Abbot Howard “Abbie” Hoffman (November 30, 1936 – April 12, 1989) was an American political and social activist and anarchist who co-founded the Youth International Party (“Yippies”).
Hoffman was arrested and tried for conspiracy and inciting to riot as a result of his role in protests that led to violent confrontations with police during the 1968 Democratic National Convention, along with Jerry Rubin, David Dellinger, Tom Hayden, Rennie Davis, John Froines, Lee Weiner, and Bobby Seale.
The group was known collectively as the “Chicago Eight”; when Seale’s prosecution was separated from the others, they became known as the Chicago Seven. While the defendants were initially convicted of intent to incite a riot, the verdicts were overturned on appeal.
Hoffman continued his activism into the 1970s, and remains an icon of the anti-war movement and the counterculture era.
Hoffman was born November 30, 1936 in Worcester, Massachusetts, to John Hoffman and Florence Schanberg, both of Jewish descent. Hoffman was raised in a middle-class household and had two younger siblings. As a child in the 1940s–50s, he was a member of what has been described as “the transitional generation between the beatniks and hippies”.
He described his childhood as “idyllic” and the ’40s as “a great time to grow up in.” On June 3, 1954, 17-year-old Hoffman was arrested for the first time, for driving without a license. During his school days, he became known as a troublemaker who started fights, played pranks, vandalized school property, and referred to teachers by their first names. In his sophomore year, Hoffman was expelled from Classical High School, a now-closed public high school in Worcester.
As an atheist, Hoffman wrote a paper declaring that “God could not possibly exist, for if he did, there wouldn’t be any suffering in the world.” The irate teacher ripped up the paper and called him “a Communist punk.” Hoffman jumped on the teacher and started fighting him until he was restrained and removed from the school. After his expulsion, he attended Worcester Academy, graduating in 1955.
Hoffman engaged in many behaviors typical of rebellious teenagers in the 1950s such as riding motorcycles, wearing leather jackets, and sporting a ducktail haircut. Upon graduating, he enrolled in Brandeis University, where he studied under professors such as noted psychologist Abraham Maslow, often considered the father of humanistic psychology. He was also a student of Marxist theorist Herbert Marcuse, whom Hoffman said had a profound effect on his political outlook.
Hoffman would later cite Marcuse’s influence during his activism and his theories on revolution. Hoffman graduated with a B.A. in psychology in 1959. That fall, he enrolled at the University of California, Berkeley, where he completed coursework toward a master’s degree in psychology. Soon after, he married his pregnant girlfriend Sheila Karklin in May 1960.
In 1971, Hoffman published Steal This Book, which advised readers on how to live basically for free. Many of his readers followed Hoffman’s advice and stole the book, leading many bookstores to refuse to carry it. He was also the author of several other books, including Vote!, co-written with Rubin and Ed Sanders.
Hoffman was arrested August 28, 1973 on drug charges for intent to sell and distribute cocaine. He always maintained that undercover police agents entrapped him into a drug deal and planted suitcases of cocaine in his office. In the spring of 1974, Hoffman skipped bail, underwent cosmetic surgery to alter his appearance, and hid from authorities for several years.
Some believed Hoffman made himself a target. In 1998, Peter Coyote opined:
The FBI couldn’t infiltrate us. We did everything anonymously, and we did everything for nothing, because we wanted our actions to be authentic.
It’s the mistake that Abbie Hoffman made. He came out, he studied with us, we taught him everything, and then he went back and wrote a book called Free, and he put his name on it! He set himself up to be a leader of the counterculture, and he was undone by that. Big mistake.
Despite being “in hiding” during part of this period (Hoffman lived in Fineview, New York near Thousand Island Park, a private resort on Wellesley Island on the St. Lawrence River under the name “Barry Freed”), he helped coordinate an environmental campaign to preserve the Saint Lawrence River (Save the River organization).
During his time on the run, he was also the “travel” columnist for Crawdaddy! magazine. On September 4, 1980, he surrendered to authorities; on the same date, he appeared on a pre-taped edition of ABC-TV’s 20/20 in an interview with Barbara Walters. Hoffman received a one-year sentence, but was released after four months.
In 1960, Hoffman married Sheila Karklin and had two children: Andrew (born 1960) and Amy (1962–2007), who later went by the name Ilya. They divorced in 1966.
In 1967, Hoffman married Anita Kushner in Manhattan’s Central Park. They had one son, america Hoffman, deliberately named using a lowercase “a” to indicate both patriotism and non-jingoistic intent.
Although Hoffman and Kushner were effectively separated after Hoffman became a fugitive, starting in 1973, they were not formally divorced until 1980. He subsequently fell in love with Johanna Lawrenson in 1974, while a fugitive.
His personal life drew a great deal of scrutiny from the Federal Bureau of Investigation. By their own admission, they kept a file on him that was 13,262 pages long.
Hoffman was 52 at the time of his death on April 12, 1989, which was caused by swallowing 150 phenobarbital tablets and liquor. He had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder in 1980. At the time he had recently changed treatment medications and was reportedly depressed when his 83-year-old mother was diagnosed with cancer (she died in 1996 at the age of 90).
Some close to Hoffman claimed that as a natural prankster who valued youth, he was also unhappy about reaching middle age, combined with the fact that the ideas of the 1960s had given way to a conservative backlash in the 1980s.
In 1984 he had expressed dismay that the current generation of young people were not as interested in protesting and social activism as youth had been during the 1960s.
Hoffman’s body was found in his apartment in a converted turkey coop on Sugan Road in Solebury Township, near New Hope, Pennsylvania. At the time of his death, he was surrounded by about 200 pages of his own handwritten notes, many about his own moods.
His death was officially ruled as suicide. As reported by The New York Times, “Among the more vocal doubters at the service today was Mr. Dellinger, who said, ‘I don’t believe for one moment the suicide thing.’
He said he had been in fairly frequent touch with Mr. Hoffman, who had ‘numerous plans for the future.'” Yet the same New York Times article reported that the coroner found the residue of about 150 pills and quoted the coroner in a telephone interview saying ‘There is no way to take that amount of phenobarbital without intent. It was intentional and self-inflicted.
A week after Hoffman’s death, a thousand friends and relatives gathered for a memorial in Worcester, Massachusetts at Temple Emanuel, the synagogue he attended as a child. Two of his colleagues from the Chicago Seven conspiracy trial were there: David Dellinger and Jerry Rubin, Hoffman’s co-founder of the Yippies, by then a businessman.
As The New York Times reported: “Indeed, most of the mourners who attended the formal memorial at Temple Emanuel here were more yuppie than yippie and there were more rep ties than ripped jeans among the crowd…”
The Times report continued:
Bill Walton, the radical Celtic of basketball renown, told of a puckish Abbie, then underground evading a cocaine charge in the ’70s, leaping from the shadows on a New York street to give him an impromptu basketball lesson after a loss to the Knicks. ‘Abbie was not a fugitive from justice,’ said Mr. Walton. ‘Justice was a fugitive from him.’
On a more traditional note, Rabbi Norman Mendell said in his eulogy that Mr. Hoffman’s long history of protest, antic though much of it had been, was ‘in the Jewish prophetic tradition, which is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.’