In Cold Blood by Truman Capote

  Mrs. Clare raised her voice. “BECAUSE HE’S DEAD. And Bonnie, too. And Nancy. And the boy. Somebody shot them.”

  “Myrt—don’t say things like that. Who shot them?”

  Without a pause in her postmarking activities, Mrs. Clare replied, “The man in the airplane. The one Herb sued for crashing into his fruit trees. If it wasn’t him, maybe it was you. Or somebody across the street. All the neighbors are rattlesnakes. Varmints looking for a chance to slam the door in your face. It’s the same the whole world over. You know that.”

  “I don’t,” said Mother Truitt, who put her hands over her ears. “I don’t know any such thing.”


  “I’m scared, Myrt.”

  “Of what? When your time comes, it comes. And tears won’t save you.” She had observed that her mother had begun to shed a few. “When Homer died, I used up all the fear I had in me, and all the grief, too. If there’s somebody loose around here that wants to cut my throat, I wish him luck. What difference does it make? It’s all the same in eternity. Just remember: If one bird carried every grain of sand, grain by grain, across the ocean, by the time he got them all on the other side, that would only be the beginning of eternity. So blow your nose.”

  The grim information, announced from church pulpits, distributed over telephone wires, publicized by Garden City’s radio station, KIUL (“A tragedy, unbelievable and shocking beyond words, struck four members of the Herb Clutter family late Saturday night or early today. Death, brutal and without apparent motive . . .”), produced in the average recipient a reaction nearer that of Mother Truitt than that of Mrs. Clare: amazement, shading into dismay; a shallow horror sensation that cold springs of personal fear swiftly deepened.

  Hartman’s Café, which contains four roughly made tables and a lunch counter, could accommodate but a fraction of the frightened gossips, mostly male, who wished to gather there. The owner, Mrs. Bess Hartman, a sparsely fleshed, unfoolish lady with bobbed gray-and-gold hair and bright, authoritative green eyes, is a cousin of Postmistress Clare, whose style of candor Mrs. Hartman can equal, perhaps surpass. “Some people say I’m a tough old bird, but the Clutter business sure took the fly out of me,” she later said to a friend. “Imagine anybody pulling a stunt like that! Time I heard it, when everybody was pouring in here talking all kinds of wild-eyed stuff, my first thought was Bonnie. Course, it was silly, but we didn’t know the facts, and a lot of people thought maybe—on account of her spells. Now we don’t know what to think. It must have been a grudge killing. Done by somebody who knew the house inside out. But who hated the Clutters? I never heard a word against them; they were about as popular as a family can be, and if something like this could happen to them, then who’s safe, I ask you? One old man sitting here that Sunday, he put his finger right on it, the reason nobody can sleep; he said, ‘All we’ve got out here are our friends. There isn’t anything else.’ In a way, that’s the worst part of the crime. What a terrible thing when neighbors can’t look at each other without kind of wondering! Yes, it’s a hard fact to live with, but if they ever do find out who done it, I’m sure it’ll be a bigger surprise than the murders themselves.”

  Mrs. Bob Johnson, the wife of the New York Life Insurance agent, is an excellent cook, but the Sunday dinner she had prepared was not eaten—at least, not while it was warm—for just as her husband was plunging a knife into the roast pheasant, he received a telephone call from a friend. “And that,” he recalls, rather ruefully, “was the first I heard of what had happened in Holcomb. I didn’t believe it. I couldn’t afford to. Lord, I had Clutter’s check right here in my pocket. A piece of paper worth eighty thousand dollars. If what I’d heard was true. But I thought, It can’t be, there must be some mistake, things like that don’t happen, you don’t sell a man a big policy one minute and he’s dead the next. Murdered. Meaning double indemnity. I didn’t know what to do. I called the manager of our office in Wichita. Told him how I had the check but hadn’t put it through, and asked what was his advice? Well, it was a delicate situation. It appeared that legally we weren’t obliged to pay. But morally—that was another matter. Naturally, we decided to do the moral thing.”

  The two persons who benefited by this honorable attitude—Eveanna Jarchow and her sister Beverly, sole heirs to their father’s estate—were, within a few hours of the awful discovery, on their way to Garden City, Beverly traveling from Winfield, Kansas, where she had been visiting her fiancé, and Eveanna from her home in Mount Carroll, Illinois. Gradually, in the course of the day, other relatives were notified, among them Mr. Clutter’s father, his two brothers, Arthur and Clarence, and his sister, Mrs. Harry Nelson, all of Larned, Kansas, and a second sister, Mrs. Elaine Selsor, of Palatka, Florida. Also, the parents of Bonnie Clutter, Mr. and Mrs. Arthur B. Fox, who live in Pasadena, California, and her three brothers—Harold, of Visalia, California; Howard, of Oregon, Illinois; and Glenn, of Kansas City, Kansas. Indeed, the better part of those on the Clutters’ Thanksgiving guest list were either telephoned or telegraphed, and the majority set forth at once for what was to be a family reunion not around a groaning board but at the graveside of a mass burial.

  At the Teacherage, Wilma Kidwell was forced to control herself in order to control her daughter, for Susan, puffy-eyed, sickened by spasms of nausea, argued, inconsolably insisted, that she must go—must run—the three miles to the Rupp farm. “Don’t you see, Mother?” she said. “If Bobby just hears it? He loved her. We both did. I have to be the one to tell him.”

  But Bobby already knew. On his way home, Mr. Ewalt had stopped at the Rupp farm and consulted with his friend Johnny Rupp, a father of eight, of whom Bobby is the third. Together, the two men went to the bunkhouse—a building separate from the farmhouse proper, which is too small to shelter all the Rupp children. The boys live in the bunkhouse, the girls “at home.” They found Bobby making his bed. He listened to Mr. Ewalt, asked no questions, and thanked him for coming. Afterward, he stood outside in the sunshine. The Rupp property is on a rise, an exposed plateau, from which he could see the harvested, glowing land of River Valley Farm—scenery that occupied him for perhaps an hour. Those who tried to distract him could not. The dinner bell sounded, and his mother called to him to come inside—called until finally her husband said, “No. I’d leave him alone.”

  Larry, a younger brother, also refused to obey the summoning bell. He circled around Bobby, helpless to help but wanting to, even though he was told to “go away.” Later, when his brother stopped standing and started to walk, heading down the road and across the fields toward Holcomb, Larry pursued him. “Hey, Bobby. Listen. If we’re going somewhere, why don’t we go in the car?” His brother wouldn’t answer. He was walking with purpose, running, really, but Larry had no difficulty keeping stride. Though only fourteen, he was the taller of the two, the deeper-chested, the longer-legged, Bobby being, for all his athletic honors, rather less than medium-size—compact but slender, a finely made boy with an open, homely-handsome face. “Hey, Bobby. Listen. They won’t let you see her. It won’t do any good.” Bobby turned on him, and said, “Go back. Go home.” The younger brother fell behind, then followed at a distance. Despite the pumpkin-season temperature, the day’s arid glitter, both boys were sweating as they approached a barricade that state troopers had erected at the entrance to River Valley Farm. Many friends of the Clutter family, and strangers from all over Finney County as well, had assembled at the site, but none was allowed past the barricade, which, soon after the arrival of the Rupp brothers, was briefly lifted to permit the exit of four ambulances, the number finally required to remove the victims, and a car filled with men from the sheriff’s office—men who, even at that moment, were mentioning the name of Bobby Rupp. For Bobby, as he was to learn before nightfall, was their principal suspect.

  From her parlor window, Susan Kidwell saw the white cortege glide past, and watched until it had rounded the corner and the unpaved street’s easily airborne dust had landed again. She w
as still contemplating the view when Bobby, shadowed by his large little brother, became a part of it, a wobbly figure headed her way. She went out on the porch to meet him. She said, “I wanted so much to tell you.” Bobby began to cry. Larry lingered at the edge of the Teacherage yard, hunched against a tree. He couldn’t remember ever seeing Bobby cry, and he didn’t want to, so he lowered his eyes.

  Far off, in the town of Olathe, in a hotel room where window shades darkened the midday sun, Perry lay sleeping, with a gray portable radio murmuring beside him. Except for taking off his boots, he had not troubled to undress. He had merely fallen face down across the bed, as though sleep were a weapon that had struck him from behind. The boots, black and silver-buckled, were soaking in a washbasin filled with warm, vaguely pink-tinted water.

  A few miles north, in the pleasant kitchen of a modest farmhouse, Dick was consuming a Sunday dinner. The others at the table—his mother, his father, his younger brother—were not conscious of anything uncommon in his manner. He had arrived home at noon, kissed his mother, readily replied to questions his father put concerning his supposed overnight trip to Fort Scott, and sat down to eat, seeming quite his ordinary self. When the meal was over, the three male members of the family settled in the parlor to watch a televised basketball game. The broadcast had only begun when the father was startled to hear Dick snoring; as he remarked to the younger boy, he never thought he’d live to see the day when Dick would rather sleep than watch basketball. But, of course, he did not understand how very tired Dick was, did not know that his dozing son had, among other things, driven over eight hundred miles in the past twenty-four hours.



  That Monday, the sixteenth of November, 1959, was still another fine specimen of pheasant weather on the high wheat plains of western Kansas—a day gloriously bright-skied, as glittery as mica. Often, on such days in years past, Andy Erhart had spent long pheasant-hunting afternoons at River Valley Farm, the home of his good friend Herb Clutter, and often, on these sporting expeditions, he’d been accompanied by three more of Herb’s closest friends: Dr. J. E. Dale, a veterinarian; Carl Myers, a dairy owner; and Everett Ogburn, a businessman. Like Erhart, the superintendent of the Kansas State University Agricultural Experiment Station, all were prominent citizens of Garden City.

  Today this quartet of old hunting companions had once again gathered to make the familiar journey, but in an unfamiliar spirit and armed with odd, non-sportive equipment—mops and pails, scrubbing brushes, and a hamper heaped with rags and strong detergents. They were wearing their oldest clothes. For, feeling it their duty, a Christian task, these men had volunteered to clean certain of the fourteen rooms in the main house at River Valley Farm: rooms in which four members of the Clutter family had been murdered by, as their death certificates declared, “a person or persons unknown.”

  Erhart and his partners drove in silence. One of them later remarked, “It just shut you up. The strangeness of it. Going out there, where we’d always had such a welcome.” On the present occasion a highway patrolman welcomed them. The patrolman, guardian of a barricade that the authorities had erected at the entrance to the farm, waved them on, and they drove a half mile more, down the elm-shaded lane leading to the Clutter house. Alfred Stoecklein, the only employee who actually lived on the property, was waiting to admit them.

  They went first to the furnace room in the basement, where the pajama-clad Mr. Clutter had been found sprawled atop the cardboard mattress box. Finishing there, they moved on to the playroom in which Kenyon had been shot to death. The couch, a relic that Kenyon had rescued and mended and that Nancy had slip-covered and piled with mottoed pillows, was a blood-splashed ruin; like the mattress box, it would have to be burned. Gradually, as the cleaning party progressed from the basement to the second-floor bedrooms where Nancy and her mother had been murdered in their beds, they acquired additional fuel for the impending fire-blood-soiled bedclothes, mattresses, a bedside rug, a Teddy-bear doll.

  Alfred Stoecklein, not usually a talkative man, had much to say as he fetched hot water and otherwise assisted in the cleaning-up. He wished “folks would stop yappin’ and try to understand” why he and his wife, though they lived scarcely a hundred yards from the Clutter home, had heard “nary a nothin’ ”—not the slightest echo of gun thunder—of the violence taking place. “Sheriff and all them fellas been out here fingerprintin’ and scratchin’ around, they got good sense, they understand how it was. How come we didn’t hear. For one thing, the wind. A west wind, like it was, would carry the sound t’other way. Another thing, there’s that big milo barn ’tween this house and our’n. That old barn ’ud soak up a lotta racket ’fore it reached us. And did you ever think of this? Him that done it, he must’ve knowed we wouldn’t hear. Else he wouldn’t have took the chance—shootin’ off a shotgun four times in the middle of the night! Why, he’d be crazy. Course, you might say he must be crazy anyhow. To go doing what he did. But my opinion, him that done it had it figured out to the final T. He knowed. And there’s one thing I know, too. Me and the Missis, we’ve slept our last night on this place. We’re movin’ to a house alongside the highway.”

  The men worked from noon to dusk. When the time came to burn what they had collected, they piled it on a pickup truck and, with Stoecklein at the wheel, drove deep into the farm’s north field, a flat place full of color, though a single color—the shimmering tawny yellow of November wheat stubble. There they unloaded the truck and made a pyramid of Nancy’s pillows, the bedclothes, the mattresses, the playroom couch; Stoecklein sprinkled it with kerosene and struck a match.

  Of those present, none had been closer to the Clutter family than Andy Erhart. Gentle, genially dignified, a scholar with work-calloused hands and sunburned neck, he’d been a classmate of Herb’s at Kansas State University. “We were friends for thirty years,” he said some time afterward, and during those decades Erhart had seen his friend evolve from a poorly paid County Agricultural Agent into one of the region’s most widely known and respected farm ranchers: “Everything Herb had, he earned—with the help of God. He was a modest man but a proud man, as he had a right to be. He raised a fine family. He made something of his life.” But that life, and what he’d made of it—how could it happen, Erhart wondered as he watched the bonfire catch. How was it possible that such effort, such plain virtue, could overnight be reduced to this smoke, thinning as it rose and was received by the big, annihilating sky?

  The Kansas Bureau of investigation, a state-wide organization with headquarters in Topeka, had a staff of nineteen experienced detectives scattered through the state, and the services of these men are available whenever a case seems beyond the competence of local authorities. The Bureau’s Garden City representative, and the agent responsible for a sizable portion of western Kansas, is a lean and handsome fourth-generation Kansan of forty-seven named Alvin Adams Dewey. It was inevitable that Earl Robinson, the sheriff of Finney County, should ask Al Dewey to take charge of the Clutter case. Inevitable, and appropriate. For Dewey, himself a former sheriff of Finney County (from 1947 to 1955) and, prior to that, a Special Agent of the F.B.I. (between 1940 and 1945 he had served in New Orleans, in San Antonio, in Denver, in Miami, and in San Francisco), was professionally qualified to cope with even as intricate an affair as the apparently motiveless, all but clueless Clutter murders. Moreover, his attitude toward the crime made it, as he later said, “a personal proposition.” He went on to say that he and his wife “were real fond of Herb and Bonnie,” and “saw them every Sunday at church, visited a lot back and forth,” adding, “But even if I hadn’t known the family, and liked them so well, I wouldn’t feel any different. Because I’ve seen some bad things, I sure as hell have. But nothing so vicious as this. However long it takes, it may be the rest of my life, I’m going to know what happened in that house: the why and the who.”

  Toward the end, a total of eighteen men were assigned to the case full time, among them three of the K.B.I
.’s ablest investigators—Special Agents Harold Nye, Roy Church, and Clarence Duntz. With the arrival in Garden City of this trio, Dewey was satisfied that “a strong team” had been assembled. “Somebody better watch out,” he said.

  The sheriff’s office is on the third floor of the Finney County courthouse, an ordinary stone-and-cement building standing in the center of an otherwise attractive tree-filled square. Nowadays, Garden City, which was once a rather raucous frontier town, is quite subdued. On the whole, the sheriff doesn’t do much business, and his office, three sparsely furnished rooms, is ordinarily a quiet place popular with courthouse idlers; Mrs. Edna Richardson, his hospitable secretary, usually has a pot of coffee going and plenty of time to “chew the fat.” Or did, until, as she complained, “this Clutter thing came along,” bringing with it “all these out-of-towners, all this newspaper fuss.” The case, then commanding headlines as far east as Chicago, as far west as Denver, had indeed lured to Garden City a considerable press corps.

  On Monday, at midday, Dewey held a press conference in the sheriffs office. “I’ll talk facts but not theories,” he informed the assembled journalists. “Now, the big fact here, the thing to remember, is we’re not dealing with one murder but four. And we don’t know which of the four was the main target. The primary victim. It could have been Nancy or Kenyon, or either of the parents. Some people say, Well, it must have been Mr. Clutter. Because his throat was cut; he was the most abused. But that’s theory, not fact. It would help if we knew in what order the family died, but the coroner can’t tell us that; he only knows the murders happened sometime between eleven P.M. Saturday and two A.M. Sunday.” Then, responding to questions, he said no, neither of the women had been “sexually molested,” and no, as far as was presently known, nothing had been stolen from the house, and yes, he did think it a “queer coincidence” that Mr. Clutter should have taken out a forty-thousand-dollar life-insurance policy, with double indemnity, within eight hours of his death. However, Dewey was “pretty darn sure” that no connection existed between this purchase and the crime; how could there be one, when the only persons who benefited financially were Mr. Clutter’s two surviving children, the elder daughters, Mrs. Donald Jarchow and Miss Beverly Clutter? And yes, he told the reporters, he did have an opinion on whether the murders were the work of one man or two, but he preferred not to disclose it.

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