Murder Manual: The Chilling Story of the World’s Most Dangerous Book
Can a book be deadly? Playboy magazine once referred to Paladin Press as the “most dangerous publisher in the world,” citing Paladin’s publication of Hit Man: A Technical Manual for Independent Contractors. This would be quite laughable had the book not been involved in a triple murder investigation in 1993 when James Perry committed three murders in Montgomery County, Maryland, allegedly using this book as his guide.
First published in 1983, by author "Rex Feral", Hit Man shares invaluable tidbits to bear in mind when carrying out a hit (kill). The book is split into nine chapters, each detailing topics such as: how to find employment, how to scrub a serial number off the barrel of a gun, how to silence a barking dog, and how to improvise a silencer.
But Rex Feral, whom the book is credited to, isn’t a real name. It’s a pseudonym, meaning “King of beasts”, while the real hit man behind the book was actually a woman – and not even a killer.
Instead, she was a cash-strapped divorced mother of two from Florida who needed money to pay her property taxes. When she submitted a fictional manuscript about a hit man to Paladin, they asked her to change the style to a "how to" - so she went about gathering her expert knowledge by watching TV and films and reading crime novels and copies of “Soldier of Fortune” magazines. (A quick Paladin primer: According to an archived history on its now defunct website, the press was founded in the early Seventies by former military men Peder Lund and Robert K. Brown. Both ardent fans of the first amendment, together they churned out books about weapons, warfare and survivalism. It shut down in 2017 after Lund passed away).
After serving several years in Michigan's Jackson State Prison for violent felonies, James Perry was released and soon went into business for himself–soliciting clients who wanted someone knocked off. He eventually met up with, Lawrence Horn who wanted his ex-wife, Mildred, and his son, Trevor, killed so he could reap the proceeds of a million dollar medical malpractice settlement awarded to his son after the boy sustained debilitating injuries during a hospital stay. Later Perry then ordered two books from Paladin Press: How to Make Disposable Silencers and the now infamous Hit Man.
Perry carefully followed over two dozen instructions from Hit Man to plan and commit the murders. Shooting both Mildred Horn and Janice Saunders, a home care nurse, three times in the eyes. The two women cared for Mildred Horn's 8-year-old quadriplegic son, Trevor, who was suffocated to death by Perry that same evening. And just as Hit Man instructed its readers, Perry chose an AR-7 rifle, obscured the gun's serial number and fixed a silencer to it before shooting his victims. He also removed ejected shells from the crime scene and messed up some of the victims' belongings to make the murders appear to be part of a burglary - again, following the book’s recommendations to the letter. To avoid detection, Perry continued to follow the book's instructions to disassemble the gun, file down its components, dump the pieces by the side of the road and flee the scene in a rental car bearing a stolen license plate. But Perry clearly hadn’t read carefully enough. The main reason he was caught was because he stupidly registered at the Day's Inn - where he stayed the night before the murders - under his own name, despite the book's advice to use a pseudonym.
Perry was ultimately sentenced to death in 1995 for the three murders, and in 1996, Lawrence Horn was found guilty on three counts of first-degree murder and one count of murder conspiracy and sentenced to life imprisonment. Yet, with both offenders now behind bars, the victims’ families then proceeded to sue Paladin Press, saying that by publishing Hit Man, they “aided and abetted” the murders since Perry had used 22 techniques picked up after reading the book.
After much toing and froing through the courts, Paladin Press eventually settled the case in 1999 giving the families of those murdered several million dollars and agreeing to destroy the remaining 700 copies of the book in their possession. The book still remains available online, however, and through the sale of used copies by individual sellers, has garnered huge amounts of free publicity ever since, which has sent the price skyrocketing on the collectors' market.
But what made Paladin so odious? The Boulder-based press had long published practical books for anti-establishmentarians, teaching such skills as how to build a rural home without connecting to the electricity grid, how to survive disasters, how to pass drug tests, and how to defend yourself. A lot of its books make an overt appeal to do-it-yourselfers but sell mostly to Walter Mitty types. For instance, the Paladin title Contingency Cannibalism: Super-hardcore Survivalism's Dirty Little Secret would not have much economic viability if it sold only to cannibals. Rather, its market includes people interested in reading about an unusual topic, people interested in speculating about unlikely circumstances.
Though some people felt they shouldn’t be providing this kind of instruction to the general public, the publishers disagreed: When interviewed after the Oklahoma City bombing that killed 168 people was tied to a book from Paladin, Peter said: “I feel no responsibility. I have no ethical responsibility for the misuse of information.” But with this case, Paladin Press was told that they could be held legally liable for acts perpetrated by readers of their materials, even though they would argue that the First Amendment protected this kind of speech.
Paladin was hardly an isolated mutation of the information age. Surplus Army manuals, and reprinted versions, are available at gun stores, trade shows and in catalogues. The Army's 1969 Improvised Munitions Handbook retails in some gun stores for $15 and teaches how to make grenade launchers and booby traps, and how to mix laundry soap, alcohol and gasoline to produce a napalm-like firebomb. The Justice Department has also reported that recipes for bombs and weapons of mass destruction are widely available, and the information has been used in a number of crimes. You can still peruse Paladin's Kill Without Joy: The Complete How to Kill Book in the main reading room of the Library of Congress. (The library's copies of Hit Man and Homemade C-4 are missing and presumed stolen). The books meet the library's collection criterion to "possess all books . . . which record the life and achievement of the American people." Such books are sent by publishers or authors to secure copyright protection. "We do not censor or restrict materials," says a library spokeswoman.
Is it realistic to claim that a book, which at most affected a few details of how a crime was committed, is more responsible than anyone except the actual criminals? State legislatures in Louisiana, Texas, Nevada, Georgia, Maine, and elsewhere have passed laws to stop cities from filing suits designed to destroy Second Amendment rights. The Hit Man case suggests that even broader reforms are needed, to protect the First Amendment.
The author of Hit Man however, has never been implicated. One American writer, Karen Abbott, did track her down to a trailer park in Florida but when pressed for an interview, she declined saying she didn’t want to be a hero, “tragic or otherwise. I just want to sit on my rocker on my porch and tell my grandsons stories they’re certain are fantastic lies.” She certainly has some interesting material.