If Nancy Clutter had survived, she would be 67 years old. But on Nov. 15, 1959, she was murdered in her family’s farmhouse near Holcomb, Kansas, along with her mother, father and 15-year-old brother.
Six more years would pass before author Truman Capote would publish “In Cold Blood,” his landmark book about the murders. Nancy Clutter was 16 years old when she died, and I was 16 years old when I read about the last days, hours and moments of her life.
To my sad teenage mind, Nancy Clutter had it all: A stable, close-knit family. A sports team. A boyfriend. A place in her community. She belonged. In an instant, she lost it all just because a cellmate of prisoner Dick Hickok mouthed off about an imaginary safe full of cash on a farm in western Kansas.
How could something as essential as life hinge on the whims and delusions of strangers? After all that schooling, all that happy planning for the future, your life could be snuffed out at age 16 just because you were there.
Although Charlie Starkweather had taken his deadly Midwestern road trip just the year before the Clutter murders, Richard Speck‘s attack on eight student nurses in Chicago was still a few years away. Mass murder did not seem commonplace. Not yet.
I was too young to hear of the Clutter murders when they happened, but I do remember the nurses. A line of photographs of eight young women, similar to my high-school yearbook picture, was stretched across the front page of my newspaper. The year was 1966.
“In Cold Blood” was published the same year, but I did not read it for three more years. Of course you know about death and murder by the age of 16. But to die after doing something as innocuous as getting ready for bed? Incomprehensible.
Truman Capote said that “In Cold Blood” was the book he was meant to write: “It’s as if Perry and I grew up in the same house. And one day he stood up and went out the back door, while I went out the front.”
The book established a new genre: true crime, or nonfiction that reads like a novel. Journalist Tom Wolfe called it “pornoviolence,” sadistic and sensational. Others have criticized the liberties taken by Capote, claiming the book included scenes that never took place and recreated whole conversations Capote couldn’t have known.
In point of fact, Capote got at least one detail wrong. According to the Nov. 17, 1959 edition of the Garden City Telegram, the first people in the house that Sunday morning were not Nancy Ewalt and Susan Kidwell, as reported by Capote, but rather Bobby Irsik, the 15-year-old son of one of Clutter’s hired hands. At about 7:30 a.m. Bobby drove to the farm, milked two cows, and put a share in Clutter’s utility room. Then he left. Capote’s version has Irsik walking (not driving) to the farm and waving at the Ewalt car around 9 a.m. But by that time, Irsik was long gone.
It’s a small mistake, but one that raises questions about the veracity of the rest of “In Cold Blood.” Journalist (and paroled killer) J.J. Maloney characterized the book as dishonest. He claimed Capote ignored the real reason for the murders.
While reading the book I couldn’t put one question out of my head: Why didn’t the killers leave once they realized there was no safe? Perry himself could not explain it to his Army buddy Don Cullivan. Perry said the murders were “such an irrational thing to do.”
But J.J. Maloney had a theory. He believed that while in prison, Smith and Hickock had a sexual relationship. On the night of Nov. 14-15, Smith became enraged when Hickock expressed his intention to rape Nancy Clutter. According to Maloney, the Clutters died due to Smith’s fit of jealousy and aggression. (We’ve seen so many inexplicable mass murders since 1959, we no longer expect even that flimsy an excuse.)
Perry Smith “had aspirations that exceeded his situation,” said old friend Cullivan. “He was an insurmountable dreamer and intent on finding buried treasure.” If that buried treasure amounted to just a radio, a pair of binoculars and $43 in cash stolen from the Clutter household, and if four lives had to end so that a marginalized man felt more powerful for a few minutes, then so be it. Unfortunately, that is our world.
These days Capote fans and other curious souls still show up in Holcomb, Kansas, to view the long driveway where Nancy’s boyfriend, Bobby Rupp, the last person to see the Clutters alive, exited around 10:30 on the evening of Nov. 14, 1959. Today, Google Earth allows us to stand beside the two rows of Chinese elms that once greeted both friends of Nancy Clutter and her killers.
A memorial to the Clutter family was dedicated in September 2009 in Holcomb Community Park. Most of the people who knew the Clutters are gone now, and the town felt they should be remembered for who they were rather than how they died.
“You know, Nancy was really pretty,” former sweetheart Bob Rupp told a reporter in 2005. By the age of 16, her freckles were fading. She made good grades, and she was active in her church and 4-H. On the fateful day of Nov. 14, Nancy taught a neighbor girl how to make a cherry pie. Nancy’s 15-year-old brother, Kenyon, was finishing up a mahogany hope chest for an older sister, who was engaged.
Kenyon probably would have made a hope chest for Nancy, too, someday. If only the killers had lost their way that night 51 years ago. If only the moon had not been so bright and full.
[originally published on Politics Daily in 2010]