Killings of Holcomb family in ’59 still haunt

“Holcomb stands on the high wheat plains of western Kansas, a lonesome area that other Kansans call ‘out there.’ “

Truman Capote, “In Cold Blood”

HOLCOMB — This little town has grown, spread out and become almost unrecognizable with time.

Houses dot land that half a century ago held wheat fields. Two giant elementary schools and a high school dwarf downtown. One of the world’s largest beef packing plants sits on its outskirts.

The house with the long driveway used to be out in the country. Now it’s on the edge of town. The Chinese elms along the infamous lane are dead or dying.

Signs warn away visitors: “STOP.” “Posted. No Trespassing.”

Yet, people still come.

It has been a half-century since two ex-convicts on parole from the state penitentiary murdered Herb and Bonnie Clutter and their children Nancy, 16, and Kenyon, 15, on Nov. 15, 1959.

The killers had heard a jailmate describe how the Clutters were wealthy, how they kept a safe filled with money in their home. It wasn’t true. They ended up with about $40, a pair of binoculars and a transistor radio.

Capote described it: “Four shotgun blasts that, all told, ended six human lives.”

Perry Smith and Dick Hickock were caught after a six-week manhunt. They were executed for their crimes on April 14, 1965.

The four shotgun blasts echoed beyond Holcomb. They changed the way Kansans felt about their safety. And they touched people around the world when they were recounted in Truman Capote’s book, “In Cold Blood,” which has been published in more than 30 languages.

“It makes the hair on the back of your neck stand up if you read it at the wrong time of the day or night,” said Dave Webb, historian and assistant director at the Kansas Heritage Center in Dodge City.

He was 11 and living on the family farm near Protection — 120 miles from Holcomb — when the Clutters were killed.

For years afterward, farm families would lock their doors and take note if they saw car lights going down a country road late at night.

“You were always wondering who would be in the car,” Webb said. “It was just so outof-the-ordinary. Until then, we always had a sense of security.”

Feeling vulnerable

Kathleen Holt of Cimarron was 12.

“I remember how vulnerable we felt at the randomness of it,” Holt said.

“I baby-sat for a well-to-do farm family, and so a lot of times when I would walk home from baby-sitting, it would be at midnight,” she said. “And even though it would only be two or three blocks, I would sing ‘Onward Christian Soldiers,’ so if anyone would want to hurt me, I’d be singing a hymn.

“The murders ... gave us a sense there could be danger in the world.”

Webb always thought his parents would do anything necessary to defend him.

“But as I read the details in the paper, I realized the boy was four years older than I was. It hit me: He was in 4-H; I was in 4-H. He lived in the country; I lived in the country,” Webb recalled.

A few weeks after the Clutters were killed, before the killers had been arrested, Webb’s father was injured in a farm accident. He was forced to spend the night in the Coldwater Hospital.

“We lived out in the country with no telephone,” Webb said.

That night, his mother asked him and his younger sister to sleep downstairs near her. He remembers his mother locking the doors and bracing them.

“In the middle of the night, there was a terrible crash in the kitchen with a great deal of scuttling and shuffling,” Webb said. “I was asleep but my mother lay terrified, knowing the killers had broken into our house and were coming for us.”

Finally, she tiptoed into the living room and then to the kitchen. She turned on the light.

A hoot owl had fallen down the chimney and flopped onto the floor.

Capote’s influence

Within a few weeks of the Clutter murders, Truman Capote came to town. He had read a brief account of the murders in the New York Times.

His name had appeared frequently in the New Yorker magazine. He was the author of the novella “Breakfast at Tiffany’s.”

Capote, who died in 1984, would write: “Journalism as art was almost virgin terrain . . . I wanted to produce a journalistic novel, something on a large scale that would have the credibility of fact, the immediacy of film, the depth and freedom of prose, and the precision of poetry.”

He spent years researching, writing and compiling notes.

When the book was published in 1965, it became an instant hit, earning more than $2æmillion its first year. It became required reading for high school students.

In 1967, a movie based on the book premiered, starring Robert Blake as Perry Smith and John Forsythe as KBI agent Al Dewey. The book also inspired 2005’s “Capote,” starring Philip Seymour Hoffman, and 2006’s “Infamous.”

Type “Clutter murders” into Google and you get 4.7 million hits.

Legendary notoriety

The book brought notoriety to Holcomb — notoriety that has lasted decades.

The Clutters’ farmhouse still draws the curious, as do their graves in Garden City’s Valley View cemetery.

Invariably, strangers want to know about the house. It’s still lived in. The owners didn’t return phone calls.

A blue, portable swimming pool sits on the lawn.

“It was a bad thing that happened,” said Dolores Hope, former reporter and city editor at the Garden City Telegram. “But it is part of our history now. It is legend now ...

“People who are on trips make a point of stopping here. It’s become a tourist attraction.”

At the Finney County Historical Society Museum in Garden City, director Mary Regan has grown weary of the endless questions about the Clutters.

“Part of it ... I have closed out of my mind,” Regan said. “It was so horrific. It is difficult for some of the generation who were here at the time to recall.

“It’s not just a factual event. It is an emotional event that has affected us emotionally and socially.”

The museum has received many requests through the years from visitors wondering why it has no display about the Clutters.

“They ask, ‘Why don’t you have an exhibit?’ We explain that it would create a negative feeling if we tried to draw people in here,” said Laurie Oshel, the museum’s assistant director.

A few weeks ago, the city of Holcomb dedicated its community park to the Clutters. Other memorials are scattered across the state.

In recent weeks, Hope and her husband, Clifford, who was Herb Clutter’s lawyer, have been contacted by reporters from around the world. They think the murders — and Capote’s book — will remain a part of Finney County’s heritage long enough for a 75th anniversary and a 100th.

“I think this will be one of those kind of things that kids will still be reading,” Dolores Hope said. “It’s like Hansel and Gretel, only this is based on a real happening.

“It’s so much of the American culture.”

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