‘I didn’t want to harm the man. I thought he was a very nice gentleman. Soft spoken. I thought so right up to the moment I cut his throat.’
That was the chilling testimony of executed murderer Perry Smith, who, along with his accomplice, Richard Hancock, was responsible for the homicide of four people on 15 November, 1959. Although the crime was infamous when it was committed sixty years ago, we would probably have forgotten it by today were it not for that fact that the brutal killing of the Cutler family of Holcomb, Kansas was recorded in the modern classic In Cold Blood by Truman Capote.
The basic facts of the case are as simple as they are distressing. Smith and Hancock had just been released from Kansas State Penitentiary. They been tipped off by a fellow inmate that the remote Cutler farm housed a safe which contained large amounts of cash. In the early hours of the morning of 15 November 1959 they broke into the farmhouse, failed to locate the safe—because it didn’t exist—murdered Herb and Bonnie Cutler and their teenage children Nancy and Kenyon. Herb Cutler had his throat cut, as Smith described, the others were shot in the head. Smith and Hancock got away with a total of $50. Fingered by the very Kansas prison inmate who had identified the Cutlers as easy targets, Smith and Hancock were arrested and tried in March 1960. Both pleaded temporary insanity, both were pronounced sane. Their jury took less than an hour to find the two men guilty. After five years on ‘Death Row’ they were hanged in April 1965.
Enter Capote. There is a difference of opinion—one of many when it comes to In Cold Blood—over why, precisely, Truman Capote travelled to Kansas in 1960 to cover the story. He claimed he was prompted by an account of the killings in the New York Times and that he undertook research for the book on his own initiative. Another version suggests he was simply assigned to the story by the New Yorker magazine, where the book was first serialised in four parts in 1965. One thing is certain, Capote did not travel to Kansas alone. He took a young female friend with him, Nelle Lee, figuring she might be able to help when it came to extracting information from the people of Holcomb. As it happened she was working on a book of her own at the time, unconnected to the Clutter family murders.
Capote set about interviewing locals in Holcomb and, when Smith and Hancock were awaiting execution, manged to secure access to both of them as well. He assembled more than eight thousand pages of notes. It took him five years to hammer out what he described as his ‘immaculately factual’ novel, In Cold Blood. The book first appeared in 1966 after the publication the previous year of the four New Yorker articles. It was immediately hailed as a ground-breaking masterpiece. It still ranks as the second highest-selling ‘true crime’ book in history (after Vincent Bugliosi’s account of the Charles Manson murders Helter Skelter). It has never been out of print in five decades.
But, as to its ‘immaculately factual’ pretensions? Not so, according to numerous sources, unless Capote redefined the meaning of the word ‘factual’ just as he pushed out the boundaries of non-fiction writing. His version of events has been challenged frequently, often by some of the central participants, who are included in the novel. There is, for example, evidence to suggest that Capote may have been too quick to take Richard Hancock at his word in an eagerness to highlight the utter senselessness of the killings. Contemporary investigators were of the opinion, but were unable to prove, that Hancock and Smith had been hired to murder Herb Cutler. It was a banal and squalid ‘hit’ rather than an inexplicably brutal slaying. Not so great for psychodrama.
However, despite the prodigious commercial and artistic success of In Cold Blood it did not earn Capote a Pulitzer Prize in 1966, much to the surprise of the literati and to his own personal chagrin. So, that’s fake history. There was, however, one Pulitzer prize associated with the research trip for the novel. You remember Capote’s friend Nelle Lee? She’s probably better known by her middle name, Harper. While Capote was trying to make sense of his notes she won a Pulitzer Prize in 1961 for her first novel. It’s called To Kill a Mockingbird. It hasn’t been out of print for six decades!