Rowman & Littefield (2016)
Reviewed by Matthew T. Mangino for
James L. Neibaur has written prolifically about the motion picture industry and Hollywood. His first foray into true crime is worthy of the silver screen. Neibaur’s Butterfly in the Rain, published by Rowman & Littlefield, tells the story of William Edward Hickman, a vain and diabolical egotist who kidnapped and savagely murdered Marion Parker, the 12- year-old daughter of a banking executive.
Hickman, who was 19 years old, had delusions of grandeur.
In 1927, he entered an elementary school in Los Angeles, California and asked to take Parker out of school, claiming that her father had been in an accident. Despite seemingly obvious inconsistencies in his story, a member of the school staff—enamored by the suave and well-spoken Hickman—released the child into his custody.
That night, Marion’s father, Perry Parker, received a telegram from Hickman demanding a meager ransom, even by early twentieth century standards. The payoff ended in a graphic and heart-wrenching exchange between Hickman and Perry Parker.
Hickman was quickly arrested. His detailed justification for the murder of Parker is chilling—if not evidence of a mental defect. He said he killed Marion to (1) evade detection; (2) avoid disappointing Marion; and (3) an uncontrollable desire to commit a great crime.
Neibaur’s narrative is based almost exclusively on newspaper accounts of the murder and investigation. There was no shortage of news account because the sensational nature of the crime and the closely followed trial generated national attention. Neibaur also had access to trial transcripts which he quotes from at length. The transcripts reveal arguments and testimony that would undoubtedly merit intense scrutiny by modern appellate courts.
The book is easy to read, and the pace is quick. Neibaur’s prose can capture a reader’s attention. There is some repetition which is either to add length to the book or an ill-conceived effort to build on the sensational subject matter.
Parker’s murder came on the heels of the famed Leopold and Loeb trial and shortly before the infamous Lindbergh kidnapping, lending to the fact that, although riveting, the Parker murder had been lost to history.
Through the work of Neibaur this tragic story has been introduced to a new generation of true crime readers. The book comes at a time when “stranger danger” has driven lawmakers to enact draconian laws that keeps those who prey on children locked-up for years and in some instances indefinitely.
Hickman’s attorneys would raise an insanity defense on behalf of their client. Neibaur wrote at one point “It was considered by some that his ploy was to appear like an insane person trying to seem that he was sane.” Neibaur conceded that the scheme was “a bit convoluted.”
It would have been interesting to learn more about Hickman’s defense and how it played out in court. The early use of the insanity defense would have provided a unique glimpse into the California legal system in the early twentieth century—unfortunately, that sort of detail was not provided.
Neibaur had a noticeable bias against Hickman. Certainly Hickman was not a likeable figure, but Neibaur crossed the line from storyteller to anti-Hickman zealot as the book progressed from murder, to arrest, to trial. Neibaur writes, Hickman “was a frightened, angry, confused, egocentric, petty thief and cold-blooded killer who ended the life of a little girl . . . “
Scientific America wrote of lepidopterists “describing butterflies darting into protective vegetation and scrambling beneath leaves when dark skies, strong breezes and the first raindrops signal an imminent storm.”
Marion Parker, unlike the butterfly, didn’t recognize the “imminent storm” as it gathered in the form of William Edward Hickman. We’ll never really know Hickman’s true intentions when he went to pick-up Parker at school, nor his ability to appreciate the difference between right and wrong. However, this long forgotten tragedy deserves our attention and we owe a debt of gratitude to Neibaur for bringing it to us.
(Matthew T. Mangino is of counsel with Luxenberg, Garbett, Kelly & George P.C. in New Castle, PA. His book The Executioner’s Toll, 2010 was released by McFarland Publishing. You can reach him at www.mattmangino.com and follow him on Twitter @MatthewTMangino)