In Cold Blood by Truman Capote

  But that was not what Perry really believed; he believed what he’d written Don Cullivan, with whom he now corresponded regularly: his crime was “unforgivable,” and he fully expected to “climb those thirteen steps.” However, he was not altogether without hope, for he too had plotted an escape. It depended upon a pair of young men that he had often observed observing him. One was red-haired, the other dark. Sometimes, standing in the Square under the tree that touched the cell window, they smiled and signaled to him—or so he imagined. Nothing was ever said, and always, after perhaps a minute, they drifted away. But the prisoner had convinced himself that the young men, possibly motivated by a desire for adventure, meant to help him escape. Accordingly, he drew a map of the Square, indicating the points at which a “getaway car” could most advantageously be stationed. Beneath the map he wrote: I need a Hacksaw Blade 5”. Nothing else. But do you realize the consequences if you get caught (nod your head if you do)? It could mean a long stretch in prison. Or you might get killed. All for someone you don’t know. YOU BETTER THINK IT OVER!! Seriously! Besides, how do I know I can trust you? How do I know it isn’t a trick to get me out there and gun me down? What about Hickock? All preparations must include him.

  Perry kept this document on his desk, wadded and ready to drop out the window the next time the young men appeared. But they never did; he never saw them again. Eventually, he wondered if perhaps he had invented them (a notion that he “might not be normal, maybe insane” had troubled him “even when I was little, and my sisters laughed because I liked moonlight. To hide in the shadows and watch the moon”). Phantoms or not, he ceased to think of the young men. Another method of escape, suicide, replaced them in his musings; and despite the jailer’s precautions (no mirror, no belt or tie or shoelaces), he had devised a way to do it. For he also was furnished with a ceiling bulb that burned eternally, but, unlike Hickock, he had in his cell a broom, and by pressing the broom-brush against the bulb he could unscrew it. One night he dreamed that he’d unscrewed the bulb, broken it, and with the broken glass cut his wrists and ankles. “I felt all breath and light leaving me,” he said, in a subsequent description of his sensations. “The walls of the cell fell away, the sky came down, I saw the big yellow bird.”

  Throughout his life—as a child, poor and meanly treated, as a foot-loose youth, as an imprisoned man—the yellow bird, huge and parrot-faced, had soared across Perry’s dreams, an avenging angel who savaged his enemies or, as now, rescued him in moments of mortal danger: “She lifted me, I could have been light as a mouse, we went up, up, I could see the Square below, men running, yelling, the sheriff shooting at us, everybody sore as hell because I was free, I was flying, I was better than any of them.”

  The trial was scheduled to start on March 22, 1960. In the weeks preceding that date the defense attorneys frequently consulted the defendants. The advisability of requesting a change of venue was discussed, but as the elderly Mr. Fleming warned his client, “It wouldn’t matter where in Kansas the trial was held. Sentiment’s the same all over the state. We’re probably better off in Garden City. This is a religious community. Eleven thousand population and twenty-two churches. And most of the ministers are opposed to capital punishment, say it’s immoral, unchristian; even the Reverend Cowan, the Clutters’ own minister and a close friend of the family, he’s been preaching against the death penalty in this very case. Remember, all we can hope is to save your lives. I think we stand as good a chance here as anywhere.”

  Soon after the original arraignment of Smith and Hickock, their advocates appeared before Judge Tate to argue a motion urging comprehensive psychiatric examinations for the accused. Specifically, the court was asked to permit the state hospital in Larned, Kansas, a mental institution with maximum-security facilities, to take custody of the prisoners for the purpose of ascertaining whether either or both were “insane, imbeciles or idiots, unable to comprehend their position and aid in their defense.”

  Larned is a hundred miles east of Garden City; Hickock’s attorney, Harrison Smith, informed the court that he had driven there the previous day and conferred with several of the hospital’s staff: “We have no qualified psychiatrists in our own community. In fact, Larned is the only place within a radius of two hundred and twenty-five miles where you’ll find such men—doctors trained to make serious psychiatric evaluations. That takes time. Four to eight weeks. But the personnel with whom I discussed the matter said they were willing to start work at once; and, of course, being a state institution it won’t cost the county a nickel.”

  This plan was opposed by the special assistant prosecuting attorney, Logan Green, who, certain that “temporary insanity” was the defense his antagonists would attempt to sustain in the forthcoming trial, feared that the ultimate outcome of the proposal would be, as he predicted in private conversation, the appearance on the witness stand of a “pack of head-healers” sympathetic to the defendants (“Those fellows, they’re always crying over the killers. Never a thought for the victims”). Short, pugnacious, a Kentuckian by birth, Green began by pointing out to the court that Kansas’ law, in regard to sanity, adheres to the M’Naghten Rule, the ancient British importation which contends that if the accused knew the nature of his act, and knew it was wrong, then he is mentally competent and responsible for his actions. Furthermore, said Green, there was nothing in the Kansas statutes indicating that the physicians chosen to determine a defendant’s mental condition must be of any particular qualification: “Just plain doctors. Medical doctors in general practice. That’s all the law requires. We have sanity hearings in this county every year for the purpose of committing people to the institution. We never call anybody in from Larned or psychiatric institutions of any kind. Our own local physicians attend to the matter. It’s no great job to find whether a man is insane or an idiot or an imbecile . . . It is entirely unnecessary, a waste of time to send the defendants to Larned.”

  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 were 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 exam
ination, 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.

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