In Cold Blood: Truman Capote’s Chilling Non-fiction Crime Novel

In Cold Blood is a non-fiction novel by author Truman Capote, published in 1966. It chronicles the 1959 murders of four members of the Herbert Clutter family in the small farming community of Holcomb, Kansas.

Herb Clutter was a wealthy farmer in western Kansas. He employed as many as 18 workers, who admired and respected him for his fair treatment and good wages. Two elder daughters, Eveanna and Beverly, had moved out and started their adult lives; Nancy, 16, and Kenyon, 15, were in high school.

Two ex-convicts recently paroled from the Kansas State Penitentiary, Richard “Dick” Hickock and Perry Edward Smith, committed the robbery and murders. It happened in the early morning hours of November 15, 1959. The plan was hatched by Hickock who learned about Mr. Clutter from Floyd Wells, a former cellmate (yes, Hickock had a “jacket”).

Wells had worked for Herb Clutter and told Hickock that Clutter kept large amounts of cash in a safe at his home. Hickock hatched the idea to steal the safe and start a new life in Mexico.

According to Capote, Hickock thought this would be “a cinch, the perfect score.” Hickock later contacted Smith, another former cellmate, to enlist him in committing the robbery with him. The travesty in this is that Herb Clutter had no safe and did all of his business by check.

After driving more than four hundred miles across the state of Kansas on the evening of November 14, Hickock and Smith arrived in Holcomb, located the Clutter home, and parked the car in an isolated area. They had been drinking. The farm sat on a large estate in a desolate and rural area of the town miles away from the center square. The pair entered through an unlocked door while the family slept.

Upon rousing Mr. Clutter, the pair attempted to get him to disclose the whereabouts of the safe. Mr. Clutter denied having one. Hickock and Smith believed that Mr. Clutter was lying. They awoke the rest of the family. Upon discovering there was no safe, they bound and gagged the family and continued to search for money, but found little else of value in the house.

Determined to leave no witnesses, Smith and Hickock briefly debated what to do. Smith, who was a ticking time-bomb, unstable and prone to violent acts in fits of rage, slit Herb Clutter’s throat and then shot him in the head. Capote wrote that Smith later said, “I didn’t want to harm the man. I thought he was a very nice gentleman. Soft spoken. I thought so right up to the moment I cut his throat.”

Kenyon, Nancy, and then Mrs. Clutter were also murdered, each by a single blast to the head. Hickock and Smith left the crime scene with a small portable radio, a pair of binoculars, and less than fifty dollars in cash.

Smith later claimed in his oral confession that Hickock murdered the two women. When asked to sign his confession, however, Smith refused. According to Capote, Smith wanted to accept responsibility for all four killings because, he said, he was “sorry for Dick’s mother.” Smith added, “She’s a real sweet person.”

For Hickock’s part, he has always maintained that Smith committed all four killings.

On the basis of a tip from Wells (Hickock’s former cellmate), who contacted the prison warden after hearing of the murders, Hickock and Smith were identified as suspects and arrested in Las Vegas on December 30, 1959. Both men eventually confessed after interrogations by detectives. They were brought back to Kansas, where they were tried together for the murders.

Their trial took place at the Finney County courthouse in Garden City, Kansas, from March 22 to March 29, 1960. They both pleaded temporary insanity at the trial, but local psychologists hired by the state evaluated the accused and pronounced them sane. The jury deliberated for only 45 minutes before finding both Hickock and Smith guilty of murder. Their conviction carried a mandatory death sentence at the time.

After five years on death row at the Kansas State Penitentiary (now known as Lansing Correctional Facility), Smith and Hickock were executed by hanging just after midnight on April 14, 1965. Hickock was executed first. Smith followed shortly after.

An interesting historical note is that the gallows used in their executions now forms part of the collections of the Kansas State Historical Society.

When Capote learned of the quadruple murder, before the killers were captured, he decided to travel to Kansas and write about the crime. He was accompanied by his childhood friend and fellow author Harper Lee, and together they interviewed local residents and investigators assigned to the case and took thousands of pages of notes.

It took Capote six years to write the book. When finally published, In Cold Blood was an instant success, and today is the second-biggest-selling true crime book in publishing history, behind Vincent Bugliosi’s 1974 book Helter Skelterabout the Charles Manson murders.

It was later turned into a movie produced and directed by Richard Brooks, starring Robert Blake as Perry Smith, Scott Wilson as Richard “Dick” Hickock, and John Forsythe as Alvin Dewey.

For those of you who are crime-novel enthusiasts, I cannot recommend the book and the motion picture enough. Buckle up. You are in for a wild ride.

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Michael is an attorney specializing in entertainment law and a professionally-trained actor. He is a partner in the law firm of DeBlis Law.

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Michael DeBlis

Michael is an attorney specializing in entertainment law and a professionally-trained actor. He is a partner in the law firm of DeBlis Law.