The book that changed a town

Holcomb still deals with the pain and attention by Truman Capote's novel

The village of Holcomb stands on the high wheat plains of western Kansas, a lonesome area that other Kansans call “out there.” Some seventy miles east of the Colorado border, the countryside, with its hard blue skies and desert-clear air, has an atmosphere that is rather more Far West than Middle West.

For almost 40 years, those first words of the book “In Cold Blood” have been most people’s introduction to a town that seems wholly unremarkable on the surface.

On this chilly mid-November afternoon in 2004, Holcomb sits mostly in silence. Every few minutes a vehicle cruises slowly along Main Street, south past old homes with odds and ends piled on yards of dead grass, across railroad tracks and — after about five blocks — right back into the flat, brown plains.

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. It was a pheasant-hunting weekend just like this one, the brisk wind faintly carrying the pop, pop, pop of distant shotgun blasts.

A day shy of 45 years later and, other than this lane of elms and the house at the end of it, little remains to signify the events of Nov. 15, 1959 — the night this house witnessed, as Truman Capote wrote in “In Cold Blood”: “Four shotgun blasts that, all told, ended six human lives.”

A day shy of 45 years later, the tragedy lingers. It shows prominently in the lives of those it touched most directly. For others, it plays a subtle part. For the town, what happened that November night at the house at the end of this dirt lane probably will be its most notable aspect forever.

It was an event of unspeakable horror, the cold-blooded murder of a respected farm family, the Clutters, Herb and Bonnie, their daughter, Nancy, and son, Kenyon. It was something to forget, many say now, because the pain cut so deeply. They want to stem the tide of visitors, the questions and interest in Holcomb’s darkest chapter. They say it doesn’t matter anymore, that it’s ancient history. It wasn’t as big a deal as Capote and his book made it out to be.

Those closest to the victims still, almost a half-century later, will barely talk about what happened that night.

Richard Hickock, left, and Perry Smith, Two suspects in the robbery and murder of the Clutter family were taken from jail in Las Vegas in 1960 by agents of the Kansas Bureau of Investigation to be returned to Kansas to face trial.

The surviving daughters of Herb and Bonnie Clutter speak publicly in this series for the first time. But they talk only about the good aspects of their family, not the way they died.

Bob Rupp, Nancy Clutter’s boyfriend at the time of her death, also speaks publicly for the first time about the crimes. He talks about the murders, but only sparingly. It’s taken 45 years, a loving family and faith to heal his wound.

The pain is so real that even now the Finney County Historical Museum in nearby Garden City, contains no mention of just this one prominent farm family, the murders or the publicity the crimes have brought to the area. And nowhere in Holcomb is the Clutter family commemorated, no matter their accomplishments while living.

“A memorial would just open up the wounds,” says Dennis Lauer, Holcomb’s mayor. “Why do we have memorials? To remind us.”

Holcomb might want to forget, but the world doesn’t. Blame Capote’s best-selling book, which described the murders, the chase and the eventual execution of the killers. Blame also the two movies — thus far — the book inspired. Some kind of macabre interest pulls people from all over the globe to this small Kansas town, to the lane of now-decrepit Chinese elms.

To the house where it all began; a place, like so many others, that’s trying to move away from that one night. But what might be a bloodstain still mars one basement wall.

Forty-five years isn’t enough to wash away everything.

Lasting pain

“It’s painful for you and it’s painful for them. When it comes to murder, you can’t respect grief. Or privacy. Or personal feelings. You’ve got to ask the questions. And some of them cut deep.” But none of the persons he questioned, and none of the questions he asked … produced useful information; not even the two surviving daughters could suggest a cause for the crime. In brief, (Kansas Bureau of Investigations Agent Harold) Nye learned only this: “Of all the people in all the world, the Clutters were the least likely to be murdered.”

Duane West stands in front of the Finney County Courthouse in Garden City, seven miles east of Holcomb.

It was here they brought Richard Hickock and Perry Smith, who broke into the Clutters’ home in search of a fortune that didn’t exist, tied up the family of four and killed each one. It was here that West, as Finney County prosecutor, tried them and successfully persuaded a jury to sentence them to death.

West says he doesn’t understand why interest in the case, or the book, continues.

“It was just about a murder in a small town,” he says of Capote’s supposedly factual account of the murders that has sold millions of copies and is widely regarded as one of the great American books of the 20th century.

The book treats the murders as anything but an ordinary event. Instead, it looks into much larger issues: how a community can respond to unimaginable tragedy, how a hunt for justice can consume those sworn to protect and what compels a man to take another life without remorse.

Without “In Cold Blood,” the murders probably would be forgotten to all but those who lived through the suspicion and fear. And that, in part, fuels the lingering pain so many in Holcomb and Garden City feel.

But, West says, Capote harmed the people here in another way. West and many others share stories of Capote misquoting people, describing things incorrectly and making up scenes.

Capote, who in the year of its publication made at least $2 million from “In Cold Blood,” according to a 1965 article in The New York Times, used a tragic event as a creative writing exercise and little more, West, the surviving Clutter daughters and others say.

Many in Holcomb and Garden City, including West, say they’ve never read it.

“I lived through it,” goes the refrain.

Rupp fits that category. He lived it, maybe as much as anyone.

His wife, Coleen, looks to him and says, “He’s the last one to see them alive, you know,” referring to the title of the book’s first chapter.

This year marks the 40th anniversary of the publication of Truman Capote’s “In Cold Blood,” considered one of the 20th century’s great works of literature. It also was among the first books in which the reporting techniques of journalism were assembled with the flair of traditional fiction writing.The book is set in the community of Holcomb in 1959, when four members of a prominent farming family were killed in a fruitless robbery. Herbert and Bonnie Clutter and their children Nancy, 16, and Kenyon, 15, were shot by Perry Smith and Richard Hickock. The book details the crime, the lives of the two paroled criminals and law enforcement’s search and eventual capture of the men.A class of seven reporting students, a photography student and four documentary film students at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln spent the fall studying Capote’s work and its impact on literature and journalism, the community where the story unfolded and some of its principal characters.The students obtained exclusive interviews from people who had refused to talk publicly about the crime or the book, including Nancy Clutter’s boyfriend, Bobby Rupp, who was the last to see the family alive and was initially questioned about the murders; Walter Hickock, Richard Hickock’s younger brother, who describes for the first time the agony the family endured after the crime and publication of Capote’s book; and the family that lives in the former Clutter home as well as exclusive photographs from inside the house.Because the nationally renowned book is set in Kansas, it seemed natural to publish the students’ work in a Kansas newspaper. The results are part of a four-day series that begins today in the Journal-World.Monday¢ Walter Hickock wasn’t guilty of anything, but his life changed forever when his brother became a murderer¢ The surviving Clutter daughters hope to preserve their family’s legacy¢ Those who knew her say mother Bonnie Clutter was misrepresented in the bookTuesday¢ Former prisons chief Charles McAtee remembers the murderers¢ A prosecutor and an investigator both played key roles in the case and were forgotten in the book¢ Former KBI agent Alvin Dewey Jr. became a composite who Capote credited with solving the case¢ If it happened today, advances in technology might have solved the case more quicklyWednesday¢ The family that lives in the former Clutter home is witness to the book’s enormous impact still today¢ Holcomb has changed much from the time Capote wrote his book¢ The death penalty has divided Kansas many times

He had visited Nancy the night of the murders and left just hours before the killers arrived. In the following weeks, not only did he have to deal with his grief but also with suspicion that he had committed the crime.

He almost never talks about it — not to the journalists who call less and less often as the years go by, and not to his friends around Holcomb, where he still lives and farms, because they never bring it up.

The murders have been, for some time, a taboo subject. No one wants to revisit the pain.


“… the Reverend Leonard Cowan said: ‘God offers us courage, love and hope even though we walk through the shadows of the valley of death. I’m sure he was with them in their last hours. Jesus has never promised us we would not suffer pain or sorrow but He has always said He would be there to help us bear the sorrow and the pain.'”

A thousand people attended the Clutters’ funeral at Garden City’s First United Methodist Church, an imposing structure that Herb Clutter had helped steer to creation only a few years before his death.

This November Sunday, without acknowledging the anniversary of the murders that will pass within hours, the Rev. Robert Cousins delivers a sermon inspired by a passage in Isaiah. From a mostly doom-and-gloom chapter in the Bible, he chooses a message of hope — of finding the strength through God to survive all pain.

“We’ve got to remember in the midst of our pain, in the midst of our hurt … we’ve got to hold on to the word of God,” Cousins says. “What more do we need in our world right now than a word of hope?”

Once the service has concluded and the pews have emptied, Jean Hands remains. A little less than a day from now it will be 45 years since Cowan passed her and her husband, Fielding, as they walked to church and told them those “lovely Christian people” had been slain in the night.

The Handses both grew up in Finney County and counted the Clutters as friends. Just talking about them for a few moments brings tears to Fielding’s eyes.

In spite of the pain of remembering, Jean still tries to prevent the congregation from forgetting the family that quietly led it five decades ago.

She recently gave a presentation at a United Methodist Women gathering, telling of the Clutter family and the murders and how deeply they had affected the community.

She also explained a quiet memorial to the Clutters — an enormous circle of stained glass at the front of the church, which on this cloudy but bright day trickles rainbows into the hall.

There may be no tributes to the Clutters in their hometown of Holcomb, but there is one at their church in Garden City. Divided into four wedges by a cross, the window contains 12 circles, each representing an apostle. Each of the four sections commemorates one of the lost Clutters.

The two surviving daughters — Eveanna Mosier and Beverly English — approved of the window and a few other memorials around the state. They think those adequately celebrate their parents, brother and sister, and they are content now to spread their parents’ positive memories and values only within their family.

Beverly lives on a farm near Newton that bears a striking resemblance to the one she grew up on. She lives there with Vere English, whom she married only days after her family’s funeral because all their relatives already had gathered.

But the two had another reason for marrying so soon after the tragedy.

Just as today, they wanted to pull something positive from the crushing grief.

The graves

The Garden City Telegram, on the eve of the trial’s start, printed the following editorial: “Some may think the eyes of the entire nation are on Garden City during this sensational murder trial. But they are not. Even a hundred miles west of here in Colorado few persons are even acquainted with the case — other than just remembering some members of a prominent family were slain. … Since the four members of the Clutter family were killed last fall, several other such multiple murders have occurred in various parts of the country. … As a result, this crime and trial are just one of many such cases people have read about and forgotten…”

“In Cold Blood” brought Capote tremendous success. He also made a fortune from it, and it launched him into the stratosphere of celebrity — a position he had long desired.

The attention, the glamour, it all shone on him after the 1965 publication of a work he thought not only would be a success but also would change forever the face of nonfiction writing.

“In Cold Blood: A Legacy,” the story of people hoping for decades that the world will forget, airs at 6:30 tonight on Sunflower Broadband Channel 6.

The book had a tremendous impact, but it reached beyond Capote and the world of writing, all the way to western Kansas. Because of him, people will never be able to read about this case and forget. Holcomb, Garden City and “In Cold Blood” are inseparable, no matter how much some would wish it them not to be.

Capote also never escaped claims that he sympathized with the killers.

For Capote, the success of his great work also had a negative impact. Biographers and friends believe the fame he gained contributed to his downward spiral later in life and eventual death from a combination of drugs and alcohol.

The notoriety Hickock and Smith gained didn’t end with their executions.

At almost the opposite end of the state from where a jury of Finney County men sentenced the killers to death, the Kansas State Penitentiary at Lansing looms in much the same way it did 45 years ago.

Just to the north of the prison, yet another visitor enters the Mount Muncie Cemetery and stops by the sexton’s office.

“I’m looking for two guys who were executed…”

“Hickock and Smith,” comes the answer. “I can show you where they are.”

A soft rain falls as earthworms crawl out of the cold, sopping earth, wriggling onto the markers that mention only names, dates of birth and a matching date of death.

Even this long after the last two deaths in Capote’s story, interest remains in the infamous duo. Between 10 and 15 people visited their graves in 2004, and someone still takes flowers every Memorial Day.

Nearly 400 miles west, on the night of the anniversary, Holcomb sits in even greater silence. Only the occasional whisper of wind breaks the dark tranquility.

Forty-five years to the day, to the hour — yet someone new to the town wouldn’t realize.

The house at the end of the long driveway of Chinese elms, the homes of those who lived through a tragedy they still can hardly believe — all sit still on this cold and quiet night.

On Garden City’s northern edge, up on a small rise, Valley View Cemetery rests in darkness. In the far corner, now with a few trees grown around it, is the only place where the names of four of the area’s most well-known people have been etched in stone.

They were simply a farming family, a pillar of quiet leadership and good, Christian values. They left an indelible impact on many. One can’t help but wonder if part of the reason so few seem willing to celebrate their lives is because of their kindness, because of how perfect they seemed.

Maybe their goodness makes their end that much harder to accept and recover from.

As with so many things, their graves show no changes, receive no visitors, on this night. It has been 45 years after all, a long enough time to heal, and to forget.

But, as the morning light stretches across the cemetery, to the western edge where it blends back into wheat fields, it catches something new.

Someone has left flowers.