graham was found guilty of first degree murder in the death of his mother. He was sentenced to die by the gas chamber. Later that year, President Eisenhower signed a bill into law making it illegal to bomb an airplane.
On the evening of January 11, 1957, a 24-year-old Jack Graham made his way to the gas chamber. Just before his execution, he said: “As far as feeling remorse for these people, I don’t. I can’t help it. Everybody pays their way and takes their chances. That's just the way it goes.” He was pronounced dead at 8:08 pm. It took him eleven minutes to die — the same amount of time that Flight 629 was in the air before it crashed.
The story of Flight 629 was featured in the 1959 movie The FBI Story. Based on the book by Don Whitehead, the movie’s protagonist is an FBI agent who tells the story of the Bureau via separate incidents they were involved in.
In 1993, the band Macabre released their album Sinister Slaughter. The album featured the song There Was a Young Man Who Blew up a Plane, which was about Jack Graham. The album also had songs about Ted Bundy, John Wayne Gacy and Mary Bell (who I’ve talked about before). The band also has a song about Ed Gein and an entire album about Jeffrey Dahmer.
The case has also been the subject of a least two non fiction books. One is a ‘historical true crime short’: Mass Murder in the Sky: The Bombing of Flight 629 by R Barri Flowers. The other one I found was Mainline Denver: The Bombing of Flight 629 by Andrew J. Field, who I mentioned earlier. New York Times bestselling author Karen White also used the case as inspiration for her novel The Sound of Glass, though the plot goes in a bit of a different direction.
When I first heard the story of Jack Graham, I found it as bizarre as it is tragic. Why did he set out to kill dozens of strangers who had never hurt him when his major problem was with only one person?
In February 1956, he tried to strangle a fellow prisoner and was consequently put in a straight jacket and under 24 hour surveillance. When evaluated by a psychiatrist after this, the subject of the bombing came up. Jack told the psychiatrist that he didn’t care how many people he would have killed that day, saying “When their time comes, there is nothing they can do about it.” He then said it was a relief to confess this because he’d been feeling guilty about it.
Jack was also said to have been inspired by Albert Guay, who bombed a Canadian flight in 1949 with the intention of killing his wife. I’m no psychiatrist, so this is pure speculation on my part. But maybe Jack’s problems went far beyond his mother. Perhaps there was something in him all along, whether caused by genetics or upbringing, that drove him to kill.
So what are your thoughts on Jack Graham and his crimes? Let me know in the comments.
(Keep in mind that, while I think stories like this are important to share for the sake of awareness, I don’t mean to scare anyone. Your chances of dying in any sort of mass killing are exceedingly rare, and you shouldn’t let fear keep you from living your life.)