The Clutter Family Murders; This Is The Real Story Behind Truman Capote’s “In Cold Blood”.
In April 2020, the home with a dark history went back on the market. What was once home to the Clutter family was said to fetch between $150,000 and $200,000 in price.
The seemingly regular farmhouse continues to attract visitors six decades later to see the place where four people were viciously murdered. Its former owners even charged $5 per visitor and created a flourishing operation before it was closed down due to a lack of business permits.
The story sounds like a film script, but how much of Truman Capote’s novel is true?
The Clutter family of six were farmers who lived in Holcomb, Kansas. Their farmhouse was large, with 14 rooms and acres of agricultural land surrounding it. Herbert Clutter had made a fair deal of money using new technology to grow wheat and had been interviewed by The New York Times for what was considered a pioneering move at the time.
The 48-year-old and his wife Bonnie had four children, adults Beverly and Eveanna, 16-year-old Nancy and Kenyon, who was 15. Capote misused Bonnie’s back pain in the novel and gave her postnatal depression with her final child, Kenyon. He said she became bedridden and depressed, but the reality was that Bonnie was a happy woman who played a part in the local community and attended the gardening club.
Holcomb had a population of less than 300 in 1959, and chances were that every family knew each other. The Clutters were known around town as an upstanding family, with Herb known as “the salt of the earth”.
The problem with being part of a small community was that everyone knew each other’s business, and the town knew that the Clutters were wealthy.
Three hundred miles away in a cell at Kansas State Prison, 33-year-old Richard Hickock, who had been convicted of theft, had begun scheming to rob the family of their riches. His cellmate, Floyd Wells, had worked as a farmhand for the family and knew that the Clutters was rich. He told Hickock that Herb kept a safe house, which contained $10,000, around $90,000 today.
Enticed by the easy money, Hickock wrote a letter to his former bunkmate Perry Smith. The 36-year-old had recently been released from prison after serving a sentence for escaping from another prison and stealing a car. Hickock wanted Smith to help him with the robbery, and when he was released in early November 1959, Hickock and Smith began to plan the theft.
On the 14th of November, they made their move and drove their black 1949 Chevrolet to the Clutter’s home, 400 miles away, to wait for the family to go to sleep. Before their journey, the pair had collected the tools they needed for the robbery, including gloves, a flashlight, a knife and a shotgun.
Only four members of the Clutter family were home that night. The two eldest children, Beverly and Eveanna, were adults and had moved out of the family home. Eveanna was living in Illinois with her husband, and Beverly was studying nursing in Kansas City. After a recent bout of pain, Bonnie had moved from the bed she shared with Herb into her own room, where she could have a better night sleep.
Once the family was asleep, Smith and Hickock entered the property through an unlocked door. They woke Herb Clutter and demanded to know where the safe was, but Herb didn’t own a safe. The robbers had been hugely misled about the supposed loot in the farmhouse. Herb famously always paid in cheque form rather than cash, and anyone in the town could have told them this information.
Smith and Hickock bound the family in separate rooms throughout the house and searched for money and valuables. Their hunt turned up very little cash and nothing of value, but instead of fleeing the scene, the thieves decided that they would kill the family to avoid further imprisonment.
They began with Herb and cut his throat with the fishing knife they brought with them. They then shot Nancy and her mother Bonnie in the head. Kenyon was shot directly in the face. The robbers and now murderers left the house, taking with them a small transistor radio, a pair of binoculars and $50 in cash, around $440 today.
Hours later, the bodies of the Clutter family were found by the friend of 16-year-old Nancy, and the police were called from a neighbour’s home. The Sheriff and officers from Garden City arrived around 10 am to investigate the gruesome scene inside the farmhouse.
Bonnie and Nancy were found in the rooms they had gone to sleep in that night, but Herb and his 15-year-old son, Kenyon, were discovered in the basement. Kenyon had been tied to a sofa with a pillow under his head and shot. Herb had been tortured before he had eventually died from either his throat wound or the gunshot to his face. He had also been hanged from a pipe in the basement.
Soon, the house filled with more police, the Kansas City Bureau of Investigation, doctors, a minister, reporters and their photographers. Alvin Dewey from the KBI had become acquaintances with Herb over the years and began to assemble his task force to find the people who had murdered his friend.
Dewey’s team of 18 constantly worked on the case, interviewing anyone who had worked for the family and everybody who knew them. They spoke to school friends, teachers, handymen who had worked on the house, Bonnie’s doctor and neighbours. A reward of £1,000 for information leading to the whereabouts of the killer or killers was set up.
They only stopped briefly to attend the funerals of the four family members. Over 600 people attended the funeral at the Valley View Cemetery. Despite the severity of their facial injuries, all the caskets were open, with cotton covering their faces to mask the damage.
Developments in the case
Once the photos from the crime scene had been developed, the team made a discovery. Under ultraviolet light, a boot print was visible in the images. All the victims were barefoot when the murders took place, so the print could have only belonged to the killer. But the boot was common, and without more evidence, there was little they could do with the new information. Still, the police kept this piece of evidence out of the news for potential use later in the case.
While friends toured the property, making a list of what was missing, they realised that all of Bonnie’s jewellery was still in the house and that the home hadn’t been ransacked. The transistor radio was also noted as missing, but with no items of monetary value gone, the case stalled.
It wasn’t until Christmas a few weeks later when news from a colleague reached Alvin Dewey. Logan Sanford, the Director of the KBI in Topeka, called Dewey to tell him that Floyd Wells, a former prisoner at Kansas State Prison, knew who the killers were and was willing to talk in return for the reward money and early release from prison.
By the time the police and the Bureau had found out that the men they were looking for were Perry Smith and Richard Hickock, the pair were on a cross-country road trip. They had been cashing fraudulent cheques and had been spotted from Kansas to Nevada and their surrounding states. In Mexico, they pawned the binoculars to fund their hitchhike through California to Nebraska, where they stayed for a few days before heading back to Kansas City. From there, they made their way to Florida.
The pair were in Las Vegas when they were apprehended on the 30th of December while picking up a parcel containing personal belongings that Smith had shipped from Mexico. Among the items were the boots worn during the murders.
Local police had run the plates on the car they were driving and found it had been stolen in Iowa. They picked the men up and arrested them for the vehicle theft. The KBI and Alvin Dewey were notified that the men who killed the Clutter family had been apprehended.
Smith and Hickock were flown from Nevada to Garden City in Kansas, where they were separately questioned by Dewey and his team. Both eventually confessed to the murders of the family, though Hickock always argued that Smith killed all four people, not him.
Three months later, on the 29th of March 1960, a jury of men found both Richard Hickock and Perry Smith guilty and sought the death penalty for their crimes.
The men lived on death row for five years at Leavenworth prison in Kansas. During their incarceration, they would talk about the crimes in graphic detail to anyone who would listen, including people outside the prison. One of Perry Smith’s ex-Army friends said in an interview, “He said, ‘As I pulled the trigger there was a flash of blue light. I could see his head split apart.’”
The pair were eventually hanged at the gallows on the 14thof April 1964. Perry Smith was 36 years old, and Richard Hickock was 33.
In the media
The story has been told through various mediums over the years. Truman Capote and Harper Lee were in Garden City writing a piece for The New Yorker when Hickock and Smith were arrested. During their five years in prison, both men spoke to Capote and Lee multiple times, and in 1966 In Cold Blood was published. The story has also been translated to film, with In Cold Blood in 1967, and Capote in 2005.
In a special edition of Richard Brooks’ 1967 film, Truman Capote said in an accompanying documentary that every word in his book and the film were accurate. However, the remaining members of the Clutter family have chastised Capote for his exaggeration of the story and its partakers, despite talking to friends and surviving family members while writing the novel.
In 2017, Cold Blooded: The Clutter Family Murders was released, depicting the fallout from the murders and Capote’s novel.
According to an article on SFGate, the residents of Holcomb were surprised that the house wasn’t torn down after the murders. The home passed through various owners over the years, and in 1990, Leonard and Donna Mader bought the house. When they lived in the home, they claimed that they had constant tourists on their doorstep, coming to look at the property. They soon started charging admission fees.
Truman Capote left a bad lasting impression on the townsfolk of Holcomb due to the discrepancies throughout his novel. However, Harper Lee left the town with a better reputation. She kept in touch with some of the people involved in the case, including Alvin Dewey’s son, Paul, who told his story in Cold Blooded.
Although Holcomb has grown over the years to just over 2,000 residents, the murders still haunt the little town. The killers were caught within six weeks of the brutal murders, but by then, Holcomb residents’ friendly approach had already changed, and the once unused locks on front doors began to serve their purpose.