My rating: 5 of 5 stars
“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. This is a place where everyone in the whole county not only knows your name, but also has a working knowledge of your family history going back fifty plus years.
I usually avoid reading true crime books. I don’t want my head filled with tragedy. I want to go about my life with a degree of caution, but not be ruled by the fear I feel such books will instill.
I picked up a copy of this book at the Dodge City Library. The librarian at the check out desk, a woman about mid-sixties, slender, elegant, and still attractive ran her finger along the edge of the spine. I noticed a shiver had rolled up her back and rippled her shoulders. She looked up at me with pinched blue eyes and said in a whisper, “I remember when this happened”.
She watched her father put locks on the doors for the first time. The murders became a demarcation line in her life there was life before the Clutter murders, and then there was life after the Clutter murders. Her response surprised me. We live in a time when any crime anywhere in the country is broadcast out to the nation and something tragic that happens in Illinois or in Virginia or Alaska impacts our lives. I would have thought over time some of the significance of the Clutter murder would have been buried under the avalanche of murder and mayhem that the news cycle brings us 24/7. 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 that happened in their own backyard.
As I talked to people about the Clutter murders most everybody had some kind of physical reaction. They flinched as if they were dodging a blow or took a step back from me or developed a twitch along their jawline. Their eyes gazed through me or beyond me as the fears and anxieties of 1959 came flooding back into their mind. Most of them attributed more deaths to the crime, each of them citing six deaths rather than four. I’m sure they remembered that there was six family members, but two older girls had already left the home to start their own lives. They 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 experienced the tragedy through Truman Capote.
In the description above regarding 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 Father 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 left town with their ill gotten goods in the backseat of the car. Later they ignored a traffic signal in St. Joseph, Missouri and were pulled over by a police officer. The cop was very interested in what was in their backseat. They were extradited back to Phillipsburg, where through an open window (imagine 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 fortunately did a much 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 snapped down in place when they 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 a wealthy farmer, and kept a safe full of cash in his house.
Wells 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 down South the money still trickled through their fingers. After they burned through the goods they had acquired through the Clutter robbery and through defrauding a series of retail stores, they found that working in Mexico didn’t pay well either. They came back up to the United States and there was this baffling moment where 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 considering trying. He wanted to blend fiction and nonfiction. 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 ashamed 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. Their sentencing can have only one conclusion…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?”
When I consider their bravado the last vestiges of any sympathy I may have been harboring for their plight dissipated.
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 surprised about how many connections I have to the events in this book many of which I had no idea until I read them in the book for the first time. I was long overdue to read this book and this experience has certainly convinced me to add more of the classic True Crime genre to my reading queue. This book is legendary not only because of the heinous nature of the crime, but also because Capote was ushering in a new way to tell a story.
If you wish to see more of my most recent book and movie reviews, visithttp://www.jeffreykeeten.com
I also have a Facebook blogger page at:https://www.facebook.com/JeffreyKeeten
View all my reviews
Leave a Reply