America’s First Airplane Bomber: Jack Gilbert Graham


“I loved my mother very much.”

I suppose one can become addicted to just about anything. In the case of Jack Gilbert Graham: it was fraud with a side of revenge.

Raised an Orphan

Jack Gilbert Graham was born in January of 1932. His mother’s name was Daisie. She was married 3 times. Her first husband was named William (ended in divorce). Jack’s father, Daisie’s second husband, also happened to be named William. He died when Jack was only 5.


As this was the height of the Great Depression, Daisie sent Jack to live in an orphanage. Despite remarrying 4 years later (husband #3 was not named William, but rather Earl), Daisie left now 9-year-old Jack in the orphanage. I found conflicting information about the timing of it, but Daisie’s third husband Earl also died — which while tragic, the inheritance she received upon his death finally ended up being the financial windfall she needed. Yet still Daisie did not send for little Jack.

“Things Are Getting Worse”

Before long, Jack began getting in trouble at the orphanage. At age 11, he began sneaking into a neighborhood house to steal money. During his third break-in he was caught. He also began running away. At last, in March 1943, Jack was expelled from the orphanage to be returned to his mother. Despite doing quite well financially running her own restaurant purchased with her late third husband’s inheritance, Daisie did not receive her 11 year old son into her home, instead sending him to live with various relatives.


At 16 years old, Jack committed his first act of fraud: he forged enlistment papers to join the Coast Guard. Yet after only a year in the service, his true age was discovered after he went AWOL for 63 days — earning himself a discharge.

For the next couple years, Jack lived as a drifter, working odd jobs as far away as Alaska before turning to a life of crime. His offenses ranged from smuggling bootleg alcohol to theft and check forgery — the latter earning his a spot on Denver’s Most Wanted list. Eventually the police caught up with him after a high-speed car chase that earned him 60 days in a Texas jail before being extradited back to Colorado. Where the most unlikely of persons bailed him out.

Fraudster Extraordinaire

Seeing her son in the paper for his crimes, Jack’s mother Daisie whom he’d had virtually no contact with since he was a boy, struck a deal with the District Attorney to pay of his forgery debts and keep her son out of jail. For a time, it seemed Jack might stay on the straight and narrow. He secured stable employment, and in 1953 he met and married a girl, and together they had two children.

However by 1955 Jack was back to his old fraudulent ways. This time he set his sights on insurance fraud.

  • First Jack succeeded at car insurance fraud. In the spring of ’55 parked his new Chevy pickup on the train tracks — walking away with several hundred dollars in insurance payouts.
  • High on his success, Jack blew up his mother’s restaurant. Though never officially named the perpetrator, in the early morning hours over Labor Day weekend of 1955, a mysterious gas leak seriously damaged the Crown-A Drive-In. Insurance adjusters suspected foul play, but Jack had been careful. He’d also manipulated his mother into making him the insurance beneficiary. Jack cleared $1200.
  • But that wasn’t enough for Jack. When his mother Daisie booked a flight to Alaska to visit Jack’s half-sister Helen, he saw his chance to really collect — and get revenge for his mother’s abandonment of him as a child. Jack talked his mother into taking out a new $37,500 insurance policy (equivalent to $430,000 in 2023) with Jack as the sole beneficiary. He then plotted to blow up Daisie’s plane.

Fraudster Turned Mass Murderer


Jack’s plan was simple enough: plant a bomb in his mother’s suitcase set to explode mid-flight; let the airlines mistake it for a mechanical failure; and collect the insurance money. Jack planted 25 sticks of dynamite, a battery, timing device, and two blasting caps disguised as a Christmas present in Daisie’s suitcase.

On the evening of November 1, 1955, Jack and his wife Gloria took Daisie to the Denver airport for her flight to Alaska. As Jack unloaded Daisie’s suitcase from this trunk, he armed the 90 minute timer. The bomb tucked unseen in her luggage caused the suitcase to be flagged by the airline attendant for being overweight, resulting in an additional charge. They watched as Daisie and the other 38 passengers boarded the plane, and then Jack and his wife ate at a diner inside the airport.


At 6:52 p.m. on November 1, 1955 United Air Lines Flight 629, a DC-6B with 44 persons aboard, took off from Stapleton Airport in Denver, Colorado bound for Portland, Oregon. Eleven minutes after takeoff, Jack Gilbert Graham’s plan was executed: the airliner exploded spectacularly, instantly killing all 44 occupants aboard – including an infant and its decorated WWII veteran pilot Lee Hall.

Jack heard the news of the explosion while still eating. Jack appeared ill, later claiming to the FBI that the food was poor. They left the airport with Jack believing his plan had succeeded. However there was one coincidence that would end up being Jack’s undoing: the plane took off 10 minutes late. Jack had intended for the timer to detonate the bomb as it flew high over the Rocky Mountains. However thanks to the delayed takeoff, Flight 629 had only climbed to roughly 5,000 ft above ground level and was still over open fields. Had Jack’s plan gone as intended, recovery of the wreckage would have been severely hampered if not impossible. However due to the relatively low altitude and flat debris field, the FBI was able to recover and reassemble the entire wreckage, allowing them to determine not only the sabotage but eventually also the perpetrator.

Hunting a Killer


The Crash Site

Almost immediately the FBI joined the case. They divided up the crash area, which totaled nearly 6 square miles, into 1000 foot square quadrants. Every scrap of debris both from the aircraft hull and passenger personal effects was collected and taken to an expansive warehouse where the entire airliner would be meticulously reassembled – to include the luggage and clothing.

Due to eyewitnesses and the way the nose, tail, and engines of the plane were sheered off and largely intact, the causes was quickly determined to be an explosion. Initially it was assumed to be the result of a mechanical failure, but after examination of the wreckage by investigators from United Airlines and Douglas Aircraft Corp., no malfunction was found. The theory was also floated that the bombing was sabotage to injure the reputation of the airline. Eventually the FBI pinpointed the location of explosion: a cargo compartment containing only baggage loaded in Denver. Analysis of skin fragments, shoes, and the wreckage found traces of dynamite.


Zeroing In

Remarkably, most of the luggage aboard was found in good condition — minus the suitcase of a 53-year-old woman, Daisie King. From Daisie’s handbag was recovered a newspaper clipping about her son being on Denver County’s Most Wanted List back in 1951. Further digging led the FBI to the brand new $37,500 insurance policy taken out on the morning of the flight — with her son Jack Gilbert Graham listed as the sole beneficiary. A quick records search turned up the suspicious insurance payouts over his truck and his mother’ diner. The FBI had a prime suspect.

Credit: Photo by Anonymous/AP/Shutterstock (6652044a)

Both Jack and his wife Gloria were brought in for questioning. Their stories didn’t match. Jack said he hadn’t touched his mother’s luggage and couldn’t identify it. Gloria said she’d seen Jack with a wrapped gift for Daisie’s trip and gave a clear description of the suitcase. Jack denied giving his mother a gift. Gloria said the package contained a tool set for making seashell art. Jack suggested his mother had taken ammunition in her suitcase to hunt caribou in Alaska.

A search of the home produced a 6-volt battery identical to the one used in the bomb, identical wire used in the blasting caps — and a copy of the life insurance police Jack denied having knowledge of.

Confessing to Everything

Credit: Denver Post (via Getty Images)

Confronted with this damning information, Jack began to come clean. He first confessed to the insurance fraud at the restaurant and then with his truck on the train tracks. Finally he admitted to planting a bomb in his mother’s suitcase, including describing the explosive devise in detail.

Armed with Jack’s confession, the FBI identified the supply company where Jack had purchased the timing device plus the store where he’d purchased the dynamite and blasting caps. The store owner also picked Jack out of a police lineup as the purchaser of the explosives.

Convicting a Killer

Acting Insane

Interestingly, despite committing mass murder, Jack was only charged with 1 count of premeditated murder — of his mother Daisie King. He entered a not guilty plea “by reason of insanity at the time of the alleged crime.” He was nonetheless found legally sane by 6 psychiatrists.

courtesy: Bettmann/CORBIS

On Feb 10, 1956, Jack was found slumped on the floor of his prison cell with a pair of socks twisted around his neck. A guard loosened the socks, and he was placed under 24 hour surveillance in a psych ward.

There Jack made another remorseless confession: “I felt happier than I ever felt in my life. I realize that there were about 50 or 60 people carried on the [plane], but the number of people to be killed made no difference to me; it could have been a thousand. When their time comes, there is nothing they can do about it.”


Hi there, quick commercial. Writing a blog post like this means hours of research and website formatting. Ultimately I’m just grateful you’re here reading my content, but if you’d like to say thanks back, you can buy me a coffee ☕

Swift Justice

Less than 3 months later, on May 5, 1956, Jack Gilbert Graham was found guilty of the first degree murder of his mother after only 69 minutes of jury deliberation. The sentencing recommendation was the death penalty. Jack’s lawyers attempted to petition for a new trial, but Jack took the stand saying he wanted no new trial and no Supreme Court review.


Jack would get his wish. On January 11, 1957, just 12 days shy of his 25th birthday, Jack took his last walk up the prison steps to the Colorado State Penitentiary gas chamber. His wife, who had by his side throughout his trial, did not attend.

Jack remained unrepentant to the end, his final words: “As far as feeling remorse for those people, I don’t. I can’t help it. Everybody pays their way and takes their chances. That’s just the way it goes. Thanks, Warden.” Eleven minutes later, Jack Gilbert Graham’s 44 victims, including his mother Daisie, received their justice as he was pronounced dead.


A final bit of irony was that following Jack’s death, his widow Gloria was able to cash in on Daisie’s insurance policy, and after some legal limbo, she received $10,000 of the $37,500.


Jack Gilbert Graham’s bombing of United Flight 629 was the subject of the opening scene in the 1959 classic Jimmy Stewart film The FBI Story. Check out this 4 minute clip.

My Thoughts

Personality Disorders

The case of Jack Gilbert Graham is an interesting one for sure. There’s no doubt that Jack’s mother Daisie was a less-than-stellar parent when Jack was little. Her own daughter Helen, Jack’s older half-sister would attest to that. But during Jack’s short adult life, Daisie sought to rectify that. She became quite the doting mother — paying his legal bills to keep him out of prison, buying Jack and Gloria a house, and hiring Jack to manage her restaurant. And the fact that when she was murdered she had the newspaper clipping of Jack’s “Most Wanted” status on her person indicates to me a mother who felt she bore some responsibility for how her son turned out.

All things considered, I think it’s highly likely that Jack had developed some sociopathy (aka, Antisocial Personality Disorder). Many of the signs were there: early childhood abandonment, repeated brushes with the law, angry and sometimes violent outbursts (including towards his loving wife), difficulty maintaining stable employment, and ultimately a lack of remorse for his actions. It was even noted back in 1951 when he was given parole for his check fraud caper that he did not seem to appreciate the gravity of his crimes. He was, however, not insane.


Bottom Line

Rough childhood and sociopathy aside, in the end, I believe Jack just did it for what he viewed as easy money. Beginning at age 16 with his fraudulent enlistment in the Coast Guard (which in the 40’s wasn’t terribly uncommon), Jack had a chance to a normal life. He could’ve made a respectable career for himself. But instead Jack evidently decided working for a living wasn’t his jam and he went AWOL. In the years following, he had several opportunities for other good jobs, including a government job in both Alaska and Colorado — but he also walked away from those.

In the end, Jack chose what he saw as “easy money” over hard work. It was “easier” to steal 42 checks from his boss worth $4000 than just work like a normal employee. It was “easier” to park his new truck on the train tracks and blow up his mother’s diner for a couple thousand bucks than earn a regular paycheck. And 25 sticks of dynamite, 2 blasting caps, a battery and timer, and a bit of wire that cost him less than $50 total — to collect a $37,500 life insurance payout on his mother was a cheaper and “easier” way to get rich than managing his mother’s restaurant (which by all accounts, he was good at).

Jack Gilbert Graham also had a forgiveness problem. Despite his mother’s attempts at making amends for his childhood, Jack (who apparently had no problem mooching off of her parental guilt and generosity) still held a grudge. And while I believe the quick money was Jack’s primary motive for killing Daisie and the other 43 passengers on the plane that fateful day, I also believe he saw this as a way to get revenge prompted by the poison of bitterness in his soul.


I also write crime thrillers! Check out The Missing and The Holiday Killer

⬅back to the blog | AI: Conversation With A Criminal➡️

5 thoughts on “America’s First Airplane Bomber: Jack Gilbert Graham”

  1. Pingback: Conversation with a Criminal - Stephen Zimmerman

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *