In two previous posts I discussed the 1927 murder of twelve-year-old Marian Parker in Los Angeles by nineteen-year-old sociopath William Edward Hickman, and the curious and (I think) disturbing fact that the novelist and popular philosopher Ayn Rand, as a young woman, was fascinated by the case and apparently quite enamored of Hickman himself, whom she saw as a romantic, adventurous, brilliant, superior, and independent "real man."
Because of my newfound interest in this case, I acquired the only recent book on the subject, Stolen Away by Michael Newton, which is out of print but can be obtained through Amazon.com and, no doubt, other online retailers. So far I am only about a hundred pages into the book, but what I have already found has helped considerably to flesh out that Hickman case. For those who might be curious about the further details of this largely forgotten crime, I've put together a short summary of relevant facts that were unknown to me before.
First, a few housekeeping matters. Hickman's full name was William Edward Hickman, but he was known as either Edward or Ed, in order to distinguish him from his father, William. In an addendum to an earlier post I questioned the use of the term "serial killer" to describe Hickman. But it appears that he did in fact commit a number of killings, though only two were proved. Most likely he does qualify as a serial killer, after all. In any event, there's no doubt he was a vicious sociopath. Many people commented on Hickman's above-average intelligence, which presumably explains why Ayn Rand regarded him as "brilliant." Though I see no sign of actual brilliance in him, I will concede that he was fairly smart. For what it's worth, his IQ was measured as 111. This would place him slightly above the median, which is 100. On the other hand, little brilliance was demonstrated in the execution of his crimes. Most were simple holdups or car thefts, and his most ambitious project -- the kidnapping and murder of a little girl -- ended with his arrest in less than a week.
What was Hickman's mental state? Far from being the adventurous and unappreciated outcast imagined by Ayn Rand, Hickman showed obvious symptoms of serious and growing psychological damage throughout his brief life. His mother and grandmother suffered from paranoid schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, and Hickman may well have inherited a tendency toward mental illness. Childhood friends report that he enjoyed wringing the necks of chickens, and that he strangled at least one kitten. The torture and killing of animals is typical behavior for a budding sociopath. In his high school years, Hickman's once promising academic work deteriorated, and he began to exhibit delusional thinking and manic behavior. His friends and acquaintances in high school sized him up as "crazy" and "absolutely insane," at least according to their subsequent testimony. Adults were more easily fooled. His teachers were impressed with his good study habits, and a friend of the family wrote numerous letters of recommendation for the young man, consistently describing him as "an honest, upright, clean living Christian young man." This appraisal should clearly be taken with a very large dose of salt. Sociopaths can be extremely skilled at concealing their disorder from authority figures.
After graduation from high school, Hickman had at least two opportunities to attend college, but despite his stated intention to pursue higher education, he failed to matriculate at one school and dropped out after only a few days of attendance at the second. During this time he committed the first in what would become a surprisingly long series of crimes. Here is a chronological list of Hickman's known or plausibly suspected criminal activity leading up to the kidnap and murder of Marian Parker:
One or two armed robberies as initial ventures.
Armed robbery of a drugstore that ended in a shootout with a police officer and Hickman's fatal shooting of the proprietor.
Possible murder of his accomplice's grandfather, who was thrown from a bridge in Pasadena in a clumsy simulation of suicide, with the motive of obtaining the man's money; unproven, but handwriting analysis indicates Hickman forged at least part of the suicide note.
Forgery of checks while working in a bank; he was convicted but sentenced only to probation.
Possible murder of a man in Kansas with the motive of stealing his car; unproven, but Hickman, driving erratically around the country, was in the right geographical area at the time and matches a description of the suspect.
Four more armed robberies of drugstores.
Another car theft.
Possible strangulation of a girl in Milwaukee; unproved, but circumstantial evidence suggests Hickman's guilt.
Several other holdups.
Possibly a fatal gas station robbery; unproved, but again Hickman matches the suspect.
Three more drugstore robberies, all accomplished within thirty minutes ("a record," Hickman later boasted).
Several more robberies.
Armed robbery of yet another drugstore.
Theft of a trombone after kidnapping the store clerk and holding him at gunpoint.
Three more drugstore robberies, with the motive of obtaining chloroform, which he was able to get at the third store.
One more drugstore robbery, this one bungled and not completed.
Hickman was obviously a man on the move -- though he was not going anywhere. Throughout the series of crimes inventoried above, he put thousands of miles on his stolen cars. Extreme restlessness and constant, aimless driving are characteristic of serial killers.
Of course, Hickman's most shocking crime was the murder of Marian Parker. In her journal notes, Ayn Rand makes it seem as if public outrage against Hickman emerged only after his arrest, when people saw how allegedly proud and uncompromising the young man was. In fact, outrage reached a fever pitch as soon as the murder was announced, days before Hickman had been identified or arrested. The murder made the front page of the Sunday Los Angeles Times. Private citizens offered rewards of up to $5000, an enormous sum, for information leading to an arrest. Well before the killer had a name, the Times editorialized, "Staggering to the imagination, abhorrent to every human instinct, are the incredibly horrible circumstances surrounding the murder and mutilation of twelve-year-old Marian Parker ..."
Nor does the murder appear to have been a matter of necessity or a bizarre, spontaneous impulse. By Hickman's own account, the kidnapped girl cooperated fully with him. Indeed, the degree of her cooperation is startling; she stayed meekly in the car even when he went into a building to mail a ransom letter. One can only assume that children in those days were brought up to obey their elders -- for better or worse. And although Hickman later claimed that the inexplicable urge to kill Marian came over him all at once, an accomplice of his from earlier crimes reported Hickman musing one day that he would like to chop somebody up and dump the pieces of the body along a highway -- which is, of course, exactly what he did to Marian.
Hickman demanded ransom, but the amount was small in comparison with other kidnappings of the same period. A certain Dr. Paul Bowers, Loyola College professor of legal medicine, probably got it right when he theorized that the ransom was only a smokescreen for the murderous "gratification of the abnormal sexual impulse." A contemporary psychiatrist, Victor Parkin, described Hickman to a T when he said that the typical sadist possessed an inordinate degree of both "cunning and egotism." And Dr. Joseph Catton, a psychiatrist in San Francisco, speculated that the killer had an "emotional disturbance that probably affects his sex life," adding, "I feel that this case cries out for vengeance."
Indeed, Hickman's sadistic tormenting of the girl's father and his irrational need for control are quite evident in the ransom notes. Often headed with the word Death (the letter d replaced by the Greek delta) and signed "Fate" or "Fox," the letters unintentionally reveal the psychology of their writer. In one note he describes himself as "a master mind [sic]" and not "a common crook or kidnapper," clearly signaling his delusional grandiosity. After Marian's father made the mistake of contacting the police, Hickman wrote, "I'm vexed and disgusted with you! ... You're insane to betray your love for your daughter ... I will be two billion times as cautious, as clever, and as deadly from now on. You have brought this on yourself and you deserve it and worse. A man who betrays his love for his daughter is a second Judas Iscariot -- many times more wicked than the worst modern criminal ..."
Observe the obvious psychological projection of a sociopath calling his victim "insane" and "many times more wicked than the worst modern criminal." Observe also the attempt to shift blame to the father by claiming that he has brought the death of his daughter on himself and deserves it.
Hickman claims that if Marian dies, he will no longer ask for the ransom because he would not "ask you for your $1500 for a lifeless mass of flesh ... I am base and low but won't stoop to that depth ..."
In fact, he did stoop to that depth. By his own admission, he wrote the last ransom note after Marian was dead, and he collected the money with Marian's dead body, or part of it, on the passenger seat of his car.
Sociopaths are known for their inability to see other human beings as fully real. Hickman appears to fulfill this criterion. Consider the following two quotes from Hickman himself: "The idea of kidnapping a young person and holding it for ransom came to me as a means of securing money for college." "He [i.e., Marian's father at the ransom drop] asked for his daughter, and I raised the head of the child so that he could see its face. He asked if it was alive. I said, 'Yes, she is sleeping.'" (Emphases added.)
I realize that in those days the pronoun it was used more frequently to refer to a young child than it would be today. But it's my impression that such usage was normally restricted to very small children -- infants and toddlers -- and would not have been customary when referring to a twelve-year-old. Is Hickman's use of that dehumanizing, depersonalizing pronoun an indication of his fundamental lack of empathy, his objectification of the victim?
Incidentally, notice that he justifies the kidnapping with the claim that he needed money for college -- after he had already turned down two opportunities to attend college.
There is, then, no need to engage in Ayn Rand's psychological or philosophical rationalizations in order to understand the public hostility toward Hickman. The facts of the crime he committed are more than sufficient to explain the outcry against him. And those facts are worse than I had previously known. In my earlier posts, I said that Hickman killed the twelve-year-old girl and then dismembered and eviscerated her. This was actually a considerable understatement.
In truth, when Hickman butchered Marian in the bathtub of his hotel room, the girl was probably still alive.
(I caution readers with delicate stomachs that what follows is extremely unpleasant, graphic, and disturbing. Some may wish to stop reading at this point. Although I hesitate to go into the details, I think that only a thorough appreciation of what Hickman did -- and how he later described it -- can give us a full insight into his crime and the public's response.)
As Hickman later told the story, Marian was tied to a chair and blindfolded, thus completely helpless. It was at this point that he suddenly decided to pull a towel around her neck and strangle her. Although he said that the process of strangulation took two minutes, during which time Marian struggled, he nonetheless claimed, "I'm sure she never actually suffered."
Two minutes is a long time when you're being murdered. Still, such a death would have been relatively quick. Unfortunately, there is good reason to question whether Marian was actually strangled at all.
In a case of strangulation, the victim normally will show obvious signs such as swollen tongue, discolored face, contusions around the neck, and pinpoint hemorrhages in the eyes. According to the coroner in the Marian Parker case, the girl's tongue and eyes were normal, her face was not discolored, and there were no contusions on her neck. One might like to think that Hickman used some of the stolen chloroform on her, but the autopsy revealed no evidence of the application of chloroform or any other drug.
Moreover -- and this, I warn you, is where the story gets really ugly -- Hickman's own description of the dismemberment of the girl strongly suggests that she was still alive and at least minimally aware. He placed her in the bathtub and, with a large pocketknife, proceded to cut her throat. "I started to bleed her. I reached down and cut her in the neck, but I could see that I didn't get the jugular vein. At this time, she kind of came to, started to get up." He thrust her down into the tub and severed her left and right arms at the elbows. "As I cut the limbs and body, there were heavy issues of blood and jerks of the flesh to indicate that life had not completely left the body." As he continued with his butchery, he claims that her heart had stopped, but even then "the blood was coming by spurts." But if the blood was spurting, then Marian's heart must have been still beating. And even when Hickman bisected the spinal cord, "the upper part of the body still jerked."
Exactly what Hickman did probably cannot be reconstructed at this point. Clearly he found some way to prevent the girl from crying out, since her screams would have alerted other guests in the hotel. But the fact that she was unable to scream does not mean she was dead or even unconscious. Most likely she was subdued in some way, then gagged -- perhaps with the very towel that was later stuffed into her hollowed-out abdomen.
The crime, then, was not simply a quick and relatively painless murder followed by a methodical disarticulation of the body. Rather, it was the heinous butchery of a girl who was still alive and probably at least marginally conscious during part of the mutilations. She was not dissected, but vivisected. I would say that this fact alone is sufficient to account for the public outcry against Hickman. No elaborate Nietzschean theorizing is required.
Having thoroughly deconstructed his victim, Hickman wrapped the girl's limbs, intestines, pelvis, and thighs in newspaper, then later distributed these gruesome parcels in L.A.'s Elysian Park, scattering them along the roadside just as he had fantasized months earlier.
How upset was Hickman by what he had done? He claimed that he wept, and perhaps he did -- though as Michael Newton trenchantly observes, the tears were less likely an expression of grief than of a letdown after the adrenaline rush of the murder.
Whatever remorse Hickman might have felt did not stop him from going to the movies later that day, or from attending another movie the day after.