Abbot Howard “Abbie” Hoffman (November 30, 1936 – April 12, 1989) was a political and social activist 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 came to prominence in the 1960s, and continued practicing his activism in the 1970s, and has remained a symbol of the youth rebellion of that era.
Early life and education
Hoffman was born November 30, 1936 in Worcester, Massachusetts to John Hoffman and Florence Schamberg, 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, the 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 did many of the things typical of rebellious teenagers in the 1950s such as driving motorcycles, wearing leather jackets, and sporting a ducktail haircut. 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 the Marxist theorist Herbert Marcuse, whom Hoffman said had a profound effect on his political outlook after studying his philosophy. 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.
Prior to his days as a leading member of the Yippie movement, Hoffman was involved with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), and organized “Liberty House”, which sold items to support the Civil Rights Movement in the southern United States. During the Vietnam War, Hoffman was an anti-war activist, using deliberately comical and theatrical tactics.
In October 1967, David Dellinger of the National Mobilization Committee to End the War in Vietnam asked Jerry Rubin to help mobilize and direct a March on the Pentagon. The protesters gathered at the Lincoln Memorial as Dellinger and Dr. Benjamin Spock gave speeches to the mass of people. From there, the group marched towards the Pentagon. As the protesters neared the Pentagon, they were met by soldiers of the 82nd Airborne Division who formed a human barricade blocking the Pentagon steps. Not to be dissuaded, Hoffman vowed to levitate the Pentagon claiming he would attempt to use psychic energy to levitate the Pentagon until it would turn orange and begin to vibrate, at which time the war in Vietnam would end. Allen Ginsberg led Tibetan chants to assist Hoffman.
Hoffman’s symbolic theatrics were successful at convincing many young people to become more active in the politics of the time.
Another one of Hoffman’s well-known protests was on August 24, 1967, when he led members of the movement to the gallery of the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE). The protesters threw fistfuls of real and fake dollars down to the traders below, some of whom booed, while others began to scramble frantically to grab the money as fast as they could. Accounts of the amount of money that Hoffman and the group tossed was said to be as little as $30 to $300. Hoffman claimed to be pointing out that, metaphorically, that’s what NYSE traders “were already doing.” “We didn’t call the press”, wrote Hoffman, “at that time we really had no notion of anything called a media event.” The press was quick to respond and by evening the event was reported around the world. Since that incident, the stock exchange has spent $20,000 to enclose the gallery with bulletproof glass.
In late 1966, Hoffman met with a radical community-action group called the Diggers and studied their ideology. He later returned to New York and published a book with this knowledge. Doing so was considered a violation by the Diggers. Diggers co-founder Peter Coyote explained:
Abbie, who was a friend of mine, was always a media junky. We explained everything to those guys, and they violated everything we taught them. Abbie went back, and the first thing he did was publish a book, with his picture on it, that blew the hustle of every poor person on the Lower East Side by describing every free scam then current in New York — which were then sucked dry by disaffected kids from Scarsdale.
Chicago Eight conspiracy trial
Hoffman was arrested and tried for conspiracy and inciting to riot as a result of his role in anti-Vietnam War protests, which were met by a violent police response during the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago. He was among the group that came to be known as the Chicago Seven (originally known as the Chicago Eight), which included fellow Yippie Jerry Rubin, David Dellinger, Rennie Davis, John Froines, Lee Weiner, future California state senator Tom Hayden and Black Panther Party co-founder Bobby Seale (before his trial was severed from the others).
Presided over by Judge Julius Hoffman (no relation to Abbie, which Abbie joked about throughout the trial), Abbie Hoffman’s courtroom antics frequently grabbed the headlines; one day, defendants Hoffman and Rubin appeared in court dressed in judicial robes, while on another day, Hoffman was sworn in as a witness with his hand giving the finger. Judge Hoffman became the favorite courtroom target of the Chicago Seven defendants, who frequently would insult the judge to his face. Abbie Hoffman told Judge Hoffman “you are a ‘shande fur de Goyim’ [disgrace in front of the gentiles]. You would have served Hitler better.” He later added that “your idea of justice is the only obscenity in the room.” Both Davis and Rubin told the Judge “this court is bullshit.” When Abbie was asked in what state he resided, he replied the “state of mind of my brothers and sisters”.
Other celebrities were called as “cultural witnesses” including Allen Ginsberg, Phil Ochs, Arlo Guthrie, Norman Mailer and others. Abbie closed the trial with a speech in which he quoted Abraham Lincoln, making the claim that the President himself, if alive today, would also be arrested in Chicago’s Lincoln Park.
On February 18, 1970, Hoffman and four of the other defendants (Rubin, Dellinger, Davis, and Hayden) were found guilty of intent to incite a riot while crossing state lines. All seven defendants were found not guilty of conspiracy. At sentencing, Hoffman suggested the judge try LSD and offered to set him up with “a dealer he knew in Florida” (the judge was known to be headed to Florida for a post-trial vacation). Each of the five was sentenced to five years in prison and a $5,000 fine.
However, all convictions were subsequently overturned by the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals. The Walker Commission later found that in fact it had been a “police riot.”
Controversy at Woodstock
At Woodstock in 1969, Hoffman reportedly interrupted The Who’s performance to attempt to speak against the jailing of John Sinclair of the White Panther Party. He grabbed a microphone and yelled, “I think this is a pile of shit while John Sinclair rots in prison …” Pete Townshend was adjusting his amplifier between songs and turned to look at Hoffman over his right shoulder. Townshend reportedly ran at Hoffman with his guitar and hit Hoffman in the back, although this was later denied by Townshend. Townshend later said that while he actually agreed with Hoffman on Sinclair’s imprisonment, he would have knocked him offstage regardless of the content of his message, given that Hoffman had violated the “sanctity of the stage,” i.e., the right of the band to perform uninterrupted by distractions not relevant to the actual show. The incident took place during a camera change, and was not captured on film. The audio of this incident, however, can be heard on The Who’s box set, Thirty Years of Maximum R&B (Disc 2, Track 20, “Abbie Hoffman Incident”).
In 1971’s Steal This Book in the section “Free Communication”, Hoffman encourages his readership to take to the stage at rock concerts to use the pre-assembled audience and PA system to get their message out. However he mentions that “interrupting the concert is frowned upon since it is only spitting in the faces of people you are trying to reach.”
In Woodstock Nation, Hoffman mentions the incident, and says he was on a bad LSD trip at the time. Joe Shea, then a reporter for the Times Herald-Record, a Dow Jones-Ottaway newspaper that covered the event on-site, said he saw the incident. He recalled that Hoffman was actually hit in the back of the head by Townshend’s guitar and toppled directly into the pit in front of the stage. He does not recall any “shove” from Townshend, and discounts both men’s accounts.
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 Abbie 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.
Back to visibility
In November 1986, Hoffman was arrested along with fourteen others, including Amy Carter, the daughter of former President Jimmy Carter, for trespassing at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. The charges stemmed from a protest against the Central Intelligence Agency’s recruitment on the UMass campus. Since the university’s policy limited campus recruitment to law-abiding organizations, the defense argued that the CIA engaged in illegal activities. The federal district court judge permitted expert witnesses, including former Attorney General Ramsey Clark and a former CIA agent who testified that the CIA carried on an illegal Contra war against the Sandinista regime in Nicaragua in violation of the Boland Amendment.
In three days of testimony, more than a dozen defense witnesses, including Daniel Ellsberg, and former Contra leader Edgar Chamorro, described the CIA’s role in more than two decades of covert, illegal and often violent activities. In his closing argument, Hoffman, acting as his own attorney, placed his actions within the best tradition of American civil disobedience. He quoted from Thomas Paine, “the most outspoken and farsighted of the leaders of the American Revolution: ‘Every age and generation must be as free to act for itself, in all cases, as the ages and generations which preceded it. Man has no property in man, neither has any generation a property in the generations which are to follow.'”
Hoffman concluded: “Thomas Paine was talking about this Spring day in this courtroom. A verdict of not guilty will say, ‘When our country is right, keep it right; but when it is wrong, right those wrongs.'” On April 15, 1987, the jury found Hoffman and the other defendants not guilty.
After his acquittal, Hoffman acted in a cameo appearance in Oliver Stone’s later-released anti-Vietnam War movie, Born on the Fourth of July. He essentially played himself in the movie, waving a flag on the ramparts of an administration building during a campus protest that was being teargassed and crushed by state troopers.
In 1987 Hoffman summed up his views.
You are talking to a leftist. I believe in the redistribution of wealth and power in the world. I believe in universal hospital care for everyone. I believe that we should not have a single homeless person in the richest country in the world. And I believe that we should not have a CIA that goes around overwhelming governments and assassinating political leaders, working for tight oligarchies around the world to protect the tight oligarchy here at home.
Later that same year, Hoffman and Jonathan Silvers wrote Steal This Urine Test (published October 5, 1987), which exposed the internal contradictions of the War on Drugs and suggested ways to circumvent its most intrusive measures. He stated, for instance, that Federal Express, which received high praise from management guru Tom Peters for “empowering” workers, in fact subjected most employees to random drug tests, firing any who got a positive result, with no retest or appeal procedure, despite the fact that FedEx chose a drug lab (the lowest bidder) with a proven record of frequent false positive results.
Stone’s Born on the Fourth of July was released on December 20, 1989, more than eight months after Hoffman’s suicide on April 12, 1989. At the time of his death, Hoffman was at the height of a renewed public visibility, one of the few 1960s radicals who still commanded the attention of all kinds of mass media. He regularly lectured audiences about the CIA’s covert activities, including assassinations disguised as suicides. His Playboy article (October, 1988) outlining the connections that constitute the “October Surprise,” brought that alleged conspiracy to the attention of a wide-ranging American readership for the first time.
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 Abbie and Anita were effectively separated after Abbie became a fugitive, starting in 1973, and he subsequently fell in love with Johanna Lawrenson in 1974, while a fugitive, they were not formally divorced until 1980.
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 along with hard 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 his dismay that the current generation of young people were not 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 a 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. Senior Rabbi Norman Mendel officiated. 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.’
- Michael Lembeck portrayed Hoffman in the 1987 HBO television film Conspiracy: The Trial of the Chicago 8.
- Hoffman was portrayed by Richard D’Alessandro in the 1994 film Forrest Gump, speaking against “the war in Viet-fucking-nam” at a protest rally at the Lincoln Memorial Reflecting Pool facing the Washington Monument.
- Hoffman’s life was dramatized in the 2000 film Steal This Movie!, in which he was portrayed by Vincent D’Onofrio.
- Hank Azaria’s voice is heard as the animated Hoffman in the film Chicago 10 (2007).
- Thomas Ian Nicholas portrays Abbie in the 2010 film titled The Chicago 8
- Bern Cohen played the lead role in the 2011 Off Broadway play Abbie.
- Fuck the System (pamphlet, 1967) printed under the pseudonym George Metesky
- Revolution For the Hell of It (1968, Dial Press) published under the pseudonym “Free”
- Revolution for the Hell of It: The Book That Earned Abbie Hoffman a 5 Year Prison Term at the Chicago Conspiracy Trial (2005 reprint, ISBN 1-56025-690-7)
- Woodstock Nation: A Talk-Rock Album (1969, Random House)
- Steal This Book (1971, Pirate Editions)
- Steal This Book (1996 reprint, ISBN 1-56858-217-X)
- Authorized online location
- Vote! A Record, A Dialogue, A Manifesto – Miami Beach, 1972 And Beyond (1972, Warner Books) by Hoffman, Jerry Rubin, and Ed Sanders
- To America With Love: Letters From the Underground (1976, Stonehill Publishing) by Hoffman and Anita Hoffman
- To America With Love: Letters From the Underground (2000 second edition, ISBN 1-888996-28-5)
- Soon to Be a Major Motion Picture (1980, Perigee, ISBN 0-399-50503-2)
- The Autobiography of Abbie Hoffman (2000 second edition, ISBN 1-56858-197-1)
- Square Dancing in the Ice Age: Underground Writings (1982, Putnam, ISBN 0-399-12701-1)
- Steal This Urine Test: Fighting Drug Hysteria in America (1987, Penguin, ISBN 0-14-010400-3) by Hoffman and Jonathan Silvers
- The Best of Abbie Hoffman (1990, Four Walls Eight Windows, ISBN 0-941423-42-5)
- Preserving Disorder: The Faking of the President 1988 (1999, Viking, ISBN 0-670-82349-X) by Hoffman and Jonathan Silvers
- Wake Up, America! Big Toe Records (1970)
The Mary-Archie Theatre Company in Chicago started the “Abbie Hoffman Died For Our Sins” Theatre Festival in 1988. This festival runs every year for 3 consecutive days as a celebration of the Woodstock Music and Art Fair of 1969. Festival website
- Ken Jordan interview from January 1989, published in Reality Sandwich, May 2007
Appearances in documentary films
Hoffman is featured in interviews and archival news footage in the following documentaries:
- Growing Up in America (1988), documentary on radical politics in the 1960s, First Run Features, ISBN 6304564775
- Lord of the Universe (1974), satirical documentary, winner of the DuPont-Columbia Award in broadcast journalism, ISBN 0-89774-102-1
- My Name Is Abbie (1998), Hoffman’s first interview after seven years in hiding, Mystic Fire Video, ISBN 1-56176-381-0
- Phil Ochs: There but for Fortune (2010), biographical documentary on the life and times of the singer-songwriter, First Run Features