PHOTOS AND SOURCES: Top left: Murder scene of Nora Parker Rieper (Murderpedia.org), Below left: Nora with her daughter Pauline (Murderpedia.org), Lower Right: Pauline Parker Rieper and Juliet Hulme leaving the magistrate’s office after being committed for murder trial (Christchurch Star-Sun).
WARNING: THIS ARTICLE CONTAINS SCENES OF EXTREME AND GRAPHIC VIOLENCE AND REFERENCES TO SEXUAL MATTERS AND IS NOT SUITABLE FOR ALL AUDIENCES.
If you are a fan of mystery novels, particularly British mysteries, you may recognize the name Anne Perry. Since she began in 1979, Perry has published more than 60 Victorian mystery novels, many in popular series such as the William Monk and Charlotte and Thomas Pitt novels. The books have sold 26 million copies worldwide and have never been out of print. Included in her published writing are 27 Christmas-themed books and novellas, as well as books about World War I and a smattering of miscellaneous novels.
What you may not know is that in 1954 Anne Perry was called Juliet Hulme. At that time she was a lovely, intelligent 15-year-old whose manner was mature for her age and who loved stylish clothes…and she helped her best friend Pauline Parker murder Parker’s mother.
Juliet’s father, Henry Hulme was well known internationally as a mathematician and a nuclear physicist. The Hulme family lived in England. In 1948 he accepted the leadership position of rector at Canterbury University College in Christchurch New Zealand and moved his family there. Her mother Hilda was an attractive socialite who loved music and art, entertained lavishly, and was well known to be “sexually outgoing.” We will talk about that later. Juliet’s brother Jonathan, nicknamed Jonty, was born five years after his sister. The Hulme family lived in an affluent suburb of the city of Christchurch in a lovely brick and stucco home owned by the university. The property included a tennis court, woodlands, a meandering stream, an orchard, nearly 40 acres of well-tended gardens, and a housekeeper.
All was not, however, serene in the Hulme household. Juliet had suffered serious bouts of tuberculosis throughout her childhood and lived off and on in sanitariums, with relatives, and in boarding schools as far from home as Barbados and South Africa from the time she was 8 until she permanently rejoined her family’s New Zealand household at age 11. Henry and Hilda loved their daughter, but found her difficult to manage and discovered it was often easier to have her live apart from the family. Another unusual feature of their lifestyle was that Bill Perry, a Canadian businessman known publicly as a “close friend of the family,” was in fact Hilda’s lover and beginning in 1973 lived in an apartment connected to the Hulme’s residence. Hilda had been a volunteer marriage counselor for her church and met Bill when he came to her for counseling about his own crumbling marriage. Hilda finally told her husband that she wanted a divorce; she and Henry were headed toward one, but insisted that it be “civilized” which seemed for them to mean slowly.
Pauline Parker, by comparison, was unattractive, unpopular, and wore a near-perpetual scowl. As a result of a childhood case of osteomyelitis, a serious bone infection, she had been sickly from the age of 5 and sustained a slight limp. Her family was lower middle class; Bert Rieper, her father, managed a fish shop, her 17-year-old sister Wendy worked as a sales person in a lingerie shop, and her mother Honorah–called Nora–kept house in their large, somewhat ramshackle home which had been converted to a boardinghouse. The first born Rieper child had died in infancy, and another daughter, Rosemary, had Downs Syndrome and lived in an institution. Nora Rieper had a demanding life and was known to be strict with her children and may have physically disciplined them. Unbeknownst to the children, Bert and Nora had never actually married; Bert had been married with two children when he fell in love and ran away with Nora. At the time of her murder trial, Pauline Rieper was astonished to learn that her legal surname was Parker, which was her mother’s maiden name.
Christchurch Girls’ High School, a public school with an outstanding academic reputation, was the tenth school Juliet attended, most of them unhappily. While she tested with an extraordinarily high IQ, she was regarded as disrespectful to her teachers and behaved as if she were in a higher social class than almost everyone she encountered. She was narcissistic, condescending to her peers, and demanded to be in charge in every situation. Pauline and Juliet became acquainted at Girls’ High in 1953. When they first met, Pauline had excitedly told her mother that Juliet was the first person she knew whose strong will matched her own. The two had been excluded from all physical activities in the gym and playing fields due to their weak constitutions, and so spent many solitary hours together. They devoted their time to writing and discussing a rich collaborative fantasy life.
Juliet and Pauline soon became inseparable, spending days, evenings and overnights with one another, usually at the Hulme home. There the girls secretly crept outside at midnight to share a picnic with wine in the yard or to ride Juliet’s horse. Nora Rieper disapproved of the Hulme’s freewheeling social style and often used the threat of keeping Pauline from her friend’s company to make her compliant. It worked but also fueled Pauline’s growing anger at her mother and desire to stay away from her family and home.
Both girls had lost their virginity to boys they knew casually, but over time they developed their own sexual relationship. Juliet was the most knowledgeable about the subject, but Pauline became an eager student. The latter kept an almost-daily diary and described in detail their long baths together and time spent in bed when their parents were unaware of their activities. While both girls later denied having had a homosexual relationship, Pauline’s June 13th diary entry suggested otherwise: “We spent a hectic night going through the Saints [their private name for their beloved male film stars]…We have now learned the peace of the thing called Bliss, the joy of the thing called Sin.”
Despite their physical and personality differences, Juliet and Pauline had a lot in common. They were both lonely girls who came to share a rich fantasy life in which they believed they had access to a “4th World,” one that few other people were aware of, and where they would go when they died. They disdained organized religion and believed that they were more beautiful, clever, and talented than other people. They were especially proud of their writing abilities. Juliet preferred the poetic form while Pauline wrote novels and plays. They were much-enamored of then-popular American film stars, Mario Lanza, James Mason, and Mel Ferrar in particular. For a time they saved money to travel to America to meet their film heroes–their private name for them was “Saints”– and have their books published. None of these traits and unfulfilled plans were shared or confirmed by outside sources.
To complicate matters further in the disordered Hulme household, Henry had become embroiled in office politics at the University which forced his premature retirement in the spring of 1954. He planned to pursue a research career in England. Juliet’s tuberculosis was not yet completely cured, so her parents decided she would return to South Africa where her paternal aunt operated a boarding school rather than to chance the damp English winter weather. Hilda planned to take Jonty with her back to England, perhaps with Bill Perry, while Henry would accompany Julie to his sister Ina’s home in South Africa, then proceed on to England. By June of 1954 the Hulme home atmosphere was tense.
To relieve some of the pressure, Hilda and Henry told Juliet and Pauline that they would pay for Pauline to accompany Juliet to South Africa and hinted she would continue on with them eventually to England. All that was required were Nora’s and Bert’s approval. Pauline’s parents believed that Juliet was a poor influence on their daughter and contributed to her displeasure with her own family life, so they hope Juliet’s departure would reduce Pauline’s ugly temperament and disdain for her mother especially. Their refusal to approve was guaranteed.
Knowing that the friends were soon to be parted, both sets of parents were very indulgent, allowing the girls to spend even more time together than usual. In early June Pauline suggested to Juliet that their separation problem could be solved easily if they killed her pesky mother. Nora wasn’t very happy to begin with, Pauline argued, so how much would she lose by being dead? A little reluctantly, Juliet agreed.
Pauline was allowed to stay with Juliet for two weeks in June, the weeks preceeding Nora Parker’s murder. The two best friends confirmed their murderous plan by June 19th and spent the remaining days planning the event. Pauline determined to spend more time at home interacting happily with her family. She would do the chores her mother required cheerfully. Then, having been successfully duped, Nora would agree to an afternoon outing with both girls, a kind of farewell to Juliet, as Nora was unlikely to see her again. Juliet and Pauline doubled down and began to plan the details of the attack.
On Monday, June 21st, Pauline suggested to her mother that the two of them and Juliet take a short bus trip the next day to Victoria Park, a pleasant area on a hill overlooking Christchurch. There they would enjoy tea and have a little hike in the woods. Tuesday morning, June 22nd, Juliet selected a half-brick from the garden and placed it in her shoulder bag. She had also removed a blue decorative stone from a piece of costume jewelry and stored that away too. Her father drove her into town where she had been given permission to have the noon meal with Pauline’s family.
Nora insisted on fixing midday dinner for Bert and Wendy before they left, so the Riepers and Juliet shared a cheerful repast together before the ladies left for the bus stop. Doing her part that morning, Pauline had tucked a single lisle stocking into her purse. In her diary the night before, she had recorded that she felt as if she were anticipating a surprise party. “Mother will be dead. How odd and yet how pleasing,” she wrote. The following morning she continued, “I felt very excited and ‘the night before Christmas-ish’ last night.”
The day was sunny and in the low 60 degrees, a comfortable temperature for a forest amble. The three walked a short distance from the bus stop to a single story tea kiosk where Nora ordered tea for herself and soft drinks for the girls as well as cakes, scones, and chocolates to make the snack festive. According to the manageress of the kiosk, the group appeared to be congenial. After consuming their small meal, they headed off toward a downward trail.
Pauline lead with Juliet’s brick now inserted into the stocking. Her mother followed and Juliet brought up the rear. They crossed a rickety bridge composed of slender logs. A few yards beyond, Nora announced that she had had enough hiking. The group reversed its course. Juliet, now in the lead, dropped her blue trinket and pointing it out to Nora who bent to examine it. Pauline slammed her brick-laden stocking into her mother’s head. Nora moaned and tried with her hands to block the blows now coming in rapid succession. The murder was much more difficult than either Pauline or Juliet had foreseen. They took turns striking Nora repeatedly until she stopped moving. Then they ran back to the tea kiosk and reported that Pauline’s mother had been badly injured, possibly dead. She had fallen on the path and struck her head on a rock, they said. An ambulance needed to be immediately dispatched.
Police reported to the crime scene almost as soon as the ambulance arrived. Investigators noted the numerous head and facial wounds the woman had sustained and immediately concluded that Nora had not been the victim of an accident. They began to collect evidence and transferred Nora’s body to the mortuary. Bert Rieper was contacted. Stunned and horrified, he was required to identify the body of the love of his life, the mother of four of his children.
Henry Hulme had been quickly summoned to the tea kiosk to collect his daughter and her friend. He took them to his home immediately and he and Hilda saw that the two girls were bathed, their bloody clothing washed, and they were given their supper. Not far behind, detectives appeared at the residence and requested permission to interview Juliet and Pauline separately. Their request was honored. Juliet denied any role in the homicides and Pauline accepted full responsibility for them. The parents had consented to the interview of both girl without the presence of attorneys, an error they all lived to regret, and the girls were subsequently arrested.
Both families secured legal counsel, and the prosecution and defense teams obtained reputable psychiatric experts to plead their cases of culpability or mental incapacity. The cases were tried together in the late summer of 1974, Juliet and Pauline were reportedly relaxed, laughing and exchanging whispered remarks throughout the trial. Juliet refused to see or communicate with her mother who attended the trial daily; her father and brother Jonty were now living in England. Bert was too grief-stricken to attend and was never able to bring himself to reestablish a relationship with his daughter.
After five days of testimony, a jury found both young women guilty of murder without mitigating psychiatric circumstances. As minors, Pauline and Juliet were sentenced to indeterminate terms, a minimum of five years, and much to their dismay in separate penal institutions. Within a week of the trial Hilda Hulme legally changed her name to H. Marion Perry and she and Bill sailed to England without seeing Juliet and never returned to New Zealand. After Hilda’s divorce from Henry became final, she and Bill married.
The girls, at the time of sentencing 16 and 17 years old, each served 5-year terms in which they toiled in their respective laundries, sewing rooms, and housekeeping staffs. They were released two weeks apart and allowed to legally register with alternate names to protect their identities. Juliet Hulme became Anne Perry, her surname taken from her stepfather. Pauline Parker became Hilary Nathan. They never saw one another again.
Anne lived in England and in San Francisco for five years, supporting herself as a librarian, a nanny, and in various other entry level professional jobs. She eventually settled in the small village of Portmahomack in Scotland. Beginning in 1974 she began publishing her numerous popular historical crime novels and actively participated in a local Morman congregation. In 1979 a New Zealand journalist tracked her down for the first time since her release from prison. While she repeatedly insisted that she had paid her debt to society and wished to put the murder behind her, she gave several interviews to the press. After Bill Perry’s death, her mother settled nearby and mother and daughter reconciled and became close. She continues to write and publish. A Google search will produce many more recent photos and information about her life and her books.
Hilary eventually moved to the Orknay Islands, a desolate spot in the far north of Scotland, about one hundred miles away from Anne’s home. Until her whereabouts was discovered in 1997 and she retired, she had lived in the tiny village of Hoo St, Werburgh in Kent where she taught special education and operated a riding school, her lifelong dream. She was described by neighbors variously as a nice woman and an eccentric one. Once discovered, she quickly sold her property. The new owners found a mural in one of the bedrooms, probably painted by Hilary. It depicted two young girls, one blonde like her best friend Juliet and the other dark like she had been. The blonde girl was riding a horse into the sky while the dark girl tried to restrain the horse and rider to the earth. Regardless of what Anne Perry was able to put behind her, Hilary Nathan apparently still carried some ghosts.
Hilary has refused to give interviews but she has permitted her sister Wendy to speak on her behalf. Wendy reported that Hilary, a devote Roman Catholic, is another person than the one who murdered her mother in 1974. She lives a solitary life devoted to prayer and attends daily mass in a nearby town. She lives like a nun, perhaps working out her own salvation.
It may be true, as Anne Perry says, that there is nothing to be gained by dwelling on past events that cannot be undone. She once told a journalist that she had gone down on her knees in prison and prayed about her participation in the event. She has never, though, claimed any responsibility for it. Public humiliation is not the only or best way to pay one’s penance, yet it does seem to me that something more than “sorry” is due.
During the trial some psychiatrists hypothesized that Juliet and Pauline were bound together in a folie a deux, a sort of psychotic hallucination they came to share. After hearing all of the testimony the jury concluded that they knew what they were doing was wrong and had been able to control themselves. No amount of bad parenting or childhood illness excused them from taking full responsibility for their actions. Only Anne and Hilary will ever know the truth of what happened on that June day or why.
Much has been written and produced about the Nora Rieper murder. The case was included in a number of crime anthologies, and in 1991 the first serious treatment was published, Parker and Hulme: A Lesbian View by Julia Glamuzina and Alison J. Laurie. Also in 1991, the play Daughters of Heaven. written by American playwright Michelanne Forster, opened in the Court Theater in Christchurch. Perhaps most famously, in 1994 filmmaker Peter Jackson and his wife and collaborator Fran Walsh released the film Heavenly Creatures, starring Kate Winslet and Melanie Lynskey, which launched Winslet’s film career.
I am personally grateful for many newspaper accounts and articles written about this case, and especially for two books that have provided a wealth of facts and opinions that have influenced this account. They are Anne Perry and the Murder of the Century by New Zealand barrister and author Peter Graham, and The Search for Anne Perry by Joanne Drayton, also a well-known New Zealand author. The more I research and read and interview, the less I feel I know about the motives behind seemingly inexplicable murders. These are mysteries behind mysteries and while I may never understand them, they continue to grip my mind and my soul. If you are still reading I believe they grip yours, dear reader, too.