On This Day: The “In Cold Blood” Murders

15 Nov

Holcomb Kansas is one of those places you’d miss if you blinked. A small farming community in America’s heartland, it was not prepared for what happened 50 years ago on the night of November 15, 1959. It was a town where murder was an unknown word. A town where people got up and went to bed with the sun and never worried about locking their doors. A town where children could walk to school and nothing bad would come their way. A town where the Clutter family became part of American criminal history.

By all accounts Herb Clutter was a hard-working, decent man. He lived in a modest home on a working farm with his wife Bonnie and their two teenage children, 16-year-old Nancy and 15-year-old Kenyon. Mr. Clutter apparently hired transient workers from time to time to help out around the farm and this act of kindness led to his family being massacred on that dark night.

Clutter Home


After the family had turned in for the night, Dick Hickock and Perry Smith entered their world. It seems that Hickok. a recent prison parolee, had heard a rumor from a fellow inmate that a man named Clutter had a safe stuffed with money. That wasn’t true, but Hickok believed it to be. He recruited Perry Smith into his murderous scheme in which he repeatedly said that they would leave no witnesses. They didn’t.


Perry Smith (Top) and Dick Hickock

Once in the home, they cut the phone line and tied up the entire family, each in a separate room. They demanded that Herb Clutter open his safe. Mr. Clutter said that he had no safe and did not keep money in his house. They didn’t believe him but their search turned up nothing except for one of the children’s piggy bank.

Hickock then told Smith to kill the entire family. He first attempted to cut Herb Clutter’s throat but this didn’t go well. He shot Clutter with a shotgun and then moved from room to room killing the rest of the family. Smith and Hickock were ultimately captured and brought to trial with the major forensic evidence against them being a bloody boot print.



Truman Capote, fresh off his success with Breakfast at Tiffany’s, read about the case in the newspaper and decided he would write an article for New York magazine on how these brutal murders affected a small town America. He went there, along with his longtime, childhood friend in Monroeville, Alabama Harper Lee (To Kill A Mockingbird), to investigate the story.


Lee Medal ceremony

Harper Lee receives Presidential Medal of Freedom

The murders not only turned the town of Holcomb upside down, they also affected Capote so much that the article became a novel and the novel transformed literature. It would be the last novel he ever completed.

Capote was an arrogant and self-absorbed jerk but he was a great writer. He boldly stated that his book based on this murder, which he titled In Cold Blood, would revolutionize the way novels were written. He was right. It created an entirely new genre. He called it faction. Today we would call it creative nonfiction.

In Cold Blood


The book created great controversy on several fronts. Many were dismayed that Capote used fictional elements in what was a true crime story. He was accused of manipulating the facts for his own purposes. Kenneth Tynan, in his review for The Observer, went further. He accused Capote of using Smith and Hickock for their information about the killings but then did not help them with their defense as much as he should have. He felt that Capote actually wanted the pair executed so he would have an ending to his story. This controversy remains unsettled.

In Cold Blood is without doubt one of the best crime novels ever written and at the same time one of the best true crime stories you’ll ever read. If you have not read it do yourself a favor. The story is compelling, the writing even more so.



7 responses to “On This Day: The “In Cold Blood” Murders

  1. Kylie Brant

    November 15, 2009 at 12:21 pm

    I agree, the novel is fascinating. It does bother me, though, when I have to try and separate out the fact from fiction in a true crime story. I recently re-read the book after watching the movie Capote. The movie portrayed him as being much more involved in the defense, but then again, difficult to separate fact from fiction.


  2. Teresa Reasor

    November 15, 2009 at 1:18 pm

    Dr. Lyle:
    I really enjoy your blog so much.
    I read In Cold Blood when I was 10. Not sure about how appropriate it is for a 10 year old to read something like that, but I’ve been reading since I was 4 and consumed every kind of book immaginable. While reading it, an Avon lady came to the door to deliver my mothers and grandmother’s orders and I wouldn’t open the door. Scared me to death. And I still have the hard back copy of the book published in 1965.
    I also saw the movie years ago with Robert Blake. It was really good and I really did feel sorry for his character. I thought the other guy was more apt to have been the one to pull the trigger but—– we of course know he wasn’t.
    I also saw the movie Copote. Don’t know the guy who played Capote but I swear he looked so much like him and had his mannerisms and the way he talked down.
    Write on,
    Teresa R.


    • D.P. Lyle, MD

      November 16, 2009 at 8:36 am

      Yes, to me the two excellent movies made about this tragedy were IN Cold Blood with Robert Blake as Perry Smith and John Forsyth as the investigating cop and Capote—that was Oscar-winner Phillip Seymour Hoffman as Capote.


  3. Marilyn Meredith

    November 15, 2009 at 3:09 pm

    I remember when this happened–being anciient–and also read the book which was really frightening.


  4. Pat Browning

    November 15, 2009 at 3:09 pm

    Beautifully written, a literary trail blazer, and it scared me half to death. Only book I ever destroyed. Couldn’t stand the sight of it leering at me from a bookshelf. I tore it apart with my hands and threw it on the trash pile out by the garage.
    Pat Browning


  5. Evelyn David

    December 3, 2009 at 10:05 am

    When people ask me what the scariest book I ever read was my first choice is always In Cold Blood, the second, Helter Skelter. They both have something in comman besides the brutality of the murders – the sheer randomness of the choice of victims and the invasion of the victimss’ homes. You’re supposed to feel safe in your home. Those books shattered that illusion. LIke one of the other posters, I read In Cold Blood when I was a pre-teen. I’ll never forget it.


    • D.P. Lyle, MD

      December 3, 2009 at 10:14 am

      You hit the nail squarely. These two books effected me more than any other true crime stories I’ve ever read.



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