In the 1920s, that jazzy and frenzied decade, America was crime-rich. Los Angeles, no slouch, saw a spate of headline-grabbing cases that reflected the nervous energy and sheer craziness of the era. There was the bloody crime of passion committed in 1922 by the so-called “Tiger Woman,” Clara Phillips, a Mount Washington housewife who beat her husband’s girlfriend to death with a hammer. Then there were head-scratchers like the (failed) attempt to kidnap actress Mary Pickford, aka “America’s Sweetheart.” And lest we forget, there was spooky and bizarre murderess Louise Peete, a Southern belle who couldn’t help killing one boyfriend after another and burying them in their basements.
We had 57 such crimes here; no wonder the old Los Angeles Herald newspaper in 1935 dubbed L.A. the “City of Headline Murders.” By the late 1920s things had reached a fever pitch, across the country and in the city. Chicago was now, hands-down, the crime capital of America, all those gangland killings splattering the streets with blood year after year. Chicago also produced Leopold and Loeb, two spoiled rich college students who in 1924 kidnapped and killed a young boy just “for the thrill of it.”
One young man, working at a bank in downtown Los Angeles in 1927 and living at the time near Pasadena, was inspired by Leopold and Loeb to commit a similar crime, and he was just smart enough and just insane enough to do it. His name was William Edward Hickman. This case is the subject of author James L. Neibaur’s new book, Butterfly in the Rain: The 1927 Abduction and Murder of Marion Parker (Rowan and Littlefield, $36). It’s the third book to come out about the Hickman case; the first was written decades ago by Hickman’s own attorney, prominent L.A. lawyer Richard F. Cantillon. Despite everything that you’re about to read, Cantillon remained fond of Hickman all his life.
Neibaur’s book gets right into things from page one, beginning at the moment when, on Thursday, Dec. 15, 1927, “Eddie” Hickman, then a criminally minded 19-year-old with a string of robberies behind him, walked into a junior high school in central Los Angeles and claimed that a student there, 12-year-old Marion Parker, was urgently needed at the bedside of her sick father. Even then this would have sounded suspicious to most people, but Hickman was so smooth, so likable and so polished that the ruse worked, and Hickman walked out minutes later with Marion by his side. As they like to say in TV crime docs, it was the last time anyone would see her alive.
In short order, Hickman killed Marion in his apartment (“I really kind of liked her,” he'd later say), then arranged to meet with the girl’s father to collect a ransom, placing Marion’s body in the car seat next to him for the appointed late-night rendezvous. In a cruel twist, Hickman had wired Marion’s eyes open and powdered the face to give her corpse the illusion of life. After quickly getting the bundle of cash (a paltry $1,500) from Marion’s father, Hickman slowly drove down the block and halted, dropping the girl’s severed torso into the gutter for her forever-traumatized father to desperately, pitifully scoop up in his arms.
It was, according to one journalist at the time, “the most scabrous crime of 1927.” Hickman escaped a tight LAPD dragnet and headed north, aimlessly and with no plan; he was quickly captured by officers while driving on a mountain road near Echo, Oregon. Because the victim and her family were common folk, the Hickman case was largely forgotten once the murder trial was over and the nasty little runt was summarily executed at San Quentin (only a year later, mind you). But at the time, this case was such a sensation that it easily became one of those 20th-century crimes newspaper editors liked to call “the Crime of the Century.” In the words of one writer, “California forgot Christmas” that year.
Neibaur re-creates the quietly ticking moments when Hickman, introducing himself as “Mister Cooper,” first walked into the attendance office at the Mount Vernon Junior High School and calmly explained that his boss, banker Perry M. Parker, had been in a car accident and was asking for his “younger” daughter, a strange request considering that, although there were two Parker sisters in class, they were twins. Neibaur’s narration betrays his own incredulity that the teacher to whom Hickman spoke in the school’s office, Mrs. Mary Holt, “didn’t think it was necessary to call the bank,” even after Hickman suggested that she do so to check his story. “She didn’t even ask such basic questions as, ‘What kind of an accident?’ ‘How serious is it?’ or ‘Why do you want to alert only one of his daughters?’” (Mary Holt was later called to testify about all of this at Hickman’s murder trial downtown. Tormented by guilt, she would stay on at the school for at least a few more years, but her black hair turned white within a year after the crime.)
Hickman’s written confession, as quoted by Neibaur, then picks up the story: of driving around L.A. and the San Gabriel Valley with Marion for a day, a kind of joy ride during which he came clean about her father and admitted that “she had been deceived” and that Marion then said to him, incredibly, that she had had a dream about being kidnapped. “She said that in daydreams at her desk in school she had also imagined this,” Neibaur writes. Hickman had been a religious youth, but this now curdled into a kind of mysticism that was perverse and self-serving: “It was all prearranged. Providence (was) trying to see if I was super strong and capable of the work. It was all sort of a test.”
The confession gets rougher, relating the hours ticking away in his seedy apartment with the terrified girl: “I went ahead and tied her to the chair as I did Friday morning, except that I blindfolded her this time, and made ready to leave the apt. She said to hurry and come back. At this moment my intention to murder completely gripped me.” What happened next, well, you’ll have to read for yourself.
Hickman’s attitude after being captured was alternately nonchalant, boastful and sarcastic; just the kind of smirking young child-murderer you want to slap. His earlier, top-level academic achievements in high school (senior class vice president, a member of the National Honor Society) and his erudite vocabulary made him a weird and baffling specimen to Angelenos, who were more used to seeing roughnecks as murderers, not former scholastic stars intending to study for the ministry. Hickman’s defense included a ridiculous, eleventh-hour claim that a personal “Divine Providence,” described as a kind of demigod wearing “a white suit, shirt, tie and shoes” and sounding sort of like a heavenly car salesman, “appeared out of a blue haze” in Hickman’s apartment and commanded him to strangle Marion. Richard Cantillon, the defense lawyer, claimed later that he really believed Hickman had this delusion, but nobody else did, as the boy had already asked a jail guard, “I wonder if I could pretend I was crazy?”
Cantillon's client was duly convicted and sentenced to death, appropriately by hanging. This is author Neibaur’s first excursion into true crime; he’s previously written books on 1920s movies, and Butterfly in the Rain is, as he acknowledges, written from the point of view of someone steeped in old Hollywood and vintage popular culture. Thus he improves on earlier books about the case by inserting atmospheric bits of ’20s music and movie lore into his account of this truly nutty Jazz Age crime. Why did Hickman do it? Why did he kidnap and strangle an energetic, happy young girl, a tomboy he “really kind of liked,” and torment the father whom she loved like crazy (Hickman saw them together at the bank many times) all for a lousy 1,500 bucks? Like some of the spookier psychopathic murderers we’re so used to now, young Eddie Hickman was a heartless egotist who didn’t care at all how many lives he ruined.
So why did he snuff out her life? The real answer is: fame. When arrested in Oregon, Hickman’s first words to the officers were, “Will I be as famous as Leopold and Loeb?”