Archive for Sunday, November 4, 2001

In Cold Blood’ tombstones on display after long ordeal

November 4, 2001


— When Richard Hickock and Perry Smith were executed in 1965, the most famous Kansas killers of the past century were buried beneath tombstones donated by author Truman Capote.

Their murders of the Herbert Clutter family in Holcomb six years earlier were immortalized by Capote in his novel, "In Cold Blood."

AKyle Sell, 10, of Atchison, looks at the tombstones of killers
Richard Hickock and Perry Smith, while visiting the Kansas Museum
of History in Topeka.

AKyle Sell, 10, of Atchison, looks at the tombstones of killers Richard Hickock and Perry Smith, while visiting the Kansas Museum of History in Topeka.

Around 1980, the tombstones were stolen from Mount Muncie Cemetery, starting a 20-year odyssey that might end with the stolen stones on display near where the two men were executed at the Kansas State Penitentiary.

One of the gray granite markers has the name Richard Eugene Hickock and date of birth, June 6, 1931; the other, Perry Edward Smith and Oct. 27, 1928. Both had the same date of death, April 14, 1965.

Stepping stones

Nearly identical markers replaced the originals, and the incident was all but forgotten, until last December.

That's when Kansas Bureau of Investigation agent Tom Williams received a tip that the tombstones were stepping stones to an old shed on an Allen County farm.

"We brushed the snow off one and saw the name of Hickock. I had been pretty doubtful until then," Williams said. "We bent a crowbar pulling them out of the frozen ground."

Williams said nobody was charged with a crime because the statute of limitations expired long ago. He said the farm's owner, Alan Ard, wasn't involved in the theft.

"I talked to the man who did steal them and he admitted he had done it by himself," Williams said, declining to identify the person. "He was young and did it as a lark."

Mount Muncie officials never reported the tombstones missing. Instead, they were replaced with ones embedded in concrete.

Historical significance

During a January hearing in Allen County District Court, Mount Muncie and Ard each wanted the tombstones. District Judge John White gave custody to the Kansas State Historical Society in Topeka because of the tombstones' historical significance.

The judge said Mount Muncie could have the original tombstones back if it gave the historical society the replacements. Young said cemetery officials rejected the idea.

"It wasn't worth it. It would have been an all-day job. They would have had to carry them to Topeka," Young said. "What we have now are in the ground and are going to stay there."

Historians praised the judge's decision.

"We didn't want them sold on eBay or ground down and reused. They had real historical value, and we wanted to preserve them," said Rebecca Martin, Kansas Museum of History assistant director.

Capote connection

Jill Brush, museum curator, noted that Capote purchased the tombstones because he had gotten to know the two men while researching his book.

Hickock and Smith's crime spree in Holcomb took only about $50 in cash, a radio, a pair of binoculars and the lives of four people.

Another who knew the killers is Charles McAtee, a Topeka attorney who was state director of penal institutions at the time of the killings. He witnessed the executions first Hickock's, then Smith's.

He said the men were calm and reflective the night of their executions on the gallows in the prison warehouse. Hickock reminisced about his childhood, and Smith contemplated the meaning of life and death.

"I grew to know them as human beings, but I never lost sight of the horrendous crimes they committed and the four beautiful people whose lives they ended," McAtee said.

He said neither Hickock nor Smith had a history of violent crimes, but something happened when they got together.

"Those two personalities came together and fed off one another, and it happened," McAtee said.

McAtee said Capote witnessed both executions. He said reports that the author left after Hickock's execution or became ill aren't true.

Until the end of the month, the tombstones are on display at the state museum in Topeka, enclosed in a glass-fronted case.

After that, it's likely they will be loaned to the Lansing Historical Society for display.

"They will be the most historically important displays that we will have," said Verlin Tompkins, president of the Lansing group. "We think it will be an interesting attraction."

If that happens, the tombstones will have come full circle. The museum is in a refurbished train depot near where the executions occurred.

Commenting has been disabled for this item.