In Cold Blood by Truman Capote

  “That was a cold night,” Hickock said, talking to a journalist with whom he corresponded and who was periodically allowed to visit him. “Cold and wet. It had been raining like a bastard, and the baseball field was mud up to your cojones. So when they took Andy out to the warehouse, they had to walk him along the path. We were all at our windows watching—Perry and me, Ronnie York, Jimmy Latham. It was just after midnight, and the warehouse was lit up like a Halloween pumpkin. The doors wide open. We could see the witnesses, a lot of guards, the doctor and the warden—every damn thing but the gallows. It was off at an angle, but we could see its shadow. A shadow on the wall like the shadow of a boxing ring.

  “The chaplain and four guards had charge of Andy, and when they got to the door they stopped a second. Andy was looking at the gallows—you could sense he was. His arms were tied in front of him. All of a sudden the chaplain reached out and took off Andy’s glasses. Which was kind of pitiful, Andy without his glasses. They led him on inside, and I wondered he could see to climb the steps. It was real quiet, just nothing but this dog barking way off. Some town dog. Then we heard it, the sound, and Jimmy Latham said, “What was that?”; and I told him what it was—the trap door.

  “Then it was real quiet again. Except that dog. Old Andy, he danced a long time. They must have had a real mess to clean up. Every few minutes the doctor came to the door and stepped outside, and stood there with this stethoscope in his hand. I wouldn’t say he was enjoying his work—kept gasping, like he was gasping for breath, and he was crying, too. Jimmy said, ‘Get a load of that nance.’ I guess the reason he stepped outside was so the others wouldn’t see he was crying. Then he’d go back and listen to hear if Andy’s heart had stopped. Seemed like it never would. The fact is, his heart kept beating for nineteen minutes.

  “Andy was a funny kid,” Hickock said, smiling lopsidedly as he propped a cigarette between his lips. “It was like I told him: he had no respect for human life, not even his own. Right before they hanged him, he sat down and ate two fried chickens. And that last afternoon he was smoking cigars and drinking Coke and writing poetry. When they came to get him, and we said our goodbye, I said, ‘I’ll be seeing you soon, Andy. ’Cause I’m sure we’re going to the same place. So scout around and see if you can’t find a cool shady spot for us Down There.’ He laughed, and said he didn’t believe in heaven or hell, just dust unto dust. And he said an aunt and uncle had been to see him, and told him they had a coffin waiting to carry him to some little cemetery in north Missouri. The same place where the three he disposed of were buried. They planned to put Andy right alongside them. He said when they told him that he could hardly keep a straight face. I said, ‘Well, you’re lucky to have a grave. Most likely they’ll give Perry and me to the vivisectionist.’ We joked on like that till it was time to go, and just as he was going he handed me a piece of paper with a poem on it. I don’t know if he wrote it. Or copied it out of a book. My impression was he wrote it. If you’re interested, I’ll send it to you.”

  He later did so, and Andrews’ farewell message turned out to be the ninth stanza of Gray’s “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard”:

  The boasts of heraldry, the pomp of pow’r,

  And all that beauty, all that wealth e’er gave,

  Await alike the inevitable hour:

  The paths of glory lead but to the grave.

  “I really liked Andy. He was a nut—not a real nut, like they kept hollering; but, you know, just goofy. He was always talking about breaking out of here and making his living as a hired gun. He liked to imagine himself roaming around Chicago or Los Angeles with a machine gun inside a violin case. Cooling guys. Said he’d charge a thousand bucks per stiff.”

  Hickock laughed, presumably at the absurdity of his friend’s ambitions, sighed, and shook his head. “But for someone his age he was the smartest person I ever come across. A human library. When that boy read a book it stayed read. Course he didn’t know a dumb-darn thing about life. Me, I’m an ignoramus except when it comes to what I know about life. I’ve walked along a lot of mean streets. I’ve seen a white man flogged. I’ve watched babies born. I’ve seen a girl, and her no more than fourteen, take on three guys at the same time and give them all their money’s worth. Fell off a ship once five miles out to sea. Swam five miles with my life passing before me with every stroke. Once I shook hands with President Truman in the lobby of the Hotel Muehlebach. Harry S Truman. When I was working for the hospital, driving an ambulance, I saw every side of life there is—things that would make a dog vomit. But Andy. He didn’t know one dumb-damn-darn thing except what he’d read in books.

  “He was innocent as a little child, some kid with a box of Cracker Jack. He’d never once been with a woman. Man or mule. He said so himself. Maybe that’s what I liked about him most. How he wouldn’t prevaricate. The rest of us on the Row, we’re all a bunch of bull-artists. I’m one of the worst. Shoot, you’ve got to talk about something. Brag. Otherwise you’re nobody, nothing, a potato vegetating in your seven-by-ten limbo. But Andy never would partake. He said what’s the use telling a lot of stuff that never happened.

  “Old Perry, though, he wasn’t sorry to see the last of Andy. Andy was the one thing in the world Perry wants to be—educated. And Perry couldn’t forgive him for it. You know how Perry’s always using hundred-dollar words he doesn’t half know the meaning of? Sounds like one of them college niggers? Boy, it burned his bottom to have Andy catch up on him and haul him to the curb. Course Andy was just trying to give him what he wanted—an education. The truth is, can’t anybody get along with Perry. He hasn’t got a single friend on the premises. I mean, just who the hell does he think he is? Sneering at everybody. Calling people perverts and degenerates. Going on about what low I.Q.’s they have. It’s too bad we can’t all be such sensitive souls like little Perry. Saints. Boy, but I know some hardrocks who’d gladly go to The Corner if they could get him alone in the shower room for just one hot minute. The way he high-hats York and Latham! Ronnie says he sure wishes he knew where he could lay hold of a bullwhip. Says he’d like to squeeze Perry a little. I don’t blame him. After all, we’re all in the same fix, and they’re pretty good boys.”

  Hickock chuckled ruefully, shrugged, and said, “You know what I mean. Good—considering. Ronnie York’s mother has been here to visit him several times. One day, out in the waiting room, she met my mother, and now they’ve come to be each other’s number-one buddy. Mrs. York wants my mother to come visit her home in Florida, maybe even live there. Jesus, I wish she would. Then she wouldn’t have to go through this ordeal. Once a month riding the bus here to see me. Smiling, trying to find something to say, make me feel good. The poor lady. I don’t know how she stands it. I wonder she isn’t crazy.”

  Hickock’s uneven eyes turned toward a window in the visiting room; his face, puffy, pallid as a funeral lily, gleamed in the weak winter sunshine filtering through the bar-shrouded glass.

  “The poor lady. She wrote the warden, and asked him if she could speak to Perry the next time she came here. She wanted to hear from Perry himself how he killed those people, how I never fired shot one. All I can hope is that some day we’ll get a new trial, and Perry will testify and tell the truth. Only I doubt it. He’s plain determined that if he goes I go. Back to back. It’s not right. Many a man has killed and never seen the inside of a death cell. And I never killed anybody. If you’ve got fifty thousand dollars to spend, you could bump off half of Kansas City and just laugh ha ha.” A sudden grin obliterated his woeful indignation. “Uh-oh. There I go again. Old crybaby. You’d think I’d learn. But honest to God, I’ve done my damnedest to get along with Perry. Only he’s so critical. Two-faced. So jealous of every little thing. Every letter I get, every visit. Nobody ever comes to see him except you,” he said, nodding at the journalist, who was as equally well acquainted with Smith as he was with Hickock. “Or his lawyer. Remember when he was in the hospital? With that phony starvation routine? And his dad sent the po
stcard? Well, the warden wrote Perry’s dad and said he was welcome to come here any time. But he never has showed up. I don’t know. Sometimes you got to feel sorry for Perry. He must be one of the most alone people there ever was. But. Aw, the hell with him. It’s mostly every bit his own fault.”

  Hickock slipped another cigarette away from a package of Pall Malls, wrinkled his nose, and said, “I’ve tried to quit smoking. Then I figure what difference does it make under the circumstances. With a little luck, maybe I’ll get cancer and beat the state at its own game. For a while there I was smoking cigars. Andy’s. The morning after they hanged him, I woke up and called to him, ‘Andy?’—the way I usually did. Then I remembered he was on his way to Missouri. With the aunt and uncle. I looked out in the corridor. His cell had been cleaned out, and all his junk was piled there. The mattress off his bunk, his slippers, and the scrapbook with all the food pictures—he called it his icebox. And this box of ‘Macbeth’ cigars. I told the guard Andy wanted me to have them, left them to me in his will. Actually, I never smoked them all. Maybe it was the idea of Andy, but somehow they gave me indigestion.

  “Well, what’s there to say about capital punishment? I’m not against it. Revenge is all it is, but what’s wrong with revenge? It’s very important. If I was kin to the Clutters, or any of the parties York and Latham dispensed with, I couldn’t rest in peace till the ones responsible had taken that ride on the Big Swing. These people that write letters to the newspapers. There were two in a Topeka paper the other day—one from a minister. Saying, in effect, what is all this legal farce, why haven’t those sonsabitches Smith and Hickock got it in the neck, how come those murdering sonsabitches are still eating up the taxpayers’ money? Well, I can see their side. They’re mad ’cause they’re not getting what they want—revenge. And they’re not going to get it if I can help it. I believe in hanging. Just so long as I’m not the one being hanged.”

  But then he was.

  Another three years passed, and during those years two exceptionally skillful Kansas City lawyers, Joseph P. Jenkins and Robert Bingham, replaced Shultz, the latter having resigned from the case. Appointed by a Federal judge, and working without compensation (but motivated by a hard-held opinion that the defendants had been the victims of a “nightmarishly unfair trial”), Jenkins and Bingham filed numerous appeals within the framework of the Federal court system, thereby avoiding three execution dates: October 25, 1962, August 8, 1963, and February 18, 1965. The attorneys contended that their clients had been unjustly convicted because legal counsel had not been appointed them until after they had confessed and had waived preliminary hearings; and because they were not competently represented at their trial, were convicted with the help of evidence seized without a search warrant (the shotgun and knife taken from the Hickock home), were not granted a change of venue even though the environs of the trial had been “saturated” with publicity prejudicial to the accused.

  With these arguments, Jenkins and Bingham succeeded in carrying the case three times to the United States Supreme Court—the Big Boy, as many litigating prisoners refer to it—but on each occasion the Court, which never comments on its decisions in such instances, denied the appeals by refusing to grant the writs of certiorari that would have entitled the appellants to a full hearing before the Court. In March, 1965, after Smith and Hickock had been confined in their Death Row cells almost two thousand days, the Kansas Supreme Court decreed that their lives must end between midnight and 2:00 A.M., Wednesday, April 14, 1965. Subsequently, a clemency appeal was presented to the newly elected Governor of Kansas, William Avery; but Avery, a rich farmer sensitive to public opinion, refused to intervene—a decision he felt to be in the “best interest of the people of Kansas.” (Two months later, Avery also denied the clemency appeals of York and Latham, who were hanged on June 22, 1965.)

  And so it happened that in the daylight hours of that Wednesday morning, Alvin Dewey, breakfasting in the coffee shop of a Topeka hotel, read, on the first page of the Kansas City Star, a headline he had long awaited: DIE ON ROPE FOR BLOODY CRIME. The story, written by an Associated Press reporter, began: “Richard Eugene Hickock and Perry Edward Smith, partners in crime, died on the gallows at the state prison early today for one of the bloodiest murders in Kansas criminal annals. Hickock, 33 years old, died first, at 12:41 A.M.; Smith, 36, died at 1:19. . .”

  Dewey had watched them die, for he had been among the twenty-odd witnesses invited to the ceremony. He had never attended an execution, and when on the midnight past he entered the cold warehouse, the scenery had surprised him: he had anticipated a setting of suitable dignity, not this bleakly lighted cavern cluttered with lumber and other debris. But the gallows itself, with its two pale nooses attached to a crossbeam, was imposing enough; and so, in an unexpected style, was the hangman, who cast a long shadow from his perch on the platform at the top of the wooden instrument’s thirteen steps. The hangman, an anonymous, leathery gentleman who had been imported from Missouri for the event, for which he was paid six hundred dollars, was attired in an aged double-breasted pin-striped suit overly commodious for the narrow figure inside it—the coat came nearly to his knees; and on his head he wore a cowboy hat which, when first bought, had perhaps been bright green, but was now a weathered, sweat-stained oddity.

  Also, Dewey found the self-consciously casual conversation of his fellow witnesses, as they stood awaiting the start of what one witness termed “the festivities,” disconcerting.

  “What I heard was, they was gonna let them draw straws to see who dropped first. Or flip a coin. But Smith says why not do it alphabetically. Guess ’cause S comes after H. Ha!”

  “Read in the paper, afternoon paper, what they ordered for their last meal? Ordered the same menu. Shrimp. French fries. Garlic bread. Ice cream and strawberries and whipped cream. Understand Smith didn’t touch his much.”

  “That Hickock’s got a sense of humor. They was telling me how, about an hour ago, one of the guards says to him, ‘This must be the longest night of your life.’ And Hickock, he laughs and says, ‘No. The shortest.’ ”

  “Did you hear about Hickock’s eyes? He left them to an eye doctor. Soon as they cut him down, this doctor’s gonna yank out his eyes and stick them in somebody else’s head. Can’t say I’d want to be that somebody. I’d feel peculiar with them eyes in my head.”

  “Christ! Is that rain? All the windows down! My new Chevy. Christ!”

  The sudden rain rapped the high warehouse roof. The sound, not unlike the rat-a-tat-tat of parade drums, heralded Hickock’s arrival. Accompanied by six guards and a prayer-murmuring chaplain, he entered the death place handcuffed and wearing an ugly harness of leather straps that bound his arms to his torso. At the foot of the gallows the warden read to him the official order of execution, a two-page document; and as the warden read, Hickock’s eyes, enfeebled by half a decade of cell shadows, roamed the little audience until, not seeing what he sought, he asked the nearest guard, in a whisper, if any member of the Clutter family was present. When he was told no, the prisoner seemed disappointed, as though he thought the protocol surrounding this ritual of vengeance was not being properly observed.

  As is customary, the warden, having finished his recitation, asked the condemned man whether he had any last statement to make. Hickock nodded. “I just want to say I hold no hard feelings. You people are sending me to a better world than this ever was”; then, as if to emphasize the point, he shook hands with the four men mainly responsible for his capture and conviction, all of whom had requested permission to attend the executions: K.B.I. Agents Roy Church, Clarence Duntz, Harold Nye, and Dewey himself. “Nice to see you,” Hickock said with his most charming smile; it was as if he were greeting guests at his own funeral.

  The hangman coughed—impatiently lifted his cowboy hat and settled it again, a gesture somehow reminiscent of a turkey buzzard huffing, then smoothing its neck feathers—and Hickock, nudged by an attendant, mounted the scaffold steps. “The Lord giveth,
the Lord taketh away. Blessed is the name of the Lord,” the chaplain intoned, as the rain sound accelerated, as the noose was fitted, and as a delicate black mask was tied round the prisoner’s eyes. “May the Lord have mercy on your soul.” The trap door opened, and Hickock hung for all to see a full twenty minutes before the prison doctor at last said, “I pronounce this man dead.” A hearse, its blazing headlights beaded with rain, drove into the warehouse, and the body, placed on a litter and shrouded under a blanket, was carried to the hearse and out into the night.

  Staring after it, Roy Church shook his head: “I never would have believed he had the guts. To take it like he did. I had him tagged a coward.”

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