Saturday, November 15, 2014

The Anniversary of the 'In Cold Blood' Killings

"Now, on this final day of her life, Mrs. Clutter hung in the closet the calico house dress she had been wearing and put on one of her trailing nightgowns and a fresh set of white socks. Then, before retiring, she exchanged her ordinary glasses for a pair of reading spectacles. Though she subscribed to several periodicals (the Ladies' Home Journal, McCall's, Reader's Digest and Together: Midmonth Magazine for Methodist Families), none of these rested on the bedside table — only a Bible. A bookmark lay between its pages, a stiff piece of watered silk upon which an admonition had been embroidered: 'Take ye heed, watch and pray: for ye know not when the time is.'"

Truman Capote
In Cold Blood

They happened before I was born, but the murders of the Clutter family 55 years ago today in Holcomb, Kansas, still have the power to grip people.

I re–read Truman Capote's riveting account of those murders, "In Cold Blood," about a year ago. I was just as engrossed by it as I was when I first read it in college. As a reading experience, it reminded me of Vincent Bugliosi's account of the Manson Family murders, "Helter Skelter."

Capote did a lot of writing in his life, but "In Cold Blood" was the book he was born to write. It seems almost like the kind of book that would write itself, that all it needed was a person to be the go–between. But writers are a funny sort, and my understanding is that Capote agonized over aspects of his book. Some writers are like that. The creative process makes impossible demands on them.

So writing "In Cold Blood" may have been a very emotionally trying experience for Capote. It may have been unimaginably wrenching to try to put everything on paper. I know it took awhile for him to finish it. Some writers find it very difficult to achieve the level of detachment that is necessary to write about unpleasant things. It is often essential, I have observed, to be detached in the news business. You must express in print the shock and revulsion people feel upon hearing about such things — without letting those things affect you personally. It is why many talented writers don't make it as news writers.

Such a level of detachment must have been necessary for the local officials who investigated the murders. In a small town like Holcomb (which, more than half a century later, has a population that barely exceeds 2,000), everyone knows everyone else, and Herb Clutter, the family patriarch, was a pillar of the community. He was a farmer, he hired people to work on his farm, and, by all accounts, he treated them well. He was rumored to be very wealthy — after all, he didn't drink or smoke. Had no vices of any kind, as far as anyone could tell. He was also rumored to keep all his money in a safe in his home.

At least, that is what one fellow in particular had heard. This fellow had worked for Clutter about 10 years earlier and told a jailhouse cellmate about him and the money he supposedly had in his remote country farmhouse. Truth was, Herb Clutter didn't have a fortune in his home. He didn't have a safe, either. This cellmate didn't know that, though, and he started planning to rob this farmer as soon as he and another buddy of his were released.

Fifty–five years ago, they were both free, and they made their way to Holcomb, where they intended to rob the Clutters. When they discovered that there was no safe and no fortune, they could have left and, in all probability, never been charged with a crime. Instead, they killed each member of the family so there would be no witnesses and left with $42 in cash, a radio and a pair of binoculars.

The crime shocked America, which was a more innocent place (at least, it seems so in hindsight) in the 1950s than many people today realize — even with all the jokes that are made about the simplicity of that decade. It's my opinion, though, that the difference between that time and today is the level of technology. I doubt that shocking crimes happened any less frequently then than they do today; people just didn't hear about them as much.

Nearly two years earlier, the nation was transfixed by the murder spree of Charles Starkweather and Caril Ann Fugate, the inspiration for "Natural Born Killers." It must have taken a lot to transfix the nation in those days. TVs were not fixtures in every American home in those days — maybe 60% would be my guess. Cable didn't exist, nor did the internet. The primary sources for news and information probably were newspapers and radio.

Those same news sources must have been the primary sources for most Americans when the Clutter family was killed, and the word spread so far that it reached Truman Capote via the New York Times — and he and his lifelong friend, Harper Lee (author of "To Kill a Mockingbird"), traveled to Holcomb to do research for a book on the case.

What is often lost in the telling of the murders is the fear that the victims must have experienced in those early morning hours. They did what people are usually told to do if they are abducted — cooperate with your abductor, do whatever you must to stay alive. Yet, they did not live through the night.

Their deaths led to Capote's book and at least two movies of which I am aware. For Capote, of course, it was a career–defining book — which has been criticized frequently since its publication for fabricating conversations and scenes it described. Sometimes that was obviously necessary, given that it described conversations and/or scenes that no living person could verify. But sometimes Capote appears to have deliberately misquoted some people whose versions of events did not support his narrative.

Sometimes that wasn't terribly important to the story; other times, though, it was. That seems to be how it is with the new journalism, the nonfiction novel.

One fact cannot be changed or fabricated. The Clutter family has been dead for 55 years.

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