While this seemingly never-ending period of quarantine has gifted us plenty of television to obsess over (looking at you, Little Fires Everywhere, Normal People, Upload, and so many others), no series compares to the darkly alluring pull of HBO’s Perry Mason. Based on the short stories and novels written by Erle Stanley Gardner, criminal defense lawyer Perry Mason became a household name that inspired several television adaptations from 1957 to 1995 (including the original cult classic starring Raymond Burr). This time around, 2020 has replaced the smooth, perpetually successful lawyer with a much grittier Mason that is severely troubled by his experiences in WWI and spends his time drinking and stalking shady individuals for pay. HBO’s new spin has it all: impeccable Depression Era sets and costumes, copious amounts of tasteful nudity, multidimensional characters, and a story heavily inspired by true crime!
The series, set in 1930s Los Angeles, centers around the kidnapping and subsequent murder of a baby boy named Charlie Dodson. The first episode opens with Charlie’s parents waiting for the kidnappers to show them that their child is alive as he passes down the Angel’s Flight railway. When they see his face, they drop off the requested $100,000 ransom and rush to reunite with their son. Unfortunately, the parents soon find that Charlie was actually dead and that his eyes had been sewn open. According to Matthew Rhys, the actor who plays Mason, “what happened to the baby actually did happen in real life.”
Indeed, in 1927, 12-year-old Marion Parker was abducted from school, held for ransom, murdered and then presented to her parents in a similar fashion to Charlie Dodson. Marion’s father, Perry Parker, was a prominent Los Angeles banker. On December 15, a man arrived at Mount Vernon Junior High School, introduced himself as an employee of Perry and announced that his boss had been hurt in a car crash. The man, who referred to himself as Mr. Cooper, needed to pick up Perry’s daughter in order to take her to see her father. Interestingly, Perry had twin 12-year-old girls named Marjorie and Marion. Yet, Mr. Cooper specified that he only wanted Marion to come with him.
Within a few hours, a ransom note was delivered to the Parker residence via telegram, demanding that Perry turn over $1,500 in gold certificates for his daughter’s return. In the note, the kidnapper told Perry to “leave out police and detectives” and that Perry’s “failure to comply with these requests [meant] no one will ever see the girl again (except the angels in Heaven).” The kidnapper signed this particular note as “Fate”, but other notes bore the signatures of “Fox,” “George Fox,” “The Fox,” and even “Death.”
Perry followed the kidnapper’s instructions to deliver the money to 10th Street and Gramercy Place. However, the police had been watching the Parker home and followed Perry without his knowledge. The kidnapper spotted the police and fled, leaving Perry empty handed. More letters arrived, but the tone became more dismal. In fact, Marion allegedly penned one letter herself that pleaded, “Daddy please do what this man tells you or he’ll kill me if you don’t.”
The kidnapper asked Perry to wait for a telephone call to initiate their next meeting, which came at 7:35 p.m. on December 17. Perry arrived at West 5th Street and South Manhattan Place at 8 p.m. with cash in hand and without any police in sight. The kidnapper pulled up next to Perry’s car wearing a bandana over his face and holding a gun. Perry spotted his daughter bundled up in the passenger seat and asked if she was alright. The kidnapper reassured Perry that Marion was only sleeping, so Perry handed over the ransom money. The kidnapper then drove up the street, pushed Marion’s body onto a nearby curb, and sped off.
When Perry rushed to his daughter, he found that her face was pale and that her eyes had been sewn open to appear as though she were still alive. Even worse, Marion had been dismembered, disemboweled, and stuffed with towels that were embossed with the “Bellevue Arms Apartments” logo. On December 18, civilians walking around Elysian Park found several bundles of newspaper that were filled with Marion’s limbs and organs. Nearby the initial crime scene, a woman spotted a suitcase on her front law that contained blood-soaked papers and a spool of thread that matched the kind used to sew Marion’s eyes open.
The blood-stained towels led police to William Edward Hickman, a 19-year-old former employee of Perry. Hickman had worked as a messenger boy at First National Bank, but was fired for forging stolen checks. Partially due to Perry’s testimony against him, Hickman was charged in June of 1927 and had only been released for a few months before Marion was kidnapped. Knowing that he was a prime suspect, Hickman fled California and traveled up North. On December 22nd, Hickman was captured in Pendleton, Oregon after a brief car chase. When police confronted him, Hickman reportedly shrugged and stated, “Well, I guess it’s all over.”
When the trial began on January 28, 1928, Hickman attempted to plead “not guilty by reason of insanity” and began to behave erratically. However, Hickman also wrote to a fellow inmate and revealed that, “I intend to throw a laughing, screaming, diving act before the prosecution finishes their case — maybe in front of old man Parker himself!” In February, Hickman was found guilty and then executed on October 29, 1928. In the moments leading up to his death, Hickman delivered a grisly final confession to a nearby guard. According to Hickman, it took Marion seven minutes to suffocate. Yet, on the day of his execution, Hickman hung for 14 minutes until a doctor pronounced him dead.
In Matthew Rhys’ opinion, “our original version [for Perry Mason] was actually worse because we based it on key elements of [Marion’s] kidnapping that went wrong … I think we collectively [couldn’t] go the whole way on it, because it was too dark.” While Marion’s case is horrifying, I suggest that you watch the show, delve into the Charlie Dodson case and judge for yourself!