Romancing the Stone-Cold Killer: Ayn Rand and William Hickman

This essay is adapted from two posts I first published on my blog. After writing this essay, I wrote a series of further posts on this topic, which can be read hereherehere, and here - or just go to the June 2005 page of my blog, where you can find all of these additional posts in one place. Some Ayn Rand fans discussed my thoughts regarding the Rand-Hickman matter on their message board; this discussion may be read here.

Since writing this essay, I've read two bios of Rand, both of which shed new light on her difficult early years in the US. When she wrote these journal entries, she was lonely, depressed, and alienated from the society around her - a society that seemed strange and intimidating to the newly arrived immigrant. These bios have left me feeling somewhat more sympathetic to the young Rand. 

On the other hand, even in her later years she was capable of serious emotional cruelty and a disturbing lack of empathy, and her gleeful humiliation of young, impressionable admirers who chanced to upset her is well known. 

Overall, Rand comes across to me as a highly intelligent and creative but very troubled person who never should have held herself up as a shining example of rationality and emotional health. Her inability to see herself as others saw her, and to grasp her own faults and shortcomings, is at the root of her problems in later life. This willful blindness is very much on display in her journal entries about William Hickman.  

- MP, July 2013


Part One: Ayn Rand's "real man"

Recently I was rereading Scott Ryan's fascinating, albeit highly technical, critique of Ayn Rand's philosophy, Objectivism and the Corruption of Rationality, and getting a lot more out of it the second time, when I came across a fact culled from a posthumous collection of Rand's journal entries.

In her journal circa 1928 Rand quoted the statement, "What is good for me is right," a credo attributed to a prominent figure of the day, William Edward Hickman. Her response was enthusiastic. "The best and strongest expression of a real man's psychology I have heard," she exulted. (Quoted in Ryan, citing Journals of Ayn Rand, pp. 21-22.)

At the time, she was planning a novel that was to be titled The Little Street, the projected hero of which was named Danny Renahan.According to Rand scholar Chris Matthew Sciabarra, she deliberately modeled Renahan - intended to be her first sketch of her ideal man - after this same William Edward Hickman. Renahan, she enthuses in another journal entry, "is born with a wonderful, free, light consciousness -- [resulting from] the absolute lack of social instinct or herd feeling. He does not understand, because he has no organ for understanding, the necessity, meaning, or importance of other people ... Other people do not exist for him and he does not understand why they should." (Journals, pp. 27, 21-22; emphasis hers.)

"A wonderful, free, light consciousness" born of the utter absence of any understanding of "the necessity, meaning, or importance of other people." Obviously, Ayn Rand was most favorably impressed with Mr. Hickman. He was, at least at that stage of Rand's life, her kind of man.

So the question is, who exactly was he?

William Edward Hickman was one of the most famous men in America in 1928. But he came by his fame in a way that perhaps should have given pause to Ayn Rand before she decided that he was a "real man" worthy of enshrinement in her pantheon of fictional heroes.

You see, Hickman was a forger, an armed robber, a child kidnapper, and a multiple murderer.

Other than that, he was probably a swell guy.

In December of 1927, Hickman, nineteen years old, showed up at a Los Angeles public school and managed to get custody of a twelve-year-old girl, Marian (sometimes Marion) Parker. He was able to convince Marian's teacher that the girl's father, a well-known banker, had been seriously injured in a car accident and that the girl had to go to the hospital immediately. The story was a lie. Hickman disappeared with Marian, and over the next few days Mr. and Mrs. Parker received a series of ransom notes. The notes were cruel and taunting and were sometimes signed "Death" or "Fate." The sum of $1,500 was demanded for the child's safe release. (Hickman needed this sum, he later claimed, because he wanted to go to Bible college!) The father raised the payment in gold certificates and delivered it to Hickman. As told by the article "Fate, Death and the Fox" in crimelibrary.com,

"At the rendezvous, Mr. Parker handed over the money to a young man who was waiting for him in a parked car. When Mr. Parker paid the ransom, he could see his daughter, Marion, sitting in the passenger seat next to the suspect. As soon as the money was exchanged, the suspect drove off with the victim still in the car. At the end of the street, Marion's corpse was dumped onto the pavement. She was dead. Her legs had been chopped off and her eyes had been wired open to appear as if she was still alive. Her internal organs had been cut out and pieces of her body were later found strewn all over the Los Angeles area."

Quite a hero, eh? One might question whether Hickman had "a wonderful, free, light consciousness," but surely he did have "no organ for understanding ... the necessity, meaning, or importance of other people."

The mutilations Hickman inflicted on little Marian were worse than reported in the excerpt above. He cut the girl's body in half, and severed her hands (or arms, depending on the source). He drained her torso of blood and stuffed it with bath towels. There were persistent rumors that he molested the girl before killing her, though this claim was officially denied. Overall, the crime is somewhat reminiscent of the 1947 Black Dahlia case, one of the most gruesome homicides in L.A. history.

But Hickman's heroism doesn't end there. He heroically amscrayed to the small town of Echo, Oregon, where he heroically holed up, no doubt believing he had perpetrated the perfect crime. Sadly for him, fingerprints he'd left on one of the ransom notes matched prints on file from his previous conviction for forgery. With his face on Wanted posters everywhere, Hickman was quickly tracked down and arrested. The article continues:

"He was conveyed back to Los Angeles where he promptly confessed to another murder he committed during a drug store hold-up. Eventually, Hickman confessed to a dozen armed robberies. 'This is going to get interesting before it's over,' he told investigators. 'Marion and I were good friends,' he said, 'and we really had a good time when we were together and I really liked her. I'm sorry that she was killed.' Hickman never said why he had killed the girl and cut off her legs."

It seems to me that Ayn Rand's uncritical admiration of a personality this twisted does not speak particularly well for her ability to judge and evaluate the heroic qualities in people. One might go so far as to say that anyone who sees William Edward Hickman as the epitome of a "real man" has some serious issues to work on, and perhaps should be less concerned with trying to convert the world to her point of view than in trying to repair her own damaged psyche. One might also point out that a person who "has no organ for understanding ... the necessity, meaning, or importance of other people" is what we today would call a sociopath.

Was Rand's ideal man a sociopath? The suggestion seems shockingly unfair - until you read her very own words.

No doubt defenders of Ayn Rand, and there are still a few left, would reply that the journal entry in question was written when she was only in her early twenties and still under the spell of Nietzsche, that as her thinking developed she discarded such Nietzschean elements and evolved a more rational outlook, and that the mature Rand should not be judged by the mistakes of her youth. And this might be a perfectly reasonable position to take. Unquestionably Rand's outlook did change, and her point of view did become at least somewhat less hostile to what the average, normal person would regard as healthy values.

But before we assume that her admiration of Mr. Hickman was merely a quirk of her salad days, let's consider a few other quotes from Ayn Rand cited in Scott Ryan's book.

In her early notes for The Fountainhead: "One puts oneself above all and crushes everything in one's way to get the best for oneself. Fine!" (Journals, p. 78.)

Of The Fountainhead's hero, Howard Roark: He "has learned long ago, with his first consciousness, two things which dominate his entire attitude toward life: his own superiority and the utter worthlessness of the world." (Journals, p. 93.)

In the original version of her first novel We the Living: "What are your masses [of humanity] but mud to be ground underfoot, fuel to be burned for those who deserve it?" (This declaration is made by the heroine Kira, Rand's stand-in; it is quoted in The Ideas of Ayn Rand by Ronald Merrill, pp. 38 - 39; the passage was altered when the book was reissued years after its original publication.)

On the value of human life: Man "is man only so long as he functions in accordance with the nature of a rational being. When he chooses to function otherwise, he is no longer man. There is no proper name for the thing which he then becomes ... When a man chooses to act in a sub-human manner, it is no longer proper for him to survive nor to be happy." (Journals, pp. 253-254, 288.)

As proof that her Nietzschean thinking persisted long after her admirers think she abandoned it, this journal entry from 1945, two years subsequent to the publication of The Fountainhead: "Perhaps we really are in the process of evolving from apes to Supermen -- and the rational faculty is the dominant characteristic of the better species, the Superman." (Journals, p. 285.)

So perhaps her thinking did not change quite so much, after all.

And what of William Edward Hickman? What ever became of the man who served as the early prototype of the Randian Superman?

Real life is not fiction, and Hickman's personal credo, which so impressed Ayn Rand - "what is right for me is good" - does not seem to have worked out very well for him. At first he heroically tried to weasel out of the murder rap by implicating another man, but the intended fall guy turned out to have an airtight alibi (he was in prison at the time). Then he heroically invoked the insanity defense. This effort likewise failed, and in 1928 he was sentenced to death by hanging, to be carried out at San Quentin later that same year.

Hickman reportedly "died yellow" - he was dragged, trembling and fainting, to his execution, his courtroom bravado having given way at last.


Part Two: It just gets worse

After writing the above, I found myself questioning whether it was really possible that Ayn Rand admired William Edward Hickman, the child kidnapper and multiple murderer whose credo Rand quotes with unblinking approval in her journal. Although my opinion of Rand is very low, it has never been quite that low, and I was, after all, relying on secondhand sources. Not having a copy of Journals of Ayn Rand, I thought I was unable to check for myself. Then it occurred to me to use Amazon.com's "Search inside" feature to read the relevant pages.

What I found was, in some ways, actually worse than anything the brief excerpts from the journals had suggested.

Clearly the editor of Journals of Ayn Rand had some qualms about Rand's open admiration of Hickman. He tries to put this admiration into perspective, writing:

"For reasons given in the following notes, AR concluded that the intensity of the public's hatred was primarily 'because of the man who committed the crime and not because of the crime he committed.' The mob hated Hickman for his independence; she chose him as a model for the same reason.

"Hickman served as a model for [her fictional hero] Danny [Renahan] only in strictly limited respects, which AR names in her notes. And he does commit a crime in the story, but it is nothing like Hickman's. To guard against any misinterpretation, I quote her own statement regarding the relationship between her hero and Hickman:

" '[My hero is] very far from him, of course. The outside of Hickman, but not the inside. Much deeper and much more. A Hickman with a purpose. And without the degeneracy. It is more exact to say that the model is not Hickman, but what Hickman suggested to me.' "

The editor also provides the briefest and most detail-free synopsis of Hickman's crime possible: "He was accused of kidnapping and murdering a young girl. He was found guilty and sentenced to death in February of 1928; he was hanged on October 20, 1928."

As far as I can tell, this is the one and only reference to Hickman's victim to be found anywhere in the book. Ayn Rand never mentions the victim at all in any of her journal entries. The closest she comes is a sneering reference to another girl, "who wrote a letter to Hickman [in jail], asking him 'to get religion so that little girls everywhere would stop being afraid of him.'"

Notice that the editor does not bother to tell us that the victim in question was twelve years old, that Hickman tormented her parents with mocking ransom notes, that Hickman killed the girl even though the parents paid the ransom money, or that Hickman cut the girl in half and threw her upper body onto the street in front of her horrified father while scattering her other body parts around the city of Los Angeles.

This is the Hickman whose "outside" so intrigued the young Ayn Rand.

Now here are some of Rand's notes on the fictional hero she was developing, with Hickman (or what he "suggested") as a model:

"Other people have no right, no hold, no interest or influence on him. And this is not affected or chosen -- it's inborn, absolute, it can't be changed, he has 'no organ' to be otherwise. In this respect, he has the true, innate psychology of a Superman. He can never realize and feel'other people.' "

"He shows how impossible it is for a genuinely beautiful soul to succeed at present, for in all [aspects of] modern life, one has to be a hypocrite, to bend and tolerate. This boy wanted to command and smash away things and people he didn't approve of."

Apparently what Hickman suggested to Ayn Rand was "a genuinely beautiful soul." The soul of Marian Parker, the murdered girl, evidently did not suggest any comparably romantic notions to her.

As I mentioned in my previous post, there is a term for a person who has "no organ" by which to understand other human beings -- a person who "can never realize and feel 'other people.'" That word is sociopath. I mean this quite literally and not as a rhetorical flourish. A sociopath, by definition, is someone who lacks empathy and cannot conceive of other people as fully real. It is precisely because the sociopath objectifies and depersonalizes other human beings that he is able to inflict pain and death without remorse.

It is also fair to say of any sociopath that he "wanted to command and smash away things and people he didn't approve of." How this relates to having "a beautiful soul" is unclear to me -- and I earnestly hope it will continue to be.

In her notes, Rand complains that poor Hickman has become the target of irrational and ugly mob psychology:

"The first thing that impresses me about the case is the ferocious rage of a whole society against one man. No matter what the man did, there is always something loathsome in the 'virtuous' indignation and mass-hatred of the 'majority.'... It is repulsive to see all these beings with worse sins and crimes in their own lives, virtuously condemning a criminal...

"This is not just the case of a terrible crime. It is not the crime alone that has raised the fury of public hatred. It is the case of a daring challenge to society. It is the fact that a crime has been committed by one man, alone; that this man knew it was against all laws of humanity and intended that way; that he does not want to recognize it as a crime and that he feels superior to all. It is the amazing picture of a man with no regard whatever for all that society holds sacred, and with a consciousness all his own. A man who really stands alone, in action and in soul."

Before we get to the meat of this statement, let us pause to consider Rand's claim that average members of the public are "beings with worse sins and crimes in their own lives." Worse sins and crimes and kidnapping, murdering, and mutilating a helpless little girl? If Rand honestly believed that the average American had worse skeletons than that in his closet, then her opinion of "the average man" is even lower than I had suspected.

We get an idea of the "sins and crimes" of ordinary people when Rand discusses the jury in the case: "Average, 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?"

Their sin, evidently, is that they are "average," a word that appears twice in three sentences. They are "shabbily dressed" or, conversely, "overdressed" -- in matters of fashion, Rand seems hard to please. They are "dried" and "worn," or they are "fat." They are, in short, an assault on the delicate sensibilities of the author. Anything "average" appalls her. "Extremist beyond all extreme is what we need!" she exclaims in another entry. Well, in his cruelty and psychopathic insanity, Hickman was an extremist, for sure. Nothing "average" about him!

Returning to the longer quote above, notice how briskly Rand dismisses the possibility that the public's anger might have been motivated by the crime per se. Apparently the horrendous slaying of a little girl is not enough, in Rand's mind, to justify public outrage against the murderer. No, what the public really objects to is "a daring challenge to society." I suppose this is one way of looking at Hickman's actions. By the same logic, Jack the Ripper and Ted Bundy posed "a daring challenge to society." So did Adolf Hitler, only on a larger scale.

Hickman, she writes, knew that his crime "was against all laws of humanity" -- this is a point in his favor, she seems to think. And "he does not want to recognize it as a crime." Well, neither does any criminal who rationalizes his behavior by saying that his victim "had it coming." Hickman "feels superior to all." Yes, so do most sociopaths. Grandiosity and narcissistic self-absorption are another characteristic of this personality type. Hickman has "a consciousness all his own"; he is a "man who really stands alone, in action and in soul." I cannot think of any comment about this that would be suitable for public consumption.

Although the American people showed no sympathy for Hickman, Ayn Rand certainly did:

"And when we look at the other side of it -- there is a brilliant, unusual, exceptional boy turned into a purposeless monster. By whom? By what? Is it not by that very society that is now yelling so virtuously in its role of innocent victim? He had a brilliant mind, a romantic, adventurous, impatient soul and a straight, uncompromising, proud character. What had society to offer him? A wretched, insane family as the ideal home, a Y.M.C.A. club as social honor, and a bank-page job as ambition and career...

"If he had any desires and ambitions -- what was the way before him? A long, slow, soul-eating, heart-wrecking toil and struggle; the degrading, ignoble road of silent pain and loud compromises....

"A strong man can eventually trample society under his feet. That boy was not strong enough. But is that his crime? Is it his crime that he was too impatient, fiery and proud to go that slow way? That he was not able to serve, when he felt worthy to rule; to obey, when he wanted to command?...

"He was given [nothing with which] to fill his life. What was he offered to fill his soul? The petty, narrow, inconsistent, hypocritical ideology of present-day humanity. All the criminal, ludicrous, tragic nonsense of Christianity and its morals, virtues, and consequences. Is it any wonder that he didn't accept it?"

How exactly she knew that Hickman was "brilliant, unusual, exceptional," or that he "had a brilliant mind, a romantic, adventurous, impatient soul and a straight, uncompromising, proud character" is far from clear. A more realistic portrait of Hickman would show him as a calculating sadist.

For all those who assume that Ayn Rand, as a figure on the political right, would be "tough on crime," please note that she here invokes the hoariest cliches of the "victim of society" mentality. Poor Hickman just couldn't help kidnapping and murdering a little girl -- after all, he had a lousy home life and an unfulfilling job. And it would be asking too much of such a superior soul to put forth the long, sustained effort necessary to rise to a position of power and influence by means of his own hard work.

Rand's statement here reminds me very much of an attitude often found in career criminals -- that honest work is for suckers.

"A strong man can eventually trample society under his feet." This is about as bald-faced a confession of Rand's utter dependence on Nietzsche as we are ever likely to see. "That boy was not strong enough. But is that his crime?" No, Ayn Rand, that was not his crime. His crime, in case you have forgotten, is that he kidnapped a twelve-year-old girl and held her for ransom and murdered her and cut her to pieces and threw her body parts in the street and laughed about it. That was his crime. True, he did not quite "trample society under his feet" -- but it was not for want of trying.

Oh, but "he was not able to serve, when he felt worthy to rule; to obey, when he wanted to command." How sad for him. There is a point in most people's lives -- usually around the age of fifteen or sixteen -- when they reject authority and want to rule and command. Rand apparently feels that this adolescent hubris represents the best in human nature. A less addled personality would recognize that it represents a passing phase in one's personal development, a phase that a mature human being has long outgrown.

But of course we know the real villain in the picture. Not Hickman, but Christianity! More specifically, "All the criminal, ludicrous, tragic nonsense of Christianity and its morals, virtues, and consequences. Is it any wonder that he didn't accept it?" So it is Christianity that is characterized as "criminal," just as it is average Americans who are excoriated for their "sins and crimes."

In case there is any doubt as to Rand's position vis-a-vis Christianity, a few pages later we find her fulminating against the depravity of:

"... the pastors who try to convert convicted murderers to their religion... The fact that right after his sentence Hickman was given a Bible by the jailer. I don't know of anything more loathsome, hypocritical, low, and diabolical than giving Bibles to men sentenced to death. It is one of those things that's comical in its stupidity and horrid because of this lugubrious, gruesome comedy."

I can think of at least one thing that is "more loathsome ... low, and diabolical than giving Bibles to men sentenced to death." And that is: ripping up little girls for fun and profit.

Incidentally, given Hickman's claim that he ransomed his victim in order to pay for Bible college, the jailer's decision to hand the condemned man a copy of the Good Book seems like poetic justice to me.

Defending her hero, Rand asks rhetorically:

"What could society answer, if that boy were to say: 'Yes. I am a monstrous criminal, but what are you?' "

Well, society could answer: We are the ones who caught you, tried you, convicted you, and are going to put you to death. Or more seriously: We are the ones charged with upholding all those "laws of humanity" that you chose to violate – and now, dear Willie, you must pay the price.

At times, Rand -- who, we must remember, was still quite young when she wrote these notes -- appears to be rather infatuated with the famous and charismatic boy killer. She offers a long paragraph listing all the things she likes about Hickman, somewhat in the manner of a lovestruck teenager recording her favorite details about the lead singer in a boy band. Rand's inventory includes:

"The fact that he looks like 'a bad boy with a very winning grin,' that he makes you like him the whole time you're in his presence..."

You can practically hear the young aspiring author's heart fluttering. I have always been puzzled by the psychology of women who write love letters to serial killers in prison. Somehow I suspect Ayn Rand would have understood them better than I do.

Still writing of Hickman, she confesses to her "involuntary, irresistible sympathy for him, which I cannot help feeling just because of [his antisocial nature] and in spite of everything else." Regarding his credo (the full statement of which is, "I am like the state: what is good for me is right"), Rand writes, "Even if he wasn't big enough to live by that attitude, he deserves credit for saying it so brilliantly."

Remember all the flak taken by Norman Mailer for championing a jailhouse writer and getting the guy paroled, only to have him commit another crime? Here we have Rand enthusing about the "credit" Hickman "deserves" for expressing his twisted philosophy of life "so brilliantly." Get that man on a work release program!

At one point, a sliver of near-rationality breaks through the fog of Rand's delusions: "I am afraid that I idealize Hickman and that he might not be this at all. In fact, he probably isn't." Her moment of lucidity is short-lived. "But it does not make any difference. If he isn't, he could be, and that's enough." Yes, facts are stubborn things, so it's best to ignore them and live in a land of make-believe. Let's not allow truculent reality to interfere with our dizzying and intoxicating fantasy life.

Punctuating the point, Rand writes, "There is a lot that is purposely, senselessly horrible about him. But that does not interest me..." No indeed. Why should it? It's only reality.

By the appraisal of any normal mind, there can be little doubt that William Edward Hickman was a vicious psychopath of the worst order. That Ayn Rand saw something heroic, brilliant, and romantic in this despicable creature is perhaps the single worst indictment of her that I have come across. It is enough to make me question not only her judgment, but her sanity.

At this point in my life, I did not think it was possible to significantly lower my estimate of Ayn Rand, or to regard her as even more of a psychological and moral mess than I had already taken her to be.

I stand corrected.

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