The Clutter Family Killings: Cold Blood
"Listen: there's a hell of a good universe next door; let's go." — E.E. Cummings
Richard Hickock and Perry Smith were on a joyride. Tweedle-Dee and Tweedle-Dum, two misshapen vagabonds, grinning, nary a care in the world, ahead of them Christmas in Miami, open road, sunlight, the sea breeze and thrills. Behind them was a dirty windshield, many, many tire marks and Holcomb, Kansas. They had left no trace of their being there, except for the Clutters which - haha! - they left cluttered around the place! Haha! They laughed at that one! Poor Nancy, that young girl...she would have made some guy awfully happy someday! Haha! Another joke!
Richard - he preferred Dick - was blonde, muscular and sunburned; he smoked like a fiend and loved to display, open-shirted, the skull-and-cross-bones tattoo on his chest. In fact, across his body, Dick had more tattoos etched into his hide than a sideshow freak. Names of ex-wives and girlfriends in hearts aflame, and nudes in compromising positions. He bore a cocky smile that never seemed to fade, even when angry. Maybe because of that wayward smile, or maybe because of the car accident that had displaced a jaw at one time, his face seemed forever at odds with itself, the right unmatched with the left. But, no matter, for Perry said he had a beautiful smile.
Perry, half Indian, was the undulating shadow of the other; five-feet-four, dark; and he scowled constantly, even when happy. A motorcycle wreck had left him stunted and dwarfish, his legs remained twisted and he appeared to be always caught between a sitting and standing posture, Gumbyish maybe, maybe even undone. He, too, had his tattoos, many to cover the scars. His favorite was a tiger, twisted like himself, ready to pounce. Because of the motorcycle mishap, the bones in his legs never quite healed. He dropped aspirins as much as Hickock lit cigarettes - and that was incessantly.
The affair in Holcomb was but a small one, and the murders weren't really planned. They just happened, combustive like, a rush of madcap adrenaline, then kaput to Farmer Clutter and his happy little hayseeds. There was no money there, not the safe —full of cash that Dick had heard about from his former cell buddy at Lansing Prison. So they grabbed what they could, including a transistor radio that caught their eyes, and that was, as they say, that. At any rate, Tweedle-Dee and Tweedle-Dum, blood on their paws, had vamoosed out of Kansas. In search of Oz.
Geez, the world was funny!
Throughout late November and most of December they scrambled like hellions, through Mexico and Acapulco (where they took up with a German named Otto who introduced them to the seediest parts of town), and back again to Mexico City where they dabbled in the language, and Perry learned a few new songs in Spanish (he loved to play a guitar; he brought his Gibson with him wherever they went). With the venture of a new year just around the bend, and the prospect of the Kansas Bureau of Investigation having lost their trail for good, maybe even their interest, the prodigals re-crossed the border, still in their 1949 Chevy. From Texas, they eventually headed east to Florida. They were going to spend the Yuletide where the sun shines, Miami Beach.
As oak trees turned into cypress and then into palms, Perry sat beside the driving Dick Hickock and strummed his guitar, singing in his best Hank Williams vibrato,
Your cheatin' heart will tell on you,
I cry and cry the whole night through....."
* * * * *
Floyd Wells, a convict, stared across the room, out the bars at the fading twilight. Almost dark now, the sky, no longer purple. But, veins of gray - the color purple and black make when mixed - still scratched the flatland horizon. At the large, steady, gray desk sat Warden Hand of Lansing Prison; in the guest chair afront the desk sat Alvin Dewey, taking notes. Both men listened as Wells told his story.
In 1948, he was yet a boy of 19, had left home and had wound up in Kansas, riding boxcars, hitching, anything it took to escape an unhappy home. Needing work, he heard that a man named Herbert Clutter hired out seasonally for harvesting. Clutter was rich and paid out nigh $10,000 a year to keep his place running smoothly. So, he sought out this fellow, was hired as a picker, and was treated very nicely. His entire family was nice to him. Clutter boarded him, fed him, and gave him a wallet with a bonus $50 at Christmas. He never forgot that kindness. Well, spring came and Wells was off again, on the road to elsewhere. He married, divorced, served in the Army, then in June of this year, 1959, got into trouble, drawing three-to-five at Lansing for breaking and entry, B&E for short.
His first cellmate, one Richard Eugene Hickock, smoked incessantly, was tattooed everywhere, played the guitar. They had got to talking one night and began pondering what they'd do when they got out of the place. Hickock's time was nearly up - scheduled to be paroled the following month, August. Hickock talked of maybe getting together with his buddy, somebody named Perry Smith, who had just been released from the same hole just a couple weeks earlier.
"I don't exactly recall how Mr. Clutter first got mentioned," said Wells. "It must've been when we were discussing jobs. Anyway, I told him how I worked at a considerable wheat spread in western Kansas. Dick wanted to know if Mr. Clutter was a wealthy man. Yes, I said, he was. From that point on, Dick never stopped asking me about the family. How many was they? What ages would the kids be now? Exactly how do you get to the house? How was it laid out? Did Mr. Clutter keep a safe? I won't deny it, I told him he did...right behind the desk in the room that he used as an office. Next thing I knew Dick was talking about killing Mr. Clutter."
From the side, Dewey's and the warden's eyes met; the former nodded. Dewey put down his pen now and listened. Forget the notes. "Go on, Floyd," his voice nudged.
"Well...he said he and his friend Perry was gonna go out there and rob the place," continued the inmate, "and was gonna kill all witnesses - the Clutters and anybody else that happened to be around. He described to me a dozen times how he was gonna do it, how him and Perry was gonna tie them people up and gun them down. I never believed for a minute he meant to carry it out. I thought it was just talk, like you hear plenty of here in Lansing. Nobody takes it serious. That's why when I heard the broadcast on the radio in my sell - you know, how those Clutters were butchered — well, I didn't hardly believe it. Still and all, it happened. Just like Dick said it would. Just like Dick said it would."
The warden's chamber hushed. Wells' last syllable hung in the air, haunting, until it dissolved under the whir of the ceiling fan. Dewey crouched in his chair, his elbows on his knees, his expression relieved. He thanked God for this stroke of luck, for he and his detectives had interviewed (what they thought to be) every man who had ever worked for the Clutters. Yeah, except this one man, Floyd Wells.
Finally, the detective cleared his throat. "What made you tell us all this, Floyd?"
Wells didn't need time to think about that. "It kinda tortured me, 'spector. It's more than the reward money you're offering. Nothing's worth taking the chance that others inside will know I tattled - convicts don't talk about each other, it's kinda a code — and, well...if somebody finds out, then my life won't be worth a dead coyote, will it? But, a friend o' mine, he's a Catholic, kinda religious-like, when I told him about what I knew, he convinced me to speak out to somebody. I was scared, still am, but I remember Mr. Clutter and that little wallet with $50 inside. That meant a lot to me."
* * * * *
Between what backgrounders the prison office supplied and what his men could gather from other sources, including relatives and law enforcement agencies, Dewey was able to compile brief biographical sketches of the two fugitives. The environment in which a man grows, say the social workers, often breeds a man's instincts. But, looking over their files - at least the facts that his men were able to surface from those who knew Richard Hickock and Perry Smith - the investigator could not understand nor forgive them. Nothing excused their deed.
Their histories read, as follows:
Perry Edward Smith
Plays the guitar, not badly; likes country and western music. Descr: 5'4," 156 lbs., high cheekbones, brown eyes/hair.
Born October 27, 1928, in Huntington, Elko County, Nevada. In 1929, the Smiths relocated to Juneau, Alaska. Both parents were alcoholic and, in Juneau, Mr. Smith brewed bootleg "hooch". Perry had one older brother, Tex, Jr. (James) and two older sisters, Barbara and Fern (who later changed her name to Joy). The parents argued constantly and over trivialities. The father was abusive, to his wife and children. By all reports, Perry's mother was caught with a sailor and her husband beat her almost to death. In 1935, she left him and took the children with her to San Francisco.
In Frisco, Perry spent most of his time out of doors away from his drunken mother. He dawdled with several neighborhood gangs and, in his teen years, spent more time in detention homes than away from them. Eventually, the boy wound up back in the custody of his father. Together, they roamed the west in their jalopy, prospecting, doing odd jobs wherever and whenever.
At this date, the father is believed to be deceased.
At age 16, Perry joined the Merchant Marines and at eighteen, the Army. He served overseas in the Korean War for 15 months. According to camp records, however, he spent weeks at a time in the brig for fighting with other soldiers as well as Korean civilians, and for carousing. But he received an honorable discharge and was serviced out at Ft. Lewis in Washington State.
After that, he acquired a job as a car painter outside Ft. Lewis and with one of his first paychecks bought a motorcycle, which he raced along the highway with other cyclists. The fast times ended when he smashed it into an oncoming auto at top speed, he winding up underneath what was left of the bike. Nearly died, but miraculously recovered. Spent six months in Washington Hospital and another half year on crutches. The accident left his legs gnarled like weathered tree limbs and, according to doctors, he would probably be in pain the rest of his life.
He was sentenced in March, 1956, to 5-10 years at Lansing Prison for robbing a Phillipsburg, Kansas store. Was paroled June 6, 1959.
His current address, on prison papers, was listed as one in Las Vegas, Nevada. But, according to probation officers, he has skipped town.
Richard Eugene Hickock
Chain smokes, usually Pall Malls; has worked as a car painter and apprentice mechanic. Loves to watch sports on TV. Frequents whorehouses. Descr: 5'10," 175 lbs., stout. Blond hair/blue eyes.
Born June 6, 1931, in Kansas City, Kansas. Parents still alive, living in Olathe.
His youth was, by indication, trouble free. Fair student; graduated from high school in 1949. First job with Santa Fe Railroad, earned $75 per week. At the age of 19-years-old, married a girl named Carol Bryan, who was only sixteen. The couple seems to have made a try for happiness, had three sons. Dick drove an ambulance nightly for extra income. Took a full-time job with Mark Buick Company as a mechanic.
Things went haywire when the couple overbought and found themselves in financial trouble. Simultaneously, Dick was in an auto accident that left his face slightly disfigured. Being out of a job during his recuperation period, the monetary problems worsened.
While married, he impregnated another girl named Margaret Edna. Left Carol to live with the other woman, forcing Carol to present divorce papers.
Took to writing bad checks - "hanging some paper" to use the idiom - and was arrested in January of 1956. Given a maximum of five years at Lansing Prison for "Cheating and Defrauding". While incarcerated, Margaret also divorced him.
Paroled August 13, 1959. No criminal actions since.
* * * * *
Now that the KBI had names, Dewey's agents began scouring the Midwest to determine the two men's activities from their dates of parole. Smith had returned to his home state of Nevada for a short spell, but soon appeared in Kansas where he passed several bad checks to certain emporiums. In early November, he showed up in Olathe, Kansas, where, it just so happened, former cellmate Hickock had returned to live with his parents.
Dewey's assistant, Agent Harold Nye, learned that the suspects had gone on a shopping spree rubberizing checks all over Kansas City on November 20, five days after the date of the Clutter killing. According to Truman Capote in his book, In Cold Blood, "Nye had called on all the reported victims - salesmen of cameras and of radio and television equipment, the proprietor of a jewelry store, a clerk in a clothing store - and when in each instance the witness was shown a photograph of Hickock and Perry Edward Smith, he had identified the former as the author of the spurious checks, the latter as his 'silent' accomplice." One cashier characterized Hickock as a "smooth talker," but said the short little fella remained mute throughout the transaction.
Fraud was fraud and checks bounced, but Dewey wanted big guns, he wanted the death penalty and, therefore, he yet needed to prove that, in the midst of their self-indulgent "paper hanging" efforts around the state of Kansas, the duo indeed had had enough time to visit Holcomb and kill the Clutters. This matter, a simple mathematical time-clock precision thing, was crucial to the whole case.
While interviewing Richard Hickock's parents in Olathe, Nye uncovered relevant information, concerning their son's schedule over the now-infamous weekend of November 14-15. Nye found the Hickocks, Eunice and her husband, a down-home, very congenial couple who despaired over their boy's waywardness. Without divulging his suspicions, he inquired about their son's movements during mid-November. They told him that he had been visited by an oily-haired, leather-jacketed friend named Perry something-or-other from Las Vegas — they didn't like his manner nor his looks - on Thursday, November 12. They wouldn't allow him to lodge in their house, so he stayed in the Hotel Olathe.
On the morning of Saturday, November14, both Dick and his friend from Vegas went on, what the Hickocks called, "a weekend trip," leaving before noon on Saturday (the 14th) and returning the next day, Sunday (the 15th), about noon. Their destination, as Dick confided, had been Ft. Scott where that Perry's sister owed him some money. When they came back to Olathe, Dick to his parents', Perry to the hotel, Dick announced that the trip had been fruitless — Perry's sister had left Ft. Scott before they could reach her. Shame, too; they wanted to use that money to buy a boat.
Nye calculated, even before the couple finished their narration: Olathe was four hundred miles from Holcomb. The pair could have easily made the two-way trip, some 800 miles, in a span of 24 hours, with time in between to change their clothes, eat and effect occasional rest stops.
Before he left, he asked to see their boy's room. He found it a modest, comfortable little cove, well-dusted, with a bed, bookshelves and a desk. In the corner, propped against the wall was a .12-guage Savage shotgun, Model 300.
"You do much hunting?" asked Nye of the older man.
"Me? No, that's his gun, Dick's. He hunts rabbits."
* * * * *
The inspector was sure that gun had been the murder weapon, but not wanting to arouse the parents at that time left it behind.
"You did right," his boss Alvin Dewey congratulated, and his eyes poured over Nye's tablet of notes. "One thing remains to be seen, Hal. And if my hunch is correct, we have our men. Find Perry's sisters, see if any of them were ever in Ft. Scott or owed Perry any money. If they had, then it's back to square one. But, I will wager our oddballs never went to Ft. Scott, but instead went to visit my friend, Herb Clutter."
He completed that sentence through clenched teeth as he dropped into his chair, staring at a mileage chart of Kansas on the wall behind him.