In Cold Blood by Truman Capote

  “Did he actually say what he was going to do with the witnesses?”

  “Yes. He told me he would probably tie them up and then rob them and then kill them.”

  Having established premeditation of great degree, Green left the witness to the ministrations of the defense. Old Mr. Fleming, a classic country lawyer more happily at home with land deeds than ill deeds, opened the cross-examination. The intent of his queries, as he soon established, was to introduce a subject the prosecution had emphatically avoided: the question of Wells’ own role in the murder plot, and his own moral liability.

  “You didn’t,” Fleming said, hastening to the heart of the matter, “say anything at all to Mr. Hickock to discourage him from coming out here to rob and kill the Clutter family?”

  “No. Anybody tells you anything about that up there [Kansas State Penitentiary], you don’t pay any attention to it because you think they are just talking anyway.”

  “You mean you talked that way and didn’t mean anything? Didn’t you mean to convey to him [Hickock] the idea that Mr. Clutter had a safe? You wanted Mr. Hickock to believe that, did you not?”

  In his quiet way, Fleming was giving the witness a rough time; Wells plucked at his tie, as though the knot was suddenly too tight.

  “And you meant for Mr. Hickock to believe that Mr. Clutter had a lot of money, didn’t you?”

  “I told him Mr. Clutter had a lot of money, yes.”

  Fleming once more elicited an account of how Hickock had fully informed Wells of his violent plans for the Clutter family. Then, as though veiled in a private grief, the lawyer wistfully said, “And even after all of that you did nothing to discourage him?”

  “I didn’t believe he’d do it.”

  “You didn’t believe him. Then why, when you heard about the thing that happened out here, why did you think he was the one that was guilty?”

  Wells cockily replied, “Because it was done just like he said he was going to do!”

  Harrison Smith, the younger half of the defense team, took charge. Assuming an aggressive, sneering manner that seemed forced, for really he is a mild and lenient man, Smith asked the witness if he had a nickname.

  “No. I just go by ‘Floyd.’ ”

  The lawyer snorted. “Don’t they call you ‘Squealer’ now? Or do they call you ‘Snitch’?”

  “I just go by ‘Floyd,’ ” Wells repeated, rather hangdog.

  “How many times have you been in jail?”

  “About three times.”

  “Some of those times for lying, were they?”

  Denying it, the witness said that once he’d gone to jail for driving without an operator’s license, that burglary was the reason for his second incarceration, and the third, a ninety-day hitch in an Army stockade, had been the outcome of something that happened while he was a soldier: “We was on a train trip guard. We got a little intoxicated on the train, done a little extra shooting at some windows and lights.”

  Everyone laughed; everyone except the defendants (Hickock spat on the floor) and Harrison Smith, who now asked Wells why, after learning of the Holcomb tragedy, he had tarried several weeks before telling the authorities what he knew. “Weren’t you,” he said, “waiting for something to come out? Maybe like a reward?”


  “You didn’t hear anything about a reward?” The lawyer was referring to the reward of one thousand dollars that had been offered by the Hutchinson News, for information resulting in the arrest and conviction of the Clutter murderers.

  “I seen it in the paper.”

  “That was before you went to the authorities, wasn’t it?” And when the witness admitted that this was true, Smith triumphantly continued by asking, “What kind of immunity did the county attorney offer you for coming up here today and testifying?”

  But Logan Green protested: “We object to the form of the question, Your Honor. There’s been no testimony about immunity to anybody.” The objection was sustained, and the witness dismissed; as he left the stand, Hickock announced to everyone within earshot, “Sonofabitch. Anybody ought to hang, he ought to hang. Look at him. Gonna walk out of here and get that money and go scot-free.”

  This prediction proved correct, for not long afterward Wells collected both the reward and a parole. But his good fortune was short-lived. He was soon in trouble again, and, over the years, has experienced many vicissitudes. At present he is a resident of the Mississippi State Prison in Parchman, Mississippi, where he is serving a thirty-year sentence for armed robbery.

  By Friday, when the court recessed for the weekend, the state had completed its case, which included the appearance of four Special Agents of the Federal Bureau of Investigation in Washington, D.C. These men, laboratory technicians skilled in various categories of scientific crime detection, had studied the physical evidence connecting the accused to the murders (blood samples, footprints, cartridge shells, rope and tape), and each of them certified the validity of the exhibits. Finally, the four K.B.I. agents provided accounts of interviews with the prisoners, and of the confessions eventually made by them. In cross-examining the K.B.I. personnel, the defense attorneys, a beleaguered pair, argued that the admissions of guilt had been obtained by improper means—brutal interrogation in sweltering, brightly lighted, closet-like rooms. The allegation, which was untrue, irritated the detectives into expounding very convincing denials. (Later, in reply to a reporter who asked him why he had dogged this artificial scent at such length, Hickock’s lawyer snapped, “What am I supposed to do? Hell, I’m playing without any cards. But I can’t just sit here like a dummy. I’ve got to sound off once in a while.”)

  The prosecution’s most damaging witness proved to be Alvin Dewey; his testimony, the first public rendering of the events detailed in Perry Smith’s confession, earned large headlines (UNVEIL MUTE MURDER HORROR—Cold, Chilling Facts Told), and shocked his listeners—none more so than Richard Hickock, who came to a startled and chagrined attention when, in the course of Dewey’s commentary, the agent said, “There is one incident Smith related to me that I haven’t as yet mentioned. And that was that after the Clutter family was tied up, Hickock said to him how well built he thought Nancy Clutter was, and that he was going to rape her. Smith said he told Hickock there wasn’t going to be anything like that go on. Smith told me he had no respect for anyone who couldn’t control their sexual desires, and that he would have fought Hickock before allowing him to rape the Clutter girl.” Heretofore, Hickock had not known that his partner had informed police of the proposed assault; nor was he aware that, in a friendlier spirit, Perry had altered his original story to claim that he alone had shot the four victims—a fact revealed by Dewey as he neared the end of his testimony: “Perry Smith told me he wished to change two things in the statement he had given us. He said everything else in that statement was true and correct. Except these two things. And that was that he wanted to say he killed Mrs. Clutter and Nancy Clutter—not Hickock. He told me that Hickock. . . didn’t want to die with his mother thinking he had killed any members of the Clutter family. And he said the Hickocks were good people. So why not have it that way.”

  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. A
nd 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 t
o 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.

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