The Grisly True Crime Story That Inspired 'Perry Mason'

In the HBO series, a baby boy named Charlie Dodson is found dead with his eyes sewn open following a kidnap and ransom operation. Marion Parker, 12, was found dead in similar circumstances in 1927.

Matthew Rhys Hbo

The disturbing case of a kidnapped and slain baby that drives the plot of the HBO series “Perry Mason” is based on a real-life case that's even more gruesome than the one depicted in the show.

The series, set in Depression-era Los Angeles, opens in the midst of a kidnap and ransom operation. An infant named Charlie Dodson had been abducted from his home and his parents instructed to pay $100,000 for his safe return. After delivering the cash, Charlie's frantic parents are told they could reunite with their child in a passing streetcar, only to find Charlie dead with his eyes sewn open to give him at least a passing resemblance to a living baby. After the parents fall under suspicion, private investigator Perry Mason is hired on their behalf to get to the bottom of the case. 

Actor Matthew Rhys, who plays Mason, told GQ that “what happened to the baby actually did happen in real life.” 

He pointed to the 1927 kidnapping and killing of Marion Parker, the 12-year-old daughter of Los Angeles banker Perry Parker.

"Our original version was actually worse because we based it on key elements of this kidnapping that went wrong," Rhys noted. "And then I think we collectively [couldn’t] go the whole way on it, because it was too dark."

Here's what happened in the Parker case:

A man identifying himself as an employee of Perry Parker entered Los Angeles’ Mount Vernon Junior High School on Dec. 15, 1927 and said that Perry had been hurt in a car crash. The man, who said his name was Mr. Cooper, needed to pick up Perry's "younger daughter" for him, KCET reported in 2015. (A 1927 edition of the Santa Ana Register reported that the mysterious man entered the school asking simply for "the Parker girl.") This perplexed school officials because Perry had twin 12-year-old girls, Marjorie and Marion. When asked which one, the man said Marion.

That was apparently all it took to convince school officials to release the girl into his custody, and the man left the school grounds with Marion. Within just hours, a ransom note was delivered to the Parker house via telegram, demanding $1,500, the Los Angeles Times recounted in 2001.

It read:

Your daughter’s life hangs by a thread and I have a Gillette [razor] ready and able to handle the situation.

It was signed "FOX-FATE," according to the Los Angeles Times. In a later telegram, signed "Fate," the kidnapper referred to himself in the third person as "Mr. Fox." In another, he called himself "George Fox."

The day after the kidnapping, Perry went to an arranged meeting point to give Fox the ransom money, but the kidnapper fled when he saw police, according to the Los Angeles Times. Police had been following Perry without his knowledge, KCET reported. 

The failed handoff seemed to anger the abductor. A series of threatening telegrams were sent to the Parker house, including one that was headed with the word "death."

Another seemingly included a message from Marion herself:

Please Daddy; I want to come home this morning. This is your last chance. Be sure and come by yourself or you won't see me again.- Marian

A second exchange was planned for the following evening, two days after the abduction, the El Paso Evening Post reported in 1928. When the kidnapper pulled up in a car, Perry could see his daughter sitting in the passenger seat. She was bundled up but he recognized her face so he paid the man the ransom money.

After the exchange was made, the man shoved Marion out of the car, and drove off. When Perry rushed to her, the morbid reality of her kidnapping became apparent – she was dead and her eyes had been sewn open to make it appear that she was still alive. Even more horrifying, all her limbs had been removed from her mutilated body. They were found wrapped in newspaper around a nearby park. The macabre details of the case thrust it into the national spotlight before the culprit was identified. 

Investigators discovered a blood-stained towel marked “Bellevue Arms Apartments” stuffed inside Marion’s torso, which led police to William Edward Hickman, a 19-year-old with a history of petty crimes. He previously worked for Perry at the bank until he was fired for forging a check. He served time for the crime earlier that year, after Perry testified against him.

William Hickman G

Knowing he was being eyed as a suspect, Hickman fled the state. He was captured in Oregon following a car chase a week later. On Christmas Eve, as he was being transported back to California, he admitted to strangling, stabbing and mutilating the 12-year-old girl, according to the El Paso Evening Post.

Hickman attempted an insanity defense as he became a focus of a sensational 1928 trial. Writer Edgar Rice Burroughs, the man behind "Tarzan," even reported on it daily for the Los Angeles Examiner. During the high publicized proceedings, Hickman blamed supernatural "Providence" for his crimes, according to the book "Stolen Away: The True Story of California's Most Shocking Kidnap-Murder." However, the prosecution got their hands on a letter he wrote another inmate in which he exclaimed, "I intend to throw a laughing, screaming, diving act before the prosecution finishes their case — maybe in front of old man Parker himself!”

After just half an hour of deliberations, a jury found Hickman both sane and guilty. A judge ordered his execution on Valentine's Day and he was executed by hanging that October.

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