1816: John Allen and John Penny, poachers 1925: Fritz Haarmann, Hanover vampire

1965: Perry Smith and Dick Hickock, In Cold Blood subjects

April 14th, 2010 Headsman

This date in 1965 saw the end of the road (and the end of the rope) for Dick Hickock and Perry Smith, the drifters who slaughtered the Clutter family in Holcomb, Kansas, and inspired Truman Capote’s magnum opus In Cold Blood.


Hickock (left) and Smith.

These ex-cons — Smith, the smart Korean War veteran; Hickock, the fallen high school jock turned small-time hood — got a tip from a fellow jailbird that Herbert Clutter’s farm had a well-stocked safe.

On November 15, 1959, they raided the farm, tied up and shotgunned the family of four, and made off with … 40 bucks. Alas: no safe.

The horrific, out-of-nowhere brutality of the crime — “apparently the work of a psychopathic killer” — made national headlines and drew Manhattanite Truman Capote out to small town Kansas (along with novelist Harper Lee, whom Capote used to gain the confidence of locals).

The killers were caught on the lam in Nevada, and as the case unfolded,* Capote’s sympathy for Smith unlocked a spellbinding book that put this day’s murderers in the literary canon.

I really admired Mr. Clutter, right up until the moment I slit his throat.”

– Perry Smith

(Perry Smith was first protrayed on celluloid by actor Robert Blake, who would one day stand trial himself for arranging the 2001 murder of his wife. Blake was acquitted.)

In Cold Blood has drawn criticism from the outset: for its accuracy, or for its problematic relationship between author and subject, or for its pride of place in the true crime genre. (Or the “nonfiction novel” genre Capote claimed it created.)

But as literary milestone, its place is secure.

In Cold Blood, in multiple media

* More detail about Smith and Hickock and Capote and the Clutters in this trutv article.

Also on this date

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Arts and Literature,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Diminished Capacity,Execution,Hanged,History,Kansas,Murder,Popular Culture,USA

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