On 15 November 1959, the peaceful town of Holcomb, Kansas, was shattered by news of the brutal and senseless murder of the Clutter family.
This heinous crime and the subsequent investigation, capture, trial, and execution of the two killers became the inspiration for Truman Capote’s groundbreaking true crime masterpiece, In Cold Blood. Captivating readers upon its 1966 publication, the book became an instant sensation, and remains regarded as one of the greatest works of true crime literature.
What was the real story behind Capote’s famous book, and what was it about this particular case that captivated Capote so much?
The Clutter family
Herbert “Herb” Clutter owned a farm in Holcomb, Kansas, and the Clutter family were known for their prosperity, integrity, and generosity within their local community numbering less than 300 people.
Herb’s two elder daughters, Eveanna and Beverly, had moved out of the family home and started their adult lives. His two younger children, Nancy (age 16) and Kenyon (age 15), both attended Holcomb High School. His wife Bonnie had reportedly been incapacitated by postnatal depression and physical ailments, although it was later claimed Bonnie was happy and played an active part in the local community and attended the gardening club.
Hickock and Smith
Richard “Dick” Hickock and Perry Smith were in Kansas State Penitentiary when a fellow prisoner, Floyd Wells, who had previously been a farmhand for Herb Clutter, told Hickock that Herb was wealthy and kept around $10,000 (around $90,000 today) in a safe in his house. However, Herb Clutter did not own a safe; it was generally known in the area that he preferred transacting business by cheque and seldom carried cash nor kept significant amounts in his house.
After their release and enticed by the prospect of easy money, Hickock planned to steal Herb’s safe and start a new life in Mexico. He wrote to his former cellmate Smith asking him to help.
The robbery – and murders
Hickock and Smith drove over 400 miles to the Clutter home, arriving in the early hours of 15 November 1959 and entering through an unlocked door while the family slept. After unsuccessfully searching for a safe, they woke Herb Clutter, who gave them the little cash he had (less than $50 – approximately $480 today) and told them there was no more.
Hickock and Smith then roused the rest of the family, pushing Bonnie, Nancy and Kenyon into a bathroom, then led Herb to his office, continuing to search the house to check Herb’s statement. They then retrieved the other three family members from the bathroom. Bonnie’s hands were tied in front of her, was gagged, then tucked into a bed in a room on the second floor. Nancy’s hands were tied behind her, then she too was tucked into a bed, yet not gagged.
Herb and Kenyon were then taken to the basement – Kenyon was gagged, his hands tied behind him, and the rope tied to an overhead steam pipe. Changing their minds, he was freed from the pipe, then moved into an adjoining playroom, still bound and gagged. He was placed on a sofa with a pillow behind his head. Herb was also bound and gagged, then pushed onto a mattress box on the basement’s floor. Hickock then returned upstairs to continue the search.
Finding no safe, Hickock angrily returned to the basement. Assuming Herb was withholding information and having planned to leave no witnesses, after a brief debate, Smith – prone to fits of rage – slit Herb’s throat, then shot him in the head. Moments later, Smith and Hickock reentered the playroom where Smith shot and killed Kenyon. Proceeding to the second floor, they entered the room Nancy was in, shot and killed her, then also killed Bonnie with a gunshot to the head.
Hickock and Smith then retrieved the spent bullet shells and fled, taking a pair of binoculars, a portable radio and the approximate $50 in cash they’d obtained from Herb.
Hours later, the Clutter family’s bodies were found by Nancy’s friend. Kansas’ Garden City Police Department Chief Mitchell Geisler arrived, accompanied by Assistant Chief Ritch Rohleder. Rohleder was an expert photographer, and it was through his photographs that under ultraviolet light, a bloody boot-print – invisible to the naked eye – was discovered, which could have only belonged to the killer (later identified as Smith’s). A photograph was also taken of tire tracks they’d left.
The shocking nature of the crime caused disbelief amongst the tight-knit community. Alvin Dewey of the Kansas Bureau of Investigations (KBI) led the investigation, assisted by 4 other KBI investigators and other governmental agencies.
Hickock and Smith immediately fled to Kansas City where Hickock wrote a series of fraudulent cheques. They then headed to Mexico, pawning the binoculars to then hitchhike through California towards Omaha, Nebraska. From there, they headed to Iowa where they stole a car and returned to Kansas City. From there, they travelled to Florida then Nevada.
Meanwhile, Dewey and the KBI had pieced together evidence, corroborated by Floyd Wells (the prisoner who had informed Hickock and Smith about Herb Clutter’s wealth) in exchange for reward money and early release.
Hickock and Smith were captured in Las Vegas on 31 December 1959, roughly 6 weeks after the murders – still driving the stolen car and whilst picking up a parcel containing Smith’s belongings shipped from Mexico, amongst which were the boots that had made the footprint. They were arrested for vehicle theft, after which Dewey and the KBI flew to Nevada. Each man was questioned separately, and both eventually confessed to the murders, though Hickock maintained that Smith killed all 4 people, and later Smith claimed to have dissuaded Hickock from raping Nancy.
Hickock and Smith were taken to Garden City, put on trial, and unanimously found guilty. For the next 5 years they lived on death row at Kansas’ Leavenworth federal prison, where they discussed the crime in graphic detail to anyone who’d listen.
They were both executed by hanging on 14 April 1965.
Truman Capote’s fascination with the case
Prior to their capture, Truman Capote had learned of the Clutter family murders through The New York Times. Captivated by the case, he saw the potential for a gripping story about the inexplicable nature of the brutal, senseless crime, and its impact on Holcomb’s close-knit community.
He travelled to Garden City, Kansas, to write about it, accompanied by childhood friend and fellow author, Harper Lee, who assisted with research. Lee made inroads into the community by befriending the wives of those Capote wanted to interview. The two were writing for The New Yorker when Hickock and Smith were arrested.
Over 6 years, Capote (often aided by Lee) immersed himself in the community, gathering details and conducting extensive interviews with everyone involved in the investigation and most of the residents of the small town as well as friends and acquaintances of the Clutter family. Capote committed conversations to memory and immediately wrote quotes as soon as the interview ended, making thousands of pages of meticulous notes to piece together the events.
During their time in prison, Hickock and Smith spoke to Capote and Lee multiple times. Intrigued by their psychological makeup and motivations, Capote discovered a complex mix of factors that had contributed to their actions, including struggles Smith had experienced in his troubled and difficult past.
The impact of In Cold Blood
Capote’s extensive research culminated in the publication of In Cold Blood in 1966 – seen as one of the greatest works in true crime literature.
Capote’s riveting narrative blurred the lines between fiction and non-fiction, and his novelistic style pioneered the non-fiction novel genre, which he called ‘New Journalism’. Capote’s compelling story, rich in depth, connected readers with the victims yet humanised the killers – revealing their troubled circumstances, complex emotions and motivations, without justifying their heinous acts.
Whilst the book brought Capote significant publicity and wealth, it took a heavy toll. Interestingly, he never published another book. Nevertheless, the book’s enduring impact continues to influence writers and captivate readers, exploring the depths of human psychology in the face of shocking crimes.