My Own Cold Blood: How the Clutter murders still haunt Kansas

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Richard Eugene “Dick” Hickock and Perry Edward Smith. // Photo by Richard Avedon, courtesy of RadicalMedia

If you live in Kansas, there are two books that you will never escape, even if you have never read them: L. Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz and In Cold Blood: A True Account of a Multiple Murder and Its Consequences.

Because the Sunflower State is small and sparsely populated, the only thing most outsiders know is that Dorothy and Toto came from here. The jokes about the girl and her little dog, too, ceased to be funny decades ago, and we have since given the world some notable real-life figures like Dwight Eisenhower, Gordon Parks, and Annette Bening.

If they’re going to annoy us about a fictional Kansan, couldn’t they at least switch to Clark Kent once in a while?

Because Baum created lovable characters and the 1939 MGM movie is so exquisitely crafted, people outside our state can be forgiven for pairing us with a story that even Indian-born writer Salman Rushdie has come to adore.

With Truman Capote’s 1965 book, however, the engrossing prose comes from an event most of us wish had never happened. Kansas has a population just shy of three million, so there’s a chance that you or someone you know might have a connection to a senseless murder that occurred on November 14, 1959 outside of Holcomb, which had a population of less than 300.

Two former inmates at the Kansas State Penitentiary in Lansing, Dick Hickock and Perry Smith, killed farmer Herb Clutter, his wife Bonnie, and their teenage children Nancy and Kenyon. The killers tied up and shot all four victims in the head at close range with a shotgun and cut Herb Clutter’s throat.

The Kansas State University-educated Clutter had used innovative techniques in growing wheat and other crops and earned coverage on Edward R. Murrow’s See It Now and in The New York Times. For example, Clutter managed to cut his irrigation costs by leasing drilling lights to gas companies. He charged them royalties, and they in turn helped him extract water under his land.

The intruders who killed him expected a safe full of loot, not knowing Clutter paid all of his bills by check and wouldn’t have much money in his house in the middle of the night. After the murders, Smith and Hickock left the house with a Zenith radio, a pair of binoculars, and less than $50 in cash.

Even adjusted for inflation, it’s appalling to think that the Clutters died for such a paltry haul.

In all the time that has passed and considering Kansas City’s disturbingly high murder rate, there’s something uniquely depraved about this crime. The fact that it took place in a small town where everyone knew the victims makes it even more disturbing.


A scan of an article about Truman Capote, author of “In Cold Blood.” // Photo by Dan Lybarger

In a telephone interview, current Finney County Sheriff Kevin Bascue, who’s based in nearby Garden City says, “It was highly unusual, very horrific, and I would also say if that crime happened today in Finney County, it would still be highly unusual and very horrific to have four people murdered like that.”

When I say the murder of the Clutter family still affects people here, I’m not exaggerating.

My aunt Barbara Lewis was a classmate of Beverly Clutter at the University of Kansas Medical School in KCK. Both were studying to be nurses. The only reason Beverly and her sister Eveanna, who died last year, survived that night is because neither were living in the Clutter home at the time.

Capote took an immediate interest in the case when he read an account of the crime in The New York Times two days afterward. Initially interested in how the murders affected the community, the New Orleans native spent part of his youth in the small community Monroeville, Al. When he arrived a few days later with To Kill a Mockingbird author Nelle Harper Lee, the case was still unsolved. Hickock and Smith had left few clues. Only a pair of footprints, one of which was only visible in an underexposed photograph, gave them away.

As Capote and the authorities learned later, the killers weren’t from Finney County but had driven 400 miles away in Hickock’s hometown of Edgerton. When his “perfect score” proved to be deeply flawed, Hickock and Smith roamed across Mexico, Florida, and Nevada for nearly six weeks. The two returned to Kansas City twice so that Hickock could write some bad checks.

If it weren’t for his cell mate Floyd Wells revealing his obsession with Clutter’s money for a $1,000 reward and for Smith’s decision to mail himself the incriminating boots, they might not have been captured in Las Vegas.

If the murder itself shocked people near the western edge of the state, the identity of the killers jolted people in the East.

Edward Hayes III is a former Captain of the Johnson County Sheriff’s Department who now writes for Johnson’s County Gazette. When Hayes was a teenager, he knew Hickock, who frequented the same Olathe hangouts he did.

“He was ten years older than me,” he says in an interview at the Edgerton Community Museum. “We played snooker at the old pool hall. I couldn’t believe it. I couldn’t believe that a guy I knew did it. He was friendly, always smiling.”

According to Charles Troutner, the curator of the Edgerton Community Museum, that charm enabled Hickock to write bad checks to people who should have been more suspicious.

“He would give you the shirt off his back and then steal it back from you. He’d get the salesman wrapped around his finger in five seconds,” Troutner says. “He’d be in an Edgerton business, and he’d walk up to the owner and say, ‘Hi, buddy.’ Somebody would want to have their picture taken together, and while Hickock would have one arm around the store owner, the other arm was reaching into the cash register and taking the money out.”

Troutner should know.

He’s currently working on a biography of Hickock, and the museum has several thick folders on the case. Some document Hickock, and others include information about the Clutters, the book, and the 1967 Oscar-nominated movie Richard Brooks adapted and directed from it.

An Obsessive Drive

The power of In Cold Blood comes from the fact that neither Hickock and Smith fit the profile of a mass murderer. Capote portrays them as unsavory but far from unredeemable. Hickock was a skilled auto mechanic, and Smith could play guitar and paint.

In describing their arrival outside the Finney County courthouse after their arrest, Capote observed, “But when the crowd caught sight of the murders, with their escort of blue-coated highway patrolmen, it fell silent, as though amazed to find them humanly-shaped.”

Capote used fictional narrative devices to make the case more immediate and personal. He leaped inside people’s heads, which is something a reporter can’t do unless he or she is a graduate of Hogwarts instead of a journalism school.

I first encountered the book 20 years ago when I listened to an audio edition on a drive from St. Louis to Olathe. I needed something to keep me awake through the long sunset journey down I-70. The trip was consistently eerie in surprising ways. Capote may have been using a fictional narrative, but he didn’t try to build suspense with a whodunnit setup. We know who the killers are in the second chapter.

Instead, he gave a sense of how fleeting safety and security are. As I got farther into the book, I wondered what it would have been like if Hickock and Smith had chosen a furniture store owner from Osawatomie (my maternal grandfather) instead of a farmer from Holcomb. The Clutters felt more human because we could see into their thoughts before their lives ended. The once seemingly inconceivable crime had now become chillingly real.

As Gerald Clarke, the author of Capote: A Biography, shared in an email, “In Cold Blood is a classic story of innocent people becoming the victims of total strangers. Anybody reading it can identify with the Clutters and think if it could happen to them, it could happen to me too. Capote tells it with consummate skill. The reader knows the outcome from the beginning, yet is held in suspense.”

Adding to the tension is that very little separates criminals like Hickock and Smith from the people they prey on. It’s easy to get sense the Clutters could have survived if the two hadn’t met when and where they did. Capote recounts several moments when the two could have avoided their eventual trip to the gallows in Lansing in April of 1965 but proceeded anyway.


Inside the Edgerton Community Museum. // Photo by Dan Lybarger

In 2014, Scott Wilson, the late actor who played Hickock in the 1967 movie later and who later portrayed Herschel in The Walking Dead, told me, “The Menninger Clinic said that these two characters, Hickcock and Smith’s personalities merged into a third personality. It was the third personality that killed those people. It kind of goes back to what your mom always said, ‘Don’t hang out with people who will lead you astray,’ because these two people came together in prison, so they had done some things they shouldn’t, and bad things happened as a result of it.”

Similarly, Capote’s portrayal has inspired filmmaker Joe Berlinger, who co-directed the Paradise Lost Trilogy of documentaries about the West Memphis Three case and who has directed both a miniseries (Conversations with a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes) and a drama (Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile) for Netflix on serial killer Ted Bundy.

He’s co-directed the 2017 Sundance Channel documentary series Cold Blooded: The Clutter Family Murders.

“It’s shocking on its face, a home invasion of that sort, particularly coming at the end of an age of innocence. You can draw a straight line from that book to our obsession to all things true crime, and by personalizing it and novelizing it. (Capote) humanized, that doesn’t mean condoned or forgave, the perpetrators,” Berlinger says from Los Angeles.

Much of that ability to make the killers seem like more than bogeymen came from the fact that Capote felt a kinship with Smith. Both men were short, sensitive, and had alcoholic mothers. Capote attended different boarding schools, and Smith spent much of his time in orphanages.

“Perry Smith had a terrible childhood, and so had Truman though nowhere near as bad as Perry’s,” says Clarke. “So Truman identified with him and to some degree had sympathy for him. Dick, on the other hand, had not been treated badly. He was just a punk, a murderous punk, but a punk.”

A Keen Eye

One of the reasons In Cold Blood is still worth discussing is because Capote got so much about the case, and Kansas in general, right.

In 1987, several of my friends and I howled derisively when Vanity Fair published Gail Sheehy’s The Road to Bimini about Colorado Senator Gary Hart’s fall from grace. She visited the Senator’s hometown in Ottawa, Kan. but obviously didn’t spend much time there. Some groan-inducing passages detract from Sheehy’s legitimate character concerns about Hart.

In saying the town looked the same way it did in the 1950s, she noted, “The girls still have doughy legs and the boys Fuller-brush cuts.”

The second part is not true.

When I lived there that same year, I, to my later shame, sported a mullet. When I re-read In Cold Blood, I was impressed by how effortlessly Capote captured our landscape and our mindset.

Clarke adds, “Capote was a keen observer. He picked up on the small things as well as the large. He did that wherever he went, not just in Kansas. I assume the person who wrote about Gary Hart was not so keen.”

Maybe this is why Ande Parks and Chris Samnee depict Capote consulting with the ghost of Nancy Clutter in their “drawn novel” Capote in Kansas. At times, he does seem to reaching beyond human comprehension for his story.

He and Harper Lee developed a unique process for recording what the people of Holcomb and Garden City had to tell them. They used no recordings and took no notes. He felt that people might clam up if they saw a pencil or a tape recorder. Capote boasted that he had 94 percent recall (or was it 96 percent?), and he and Harper Lee would compile transcripts of the interviews later in the evening to make sure they remembered what their subjects told them correctly.

Even with Capote’s impressive recall, it’s still worth discussing the times when his imagination overwhelmed the facts or when he simply didn’t know what the truth was. It’s telling that the Barnes & Noble in Overland Park sells In Cold Blood as a novel, but the Half Price Books across town lists it as “true crime.”

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Alvin Dewey was in charge of the case. // Photo courtesy of the Edgerton Community Museum

In a documentary that accompanies the Criterion Collection edition of Brooks’ film, Capote boasts, “And every word is true.” His literary rival Gore Vidal included a final chapter in his historical novels like Burr that explained where fact ended and fiction took over. Capote’s final chapter is a meeting between Kansas Bureau of Investigation Special Agent Alvin Dewey and Nancy Clutter’s friend Susan Kidwell at the graves of the Clutters.

It never happened.

During Cold Blooded, the surviving members of the Clutter family accuse Capote of sensationalizing the murders and for misrepresenting Bonnie Clutter. According to them, Charlie Troutner and Sheriff Bascue, who know the family’s surviving friends, she did have depression and other medical issues, but was not the borderline invalid Capote portrays. Having lived with depression most of my adult life, I can vouch for how devastating it can be, but I can also say it’s not my sole defining trait, and it was almost certainly not hers.

The family has usually kept mum on the book and the tragedy that inspired it. Therefore, it’s worth catching the documentary on streaming through Amazon. Producer Allison Berg, who is now working on the Showtime documentary series The Circus, says telling their story was a delicate process.

“Momentarily, that feels like a coup, but after that it feels like a great responsibility. Their participation in something like that after so long was because they had gotten to a point where they could trust us,” she says from New York. “It took a long time of discussing the project and them moving slowly and them being able to ask a lot of questions to see what they were comfortable with. Part of it was the timing when we approached, and part of it was that we were taking an approach that aligned with what they most wanted people to know from their perspective.”

The Never Ending Story

It’s probably fitting Capote’s own life is up for examination in not one, but two movies. Bennett Miller’s 2005 film Capote earned Philip Seymour Hoffman an Oscar for playing the author. Sadly, both he and the writer died of substance abuse. Douglas McGrath’s Infamous, starring British actor Toby Jones, is also worth a watch and takes a slightly different angle on Capote’s trek to Kansas. Hoffman earned his statuette for changing his build and his voice to match the small man with the high nasal voice.

Jones, on the other hand, completely transforms into him and bears an uncanny resemblance to archival footage of the author. The latter film does a better job of demonstrating how Capote could cajole people into giving him hard-to-obtain information, but the earlier movie, based on Clarke’s book, more vividly captures how the case took its toll on him.

In Cold Blood made Capote the most famous writer in American, perhaps the world. But the research, the writing, and the wait for the executions took a toll from which he never recovered. ‘It scraped me down to the marrow of my bones,’ he told me,” recalls Clarke.

Both movies imply that Capote could have done more to save Hickock and Smith from hanging. Considering the fact that both had killed four innocent people in one evening, it’s hard to imagine an appeals board feeling mercy for them. About the only way Capote could have assisted them would have been to organize a jailbreak.

“There was nothing Capote could have done to prevent the executions. The killers were guilty of gruesome murders. Kansas believed in the death sentence. Case closed,” says Clarke.

In Black-and-White

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This issue features Capote between Scott Wilson, who played Hickock, and Robert Blake, who played his accomplice Perry Smith. // Photo courtesy of the Edgerton Community Museum

The 1967 movie made from Capote’s book has a power all its own if you live in Kansas. Scott Wilson and Robert Blake, who later stood trial for and was acquitted of killing his wife, are ideally cast as the killers. Hayes and Troutner both say that Wilson nailed Hickock’s glib charm. Brooks’ insistence on shooting primarily in Kansas makes In Cold Blood seem lived in. He even filmed in the house where the Clutters died.

I was born shortly before the movie was shot, and a lot of road signs I grew up seeing when I traveled with my parents show up in the film. As a result, there’s an authenticity that’s missing from most true crime adaptations. This and Quincy Jones’ eerie score and Conrad Hall’s poetic monochrome photography give the film a potency that’s independent of the book.

Edgerton was one of the locations, and the unit shot there for approximately four days. It didn’t take me long to find people who had worked on the movie or who had played extras. Hayes helped secure the locations by blocking unwanted traffic, and my friend Kay Ferguson Lockerby Huddleston appears in the scenes where Wilson hands out bad checks in KCK.

The less said about the 1996 CBS miniseries the better. Anthony Edwards and Eric Roberts look about 10 or 15 years too old, and the Canadian locations, which weren’t an issue in Capote, are a poor match for the Sunflower State. The Finney County Sheriff’s deputies look like moonlighting Mounties, and Bascue giggles when he recalls seeing mountains in the background. Unless, you really want to hear some of the songs Smith wrote or want to hear what Sam Neil sounds like with an American accent, you should stick with the original. Amazon Prime has this, too.

Perhaps the reason the book, the movies, and the killings that inspired them have stayed with us is because there are still things to learn. It took Alvin Dewey and his team of up to 18 agents around six weeks to catch the killers, so it’s a good idea to approach this subject with care.

“History isn’t always pretty,” Troutner tells me. “I’ve had about 300 people, that’s an exaggeration, tell me they were at the prison for the hanging or that their mother’s dog was there. I’ve looked at the log, and I think there were only 18 people there.”

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