7.8.2 Glamuzina and Laurie, 1989


J. Glamuzina and A.J. Laurie, Sites no. 19, pp. 33-42 (1989)
"Sexual Politics in the 1950s: The Parker-Hulme Murder Case."

This article appeared before their book on the subject, and it introduces a modern feminist perspective on the case. The journal is not widely available, so the majority of the article has been reprinted here, with some omissions and annotation. The article serves as an excellent introduction to Glamuzina and Laurie's book and to their perspective on the case. [jp]


In June 1954, in Christchurch, Juliet Hulme and Pauline Parker, aged 15 and 16, killed Pauline's mother. A sensational court case followed receiving both local and international media coverage during which a public association of lesbianism with murder, 'evil' and 'insanity' was made. Interest in this case has continued through the years, most recently with a full page article in the "The Press" (17 June, 1989) which describes the case in lurid terms, scarcely differing from the 1950s media treatment. Other articles and books about the case in medical and popular crime literature portray Parker and Hulme either as monstrously 'evil' or as incurably 'insane'. The case has not been placed in the social context of the 1950s nor has it been analyzed from a feminist perspective. An analysis of the treatment of women and girls who kill must incorporate an understanding of how sexism functions. In an analysis of the Parker-Hulme case an understanding of how heterosexism functions is also essential.

Within a patriarchy, all females by definition are deviant. However, those who overtly defy their prescribed gender roles are marginalised further and punished accordingly. ... [snip explanation of academic context of the case and lit review]

In the Parker-Hulme case the girls were perceived as deviants not only because they had stepped outside their prescribed gender roles by acting violently and by killing a mother, but because they had a lesbian relationship which was seen as the reason for the killing.

In this article, we discuss the context of the case, the way it was portrayed by the media and the continuing function it has as a mechanism of social control.

The Background

Pauline Parker was born on 26 May 1938. She was the third child of Honora Parker and Herbert Rieper. Their first child, a boy, had died shortly after birth, and their second child, Wendy, was fourteen months older than Pauline. The youngest child was born in 1949, when Pauline was nearly eleven. This child, Rosemary, had Downs Syndrome and was institutionalized when she was two (stet) years old.

Honora Parker and Herbert Rieper never married. They lived together for twenty-three years after Herbert left his wife and two children. Their irregular status was not known to the community in which they lived, and until the killing occurred, Honora and the three daughters were known by the name Rieper. Following the killing, Honora was referred to as 'Mrs Parker' and Pauline as 'Pauline Parker'.

The family lived in modest circumstances near the Christchurch Girls' high School in the inner city of Christchurch. Herbert Rieper managed a fish-shop, and Honora supplemented the family income by taking in boarders. They had purchased the house in 1946 [note: Not known if it was paid off. jp]. Pauline's childhood has been described as uneventful, however she was seriously ill with osteomyelitis and spent many months in hospital during which time she nearly died.

She started at the Christchurch Girls' High School in 1952 and was placed in the top stream. Here she met Juliet Hulme. Under other circumstances, it is unlikely that Juliet and Pauline would have ever met. Juliet was the oldest child of Henry and Hilda Hulme, prominent and upper-class [note: The Hulmes would not have been classed at this level in British society. jp] members of Christchurch society. They had arrived in the city from England in 1948 when Henry was appointed as the first Rector for Canterbury University College [note: This is correct, but disagrees with HRH's obituary data. see 7.10.1]. They lived in the large homestead known as Ilam, which is now the University Staff Club. Soon after their arrival Hilda Hulme also became prominent in the social and cultural life of the city--as the wife of the Rector, and also as a member and later Vice-President of the Christchurch Marriage Guidance Council. She was elected to the Board of the Christchurch Girls' High School, and was a regular panel member of the local 3YA Womens' Session Programmes.

The Hulmes had two children, Juliet--considered to be highly intelligent and who had suffered severe lung problems as a child necessitating lengthy absences from her parents--and Jonathon, who was six years younger than his sister. Juliet was born in October 1938 and was about six months younger than Pauline.

The two girls developed a close friendship which was initially welcomed by both families. As the relationship became more intense, concern was expressed not only by the school [note: First mention of school intervention in a scholarly analysis. This has been confirmed in private communication to me, quoted elsewhere. jp], but by Henry Hulme and both Pauline's parents. As a result, Pauline's mother took her to their local doctor, Dr F O Bennett [note: No mention of Bennett's social connections to Hulmes. jp]. He informed Honora after this consultation that in his opinion the relationship was 'homosexual' but that he thought that Pauline would grow out of it (DoJ, 1954 [=trial transcripts. jp]).

Pauline spent a great deal of time at the Hulmes' and was clearly impressed by their way of life. They entertained frequently and she met guests such as the British actor Anthony Quayle. Further, Hilda in particular seems to have developed a close relationship with her according to the Parker diaries. Meanwhile, events at the Hulme household became chaotic. Hilda became involved with a man she had met through Marriage Guidance, Walter Perry, who then rented a flat at the Ilam residence. Pauline related in her diary an incident in 1954 during which Juliet had apparently surprised her mother in bed with Perry. Later she described various discussions about divorce with the Hulmes. At the same time, Henry's career as Rector was drawing to a close. From the beginning he had difficulty with his colleagues and by 1954 he was asked to resign. The household was about to disintegrate as Henry's forced resignation meant that the family also had to vacate Ilam as the university residence. Hilda and Henry had agreed to divorce, and Hilda and Walter Perry (who later married) were to remain together. Henry was taking the children with him on his way to his new job in the UK at Aldermaston [note: Doubtful that HRH had actually firmed up the Aldermaston job before his return. He did not start until sometime in '55. jp]-- Jonathon to be with him, and Juliet to stay with an Aunt in South Africa where the ship was to call. Among other things, this disintegration meant that Juliet and Pauline would be parted. At first they hoped that Pauline could go with Juliet and Pauline's diary indicates that she thought the Hulmes would support this idea. However, Honora was pleased that the intense relationship between the girls would finally be brought to an end. [note: Missing is Honora's obvious and strong opposition to Pauline's lesbian relationship, forming a large component of her motivation to separate PYP and JMH. jp].

Pauline's entries in her 1954 diaries indicate that she was shocked and distressed by the disintegration of the Hulme household as well as by her impending separation from Juliet. Her relationship with Honora had been conflicted for some time. Her increasing identification with the upper-class Hulme household had also resulted in negative feelings and attitudes towards her own modest and crowded home. As the events in the Hulme household became more chaotic Pauline wrote in her diary about 'moidering' mother--a term which indicates that her plans may initially have been fanciful rather than serious. On 21 June 1954 she wrote: [snip quote. see 7.4]. On the following day she wrote: [snip quote. see 7.4].

Later that day she and Juliet went with Honora to Victoria Park, where they walked with her along a deserted path. They had brought with them a half-brick wrapped in a stocking. They killed Honora with this weapon and fled from the scene to the Victoria Park tea-kiosk. Here they claimed that Honora had fallen and injured herself accidentally. The police were called and Pauline and Juliet were subsequently arrested and brought to trial for the murder of Honora Parker. Pauline's diaries were an important piece of evidence as these detailed the plans for the killing. However, as both girls signed written confessions the prosecution went to trial with a very clear-cut case against them [note: Complete and curious lack of analysis of forensic evidence and huge 'narrative gap' here even cf. "Heavenly Creatures." The extreme violence of the crime, an important component of public perception and reaction, is not mentioned and the murder is referred to as a 'killing'. These points are addressed at greater length in their book, though still in a controversial manner. jp].

The Trial

The Supreme Court trial was held in Christchurch from 23-28 August 1954. The facts concerning the killing of Honora Parker were not disputed. The Crown maintained that Juliet and Pauline had planned to murder Honora Parker, had lured her to Victoria Park and there beaten her to death. The motive was said to be that since Honora had refused Pauline permission to leave Aotearoa/New Zealand with Juliet they regarded her as an 'obstacle' in their path and had murdered her so that they could remain together. The central question of the trial was whether Parker and Hulme were sane in the legal sense. The defence strategy, restricted by the full confessions made by Parker and Hulme, was for both to plead not guilty by reason of insanity. This meant, however, that the burden of proof was transferred from the prosecution to the defence which had to show that Parker and Hulme were jointly insane and that they did not understand the nature and quality of their action in killing Honora Parker-- or if so, that they did not know that this was wrong. Most of the evidence, then, consisted of arguments from defence and prosecution medical witnesses regarding the mental state of both Parker and Hulme.

The main defence medical witness, psychiatrist Dr R.W. Medlicott, insisted that [snip long quote of diagnosis of paranoia of the exalted type in a setting of folie a deux]. He also considered that their homosexuality was one symptom of this form of insanity. [note: This is clear from Medlicott's article, but was not a part of his testimony, which was much more equivocal. jp]

The other defence medical witness, Dr F.O. Bennett, the general practitioner who had examined Pauline in 1953, agreed with Medlicott and declared, with some confusion, [snip important quote, given elsewhere, effectively stating PYP & JMH legally sane but clinically insane].

Three prosecution psychiatrists rejected the defence diagnosis, dismissing their homosexuality as an 'adolescent phase' and insisted that both were sane. The Crown Prosecutor summarized: [snip Brown's famous 'dirty-minded' quote. jp]

As well as presenting medical evidence as to the sanity of Parker and Hulme, the prosecution also drew attention to the various activities of the girls, including Pauline Parker's activities during 1952 and 1953 when she slipped out at night, on some occasion meeting male friends, on others, Juliet. Some petty shoplifting they had done was highlighted as evidence of their criminality, while their creative writing, consisting mainly of novels and poetry, was claimed to be brutal and violent. The few entries in Pauline Parker's diaries which referred to the planned killing of Honora were presented by the prosecution as unquestionable evidence of premeditation.

Both were found guilty. Because they were under 18 years they could not be given the death penalty. Instead they were sentenced to be detained 'during Her Majesty's pleasure'--an indeterminate sentence. They were transferred to separate prisons following the trial and were never allowed to meet.

The Department of Justice stated publicly that Parker and Hulme were to be treated just like any other long-term prisoner. In fact, the Department took a strongly paternalistic interest in them, from the local prison staff to the Minister of Justice, who personally received regular reports on their progress. Both were allowed to study and at the time of her release Parker had partially completed a university degree. While they were in prison the Department did not address their homosexuality specifically except for separating them from each other and prohibiting sexual contact between prisoners in custody, as was usually the case. However, during Parker's probation period, concern was expressed by departmental officials about her lesbian associates.

In late 1959 they were both released after having served just over five years. The Department helped both in establishing new lives and identities. Juliet Hulme immediately left the country. Pauline Parker remained in Aotearoa/New Zealand until 1965 when she was released from parole. She left the country soon afterwards.

Significance of the Case.

The Parker-Hulme case was given considerable publicity at the time both in local and international newspapers. Subsequently, accounts have appeared in medical and popular crime literature as well as in newspaper articles. These accounts have resulted in the construction of a number of messages which in some cases have little relation to the actual events but which served as mechanisms which reinforced and extended patriarchal ideology and power.

Most obviously, the 'mad' or 'bad' dichotomy presented at the trial is a classic illustration of the ways in which women and girls who kill are portrayed (Smart, 1976; Edwards, 1986). Parker and Hulme's motive for killing Honora was simply understood as a desire to 'remove an obstacle' to their impending separation. The prosecution represented this desire as the product of an 'evil' and selfish wish to be rid of anyone who apparently stood in their way, while the defence represented it as the product of diseased and insane minds acting together. Neither of these representations include an understanding of the context in which the killing of Honora occurred. The medical arguments concerning their sanity were highly profiled and extensively reported. Headlines such as 'Incurably Insane' ("The Press" 28 Aug 54), 'Hideousness and Ugliness' ("The Press" 27 Aug 54), 'Both Were Sane' ("Dominion" 28 Aug 54), overlaid reports of the trial and emphasised the 'mad' or 'bad' dichotomy already established in the judicial arena. The Crown Prosecutor's Declaration that they were 'dirty-minded' girls was widely quoted. Evidence of Parker's association with males, some of whom were from Sri Lanka [note: should be Ceylon in '54. jp], helped the prosecution in portraying her as 'immoral' criminal, and 'bad'. Even her own defence witness, Dr Bennett, described her as a 'silly adolescent girl out for experience' (DoJ 54).

It was within this context that their relationship was presented and an association of lesbianism with murder, insanity and criminality firmly established. Subtitles such as 'Wild Infatuation' ("The Press" 27 Aug 54), 'Disastrous Association' ("The Press" 30 Aug. 54) and 'Strange Happenings On Moonlit Lawns' ("NZ Truth"), guided readers to a particular perspective while headings such as 'Homosexuality and Insanity' ("The Press" 28 Aug 54) gave unequivocal messages. Their relationship was described as a sexual perversion. Within the medical literature, Medlicott's diagnosis and description (Medlicott 55) was the major account of the case and reached a wide 'professional' audience. This account was reprinted, unchanged, twenty-five years later in a collection titled 'Deviant Behaviour: New Zealand Studies' (Medlicott 79). A more 'liberal' view taken by another local psychologist (Bevan-Brown 61), that the tragedy arose out of inadequate parenting, reached a smaller audience a few years later. Both the conservative and liberal psychiatric views of Parker and Hulme labelled them 'abnormal' and 'deviant' and drew associations between lesbianism and murder. Little attempt was made to place the events in a context wider than the individual personalities of Parker, Hulme and their immediate families.

Later accounts in newspapers and in popular crime literature reinforce these associations. A 1987 report stated that Parker and Hulme took Honora to the Port Hills [stet. Victoria Park is part of the Port Hills range] and 'battered her to death so they could continue their lesbian love affair undisturbed' ("Dominion Sunday Times" 31 May 87). Gurr and Cox in "Famous Australasian Crimes" introduce Pauline and Juliet as the "Murdering Girls" and describe their friendship as 'deep and dark', 'terrible' and 'abnormal'. This account includes a picture of the site where Honora Parker was murdered, with streams of blood clearly visible, a photograph of the diary entry anticipating Honora's killing, and a 1953 school photograph of Pauline Parker. Using extravagant language they construct images of madness and deviance:

The story they told was one of the strangest ever read in a court of law; it became a phantasmagoria; the twisted shapes of a disordered imagination seemed to swirl visibly in the heavy air of the courtroom (Gurr & Cox 57).

The Parker-Hulme case entered the juvenile delinquency debates which occurred not only in Aotearoa/NZ but in England, The United States and Australia in the 1950s. "Time" debated whether they were 'rebels' or 'psychopaths' ("Time" 6 Dec 54). Later accounts drew similar associations with one newspaper headlining an account of the case with 'Teen Passion Flares--Mother Has To Die' ("Dominion Sunday Times" 16 Mar 69). That 'sexual perverts' could become 'killers' seemed a logical development to those who believed that 'sexual perversion' led to 'worse' things. One popular crime writer, in reference to the case, declared:

It is well known that unnatural relationships often go hand-in-hand with moral delinquency (Sparrow 73:120).

Women and girls are expected to be the victims rather than the perpetrators of violence. In this instance, these expectations were overturned and the dominant culture responded by objectifying Parker and Hulme. Neither was given the opportunity to speak at their trial [note: Strictly speaking, not true. Both were given the opportunity to speak before sentencing and both declined. It was their own counsel who chose not to have the girls testify. Because of their ages, testimony had to be voluntary. jp]. When they were given a voice, it was through the media and served to reinforce a particular message--for example, the concept of repentance, with its implied recognition of some wrong-doing. Initially the media reported that Parker and Hulme showed no remorse for the killing. However, within a few months though, headlines such as 'Girl is Now Sorry for Murder' ("Sun" 10 Dec 54) began to appear. [note: Actually, this was confirmed by Anne Perry recently to be an accurate statement of her feelings. jp]

An article in 1964 superimposed the words of the author on Parker and Hulme, in a reinforcement of the 'bad' explanation. Describing their action as a 'sin' and Honora Parker as 'the victim of a sexual obsession', Edgar Lustgarten [note: Can you believe the name?? cf. the girls' view of Borovnia and the 4th world... jp] considered their 'devotion' to each other as 'frightening in its homosexual intensity'. He wrote:

Who might try to separate us? That was the explosive question always at the back of their agile, depraved, suspicious, guilty minds. Their suspicions did not, in the long run, prove unfounded ("London Evening Standard" 12 Nov 64).

These accounts through more than thirty years underline the political response of a male-supremacist society to women and girls perceived as being out of control.

Impact on Lesbians

The Parker-Hulme case has had a significant impact for lesbians in Aotearoa/New Zealand. Not only did the case associate lesbianism with violent death, criminality and insanity, it became a vehicle for the construction of new expressions of anti- lesbianism. Some people who had contact with young girls became watchful and fearful in case the girls formed same-sex attractions. People who had contact with declared lesbians sometimes treated them with suspicion as if lesbianism and violence were inevitably linked. Some girls and women becoming aware of the possibility that they could be lesbian internalized negative and stereotyped views of lesbianism which made identifying as lesbian difficult if not impossible for them. For some who did identify as lesbian it was important to ensure that they were as unlike Parker and Hulme as possible in order to distance themselves in their own minds from those negative associations.

The way in which the case has been constructed and used by the media has provided continuing messages of warning to women who do not conform to their prescribed gender roles and sexual identities.


The killing of Honora Parker could have been portrayed as a domestic tragedy, arising out of a particular family situation with tragic consequences for all involved. The media could have drawn attention to the context of long-standing difficulties and unresolved conflicts in both the Parker and Hulme households. Instead, it became known as the Parker-Hulme case, with the subject of attention being Pauline Parker and Juliet Hulme. The immediate trigger for the killing (that is, the impending separation) was mistaken for its cause, while the complex roots and origins of the tragedy were not examined, except to highlight the 'abnormality' of the two girls. Parker and Hulme became examples to be used in a broader political environment concerned with the maintenance of a male-supremacist gender order. The 'mad' or 'bad' dichotomy presented at the trial is one common technique used in the processing of women and girls who display violent behaviours. One result is the absorption of the particular event into the inventory of examples which may be employed in the promotion and reinforcement of patriarchal ideology. The employment of the medical witnesses and the subsequent discourses in medical literature highlight the role of the medical profession as an agency of patriarchy. Matthews has pointed out with respect to psychiatry, in particular, that it

...is an institution very strongly implicated in the maintenance of the gender order in so far as it is concerned with 'curing' deviation and restoring normality (Matthews, 1984:24).

Implicit in this has been the definition and enforcement of norms regarding sexuality. In this case, heterosexuality as the norm was firmly reinforced by the juxtaposition with lesbianism as 'abnormal' and 'unnatural', criminal and insane. The case also illustrates the functioning of the mainstream media as an agent of patriarchal ideology. It continues to inform popular opinion about lesbianism and its supposed consequences. In this sense the case continues to function as a warning to women who transgress prescribed boundaries as to the likely consequences of their actions.

References [selected. see also bibliographies elsewhere. jp]

Allen, Jeffner, 1986. "Lesbian Philosophy: Explorations," Palo Alto: Institute of Lesbian Studies.

Black, W.A.M. and A.J.W. Taylor (eds), 1979. "Deviant Behaviour: New Zealand Studies," Auckland: Heinemann Educational Books.

Cavin, Susan, 1985. "Lesbian Origins," San Francisco: Ism Press.

Chesney-Lind, M., 1986. "Women and Crime: The Female Offender," Signs, 12(1):78-96.

Edwards, S.S.M., 1986. "Neither Bad Nor Mad: The female violent offender reassessed," Women's Studies International Forum, 9(1):79-87.

Heidensohn, Frances, 1985. "Women and Crime," Basingstoke: Macmillan.

Kitzinger, Celia, 1987. "The Social Construction of Lesbianism," London: SAGE Publications.

Matthews, J.J., 1984. "Good and Mad Women," Sydney: George Allen & Unwin.

Smart, C., 1976. "Women, Crime and Criminology," London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.

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