In Cold Blood by Truman Capote


  Susan turned on her. “No, she isn’t. And don’t you say it. Don’t you dare. It’s only a nosebleed. She has them all the time, terrible nosebleeds, and that’s all it is.”

  “There’s too much blood. There’s blood on the walls. You didn’t really look.”

  “I couldn’t make head nor tails,” Mr. Ewalt subsequently testified. “I thought maybe the child was hurt. It seemed to me the first thing to do was call an ambulance. Miss Kidwell—Susan—she told me there was a telephone in the kitchen. I found it, right where she said. But the receiver was off the hook, and when I picked it up, I saw the line had been cut.”

  Larry Hendricks, a teacher of English, aged twenty-seven, lived on the top floor of the Teacherage. He wanted to write, but his apartment was not the ideal lair for a would-be author. It was smaller than the Kidwells’, and, moreover, he shared it with a wife, three active children, and a perpetually functioning television set. (“It’s the only way we can keep the kids pacified.”) Though as yet unpublished, young Hendricks, a he-mannish ex-sailor from Oklahoma who smokes a pipe and has a mustache and a crop of untamed black hair, at least looks literary—in fact, remarkably like youthful photographs of the writer he most admires, Ernest Hemingway. To supplement his teacher’s salary, he also drove a school bus.

  “Sometimes I cover sixty miles a day,” he said to an acquaintance. “Which doesn’t leave much time for writing. Except Sundays. Now, that Sunday, November fifteenth, I was sitting up here in the apartment going through the papers. Most of my ideas for stories, I get them out of the newspapers—you know? Well, the TV was on and the kids were kind of lively, but even so I could hear voices. From downstairs. Down at Mrs. Kidwell’s. But I didn’t figure it was my concern, since I was new here—only came to Holcomb when school began. But then Shirley—she’d been out hanging up some clothes—my wife, Shirley, rushed in and said, ‘Honey, you better go downstairs. They’re all hysterical.’ The two girls—now, they really were hysterical. Susan never has got over it. Never will, ask me. And poor Mrs. Kidwell. Her health’s not too good, she’s high-strung to begin with. She kept saying—but it was only later I understood what she meant—she kept saying, ‘Oh, Bonnie, Bonnie, what happened? You were so happy, you told me it was all over, you said you’d never be sick again.’ Words to that effect. Even Mr. Ewalt, he was about as worked up as a man like that ever gets. He had the sheriff’s office on the phone—the Garden City sheriff—and he was telling him that there was ‘something radically wrong over at the Clutter place.’ The sheriff promised to come straight out, and Mr. Ewalt said fine, he’d meet him on the highway. Shirley came downstairs to sit with the women, try and calm them—as if anybody could. And I went with Mr. Ewalt—drove with him out to the highway to wait for Sheriff Robinson. On the way, he told me what had happened. When he came to the part about finding the wires cut, right then I thought, Uh-uh, and decided I’d better keep my eyes open. Make a note of every detail. In case I was ever called on to testify in court.

  “The sheriff arrived; it was nine thirty-five—I looked at my watch. Mr. Ewalt waved at him to follow our car, and we drove out to the Clutters’. I’d never been there before, only seen it from a distance. Of course, I knew the family. Kenyon was in my sophomore English class, and I’d directed Nancy in the ‘Tom Sawyer’ play. But they were such exceptional, unassuming kids you wouldn’t have known they were rich or lived in such a big house—and the trees, the lawn, everything so tended and cared for. After we got there, and the sheriff had heard Mr. Ewalt’s story, he radioed his office and told them to send reinforcements, and an ambulance. Said, ‘There’s been some kind of accident.’ Then we went in the house, the three of us. Went through the kitchen and saw a lady’s purse lying on the floor, and the phone where the wires had been cut. The sheriff was wearing a hip pistol, and when we started up the stairs, going to Nancy’s room, I noticed he kept his hand on it, ready to draw.

  “Well, it was pretty bad. That wonderful girl—but you would never have known her. She’d been shot in the back of the head with a shotgun held maybe two inches away. She was lying on her side, facing the wall, and the wall was covered with blood. The bedcovers were drawn up to her shoulders. Sheriff Robinson, he pulled them back, and we saw that she was wearing a bathrobe, pajamas, socks, and slippers—like, whenever it happened, she hadn’t gone to bed yet. Her hands were tied behind her, and her ankles were roped together with the kind of cord you see on Venetian blinds. Sheriff said, ‘Is this Nancy Clutter?’—he’d never seen the child before. And I said, ‘Yes. Yes, that’s Nancy.’

  “We stepped back into the hall, and looked around. All the other doors were closed. We opened one, and that turned out to be a bathroom. Something about it seemed wrong. I decided it was because of the chair—a sort of dining-room chair, that looked out of place in a bathroom. The next door—we all agreed it must be Kenyon’s room. A lot of boy-stuff scattered around. And I recognized Kenyon’s glasses—saw them on a bookshelf beside the bed. But the bed was empty, though it looked as if it had been slept in. So we walked to the end of the hall, the last door, and there, on her bed, that’s where we found Mrs. Clutter. She’d been tied, too. But differently—with her hands in front of her, so that she looked as though she were praying—and in one hand she was holding, gripping, a handkerchief. Or was it Kleenex? The cord around her wrists ran down to her ankles, which were bound together, and then ran on down to the bottom of the bed, where it was tied to the footboard—a very complicated, artful piece of work. Think how long it took to do! And her lying there, scared out of her wits. Well, she was wearing some jewelry, two rings—which is one of the reasons why I’ve always discounted robbery as a motive—and a robe, and a white nightgown, and white socks. Her mouth had been taped with adhesive, but she’d been shot point-blank in the side of the head, and the blast—the impact—had ripped the tape loose. Her eyes were open. Wide open. As though she were still looking at the killer. Because she must have had to watch him do it—aim the gun. Nobody said anything. We were too stunned. I remember the sheriff searched around to see if he could find the discharged cartridge. But whoever had done it was much too smart and cool to have left behind any clues like that.

  “Naturally, we were wondering where was Mr. Clutter? And Kenyon? Sheriff said, ‘Let’s try downstairs.’ The first place we tried was the master bedroom—the room where Mr. Clutter slept. The bedcovers were drawn back, and lying there, toward the foot of the bed, was a billfold with a mess of cards spilling out of it, like somebody had shuffled through them hunting something particular—a note, an I.O.U., who knows? The fact that there wasn’t any money in it didn’t signify one way or the other. It was Mr. Clutter’s billfold, and he never did carry cash. Even I knew that, and I’d only been in Holcomb a little more than two months. Another thing I knew was that neither Mr. Clutter nor Kenyon could see a darn without his glasses. And there were Mr. Clutter’s glasses sitting on a bureau. So I figured, wherever they were, they weren’t there of their own accord. We looked all over, and everything was just as it should be—no sign of a struggle, nothing disturbed. Except the office, where the telephone was off the hook, and the wires cut, same as in the kitchen. Sheriff Robinson, he found some shotguns in a closet, and sniffed them to see if they had been fired recently. Said they hadn’t, and—I never saw a more bewildered man—said, ‘Where the devil can Herb be?’ About then we heard footsteps. Coming up the stairs from the basement. ‘Who’s that?’ said the sheriff, like he was ready to shoot. And a voice said, ‘It’s me. Wendle.’ Turned out to be Wendle Meier, the undersheriff. Seems he had come to the house and hadn’t seen us, so he’d gone investigating down in the basement. The sheriff told him—and it was sort of pitiful: ‘Wendle, I don’t know what to make of it. There’s two bodies upstairs.’ ‘Well,’ he said, Wendle did, ‘there’s another one down here.’ So we followed him down to the basement. Or playroom, I guess you’d call it. It wasn’t dark—there were windows that let in plenty of light. Kenyon was over in a
corner, lying on a couch. He was gagged with adhesive tape and bound hand and foot, like the mother—the same intricate process of the cord leading from the hands to the feet, and finally tied to an arm of the couch. Somehow he haunts me the most, Kenyon does. I think it’s because he was the most recognizable, the one that looked the most like himself—even though he’d been shot in the face, directly, head-on. He was wearing a T-shirt and blue jeans, and he was barefoot—as though he’d dressed in a hurry, just put on the first thing that came to hand. His head was propped by a couple of pillows, like they’d been stuffed under him to make an easier target.

  “Then the sheriff said, ‘Where’s this go to?’ Meaning another door there in the basement. Sheriff led the way, but inside you couldn’t see your hand until Mr. Ewalt found the light switch. It was a furnace room, and very warm. Around here, people just install a gas furnace and pump the gas smack out of the ground. Doesn’t cost them a nickel—that’s why all the houses are overheated. Well, I took one look at Mr. Clutter, and it was hard to look again. I knew plain shooting couldn’t account for that much blood. And I wasn’t wrong. He’d been shot, all right, the same as Kenyon—with the gun held right in front of his face. But probably he was dead before he was shot. Or, anyway, dying. Because his throat had been cut, too. He was wearing striped pajamas—nothing else. His mouth was taped; the tape had been wound plumb around his head. His ankles were tied together, but not his hands—or, rather, he’d managed, God knows how, maybe in rage or pain, to break the cord binding his hands. He was sprawled in front of the furnace. On a big cardboard box that looked as though it had been laid there specially. A mattress box. Sheriff said, ‘Look here, Wendle.’ What he was pointing at was a bloodstained footprint. On the mattress box. A half-sole footprint with circles—two holes in the center like a pair of eyes. Then one of us—Mr. Ewalt? I don’t recall—pointed out something else. A thing I can’t get out of my mind. There was a steampipe overhead, and knotted to it, dangling from it, was a piece of cord—the kind of cord the killer had used. Obviously, at some point Mr. Clutter had been tied there, strung up by his hands, and then cut down. But why? To torture him? I don’t guess we’ll ever know. Ever know who did it, or why, or what went on in that house that night.

  “After a bit, the house began to fill up. Ambulances arrived, and the coroner, and the Methodist minister, a police photographer, state troopers, fellows from the radio and the newspaper. Oh, a bunch. Most of them had been called out of church, and acted as though they were still there. Very quiet. Whispery. It was like nobody could believe it. A state trooper asked me did I have any official business there, and said if not, then I’d better leave. Outside, on the lawn, I saw the undersheriff talking to a man—Alfred Stoecklein, the hired man. Seems Stoecklein lived not a hundred yards from the Clutter house, with nothing between his place and theirs except a barn. But he was saying as to how he hadn’t heard a sound—said, ‘I didn’t know a thing about it till five minutes ago, when one of my kids come running in and told us the sheriff was here. The Missis and me, we didn’t sleep two hours last night, was up and down the whole time, on account of we got a sick baby. But the only thing we heard, about ten-thirty, quarter to eleven, I heard a car drive away, and I made the remark to Missis, “There goes Bob Rupp.” ‘I started walking home, and on the way, about halfway down the lane, I saw Kenyon’s old collie, and that dog was scared. Stood there with its tail between its legs, didn’t bark or move. And seeing the dog—somehow that made me feel again. I’d been too dazed, too numb, to feel the full viciousness of it. The suffering. The horror. They were dead. A whole family. Gentle, kindly people, people I knew—murdered. You had to believe it, because it was really true.”

  Eight non-stop passenger trains hurry through Holcomb every twenty-four hours. Of these, two pick up and deposit mail—an operation that, as the person in charge of it fervently explains, has its tricky side. “Yessir, you’ve got to keep on your toes. Them trains come through here, sometimes they’re going a hundred miles an hour. The breeze alone why, it’s enough to knock you down. And when those mail sacks come flying out—sakes alive! It’s like playing tackle on a football team: Wham! Wham! WHAM! Not that I’m complaining, mind you. It’s honest work, government work, and it keeps me young.” Holcomb’s mail messenger, Mrs. Sadie Truitt—or Mother Truitt, as the townspeople call her—does seem younger than her years, which amount to seventy-five. A stocky, weathered widow who wears babushka bandannas and cowboy boots (“Most comfortable things you can put on your feet, soft as a loon feather”), Mother Truitt is the oldest native-born Holcombite. “Time was wasn’t anybody here wasn’t my kin. Them days, we called this place Sherlock. Then along came this stranger. By the name Holcomb. A hog raiser, he was. Made money, and decided the town ought to be called after him. Soon as it was, what did he do? Sold out. Moved to California. Not us. I was born here, my children was born here. And! Here! We! Are!” One of her children is Mrs. Myrtle Clare, who happens to be the local postmistress. “Only, don’t go thinking that’s how I got this position with the government. Myrt didn’t even want me to have it. But it’s a job you bid for. Goes to whoever puts in the lowest bid. And I always do—so low a caterpillar could peek over it. Ha-ha! That sure does rile the boys. Lots of boys would like to be mail messenger, yessir. But I don’t know how much they’d like it when the snow’s high as old Mr. Primo Camera, and the wind’s blowing blue-hard, and those sacks come sailing—Ugh! Wham!”

  In Mother Truitt’s profession, Sunday is a workday like any other. On November 15, while she was waiting for the westbound ten-thirty-two, she was astonished to see two ambulances cross the railroad tracks and turn toward the Clutter property. The incident provoked her into doing what she had never done before—abandon her duties. Let the mail fall where it may, this was news that Myrt must hear at once.

  The people of Holcomb speak of their post office as “the Federal Building,” which seems rather too substantial a title to confer on a drafty and dusty shed. The ceiling leaks, the floor boards wobble, the mailboxes won’t shut, the light bulbs are broken, the clock has stopped. “Yes, it’s a disgrace,” agrees the caustic, somewhat original, and entirely imposing lady who presides over this litter. “But the stamps work, don’t they? Anyhow, what do I care? Back here in my part is real cozy. I’ve got my rocker, and a nice wood stove, and a coffee pot, and plenty to read.”

  Mrs. Clare is a famous figure in Finney County. Her celebrity derives not from her present occupation but a previous one—dance-hall hostess, an incarnation not indicated by her appearance. She is a gaunt, trouser-wearing, woolen-shirted, cowboy-booted, ginger-colored, gingery-tempered woman of unrevealed age (“That’s for me to know, and you to guess”) but promptly revealed opinions, most of which are announced in a voice of rooster-crow altitude and penetration. Until 1955 she and her late husband operated the Holcomb Dance Pavilion, an enterprise that owing to its uniqueness in the area, attracted from a hundred miles around a fast-drinking, fancy-stepping clientele, whose behavior, in turn, attracted the interest of the sheriff now and then. “We had some tough times, all right,” says Mrs. Clare, reminiscing. “Some of those bowlegged country boys, you give ’em a little hooch and they’re like redskins—want to scalp everything in sight. Course, we only sold setups, never the hard stuff itself. Wouldn’t have, even if it was legal. My husband, Homer Clare, he didn’t hold with it; neither did I. One day Homer Clare—he passed on seven months and twelve days ago today, after a five-hour operation out in Oregon—he said to me, ‘Myrt, we’ve lived all our lives in hell, now we’re going to die in heaven.’ The next day we closed the dance hall. I’ve never regretted it. Oh, along at first I missed being a night owl—the tunes, the jollity. But now that Homer’s gone, I’m just glad to do my work here at the Federal Building. Sit a spell. Drink a cup of coffee.”

  In fact, on that Sunday morning Mrs. Clare had just poured herself a cup of coffee from a freshly brewed pot when Mother Truitt returned.

  “Myrt!??
? she said, but could say no more until she had caught her breath. “Myrt, there’s two ambulances gone to the Clutters’.”

  Her daughter said, “Where’s the ten-thirty-two?”

  “Ambulances. Gone to the Clutters’—”

  “Well, what about it? It’s only Bonnie. Having one of her spells. Where’s the ten-thirty-two?”

  Mother Truitt subsided; as usual, Myrt knew the answer, was enjoying the last word. Then a thought occurred to her. “But Myrt, if it’s only Bonnie, why would there be two ambulances?”

  A sensible question, as Mrs. Clare, an admirer of logic, though a curious interpreter of it, was driven to admit. She said she would telephone Mrs. Helm. “Mabel will know,” she said.

  The conversation with Mrs. Helm lasted several minutes, and was most distressing to Mother Truitt, who could hear nothing of it except the noncommittal monosyllabic responses of her daughter. Worse, when the daughter hung up, she did not quench the old woman’s curiosity; instead, she placidly drank her coffee, went to her desk, and began to postmark a pile of letters.

  “Myrt,” Mother Truitt said. “For heaven’s sake. What did Mabel say?”

  “I’m not surprised,” Mrs. Clare said. “When you think how Herb Clutter spent his whole life in a hurry, rushing in here to get his mail with never a minute to say good-morning-and-thank-you-dog, rushing around like a chicken with its head off—joining clubs, running everything, getting jobs maybe other people wanted. And now look—it’s all caught up with him. Well, he won’t be rushing any more.”

  “Why, Myrt? Why won’t he?”

 
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