In Cold Blood by Truman Capote

  As a boy in his native Kentucky, Green was called Pinky, a nickname he owed to his freckled coloring; now, as he strutted before the jury, the stress of his assignment warmed his face and splotched it with patches of pink. “I have no intention of engaging in theological debate. But I anticipated that defense counsel would use the Holy Bible as an argument against the death penalty. You have heard the Bible quoted. But I can read, too.” He slapped open a copy of the Old Testament. “And here are a few things the Good Book has to say on the subject. In Exodus Twenty, Verse Thirteen, we have one of the Ten Commandments: ‘Thou shalt not kill.’ This refers to unlawful killing. Of course it does, because in the next chapter, Verse Twelve, the penalty for disobedience of that Commandment reads: ‘He that smiteth a man, so that he die, shall be surely put to death.’ Now, Mr. Fleming would have you believe that all this was changed by the coming of Christ. Not so. For Christ says, ‘Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfill.’ And finally—” Green fumbled, and seemed to accidentally shut the Bible, whereupon the visiting legal dignitaries grinned and nudged each other, for this was a venerable courtroom ploy—the lawyer who while reading from the Scriptures pretends to lose his place, and then remarks, as Green now did, “Never mind. I think I can quote from memory. Genesis Nine, Verse Six: ‘Whoso sheddeth man’s blood, by man shall his blood be shed.’

  “But,” Green went on, “I see nothing to be gained by arguing the Bible. Our state provides that the punishment for murder in the first degree shall be imprisonment for life or death by hanging. That is the law. You, gentlemen, are here to enforce it. And if ever there was a case in which the maximum penalty was justified, this is it. These were strange, ferocious murders. Four of your fellow citizens were slaughtered like hogs in a pen. And for what reason? Not out of vengeance or hatred. But for money. Money. It was the cold and calculated weighing of so many ounces of silver against so many ounces of blood. And how cheaply those lives were bought! For forty dollars’ worth of loot! Ten dollars a life!” He whirled, and pointed a finger that moved back and forth between Hickock and Smith. “They went armed with a shotgun and a dagger. They went to rob and kill—” His voice trembled, toppled, disappeared, as though strangled by the intensity of his own loathing for the debonair, gum-chewing defendants. Turning again to the jury, he hoarsely asked, “What are you going to do? What are you going to do with these men that bind a man hand and foot and cut his throat and blow out his brains? Give them the minimum penalty? Yes, and that’s only one of four counts. What about Kenyon Clutter, a young boy with his whole life before him, tied helplessly in sight of his father’s death struggle. Or young Nancy Clutter, hearing the gunshots and knowing her time was next. Nancy, begging for her life: ‘Don’t. Oh, please don’t. Please. Please.’ What agony! What unspeakable torture! And there remains the mother, bound and gagged and having to listen as her husband, her beloved children died one by one. Listen until at last the killers, these defendants before you, entered her room, focused a flashlight in her eyes, and let the blast of a shotgun end the existence of an entire household.”

  Pausing, Green gingerly touched a boil on the back of his neck, a mature inflammation that seemed, like its angry wearer, about to burst. “So, gentlemen, what are you going to do? Give them the minimum? Send them back to the penitentiary, and take the chance of their escaping or being paroled? The next time they go slaughtering it may be your family. I say to you,” he solemnly said, staring at the panel in a manner that encompassed and challenged them all, “some of our enormous crimes only happen because once upon a time a pack of chickenhearted jurors refused to do their duty. Now, gentlemen, I leave it to you and your consciences.”

  He sat down. West whispered to him, “That was masterly, sir.”

  But a few of Green’s auditors were less enthusiastic; and after the jury retired to discuss the verdict, one of them, a young reporter from Oklahoma, exchanged sharp words with another newsman, Richard Parr of the Kansas City Star. To the Oklahoman, Green’s address had seemed “rabble-rousing, brutal.”

  “He was just telling the truth,” Parr said. “The truth can be brutal. To coin a phrase.”

  “But he didn’t have to hit that hard. It’s unfair.”

  “What’s unfair?”

  “The whole trial. These guys don’t stand a chance.”

  “Fat chance they gave Nancy Clutter.”

  “Perry Smith. My God. He’s had such a rotten life—”

  Parr said, “Many a man can match sob stories with that little bastard. Me included. Maybe I drink too much, but I sure as hell never killed four people in cold blood.”

  “Yeah, and how about hanging the bastard? That’s pretty goddam cold-blooded too.”

  The Reverend Post, overhearing the conversation, joined in. “Well,” he said, passing around a snapshot reproduction of Perry Smith’s portrait of Jesus, “any man who could paint this picture can’t be one hundred percent bad. All the same it’s hard to know what to do. Capital punishment is no answer: it doesn’t give the sinner time enough to come to God. Sometimes I despair.” A jovial fellow with gold-filled teeth and a silvery widows peak, he jovially repeated, “Sometimes I despair. Sometimes I think old Doc Savage had the right idea.” The Doc Savage to whom he referred was a fictional hero popular among adolescent readers of pulp magazines a generation ago. “If you boys remember, Doc Savage was a kind of superman. He’d made himself proficient in every field—medicine, science, philosophy, art. There wasn’t much old Doc didn’t know or couldn’t do. One of his projects was, he decided to rid the world of criminals. First he bought a big island out in the ocean. Then he and his assistants—he had an army of trained assistants—kidnaped all the world’s criminals and brought them to the island. And Doc Savage operated on their brains. He removed the part that holds wicked thoughts. And when they recovered they were all decent citizens. They couldn’t commit crimes because that part of their brain was out. Now it strikes me that surgery of this nature might really be the answer to—”

  A bell, the signal that the jury was returning, interrupted him. The jury’s deliberations had lasted forty minutes. Many spectators, anticipating a swift decision, had never left their seats. Judge Tate, however, had to be fetched from his farm, where he had gone to feed his horses. A hurriedly donned black robe billowed about him when at last he arrived, but it was with impressive sedateness and dignity that he asked, “Gentlemen of the jury, have you reached your verdicts?” Their foreman replied: “We have, Your Honor.” The court bailiff carried the sealed verdicts to the bench.

  Train whistles, the fanfare of an approaching Santa Fe express, penetrated the courtroom. Tate’s bass voice interlaced with the locomotive’s cries as he read: “ ‘Count One. We the jury find the defendant, Richard Eugene Hickock, guilty of murder in the first degree, and the punishment is death.’ ” Then, as though interested in their reaction, he looked down upon the prisoners, who stood before him handcuffed to guards; they stared back impassively until he resumed and read the seven counts that followed: three more convictions for Hickock, and four for Smith.

  “—and the punishment is death”; each time he came to the sentence, Tate enunciated it with a dark-toned hollowness that seemed to echo the train’s mournful, now fading call. Then he dismissed the jury (“You have performed a courageous service”), and the condemned men were led away. At the door, Smith said 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?”

  A week later Mrs. Meier was sitting in her parlor talking to a friend. “Yes, it’s turned quiet around here,” she said. “I guess we ought to be grateful things have settled down. But I still feel bad about it. I never had much truck with Dick, but Perry and I got to know each other real well. That afternoon, after he heard the verdict and they brought him back up here—I shut myself in the kitchen to keep
from having to see him. I sat by the kitchen window and watched the crowd leaving the courthouse. Mr. Cullivan—he looked up and saw me and waved. The Hickocks. All going away. Just this morning I had a lovely letter from Mrs. Hickock; she visited with me several times while the trial was going on, and I wished I could have helped her, only what can you say to someone in a situation like that? But after everybody had gone, and I’d started to wash some dishes—I heard him crying. I turned on the radio. Not to hear him. But I could. Crying like a child. He’d never broke down before, shown any sign of it. Well, I went to him. The door of his cell. He reached out his hand. He wanted me to hold his hand, and I did, I held his hand, and all he said was, ‘I’m embraced by shame.’ I wanted to send for Father Goubeaux—I said first thing tomorrow I’d make him Spanish rice—but he just held my hand tighter.

  “And that night, of all nights, we had to leave him alone. Wendle and I almost never go out, but we had a long-standing engagement, and Wendle didn’t think we ought to break it. But I’ll always be sorry we left him alone. Next day I did fix the rice. He wouldn’t touch it. Or hardly speak to me. He hated the whole world. But the morning the men came to take him to the penitentiary, he thanked me and gave me a picture of himself. A little Kodak made when he was sixteen years old. He said it was how he wanted me to remember him, like the boy in the picture.

  “The bad part was saying goodbye. When you knew where he was going, and what would happen to him. That squirrel of his, he sure misses Perry. Keeps coming to the cell looking for him. I’ve tried to feed him, but he won’t have anything to do with me. It was just Perry he liked.”

  Prisons are important to the economy of Leavenworth County, Kansas. The two state penitentiaries, one for each sex, are situated there; so is Leavenworth, the largest Federal prison, and, at Fort Leavenworth, the country’s principal military prison, the grim United States Army and Air Force Disciplinary Barracks. If all the inmates in these institutions were let free, they could populate a small city.

  The oldest of the prisons is the Kansas State Penitentiary for Men, a turreted black-and-white palace that visually distinguishes an otherwise ordinary rural town, Lansing. Built during the Civil War, it received its first resident in 1864. Nowadays the convict population averages around two thousand; the present warden, Sherman H. Crouse, keeps a chart which lists the daily total according to race (for example, White 1405, Colored 360, Mexicans 12, Indians 6). Whatever his race, each convict is a citizen of a stony village that exists within the prison’s steep, machine-gun-guarded walls—twelve gray acres of cement streets and cell blocks and workshops.

  In a south section of the prison compound there stands a curious little building: a dark two-storied building shaped like a coffin. This establishment, officially called the Segregation and Isolation Building, constitutes a prison inside a prison. Among the inmates, the lower floor is known as The Hole—the place to which difficult prisoners, the “hardrock” troublemakers, are now and then banished. The upper story is reached by climbing a circular iron staircase; at the top is Death Row.

  The first time the Clutter murderers ascended the staircase was late one rainy April afternoon. Having arrived at Lansing after an eight-hour, four-hundred-mile car ride from Garden City, the newcomers had been stripped, showered, given close haircuts, and supplied with coarse denim uniforms and soft slippers (in most American prisons such slippers are a condemned man’s customary footwear); then armed escorts marched them through a wet twilight to the coffin-shaped edifice, hustled them up the spiral stairs and into two of the twelve side-by-side cells that comprise Lansing’s Death Row.

  The cells are identical. They measure seven by ten feet, and are unfurnished except for a cot, a toilet, a basin, and an overhead light bulb that is never extinguished night or day. The cell windows are very narrow, and not only barred but covered with a wire mesh black as a widow’s veil; thus the faces of those sentenced to hang can be but hazily discerned by passers-by. The doomed themselves can see out well enough; what they see is an empty dirt lot that serves in summer as a baseball diamond, beyond the lot a piece of prison wall, and above that, a piece of sky.

  The wall is made of rough stone; pigeons nest inside its crevices. A rusty iron door, set into the part of the wall visible to the Row’s occupants, rouses the pigeons whenever it is opened, puts them in a flap, for the hinges creak so, scream. The door leads into a cavernous storage room, where on even the warmest day the air is moist and chilly. A number of things are kept there: stockpiles of metal used by the convicts to manufacture automobile license plates, lumber, old machinery, baseball paraphernalia—and also an unpainted wooden gallows that smells faintly of pine. For this is the state’s execution chamber; when a man is brought here to be hanged, the prisoners say he has “gone to The Corner,” or, alternatively, “paid a visit to the warehouse.”

  In accordance with the sentence of the court, Smith and Hickock were scheduled to visit the warehouse six weeks hence: at one minute after midnight on Friday, May 13, 1960.

  Kansas abolished capital punishment in 1907; in 1935, due to a sudden prevalence in the Midwest of rampaging professional criminals (Alvin “Old Creepy” Karpis, Charles “Pretty Boy” Floyd, Clyde Barrow and his homicidal sweetheart, Bonnie Parker), the state legislators voted to restore it. However, it was not until 1944 that an executioner had a chance to employ his craft; over the next ten years he was given nine additional opportunities. But for six years, or since 1954, there had been no pay checks for a hangman in Kansas (except at the Army and Air Force Disciplinary Barracks, which also has a gallows). The late George Docking, Governor of Kansas from 1957 through 1960, was responsible for this hiatus, for he was unreservedly opposed to the death penalty (“I just don’t like killing people”).

  Now, at that time—April, 1960—there were in United States prisons one hundred and ninety persons awaiting civil execution; five, the Clutter killers included, were among the lodgers at Lansing. Occasionally, important visitors to the prison are invited to take what one high official calls “a little peek at Death Row.” Those who accept are assigned a guard who, as he leads the tourist along the iron walkway fronting the death cells, is likely to identify the condemned with what he must consider comic formality. “And this,” he said to a visitor in 1960, “this is Mr. Perry Edward Smith. Now next door, that’s Mr. Smith’s buddy, Mr. Richard Eugene Hickock. And over here we have Mr. Earl Wilson. And after Mr. Wilson—meet Mr. Bobby Joe Spencer. And as for this last gentleman, I’m sure you recognize the famous Mr. Lowell Lee Andrews.”

  Earl Wilson, a husky, hymn-singing Negro, had been sentenced to die for the kidnaping, rape, and torture of a young white woman; the victim, though she survived, was left severely disabled. Bobby Joe Spencer, white, an effeminate youth, had confessed to murdering an elderly Kansas City woman, the owner of a rooming house where he lived. Prior to leaving office in January, 1961, Governor Docking, who had been defeated for re-election (in large measure because of his attitude toward capital punishment), commuted the sentences of both these men to life imprisonment, which generally meant that they could apply for parole in seven years. However, Bobby Joe Spencer soon killed again: stabbed with a shiv another young convict, his rival for the affections of an older inmate (as one prison officer said, “Just two punks fighting over a jocker”). This deed earned Spencer a second life sentence. But the public was not much aware of either Wilson or Spencer; compared to Smith and Hickock, or the fifth man on the Row, Lowell Lee Andrews, the press had rather slighted them.

  Two years earlier Lowell Lee Andrews, an enormous, weak-eyed boy of eighteen who wore horn-rimmed glasses and weighed almost three hundred pounds, had been a sophomore at the University of Kansas, an honor student majoring in biology. Though he was a solitary creature, withdrawn and seldom communicative, his acquaintances, both at the university and in his home town of Wolcott, Kansas, regarded him as exceptionally gentle and “sweet-natured” (later one Kansas paper printed an article about him entitled:
“The Nicest Boy in Wolcott”). But inside the quiet young scholar there existed a second, unsuspected personality, one with stunted emotions and a distorted mind through which cold thoughts flowed in cruel directions. His family—his parents and a slightly older sister, Jennie Marie-would have been astounded had they known the daydreams Lowell Lee dreamed throughout the summer and autumn of 1958; the brilliant son, the adored brother, was planning to poison them all.

  The elder Andrews was a prosperous farmer; he had not much money in the bank, but he owned land valued at approximately two hundred thousand dollars. A desire to inherit this estate was ostensibly the motivation behind Lowell Lee’s plot to destroy his family. For the secret Lowell Lee, the one concealed inside the shy churchgoing biology student, fancied himself an ice-hearted master criminal: he wanted to wear gangsterish silk shirts and drive scarlet sports cars; he wanted to be recognized as no mere bespectacled, bookish, overweight, virginal schoolboy; and while he did not dislike any member of his family, at least not consciously, murdering them seemed the swiftest, most sensible way of implementing the fantasies that possessed him. Arsenic was the weapon he decided upon; after poisoning the victims, he meant to tuck them in their beds and burn down the house, in the hope that investigators would believe the deaths accidental. However, one detail perturbed him: suppose autopsies revealed the presence of arsenic? And suppose the purchase of the poison could be traced to him? Toward the end of summer he evolved another plan. He spent three months polishing it. Finally, there came a near-zero November night when he was ready to act.

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