Perry Edward Smith was born in Huntington,
Nevada, a defunct community in Elko County. His parents, Florence
Julia "Flo" Buckskin and John "Tex" Smith, were rodeo performers.
Smith was of mixed Irish and Cherokee ancestry (from his father's
and mother's side, respectively).
The family moved to Juneau, Alaska in 1929, where
the elder Smith distilled bootleg whisky for a living. Smith's
father abused his wife and four children, and in 1935, his wife left
him taking the children with her to San Francisco.
Smith and his siblings were raised initially with
their alcoholic mother. After Smith's mother died when he was
thirteen, he and his siblings were placed in a Catholic orphanage,
where nuns allegedly abused him physically and emotionally for his
life-long problem of chronic bed wetting. He was also placed in a
Salvation Army orphanage, where one of the caretakers allegedly
tried to drown him. In his adolescence, Smith reunited and lived an
itinerant existence with his father. He also spent time in different
juvenile detention homes after joining a street gang and becoming
involved in petty crime.
Two of Smith's siblings committed suicide as young
adults, and the remaining sister eliminated any contact with him.
At age sixteen, Smith joined the United States
Merchant Marine. He joined the Army in 1948, where he served in the
Korean War. During his stint in the Army, Smith would spend weeks at
a time in the stockade for public carousing and fighting with Korean
civilians and other soldiers. In spite of his record, in 1952, Smith
received an honorable discharge and was last stationed at Fort Lewis
He stayed with an Army friend for a time in the
Tacoma area, where he was employed as a car painter. With one of his
first paychecks, Smith purchased a motorcycle for transportation.
While riding, he lost control of the vehicle due to adverse weather
conditions. Smith nearly died in the accident and spent six months
in a Tacoma hospital. Because of the severe injuries to both legs,
Smith's legs were permanently disabled and he suffered chronic leg
pains for the rest of his life. To help control the pain, he was
known to consume a copious amount of aspirin.
Perry Smith and Richard Hickock first met in the
Kansas State Prison, at Lansing, Kansas, resuming their acquaintance
after Hickock's release in November 1959. Hickock and Smith later
testified that they had gotten the idea to rob the Clutters after
Hickock was told, by a former cellmate, that there was a safe in the
family's house containing $10,000. When they invaded the house,
however, they discovered that there was no such safe.
Smith and Hickock were captured in Las Vegas,
Nevada on December 30, 1959, following an extensive manhunt which
extended into Mexico.
Smith admitted to cutting the throat of the
father, Herbert Clutter, as well as shooting both Herbert and Kenyon
Clutter in the head with a shotgun at close range. The trial record
shows a dispute as to which of the two shot the women, Bonnie and
Alvin Dewey, chief investigator of the Clutter
family murders, testified at the trial that Hickock insisted in his
confession that Smith performed all the killings; Smith, however,
first claimed Hickock killed the women, but later claimed to have shot
them himself. Although Smith's revised confession coincided with
Hickock's initial statement, Smith refused to testify in court, as did
Hickock, leading to a lack of an official record detailing who killed
the women, aside from Kansas Bureau of Investigation (KBI) Special
Agent Dewey's testimony outlining Hickock's confession, along with
Smith's confession and the latter's subsequent revision.
While Smith had only a grade-school education, he
maintained a strong interest in art, literature and music. He read
extensively, and during his time on death row, wrote poems and painted
pictures for other inmates from photos of their family members.
Perry Smith and Dick Hickock were executed by
hanging on April 14, 1965. Warden Greg Seamon presided over the
hanging of the convicted murderers in Lansing.
Defendants: Richard E. Hickock and Perry
Crime Charged: Murder
Chief Defense Lawyers: Arthur Fleming and Harrison Smith
Chief Prosecutors: Logan Greene and Duane West
Judge: Roland H. Tate
Place: Garden City, Kansas
Dates of Trial: March 22-29, 1960
Sentence: Death by hanging
SIGNIFICANCE: The case provided a classic
example of the limitations of the M'Naghten Test by which defendants
are judged mentally fit to stand trial. Truman Capote's book about the
case, In Cold Blood, further cemented the author's literary
reputation and brought the debate over capital punishment into focus
for millions of readers worldwide.
The people of Holcomb, Kansas, had not forgotten
them, but the trial and punishment of Richard Hickock and Perry Smith
came and went unnoticed by most Americans. Within months of their
execution, however, Smith and Hickock became two of the most famous
murderers in history.
On Sunday morning, November 15, 1959, a successful,
respected, and well-liked Kansas farmer named Herbert Clutter was
found in the basement of his home with his throat cut and his head
blown open by a shotgun blast. His wife Bonnie and their teenaged
children, Kenyon and Nancy, were found bound, gagged, and shot to
death elsewhere in the house. There were no clues nor any apparent
motive. "This is apparently the work of a psychopathic killer,"
declared the local sheriff.
The bloody slayings might have remained unsolved
without the help of a convicted thief, who had once shared a cell with
a small-time check kiter named Richard Hickock. The thief had worked
on the Clutter farm and described it to Hickock, who asked if the
Clutters had a safe. The thief thought they did. Hickock declared that
he would find the farm, rob the Clutters, and kill all witnesses,
adding that his former cellmate Perry Smith would be just the man to
help. Herb Clutter's former hired hand dismissed Hickock's plan as a
fantasy, but he came forward when he heard of the murders.
Hickock and Smith were soon arrested in Las Vegas,
Nevada, for parole violation and passing bad checks. The Kansas Bureau
of Investigation dispatched agents to Nevada, where they questioned
the suspects separately. Hickock denied any knowledge of the slayings,
but a clever interrogation led Smith to confess to having shot the
Clutters. Hickock confessed his part in the slayings the next day and
the two men were returned to Kansas for trial.
The gruesome confessions and physical evidence made
it clear that the accused men were responsible for the killings.
Arguing for the death penalty, prosecutor Logan Greene said, "some of
our most enormous crimes only happen because once upon a time a pack
of chicken-hearted jurors refused to do their duty." The jury
deliberated for only 40 minutes before returning a guilty verdict,
ironically about a minute for each dollar Smith and Hickock had found
in the Clutter home—there was no safe. "No chicken-hearted jurors,
they," Smith joked as he and Hickock were led laughing from the
courtroom. Judge Roland Tate sentenced the defendants to death by
Trial Leaves Questions Over Sanity
Yet the way the trial was conducted left lingering
questions. A defense motion to have Smith and Hickock undergo
comprehensive psychological testing before the trial had been denied
by Judge Tate, who appointed three local general practitioners, not
psychiatrists, to make the required examination. After a brief
interview, the doctors judged the defendants sane.
Defense lawyers had sought the opinion of a more
experienced psychiatrist from the state mental hospital, who diagnosed
definite signs of mental illness in Smith and felt that Hickock's head
injuries in a past auto mishap might possibly have affected his
behavior. Yet the diagnosis was never heard in the Finney County
Under the M'Naghten Test a defendant is ruled to be
sane if he has sufficient mental capacity to know and understand what
he is doing at the time he commits a crime, that it is wrong, and that
it violates the victim's rights. The M'Naghten Test was applied
strictly in the Hickock-Smith trial. By Kansas law, the psychiatrist
was allowed only to give his opinion about the defendants' sanity or
lack thereof at the time they were in the Clutter house. Under this
constraint, the psychiatrist could only answer "yes" when asked if he
thought Hickock was sane by the M'Naghten definition and "no" when
asked if he could surmise what Smith's state of mind was at the time
of the killings. No comment was allowed on the question of whether
Perry Smith was mentally able to control his actions, regardless of
his knowledge that, they were unlawful.
Appeals Fail To Overturn Conviction
Richard Hickock's complaints to the Kansas Bar
Association about the fairness of the trial prompted an investigation.
The arguable mishandling of the case by the defense lawyers, failure
to move the trial venue outside of Finney County, and the acceptance
of a juror who had made questionable statements about the suitability
of capital punishment in the case opened the way for four appeals and
postponements of the death sentence. Court-appointed federal lawyers
tried three times to have the Hickock-Smith case heard by the U.S.
Supreme Court, but each time the court declined without comment.
Hickock and Smith were hanged at the Kansas State Penitentiary on
April 14, 1965, five years after their conviction.
The hangings provided an ending for a book Truman
Capote had been working on since the weeks when the Clutter murders
were still unsolved. A brief notice of the crime in the New York
Times had inspired Capote to choose it as the subject for what he
called a "nonfiction novel," a factually correct work written with
techniques usually employed in writing fiction.
Capote interviewed everyone connected with the
case, from the Clutters' neighbors to Hickock and Smith themselves.
After the killers were captured, he followed their trials and became
their confidant. When his book, In Cold Blood, appeared at the
end of 1965, the lives and deaths of the Clutters and their killers
became intimately known to millions of Americans. In Cold Blood
was an international best-seller and the basis for a 1967 film.
Capote's experience left him opposed to capital
punishment. Instead, he favored the federal imposition of mandatory
life sentences for murder. By the time the Supreme Court issued the
famous "Miranda Ruling" (see separate entry) in 1966, the writer's
celebrity as an authority on criminal matters was such that he was
called upon by a U.S. Senate subcommittee examining the court's
decision. Capote criticized the high court's opinion that arrested
suspects were to be advised of their rights to silence, legal counsel,
and the presence of an attorney during police questioning.
Hickock and Smith would have gone "scot-free" under
such circumstances because of the lack of clues in the Clutter murders,
Capote said. "Any lawyer worth his salt would have advised the boys to
say nothing. Had they said nothing, they would not have been brought
to trial, much less convicted." Special Agent Alvin Dewey, who had
elicited Perry Smith's confession, agreed. Dewey told the subcommittee
that investigators abiding by the Miranda rule would be "talking the
defendant out of telling us anything."
THE CLUTTER FAMILY KILLINGS: COLD BLOOD
By Joseph Geringer
Unlike the other articles I've written for The
Crime Library that garnered information from multiple narratives, this
one is based almost exclusively on a novel, the only full-length
account of the Clutter murders, Truman Capote's classic, In Cold Blood.
But, it is a factual telling of the case done in novel format, a
medium Capote created with the publication of this story in 1965.
Because it is a novel, most of the facts are
related in dialogue between two or more characters. The histrionics of
the case aren't always chronological, but told through a number of
approaches: the scene-setting, the first-person, the second person,
the flashback. From that blend of this dynamic art form, I strove to
reshape the story into a chronological tension line, underscoring the
main points and letting the high drama of the story speak for itself.
Thus it has been rewoven for The Crime Library.
To that end, I rewrote and/or condensed much of the
dialogue to drive forward only the central elements of the story, much
as a screenwriter would do to keep the action moving. But, keep in
mind, none of the facts are altered nor any fantasy inserted. The
story that follows is a true account of the murders, the murderers,
and the people who were involved, from both sides of the fence. The
nuances of Mr. Capote's original tone and texture have remained intact.
Where In Cold Blood, or any other source for that
matter, is quoted word for word, I, of course, indicate such.
Special attention should be paid to two other
sources that I have quoted. A final chapter, called "Analysis,"
borrows heavily from an article written by J.J. Maloney, brilliant
editor of Crime Magazine. This chapter suggests a motive for the
Clutter murders beyond what Capote indicates.
As well, I had the opportunity to obtain a rare
issue of a special 25-year retrospect of the crime, written for the
Garden City Telegram newspaper by Alvin "Al" Dewey, the detective who
helped "crack" the case. This gem of an issue is quoted throughout the
"Measure not the work until the day's out and the
—Elizabeth Barrett Browning
"The village of Holcomb stands on the high wheat
plains of western Kansas, a lonesome area that other Kansans call 'out
there,'" writes author Truman Capote in his novel-like documentary, In
Cold Blood. "Some seventy miles east of the Colorado border, the
countryside, with its hard blue skies and desert-clean air, has an
atmosphere that is more Far West than Middle West. The local accent is
barbed with a prairie twang...and the views are awesomely extensive (with)
grain elevators rising as gracefully as Greek temples."
Relating one of the most heinous true-life crimes
committed in the peaceful era of America's 1950s, the book stunned a
country that was not yet used to Charles Mansons and Sons of Sam. The
above opening lines set the physical landscape of the crime, a rural
God-fearing and placid quilt-work of Americana where the most violent
act should have been nothing more than a bronco busting exhibit at a
rodeo. Villains like Adolph Hitler and Benito Mussolini had been
crushed and were gone as if they never existed; after all, they were
foreigners, damn'em, and should have known better than to interfere
with American ideals. Joe McCarthy said so. The Land of the Free
prevailed — again — and the most loathsome transgressors existed on
the new focal wonder box, television, the worst of the lot winding up
dead on the studio-sound-set streets of Gunsmoke and Bonanza.
In November, 1959, the town of Holcomb was,
according to Capote, a "haphazard hamlet" of houses and storefronts
plunked on the prairie between the Arkansas River and the limitless
stretches of U.S. Highway 50. The burgh was a checkerboard of streets
and lanes, trees carved by nature as stoic souls, hopscotched by
travelers en route to Las Vegas and California, commerced by lumbering
Santa Fe rail cars bringing wheat and barley to the rest of the
country. Its inhabitants farmed mostly; they tended to God's work on
God's soil; on weekends they attended choir practice, 4-H Club
meetings and family picnics. Largely, they were psalm-conscious
Methodists. Neither they nor the rest of the country expected what was
to pass under the midnight sounds of whimpering coyote, brushing
tumbleweed and dreamy train whistle on the outskirts of town.
The closest "big town" to Holcomb is Garden City,
the county seat, less than ten miles distant. In 1959, most of
anything that happened within seventy-five miles was happening at
Garden City. There were dances at one of several night spots, some
with a small orchestra, hotels, restaurants open late, bowling alleys,
movie houses, a radio station, a newspaper and a round-the-clock
Local growers produced a variety of grains; some
raised horses and livestock. One of the more prosperous families in
Finney County was that of Herbert Clutter. His shining white River
Valley Farm, a mile and a half in from the main road, was comprised of
a fine two-story private residence that Clutter built himself in 1948,
and several huge barns and Quonset huts storing a harvest of Westland
sorghum, milo grain and certified grass seed worth, according to
late-1959 prices, a hundred thousand dollars. The harvest was an
accumulation worthy of Mr. Clutter's background, for he had graduated
Kansas State University with a degree in agriculture and had served as
an advisor on President Dwight D. Eishenhower's hand-picked
Agriculture Board. Adjacent to his silos was an open corral where
several hundred Hereford cattle bore the Clutter brand.
At 48 years old, square-jawed, soft-spoken,
Christian-solid Herbert William Clutter was a wealthy man. Wealthy in
more than money, his neighbors said. He was a happily married Spartan
whose family looked up to him and regarded him as the American role
model of everything to strive for in life, and that meant the
garnering of respect. His wife Bonnie adored him. Oldest daughter
Eveanna had emulated her parent's marital bliss; married and living in
Illinois, she and her husband visited regularly. Another daughter,
Beverly, was studying nursing in Kansas City and was engaged to be
married to a boy of whom her mother and father highly approved. The
youngest of the brood, Kenyon and Nancy -- 15 and 16 years old,
respectively - still lived at home and were doing well at Holcomb
The only worry in Clutter's life was, however, not
a trivial one: the condition of his wife Bonnie's health. A bout of
depression had forced her to leave her marital bed to another in a
separate bedroom from where she could quarter her need for silence and
solitude, and to where her husband and children nevertheless loyally
visited, attending to her needs and wants. Doctors at Wesley Medical
Center in Wichita had recently brought positive news. They believed
her affliction was physical, not psychological - due to a deformation
of the spine that created a tension to the system. An operation, they
said, would revive the buoyant woman that was.
With Bonnie flat on her back this November, 1959,
it was up to Mr. Clutter, Kenyon and Nancy to help Mrs. Helm, their
housekeeper, prepare for the upcoming Thanksgiving holiday the coming
Thursday. The house was large and therefore, with company coming,
required more than a casual meeting with the dust cloth and wicker
broom that Mrs. Helm, at her age, could proffer. Even though they had
a housekeeper, Herbert and Bonnie refused to allow their children to
become pampered and indolent; they were expected to pitch in. Their
charge this weekend was to make the house "spic and span," and the
offspring knew what that meant. It meant spotless and sparkling and
scented, from the back porch pantry to the basement to the attic; it
meant gleaming surfaces from the tiled bathroom walls to the Formica
kitchen counters to the living room coffee tables of blue and white
plastic (the most modern of looks in 1959).
Mrs. Clutter collected miniatures - animals, mostly
- which she displayed on shelves throughout the house. These had to
shine as did the shelves they sat on. These tasks impending, coupled
with the usual farm and dairy chores, as well as a number of social
obligations, turned the weekend of November 14-15, 1959, into one
On Friday evening, November 13, Nancy had
participated in Holcomb School's Fall play. This year's offering was
Tom Sawyer, in which she had played a leading role as Becky Thatcher.
Teachers regarded the Clutter girl as one of the brightest. She was
often asked to represent the school in scholastic meets; she had won
several blue ribbons through 4-H, to which her and Kenyon both
belonged since age six; and she was a talented pianist and clarinetist
who performed in occasional variety shows for civic clubs.
"Nancy was a pretty girl, lean and boyishly agile,"
pens Capote, "and the prettiest things about her were her short-bobbed,
shining chestnut hair and her soap-polished complexion, still faintly
freckled and rose-brown from last summer's sun. But, it was her eyes,
wide apart, darkly translucent...that made her immediately likable."
Saturday was Mrs. Helm's day off and this morning
Nancy was put on kitchen duty. Early afternoon, she tutored little
Jolene Katz, whose parents lived down the road, on a pleasant domestic
chore. Because Nancy had recently won a baking contest at the State
Fair, Mrs. Katz asked Nancy if she wouldn't mind showing Jolene a
thing or two about the art of pie making. Always willing to help,
Nancy found the time to do so.
While the aroma of yeast and fresh cherries drifted
through other parts of the Clutter house, the downstairs work den
reeked of a less palatable smell, varnish. Kenyon was putting the
finishing touches to a hope chest he had built all by himself as a
wedding present for older sister Beverly. Good with his hands, he had
cut, sanded, glued and nailed together this beautiful mahogany piece
and, as his brush swiped over the woodwork, he was glad to have his
prize completed in time for Thanksgiving when he planned to give it to
Kenyon's "crewcut hair was hemp colored, and he was
six feet tall and lanky, though hefty enough to have once rescued a
pair of full-grown sheep by carrying them two miles through a blizzard,"
says Capote. The boy's favorite pastime was hunting, and he sometimes
earned money at it, bringing in as many as a half-hundred rabbits to a
processing factory that sent the animals to mink growers. When not
tending to his expected household chores, or studying for an upcoming
exam, he and his friend Bob Jones worked on an old Model T Ford his
parents let him buy from money that he earned.
That same afternoon, Mr. Clutter served as guest
speaker at the monthly meeting of the 4-H Club that met in Garden City.
"As an educated man successful in his profession, as an eminent
Republican and church leader, Mr. Clutter was entitled to rank among
the local patricians (but) he had never sought to associate with the
reigning coterie...he had no use for card games, golf, cocktails, or
buffet suppers served at ten," Capote tells us. His purpose at 4-H
that day was to help plan the upcoming Achievements Banquet.
As the day wore on, Nancy and Kenyon partnered on
some yard work expected to be done before Herbert's arrival home.
Autumn was in the air and the yard teased of a pumpkin pie breeze and
wet hay. Tempted by the carefree aura of the perfect Indian Summer
afternoon, they found time to frolic with their pet collie Teddy and
visit with Babe, their favorite calf. Tracing the sudden smell of
burning leaves, they encountered Alfred Stoecklein, rake in hand. He
was their father's sole resident employee who lived with his wife and
three children in a caretaker's abode a hundred yards from the main
house. The trio exchanged pleasantries and high wishes for the holiday.
Sunset came early as it does in November, and the
Clutters sat down to dinner, except for Bonnie who decided to sleep
through it, not feeling her best this day. About 7 p.m., Nancy's
boyfriend Bobby Rupp stopped by to see if the girl would like to drive
to McKinney Lake to enjoy the beautiful full moon. Herb Clutter, who
didn't approve of teenage rendezvous by moonlight, forbade it; instead,
he invited Bobby in to watch TV with the rest of the family in the
main sitting room. The boyfriend accepted.
According to Rupp less than forty-eight hours later,
"We sat around like any other night - Nancy and I on the couch and Mr.
Clutter in his chair, that stuffed rocker. He wasn't watching
television so much as he was reading a book...(Kenyon) didn't want to
watch TV, he wanted to practice his horn, and when Nancy wouldn't let
him, I remember Mr. Clutter told him why didn't he go down to the
basement, the recreation room, where nobody could hear him. But, he
didn't want to do that...After the sports ended, that was 10:30, and I
got up to go. Nancy walked me out. We talked a while and made a date
to go to the movies Sunday night...Then she ran back in the house and
I drove away. It was as clear as day - the moon was so bright - and
cold and kind of windy; a lot of tumbleweed blowing about. But that's
all I saw. Only now when I think back, I think somebody must have been
hiding there. Maybe down among the trees."
Nancy was the last family member to retire that
evening. In her upstairs bedroom, she put her girlish self through a
midnight ritual of beauty cleansing and creaming, then laying out the
clothes she intended to wear to church the next morning: They included
a red velveteen dress, which she had made. "It was," explains Truman
Capote, "the dress in which she was buried."
Outside, a black 1949 Chevrolet rolled up quietly
into the shadows of the Clutter house.
* * * * *
Many hours later, another automobile, that
belonging to the Ewalts, followed the banks of the Arkansas River and
the white rail fence of River Valley Farm, the Clutter property. It
passed through the avenue of fruit trees - peach, pear, cherry and
apple - whose branches momentarily shaded the windshield from the
bright morning sun. At the wheel was Clarence Ewalt who, as every
Sunday, was dropping his daughter off at the Clutters so that she
could go along with them to church services. She and the Clutter girl
- both named Nancy - were the best of friends.
As customary, at 9 a.m., Nancy Ewalt rang the
Clutter doorbell. She waited. No answer. She rang again. And once
more. This was strange because one of the family usually answered the
door promptly. Mr. Clutter was known, in fact, for his punctuality.
Nancy Ewalt could see that the garage door was open with both of the
Clutter sedans parked within, so she knew they hadn't left without her.
She turned round toward her father and shrugged at the unexpectancy;
in turn, he motioned with his hand to try the side door. Perhaps Mr.
Clutter was working in his private office - perhaps on the phone there
- and didn't hear her ringing.
Good idea! The teenager scurried to where she knew
his office was and rapped several times at that door. When she did,
the door opened ajar. Calling in with at first a shy hello, she
pursued that with a more brazen, Nancy, you awake? Placing one foot
inside the warm, familiar den - she'd been there many times - she
hallooed this time, but again no response. Not even a footstep could
be heard from the silent echo of the adjoining rooms. This wasn't like
the family to oversleep - not the industrious Clutters.
Mr. Ewalt decided that he and his daughter drive on
some to the Kidwell house, down the road. Susan Kidwell was a mutual
girlfriend and might know what's going on. There, Susan telephoned the
Clutters. No one answered. Yes, indeed, how unlike the Clutters.
Ewalt decided that maybe the two girls might return
to River Valley Farm and try once more to rouse the obviously
oversleeping brood. After a staccato of knocks failed to awaken anyone,
the girls, feeling less intimidated as a pair, entered the house
through the kitchen, which they knew was usually open to visitors
night and day.
Susan Kidwell recalls, "We saw right away that the
Clutters hadn't eaten breakfast; there were no dishes, nothing on the
stove. Then I noticed something funny: Nancy's purse. It was lying on
the floor, sort of open. We passed on through the dining room (then)
started up the stairs. The sound of our footsteps frightened me more
than anything, they were so loud and everything else was so silent.
Nancy's door was open. The curtains hadn't been drawn, and the room
was full of sunlight. I don't remember screaming. Nancy Ewalt says I
did - screamed and screamed. I only remember Nancy's teddy bear
staring at me. And Nancy. And running..."
"Scarcely anything awakens attention like a tale of
— Samuel Johnson
Sheriff Robinson and Undersheriff Meier from Garden
City arrived at the Clutter house a little before ten that morning.
They met outside the house with Larry Hendricks, a 29-year-old English
teacher who lived with the Kidwells, from whose house the policemen
were summoned. Hendricks explained what the two girls had seen in
Nancy's room - although their descriptions had been mostly vague. He
also said he was Kenyon Clutter's teacher, and asked for permission to
accompany the lawmen into the Clutter residence; he knew the Clutters
and could possibly be of some assistance in the event of bad trouble,
God forbid. The policemen agreed. Together, the trio went inside
through the kitchen, Robinson and Hendricks straight upstairs to where
the girls found Nancy Clutter, Meier onward into the lower floors. The
teacher noticed that both lawmen gripped the butts of their service
revolvers in their holsters, ready to draw. This unnerved him.
What they found inside was something that would
haunt their dreams for years.
Upstairs, Robinson and Larry Hendricks found Nancy
Clutter's room, its walls and furniture splattered with blood. Nancy
lay on her bed, her face to the wall, the back of her head blown away.
It looked like a shotgun blast at extremely close range. Her wrists
were tied behind her and her ankles bound with what looked like cord
from a Venetian blind. She was in a bathrobe, pajamas and slippers,
appearing to have been killed before going to bed. Because she was
fully dressed, there seemed to be no sign of sexual molestation.
Nauseated, heading back into the corridor, the men
dreaded what probably awaited them in other rooms. They had the whole
house before them and the devil knew what he held in store. The
sheriff's hand trembled, his revolver in it now for reassurance.
The next room they came across was Kenyon's. His
room was empty and in order, but there was no sign of Kenyon — only
his eyeglasses resting on the covers, which were rumpled and semi-drawn
as if he had slept in the bed at least a portion of the night.
At the end of the hall, the men found a door closed,
but unlocked. Cautiously, they stepped in. On the bed across from the
door was the corpse of Bonnie Clutter in white nightgown drenched with
red. "She'd been tied, too," Hendricks explains. "But differently -
with her hands in front of her, so that she looked as if she was
praying...The cord around her wrists ran down to her ankles, which
were bound together, then ran on down to the bottom of the bed, where
it was tied to the footboard - a very complicated, artful piece of
work...She'd been shot point-blank in the side of the head. Her eyes
were open, wide open, as if she was still looking at the killer.
Because she must have had to watch him do it - aim the gun."
Meanwhile the undersheriff had found the bodies of
Kenyon and Mr. Clutter in the basement. Kenyon, in blue jeans and T-shirt,
had been tied in the same intricate pattern as was his mother, then
roped like a captive steer to a davenport on which he lay. His face
had been erased by a shotgun.
But, Herb Clutter, discovered dead in his pajamas
in the furnace room, seemed to have suffered the most. By appearances,
it looked like he had been tortured. Says Hendricks, "I took one look
at Mr. Clutter and it was hard to look again. I knew plain shooting
couldn't account for that much blood...He'd been shot all right, the
same as Kenyon - with the gun held right in front of his face (but)
his throat had been cut, too. His mouth was taped; the tape was wound
plumb around his head...He was sprawled in front of the furnace. On a
big cardboard box that looked like it had been laid there specifically...A
thing I can't get out of my mind. There was a steampipe overhead, and
knotted to it, dangling from it, was a piece of cord. Obviously, at
some point, Mr. Cutter had been tied there, strung up by his hands..."
The sheriff radioed in an APB and soon the house
filled with more police, ambulances, doctors, the local minister,
newspaper reporters and photographers. To one side, the police had
drawn Mr. Stoecklein, the groundskeeper, who related how he had talked
to the Clutter kids only yesterday afternoon, how he had seen no
strangers on the premises, and how he had heard nothing out of the
ordinary overnight. The filled silos that stand between his house and
the Clutters soak up a lot of noise, he explained, although he himself
was surprised that he nor any member of his family had not heard four
roars of a shotgun. A radio broadcaster from station KIUL, airing live
through a Garden City transmitter, was calling the event "a tragedy
unbelievable and shocking beyond words...and without apparent motive."
* * * * *
To one man in particular there were no words strong
enough to describe what happened to the Herbert William Clutter family.
Officially, for want of a better description, Alvin Adams Dewey of the
Kansas City Bureau of Investigation (KBI) said, "I've seen some bad
things, I sure as hell have. But nothing so vicious as this."
Dewey at 47 years old was tall, good looking and
more brilliant than he had ever been; his years as a law enforcer,
which included terms as Finney County's sheriff and as a special agent
for the Federal Bureau of Investigation in New Orleans, San Antonio,
Denver, Miami and San Francisco, sharpened his skills. The place he
loved best was Kansas. The KBI, headquartered in Topeka, had made him
head of operations in the southwestern sector of the state, where he
worked out of Garden City. Housed in the second story of the old
courthouse building, he wasn't one to hide behind a mahogany desk and
reams of authoritarian paperwork. He made it his business to know the
people around him, to familiarize himself with the personalities of
the people in the state. And one of the ones he truly appreciated - in
fact, he had become one of his best friends - was Herbert Clutter.
"But," he made it a point to stress, "even if I
hadn't known the family, I wouldn't feel any different about this
crime. However long it takes, it may be the rest of my life, I'm going
to know what happened in that house: the why and the who."
Dewey had been working on a case in Wichita when he
received the news about the Clutters. At first he didn't believe it,
as he tells us in a special edition of The Garden City Telegram,
published 25 years later. "(After an all-night stakeout) I was asleep
at the Commodore Hotel when the phone woke me a little after 10 a.m. (November
15). It was my wife, Marie. A policeman called her out of Sunday
school to find out where I was, she said. He told her that the Clutter
family had been shot to death (and) wanted me at the scene of the
crime immediately...Bonnie and Herb Clutter? They were right there in
Sunday school, weren't they? Hadn't she seen the Clutter children when
she left ours in the classrooms? 'Alvin,' Marie said shakily, 'they
are all dead. Shot.' That did it. I was awake."
At a press conference on Monday, November 16, Dewey
announced that the county sheriff's department had asked the KBI to
intervene and that he himself was heading up the case. Eighteen men
under him would work night and day until the killers were brought to
justice. The facts to date were that the killers slew the family
between 11 p.m. Saturday and 2 a.m. Sunday. These times were the
"We don't know which of the four (victims) was the
main target, the primary victim," he told reporters. "It could have
been Nancy or Kenyon, or either of the parents. Some people say, "Well
it must have been Mr. Clutter. Because his throat was cut, he was the
most abused. But that's theory, not fact. It would help if we knew in
what order the family died, but the coroner can't determine that."
Dewey alluded to a "second-killer concept". His
friend Herb Clutter had been no shrinking violet; he said, but had
been the kind of guy who fought for his rights and would have fought
like a Hottentot for his family. He had been in top physical condition
and would have given hell to anyone attempting to physically subdue
him. The fellow he knew never would have allowed himself to be
manhandled and bound - unless he had no choice, unless the manhandler
and the binder had an accomplice who pointed a shotgun to his temple.
But, one question remained. He admitted: "How could
two individuals reach the same amount of rage at the same time, the
kind of psychopathic rage it took to commit such a crime?" The concept
Unanswered questions aside, Dewey closed the
conference with a harsh statement. "All I know is that somebody better
watch out." The threat sounded personal. He meant it to sound that way.
Dewey's team of investigators covered the
countryside to talk to anyone who might know anything, who might
provide a clue, a motive. They talked to Herb Clutter's business
associates, even to the tradesmen who had worked for the family -
plumbers, painters, carpenters, landscapers. They spoke with Nancy's
and Kenyon's friends at Holcomb High School, with teachers, with
janitors, with tutors. They addressed Bonnie's doctors, civic leaders
who knew the Clutters, fellow 4-H associates, neighbors. And they
asked the two remaining Clutter daughters if they might have even a
far-fetched notion of a cause of crime. Like all the others
interviewed, Eveanna nor Beverly could see absolutely no reason in
heaven or hell why anyone would want to hurt any member of the brood
on River Valley Farm.
When his associates assembled in Dewey's office to
discuss their findings to date, one of them, Harold Nye, summed up
what the others had discovered: "Of all the people in the world, the
Clutters were the least likely to be murdered."
The detectives paused their search long enough to
attend services, which were held mid-week for the Clutters at Phillips'
Funeral Home in Garden City. Truman Capote calls the event "disquieting."
Within their coffins, the heads of each victim, because of the
severity of facial damage, were encased in a kind of cocoon-like
cotton shading the physical appearances of each face. Susan Kidwell
couldn't stand it; she raced to the parking lot and wept. That red
velveteen dress on her friend Nancy Clutter - there it had been, on
that still, lifeless form without a face. She had helped Nancy pick
out the material for that dress a few weeks ago. It seemed like
Six hundred people, including the children's
classmates, turned out at Valley View Cemetery the day of the
interment. Reverend Leonard Cowan of the First Methodist Church asked
the crowd to swallow their bitterness: "God offers us courage, love
and hope even though we walk through the shadows of the valley of
* * * * *
Developments in the case were slow in coming, but
they were coming. Under ultraviolet light, Dewey noticed two
surprising - rather, alarming — objects of evidence in the crime scene
photo negatives. There was a pair of boot prints left behind on the
cardboard box that had served as Mr. Clutter's slab. Unseen by the
naked eye, the impressions were there in and around the bloodstains
nonetheless. Men's boots. One heel bore a diamond-shaped pattern, the
other the familiar Cat's Paw insignia. Since both Herb and Kenyon were
bare-footed at the time of their deaths, it seemed credible that these
prints belonged to the killers.
Dewey hid this information from the press; he
didn't want the murderers changing their boots. He figured, they may
be literally walking about on their own ultimate undoing. In the
meantime, he studied the police photos for other evidence, asking
himself, "How many animals can I find in these photos?"
Unless and until this footwear could be matched to
some nasty Cinderellas with a shotgun, the prints were not a lot to go
on. Nevertheless, Dewey was delighted to encounter them, considering
the killers had been very careful in cleaning up after themselves,
even to the point of gathering all four ejected cartridge shells from
Now, what of a motive? A neighbor's jealousy? A
business associate's disgruntlement over a deal? There was evidence of
none of that. Of robbery, the most practical, even that seemed hard to
establish. The Clutter homestead hadn't appeared ransacked. The only
hints of theft were in the facts that Nancy's purse lay opened in the
kitchen, seemingly rummaged through, and, as the police had recorded
that day, the contents of Mr. Clutter's billfold were found scattered
in his bedroom. But, nothing of any value seemed to be missing from
the house. Bonnie Clutter, when found dead, still wore an expensive
bracelet. Nancy's jewelry was intact.
Mrs. Helm, escorted by a detective, had gone from
room to room, but observed nothing missing - not chinaware, no
silverware, none of the furniture, no linens, no knick-knacks, nothing
— except, oddly, a small gray Zenith transistor radio from Kenyon's
room. "The boy loved that thing," she told the plainclothesman beside
her. "He wouldn't go anywhere without it, and always put it back there,
on his desk, at the end of each night."
Still, like the boot prints, an absent transistor
radio was no neon signpost leading the way in any direction. Had drugs
been taken, the police might look for a drug addict; had vast amounts
of cash been gone, the police might watch for a suspect who suddenly
drove a brand-new auto; had jewelry or even household items
disappeared, the police could smother every pawnshop broker from here
to hell. But...a transistor radio?
Alvin Dewey spun, bewildered. The Clutter case had
become his obsession, to the extent that it was interfering with his
being a husband to Marie and a dad to his two sons. With Christmas
around the corner, he had been the absolute Scrooge and the farthest
thing from a Father Christmas. He smoked three packs of Lucky Strikes
a day, gulped meals without a thought and hadn't stopped to consider
the time and effort invested in him by his wife, whom he had been
probably pulling through his own wringer of emotions. He festered with
discontentment, like a spoiled little boy who didn't get what he
really wanted under the Christmas tree.
Every time the phone jingled, he leaped off the
sofa, out of bed, out of the tub, away from the backyard basketball
game with his kids. He clambered for it, hoping to hear Santa's voice
at the other end, "Hi, little Alvin, it's me! I forgot to drop off a
very wonderful present for you, something I know you've wanted. Well,
it's on its way, special delivery, just for you! It's gift wrapped,
too — the names of the killers."
Then...as the carolers sang outside his door one
night, and he wasn't in a particularly joyous frame of mind, the phone
jingled. And this time it was Santa - well, close enough - it was
Logan Sanford, the KBI's director in Topeka.
"Merry Christmas, Alv, we have us a witness. An
inmate from Lansing Prison. He believes he knows who the killers are,
two of'em, ex-cellmates. I'm sending the info so you'll have it first
thing in the morning - special delivery.
"For the time being, write these names down:
Richard Hickock and Perry Smith."
"Listen: there's a hell of a good universe next
door; let's go."
— E.E. Cummings
Richard Hickock and Perry Smith were on a joyride.
Tweedle-Dee and Tweedle-Dum, two misshapen vagabonds, grinning, nary a
care in the world, ahead of them Christmas in Miami, open road,
sunlight, the sea breeze and thrills. Behind them was a dirty
windshield, many, many tire marks and Holcomb, Kansas. They had left
no trace of their being there, except for the Clutters which - haha! -
they left cluttered around the place! Haha! They laughed at that one!
Poor Nancy, that young girl...she would have made some guy awfully
happy someday! Haha! Another joke!
Richard - he preferred Dick - was blonde, muscular
and sunburned; he smoked like a fiend and loved to display, open-shirted,
the skull-and-cross-bones tattoo on his chest. In fact, across his
body, Dick had more tattoos etched into his hide than a sideshow freak.
Names of ex-wives and girlfriends in hearts aflame, and nudes in
compromising positions. He bore a cocky smile that never seemed to
fade, even when angry. Maybe because of that wayward smile, or maybe
because of the car accident that had displaced a jaw at one time, his
face seemed forever at odds with itself, the right unmatched with the
left. But, no matter, for Perry said he had a beautiful smile.
Perry, half Indian, was the undulating shadow of
the other; five-feet-four, dark; and he scowled constantly, even when
happy. A motorcycle wreck had left him stunted and dwarfish, his legs
remained twisted and he appeared to be always caught between a sitting
and standing posture, Gumbyish maybe, maybe even undone. He, too, had
his tattoos, many to cover the scars. His favorite was a tiger,
twisted like himself, ready to pounce. Because of the motorcycle
mishap, the bones in his legs never quite healed. He dropped aspirins
as much as Hickock lit cigarettes - and that was incessantly.
The affair in Holcomb was but a small one, and the
murders weren't really planned. They just happened, combustive like, a
rush of madcap adrenaline, then kaput to Farmer Clutter and his happy
little hayseeds. There was no money there, not the safe —full of cash
that Dick had heard about from his former cell buddy at Lansing Prison.
So they grabbed what they could, including a transistor radio that
caught their eyes, and that was, as they say, that. At any rate,
Tweedle-Dee and Tweedle-Dum, blood on their paws, had vamoosed out of
Kansas. In search of Oz.
Geez, the world was funny!
Throughout late November and most of December they
scrambled like hellions, through Mexico and Acapulco (where they took
up with a German named Otto who introduced them to the seediest parts
of town), and back again to Mexico City where they dabbled in the
language, and Perry learned a few new songs in Spanish (he loved to
play a guitar; he brought his Gibson with him wherever they went).
With the venture of a new year just around the bend, and the prospect
of the Kansas Bureau of Investigation having lost their trail for good,
maybe even their interest, the prodigals re-crossed the border, still
in their 1949 Chevy. From Texas, they eventually headed east to
Florida. They were going to spend the Yuletide where the sun shines,
As oak trees turned into cypress and then into
palms, Perry sat beside the driving Dick Hickock and strummed his
guitar, singing in his best Hank Williams vibrato,
Your cheatin' heart will tell on you,
I cry and cry the whole night through....."
* * * * *
Floyd Wells, a convict, stared across the room, out
the bars at the fading twilight. Almost dark now, the sky, no longer
purple. But, veins of gray - the color purple and black make when
mixed - still scratched the flatland horizon. At the large, steady,
gray desk sat Warden Hand of Lansing Prison; in the guest chair afront
the desk sat Alvin Dewey, taking notes. Both men listened as Wells
told his story.
In 1948, he was yet a boy of 19, had left home and
had wound up in Kansas, riding boxcars, hitching, anything it took to
escape an unhappy home. Needing work, he heard that a man named
Herbert Clutter hired out seasonally for harvesting. Clutter was rich
and paid out nigh $10,000 a year to keep his place running smoothly.
So, he sought out this fellow, was hired as a picker, and was treated
very nicely. His entire family was nice to him. Clutter boarded him,
fed him, and gave him a wallet with a bonus $50 at Christmas. He never
forgot that kindness. Well, spring came and Wells was off again, on
the road to elsewhere. He married, divorced, served in the Army, then
in June of this year, 1959, got into trouble, drawing three-to-five at
Lansing for breaking and entry, B&E for short.
His first cellmate, one Richard Eugene Hickock,
smoked incessantly, was tattooed everywhere, played the guitar. They
had got to talking one night and began pondering what they'd do when
they got out of the place. Hickock's time was nearly up - scheduled to
be paroled the following month, August. Hickock talked of maybe
getting together with his buddy, somebody named Perry Smith, who had
just been released from the same hole just a couple weeks earlier.
"I don't exactly recall how Mr. Clutter first got
mentioned," said Wells. "It must've been when we were discussing jobs.
Anyway, I told him how I worked at a considerable wheat spread in
western Kansas. Dick wanted to know if Mr. Clutter was a wealthy man.
Yes, I said, he was. From that point on, Dick never stopped asking me
about the family. How many was they? What ages would the kids be now?
Exactly how do you get to the house? How was it laid out? Did Mr.
Clutter keep a safe? I won't deny it, I told him he did...right behind
the desk in the room that he used as an office. Next thing I knew Dick
was talking about killing Mr. Clutter."
From the side, Dewey's and the warden's eyes met;
the former nodded. Dewey put down his pen now and listened. Forget the
notes. "Go on, Floyd," his voice nudged.
"Well...he said he and his friend Perry was gonna
go out there and rob the place," continued the inmate, "and was gonna
kill all witnesses - the Clutters and anybody else that happened to be
around. He described to me a dozen times how he was gonna do it, how
him and Perry was gonna tie them people up and gun them down. I never
believed for a minute he meant to carry it out. I thought it was just
talk, like you hear plenty of here in Lansing. Nobody takes it serious.
That's why when I heard the broadcast on the radio in my sell - you
know, how those Clutters were butchered — well, I didn't hardly
believe it. Still and all, it happened. Just like Dick said it would.
Just like Dick said it would."
The warden's chamber hushed. Wells' last syllable
hung in the air, haunting, until it dissolved under the whir of the
ceiling fan. Dewey crouched in his chair, his elbows on his knees, his
expression relieved. He thanked God for this stroke of luck, for he
and his detectives had interviewed (what they thought to be) every man
who had ever worked for the Clutters. Yeah, except this one man, Floyd
Finally, the detective cleared his throat. "What
made you tell us all this, Floyd?"
Wells didn't need time to think about that. "It
kinda tortured me, 'spector. It's more than the reward money you're
offering. Nothing's worth taking the chance that others inside will
know I tattled - convicts don't talk about each other, it's kinda a
code — and, well...if somebody finds out, then my life won't be worth
a dead coyote, will it? But, a friend o' mine, he's a Catholic, kinda
religious-like, when I told him about what I knew, he convinced me to
speak out to somebody. I was scared, still am, but I remember Mr.
Clutter and that little wallet with $50 inside. That meant a lot to
* * * * *
Between what backgrounders the prison office
supplied and what his men could gather from other sources, including
relatives and law enforcement agencies, Dewey was able to compile
brief biographical sketches of the two fugitives. The environment in
which a man grows, say the social workers, often breeds a man's
instincts. But, looking over their files - at least the facts that his
men were able to surface from those who knew Richard Hickock and Perry
Smith - the investigator could not understand nor forgive them.
Nothing excused their deed.
Their histories read, as follows:
Perry Edward Smith
Plays the guitar, not badly; likes country and
western music. Descr: 5'4," 156 lbs., high cheekbones, brown eyes/hair.
Born October 27, 1928, in Huntington, Elko County,
Nevada. In 1929, the Smiths relocated to Juneau, Alaska. Both parents
were alcoholic and, in Juneau, Mr. Smith brewed bootleg "hooch". Perry
had one older brother, Tex, Jr. (James) and two older sisters, Barbara
and Fern (who later changed her name to Joy). The parents argued
constantly and over trivialities. The father was abusive, to his wife
and children. By all reports, Perry's mother was caught with a sailor
and her husband beat her almost to death. In 1935, she left him and
took the children with her to San Francisco.
In Frisco, Perry spent most of his time out of
doors away from his drunken mother. He dawdled with several
neighborhood gangs and, in his teen years, spent more time in
detention homes than away from them. Eventually, the boy wound up back
in the custody of his father. Together, they roamed the west in their
jalopy, prospecting, doing odd jobs wherever and whenever.
At this date, the father is believed to be deceased.
At age 16, Perry joined the Merchant Marines and at
eighteen, the Army. He served overseas in the Korean War for 15 months.
According to camp records, however, he spent weeks at a time in the
brig for fighting with other soldiers as well as Korean civilians, and
for carousing. But he received an honorable discharge and was serviced
out at Ft. Lewis in Washington State.
After that, he acquired a job as a car painter
outside Ft. Lewis and with one of his first paychecks bought a
motorcycle, which he raced along the highway with other cyclists. The
fast times ended when he smashed it into an oncoming auto at top speed,
he winding up underneath what was left of the bike. Nearly died, but
miraculously recovered. Spent six months in Washington Hospital and
another half year on crutches. The accident left his legs gnarled like
weathered tree limbs and, according to doctors, he would probably be
in pain the rest of his life.
He was sentenced in March, 1956, to 5-10 years at
Lansing Prison for robbing a Phillipsburg, Kansas store. Was paroled
June 6, 1959.
His current address, on prison papers, was listed
as one in Las Vegas, Nevada. But, according to probation officers, he
has skipped town.
Richard Eugene Hickock
Chain smokes, usually Pall Malls; has worked as a
car painter and apprentice mechanic. Loves to watch sports on TV.
Frequents whorehouses. Descr: 5'10," 175 lbs., stout. Blond hair/blue
Born June 6, 1931, in Kansas City, Kansas. Parents
still alive, living in Olathe.
His youth was, by indication, trouble free. Fair
student; graduated from high school in 1949. First job with Santa Fe
Railroad, earned $75 per week. At the age of 19-years-old, married a
girl named Carol Bryan, who was only sixteen. The couple seems to have
made a try for happiness, had three sons. Dick drove an ambulance
nightly for extra income. Took a full-time job with Mark Buick Company
as a mechanic.
Things went haywire when the couple overbought and
found themselves in financial trouble. Simultaneously, Dick was in an
auto accident that left his face slightly disfigured. Being out of a
job during his recuperation period, the monetary problems worsened.
While married, he impregnated another girl named
Margaret Edna. Left Carol to live with the other woman, forcing Carol
to present divorce papers.
Took to writing bad checks - "hanging some paper"
to use the idiom - and was arrested in January of 1956. Given a
maximum of five years at Lansing Prison for "Cheating and Defrauding".
While incarcerated, Margaret also divorced him.
Paroled August 13, 1959. No criminal actions since.
* * * * *
Now that the KBI had names, Dewey's agents began
scouring the Midwest to determine the two men's activities from their
dates of parole. Smith had returned to his home state of Nevada for a
short spell, but soon appeared in Kansas where he passed several bad
checks to certain emporiums. In early November, he showed up in Olathe,
Kansas, where, it just so happened, former cellmate Hickock had
returned to live with his parents.
Dewey's assistant, Agent Harold Nye, learned that
the suspects had gone on a shopping spree rubberizing checks all over
Kansas City on November 20, five days after the date of the Clutter
killing. According to Truman Capote in his book, In Cold Blood, "Nye
had called on all the reported victims - salesmen of cameras and of
radio and television equipment, the proprietor of a jewelry store, a
clerk in a clothing store - and when in each instance the witness was
shown a photograph of Hickock and Perry Edward Smith, he had
identified the former as the author of the spurious checks, the latter
as his 'silent' accomplice." One cashier characterized Hickock as a "smooth
talker," but said the short little fella remained mute throughout the
Fraud was fraud and checks bounced, but Dewey
wanted big guns, he wanted the death penalty and, therefore, he yet
needed to prove that, in the midst of their self-indulgent "paper
hanging" efforts around the state of Kansas, the duo indeed had had
enough time to visit Holcomb and kill the Clutters. This matter, a
simple mathematical time-clock precision thing, was crucial to the
While interviewing Richard Hickock's parents in
Olathe, Nye uncovered relevant information, concerning their son's
schedule over the now-infamous weekend of November 14-15. Nye found
the Hickocks, Eunice and her husband, a down-home, very congenial
couple who despaired over their boy's waywardness. Without divulging
his suspicions, he inquired about their son's movements during mid-November.
They told him that he had been visited by an oily-haired, leather-jacketed
friend named Perry something-or-other from Las Vegas — they didn't
like his manner nor his looks - on Thursday, November 12. They
wouldn't allow him to lodge in their house, so he stayed in the Hotel
On the morning of Saturday, November14, both Dick
and his friend from Vegas went on, what the Hickocks called, "a
weekend trip," leaving before noon on Saturday (the 14th) and
returning the next day, Sunday (the 15th), about noon. Their
destination, as Dick confided, had been Ft. Scott where that Perry's
sister owed him some money. When they came back to Olathe, Dick to his
parents', Perry to the hotel, Dick announced that the trip had been
fruitless — Perry's sister had left Ft. Scott before they could reach
her. Shame, too; they wanted to use that money to buy a boat.
Nye calculated, even before the couple finished
their narration: Olathe was four hundred miles from Holcomb. The pair
could have easily made the two-way trip, some 800 miles, in a span of
24 hours, with time in between to change their clothes, eat and effect
occasional rest stops.
Before he left, he asked to see their boy's room.
He found it a modest, comfortable little cove, well-dusted, with a bed,
bookshelves and a desk. In the corner, propped against the wall was a
.12-guage Savage shotgun, Model 300.
"You do much hunting?" asked Nye of the older man.
"Me? No, that's his gun, Dick's. He hunts rabbits."
* * * * *
The inspector was sure that gun had been the murder
weapon, but not wanting to arouse the parents at that time left it
"You did right," his boss Alvin Dewey congratulated,
and his eyes poured over Nye's tablet of notes. "One thing remains to
be seen, Hal. And if my hunch is correct, we have our men. Find
Perry's sisters, see if any of them were ever in Ft. Scott or owed
Perry any money. If they had, then it's back to square one. But, I
will wager our oddballs never went to Ft. Scott, but instead went to
visit my friend, Herb Clutter."
He completed that sentence through clenched teeth
as he dropped into his chair, staring at a mileage chart of Kansas on
the wall behind him.
"Be sure your sin will find you out."
— The Bible
Las Vegas was its usual Eden-like self, tropic
breezes even on December 30 and the setting desert sun massaging the
skin with a toasty irridescence. Dick Hickock waited outside the city
post office in the two-toned black-and-white 1956 Chevy they had
recently stolen on their way back west. Inside the building, at
General Delivery, Perry was claiming a large cardboard box they had
shipped insured to the States before leaving Mexico - it contained
clothes and an assortment of personal belongings that they didn't want
to contend with while shuffling from one stolen car to another.
Inside the box, among the potpourri, were two pairs
of boots - one with heels bearing a diamond-shaped pattern, the other
whose heels were made by Cat's Paw.
Having driven from Miami Beach in five days, the
two boys were planning to roost a while here in Vegas in a traveler's
motel that Dick knew about, where he had slept off many a binge, a
cheap line of cabins set back behind the Strip of casinos and eateries.
Parked a few spaces from the Chevy was a police
squad. Officers Ocie Pigford and Francis Macauley had spotted the auto
with the out of state license - number Jo 16212 — and, as was
customary when a cruiser behaved suspiciously at dusk, checked the
plates with Headquarters Central. The number matched with a printout
of cars stolen in Johnson County, Kansas. Now, the two cops waited,
watched, holding back until the squat, dark-haired little man limped
forth from the post office with his package.
When he did so, the prowl car swung into action,
drawing alongside the black-and-white Chevy. Perry and Dick had not
seen the policemen until the barrels of their revolvers poked their
cheekbones through the rolled-down windows.
* * * * *
Alvin Dewey was bathing before dinner at his home
in Garden City when his wife summoned him to the phone. "It's
headquarters," she told him. "Say it's urgent." He reached for the
nearest towel, wrapped himself into it, and sprinted to the phone
stand. Wife Marie nonchalantly returned to her task of setting the
dinner table, but jolted when she heard her husband yelp out behind
her. She wheeled around to see him dancing, phone in hand, yodeling a
chorus louder than the Mormon Tabernacle Choir's rendition of Handel's
"Messiah" last week on TV.
Hugging her, yanking her into a confounded dance
around the front room, looking every bit the fool in a slipping wet
towel but not giving a damn who might see him through the opened bay
window, he repeated over and over in singing refrain, "They got'em in
Vegas! They got'em in Vegas!"
It took Marie only seconds to realize that her
husband had not gone crazy. In fact, he was back to normal.
* * * * *
Hickock and Smith were interrogated separately, but
at the same time, at 2 p.m. on January 2, 1960, at the Detective
Bureau of Las Vegas. Both interrogation rooms, down the hall from each
other, were sterile white, celotex lined and fluorescent lit,
containing a metal table without drawers, a few metal fold-out chairs,
a hidden microphone and tape recorder, and a one-way mirror/window
that allowed inspectors to view the actions and visages of the
prisoner from the adjoining hallway.
Interrogations were conducted by members of the
Kansas Bureau of Investigation. Agents Harold Nye and Roy Church
interviewed Hickock, Chief Dewey and agent Clarence Duntz grilled
Perry Smith. It was Dewey's strategy that the respective probings open
with questions simply about the passing of bad-checks, a concentration
that, he believed, the pair of culprits were expecting. In fact, they
had probably schooled themselves in advance to match their answers.
Dewey figured that Smith and Hickock were at ease about their
suspicion in the Holcomb, Kansas murders. But, he told his agents,
when you have them relaxed, when you have them thinking that they
could easily do a five-year forgery stretch on their hands, drop the
name Clutter - and take note of their expressions.
It was the oldest trick in the book, Dewey admitted.
And it worked every time.
* * * * *
Hickock seemed at ease, bearing his jaunty smile,
when he sat down to face Church and Nye, the latter who was most
verbal and who commenced the interview. "We want to ask you, Dick,
about your activities since your parole. We understand you've been
doing some shopping in Kansas City."
The suspect didn't flinch. He named the stores they
deceived, listing them in order, and maintained that he was sorry
about having done what he'd one. His attitude was one of repentance
and his tone one of you've-got-me-over-a-barrel. But, he expressed, he
wouldn't have had been in this situation now if Perry Smith's sister,
the one who owed him money, would have come through with her
"Ya' see," he told the policemen, "all Perry and I
wanted to do with that money was to buy a fishing boat and hire it out
for deep-sea fishing off the coast of Mexico; woulda made a lot of
money doing that...woulda paid them stores back every cent. Listen to
me now, hear what I'm telling ya' — that's the truth. That was our
"Tell us about Perry's sister," Nye advised.
"I'm getting to that," responded Hickock. "Ya' see,
Perry wrote me a letter telling me has a sister in Ft. Scott, and she
was holding some heavy change for him. Several thousand bucks. Money
his dad owed from the sale of some property in Alaska. He said he was
coming to Kansas to get the dough."
"Perry came to Olathe a month later, and I met him
at the bus station. Then—"
"What date was that? The day of the week." Nye
"And when did you leave for Ft. Scott?" Nye's
questions were rapid fire.
Hickock thought a minute. "Er...yes."
"So you arrived late Saturday afternoon?"
"All right, now you're in Ft. Scott going to
Perry's sister's house. Then what?"
"Perry lost his sister's address, see?"
"I see. Then what? You tried to phone her?"
"Er...no. She doesn't have a phone."
"Then how did you expect to find her?"
"By asking at the post office."
"Did you do that? Did you go to the post office?"
"Perry did." Hickock was aggravated by this gunfire
questioning. "The people at the post office checked and said she moved
outta town. Oregon, I think."
"And she left no forwarding address?"
"So you went on a check spree then for money?"
Nye than asked him where else he and Smith had been
over the six weeks between the disappointing trip to Ft. Scott and the
time he was arrested. "'Wow!' he said, and then summoning his talent,
for something like total recall, he began an account of the long ride
— the approximately ten-thousand miles he and Smith had covered — (naming)
a chorus of entwining names," writes author Truman Capote. "Apache, El
Paso, Corpus Christ, Santillo, San Luis Potosi, Acapulco, San Diego,
Dallas, Omaha, Sweetwater, Stillman, Tenville Junction, Tallahassee...And
when he finished he sat with folded arms and a pleased smile, as
though waiting to be commended for the humor, the clarity, and the
candor of his traveler's tail."
But, the detectives remained dry.
"Have you ever heard of the Clutter murders?" asked
agent Church directly and out of the blue. The spontaneity changed
Hickock's face (as the interrogators expected) a sullen gray, and, for
the first time (as the interrogators again expected), wiped that smile
off the suspect's face.
"Whoa, Nellie Bell! I'm no damn murderer!" Hickock
"You left a witness, Dick," Nye added, "a living
witness who'll testify in court and tell a jury how you and Perry
slaughtered four helpless people the night of November14."
"Wait a minute, I-"
"You say you drove to Ft. Scott?"
"And when you got there you say you went to the
"To obtain the address of Perry Smith's sister?"
"YES! Damnit, how many times do I hafta-"
"Dick, listen!" Nye stopped him short. He leaned
closer to him, meeting his eyeballs, his suddenly frightened eyeballs,
with his own. "Perry Smith's sister never lived in Ft. Scott. And on
Saturday, the post office closes at noon."
* * * *
Alvin Dewey, down the hall, flipped through the
notes he had been taking from Perry Smith's dialogue. Above him,
bluish cigarette smoke swirled around the bare light bulb that
generated a cold, unpleasant series of shadows across each of their
"After your parole from Lansing, you were forbidden
by the courts to return to Kansas. Again, tell me why you returned?"
Smith had grown weary with the gab gab gab, hour
after hour, and wanted out. The clock crawled. He was hungry, his legs
ached, and he needed an aspirin. "Again, as I told you how many damn
times, to see my sister, get that money she was keeping."
At the long end of the table, agent Duntz was
voiceless, letting his boss, Dewey, hammer away at the boy. He admired
the stealth; Perry was cracking; the chips, rather the chunks, were
falling; and he measured the barometer of emotion building; he
mentally paced, ready to step in at the precise moment. He would know
when that moment came by the look in Alvin Dewey's eyes.
"Perry, how far is Ft. Scott from Olathe?" Dewey
"I have no idea, no idea whatsoever," Smith
" One hour? Four hours? More hours?"
"I don't 'member."
"Of course you don't remember because you were
never in Ft. Scott."
Duntz saw that go-get-em-Clarence look in his boss'
eyes and lunged, vocally. A new voice, a new blame, a new spark to
stun their prey. "Perry, admit it, you were in Holcomb, Kansas, not Ft.
Scott. You weren't waiting for your sister. You were killing the
Perry's elbows, which had been resting on the
desktop, wobbled from under him. "I never..."
...But he couldn't continue his sentence, choking
on his own breath. When he finally caught the air he needed to breathe
again, he didn't bother to resume. Only sat there and stared at his
throbbing kneecaps. Really hurting now.
"Never what, Perry?"
"I need an aspirin - please."
* * * * *
Daylight rolled around and the detectives let the
boys rest. Only a while. Then the heat began again with no degree
cooler than where it had paused. It was January 3, 1960, and Dewey
wanted to break this case today. How poignant it would be. Today would
have been Nancy Clutter's seventeenth birthday.
But, it soon became apparent to him that Hickock,
not his charge Perry, would snap first. Perry Smith, that midget-sized
barrel-keg of hate, was holding. The flame wouldn't penetrate deep
enough to ignite the gunpowder. Its surface had petrified. Dewey had
never encountered any fiber like Perry's.
At best, he admitted that the Ft. Scott fiasco was
a fairy-tale, but only to cover their real escapade of staying out and
drinking all night. Mr. and Mrs. Hickock, the Christians they were,
would not have approved. But, the rock would roll no further than that.
Drinking, not killing. Drinking and, all right if ya' must know,
laying a couple prostitutes whose names he couldn't remember. At what
motel he couldn't remember. On what highway he couldn't remember. In
what town he couldn't remember. But, he killed no one. He only drank.
And lived in pain till he numbed. The pain he had
endured those many months after that motorcycle accident and the
humiliation he suffered shuffling around on crooked stubs had
toughened him. And he created an invisible crutch under him that a
hurricane couldn't loosen. Nothing could loosen. Even Mr. Clutter's
best friend, Alvin Dewey.
* * * * *
Hickock's hide wasn't nearly as thick. Three hours
of repetitive banter, responding to the same questions he had answered
yesterday over and over again, rambling while for some reason the
dicks kept letting him ramble, had given him the queen mother of
headaches. He hinted for an aspirin, but Nye wouldn't budge."Dick, I
can see it in your face, we're right and you know we're right. Don't
do this to yourself."
Nye wasn't sure, but it looked like tears began to
swell in Hickock's eyes.
"Dick, the killers of the Clutter family committed
an almost perfect murder, but like I said yesterday, they left behind
a witness. Actually, there are three witnesses. One who will speak in
court and two that, by their mute presence, will do equal if not more
damage. Foot prints, Dick. Foot prints."
Capote pens, "Rising, (Nye) retrieved from a corner
a box and a briefcase, both of which he brought into the room at the
start of the interview. Out of the briefcase came a large photograph.
'This,' he said, leaving it on the table, 'is a one-to-one
reproduction of certain footprints found near Mr. Clutter's body. And
here-' he opened the box - 'are the boots that made them. Your boots,
Dick.' Hickock looked, and looked away. He rested his elbows on his
knees and cradled his head in his hands. 'Smith,' said Nye, 'was even
more careless. We have his boots, too, and they exactly fit another
set of prints. Bloody ones.'"
Agent Church started up with further accusations,
but Dick held up a hand to beg, "Please!" He inhaled deeply, then
gurgled out what he couldn't keep in any longer; it was useless. "Perry
Smith did all the killing, I swear. I was there, but I couldn't stop
him. He killed all the Clutters, all four."
Nye turned to Church. "Get Dick an aspirin for his
headache, and then he can tell us the rest."
"There is nothing so powerful as truth — and often
nothing as strange."
— Daniel Webster
At first Perry Smith didn't believe Alvin Dewey
when he told him his friend Hickock had just confessed. When the
detective offered to play him the recorded conversation as proof, the
other cooly responded with a shrug of the shoulders and asked for a
cigarette. "I suppose ya' wanna hear it from me now?" he asked.
"Tell us on the way home," Dewey said. "We're
taking you guys in separate vehicles back to the Garden City lockup."
He paused, then added, "Perry, Hickock's confession implicates you
directly to the murder, you realize that?"
Smith nodded. "Yeah, I suppose so. And I suppose
it'll mean The Corner for us both."
Leading him out, Dewey agreed, but didn't say so. "The
Corner" was the convicts'
slang for the hangman's scaffold.
In the government car, on the road back through the
open plain and tumbleweed of Kansas, Dewey goaded Smith into talking.
Offering him one of his Lucky Strikes - he had to light it for him,
since the prisoner was manacled — he replied, "Did you know your
buddy's claimed you killed all of the Clutters? He's thrown the whole
pan of hot stew on you, pal."
The ploy worked, and Smith started babbling.
"Well, then I think ya' should hear my version of
it, Dewey." And he talked about how it began, this mess. Of how he was
in Buhl, Idaho when he got Dick Hickock's letter urging him to join
him on a "sure fire cinch". How he came to Olathe and Dick met him at
the Greyhound bus depot; of how Dick's parents didn't like him ("I'm
sensitive that way, I can usually tell what people are thinking"); of
how he boarded in the town hotel; of how Dick visited him there and
drew him a diagram of the Clutter house, recited from memory. "He knew
where the doors were, the halls, where the stairs were going up and
going down. He knew where Herb Clutter's office was, and where a safe
was supposed to be."
He talked about their leaving Olathe and Dick
storing his personal shotgun — a .12-guage Savage, Model 300 — in the
trunk of his '49 Chevy. Of how they stopped in Emporia to buy rubber
gloves (so they wouldn't leave fingerprints) and cord (to bind the
victims). Then stopped again in Great Bend to buy duct tape.
"There we had dinner, a big dinner, and I fell
asleep. When I woke, we were just entering Garden City. We stopped for
gas at a filling station-"
"Which one?" asked Dewey. He was occasionally
stopping his narrative to ask such questions.
"I think it was a Phillips 66."
"'Bout midnight. The attendant told us it was seven
miles more to Holcomb. We followed the road about that distance and he
was right - it was such a small town, Holcomb, if ya' blinked ya'd
miss the consarned place. The car rattled over a railroad track and
then Dick says suddenly, 'This hasta be it!' It was then I noticed he
was turning the Chevy off onto a private road, lined with trees. We
killed the lights. Besides, we didn't need'em to see anyway, the moon
was that full and lalapalooza bright. And as we drove further up the
path, we could see the barns and the silos and house against the moon.
The yard keeper's house too. It was some layout! Dick whispered, 'Now
don't tell me this guy Clutter ain't loaded!' And, not wanting to be
seen, we stopped the car under the shadow of trees and turned off the
They sat in the car a bit until they saw a light in
farmhand Stoecklein's house diminish. After enjoying a mouthful each
of liquor, Smith and Hickock donned the rubber gloves. They slid from
the car, careful not to make any noise; they didn't slam the car doors.
Smith carried the shotgun, Hickock a flashlight and a bowie knife.
From Hickock's diagram, they knew the location of
the office entrance. Darting across the open yard, bathed in moonlight,
they reached the appointed door, took a breath of fresh air to revive
their nerve, then started picking at the lock. To their surprise, the
door nudged inward, unclasped. They stepped over the threshold into
the office and edged the door shut behind them.
"The one window in the room was curtained with
Venetian blinds, but moonlight was peeping through. I closed the
blinds and Dick opened his flashlight. We saw Mr. Clutter's desk, but
sure as hell there was no safe behind it like there was supposed to
be, just a paneled wall with bookcases and framed maps and pictures,
stuff like that on the walls."
Unable to find the presupposed safe, Hickock
decided to rouse the owner of the house and force him to lead them to
it, open it, and relinquish what cash there was inside. "Hell, he
didn't want to accept he'd driven four hundred miles for nothin'! We
moved in darkness across the living room; our damned footsteps
clumping so loud, the floorboards creaking with every movement we
made. Dick hushed me, but I couldn't help it! Somehow we found the
hallway we were looking for and, Dick leading the way, we came to what
he figured was Mr. Clutter's bedroom. Dick shined his flashlight and
turned the doorknob. We heard the squeak of bedsprings as Clutter sat
up. We heard him through the beam of light saying, 'That you, honey?'
Ya' see, he thought we were his wife. Haha! It was clear he'd been
asleep 'cause he blinked in the beam of our flashlight. He was in
pajamas and naturally seemed a little startled to see two strangers in
his house around 12:30 in the morning. We forced him to his feet and
made him move to his office. He stayed in his bare feet, Clutter did,
Dick not even giving him time to put his slippers on."
Despite protests from his intruders, Clutter kept
denying that he owned a safe. He offered whatever cash he might have
in the house, but told them it wasn't very much. He was not in the
habit of keeping loose change around since he did business by check
"And while Dick was shouting at him and telling him
he was a liar and calling him a sonofabitch, all names 'neath the
blue, I fixed the telephone in the room. I pulled the wires straight
out. Later, I did the same to the kitchen one, too.
"It was 'round then I heard a creaking overhead. I
crept from the office where Dick continued to knock Clutter around and
peered up the stairs to the second floor. I could tell there was
someone there, at the top landing I mean, silhouetted against a window.
Then it moved away. In the meantime, Dick had collared Clutter and had
paraded him back to his bedroom where I found the poor guy looking
really nervous. Dick was going through his billfold; helped himself to
some greenbacks from it, stuck them in his pocket, and flung the
wallet and all the stuff from inside it to the carpet. Ya' could see
Dick was real sore in not having found that safe.
"Grumbling, he asked Clutter if his wife had any
money on her, but Mr. Clutter asked us please not to disturb her,
saying that she was an invalid, been sick a very long time. Dick would
hear none of that and insisted on going upstairs anyway. He made
Clutter lead the way."
No one was in the hall when the three men reached
it. All doors along it were closed and Herbert Clutter bypassed them
all to open the door at the far-most end; Smith and Hickock followed
him in. Lighting the lamp beside the bed, he stirred his wife awake.
She saw the aliens, the rifle stick under Perry's arm, and gasped. "Don't
worry, honey," he told her, "these men just want to know if we have
any spare money. I told them they're welcome to anything we have in
the house. They won't hurt us." The woman began to weep, but her
husband patted her hand to calm her down. "No, sweetheart, it will be
all right," he assured.
"We checked Mrs. Clutter's purse that was next to
the nightstand; there was a little money in it, I think, cigarette
dough, and again Dick grabbed it. Now it was time to check the other
rooms, to see if the kids had some coinage, ya' know what I mean? But,
we couldn't rightly leave the mom and dad alone to climb down the
window or something, so we contrived the idea of locking them in the
bathroom, which was down the hall between the other rooms. Noticing
the lady was shaking like a leaf, I grabbed a chair from the hallway
and brought it into the bathroom for her - the john was a pretty big
one - and she sat in the chair, all the while sobbing away and
entreating, and all the while Clutter reminding her we were there just
for their money, that we wouldn't hurt them. And he was right - ya'
see, up to that point we still had no intention of harming no one.
"Next, we fetched the boy - I think his name was
Kenyon - from his room. We woke him up and he seemed too damn scared
to move. Dick yanked him outta bed kinda rough. He was wearing only a
T-shirt, so I threw his pants at him and ordered him to put'em on
"As he did so, I spotted a little gray radio on his
desk - a nice little job from Zenith that I really took a shine to. We
searched his room for cash, couldn't find a red penny, but I liked
that radio. So I took it. At least I wasn't empty-handed so far.
"While we were hustling the scared guy toward his
folks locked in the bathroom, out from her own bedroom walks the girl,
his sister, Nancy. All dressed, like she hadn't been to bed yet; she
wore a kimono kind of thing thrown over her top and jeans; her hair
was wet and drying under a towel. She said something kind wiseacre-like
like, 'Good grief, what is this - some kinda joke?' Guess she thought
we'd laugh, but I think she got the message, though, when she saw my
gun and Dick shoved her into the bathroom with the rest of her family.
Her face paled fast.
"Well, there they were, all the Clutters, pulled
from their beds, trembling like leaves, packed into the can. Haha! The
family we'd come so far to see. But, damnit, no safe! The problem now
was: What the hell to do with'em!"
Buying time to think, the trespassers contrived to
separate the three, tie them up, gag them, scare them into telling
where the family treasure might be hidden. This agreed upon, they
decided to usher the respective clan each to his or her own corner and
play mental gymnastics with them, toss the knife around, wiggle the
gun barrel in their faces, threaten them until patriarch Clutter
relented with the concealed cash.
"In the bathroom we tied their wrists so they
couldn't fight back, ya' see."
Smith had volunteered to be the lasso man ("I was
always handy with a rope") while Hickock covered them with the shotgun.
After they were defenseless, he brought Mr. Clutter down to the
basement at the point of the knife. (Dick remained upstairs,
continuing to guard the other three.) In the furnace room, Smith
directed Clutter to stretch out on the concrete floor after kicking
over a large empty mattress box that had been leaning on the wall. ("I
couldn't have him lying on the dirty, cold floor.") The stumpy little
abductor then proceeded to truss the man's feet and hands together ("His
hands were already tied, literally, and with my knife at his Adam's
apple there wasn't much he could do but relent.") The bridle Smith
wound restricted the man's movements; the more he might struggle the
more he would choke.
"Next thing, I brought the boy down. At first, I
put him in the room with his dad; tied his hands overhead to a steam
pipe. But, I reconsidered. If he broke loose, it would be too easy for
him to free the old man, so I cut him loose and hurried him to the
playroom beyond where there was this big, comfortable couch. I roped
his feet to the couch, and his hands, too. As I was leaving to go back
upstairs, he took a violent coughing jag; out of nervousness, I'm sure.
And 'sides, the whole place gagged of varnish for some reason. I felt
sorry for him and propped his head upon a pillow. 'Member, I still
didn't wanna hurt nobody."
Returning to the second floor, Smith now marched
Mrs. Clutter to her own bed and taped her mouth shut with duct tape (to
prevent her possible cries from awakening her next door neighbors, the
Stoeckleins). "She was still crying as I tied her up; wouldn't believe
that I meant no harm. But, she seemed more concerned about her
daughter than herself, pleading with me not let my partner touch
Nancy. I said I wouldn't let that happen in a million years, but,
frankly, I was worried about that myself. Earlier in the day, ya' see,
Dick was boasting about how he just might have his way with that
teenager if she was pretty enough, and Nancy was a pretty girl. Well,
at this point, things got a little heated and ugly."
Smith found that Hickock had already taken the girl
back to her room, had ordered her onto the bed, and now sat on the
edge of it talking to her in a calming, fraternizing voice. At Smith's
appearance, Hickock cooled. Together, they tied the girl's ankles
together and told her to lie still. Smith bumped Hickock into the
"Then Dick says to me out there, 'I'm gonna bust
that little girl.' And I said, 'The hell ya are!' Ya' see, I hate that
kinda behavior, no one who can't control themselves sexually. That
irks me. We got into a little tiff out there in the corridor outside
her room, but I figured it was no time for us to have our own personal
quarrel. Time'd come to settle that later."
Here, Smith paused and quipped, "That stuff about
Nancy, what he'd have liked to have done with her, I can bet in his
version he didn't tell ya' that, did he?"
Dewey only motioned him to proceed. Smith chuckled,
winked, and went on.
Accordingly, after the flare-up, the boy's
relationship became strained, coupled with the tensions of their crime.
There seemed no alternative at this point but to let the Clutters be
and get the hell out of there. But, Hickock had a one-track mind: He
kept balking about Smith's interference in Nancy Clutter's bedroom. "It
made my stomach turn to think that he was still considering banging
the girl. And that I had admired this guy. I had lapped up all his
brag about how tough he was gonna get with the Clutters, but when the
time came, I had to do most of the work and all he wanted to do was
screw that teenager."
They decided to leave the Clutter house. ("We
couldn't find any money and the whole scene had gone sour anyway.")
Before they left, they checked once more on the Clutter men. Kenyon
was securely tied, and so was his father.
But, Dick wanted to make sure the old man wouldn't
break free to call the cops before they had a chance to clear the
county. He started to wrap Clutter's head in duct tape, his intention
to leave only a space for his nose but slow him down should he
unloosen the binds (after all, he was a large man and no lightweight).
Peeling the tape off to see and talk would hurt like the dickens.
While he worked, Hickock threw epithets and bragged how Clutter was
lucky to live — that if it was up to him he and all his family would
be wiped away. Smith, nearby, reddened.
"This, on top of everything else, made me fume. 'Go
ahead!' I stretched my palm toward Dick, the knife in it. 'You're so
damned hard, you kill him!' Well, he hesitated, he chickened. He
didn't know what to do 'cause I called his damned bluff...Then...
"I guess my mind snapped. I didn't realize what I'd
done 'till I done it. Shoved it in and sliced Clutter's throat - God,
the sound, like somebody screaming under water! At this point, Dick
panicked and wanted to run, but I knew I couldn't leave Clutter like
that; I hadda put him outta his misery. I aimed the gun and shot -
hell, he would've died anyway. Everything kinda exploded after that."
The barrel of the shotgun roared three more times
that night. Kenyon. Nancy. Bonnie. "I made Hickock do the shooting on
Nancy and her mother; I told him I'd had enough." They retrieved all
the discharged shells so the gun couldn't be traced, then hastened out
the same door they came in, through Mr. Clutter's office. And they
didn't speak for another dozen miles, not until their Chevrolet
cleared Garden City.
"You never found your safe," Dewey shook his head.
It had been the most disgusting tale he'd ever heard. More stark, more
dark, than Hickock had told it. "Perry, just how much money did you
and Dick get that night?"
Smith thought a moment. "About forty or fifty bucks."
"In violence, we forget who we are."
— Mary McCarthy
The prisoners were retained at the old-fashioned
but fail-safe Finney County Courthouse calaboose in Garden City; they
were kept separated by wings. Each cell contained a cot, a toilet, a
shower stall, a chair and a table on which they could eat their meals.
Smith kept a diary from a loose leaf notebook the sheriff's wife
provided. As well, somewhat of an artist, he doodled and caricatured.
(During a previous prison term he had painted a portrait of Jesus that
was so beautiful Chaplain Post hung it in the prison chapel, where it
hung for 22 years.) Hickock, a reader, occupied his time by reading;
he preferred Harold Robbins and Irving Wallace novels. While Smith had
little company — his family seemed to have disowned him— Hickock, on
the other hand, entertained family constantly.
A few days behind bars, Smith summoned Alvin Dewey,
saying he wanted to sign his confession statement - but that it needed
amending before he took pen to paper. He confessed that Dick Hickock
had told the truth originally - that he, Perry - did indeed do all the
killing. "I know I laid the murders of Nancy and Mrs. Clutter on him,
but I wanted to fix him for being such a coward behind his brag,
dropping his guts all over the floor." When asked why he was changing
his mind now, Smith replied, "I thought about it, about how Mrs.
Hickock'd feel a lot better knowing her son never pulled the trigger.
That's why I'm setting the record straight."
Dewey later admitted that he never quite accepted
the amended confession, but that, "We were not dependent on a formal
confession from Smith to prove any part of our case. With or without
it, we had enough to hang them ten times over." With directions given
by Smith, the police had unearthed the discharged cartridge shells,
the nylon cord and duct tape used on the Clutters - they had been
buried on a country road — as well as Hickock's shotgun and hunting
knife recovered from his bedroom at his parent's Olathe home.
Trial was slated to commence March 22, 1960.
Because the defendants were without funds to hire a private lawyer,
Judge Roland H. Tate, who would preside, coaxed two local attorneys,
Arthur Fleming and Harrison Smith to accept the no-thanks assignments.
Neither man had wanted anything to do with defending the two repellent
characters, but realized, to use Harrison Smith's words, "Somebody has
to do it." After which he coyly added, "But we won't be very popular
Feelings against Hickock and Smith were aflame
throughout Kansas. The closer they lived to Holcomb, where the murders
took place, and Garden City, where the trial was to be conducted, the
more determined was the population to see the killers hang. County
Attorney Duane West, filing for prosecution, felt comfortable in
making a somewhat-liable statement on Friday, January 15: "If the case
goes before a jury, I will request the jury, upon finding them guilty,
to sentence them to the death penalty. If the defendants waive right
to jury trial and enter pleas of guilty before the judge, I will
request the judge to set the death penalty."
Eight days before the court session was to open,
the defense team made an effort to postpone the trial. Author Truman
Capote explains. "During the past week a boldly lettered notice had
begun to appear in the town's shop windows, and in banks, restaurants,
and the railroad station, and it read: H.W. CLUTTER ESTATE AUCTION
SALE * 21 MARCH, 1960 * AT THE CLUTTER HOMESTEAD. 'Now,' said Harrison
Smith, addressing the bench, 'I realize it is almost impossible to
prove prejudice. But this sale, an auction of the victim's estate,
occurs one week from today - in other words, the very day before the
trial begins...These signs, coupled with newspaper advertisements, and
advertisements on the radio, will be a constant reminder to every
citizen in the community, among whom one hundred and fifty have been
called as prospective jurors.' Judge Tate was not impressed. He denied
the motion without comment."
Tate was, by no means, an unfair man. He conceded
that, as the law dictates, the accused be fairly judged in advance for
their mental capacity to stand civil trial. City doctors were ordered
to conduct a psychological interview. After consideration, they
pronounced both men sane and not prone to suffer mental disorders.
Court convened Tuesday, March 22. First order of
business was the selection of a jury. Not one of the summoned seemed
particularly eager to serve. But, the process was completed in a
surprisingly short period of four hours.
The trial proper began the following day. Public
turnout was large outside the stately white walled Finney County
courtroom on the third floor. The varnished benches running along the
sides and in back of the room held a capacity of 160 people; they
filled fast; many people were turned away. The latter lingered in the
foyer for hot news. Up front were the members of the press, including
a young novelist and reporter named Truman Capote, whose latest work,
Breakfast at Tiffany's, had won national acclaim. He was there today
on assignment from The New Yorker. His resulting articles, which first
appeared in serialized form, would eventually be published under cover
as the award-winning In Cold Blood.
Also in the spectator section were Richard
Hickock's parents, looking very forlorn. Rumor had it that the two
surviving Clutter daughters, Beverly and Eveanna, would make an
appearance, but they did not attend the first nor any of the
subsequent sessions. The event was just too brutal.
However, Arthur Clutter was there. He had driven
one hundred miles to see "the animals" who had killed his brother
Herbert, he told newsmen. "The way I feel I could tear them apart." It
was reported in the next edition of the local paper that Perry Smith,
who had been chewing gum and was affecting a disinterested aire,
happened to turn around just when Clutter's brother was entering the
courtroom. Herb Clutter's brother greatly resembled him and Smith,
noticing him, stopped chewing and gawked as though he was seeing a
Over the next three days, witnesses were called for
the prosecution. Among others were Nancy Ewalt and Susan Kidwell, who
described their discovery of Nancy Clutter's body in her blood-stained
bedroom; Sheriff Robinson, recalling his initial search of the Clutter
house immediately after the murders; County Coroner Robert Fenton,
reading the autopsy report; and Chief Investigator Richard G. Rohleder
of the Garden City police, describing the photographs he took that
ultimately showed the killers' footprints.
Hickock and Smith, in the dramatic lapse of time
that brought them to this moment, had almost forgotten the "witness"
that Alvin Dewey claimed led to their arrest. When his name was called
both twisted in the in chairs as if electrocuted. Floyd Wells,
Hickock's former cellmate, appeared from the back of the court.
"Wells' passage across the courtroom toward the
witness stand was oddly stealthy - as though he expected to encounter
an assassin along the way," Capote noted. "As he walked past Hickock,
Hickock's lips writhed as he whispered a few atrocious words. Wells
pretended not to notice; but like the horse that has heard the hum of
a rattlesnake, he shied away from the betrayed man's venomous vicinity."
Wells repeated the story he had told Alvin Adams in
the warden's office at Lansing, this time for the benefit of the jury.
He iterated his season on the Clutter farm, his imprisonment, his
meeting with Richard Hickock, his discussion about the safe that he
thought Clutter had kept money in. The prosecution, in attempting to
prove pre-meditated murder, found Wells a gold mine.
When asked by Assistant Prosecutor Logan Green
about Hickock's determination to rob the Clutters, he replied, "Hickock
said that if he did rob the place, he wouldn't leave no witnesses."
And when pressed further, the witness answered, "He told me he would
probably tie them up and rob them and then kill them."
After this "mystery witness" had concluded, the
defense never rose again. They tried, hard, to discredit him, as he
was a convict. But, the sign of the gaol loomed like the darkening
shadows over the town outside. Their cross-examination fizzled.
The week ended with the presentation of testimony
from a quartet of FBI agents, experts in ballistic and evidentiary
interpretation. They had analyzed the blood samples, footprints,
cartridge shells, weapon, cord and tape, and verified that these
exhibits are valid evidences of the Clutter murder. Translated this
meant that (according to Alvin Dewey), "The boots of Smith and Hickock
matched he boot prints at the scene...Lab tests proved that the four
shells were fired from the shotgun belonging to Hickock...The end on
the roll of tape matched the end of one of the pieces used to gag
Clutter...The blood particles found in crevices along the soles of
Smith's boots and in the knife handle matched Herb Clutter's blood."
The prosecution rested.
At ten o'clock on Monday morning, March 28, the
defense team began its rebuttal. By noon, the court had adjourned,
their argument already concluded. Their case, simply, was pathetic. No
reflection on the attorneys; they had nothing with which to fight
back. They went through the motions, then called it quits with a half-hearted
plea to the talesmen.
Deliberations lasted a mere forty minutes. That's
all it took for the jury to decide the accused men's fates. On all
accounts, it was GUILTY OF MURDER. Both men had plotted to kill and
had killed each member of the Clutter family.
"And the punishment," said Judge Tate, "is death."
* * * * *
Convicted, Richard Eugene Hickock and Perry Edward
Smith were ordered to Lansing Prison's Death Row. Situated in
Leavenworth County, Lansing Prison (officially Kansas State
Penitentiary) is a turreted stone Inferno dating back to the Civil War.
It was here, on the top floor of the Segregation and Isolation
Building that the two murderers were sentenced to be "hung by the neck
until dead" six weeks after the trial on the unluckiest of days,
Friday the thirteenth, in May.
But, their lawyers appealed the verdict on the
ground that their clients were not offered counsel until after they
confessed and that the physical evidence against them had been seized
without a search warrant. The Appeals Court ordered an investigation
into the matter. May 13, 1960, came and went.
Eventually, the defendants were assigned two top
Kansas City lawyers, Joseph Jenkins and Robert Bingham, to represent
the convicted men in their desperate fight for a new trial. Filing
numerous petitions with the Federal court system, Bingham and Jenkins
were able to fend off three other execution dates: October 25, 1962;
August 8, 1963; and February, 18, 1965. Three times they carried their
case to the Supreme Court, but each time the Court denied the right to
Finally, the Kansas Supreme Court, in March, 1965,
ruled that Hickock and Smith must leave Death Row for good. But, not
the way they had hoped. The final ruling called for them to be
executed between midnight and 2 a.m. on April 14, 1965.
Alvin Dewey, the man who pursued them, the man who
had been one of Herbert Clutter's dearest friends, was on hand that
cold Wednesday morning. "My presence was not obligatory," said Dewey
years later, "but I was more or less expected and, frankly, wanted to
be there...As I stared at the gallows I wondered how I would react to
what I was about to witness." For a brief moment, he admits he felt
sorry for the condemned who knew they were going to die, and in such a
way. "Then I thought of gentle Bonnie Clutter who lay tied to her bed
listening to first one and then another and another shotgun blast
before her turn came."
Hickock was the first to die. "I just want to say I
hold no hard feelings," he told newsmen outside the execution room. "You
people are sending me to a much better place than this has been." On
his way to the gallows he noticed Dewey, and stopped to shake his hand.
"Nice to see you," he said, then climbed the steps to the scaffold.
The noose was tightened around his throat. To the chaplain's cue, "May
the Lord have mercy on your soul," the hangman sprung the trap door.
A half-hour later, after Hickock's body was placed
in a hearse, Perry Smith entered the same chamber. He was chewing gum,
as he had done all through his trial - the trial seemed so long ago
now - and he winked at Dewey. To the awaiting reporters, he said, "It
would be meaningless to apologize now. But, I do apologize." And he
went to his death.
By 1:19 a.m., it was all over.
* * * * *
Sunset brings an amber glow to the waves of Kansas
wheat, and the waves blow rhythmically and carry that color on surge
after surge of poetic dance until it melts into the horizon. Valley
View Cemetery, not far from Holcomb, overlooks that cadence, and, one
gets the feeling, when standing in its midst, that the spirits of the
many resting there are beside you watching the opus, never tiring of
the peace it brings.
Alvin Dewey, a week after the perpetrators were
taken from this world, returned to visit once more with his old
friends, the Clutters. All four were buried side by side under a
single carved headstone. He whispered to them that he missed them, and
that he had done all he could for their honor.
His hat was in his hand, and there was a tear in
his eye. And for a moment he thought - he felt - that a hand had
touched his shoulder. He turned around, but there was no one there. At
least visibly. But, Herb Clutter stood beside him now, nevertheless,
as did the others - Bonnie, Nancy and Kenyon - inhaling the peace of
the dusky Kansas wheat field.
They were peaceful now, at rest. And so was their
friend, the detective.
"The natural man has only two
primal passions, to get and beget."
— William Osler
Writer J.J. Maloney, has drawn, through his
research and knowledge of the criminal mind, some impressive
conclusions about the killings in Holcomb, Kansas, on November 1959,
and the two killers themselves. Not all of them agree with Capote's
Maloney spent 6-1/2 years in reform schools and
prison for murder and armed robbery, but, according to his online
biography, he "educated himself and became an artist, poet and book
reviewer for the Kansas City Star." He was paroled in 1972, already a
He is the author of four books and has edited an
alternative paper out of Kansas City, The New Times. Of the countless
journalism and writing awards he has received, among these are the
American Bar Association Silver Gavel; the Herbert Bayard Swopes Award;
the American Newspaper Publishers Association for Best Investigative
Story; the Sigma Delta Chi Award, Society of Professional Journalists
and Orange County Press Club; and the Thorpe Menn Award. As well, he
has been nominated for five Pulitzer Prizes.
"The publication of In Cold Blood in 1966 launched
Truman Capote firmly into the top rank of American writers," writes
Maloney. "It was - and is - widely heralded as a masterpiece - not
only a masterpiece of writing, but as a brilliant insight into the
"After publication of the book, Capote told George
Plimpton, in an interview for the New York Times, published in January,
1966, that he had been watching for an event that would allow him to
write a 'non-fiction' novel - in his definition, a factual book using
the literary skills of an accomplished novelist. The murder of the
Herbert Clutter family in Holcomb, Kansas, on November 15, 1959,
caught Capote's eye.
"The New York Times said in Capote's obituary in
1984, '...the book that perhaps edified his claim to literary fame was
In Cold Blood, his detailed, painstakingly researched and chilling
account of the 1959 slaying of a Kansas farm family and the capture,
trial and execution of the two killers."
But, Maloney raises some questions about Capote's
(as he puts it) "basic honesty in writing the book" - that is,
Capote's assumptions and interpretations of certain episodes related
in the subject work (which has become, since its publication, the
bottom-line reference account of the event).
Among his several contentions put forth in an
article entitled, "In Cold Blood: A Dishonest Book," is Hickock and
Smith's motive for the murders.
Following are excerpts from a letter that Maloney
wrote in 1968 to Dr. Karl Menninger, author of The Crime of Punishment,
while reviewing the latter's book for the Kansas City Star:
"...It seems that no one has surmised what I
believe to be the true reason that Perry Smith killed those four
people. Everyone seems willing to attribute it to the arcane workings
of the criminal mind.
"Capote glossed over the motivation of this crime
by depicting Smith as being in what one might call, for lack of a
better definition, a moment of schizophrenic disassociation...
"In order to place the crime in proper perspective,
we have to conjecture on the nature of Smith and Hickock's
relationship - which I believe was the result of a prison homosexual
"If my conjecturing is correct, then I feel
confident that Hickock and Smith had been sexually involved in prison
- further, that in any such relationship that Smith would have taken
the feminine role, and psychologically leaned on Hickock because of
Hickock's facade of rough-hewn masculinity.
"After leaving prison, Smith and Hickock probably
discontinued the physical aspect of their relationship, but the
psychological relationship remained intact...
"When Smith and Hickock arrived at the Clutter home
I don't believe that either of them really expected a mass murder to
take place. Smith, I believe, took for granted that Hickock would find
some face-saving reason not to kill the Clutters, and Hickock, of
course, took it for granted that Smith wouldn't or couldn't do
anything so supposedly masculine as cold-bloodedly blow someone's
brains out with a shotgun...
"Then, Smith caught Hickock trying to make love to
Nancy Clutter. He must have been furious! Here, beneath his very eyes,
the man he had surrendered himself to so totally was spurning him in
favor of Nancy Clutter...
"At this point, Smith was irked, jealous, and he
wanted to humiliate Hickock. So he pressed Hickock on the issue of
killing the Clutters. Hickock couldn't do it and, confronted in this
manner, was prevented from saving face. As Shakespeare said, 'Hell
hath no fury like a woman scorned.'
"Smith, in his confusion, jealousy, anger,
disappointment - and spite - reactively and instinctively thrust that
hunting knife into Herbert Clutter's throat (Smith may also
simultaneously have been displacing his anger onto the victim, thereby
symbolically killing his feckless paramour).
"The other three murders were then both defensive -
and, perhaps and probably unrecognized by Smith, an excuse to go
upstairs and kill Nancy Clutter - an act which would be doubly
traumatic to Hickock...
"But Smith could not completely escape the
affection he felt for Hickock, and he relented toward the end, to the
extent of admitting that he had personally killed all four of the