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Strong Words: The Book That Went on Trial for Murder

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On the evening of March 3, 1993, James Perry drove from his home in Detroit toward Silver Spring, Maryland, a suburb of Washington, D.C. Paying in cash, he checked into a hotel in nearby Rockville. After settling in, he took his rental car back out on the road before coming to a stop near a two-story Colonial home. Armed with a rifle, he forced his way in and shot the owner, Mildred Horn, while she stood near the foot of the stairs. Heading to the second floor, he stormed into a bedroom occupied by a nurse, Janice Saunders, who was sitting in a rocking chair. She didn’t have time to register Perry’s arrival before being shot three times in the head.

With both women dead, Perry approached a bed occupied by Mildred’s son, 8-year-old Trevor Horn. When he was 13 months old, a hospital error had left Trevor a quadriplegic with brain damage and the need for around-the-clock care. Perry removed the tube from his neck that was connected to a respirator, killing him.

Perry drove back to the hotel. It would be a year before investigators could prove he was a hired killer, and that Mildred’s estranged spouse, Lawrence Horn, had hired him.

Horn, however, was not Perry’s only accused accomplice. In a case that would test the limits of the First Amendment, the families of the victims claimed Perry received his morbid education in contract killing courtesy of a book from Boulder, Colorado-based publisher Paladin Press: Hit Man: A Technical Manual for Independent Contractors. All 130 pages, lawyers argued, aided and abetted Perry in his crimes.

Paladin was a boutique publisher founded in 1970 by Vietnam veteran Peder Lund. Originally known as Panther Publications, the company changed names to avoid confusion with the Black Panthers activist group. Lund’s imprint specialized in the kind of weekend-warrior reading bookmarked by Soldier of Fortune subscribers: Titles on how to obtain fake identification, make bombs, or mount guerrilla warfare were popular sellers. They were in business less than two years before the FBI began keeping a file on them.

Handling most of their transactions via mail order gave Lund few opportunities to see his customers face-to-face. While most would be what his legal team would later describe as “Walter Mitty types,” fetishizing the clichés of action heroes, some may have absorbed the material—like instructionals on how to make a firearm silencer—without irony.

Paladin originally published Hit Man in 1983. Written by an unknown author under the pseudonym “Rex Feral,” the book purported to be a guide to entering the business of contract killings, covering one’s tracks, and resisting the “ego” that comes with being a gun for hire. Over the next ten years, Paladin sold roughly 13,000 copies. At least one of them was delivered to James Perry.

Perry was known in Detroit as a hustler and ambitious street-level entrepreneur. He had done time in the 1970s for armed robbery. While in prison, he met up with a man named Thomas Turner. It was Turner who referred his cousin, Lawrence Horn, to Perry.

Horn was also from Detroit and had spent several years working as a sound engineer for Berry Gordy Jr.’s Motown recording studios. While in the booth, he had supervised tracks for the Supremes, Smokey Robinson, and other highly influential artists. But by the 1990s, the work had dried up.

His personal life also faltered. Horn had been married to Mildred, a flight attendant he met in 1972. In 1985 they had a son, Trevor, who suffered medical problems due to his underdeveloped lungs. Shortly after his birth, the Horns had drifted apart. Their last joint effort was winning a malpractice settlement worth $2 million—including upfront payments to Horn and Mildred of $120,000 and $250,000, respectively.

By 1992, Horn’s share was spent. He was in Hollywood, broke, with his ex-wife demanding past due child support. Horn, prosecutors later alleged, knew the nearly $2 million trust fund was being held for Trevor’s care. He also knew that if anything happened to both Mildred and his son, he would be in line to receive the full amount.

Through Turner, Horn connected with Perry. The two spoke to each other dozens of times over the course of a year, with Horn wiring between $3500 and $5000 to the budding hit man. In March 1993, with Horn in his California apartment, Perry drove to Silver Spring and murdered all three occupants. Within a few weeks, Horn was filing paperwork to claim the trust fund.

Authorities thought this was suspicious. They were also intrigued by several phone calls made by Perry to Horn where Perry insisted on getting more money. Records showed Horn had also received calls from pay phones near a hotel and a Denny’s the night of the murders. Further inquiry showed traces of a criminal who didn't think too quickly on his feet: While Perry paid cash, he willingly handed over his driver’s license when the hotel clerk asked for identification.

Perry and Horn were tried and convicted separately—Horn in 1995 and Perry in 2001 after an earlier mistrial due to an inadmissible phone recording. Prosecutors related that a search of Perry’s residence had uncovered a Paladin catalog as well as evidence of a check sent to the company for two books: Hit Man and a title on how to make an effective silencer. 

Before Horn had made his way through criminal court, the relatives of Mildred and Trevor Horn and Janice Saunders pursued civil action against Paladin. Their reasoning was that the publisher had incriminated itself by providing a manual that Perry hadn’t merely skimmed—he mimicked more than 20 specific instructions for getting away with murder.

The author's advice included soliciting business via a mutual friend and using an AR-7 rifle after drilling out the serial numbers. Victims, the book cautioned, should be attacked no closer than a distance of three feet to avoid stains on clothing and to be shot through their eyes to ensure success. After the act, the killer should disassemble the weapon and scatter the pieces in hopes that the authorities would consider the whole operation a bungled burglary. Perry followed each piece of advice to the letter.

In July 1996, U.S. District Judge Alex Williams heard arguments from the families’ lawyer, Howard Siegel, who attacked Paladin. “These manuals were published with the express intention to encourage and facilitate the commission of murder,” Siegel told the Baltimore Sun.

Though Hit Man was labeled “loathsome” by the judge, he declared that the publisher and the book were insulated from charges of aiding and abetting due to the First Amendment.

The resulting publicity was good for sales. Lund told The New York Times orders for the book and others in his catalog were growing. “I know of hundreds and hundreds of books and films that are just as explicit in their instructions,” he said. “I see this dead on as a free-speech issue."  (Lund refused to reveal the author's name, though court records obtained by media eventually disclosed the writer was a mother of two who had no apparent history as an assassin.)

In November 1997, a Federal appeals court remanded Williams' decision. In their written declaration, the court found that Hit Man was offered no such protection because any speech aiding and abetting murder was exempt from First Amendment discussion:

Paladin has stipulated that it provided its assistance to Perry with both the knowledge and the intent that the book would immediately be used by criminals and would-be criminals in the solicitation, planning, and commission of murder and murder for hire, and even absent the stipulations, a jury could reasonably find such specific intent… Were the First Amendment to offer protection even in these circumstances, one could publish, by traditional means or even on the internet, the necessary plans and instructions for assassinating the President, for poisoning a city's water supply, for blowing up a skyscraper or public building, or for similar acts of terror and mass destruction, with the specific, indeed even the admitted, purpose of assisting such crimes--all with impunity.

The ruling took free speech advocates by surprise. Several entities, including Disney, The New York Times, and The Washington Post, had signed a letter of support—not precisely backing Paladin, but cautioning that the First Amendment might undergo “serious and substantial” harm.

Lawyers for Paladin appealed to the Supreme Court, but the court refused to hear any further discussion. With the decision set in stone, the publisher was facing the possibility of a jury trial in 1999. Fearing a decision in the plaintiff’s favor would be costly, Paladin’s insurance company elected to settle for an undisclosed sum in the seven-figure range, along with a promise the book would go out of print. The entire case is believed to be the first time in history a publisher has ever been held liable in America—at least financially—for murder.

Paladin still operates out of Boulder, Colorado, selling a variety of titles on lock-picking, spying, and sniping. Lawrence Horn is, at last account, still alive and serving a life sentence. James Perry died in prison in 2009 at the age of 61.

Additional Sources:
Rice v. Paladin Enterprises”; “FBI Files on Paladin Press, 1972-1998” [PDF].

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History
How a London Tragedy Led to the Creation of 911
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Fox Photos/Getty Images

In trouble? Pick up the phone and call 911. According to the National Emergency Number Association (NENA), 240 million 911 calls are made each year. But if it weren’t for a house fire and a group of angry Brits, the system might not exist today.

Though 911 is an American staple, its origins are in England. In 1935, there was no such thing as an emergency phone number, and phone calls were dependent on operators who connected people to exchanges or emergency services when necessary. England did have emergency fire call points, but they didn’t use telephone technology—instead, they relied on the telegraph, which was used to send a signal to fire departments from special boxes [PDF]. There were police call points, too, but they were generally unstandardized and inefficient, since police didn’t have a way to receive emergency calls while on their beats. Instead, officers would check in during their rounds at special police boxes, like the one you probably recognize from Doctor Who.

But all that changed after November 10, 1935, when a fire broke out at the home of a prominent London surgeon, Philip Franklin, at 27 Wimpole Street. As the blaze tore through the building, five women sleeping on the upper floors—Franklin’s wife and niece, as well as three servants—became trapped. A neighbor, Norman MacDonald, heard their screams and promptly picked up the phone to dial the operator. Nobody answered.

“It seemed entirely futile to continue holding on and listening to ringing tone, which awakened no response,” he later wrote. A neighbor went to a fire call point and firefighters soon arrived, but they were unable to save the five women.

27 Wimpole Street, London, as it looks today
27 Wimpole Street, London, as it looks today
Eden, Janine and Jim, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

The tragedy sparked a national inquiry—and outrage. Two years later, London unveiled a new service: the emergency number 999. Officials thought it would be best to choose a number that was easy to find by touch on a rotary dial, and rejected a number of other options, like 111, that might be triggered by equipment malfunctions. (It wasn’t unusual for lines rubbing together and other technical glitches to trigger a 111 call; 222 was already in use by a local exchange, while 000 would have just contacted the operator after the first zero.)

The new number wasn’t immediately embraced. Of over 1000 calls made the first week, nearly 7 percent were pranks. And some members of Parliament objected, saying it would be easier to just install an emergency button on phones instead.

A New York City police officer takes an emergency call from his car in the 1960s
A New York City police officer takes an emergency call from his car in the 1960s
John Pratt/Keystone Features/Getty Images

The United States had a similar system of police telephones and signal boxes, but like the UK it lacked the technology to quickly and effectively call authorities during emergencies. In the 1950s, the National Association of Fire Chiefs, inspired by the UK’s system, requested a national emergency number, and by 1967 the FTC was meeting with AT&T, the nation’s largest telephone company, to hash out a plan.

The first 911 call in the United States—a test call made from a mayor’s office—was made in Haleyville, Alabama in 1968 [PDF]. The numbers 911 reportedly made the grade because they weren’t in use for any existing phone exchange, and were catchy and easily remembered.

As the service rolled out nationwide, police and fire departments struggled to keep up with call volume. Despite the success of the program, New York police, in particular, reported being strained and having to hire more officers.

It took a long time to implement the system. Only 50 percent of the United States had 911 service as of 1987, according to NENA. Today, coverage is still not universal, although it’s close: 96 percent of the country is currently covered.

The evolution of telephone technology has brought new challenges, however: The FCC estimates that a full 70 percent of calls now come from cell phones—and given the mobility of mobile phones, that’s a challenge for dispatchers and phone companies. The 911 system was built for landlines, and cell phone GPS systems don’t always transmit data quickly or accurately. Plus, the proliferation of cell phones has led to a spike in accidental butt dials, which tie up the line and can prevent real emergencies from getting the attention they need. Still, we've come a long way from the days of sending telegraph messages inside boxes.

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The Barnes Mystery: A Twisted Tale of Maids, Murder, and Mistaken Identity
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The Barnes Railway Bridge
Garry Knight, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

In the late 1800s, Park Road was a quiet part of Richmond on the outskirts of London. Julia Martha Thomas, a retired schoolteacher, made her home there in the left portion of a semi-detached villa known as 2 Mayfield Cottages. It was a typical English house, two stories high and surrounded by a garden. For the most part, Thomas lived there alone; occasionally, she took on servants like the Irish-born Kate Webster, whom she hired in January 1879.

Three months later, Thomas was nowhere to be found. But her servant had seemingly come into a great deal of wealth.

AN UNSAVORY MAID

The Daily Telegraph would later describe Webster as a “tall, strongly-made woman ... with sallow and much freckled complexion and large and prominent teeth.” Unbeknownst to Thomas, her new maid's resume was far from ideal: She'd first been imprisoned for larceny in her native Ireland at 15 years old, and had lived a life of petty crime ever since. By the time she was 30, in 1879, she’d served multiple sentences for theft.

During one of these sentences, an 18-month stretch at Wandsworth prison in West London, Webster had put her young son in the care of Sarah Crease, an acquaintance and charwoman who worked for a Miss Loder. When Webster filled in for Crease one day, Loder recommended her to Thomas, who she knew was looking to hire a servant.

Webster got the job on the spot, but the relationship between Thomas and the young woman quickly became strained. “At first I thought her a nice old lady,” Webster would later say. But Thomas’s cleaning standards were strict—too strict—and she would “point out places where she said I did not clean, showing evidence of a nasty spirit towards me.” Webster’s love of drink, which she nourished regularly at a nearby pub, The Hole in the Wall, also failed to impress Thomas.

On February 28, after around a month of work, Thomas wrote in her diary that she “gave Katherine warning to leave.” When Webster asked Thomas to extend her employment through Sunday, March 2, Thomas begrudgingly agreed. It was a fatal mistake.

BLOODY SUNDAY

Sundays were half-days for Webster, who was expected at 2 Mayfield Cottages in the late afternoon. Dawdling too long at the ale house, Webster arrived late and Thomas went to church agitated. It was the last time she was seen in public.

That evening, Thomas's landlady's mother Jane Ives, who lived in the other half of the villa, heard a sound “like the fall of a heavy chair.” Ives and her daughter also noticed housework being done quite early the next morning.

The next two Sundays, Mrs. Thomas—a devout Christian—failed to show up for church. Webster, however, seemed to have a new lease on life. She soon met with Henry Porter, a former neighbor from when she had lived in Hammersmith, to share some news. Saying she had married a man named Thomas and spinning a tale of a wealthy dead relative who had left the contents of 2 Mayfield Cottages to her, Webster said she was looking for a broker for the items.

She wined and dined Porter and his son Robert at a local pub, leaving briefly to visit a friend who lived nearby. When she returned, both Porters noticed the heavy bag she had carried into the pub was nowhere to be seen. Robert Porter later helped her carry a heavy box from 2 Mayfield Cottages to a nearby bridge, where Webster said that a friend was coming to come pick it up. As Robert walked away he heard a faint splash, but as Webster caught up with him she assured him that her friend had picked up the container, and he continued on his way.

Several days later, Henry Porter introduced Webster to John Church. In the market for new furniture for his pub, Church offered Webster 68 pounds for an assortment of furnishings. They scheduled delivery vans for March 18.

A HORRIBLE DISCOVERY

The splash the younger Porter had heard was indeed the heavy box he'd helped Webster carry as it hit the river. But it didn't spend long in its watery grave. A coal porter who discovered it near the Barnes Railway Bridge on March 5, a few miles downstream along the Thames from where Webster had let it slip, was horrified to discover the mangled contents: a woman's torso and legs, minus one foot.

The relatively primitive forensic techniques of the day couldn't identify a body without a head, and an inquest failed to establish a cause of death. That a woman's foot shortly turned up in the nearby suburb of Twickenham was little help; police readily concluded that it belonged to the same body, but whose? The unidentified remains were buried in a local cemetery, and the press began buzzing about the "Barnes mystery."

Meanwhile, by the time Church's delivery vans arrived on March 18, Thomas had not been seen for two weeks—and her neighbors had grown suspicious. The younger Miss Ives went to investigate the vans, and was told that a “Mrs. Thomas” was selling her furniture. When “Mrs. Thomas” was summoned, it was none other than Webster, who Ives knew was Thomas’s servant. Webster told Ives that Thomas was away somewhere—she couldn't say where, exactly—but the game was up. Webster panicked and fled with her son, traveling by train to her family home in County Wexford, Ireland. Meanwhile, the police were summoned.

When authorities searched 2 Mayfield Cottages, they discovered a grisly scene: There were blood stains everywhere (some showing signs of cleaning), charred bones in the kitchen grate, and a fatty substance behind the laundry boiler. They also found Webster’s address in County Wexford. The criminal was hauled back to Richmond, and a trial began on July 2, 1879.

The trial turned into a major spectacle, and crowds gathered both inside and outside the courtroom. Webster’s social position made her crime especially salacious—not only had she committed a gruesome murder, but she had attacked her betters. And she was a woman. According to Shani D'Cruze, Sandra L. Walklate, and Samantha Pegg in Murder, “Victorian ideals of femininity envisaged women as moral, passive, and not physically strong enough to kill and dismember a body." Webster's crime had put the lie to those ideals.

Initially, Webster accused Church and Porter of the crime. Though police did find Thomas’s belongings at Church’s pub and home, both men had solid alibis and were cleared. Webster then said an ex-boyfriend, a “Mr. Strong”—whom she occasionally claimed was the father of her child—had driven her to crime. But despite her attempts to shift blame onto others, Webster was eventually convicted of killing her employer.

The night before her execution, she finally confessed to the priest: “I alone committed the murder of Mrs. Thomas.”

According to Webster, she and Thomas had argued when the latter returned home from church. The argument “ripened into a quarrel,” and Webster “threw [Thomas] from the top of the stairs to the ground floor.” Then, Webster “lost control” and grabbed her victim by the throat in an attempt to silence any screams that could alert the neighbors and send her back to prison. After choking Thomas, Webster “determined to do away with the body” by chopping up the limbs and boiling them in the laundry tub.

Legend says Webster attempted to sell the fat drippings from Thomas to the proprietress of a local pub, and even fed them to two local boys, but neither rumor has ever been substantiated. But Webster did burn some of Thomas’s remains in the hearth, and divided much of the rest between the heavy bag she had carried into the pub and the box. Running out of room, she also disposed of one of Thomas’s feet in the nearby suburb of Twickenham. She never revealed where she hid Thomas’s head.

Webster was executed on July 29, 1879. “The executioner having drawn the cap over her face, retired from the scaffold,” read a broadside detailing Webster’s sentencing and execution. “The unhappy criminal was launched into eternity.”

A SURPRISE IN THE GARDEN

The Execution of Catherine Webster at Wandsworth Gaol
The Execution of Catherine Webster at Wandsworth Gaol, The Illustrated Police News
Wikimedia // Public Domain

Thomas's story has a strange modern twist. In 2009, English broadcaster and naturalist Sir David Attenborough bought the vacant pub next door to his house. The building was the former home of the Hole in the Wall, Webster's favorite watering hole, which had closed three years previously.

As contractors were excavating the site to build an extension on Attenborough's property, "they saw a ‘dark circular object,’” according to The Telegraph. That object turned out to be a human skull—one missing its teeth and with “fracture marks consistent with the fall down the stairs and low collagen levels consistent with it being boiled,” an investigating officer told West London Coroners Court. According to a local coroner, there was “clear, convincing and compelling evidence” that the skull belonged to Julia Martha Thomas.

The discovery came too late for the murdered woman, however: Since records of her body’s precise location in Barnes Cemetery were lost, her head wasn’t laid to rest alongside her (its exact whereabouts are somewhat unclear). Though a disappointing ending for a woman who liked things neat and tidy, the Barnes Mystery, at last, was entirely solved.

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