In Cold Blood by Truman Capote

  Indeed, the congregation in the square might have been expecting a parade, or attending a political rally. High-school students, among them former classmates of Nancy and Kenyon Clutter, chanted cheerleader rhymes, bubbled bubble gum, gobbled hot dogs and soda pop. Mothers soothed wailing babies. Men strode about with young children perched on their shoulders. The Boy Scouts were present—an entire troop. And the middle-aged membership of a women’s bridge club arrived en masse. Mr. J. P. (Jap) Adams, head of the local Veterans Commission office, appeared, attired in a tweed garment so oddly tailored that a friend yelled, “Hey, Jap! What ya doin’ wearin’ ladies’ clothes?”—for Mr. Adams, in his haste to reach the scene, had unwittingly donned his secretary’s coat. A roving radio reporter interviewed sundry other townsfolk, asking them what, in their opinion, the proper retribution would be for “the doers of such a dastardly deed,” and while most of his subjects said gosh or gee whiz, one student replied, “I think they ought to be locked in the same cell for the rest of their lives. Never allowed any visitors. Just sit there staring at each other till the day they die.” And a tough, strutty little man said, “I believe in capital punishment. It’s like the Bible says—an eye for an eye. And even so we’re two pair short!”

  As long as the sun lasted, the day had been dry and warm—October weather in January. But when the sun descended, when the shadows of the square’s giant shade trees met and combined, the coldness as well as darkness numbed the crowd. Numbed and pruned it; by six o’clock, fewer than three hundred persons remained. Newsmen, cursing the undue delay, stamped their feet and slapped frozen ears with ungloved, freezing hands. Suddenly, a murmuring arose on the south side of the square. The cars were coming.

  Although none of the journalists anticipated violence, several had predicted shouted abuse. But when the crowd caught sight of the murderers, with their escort of blue-coated highway patrolmen, it fell silent, as though amazed to find them humanly shaped. The handcuffed men, white-faced and blinking blindly, glistened in the glare of flashbulbs and floodlights. The cameramen, pursuing the prisoners and the police into the courthouse and up three flights of stairs, photographed the door of the county jail slamming shut.

  No one lingered, neither the press corps nor any of the townspeople. Warm rooms and warm suppers beckoned them, and as they hurried away, leaving the cold square to the two gray cats, the miraculous autumn departed too; the year’s first snow began to fall.



  Institutional dourness and cheerful domesticity coexist on the fourth floor of the Finney County Courthouse. The presence of the county jail supplies the first quality, while the so-called Sheriff’s Residence, a pleasant apartment separated from the jail proper by steel doors and a short corridor, accounts for the second.

  In January, 1960, the Sheriff’s Residence was not in fact occupied by the sheriff, Earl Robinson, but by the undersheriff and his wife, Wendle and Josephine (“Josie”) Meier. The Meiers, who had been married more than twenty years, were very much alike: tall people with weight and strength to spare, with wide hands, square and calm and kindly faces—the last being most true of Mrs. Meier, a direct and practical woman who nevertheless seems illuminated by a mystical serenity. As the undersheriff’s helpmate her hours are long; between five in the morning, when she begins the day by reading a chapter in the Bible, and 10:00 P.M., her bedtime, she cooks and sews for the prisoners, darns, does their laundry, takes splendid care of her husband, and looks after their five-room apartment, with its gemütlich mélange of plump hassocks and squashy chairs and cream-colored lace window curtains. The Meiers have a daughter, an only child, who is married and lives in Kansas City, so the couple live alone—or, as Mrs. Meier more correctly puts it: “Alone except for whoever happens to be in the ladies’ cell.”

  The jail contains six cells; the sixth, the one reserved for female prisoners, is actually an isolated unit situated inside the Sheriff’s Residence—indeed, it adjoins the Meiers’ kitchen. “But,” says Josie Meier, “that don’t worry me. I enjoy the company. Having somebody to talk to while I’m doing my kitchen work. Most of these women, you got to feel sorry for them. Just met up with Old Man Trouble is all. Course Hickock and Smith was a different matter. Far as I know, Perry Smith was the first man ever stayed in the ladies’ cell. The reason was, the sheriff wanted to keep him and Hickock separated from each other until after their trial. The afternoon they brought them in, I made six apple pies and baked some bread and all the while kept track of the goings-on down there on the Square. My kitchen window overlooks the Square; you couldn’t want a better view. I’m no judge of crowds, but I’d guess there were several hundred people waiting to see the boys that killed the Clutter family. I never met any of the Clutters myself, but from everything I’ve ever heard about them they must have been very fine people. What happened to them is hard to forgive, and I know Wendle was worried how the crowd might act when they caught sight of Hickock and Smith. He was afraid somebody might try to get at them. So I kind of had my heart in my mouth when I saw the cars arrive, saw the reporters, all the newspaper fellows running and pushing; but by then it was dark, after six, and bitter cold—more than half the crowd had given up and gone home. The ones that stayed, they didn’t say boo. Only stared.

  “Later, when they brought the boys upstairs, the first one I saw was Hickock. He had on light summer pants and just an old cloth shirt. Surprised he didn’t catch pneumonia, considering how cold it was. But he looked sick all right. White as a ghost. Well, it must be a terrible experience—to be stared at by a horde of strangers, to have to walk among them, and them knowing who you are and what you did. Then they brought up Smith. I had some supper ready to serve them in their cells, hot soup and coffee and some sandwiches and pie. Ordinarily, we feed just twice a day. Breakfast at seven-thirty, and at four-thirty we serve the main meal. But I didn’t want those fellows going to bed on an empty stomach; seemed to me they must be feeling bad enough without that. But when I took Smith his supper, carried it in on a tray, he said he wasn’t hungry. He was looking out the window of the ladies’ cell. Standing with his back to me. That window has the same view as my kitchen window: trees and the Square and the tops of houses. I told him, ‘Just taste the soup, it’s vegetable, and not out of a can. I made it myself. The pie, too.’ In about an hour I went back for the tray and he hadn’t touched a crumb. He was still at the window. Like he hadn’t moved. It was snowing, and I remember saying it was the first snow of the year, and how we’d had such a beautiful long autumn right till then. And now the snow had come. And then I asked him if he had any special dish he liked; if he did I’d try and fix it for him the next day. He turned round and looked at me. Suspicious, like I might be mocking him. Then he said something about a movie—he had such a quiet way of speaking, almost a whisper. Wanted to know if I had seen a movie. I forget the name, anyway I hadn’t seen it: never have been much for picture shows. He said this show took place in Biblical times, and there was a scene where a man was flung off a balcony, thrown to a mob of men and women, who tore him to pieces. And he said that was what came to mind when he saw the crowd on the Square. The man being torn apart. And the idea that maybe that was what they might do to him. Said it scared him so bad his stomach still hurt. Which was why he couldn’t eat. Course he was wrong, and I told him so—nobody was going to harm him, regardless of what he’d done; folks around here aren’t like that.

  “We talked some, he was very shy, but after a while he said, ‘One thing I really like is Spanish rice.’ So I promised to make him some, and he smiled kind of, and I decided—well, he wasn’t the worst young man I ever saw. That night, after I’d gone to bed, I said as much to my husband. But Wendle snorted. Wendle was one of the first on the scene after the crime was discovered. He said he wished I’d been out at the Clutter place when they found the bodies. Then I could’ve judged for myself just how gentle Mr. Smith was. Him and his friend Hickock. He said they’d cut out your heart and never bat
an eye. There was no denying it—not with four people dead. And I lay awake wondering if either one was bothered by it—the thought of those four graves.”

  A month passed, and another, and it snowed some part of almost every day. Snow whitened the wheat-tawny countryside, heaped the streets of the town, hushed them.

  The topmost branches of a snow-laden elm brushed against the window of the ladies’ cell. Squirrels lived in the tree, and after weeks of tempting them with leftover breakfast scraps, Perry lured one off a branch onto the window sill and through the bars. It was a male squirrel with auburn fur. He named it Red, and Red soon settled down, apparently content to share his friend’s captivity. Perry taught him several tricks: to play with a paper ball, to beg, to perch on Perry’s shoulder. All this helped to pass time, but still there were many long hours the prisoner had to lose. He was not allowed to read newspapers, and he was bored by the magazines Mrs. Meier lent him: old issues of Good Housekeeping and McCall’s. But he found things to do: file his fingernails with an emery board, buff them to a silky pink sheen; comb and comb his lotion-soaked and scented hair; brush his teeth three and four times a day; shave and shower almost as often. And he kept the cell, which contained a toilet, a shower stall, a cot, a chair, a table, as neat as his person. He was proud of a compliment Mrs. Meier had paid him. “Look!” she had said, pointing at his bunk. “Look at that blanket! You could bounce dimes.” But it was at the table that he spent most of his waking life; he ate his meals there, it was where he sat when he sketched portraits of Red, drew flowers, and the face of Jesus, and the faces and torsos of imaginary women; and it was where, on cheap sheets of ruled paper, he made diary-like notes of day-to-day occurrences.

  Thursday 7 January. Dewey here. Brought carton cigarettes. Also typed copies of Statement for my signature. I declined.

  The “Statement,” a seventy-eight-page document which he had dictated to the Finney County court stenographer, recounted admissions already made to Alvin Dewey and Clarence Duntz. Dewey, speaking of his encounter with Perry Smith on this particular day, remembered that he had been very surprised when Perry refused to sign the statement. “It wasn’t important: I could always testify in court as to the oral confession he’d made to Duntz and myself. And of course Hickock had given us a signed confession while we were still in Las Vegas—the one in which he accused Smith of having committed all four murders. But I was curious. I asked Perry why he’d changed his mind. And he said, ‘Everything in my statement is accurate except for two details. If you’ll let me correct those items then I’ll sign it.’ Well, I could guess the items he meant. Because the only serious difference between his story and Hickock’s was that he denied having executed the Clutters single-handed. Until now he’d sworn Hickock killed Nancy and her mother.

  “And I was right!—that’s just what he wanted to do: admit that Hickock had been telling the truth, and that it was he, Perry Smith, who had shot and killed the whole family. He said he’d lied about it because, in his words, ‘I wanted to fix Dick for being such a coward. Dropping his guts all over the goddam floor.’ And the reason he’d decided to set the record straight wasn’t that he suddenly felt any kinder toward Hickock. According to him he was doing it out of consideration for Hickock’s parents—said he was sorry for Dick’s mother. Said, ‘She’s a real sweet person. It might be some comfort to her to know Dick never pulled the trigger. None of it would have happened without him, in a way it was mostly his fault, but the fact remains I’m the one who killed them.’ But I wasn’t certain I believed it. Not to the extent of letting him alter his statement. As I say, we weren’t dependent on a formal confession from Smith to prove any part of our case. With or without it, we had enough to hang them ten times over.”

  Among the elements contributing to Dewey’s confidence was the recovery of the radio and pair of binoculars the murderers had stolen from the Clutter house and subsequently disposed of in Mexico City (where, having flown there for the purpose, K.B.I. Agent Harold Nye traced them to a pawnshop). Moreover, Smith, while dictating his statement, had revealed the whereabouts of other potent evidence. “We hit the highway and drove east,” he’d said, in the process of describing what he and Hickock had done after fleeing the murder scene. “Drove like hell, Dick driving. I think we both felt very high. I did. Very high, and very relieved at the same time. Couldn’t stop laughing, neither one of us; suddenly it all seemed very funny—I don’t know why, it just did. But the gun was dripping blood, and my clothes were stained; there was even blood in my hair. So we turned off onto a country road, and drove maybe eight miles till we were way out on the prairie. You could hear coyotes. We smoked a cigarette, and Dick went on making jokes about what had happened back there. I got out of the car, and siphoned some water out of the water tank and washed the blood off the gun barrel. Then I scraped a hole in the ground with Dick’s hunting knife, the one I used on Mr. Clutter, and buried in it the empty shells and all the leftover nylon cord and adhesive tape. After that we drove till we came to U.S. 83, and headed east toward Kansas City and Olathe. Around dawn Dick stopped at one of those picnic places: what they call rest areas—where they have open fireplaces. We built a fire and burned stuff. The gloves we’d worn, and my shirt. Dick said he wished we had an ox to roast; he said he’d never been so hungry. It was almost noon when we got to Olathe. Dick dropped me at my hotel, and went on home to have Sunday dinner with his family. Yes, he took the knife with him. The gun, too.”

  K.B.I. agents, dispatched to Hickock’s home, found the knife inside a fishing-tackle box and the shotgun still casually propped against a kitchen wall. (Hickock’s father, who refused to believe his “boy” could have taken part in such a “horrible crime,” insisted the gun hadn’t been out of the house since the first week in November, and therefore could not be the death weapon). As for the empty cartridge shells, the cord and tape, these were retrieved with the aid of Virgil Pietz, a county-highway employee, who, working with a road grader in the area pinpointed by Perry Smith, shaved away the earth inch by inch until the buried articles were uncovered. Thus the last loose strings were tied; the K.B.I. had now assembled an unshakable case, for tests established that the shells had been discharged by Hickock’s shotgun, and the remnants of cord and tape were of a piece with the materials used to bind and silence the victims.

  Monday 11 January. Have a lawyer. Mr. Fleming. Old man with red tie.

  Informed by the defendants that they were without funds to hire legal counsel, the court, in the person of Judge Roland H. Tate, appointed as their representatives two local lawyers, Mr. Arthur Fleming and Mr. Harrison Smith. Fleming, seventy-one, a former mayor of Garden City, a short man who enlivens an unsensational appearance with rather conspicuous neckwear, resisted the assignment. “I do not desire to serve,” he told the judge. “But if the court sees fit to appoint me, then of course I have no choice.” Hickock’s attorney, Harrison Smith, forty-five, six feet tall, a golfer, an Elk of exalted degree, accepted the task with resigned grace: “Someone has to do it. And I’ll do my best. Though I doubt that’ll make me too popular around here.”

  Friday 15 January. Mrs. Meier playing radio in her kitchen and I heard man say the county attorney will seek Death Penalty. “The rich never hang. Only the poor and friendless.”

  In making his announcement, the county attorney, Duane West, an ambitious, portly young man of twenty-eight who looks forty and sometimes fifty, told newsmen, “If the case goes before a jury, I will request the jury, upon finding them guilty, to sentence them to the death penalty. If the defendants waive right to jury trial and enter a plea of guilty before the judge, I will request the judge to set the death penalty. This was a matter I knew I would be called upon to decide, and my decision has not been arrived at lightly. I feel that due to the violence of the crime and the apparent utter lack of mercy shown the victims, the only way the public can be absolutely protected is to have the death penalty set against these defendants. This is especially true since in Kansas there
is no such thing as life imprisonment without possibility of parole. Persons sentenced to life imprisonment actually serve, on the average, less then fifteen years.”

  Wednesday 20 January. Asked to take lie-detector in regards to this Walker deal.

  A case like the Clutter case, crimes of that magnitude, arouse the interest of lawmen everywhere, particularly those investigators burdened with unsolved but similar crimes, for it is always possible that the solution to one mystery will solve another. Among the many officers intrigued by events in Garden City was the sheriff of Sarasota County, Florida, which includes Osprey, a fishing settlement not far from Tampa, and the scene, slightly more than a month after the Clutter tragedy, of the quadruple slaying on an isolated cattle ranch which Smith had read about in a Miami newspaper on Christmas Day. The victims were again four members of a family: a young couple, Mr. and Mrs. Clifford Walker, and their two children, a boy and a girl, all of whom had been shot in the head with a rifle. Since the Clutter murderers had spent the night of December 19, the date of the murders, in a Tallahassee hotel, Osprey’s sheriff, who had no other leads whatever, was understandably anxious to have the two men questioned and a polygraph examination administered. Hickock consented to take the test and so did Smith, who told Kansas authorities, “I remarked at the time, I said to Dick, I’ll bet whoever did this must be somebody that read about what happened out here in Kansas. A nut.” The results of the test, to the dismay of Osprey’s sheriff as well as Alvin Dewey, who does not believe in exceptional coincidences, were decisively negative. The murderer of the Walker family remains unknown.

  Sunday 31 January. Dick’s dad here to visit Dick. Said hello when I saw him go past [the cell door] but he kept going. Could be he never heard me. Understand from Mrs. M [Meier] that Mrs. H [Hickock] didn’t come because she felt too bad to. Snowing like a bitch. Dreamed last night I was up in Alaska with Dad—woke up in a puddle of cold urine!!!

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