"How much money did you get from the Clutters?"
"Between forty and fifty dollars."
Top Picture Hickock, Richard Eugene (WM)28 KBI 97 093; FBI 859 273 A. Address: Edgerton, Kansas. Birthdate 6-6-31 Birthplace K.C., Kans. Height: 5-10 Weight: 175 Hair: Blond. Eyes: Blue. Build: Stout. Comp: Ruddy. Occup: Car Painter. Crime: Cheat & Defr. & Bad Checks. Paroled: 8-13-59 By: So. K.C.K.
Bottom Picture Smith, Perry Edward (WM) 27-59. Birthplace: Nevada. Height: 5-4. Weight: 156 Hair: D. Brn. Crime: B&E. Arrested: (blank) By: (blank). Disposition: Sent KSP 3-13-56 from Phillips Co. 5-10yrs. Rec. 3-14-56. Paroled: 7-6-59.
As I write this review, I'm sitting about 60 miles from the Clutter house in Holcomb, Kansas. Holcomb is a small, farming community located just west of Garden City. The line from the long running show Cheers perfectly describes this community. Where not only does everyone in the bar know your name, but everyone in the whole county knows your name and knows your family history.
I don't own a copy of In Cold Blood. I usually avoid reading true crime books. I don't have any interest in filling my head with tragedy. I want to go about my life with a degree of caution, but not ruled by the fear I feel such books will instill.
I stopped by the Dodge City Library, and as expected, they had several copies for me to choose from. The librarian at the check out desk, a woman about mid-sixties, slender, elegant, and still attractive paused for a moment looking down at the book. She physically shivered. She looked up at me and said in a whisper, "I remember when this happened".
She can remember watching her father put locks on the doors for the first time and knowing afterwards that there was life before the Clutter murders, and then there was life after the Clutter murders. Her response surprised me. In a time when any crime anywhere in the country is broadcast out to the nation I would have thought some of the impact of the Clutter murder would have been buried under the avalanche of murder and mayhem related to us on a daily basis. For this community and for all the small communities dotting the map of Kansas, and even in the surrounding states, this was something that wasn't supposed to happen in a small town. This was big city crime right in their backyard.
As I talked to people about the Clutter murders most everybody had a physical reaction. They flinched as if they were dodging a blow. You could almost see the pages of their memories fluttering behind their eyes back to 1959. They attributed more deaths to the crime, each of them citing six deaths rather than four. This could have to do with the fact that there were six Clutters. The two older girls had already left the home and started their own lives and were not present on that fateful night when their family was murdered.
In Cold Blood was required reading in many schools in this region clear up until about the 1970s, so even people who were too young to remember the crime have still been impacted by the murders.
In the description above of Perry Edward Smith there is a reference to Phillips County. This has special significance for me because I was born and raised in Phillips County. The family farm is located in Phillips County. My Dad and I graduated from Phillipsburg High School. My Dad was a sophomore in high school in 1955 when Perry Smith decided to burglarize the Chandler Sales Company in Phillipsburg, Kansas and this seemingly insignificant act was really the beginning of this story. Smith and his accomplice, also Smith, stole typewriters, adding machines etc and got away clean. Later they ignored a traffic signal in St. Joseph, Missouri and were pulled over by a cop. All the loot was wedged into the backseat of the car eliciting the wrong kinds of questions from law enforcement. They were extradited back to Phillipsburg, where through an open window (image my embarrassment for the law enforcement of my home county)they escaped. Later Perry was caught again and sent back to Phillipsburg where the law enforcement did a better job of keeping track of him.
Perry Smith received 10 years in the Kansas Penitentiary in Leavenworth. Richard Eugene Hickock was already serving time in Leavenworth for fraud. The two met and became friends. The final piece to the puzzle that not only determined the fate of the Clutter family, but also the fates of Smith and Hickock was for them to meet Floyd Wells. Wells, serving time for some bit of stupidity, had worked for Herb Clutter back in 1948. He told Hickock and Smith that Clutter was not only a rich farmer, but kept a safe full of cash in his house. He was absolutely full of shit.
There was no safe. There was no pile of cash. There was absolutely no reason for four people to lose their lives for $40.
After the murders they went to Mexico for a while, but even though they could live cheaply money still trickled through their fingers, after they burned through the goods they had acquired through the Clutter robbery and through defrauding retail stores, they found that working in Mexico didn't pay well either. They came back up to the United States and there was an interesting moment from the time they were in Miami that for me was really indicative of a level of detachment they were able to maintain. Perry Smith is reading the paper and sees an article about a family that was tied up and shot to death.
"Amazing!" Perry glanced through the article again. "Know what I wouldn't be surprised? If this wasn't done by a lunatic. Some nut that read about what happened out in Kansas."
WTF? Some nut? How about the original coconut heads that murdered the family in Kansas?
Perry does have a moment or two where he weighs what happened in Kansas.
"Know what I think?" said Perry. "I think there must be something wrong with us. To do what we did."
"Deal me out, baby," Dick said. "I'm a normal."
Truman Capote had been looking for the right story for an experimental form of writing he'd been thinking about. He wanted to blend fiction and nonfiction and the Clutter murders struck him as the perfect story to launch this new form of writing. I have to admire his fortitude, for a man of his sensibilities not only spending that much time among farmbillies, but having to befriend them as well. It must have been somewhat of a painful experience.
Capote in the Clutter home
Floyd Wells eventually comes forward and tells what he knows about the murders. He had always liked Herb Clutter and felt bad that what he had told, in a moment of prison bonding, had led to such a vicious conclusion. Without his statement I'm pretty sure that Smith and Hickock would have gotten away with the murders. The slender evidence tying them to the murders would have made it almost impossible to prosecute them. They are convicted with the help of their signed confessions, and the punishment is death. As they are being led back to their cells:
Smith says to Hickock, "No chicken-hearted jurors, they!" They both laughed loudly, and a cameraman photographed them. The picture appeared in a Kansas paper above a caption entitled: "The Last Laugh?"
This is a beautifully written book. I want to thank Harper Lee for her role in helping Capote bring this book to completion. I'm not sure Capote would have had the perseverance to see it through without her holding his hand. I was long overdue to read this. I'm glad that "On the Southern Literary Trail" selected to read this book. It was the right push to get me passed my own reticence in avoiding this genre. I certainly have a connection to this book and that may have colored my perceptions and certainly may have elevated my rating of the book, but given the historic nature of the book, ushering in a new genre that is still vibrantly alive today; I think most anyone should put this on their reading list.