John Emil List was born in 1925 in Bay City, Michigan. He was the only child of German-American parents and first cousins John Frederick List and Alma Barbara Florence List.
His father was distant and strict, and his mother was known to be domineering and over-protective. John had few friends while growing up and kept to himself. Like his parents, John was a devout Lutheran and taught Sunday school.
Other details in his life history point towards a disciplined, methodical person with a military background, a fondness for the organization, and an inability to hold down a job or get along well with others.
John attended school in Bay City, Michigan. Considered an outlier, he had few contacts with friends outside his home. John graduated from Bay City High School in 1943.
John served in the military between 1943 and 1945 and saw active duty during the last part of World War II. He was later recalled to active military service in 1950 to fight in the Korean War. The military discovered his talent as an accountant, and he was reassigned the Finance Corps. During this second period in the military, John met Helen Taylor, the widow of an infantry officer who was killed in Korea. The two married in 1951 in Baltimore, Maryland.
Between 1946 and 1950, John attended the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. He enrolled in an undergraduate student in accounting in 1946, and then continued studying for his master's degree.
John held several jobs after he finished his education and military service. But in each instance, he was either fired or he had to quit -- not because he was incompetent, but because there always seemed to be something about his personality that put people off.
In 1965, John's luck seemed to have changed when he was promoted to comptroller and Vice President of a bank in Jersey City, New Jersey. Unfortunately, he lost that job in less than a year. But by that time, his mother and wife had convinced him to buy the large Victorian mansion in Westfield, not far from his bank in Jersey City.
After losing his prestigious bank position, John continued to get dressed and pretend to go to work. He would show up at the local train station and kill time by napping and reading the newspaper. He eventually found other jobs, but lost each of those as well. By 1971, John was again jobless, owed his mother a large sum of money from the down payment on the house he had borrowed from her, and was secretly stealing from her. He was bankrupt, and his financial life was in dire straits.
Not only was John facing financial ruin by 1971, but several of his family members were causing him much concern -- particularly, the women in the family. John had three children in all, Patricia, John Jr, and Frederick, but there were signs his wife, mother and daughter may have been especially frustrating to him.