Crime History: November 15, 1959: The Clutter Murders Of “In Cold Blood”

Dick Hickock and Perry Smith [WIBW, screenshot]

You may not immediately recognize the name Herbert Clutter or know of his family, but you may still be familiar with their story. On November 15, 1959, Clutter and three other members of his family were brutally murdered in a robbery/homicide that would gain infamy thanks to Truman Capote and his book In Cold Blood.

Two ex-cons recently paroled from the Kansas State Penitentiary went hunting for a safe in the Clutter farmhouse. The men, Richard Eugene Hickock (above left) and Perry Edward Smith (above right), had been talking to another prisoner named Floyd Wells before their parole. Wells claimed to have worked for Clutter as a farmhand for a while, and told the men about a safe where Clutter kept a lot of cash. Hickock came up with a plan to steal the cash from the Clutter safe, kill all of the witnesses, and go on the lam to Mexico with all of the cash. Smith had been a cellmate of Hickock’s, and the two got together on the outside to attempt what Hickock had deemed “the perfect score.” On November 14, the two men set off on a road trip across Kansas.

Dick Hickock [Kansas Bureau of Investigation]

Dick Hickock [Kansas Bureau of Investigation]

They arrived at the Clutter home early on the morning of the 15th, and broke into the home while the family was sleeping. Herbert Clutter and his wife Bonnie were quickly tied up, as were teenagers Nancy Mae and Kenyon Neal Clutter. Herbert had been roused first, and while he gave them what little cash he had, he also told the men that there was no more cash. While the family was subdued the two men ransacked the home. They only came up with about 50 dollars in cash, a transistor radio, and a pair of binoculars. Once again, they tried to get information from Herbert on the safe, but the father continued to not volunteer any information on where any cash might have been stored. The two men had to face the notion that there was no safe, and there was no abundance of cash. In a fit of pique, Smith slit Herbert Clutter’s throat before shooting him in the head. Bonnie, Nancy Mae, and Kenyon were also all shot in the head.

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The duo did leave a few traces of evidence behind as they made their escape. Assistant Chief of Police Rich Rohleder’s photography skills allowed them to find a bloody footprint that Smith had apparently not realized he’d made. In their rush to escape, the duo had also left a tire track print behind. With the assistance of the Kansas Bureau of Investigations, the evidence was put together with leg work and good, old-fashioned police investigation to find the killers.

Perry Smith [Kansas Bureau of Investigation]

Perry Smith [Kansas Bureau of Investigation]

Smith and Hickock first went to the Kansas City area, where they didn’t exactly lay low. Hickock ended up passing off more than a few hot checks, and they finally had to leave the area before the cops caught up to them on that charge. They actually managed to get to Mexico, where they were able to pawn the binoculars. However, something brought them back to America.

They hitched their way back through California and around the western, midwestern, and southern states until they ended up back in Nevada, driving a hot car they had stolen during a brief stay in Iowa. Thanks to the evidence, as well as a tip from one of the inmates they’d known in prison, the law finally caught up with them on New Year’s Eve. They were arrested on December 31, 1959. The duo ended up confessing to the Clutter murders, and stood trial in early 1960. They were convicted of the murders on March 29, 1960 and sentenced to death. It took five years for them to work through the process, and they finally went to the gallows on April 14, 1965.

WIBW brings us this look back at the infamous crime that became one of the most influential true-crime novels in history.

Read more:
Garden City, Kansas Police Department
WIBW
New York Daily News
CrimeArchives.net

Main photo: Dick Hickock and Perry Smith [WIBW, screenshot]


  • Katy bee

    Such a brilliant, creepy book.