EDITOR’S NOTE: content warning and trigger warning for discussion of assault and murder.
The Murder of the Clutter Family
Have you ever had a book that you know you will love, but it takes a few tries to get into it? For me, it was Truman Capote’s 1966 true crime magnum opus, In Cold Blood. The first few times I picked it up, I didn’t make it more than a few pages. Maybe it was the atmosphere, maybe it was my mood, but for whatever reason I just didn’t latch on. Then one day, I started reading and totally sunk in. It was chilling, thrilling, riveting — storytelling that is absolutely worthy of its accolades and status as masterpiece.
Capote promoted In Cold Blood as non-fiction, but it has been proven to contain inaccuracies and creative license (mainly to do with the time period after the murders). Despite this, you cannot find information on the Clutter family murders that does not reference In Cold Blood. Regardless of its erroneous elements, Capote’s book has become the definitive public record of the crime. The writer and the murders are historically inseparable.
In November of 1959, a short article in the New York Times caught Capote’s attention. Four members of the Clutter family had been murdered in their farmhouse in rural Kansas. Being from a small town himself, Capote became fascinated by the effect a crime of this magnitude would have on the community of Holcomb, Kansas. He wanted to see the house. Capote enlisted the help of his close friend and fellow author, Harper Lee, and the pair travelled to Holcomb. By 1959, Lee had written, but not yet published, her own masterpiece crime novel, To Kill a Mockingbird — loosely based on a 1936 incident in Monroeville, Alabama, where Lee and Capote had spent their childhoods going to the courthouse to watch trials.
Capote and Lee were granted permission to tour the River Valley Farm, home of the late Clutters, much to the chagrin of surviving family who were immediately suspicious of Capote’s motives. They felt, and still feel today, that Capote was an opportunist seeking to profit from their tragedy. Police and residents of Holcomb were also initially wary of Capote, but with Lee’s assistance, he was able to gain the trust of Chief Investigator Alvin Dewey and his wife, and from there spent the next four years interviewing law enforcement, townspeople and the two killers, Richard (Dick) Hickock and Perry Smith about the murders of the Clutter family.
On November 14, 1959, Hickock and Smith drove a stolen car from Kansas City toward the River Valley Farm in Holcomb. In the trunk they had packed a shotgun, a stockpile of shotgun shells, a knife, a flashlight, and gloves. Along the way, they stopped to purchase cord. They arrived at the farm late that night. The house was dark, and the family were asleep. The men entered through an unlocked door and made their way to the first-floor master bedroom.
Herbert Clutter, 48, was awoken by two strange, armed, men asking him where he kept his safe. Herbert was confused, as he did not own a safe, and told this to the intruders. Hickock told Smith to go and cut the phone lines, then asked Herbert who else was in the house. They brought Mr. Clutter upstairs at gunpoint to rouse the rest of the family. Bonnie Clutter, 45, was in the bedroom of one of her two adult daughters who no longer lived at home. Hickock and Smith demanded she tell them where the safe was kept. Bonnie repeated that there was no safe, and they did not have much cash in the house. They then went into the bedrooms of the youngest Clutter children, 16-year-old Nancy and 15-year-old Kenyon. Between the cash from the women’s purses and what they uncovered in a search of the rooms, Hickock and Smith only found about $50.
At this point Hickock and Smith had separated the family members, binding them with the cord they had purchased — Bonnie and Nancy were tied to their beds, and Herbert and Kenyon were taken into the basement. Kenyon was left laying on the couch in the recently finished basement den, while Herbert was taken into the furnace room. The home invaders resumed interrogating Herbert on the whereabouts of his supposed safe. Upon realizing Herbert was telling the truth, Hickock announced they would have to kill everyone because the Clutters had seen their faces. Smith stabbed Herbert in the throat with the knife they had brought, then handed it to Hickock who did the same. Smith then shot Herbert Clutter in the head with the shotgun.
The killers went into the next room where Smith shot Kenyon in the head. They then headed upstairs and shot Bonnie. Hickock began making sexual advances toward Nancy, telling Smith he planned to rape her. Smith was aware of Hickock’s attraction to young girls, and angrily told him he would not allow that to happen. Nancy was shot in the back of the head. There is dispute about who actually shot Bonnie and Nancy. Smith’s confession (which he later refused to sign) stated that he had shot the men, while Hickock had killed the women; but Hickock claimed Smith murdered the entire family.
The Clutters’ bodies were discovered the next morning when friends of Nancy arrived to pick her up for church. Thinking the family had overslept, the girls went in through the unlocked door and found Nancy dead in her bed.
Officers from Garden City Police arrived and meticulously photographed the crime scene. They found a set of tire tracks and a very distinct boot print in Herbert Clutter’s blood. Other than the small amount of cash, the only other items taken from the house were binoculars and a transistor radio. According to friends and neighbours, Herbert Clutter was notorious for rarely having cash on hand; preferring to do business by cheque. This information, combined with the fact only small personal items were taken led investigators to believe the murders were committed by someone known to the family. Police received around 250 tips, but these produced no promising leads.
The first break in the case came when the crime scene photographs were developed. In the picture of the bloody boot print, the camera had picked up a second set of prints in the dust that had not been visible to the naked eye. Police now knew they were looking for two suspects.
The big break came a few days later. An inmate at Kansas State Penitentiary read a newspaper article about the Clutter murders, and contacted police saying he had information. On December 5th, Floyd Wells was interviewed. Years earlier, Wells had worked for the Clutters as a farm hand. He had mentioned to his previous cellmate, Dick Hickock, that his former employer had a safe full of cash. Hickock asked Wells to tell him everything he knew about the Clutter family and their property during the remainder of his incarceration. He told Wells that when he was released he planned to contact his ex-cellmate, Perry Smith, to rob River Valley Farm. Hickock told Wells that he planned to kill anyone in the house.
Police searched the Kansas City home of Hickock’s parents and found the shotgun in the closet of Dick’s bedroom. Hickock’s mother told investigators that he had left the house to meet a friend on November 14 and had not returned until the following afternoon.
After fleeing Kansas, Hickock and Smith spent time in Florida, Mexico and Texas, before ending up in Las Vegas, Nevada. On December 30, an officer recognized the stolen Chevrolet Bel Air that the fugitives were still driving. They were arrested. Among the items found in the car were a pair of motorcycle boots belonging to Smith. The imprint on the soles matched the bloody footprint in the Clutter basement.
Hickock quickly confessed. Smith was reluctant to talk, but once police told him Hickock’s account he wanted to set the record straight with his own statement. Hickock and Smith were convicted of the murders in March of 1960 and sentenced to death. Their appeals failed, and on April 14, 1965, Dick Hickock and Perry Smith were executed by hanging. Truman Capote attended the executions at the request of Smith, with whom the author had developed a friendship.
Capote’s fondness for Smith affected his writing of In Cold Blood. His humanization of the murderers and vivid descriptions of their executions added fuel to debates about the morality of capital punishment.
The surviving members of the Clutter family did not appreciate the novel, or the attention its popularity brought on them. They have rarely discussed the case with media. Some family members, close friends, and the investigators did participate in a 2017 documentary series called Cold Blooded: The Clutter Family Murders wherein they discuss their feeling about Truman Capote’s involvement (you can find it on iTunes). The family’s main complaint seems to be the fact anyone is interested in the murders at all.
I think the reason this case still fascinates people is simple — it’s a nightmare come to life. You wake up and there are strangers in your home, brandishing weapons, insisting you give them something you don’t have. Your family is being held hostage, and there is nothing you can do. You know they are going to kill you. A crime that senseless and brutal is bound to have echoes.
One of the aspects of this case that I find compelling is the possibility that Hickock and Smith were involved in a second multiple murder. During the six weeks the killers were on the lam, another family of four were shot in their remote farmhouse. Hickock and Smith were spotted in town within hours of their deaths.