In Cold Blood by Truman Capote

  Hearing this, Mrs. Hickock wept. Throughout the trial she had sat quietly beside her husband, her hands worrying a rumpled handkerchief. As often as she could she caught her son’s eye, nodded at him and simulated a smile which, though flimsily constructed, affirmed her loyalty. But clearly the woman’s control was exhausted; she began to cry. A few spectators glanced at her, and glanced away, embarrassed; the rest seemed oblivious of the raw dirge counterpointing Dewey’s continuing recitation; even her husband, perhaps because he believed it unmanly to take notice, remained aloof. At last a woman reporter, the only one present, led Mrs. Hickock out of the courtroom and into the privacy of a ladies’ room.

  Once her anguish had subsided, Mrs. Hickock expressed a need to confide. “There’s nobody much I can talk to,” she told her companion. “I don’t mean people haven’t been kind, neighbors and all. And strangers, too—strangers have wrote letters to say they know how hard it must be and how sorry they are. Nobody’s said a mean word, either to Walter or me. Not even here, where you might expect it. Everybody here has gone out of their way to be friendly. The waitress over at the place where we take our meals, she puts ice cream on the pie and don’t charge for it. I tell her don’t, I can’t eat it. Used to be I could eat anything didn’t eat me first. But she puts it on. To be nice. Sheila, that’s her, she says it’s not our fault what happened. But it seems to me like people are looking at me and thinking, Well, she must be to blame somehow. The way I raised Dick. Maybe I did do something wrong. Only I don’t know what it could have been; I get headaches trying to remember. We’re plain people, just country people, getting along the same as everybody else. We had some good times at our house. I taught Dick the foxtrot. Dancing, I was always crazy about it, it was my whole life when I was a girl; and there was a boy, gosh, he could dance like Christmas—we won a silver cup waltzing together. For a long time we planned to run away and go on the stage. Vaudeville. It was just a dream. Children dreaming. He left town, and one day I married Walter, and Walter Hickock couldn’t do step one. He said if I wanted a hoofer I should’ve married a horse. Nobody ever danced with me again until I learned Dick, and he didn’t take to it exactly, but he was sweet, Dick was the best-natured little kid.”

  Mrs. Hickock removed the spectacles she was wearing, polished the smeared lenses and resettled them on her pudgy, agreeable face. “There’s lots more to Dick than what you hear back there in the courtroom. The lawyers jabbering how terrible he is—no good at all. I can’t make any excuses for what he did, his part in it. I’m not forgetting that family; I pray for them every night. But I pray for Dick, too. And this boy Perry. It was wrong of me to hate him; I’ve got nothing but pity for him now. And you know—I believe Mrs. Clutter would feel pity, too. Being the kind of woman they say she was.”

  Court had adjourned; the noises of the departing audience clattered in the corridor beyond the lavatory door. Mrs. Hickock said she must go and meet her husband. “He’s dying. I don’t think he minds any more.”

  Many observers of the trial scene were baffled by the visitor from Boston, Donald Cullivan. They could not quite understand why this staid young Catholic, a successful engineer who had taken his degree at Harvard, a husband and the father of three children, should choose to befriend an uneducated, homicidal half-breed whom he knew but slightly and had not seen for nine years. Cullivan himself said, “My wife doesn’t understand it either. Coming out here was something I couldn’t afford to do-it meant using a week of my vacation, and money we really need for other things. On the other hand, it was something I couldn’t afford not to do. Perry’s lawyer wrote me asking if I would be a character witness; the moment I read the letter I knew I had to do it. Because I’d offered this man my friendship. And because—well, I believe in the life everlasting. All souls can be saved for God.”

  The salvation of a soul, namely Perry Smith’s, was an enterprise the deeply Catholic undersheriff and his wife were eager to assist—although Mrs. Meier had been rebuffed by Perry when she had suggested a consultation with Father Goubeaux, a local priest. (Perry said, “Priests and nuns have had their chance with me. I’m still wearing the scars to prove it.”) And so, during the weekend recess, the Meiers invited Cullivan to eat Sunday dinner with the prisoner in his cell.

  The opportunity to entertain his friend, play host as it were, delighted Perry, and the planning of the menu—wild goose, stuffed and roasted, with gravy and creamed potatoes and string beans, aspic salad, hot biscuits, cold milk, freshly baked cherry tarts, cheese, and coffee—seemed to concern him more than the outcome of the trial (which, to be sure, he did not consider a suspenseful matter: “Those prairiebillys, they’ll vote to hang fast as pigs eat slop. Look at their eyes. I’ll be damned if I’m the only killer in the courtroom”). All Sunday morning he prepared to receive his guest. The day was warm, a little windy, and leaf shadows, supple emanations from the tree boughs that brushed the cell’s barred window, tantalized Perry’s tamed squirrel. Big Red chased the swaying patterns while his master swept and dusted, scrubbed the floor and scoured the toilet and cleared the desk of literary accumulations. The desk was to be the dining table, and once Perry had finished setting it, it looked most inviting, for Mrs. Meier had donated a linen tablecloth, starched napkins, and her best china and silver.

  Cullivan was impressed—he whistled when the feast, arriving on trays, was placed upon the table-and before sitting down, he asked the host if he might offer a blessing. The host, head unbowed, cracked his knuckles as Cullivan, with bowed head and palms together, intoned, “Bless us, O Lord, and these thy gifts which we are about to receive from thy bounty, through the mercy of Christ, our Lord. Amen.” Perry murmuringly remarked that in his opinion any credit due belonged to Mrs. Meier. “She did all the work. Well,” he said, heaping his guest’s plate, “it’s good to see you, Don. You look just the same. Haven’t changed a bit.”

  Cullivan, in appearance a cautious bank clerk with depleted hair and a face rather difficult to recall, agreed that outwardly he hadn’t changed much. But his interior self, the invisible man, was another matter: “I was coasting along. Not knowing God is the only reality. Once you realize that, then everything falls into place. Life has meaning—and so does death. Boy, do you always eat like this?”

  Perry laughed. “She’s really a terrific cook, Mrs. Meier. You ought to taste her Spanish rice. I’ve gained fifteen pounds since I got here. Course I was on the thin side. I’d lost a lot of weight while Dick and me were out on the road riding all to hell and gone—hardly ever eating a square meal, hungry as hell most of the time. Mostly, we lived like animals. Dick was always stealing canned stuff out of grocery stores. Baked beans and canned spaghetti. We’d open it up in the car and gobble it cold. Animals. Dick loves to steal. It’s an emotional thing with him—a sickness. I’m a thief too, but only if I don’t have the money to pay. Dick, if he was carrying a hundred dollars in his pocket, he’d steal a stick of chewing gum.”

  Later, over cigarettes and coffee, Perry returned to the subject of thievery. “My friend Willie-Jay used to talk about it. He used to say that all crimes were only ‘varieties of theft.’ Murder included. When you kill a man you steal his life. I guess that makes me a pretty big thief. See, Don—I did kill them. Down there in court, old Dewey made it sound like I was prevaricating—on account of Dick’s mother. Well, I wasn’t. Dick helped me, he held the flashlight and picked up the shells. And it was his idea, too. But Dick didn’t shoot them, he never could’ve—though he’s damn quick when it comes to running down an old dog. I wonder why I did it.” He scowled, as though the problem was new to him, a newly unearthed stone of surprising, unclassified color. “I don’t know why,” he said, as if holding it to the light, and angling it now here, now there. “I was sore at Dick. The tough brass boy. But it wasn’t Dick. Or the fear of being identified. I was willing to take that gamble. And it wasn’t because of anything the Clutters did. They never hurt me. Like other people. Like people have all my life. Maybe it??
?s just that the Clutters were the ones who had to pay for it.”

  Cullivan probed, trying to gauge the depth of what he assumed would be Perry’s contrition. Surely he must be experiencing a remorse sufficiently profound to summon a desire for God’s mercy and forgiveness? Perry said, “Am I sorry? If that’s what you mean—I’m not. I don’t feel anything about it. I wish I did. But nothing about it bothers me a bit. Half an hour after it happened, Dick was making jokes and I was laughing at them. Maybe we’re not human. I’m human enough to feel sorry for myself. Sorry I can’t walk out of here when you walk out. But that’s all.” Cullivan could scarcely credit so detached an attitude; Perry was confused, mistaken, it was not possible for any man to be that devoid of conscience or compassion. Perry said, “Why? Soldiers don’t lose much sleep. They murder, and get medals for doing it. The good people of Kansas want to murder me—and some hangman will be glad to get the work. It’s easy to kill—a lot easier than passing a bad check. Just remember: I only knew the Clutters maybe an hour. If I’d really known them, I guess I’d feel different. I don’t think I could live with myself. But the way it was, it was like picking off targets in a shooting gallery.”

  Cullivan was silent, and his silence upset Perry, who seemed to interpret it as implying disapproval. “Hell, Don, don’t make me act the hypocrite with you. Throw a load of bull—how sorry I am, how all I want to do now is crawl on my knees and pray. That stuff don’t ring with me. I can’t accept overnight what I’ve always denied. The truth is, you’ve done more for me than any what you call God ever has. Or ever will. By writing to me, by signing yourself ‘friend.’ When I had no friends. Except Joe James.” Joe James, he explained to Cullivan, was a young Indian logger with whom he had once lived in a forest near Bellingham, Washington. “That’s a long way from Garden City. A good two thousand miles. I sent word to Joe about the trouble I’m in. Joe’s a poor guy, he’s got seven kids to feed, but he promised to come here if he had to walk. He hasn’t shown up yet, and maybe he won’t, only I think he will. Joe always liked me. Do you, Don?”

  “Yes. I like you.”

  Cullivan’s softly emphatic answer pleased and rather flustered Perry. He smiled and said, “Then you must be some kind of nut.” Suddenly rising, he crossed the cell and picked up a broom. “I don’t know why I should die among strangers. Let a bunch of prairiebillys stand around and watch me strangle. Shit. I ought to kill myself first.” He lifted the broom and pressed the bristles against the light bulb that burned in the ceiling. “Just unscrew the bulb and smash it and cut my wrists. That’s what I ought to do. While you’re still here. Somebody who cares about me a little bit.”

  The trial resumed on Monday morning at ten o’clock. Ninety minutes later the court adjourned, the case for the defense having been completed in that brief time. The defendants declined to testify in their own behalf, and therefore the question of whether Hickock or Smith had been the actual executioner of the Clutter family did not arise.

  Of the five witnesses who did appear, the first was the hollow-eyed Mr. Hickock. Though he spoke with a dignified and mournful clarity, he had but one contribution to make that was relevant to a claim of temporary insanity. His son, he said, had suffered head injuries in a car accident in July, 1950. Prior to the accident, Dick had been a “happy-go-lucky boy,” had done well in school, been popular with his classmates and considerate of his parents— “No trouble to anybody.”

  Harrison Smith, gently guiding the witness, said, “I will ask you if, after July, 1950, you observed any change in the personality and habits and actions of your son, Richard?”

  “He just didn’t act like the same boy.”

  “What were the changes you observed?”

  Mr. Hickock, between pensive hesitations, listed several: Dick was sulky and restless, he ran around with older men, drank and gambled. “He just wasn’t the same boy.”

  The last assertion was promptly challenged by Logan Green, who undertook the cross-examination. “Mr. Hickock, you say you never had any trouble with your son until after 1950?”

  “. . . I think he got arrested in 1949.”

  A citric smile bent Green’s tiny lips. “Remember what he was arrested for?”

  “He was accused of breaking into a drugstore.”

  “Accused? Didn’t he admit that he broke into the store?”

  “That’s right, he did.”

  “And that was in 1949. Yet now you tell us your son had a change in his attitude and conduct after 1950?”

  “I would say so, yes.”

  “You mean that after 1950 he became a good boy?”

  Hard coughs agitated the old man; he spat into a handkerchief. “No,” he said, studying the discharge. “I wouldn’t say that.”

  “Then what was the change that took place?”

  “Well, that would be pretty hard to explain. He just didn’t act like the same boy.”

  “You mean he lost his criminal tendencies?”

  The lawyer’s sally induced guffaws, a courtroom flare-up that Judge Tate’s dour gaze soon extinguished. Mr. Hickock, presently set free, was replaced on the stand by Dr. W. Mitchell Jones.

  Dr. Jones identified himself to the court as a “physician specializing in the field of psychiatry,” and in support of his qualifications, added that he had attended perhaps fifteen hundred patients since 1956, the year he had entered a psychiatric residency at Topeka State Hospital in Topeka, Kansas. For the past two years he had served on the staff of Larned State Hospital, where he was in charge of the Dillon Building, a section reserved for the criminally insane.

  Harrison Smith asked the witness, “Approximately how many murderers have you dealt with?”

  “About twenty-five.”

  “Doctor, I would like to ask you if you know my client, Richard Eugene Hickock?”

  “I do.”

  “Have you had occasion to examine him professionally?”

  “Yes, sir . . . I made a psychiatric evaluation of Mr. Hickock.”

  “Based upon your examination, do you have an opinion as to whether or not Richard Eugene Hickock knew right from wrong at the time of the commission of the crime?”

  The witness, a stout man of twenty-eight with a moon-shaped but intelligent, subtly delicate face, took a deep breath, as though to equip himself for a prolonged reply—which the judge then cautioned him he must not make: “You may answer the question yes or no, Doctor. Limit your answer to yes or no.”


  “And what is your opinion?”

  “I think that within the usual definitions Mr. Hickock did know right from wrong.”

  Confined as he was by the M’Naghten Rule (“the usual definitions”), a formula quite color-blind to any gradations between black and white, Dr. Jones was impotent to answer otherwise. But of course the response was a letdown for Hickock’s attorney, who hopelessly asked, “Can you qualify that answer?”

  It was hopeless because though Dr. Jones agreed to elaborate, the prosecution was entitled to object—and did, citing the fact that Kansas law allowed nothing more than a yes or no reply to the pertinent question. The objection was upheld, and the witness dismissed. However, had Dr. Jones been allowed to speak further, here is what he would have testified: “Richard Hickock is above average in intelligence, grasps new ideas easily and has a wide fund of information. He is alert to what is happening around him, and he shows no sign of mental confusion or disorientation. His thinking is well organized and logical and he seems to be in good contact with reality. Although I did not find the usual signs of organic brain damage—memory loss, concrete concept formation, intellectual deterioration—this cannot be completely ruled out. He had a serious head injury with concussion and several hours of unconsciousness in 1950—this was verified by me by checking hospital records. He says he has had blackout spells, periods of amnesia, and headaches ever since that time, and a major portion of his antisocial behavior has occurred since that time. He has never had the medical tests which wo
uld definitely prove or disprove the existence of residual brain damage. Definitive medical tests are indicated before a complete evaluation can be said to exist. . . . Hickock does show signs of emotional abnormality. That he knew what he was doing and still went ahead with it is possibly the most clear-cut demonstration of this fact. He is a person who is impulsive in action, likely to do things without thought of consequences or future discomfort to himself or to others. He does not seem to be capable of learning from experience, and he shows an unusual pattern of intermittent periods of productive activity followed by patently irresponsible actions. He cannot tolerate feelings of frustration as a more normal person can, and he is poorly able to rid himself of those feelings except through antisocial activity. . . . His self-esteem is very low, and he secretly feels inferior to others and sexually inadequate. These feelings seem to be over-compensated for by dreams of being rich and powerful, a tendency to brag about his exploits, spending sprees when he has money, and dissatisfaction with only the normal slow advancement he could expect from his job. . . . He is uncomfortable in his relationships to other people, and has a pathological inability to form and hold enduring personal attachments. Although he professes usual moral standards he seems obviously uninfluenced by them in his actions. In summary, he shows fairly typical characteristics of what would psychiatrically be called a severe character disorder. It is important that steps be taken to rule out the possibility of organic brain damage, since, if present, it might have substantially influenced his behavior during the past several years and at the time of the crime.”

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