In Cold Blood by Truman Capote


  The man to whom he spoke, another detective, said, “Aw, Roy. The guy was a punk. A mean bastard. He deserved it.”

  Church, with thoughtful eyes, continued to shake his head.

  While waiting for the second execution, a reporter and a guard conversed. The reporter said, “This your first hanging?”

  “I seen Lee Andrews.”

  “This here’s my first.”

  “Yeah. How’d you like it?”

  The reporter pursed his lips. “Nobody in our office wanted the assignment. Me either. But it wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be. Just like jumping off a diving board. Only with a rope around your neck.”

  “They don’t feel nothing. Drop, snap, and that’s it. They don’t feel nothing.”

  “Are you sure? I was standing right close. I could hear him gasping for breath.”

  “Uh-huh, but he don’t feel nothing. Wouldn’t be humane if he did.”

  “Well. And I suppose they feed them a lot of pills. Sedatives.”

  “Hell, no. Against the rules. Here comes Smith.”

  “Gosh, I didn’t know he was such a shrimp.”

  “Yeah, he’s little. But so is a tarantula.”

  As he was brought into the warehouse, Smith recognized his old foe, Dewey; he stopped chewing a hunk of Doublemint gum he had in his mouth, and grinned and winked at Dewey, jaunty and mischievous. But after the warden asked if he had anything to say, his expression was sober. His sensitive eyes gazed gravely at the surrounding faces, swerved up to the shadowy hangman, then downward to his own manacled hands. He looked at his fingers, which were stained with ink and paint, for he’d spent his final three years on Death Row painting self-portraits and pictures of children, usually the children of inmates who supplied him with photographs of their seldom-seen progeny. “I think,” he said, “it’s a helluva thing to take a life in this manner. I don’t believe in capital punishment, morally or legally. Maybe I had something to contribute, something—” His assurance faltered; shyness blurred his voice, lowered it to a just audible level. “It would be meaningless to apologize for what I did. Even inappropriate. But I do. I apologize.”

  Steps, noose, mask; but before the mask was adjusted, the prisoner spat his chewing gum into the chaplain’s outstretched palm. Dewey shut his eyes; he kept them shut until he heard the thud-snap that announces a rope-broken neck. Like the majority of American law-enforcement officials, Dewey is certain that capital punishment is a deterrent to violent crime, and he felt that if ever the penalty had been earned, the present instance was it. The preceding execution had not disturbed him, he had never had much use for Hickock, who seemed to him “a small-time chiseler who got out of his depth, empty and worthless.” But Smith, though he was the true murderer, aroused another response, for Perry possessed a quality, the aura of an exiled animal, a creature walking wounded, that the detective could not disregard. He remembered his first meeting with Perry in the interrogation room at Police Headquarters in Las Vegas—the dwarfish boy-man seated in the metal chair, his small booted feet not quite brushing the floor. And when Dewey now opened his eyes, that is what he saw: the same childish feet, tilted, dangling.

  Dewey had imagined that with the deaths of Smith and Hickock, he would experience a sense of climax, release, of a design justly completed. Instead, he discovered himself recalling an incident of almost a year ago, a casual encounter in Valley View Cemetery, which, in retrospect, had somehow for him more or less ended the Clutter case.

  The pioneers who founded Garden City were necessarily a Spartan people, but when the time came to establish a formal cemetery, they were determined, despite arid soil and the troubles of transporting water, to create a rich contrast to the dusty streets, the austere plains. The result, which they named Valley View, is situated above the town on a plateau of modest altitude. Seen today, it is a dark island lapped by the undulating surf of surrounding wheat fields—a good refuge from a hot day, for there are many cool paths unbrokenly shaded by trees planted generations ago.

  One afternoon the previous May, a month when the fields blaze with the green-gold fire of half-grown wheat, Dewey had spent several hours at Valley View weeding his father’s grave, an obligation he had too long neglected. Dewey was fifty-one, four years older than when he had supervised the Clutter investigation; but he was still lean and agile, and still the K.B.I.’s principal agent in western Kansas; only a week earlier he had caught a pair of cattle rustlers. The dream of settling on his farm had not come true, for his wife’s fear of living in that sort of isolation had never lessened. Instead, the Deweys had built a new house in town; they were proud of it, and proud, too, of both their sons, who were deep-voiced now and as tall as their father. The older boy was headed for college in the autumn.

  When he had finished weeding, Dewey strolled along the quiet paths. He stopped at a tombstone marked with a recently carved name: Tate. Judge Tate had died of pneumonia the past November; wreaths, brown roses, and rain-faded ribbons still lay upon the raw earth. Close by, fresher petals spilled across a newer mound—the grave of Bonnie Jean Ashida, the Ashidas’ elder daughter, who while visiting Garden City had been killed in a car collision. Deaths, births, marriages—why, just the other day he’d heard that Nancy Clutter’s boy friend, young Bobby Rupp, had gone and got married.

  The graves of the Clutter family, four graves gathered under a single gray stone, lie in a far corner of the cemetery—beyond the trees, out in the sun, almost at the wheat field’s bright edge. As Dewey approached them, he saw that another visitor was already there: a willowy girl with white-gloved hands, a smooth cap of dark-honey hair, and long, elegant legs. She smiled at him, and he wondered who she was.

  “Have you forgotten me, Mr. Dewey? Susan Kidwell.”

  He laughed; she joined him. “Sue Kidwell. I’ll be darned.” He hadn’t seen her since the trial; she had been a child then. “How are you? How’s your mother?”

  “Fine, thank you. She’s still teaching music at the Holcomb School.”

  “Haven’t been that way lately. Any changes?”

  “Oh, there’s some talk about paving the streets. But you know Holcomb. Actually, I don’t spend much time there. This is my junior year at K.U.,” she said, meaning the University of Kansas. “I’m just home for a few days.”

  “That’s wonderful, Sue. What are you studying?”

  “Everything. Art, mostly. I love it. I’m really happy.” She glanced across the prairie. “Nancy and I planned to go to college together. We were going to be roommates. I think about it sometimes. Suddenly, when I’m very happy, I think of all the plans we made.”

  Dewey looked at the gray stone inscribed with four names, and the date of their death: November 15, 1959. “Do you come here often?”

  “Once in a while. Gosh, the sun’s strong.” She covered her eyes with tinted glasses. “Remember Bobby Rupp? He married a beautiful girl.”

  “So I heard.”

  “Colleen Whitehurst. She’s really beautiful. And very nice, too.”

  “Good for Bobby.” And to tease her, Dewey added, “But how about you? You must have a lot of beaus.”

  “Well. Nothing serious. But that reminds me. Do you have the time? Oh,” she cried, when he told her it was past four, “I’ve got to run! But it was nice to have seen you, Mr. Dewey.”

  “And nice to have seen you, Sue. Good luck,” he called after her as she disappeared down the path, a pretty girl in a hurry, her smooth hair swinging, shining—just such a young woman as Nancy might have been. Then, starting home, he walked toward the trees, and under them, leaving behind him the big sky, the whisper of wind voices in the wind-bent wheat.

  THE END

  THE MODERN LIBRARY EDITORIAL BOARD

  Maya Angelou

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  Daniel J. Boorstin

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  A. S. Byatt

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  Caleb Carr

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  Christopher Cerf

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&n
bsp; Ron Chernow

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  Shelby Foote

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  Vartan Gregorian

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  Charles Johnson

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  Mary Karr

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  Jon Krakauer

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  Edmund Morris

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  Michael Ondaatje

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  Elaine Pagels

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  David Remnick

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  John Richardson

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  Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.

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  Carolyn See

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  William Styron

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  Gore Vidal

  IV

  THE CORNER

  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.

  Th
ursday 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.”

 
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