In crime terms, the number of confirmed killings credited to Gary Gilmore (two) is relatively small, but his status as the first man to be executed in the United States on 17th January 1977, after a 4-year moratorium in which the death penalty was outlawed, will ensure that he maintains a significant place in crime history. He was also fairly unique, in that he refused all avenues of legal appeal to stay his execution, in contrast to most criminals on death row, who seek all legal means to delay their sentence as long as possible.
Gary Mark Gilmore was born on 4th December 1940 in a rural Texas town, the second of four sons, to Frank and Bessie Gilmore. His early life was nomadic, a matter of expediency as his alcoholic father was a small-time conman, selling bogus subscriptions that kept the Gilmore family constantly on the move. His mother Bessie was a repressive figure, an outcast from her Mormon family, and she disliked any overt signs of affection. She had a fascination with the occult, and claimed to have witnessed a hanging in her youth (although this was later proven false), which caused her young sons to have nightmares and live in fear, reinforcing obsessive personality traits in Gary Gilmore that would consume him in later life.
By the time Gilmore was ten, the family had settled in Portland, Oregon, and he seemed determined to take his father’s criminal lifestyle choices as his own. Clearly recognising his own failings in his son, Frank focused his rage on the boy, and he endured a violence-prone, abusive childhood. Numerous crimes, including petty thefts and shoplifting, as well as assault charges, soon brought him to the attention of local law enforcement, and he had dropped out of school by the time he was 15.
He spent a year as a juvenile in Oregon's MacLaren Reform School for Boys, followed by a stay at the Oregon State Correctional Institution, on a car theft charge, which was extended due to bad behaviour whilst there. His father died whilst he was in prison, and his behaviour became increasingly violent, until he was placed on anti-psychotic drugs, which practically paralysed him.
He was released in 1962, aged 21, and immediately re-offended, placed in Oregon State Penitentiary and classified as a recidivist. While incarcerated, his younger brother was murdered, and this time he was allowed out to attend the funeral. His continued bad behaviour meant that he spent considerable time in solitary confinement, and here he developed artistic skills that won him prizes, and resulted in his early release in 1972.
He was supposed to attend a local art college as a condition of early release but, having spent more than half his life in prison, he coped poorly with freedom, and within a month he was again in court, facing charges of armed robbery. His appeal, in court, for leniency went largely unanswered, and he was sentenced to a further 9 years in jail.
Again, his behaviour made the authorities threaten to place him on anti-psychotic drugs, but Gilmore persuaded them to transfer him instead to a maximum-security penitentiary in Marion, Illinois, although the greater distance meant that his family could no longer maintain regular contact with him. This, however, was preferable to the zombie-like state that the drugs would have induced. During this time he started regular correspondence with Brenda Nicol, a Mormon cousin based in Utah, who became determined to see him gain early parole, convinced that he just needed moral support to ensure his survival outside of prison. He was released into her care in May 1976, and went to live in Provo, Utah.
Despite the best efforts of cousin Brenda, Gilmore found life in conservative Utah difficult from the start, and the few job opportunities available were quickly exhausted, before he returned to a life of drinking and crime.