In his new book, Hollywood Obscura: Death, Murder and the Paranormal Aftermath (out this month via Schiffer Publishing), Brian Clune highlights 12 L.A.-set murders and tragic deaths, from the (apparently) accidental death of Thelma Todd in 1935 to Biggie Smalls' murder outside the Petersen Automotive Museum in 1997. In this, the book's sixth chapter, Clune looks back at the “Los Feliz Murder Mansion,” where in 1959 Dr. Harold Perelson bludgeoned his wife to death and struck his daughter with a ball-peen hammer before killing himself. It has been edited for length.
Family is about love, caring and nurturing. You marry because of the love you feel for your wife or husband; when you have children that love is spread to them, and your life is now devoted to the raising and nurturing of those children. In turn, the lessons you teach them will be handed down to the next generation, and so on down the line. What happens when the lessons learned are those of murder and madness, when the last thing the children remember of their parents is of death and betrayal? What have you handed down when your kids see their mother dead and their father covered in her blood and coming for them? These and other questions still remain unanswered in one of the most bizarre cases in Los Angeles history, as well as the strange aftermath that still haunts Los Feliz today.
Doctor Harold Perelson was a prominent surgeon specializing in cardiothoracics and allergies. He had gained a successful and profitable patent for a new type of syringe, had written one of the most respected clinical reports of the time — “The Electrocardiogram in Familial Periodic Paralysis,” which was featured in the magazine American Heart Journal in June 1949 — and was a well-respected keynote speaker in medical conferences all around the country. Perelson was an assistant head of cardiology for the school of medicine at USC, and was on the surgical teams of cardiology at Los Angeles County General, Cedars of Lebanon Hospital and the Santa Fe Hospital of Los Angeles. Dr. Perelson’s life, by all accounts, was a storybook life of wealth, fame and unmitigated success. So why then would Perelson decide to kill his family and himself?
On the night of Dec. 6, 1959, Harold Perelson came home from work, greeted his wife and kids, fixed himself a drink, and casually watched his wife wrap Christmas presents while she waited for dinner to be ready. Even though they were Jewish, the Perelsons had begun celebrating the holiday with their friends and co-workers and enjoyed the sense of community it imparted on their family. His wife, Lillian, was a wonderful mother and homemaker and called the family together for dinner at the table, where they sat eating and talking about their week at work and school. Their 18-year-old daughter, Judye, talked about her friends and the boys she liked; the whole scene was right out of a Rockwell painting.
After dinner, the family stayed up to watch a bit of television, and then Lillian and Harold tucked their 11-year-old daughter, Debbie, and 13-year-old son, Joseph, into bed. Judye went to her room to work on some homework while her mother went to the master bedroom to read. Harold remained downstairs until he knew his wife was asleep and then went upstairs to read his copy of Dante’s Divine Comedy until he himself fell asleep right after marking a passage he found personally compelling.
Sometime around 5 a.m., Dr. Perelson awoke, placed the book he had been reading on the nightstand and went down to the kitchen where he kept a small tool chest. He retrieved a ball-peen hammer and casually walked back to his bedroom where he approached the bed where his wife was sleeping soundly. He stood gazing down at her for a minute and then raised the hammer … and in one swift motion, he brought the hammer crashing down on Lillian’s head and then again and again until it was a bloody mess. Perelson then left the room and walked into his daughter Judye’s bedroom and began to attack her with the hammer. Judye had already been awakened by the sound of her mother being murdered, and this most likely saved her life. As the hammer came down toward her skull, she just managed to get her arm up, which softened the initial blow. The weapon still connected with her head, however, and the force of the hit disoriented her as she tried to get up and away from her rampaging father. As Judye saw the first swing of the hammer, she had let out a blood-curdling scream. This not only awoke the neighbors nearby but her sleeping siblings as well. Perelson heard his youngest daughter emerging from her bedroom and, thinking his oldest was incapacitated, casually left Judye’s room to see to his youngest child. Perelson walked Debbie back to her room and told her, “Go back to bed, baby; this is just a nightmare.” He then proceeded back to Judye’s bedroom.
While Dr. Perelson had been busy with his other daughter, Judye had regained some of her senses and had fled the house; she made her way to the neighbors, who, already awakened from her screams, quickly came to the door. The neighbor, seeing the blood streaming from the young girl’s head immediately notified police who called for an ambulance and sent patrol cars to the scene. Meanwhile, Debbie, who had not believed her father that she had been dreaming, gathered up her brother and they too fled from the house before Perelson could use the ball-peen hammer on them as well. The doctor, knowing full well that the police must be on the way to his house, went back upstairs, got a bottle of pills from the medicine cabinet, sat down on the bed and took all of the pills in a single gulp. (Most of the reports from around the internet claim that he drank a glass of acid to kill himself. I could find no truth of this actually occurring and believe this is just an attempt to make the story more bizarre. All of the newspaper accounts from the day state that he overdosed on pills.)
When the police arrived at the house, they first went to speak with the neighbors and the children to make sure they were OK. Judye was immediately sent by ambulance to the hospital with a fracture to the skull and severe bruising; Judye would survive with no lingering physical injuries. As the officers approached the door, another neighbor informed them that he had been knocking but had gotten no response from anyone inside. They carefully entered the home and called out to Perelson, but were met with silence. They went upstairs and found Harold Perelson lying on the floor in his bedroom, the ball-peen hammer in his hand and an empty pill bottle next to him. His wife, Lillian, was in the bed, her head fractured so badly that she was unrecognizable; blood was splattered all over the wall behind her and the bed linens were soaked with her blood. On the nightstand next to Harold’s side of the bed, the book by Dante that he had been reading was still open to Canto 1; it read, “Midway upon the journey of our life I found myself within a forest dark, for the straightforward pathway had been lost …”
The investigation into the events of that morning were pretty straightforward. It was obvious by the scene of the crime and the statements of the children and neighbors that Dr. Perelson had murdered his wife, attempted to murder his oldest daughter, and had then killed himself by overdose. What wasn’t clear, however, was why. All of the neighbors said the same thing: The Perelsons were a loving family and showed no outward signs of strife. When the police made a routine search of Judye’s car, they found a letter she had written to her aunt that said, “We are on the merry-go-round again, same problems, same worries, only tenfold. My parents are in a bind financially.” The letter then went on to say how she would be looking for a job to be able to help the family through this crisis. It is believed by some that Perelson had finally snapped under the pressures of his finances and had decided that the death of his family was preferable to living with worry and in poverty. It is conceivable that if his attempt to kill Judye had been successful, he would have then attempted to kill his younger children. We will never know what had been going through his mind that fateful morning, but as tragic as the death of his wife and his suicide were, it could have been much worse.
After the furor had died down and the press no longer deemed the events of that night newsworthy, the mansion was sold at auction, with the proceeds going to settle the estate’s debts and the remainder going to the children. The couple who purchased the home, Julian and Emily Enriquez, only visited the home on rare occasions and used it for storing items that they didn’t want in their home; in effect, they bought the mansion to be used as a storage shed of sorts. Over the years, they would visit the house to either bring something new into this storage site or to remove an item. They were never overly friendly with the neighbors, nor were they rude or unwelcoming — they were just … there.
When Julian and Emily died in 1994, ownership of the mansion passed to their son, Rudy. Most of the neighbors expected the house to finally be renovated and either sold to a new family or rented out, or they figured Rudy would move in himself. Unfortunately, none of those things happened; Rudy continued to use the house as storage. The neighbors complained to the city that the home was being used as a squatter’s hangout; other times they told how prostitutes would come in and use the home for entertaining their “tricks.” Slowly the house and property began to decline; the neighbors began to clean up the outside yard and would tidy up the curbside, but the house itself was declining. And even though Rudy had installed an alarm system to alert the police if anyone entered the house, the backyard was still being used as a homeless camp. Then came the ghost hunters.
Empty houses seem to always get the moniker of haunted, especially when a gruesome murder has occurred within its walls. The Los Feliz Murder Mansion, as it is called, is no different; in fact, this home was considered haunted almost before the blood-soaked sheets had dried in the bedroom. In 2009, the Los Angeles Times wrote a story about the house and the mystery surrounding it; the article mentions the possibility of the mansion being haunted even though [then-owner] Rudy Enriquez himself disputes it.
Paranormal investigators have always been a vocal group; they like to boast about their discoveries and evidence, real or imagined, and many of these have spoken of hearing voices and whispers while roaming the outside of the house. One of these swears that he has felt the presence of extreme evil permeating the very walls of the home. Many of the tales, including those of evil and demons, must be taken with a grain of salt; however, some of the tales may be valid.
Orbs are one of those things that this author finds dubious at best, but many have been photographed within the home through the windows. What makes this a bit more compelling for us non-orb believers is wondering what has stirred up the dust that is usually the cause of most orb activity, in an empty house — one, I might add, that has been empty of all human traffic for years. It is true that wind may be getting into the house through leaky windows, but there does seem to be an overabundance of this within the home’s walls. Another common occurrence seems to be the sounds of screams and moans being heard by intrepid ghost hunters in the wee morning hours. The hunters have reported hearing the sound of a woman calling out “No!” in a terrified voice, followed by her frantic screaming and then silence. This silence is then shortly followed by the low moan of a male, who sounds as if he is in distress; this moaning goes on for a short while until all is again silent. Could this be the sound of Harold killing his wife and then his sorrowful moans once he has realized what he has done?
Perhaps the most reported events coming from these ghost hunters are the sightings of faces that stare out of the windows of the old mansion. I have heard this from many individuals who have been to the property, and the tales seem to all be the same. The hunters tell of seeing the face of a woman staring at them through one of the upstairs windows; she will gaze at them for a few minutes and then simply vanish from sight. Many have photographed this apparition, but when they got home and downloaded the photos onto their computers or got their film developed, she was not in any of the frames — it is as if she wants to make herself known but does not like the camera.
Judye, Debbie and Joseph survived their father’s apparent insanity, and once they had been sent east to live with relatives, they vanished from sight. It is believed that their names were changed in an attempt to protect them from the notoriety that followed, and it seems to have worked. Why Dr. Perelson committed this crime is still a mystery, and unless one of the lost Perelson children decides to break their long silence, it seems we will never truly know. Rumor has it that his wife had him committed, and once he was released, he killed her. Again this is a tale that may or may not be true, but whatever the reason, it is truly a sad story and one of the oddest ones concerning a marvelous mansion abandoned in time and memory.
[Editor's note: According to Curbed L.A., the house sold in July 2016 and the new owners planned to renovate and move in.]