In Cold Blood by Truman Capote


  In rebuttal, Counsel Smith suggested that the present situation was “far graver than a simple sanity hearing in probate court. Two lives are at stake. Whatever their crime, these men are entitled to examination by persons of training and experience. Psychiatry,” he added, pleading with the judge quite directly, “has matured rapidly in the past twenty years. The Federal courts are beginning to keep in tune with this science as related to people charged with criminal offenses. It just seems to me we have a golden opportunity to face up to the new concepts in this field.”

  It was an opportunity the judge preferred to reject, for as a fellow jurist once remarked, “Tate is what you might call a law-book lawyer, he never experiments, he goes strictly by the text”; but the same critic also said of him, “If I were innocent, he’s the first man I’d want on the bench; if I was guilty, the last.” Judge Tate did not entirely deny the motion; rather, he did exactly all the law demanded by appointing a commission of three Garden City doctors and directing them to pronounce a verdict upon the mental capacities of the prisoners. (In due course the medical trio met the accused and, after an hour or so of conversational prying, announced that neither man suffered from any mental disorder. When told of their diagnosis, Perry Smith said, “How would they know? They just wanted to be entertained. Hear all the morbid details from the killer’s own terrible lips. Oh, their eyes were shining.” Hickock’s attorney was also angry; once more he traveled to Larned State Hospital, where he appealed for the unpaid services of a psychiatrist willing to go to Garden City and interview the defendants. The one man who volunteered, Dr. W. Mitchell Jones, was exceptionally competent; not yet thirty, a sophisticated specialist in criminal psychology and the criminally insane who had worked and studied in Europe and the United States, he agreed to examine Smith and Hickock, and, should his findings warrant it, testify in their behalf.)

  On the morning of March 14 counsels for the defense again stood before Judge Tate, there on this occasion to plead for a postponement of the trial, which was then eight days distant. Two reasons were given, the first was that a “most material witness,” Hickock’s father, was at present too ill to testify. The second was a subtler matter. During the past week a boldly lettered notice had begun to appear in the town’s shop windows, and in banks, restaurants, and at the railroad station; and it read: H. W. CLUTTER ESTATE AUCTION SALE *21 MARCH 1960 * AT THE CLUTTER HOMESTEAD. “Now,” said Harrison Smith, addressing the bench, “I realize it is almost impossible to prove prejudice. But this sale, an auction of the victim’s estate, occurs one week from today—in other words, the very day before the trial begins. Whether that’s prejudicial to the defendants I’m not able to state. But these signs, coupled with newspaper advertisements, and advertisements on the radio, will be a constant reminder to every citizen in the community, among whom one hundred and fifty have been called as prospective jurors.”

  Judge Tate was not impressed. He denied the motion without comment.

  Earlier in the year Mr. Clutter’s Japanese neighbor, Hideo Ashida, had auctioned his farming equipment and moved to Nebraska. The Ashida sale, which was considered a success, attracted not quite a hundred customers. Slightly more than five thousand people attended the Clutter auction. Holcomb’s citizenry expected an unusual turnout—the Ladies’ Circle of the Holcomb Community Church had converted one of the Clutter barns into a cafeteria stocked with two hundred homemade pies, two hundred and fifty pounds of hamburger meat, and sixty pounds of sliced ham—but no one was prepared for the largest auction crowd in the history of western Kansas. Cars converged on Holcomb from half the counties in the state, and from Oklahoma, Colorado, Texas, Nebraska. They came bumper to bumper down the lane leading to River Valley Farm.

  It was the first time the public had been permitted to visit the Clutter place since the discovery of the murders, a circumstance which explained the presence of perhaps a third of the immense congregation—those who had come out of curiosity. And of course the weather was an aid to attendance, for by mid-March winter’s high snows have dissolved, and the earth beneath, thoroughly thawed, has emerged as acre upon acre of ankle-deep mud; there is not much a farmer can do until the ground hardens. “Land’s so wet and nasty,” said Mrs. Bill Ramsey, the wife of a farmer. “Can’t work nohow. We figured we might as well drive on out to the sale.” Actually, it was a beautiful day. Spring. Though mud abounded underfoot, the sun, so long shrouded by snow and cloud, seemed an object freshly made, and the trees—Mr. Clutter’s orchard of pear and apple trees, the elms shading the lane—were lightly veiled in a haze of virginal green. The fine lawn surrounding the Clutter house was also newly green, and trespassers upon it, women anxious to have a closer look at the uninhabited home, crept across the grass and peered through the windows as though hopeful but fearful of discerning, in the gloom beyond the pleasant flower-print curtains, grim apparitions.

  Shouting, the auctioneer praised his wares—tractors, trucks, wheelbarrows, nail kegs and sledgehammers and unused lumber, milk buckets, branding irons, horses, horseshoes, everything needed to run a ranch from rope and harness to sheep dip and tin washtubs—it was the prospect of buying this merchandise at bargain prices that had lured most of the crowd. But the hands of bidders flickered shyly—work-roughened hands timid of parting with hard-earned cash; yet nothing went unsold, there was even someone keen to acquire a bunch of rusty keys, and a youthful cowboy sporting pale-yellow boots bought Kenyon Clutter’s “coyote wagon,” the dilapidated vehicle the dead boy had used to harass coyotes, chase them on moonlit nights.

  The stagehands, the men who hauled the smaller items on and off the auctioneer’s podium, were Paul Helm, Vic Irsik, and Alfred Stoecklein, each of them an old, still-faithful employee of the late Herbert W. Clutter. Assisting at the disposal of his possessions was their final service, for today was their last day at River Valley Farm; the property had been leased to an Oklahoma rancher, and henceforward strangers would live and work there. As the auction progressed, and Mr. Clutter’s worldly domain dwindled, gradually vanished, Paul Helm, remembering the burial of the murdered family, said, “It’s like a second funeral.”

  The last thing to go was the contents of the livestock corral, mostly horses, including Nancy’s horse, big, fat Babe, who was much beyond her prime. It was late afternoon, school was out, and several schoolmates of Nancy’s were among the spectators when bidding on the horse began; Susan Kidwell was there. Sue, who had adopted another of Nancy’s orphaned pets, a cat, wished she could give Babe a home, for she loved the old horse and knew how much Nancy had loved her. The two girls had often gone riding together aboard Babe’s wide back, jogged through the wheat fields on hot summer evenings down to the river and into the water, the mare wading against the current until, as Sue once described it, “the three of us were cool as fish.” But Sue had no place to keep a horse.

  “I hear fifty . . . sixty-five . . . seventy . . .”: the bidding was laggardly, nobody seemed really to want Babe, and the man who got her, a Mennonite farmer who said he might use her for plowing, paid seventy-five dollars. As he led her out of the corral, Sue Kidwell ran forward; she raised her hand as though to wave goodbye, but instead clasped it over her mouth.

  The Garden City Telegram, on the eve of the trial’s start, printed the following editorial: “Some may think the eyes of the entire nation are on Garden City during this sensational murder trial. But they are not. Even a hundred miles west of here in Colorado few persons are even acquainted with the case—other than just remembering some members of a prominent family were slain. This is a sad commentary on the state of crime in our nation. Since the four members of the Clutter family were killed last fall, several other such multiple murders have occurred in various parts of the country. Just during the few days leading up to this trial at least three mass murder cases broke into the headlines. As a result, this crime and trial are just one of many such cases people have read about and forgotten. . . .”

  Although the eyes of the nation wer
e not upon them, the demeanor of the event’s main participants, from the court recorder to the judge himself, was markedly self-aware on the morning of the court’s first convening. All four of the lawyers sported new suits; the new shoes of the big-footed county attorney creaked and squealed with every step. Hickock, too, was sharply dressed in clothes provided by his parents: trim blue-serge trousers, a white shirt, a narrow dark-blue tie. Only Perry Smith, who owned neither jacket nor tie, seemed sartorially misplaced. Wearing an open-necked shirt (borrowed from Mr. Meier) and blue jeans rolled up at the cuffs, he looked as lonely and inappropriate as a seagull in a wheat field.

  The courtroom, an unpretentious chamber situated on the third floor of the Finney County Courthouse, has dull white walls and furnishings of darkly varnished wood. The spectator benches can seat perhaps one hundred and sixty persons. On Tuesday morning, March 22, the benches were occupied exclusively by the all-male venire of Finney County residents from which a jury was to be selected. Not many of the summoned citizenry seemed anxious to serve (one potential juror, in conversation with another, said, “They can’t use me. I can’t hear well enough.” To which his friend, after a bit of sly reflection, replied, “Come to think of it, my hearing’s not too good either”), and it was generally thought that the choosing of the jury would take several days. As it turned out, the process was completed within four hours; moreover, the jury, including two alternative members, was extracted from the first forty-four candidates. Seven were rejected on pre-emptory challenge by the defense, and three were excused at the request of the prosecution; another twenty won dismissal either because they opposed capital punishment or because they admitted to having already formed a firm opinion regarding the guilt of the defendants.

  The fourteen men ultimately elected consisted of half a dozen farmers, a pharmacist, a nursery manager, an airport employee, a well driller, two salesmen, a machinist, and the manager of Ray’s Bowling Alley. They were all family men (several had five children or more), and were seriously affiliated with one or another of the local churches. During the voir dire examination, four of them told the court that they had been personally, though not intimately, acquainted with Mr. Clutter; but upon further questioning, each said he did not feel this circumstance would hinder his ability to reach an impartial verdict. The airport employee, a middle-aged man named N. L. Dunnan, said, when asked his opinion of capital punishment, “Ordinarily I’m against it. But in this case, no”—a declaration which, to some who heard it, seemed clearly indicative of prejudice. Dunnan was nevertheless accepted as a juror.

  The defendants were inattentive observers of the voir dire proceedings. The previous day, Dr. Jones, the psychiatrist who had volunteered to examine them, had interviewed them separately for approximately two hours: at the end of the interviews, he had suggested that they each write for him an autobiographical statement, and it was the act of composing these statements that occupied the accused throughout the hours spent assembling a jury. Seated at opposite ends of their counsels’ table, Hickock worked with a pen and Smith with a pencil.

  Smith wrote:

  I was born Perry Edward Smith Oct. 27 1928 in Huntington, Elko County, Nevada, which is situated way out in the boon docks, so to speak. I recall that in 1929 our family had ventured to Juneau, Alaska. In my family were my brother Tex Jr. (he later changed his name to James because of the ridicule of the name “Tex” & also I believe he hated my father in his early years—my mother’s doing). My sister Fern (She also changed her name—to Joy). My sister Barbara. And myself. . . . In Juneau, my father was making bootleg hooch. I believe it was during this period my mother became acquainted with alcohol. Mom & Dad began having quarrels. I remember my mother was “entertaining” some sailors while my father was away. When he came home a fight ensued, and my father, after a violent struggle, threw the sailors out & proceeded to beat my mother. I was frightfully scared, in fact all us children were terrified. Crying. I was scared because I thought my father was going to hurt me, also because he was beating my mother. I really didn’t understand why he was beating her but I felt she must have done something dreadfully wrong. . . . The next thing I can vaguely recall is living in Fort Bragg, Calif. My brother had been presented a B.B. gun. He had shot a hummingbird, and after he had shot it he was sorry. I asked him to let me shoot the B.B. gun. He pushed me away, telling me I was too small. It made me so mad I started to cry. After I finished crying, my anger mounted again, and during the evening when the B.B. gun was behind the chair my brother was sitting in, I grabbed it & held it to my brother’s ear & hollered BANG! My father (or mother) beat me and made me apologize. My brother used to shoot at a big white horse riden by a neighbor who went by our place on his way to town. The neighbor caught my brother and I hiding in the bushes and took us to Dad & we got a beating & brother had his B.B. gun taken away & I was glad he had his gun taken away! . . . This is about all I remember when we lived in Fort Bragg (Oh! We kids used to jump from a hay-loft, holding an umbrella, onto a pile of hay on the ground). . . . My next recollection is several years later when we were living in Calif.? Nevada? I recall a very odious episode between my mother and a Negro. We children slept on a porch in the summertime. One of our beds was directly under my mother and father’s room. Everyone of us kids had taken a good look through the partly open curtain and seen what was going on. Dad had hired a Negro (Sam) to do odd jobs around the farm, or ranch, while he was working somewhere down the road. He used to come home late in the evening in his Model A truck. I do not recall the chain of events but assumed Dad had known or suspected what was happening. It ended in a seperation between Mom & Dad & Mom took us kids to San Francisco. She run off with Dad’s truck & all of the many souvenirs he brought from Alaska. I believe this was in 1935 (?). . . . In Frisco I was continously in trouble. I had started to run around with a gang, all of which were older than myself. My mother was always drunk, never in a fit condition to properly provide and care for us. I run as free & wild as a coyote. There was no rule or discipline, or anyone to show me right from wrong. I came & went as I pleased—until my first encounter with Trouble. I was in & out of Detention Homes many many times for running away from home & stealing. I remember one place I was sent to. I had weak kidneys & wet the bed every night. This was very humiliating to me, but I couldn’t control myself. I was very severly beaten by the cottage mistress, who had called me names and made fun of me in front of all the boys. She used to come around at all hours of the night to see if I wet the bed. She would throw back the covers & furiously beat me with a large black leather belt—pull me out of bed by my hair & drag me to the bathroom & throw me in the tub & turn the cold water on & tell me to wash myself and the sheets. Every night was a nightmare. Later on she thought it was very funny to put some kind of ointment on my penis. This was almost unbearable. It burned something terrible. She was later discharged from her job. But this never changed my mind about her & what I wished I could have done to her & all the people who made fun of me.

  Then, because Dr. Jones had told him he must have the statement that very afternoon, Smith skipped forward to early adolescence and the years he and his father had lived together, the two of them wandering all over the West and Far West, prospecting, trapping, doing odd jobs:

  I loved my father but there were times when this love and affection I had for him drained from my heart like wasted water. Whenever he would not try to understand my problems. Give me a little consideration & voice & responsibility. I had to get away from him. When I was sixteen I joined the Merchant Marine. In 1948 I joined the army—the recruiting officer gave me a break and upped my test. From this time on I started to realize the importance of an education. This only added to the hatred and bitterness I held for others. I began to get into fights. I threw a Japanese policeman off a bridge into the water. I was court-martialed for demolishing a Japanese cafe. I was court-martialed again in Kyoto, Japan, for stealing a Japanese taxicab. I was in the army almost four years. I had many violent outbursts o
f anger while I served time in Japan & Korea. I was in Korea 15 months, was rotated and sent back to the states—and was given special recognition as being the first Korean Vet to come back to the territory of Alaska. Big write up, picture in paper, paid trip to Alaska by air, all the trimmings. . . . I finished my army service in Ft. Lewis, Washington.

  Smith’s pencil sped almost indecipherably as he hurried toward more recent history: the motorcycle accident that had crippled him, the burglary in Phillipsburg, Kansas, that had led to his first prison sentence:

  . . . I was sentenced to 5 to 10 years for grand larceny, burglary and jailbreak. I felt I was very unjustly dealt with. I became very bitter while I was in prison. Upon my release I was supposed to go to Alaska with my father—I didn’t go—I worked for a while in Nevada and Idaho-went to Las Vegas and continued to Kansas where got into the situation I’m in now. No time for more.

  He signed his name, and added a postscript:

  “Would like to speak to you again. There’s much I haven’t said that may interest you. I have always felt a remarkable exhiliration being among people with a purpose and sense of dedication to carry out that purpose. I felt this about you in your presence.”

  Hickock did not write with his companion’s intensity. He often stopped to listen to the questioning of a prospective juror, or to stare at the faces around him—particularly, and with plain displeasure, the muscular face of the county attorney, Duane West, who was his own age, twenty-eight. But his statement, written in a stylized script that looked like slanting rain, was finished before the court adjourned for the day:

  I will try to tell you all I can about myself, though most of my early life is vague to me—up until about my tenth birthday. My school years went quite the same as most other boys my own age. I had my share of fights, girls, and other things that go with a growing boy. My home life was also normal, but as I told you before, I was hardly ever allowed to leave my yard and visit with playmates. My father was always strict about us boys [his brother and him] in that line. Also I had to help my dad quite a lot around the house. . . . I can only remember my mother and dad having one argument that amounted to anything. What it was about, I don’t know. . . . My dad bought me a bicycle once, and I believe that I was the proudest boy in town. It was a girl’s bike and he changed it over to a boy’s. He painted it all up and it looked like new. But I had a lot of toys when I was little, a lot for the financial condition that my folks were in. We were always what you would call semi-poor. Never down and out, but several times on the verge of it. My dad was a hard worker and did his best to provide for us. My mother also was always a hard worker. Her house was always neat, and we had clean clothes aplenty. I remember my dad used to wear those old fashioned flat crown caps, and he would make me wear them too, and I didn’t like them. . . . In high-school I did real well, made above average grades the first year or two. But then started falling off a little. I had a girl friend. She was a nice girl, and I never once tried to touch her anyway but just kissing. It was a real clean courtship. . . . While in school I participated in all the sports, and received 9 letters in all. Basketball, football, track and baseball. My senior year was best. I never had any steady girl, just played the field. That was when I had my first relationship with a girl. Of course I told the boys that I’d had a lot of girls. . . . I got offers from two colleges to play ball, but never attended any of them. After I graduated from school I went to work for the Santa Fe railroad, and stayed until the following winter when I got laid off. The following spring I got a job with the Roark Motor Company. I had been working there about four months when I had an automobile wreck with a company car. I was in the hospital several days with extensive head injuries. While I was in the condition I was in I couldn’t find another job, so I was unemployed most of the winter. Meantime, I had met a girl and fallen in love. Her dad was a Baptist preacher and resented me going with her. In July we were married. All hell broke loose from her dad until he learned she was pregnant. But still he never wished me good luck and that has always gone against the grain. After we were married, I worked at a service-station near Kansas City. I worked from 8 at night till 8 in the morning. Sometimes my wife stayed with me all night—she was afraid I couldn’t keep awake, so she came to help me. Then I got an offer to work at Perry Pontiac, which I gladly accepted. It was very satisfactory, though I didn’t make a lot of money—$75 a week. I got along good with the other men, and was well liked by my boss. I worked there five years. . . . During my employment there was the beginning of some of the lowest things I have ever done.

 
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