In the early morning hours of December 6, 1959 in a handsome Spanish-style mansion in hilly Los Feliz, California, Dr. Harold Perelson took up a hammer and murdered his wife Lillian in her bed, then attempted to kill his sleeping daughter Judy.
But his aim was poor, and Judy was able to raise the alarm and to escape. The killer spoke calmly to his younger children, telling them it was only a nightmare and to go back to bed. Then he retreated to a bathroom, where he took a fatal overdose. He was found dead in bed, the bloody hammer in his hand and an open copy of Dante’s Divine Comedy at his side.
It’s a terrible story, and a strange one. In the legends that swirled around the house in later years, as it sat vacant and brooding with a living room filled with stored junk that credulous urban explorers convinced themselves represented “the Perelson’s Christmas tree and presents, exactly as they’d left them,” Harold’s brutal actions appear unexplainable, perhaps demonic. Sure, the family had money problems, but what family doesn’t?
Now, as the house on Glendower Place goes back on the market after 56 years, and a production company develops a film about the spooky murder mansion, the question still lingers: just what got into Harold Perelson?
The answer, we suspect, lies in the last substances he ingested, and in a very similar crime that would occur four months later, in an equally fine Pasadena mansion. It’s a story we tell on the Pasadena Confidential tour.
Here is a headline from the front page of the Pasadena Independent on December 8, 1959, after Harold Perelson’s attacks.
And this is a front page headline from the same paper, April 23, 1960.
Pasadenans Martha Ann and William Howard Taft had their problems, too. His jealousy, her anxiety, their failure to conceive. But when she left her bed on April 21, took up the heavy hammer and beat her sleeping mate’s brains in, so soundly that the handle broke, nobody was more surprised than she. When she realized what she’d done, she wrote a suicide note / confession, took an overdose of pills and slashed her wrists. Her sister found her alive the next morning, but William was beyond help.
When Martha had recovered enough to be held accountable, she opted to go before a Superior Court judge, no jury. H. Burton Noble ruled that while she had killed her husband, it was not a conscious act on her part. Influencing his decision was the report of UCLA toxicologist Dr. Thomas Haley, who stated that anyone who took as much of the powerful tranquilizer Miltown as Martha had could behave “like a maniac.” She was freed.
The unconscious mind is a force beyond our understanding. Almost asleep, deeply drugged, acting out past traumas with the nearest weapon at hand, Martha Ann Taft became a murderess. Perhaps the germ of the idea was formed over the morning newspaper that past December, as she read about another family’s nightmare.
The Los Feliz Murder Mansion case is fascinating because it makes so little sense. The family annihilator type of killer, a parent who goes after spouse and children, typically leaves no survivors, and doesn’t always commit suicide. When they do kill themselves, it’s decisively, not by taking pills in front of witnesses. It doesn’t add up, unless you factor in the pills as an unseen actor.
We know from his mode of death that Harold Perelson had a medicine chest full of powerful drugs. We know from his actions that fatal night that he could be easily distracted from the act of murder. He told the little children who he let get away that it was only a nightmare. Maybe, as he slipped away, he believed that, too.