The Kansas City Star had a reporter in Garden City, Kan., the day after the Clutter family murders.
“Clues are few in slaying of 4” said the front-page headline of the then-afternoon paper on Monday, Nov. 16, 1959.
“A corps of 18 investigators today began a systematic study of the sparse evidence in the brutal slaying of four members of the Herbert W. Clutter family in their farm home near here yesterday,” the lead of Dick Parr’s story read.
It was the very beginning of a story the world would come to know as the “In Cold Blood” murders, as Truman Capote would call them in his celebrated book about the case. A new, two-part documentary on the Holcomb, Kan., killings will be shown Saturday and Sunday on SundanceTV.
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But in the early days, 58 years ago, it was all fresh and bewildering.
Finney County Sheriff Earl Robinson doubted that robbery was a motive, as did Logan Sanford, head of the Kansas Bureau of Investigation. We now know killers Perry Smith and Dick Hickock were looking for a non-existent safe full of cash in the wheat farmer’s home.
Initially, it wasn’t even known if there was more than one killer.
“The investigators are left faced with a search for the killer or killers whose cunning is apparent if his (or their) motive is not,” Parr reported.
It was 12 degrees that morning as neighbors gathered at a Holcomb cafe to discuss the murders. It didn’t make sense. Clutter had no enemies.
Nobody even locked their doors, until this day. Glenn Truitt went to check his and found they didn’t even work.
“I went down today and bought new locks,” he told the reporter.
The sheriff said everyone had the jitters.
“We send deputies out there and some of the folks won’t even come to the door to see who’s there,” he said. “They all keep their doors locked now, and I imagine some of them are keeping their shotguns handy.”
Lawmen revealed that the victims were tied in nylon cord and identical “glove” knots, which would have been familiar to a livestock handler — or a Boy Scout.
“This fellow was simply a mean, cold-blooded mad killer,” the sheriff said. “He tied them up and executed them one by one.”
By Wednesday the story had moved to the inside pages of the newspaper.
That day the Clutters — 48-year-old Herbert, 43-year-old Bonnie, 16-year-old Nancy Mae and 15-year-old Kenyon Neal — were buried on the crest of a hill in Valley View Cemetery in Garden City. Nancy was buried in a red velvet dress she had made in a high school sewing class.
“No real clues seemed to be developing,” Parr wrote in that day’s The Kansas City Times, The Star’s sister paper then.
Investigators wanted to drag the nearby Arkansas River, but there was too much ice.
Perry and Hickock eventually were arrested, and the trial was in March 1960, an astonishingly quick turnaround by today’s standards. Their lawyers planned an insanity defense but abandoned it after testimony from a psychiatrist from the state hospital in Larned. Instead they cited New Testament passages about forgiveness.
Special prosecutor Logan Green was having none of that.
“I wish these men (the defense lawyers) could have been in little Nancy Clutter’s room on Nov. 15, 1959, when she begged for mercy,” he told the all-male jury. “I dare say if they had been in the room there would have been six murders instead of four.”
Hickock’s mother, Eunice, was assisted out of the courtroom weeping as Judge Roland Tate instructed the jury that it didn’t matter under the law which man had pulled the trigger. (Hickock said Smith had done them all, but Smith said they had each killed two.)
It was raining in Garden City that day.
It took the jury less than two hours to deliberate. The judge had to be summoned back to the courthouse from his farm. Hickock’s mom did not come back to the courtroom but sat in the sheriff’s office as 150 spectators leaned forward to hear the verdict.
Hickock was impassive. Smith stared at the judge.
The story was back on the front page with the headline “Clutter killers to die.”
Five and a half years and four reprieves later the killers, heavily bound with straps, individually climbed the 13 steps to the gallows at the state prison at Lansing.
The last meal for one or both of them had been spiced shrimp, french fries, garlic bread and strawberries with whipped cream.
“I don’t have any hard feelings,” Hickock said. “You’re sending me to a better place.”
He had arranged to donate his eyes, which were then brought to the University of Kansas Medical Center to be used in corneal transplants.
Smith was chewing gum, which he spat out into the chaplain’s hand.
“I think it’s a hell of a thing that a life has to be taken in this manner,” he said. “I think capital punishment is legally and morally wrong.”
Where to watch
“Cold Blooded: The Clutter Family Murders” airs at 8 p.m. Nov. 18-19 on SundanceTV.