Lobby alcove, YWCA Brooklyn; photo: 2016
Lenovo computer, lobby alcove, YWCA Brooklyn, September 2016
A CLUTTER-SAVING WORK DEVICE
indoors. What better way to channel your drizzly weather restlessness than to tackle some much-needed spring cleaning? After all, there’s nothing like being forced to stare at your own clutter to spur you into action.
In Cold Blood is a non-fiction novel by American author Truman Capote, first published in 1966; it details the 1959 murders of four members of the Herbert Clutter family in the small farming community of Holcomb, Kansas.
When Capote learned of the quadruple murder, before the killers were captured, he decided to travel to Kansas and write about the crime. He was accompanied by his childhood friend and fellow author Harper Lee, and together they interviewed local residents and investigators assigned to the case and took thousands of pages of notes. The killers, Richard “Dick” Hickock and Perry Smith, were arrested six weeks after the murders and later executed by the state of Kansas, and Capote ultimately spent six years working on the book. When finally published, In Cold Blood was an instant success, and today is the second-biggest-selling true crime book in publishing history, behind Vincent Bugliosi’s 1974 book Helter Skelter about the Manson murders.
Some critics consider Capote’s work the original non-fiction novel, though other writers had already explored the genre, such as Rodolfo Walsh in Operación Masacre(1957). It has been especially lauded for its eloquent prose, extensive detail, and simultaneous triple narrative, which describes the lives of the murderers, the victims, and other members of the rural community in alternating sequences. The psychologies and backgrounds of Hickock and Smith are given special attention, as well as the complex relationship that existed between them during and after the murders. In Cold Blood is regarded by critics as a pioneering work in the true crime genre, though Capote was disappointed that the book failed to win the Pulitzer Prize. Critics have also noted that parts of the book, including important details, differ from the real events.
Overview of the crime
Herbert Clutter was a widely respected self-made man, who had established a successful and prosperous farm in western Kansas from modest beginnings. He employed as many as 18 farmhands, and former employees reportedly admired and respected him for his fair treatment and good wages. His four children—three girls and a boy—were also widely respected in the community. The elder daughters, Eveanna and Beverly, had moved out of their parents’ home and started their adult lives. The two younger children, Nancy, 16, and Kenyon, 15, were high school students living at home. Clutter’s wife, Bonnie, a member of the local garden club, had been incapacitated by clinical depression and physical ailments since the births of her children, although this characterization of her has been disputed by surviving family members.
Two ex-convicts recently paroled from the Kansas State Penitentiary, Richard Eugene “Dick” Hickock and Perry Edward Smith, committed the robbery and murders in the early morning hours of November 15, 1959. A former cellmate of Hickock’s, Floyd Wells, had once worked as a farmhand for Mr. Clutter, and had told Hickock about a safe at the farmhouse where he claimed Herb Clutter kept large amounts of cash. Hickock soon hatched the idea to rob the safe (which he believed contained as much as ten thousand dollars), leave no witnesses, and start a new life in Mexico with the cash. According to Capote, Hickock described his plan as “a cinch, the perfect score.” Hickock later contacted Smith, another former cellmate, about committing the robbery with him. The information from Wells ultimately proved to be false, however, since Herb Clutter did not keep cash on hand, had no safe, and did all his business by check, to keep better track of transactions.
After driving more than four hundred miles across the state of Kansas on the evening of November 14, Hickock and Smith arrived in Holcomb, located the Clutter home, and entered through an unlocked door while the family slept. Upon rousing the Clutters and discovering there was no safe, they bound and gagged the family and continued to search for money, but found little else of value in the house. Still determined to leave no witnesses, the pair briefly debated what to do; Smith, notoriously unstable and prone to violent acts in fits of rage, slit Herb Clutter’s throat and then shot him in the head. Capote writes that Smith recounted later, “I didn’t want to harm the man. I thought he was a very nice gentleman. Soft spoken. I thought so right up to the moment I cut his throat.” Kenyon, Nancy, and then Mrs. Clutter were also murdered, each by a single shotgun blast to the head. Hickock and Smith left the crime scene with a small portable radio, a pair of binoculars, and less than fifty dollars in cash.
Smith later claimed in his oral confession that Hickock murdered the two women. When asked to sign his confession, however, Smith refused. According to Capote, he wanted to accept responsibility for all four killings because, he said, he was “sorry for Dick’s mother.” Smith added, “She’s a real sweet person.” Hickock always maintained that Smith committed all four killings.
On the basis of a tip from Wells, who contacted the prison warden after hearing of the murders, Hickock and Smith were identified as suspects and arrested in Las Vegas on December 30, 1959. Both men eventually confessed after interrogations by detectives of the Kansas Bureau of Investigation. They were brought back to Kansas, where they were tried together for the murders. Their trial took place at the Finney Countycourthouse in Garden City, Kansas, from March 22 to March 29, 1960. They both pleaded temporary insanity at the trial, but local GPs evaluated the accused and pronounced them sane. The jury deliberated for only 45 minutes before finding both Hickock and Smith guilty of murder. Their conviction carried a mandatory death sentence at the time.
After five years on death row at the Kansas State Penitentiary (now known as Lansing Correctional Facility) in Lansing, Kansas, Smith and Hickock were executed by hanging just after midnight on April 14, 1965. Hickock was executed first and was pronounced dead at 12:41 a.m. after hanging for nearly 20 minutes. Smith followed shortly after and was pronounced dead at 1:19 a.m. Warden Greg Seamon presided over the executions in Lansing. The gallows used in their executions now forms part of the collections of the Kansas State Historical Society.
Hickock and Smith are also suspected of involvement in the Walker family murders, a notion which is mentioned in the book, though this connection has not been proven.