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Archive for Sunday, March 23, 2008

Artwork by ‘In Cold Blood’ killer displayed

March 23, 2008

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In Cold Blood: A Legacy

For almost 40 years, the first words of Truman Capote's "In Cold Blood" have been most people's introduction to a town that seems wholly unremarkable on the surface. It seems an ordinary town for western Kansas-except for what's down a little dirt lane on the southwest edge of town. A day shy of 45 years ago, two released convicts made their way here and changed the town irrevocably

— After nearly 50 years spent rolled in a newspaper, a drawing of Christ by convicted killer Perry Smith sits in a display case in the atrium at the Topeka and Shawnee County Public Library.

The pastel was drawn by Smith but bears the signature of his partner in crime, Richard Hickock.

Both were hanged in 1965 for the murders of Herbert Clutter, his wife, and their teenage daughter and son at their farmhouse near Holcomb in southwest Kansas. The case became the subject of Truman Capote's best-selling and critically acclaimed novel, "In Cold Blood."

The drawing is owned by a Shawnee County man who loaned it to the library through April 14 and asked to remain anonymous, said Heather Kearns, curatorial/archival associate for the library's Alice C. Sabatini Gallery.

Kearns said the drawing was found in a closet among possessions of the owner's father-in-law after his death. The father-in-law was a friend of Hickock's family, who gave him the drawing after the execution as an apparent gesture of appreciation for his family's generosity to the Hickocks as they experienced financial difficulties after Richard Hickock's father became ill.

Hickock and Smith served time for petty crimes in the late 1950s at the Kansas State Penitentiary at Lansing. During that time, Smith drew several portraits of Christ and gave them to friends.

After being released from prison, the two went to Clutter's home in November 1959 planning to rob him of large amounts of cash they had heard he kept there. After they found only about $30 in the house, the men tied up the Clutters, slashed Herbert Clutter's throat and used a shotgun to kill the family.

Police arrested Hickock and Smith about six weeks later in Las Vegas. Capote spent time with them while writing "In Cold Blood," which was published in 1966.

The Kansas Center for the Book chose "In Cold Blood" to be the subject of this year's "Kansas Reads" program, a statewide project in which Kansans were encouraged between Jan. 29 and Feb. 29 to read and discuss that novel.

A week before the project ended, Kearns said, the library got a call from the Shawnee County man who owns Smith's drawing of Christ. She said those at the library decided it would be a "nice postscript" to the Kansas Reads program to put the portrait on display. The display case containing the drawing also includes documents signed by Hickock and Smith and a check-in sheet Capote and his friend, Harper Lee, signed while visiting the Lansing prison.

Hickock's signature on other documents matches the signature of his name on Smith's drawing, Kearns said, but it isn't clear why he signed a portrait that was drawn by Smith.

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