Archive for October 19th, 2009

1928: William Edward Hickman, Randian superhero?

5 comments October 19th, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 1928, William Edward Hickman was hanged at California’s San Quentin prison for what the Los Angeles Times was still calling a decade later* “the most horrible crime of the 1920’s.”

Eighteen- or nineteen-year-old Hickman kidnapped the 12-year-old daughter of a Los Angeles banker, extracted a $1,500 ransom from said banker for her return, then delivered up the girl’s horribly mutilated corpse.

A nationwide manhunt immediately ensued, with Hickman soon captured in Oregon.

Pretty white girls abducted have been media catnip for many a livelong year. In this case, the dastardly deed induced the Los Angeles Times to editorially demand (Dec. 21, 1927) an automatic death penalty for murder in a manifesto that reads like it was written yesterday for whatever the outrageous crime du jour might be.

LET MURDERERS HANG

The sickly sentimentality which wars upon capital punishment for murder and insists upon the coddling of convicts will have a hard time to justify itself in the case of the slayer of Marian Parker, who, if police theories are correct, is William Edward Hickman, a criminal on probation. Had Hickman been serving the prison term which he deserved for his forgeries, he could not have committed the series of crimes which culminated in one of the most atrocious murders of which there is any record. He was free through the lenity of the California law to take his revenge in the most horrible fashion, against a man who had done him no injury that could be considered such by anyone with a spark of moral sense.

Not for vengeance, but for its own protection, both through example and through the eradication of a rotten and depraved individual, society should put the Parker case slayer out of life as quickly as the formalities of law permit. His continued existence is a reproach to all humanity.

A clash of conflicting theories of the best methods of dealing with criminals has brought society to a condition of hesitation. This condition is highly favorable to criminal operations of all sorts, while justice and the law seem to stand by, bewildered and helpless. The logical way to meet this situation is to take practical steps which society knows will protect it, and let penologists and psychiatrists conduct their debate over the ideal system, entirely to one side.

There can be no question that men in jail, while in jail, are no particular menace to society, and that men who have been hanged do not commit further murders. Upon these two solid facts let society base its actions, unless and until something better has been devised and proved. The semi-punishment, semi-reformatory scheme at present in force is obviously a failure.

Its greatest error is that it considers the interest of the criminal rather than those of his victim, or rather the interest of the class to which his victim belongs. This class is made up of the honest, the law-abiding, the God-fearing, the hard-working, the solid and substantial; in other words, of all individuals who are resolved to live in peace and harmony with their neighbors,. respecting others’ rights as courtesouly as they expect their own to be respected. Against this class, the great majority, another class, a minority, is waging war. It consists of the vicious, the depraved, the degenerate; nonproducers and parasites. At best this class is a drag upon progress, at worst it is a menace to civilization. Yet the law as it stands at present regards the rights of the individuals of the class as paramount. The machinery of the courts is strained at every point to aid them.

It is not necessary to inquire why a rattlesnake strikes, or if it is likely to strike again. His motives may be interesting, but they are not important. It is sufficient to recognize the danger and to deal with it appropriately.

It does not matter whether anti-social individuals are all insane, as some criminologists assert, whether they are economic misfits, as other theorists declare, or whether they are in the main ordinary persons gone wrong, as still another school insists. There has been too much consideration for them and not enough for those they prey upon and injure. It is time the emphasis was shifted.

It is time to face the facts, before the criminal class succeeds entirely in getting the upper hand. It is time to place every proved criminal where he can do no more harm. It is time for society to take the certainty of protection; it is time to stop giving the criminal “another chance.”

It is time to hang every murderer.

Lack of firmness in dealing with the criminal problem is due largely to the sob-sister and the sentimentalist. At the other extreme stands the mob spirit and lynch law, equally destructive of the foundations of society. Criminals should be judged without passion, bias or prejudice, and this is possible only in a court of law. No matter how heinous the crime, it is a matter for the courts to deal with. Good citizens will insist that proper punishment be dealt out in accordance with the provisions of law and order. For men to take the law into their own hands is to place themselves on a plane with the criminals, and to give away the immense moral advantage of being right.

Sensational crime + ill-considered policy response = a California tradition. (There wasn’t actually a change of the law in 1927-28, though.)

Perhaps recoiling from the self-righteous public baying after Hickman’s blood, a young Ayn Rand took such a shine to Hickman as to base upon him a murderous protagonist in a 1928 work, The Little Street. The budding apostle of selfishness decried in her journals

[a]verage, everyday, rather stupid looking citizens. Shabbily dressed, dried, worn looking little men. Fat, overdressed, very average, ‘dignified’ housewives … How can they decide the fate of that boy? Or anyone’s fate?

Though The Little Street never saw print, the hero disdainful of the petty bonds of moral hypocrisy is the go-to trope of Rand’s later novels. If you can bear them, you’ll find Rand speaking of “nonproducers and parasites” who are “a drag upon progress … a menace to civilization” in much the way the Times speaks of Hickman.

Rand wrote that “other people do not exist for [Hickman], and he does not see why they should … He has the true, innate psychology of a Superman. He can never realize and feel ‘other people.'” It’s a pretty near definition of sociopathy likewise imputed to the hero of her later novel The Fountainhead: “He was born without the ability to consider others.”

Indeed, Hickman was a very strange choice for Rand’s affection, quite apart from the obvious: other than the derring-do to bluff school administrators into letting him take away a child on his own say-so, he didn’t really exhibit the magnificent contempt for his many lessers one would expect from a Howard Roark.


From the Los Angeles Times, Dec. 25, 1927.

Hickman broke down and confessed, not in pride but in panic, and signed a simpering “warning” to young men of the classic gallows-speech variety on Christmas Eve 1927:

Crime in its simplest definition is to have without work and enjoy the same place in society as other people and still show no honest effort or intention to go right.

Young men, when crime has once overcome your will power to be honest and straight you are a menace to society. …

Think it over, see my mistake. Be honest and upright. Respect the law. If you do these things you’ll be happier in the end. (Source: Los Angeles Times, Dec. 24, 1927)

Over the ten ensuing months, the teen had the opportunity to recover his wits and play a more manful part, but that didn’t happen either. A week before execution, when any hope of reprieve was gone and there was little percentage left in playing the supplicant, Hickman sent the Associated Press this bit of self-flagellation.

I know very well that I have been a most guilty sinner … I am sorry for having offended God and man … Please ask the people in the name of God to pray for us condemned men here at San Quentin prison.

(To top it off, he wilted climbing the scaffold and had to be helped up the last few steps.)

The miscreant unequal to the weight of his crime-slash-sin, thirsting for the redemptive chalice of heaven … as a criminals go, that’s more Dostoyevsky than Rand.

* Mar. 27, 1938. The context was a roundup of the gallows highlights of San Quentin’s history on the occasion of its switch from hanging to lethal gas.

Also on this date

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Arts and Literature,California,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,History,Kidnapping,Murder,USA

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