Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

The Clutter Family Killings: Cold Blood


"Measure not the work until the day's out and the labor's done."  —Elizabeth Barrett Browning

"The village of Holcomb stands on the high wheat plains of western Kansas, a lonesome area that other Kansans call 'out there,'" writes author Truman Capote in his novel-like documentary, In Cold Blood. "Some seventy miles east of the Colorado border, the countryside, with its hard blue skies and desert-clean air, has an atmosphere that is more Far West than Middle West. The local accent is barbed with a prairie twang...and the views are awesomely extensive (with) grain elevators rising as gracefully as Greek temples."

Relating one of the most heinous true-life crimes committed in the peaceful era of America's 1950s, the book stunned a country that was not yet used to Charles Mansons and Sons of Sam. The above opening lines set the physical landscape of the crime, a rural God-fearing and placid quilt-work of Americana where the most violent act should have been nothing more than a bronco busting exhibit at a rodeo. Villains like Adolph Hitler and Benito Mussolini had been crushed and were gone as if they never existed; after all, they were foreigners, damn'em, and should have known better than to interfere with American ideals. Joe McCarthy said so. The Land of the Free prevailed — again — and the most loathsome transgressors existed on the new focal wonder box, television, the worst of the lot winding up dead on the studio-sound-set streets of Gunsmoke and Bonanza.

In November, 1959, the town of Holcomb was, according to Capote, a "haphazard hamlet" of houses and storefronts plunked on the prairie between the Arkansas River and the limitless stretches of U.S. Highway 50. The burgh was a checkerboard of streets and lanes, trees carved by nature as stoic souls, hopscotched by travelers en route to Las Vegas and California, commerced by lumbering Santa Fe rail cars bringing wheat and barley to the rest of the country. Its inhabitants farmed mostly; they tended to God's work on God's soil; on weekends they attended choir practice, 4-H Club meetings and family picnics. Largely, they were psalm-conscious Methodists. Neither they nor the rest of the country expected what was to pass under the midnight sounds of whimpering coyote, brushing tumbleweed and dreamy train whistle on the outskirts of town.

Herbert Clutter (Garden City Telegram)
Herbert Clutter
(Garden City Telegram)

The closest "big town" to Holcomb is Garden City, the county seat, less than ten miles distant. In 1959, most of anything that happened within seventy-five miles was happening at Garden City. There were dances at one of several night spots, some with a small orchestra, hotels, restaurants open late, bowling alleys, movie houses, a radio station, a newspaper and a round-the-clock constabulary.

Local growers produced a variety of grains; some raised horses and livestock. One of the more prosperous families in Finney County was that of Herbert Clutter. His shining white River Valley Farm, a mile and a half in from the main road, was comprised of a fine two-story private residence that Clutter built himself in 1948, and several huge barns and Quonset huts storing a harvest of Westland sorghum, milo grain and certified grass seed worth, according to late-1959 prices, a hundred thousand dollars. The harvest was an accumulation worthy of Mr. Clutter's background, for he had graduated Kansas State University with a degree in agriculture and had served as an advisor on President Dwight D. Eishenhower's hand-picked Agriculture Board. Adjacent to his silos was an open corral where several hundred Hereford cattle bore the Clutter brand.

At 48 years old, square-jawed, soft-spoken, Christian-solid Herbert William Clutter was a wealthy man. Wealthy in more than money, his neighbors said. He was a happily married Spartan whose family looked up to him and regarded him as the American role model of everything to strive for in life, and that meant the garnering of respect. His wife Bonnie adored him. Oldest daughter Eveanna had emulated her parent's marital bliss; married and living in Illinois, she and her husband visited regularly. Another daughter, Beverly, was studying nursing in Kansas City and was engaged to be married to a boy of whom her mother and father highly approved. The youngest of the brood, Kenyon and Nancy -- 15 and 16 years old, respectively - still lived at home and were doing well at Holcomb School.

Bonnie Clutter (Garden City Telegram)
Bonnie Clutter
(Garden City Telegram)

The only worry in Clutter's life was, however, not a trivial one: the condition of his wife Bonnie's health. A bout of depression had forced her to leave her marital bed to another in a separate bedroom from where she could quarter her need for silence and solitude, and to where her husband and children nevertheless loyally visited, attending to her needs and wants. Doctors at Wesley Medical Center in Wichita had recently brought positive news. They believed her affliction was physical, not psychological - due to a deformation of the spine that created a tension to the system. An operation, they said, would revive the buoyant woman that was.

With Bonnie flat on her back this November, 1959, it was up to Mr. Clutter, Kenyon and Nancy to help Mrs. Helm, their housekeeper, prepare for the upcoming Thanksgiving holiday the coming Thursday. The house was large and therefore, with company coming, required more than a casual meeting with the dust cloth and wicker broom that Mrs. Helm, at her age, could proffer. Even though they had a housekeeper, Herbert and Bonnie refused to allow their children to become pampered and indolent; they were expected to pitch in. Their charge this weekend was to make the house "spic and span," and the offspring knew what that meant. It meant spotless and sparkling and scented, from the back porch pantry to the basement to the attic; it meant gleaming surfaces from the tiled bathroom walls to the Formica kitchen counters to the living room coffee tables of blue and white plastic (the most modern of looks in 1959). Mrs. Clutter collected miniatures - animals, mostly - which she displayed on shelves throughout the house. These had to shine as did the shelves they sat on. These tasks impending, coupled with the usual farm and dairy chores, as well as a number of social obligations, turned the weekend of November 14-15, 1959, into one hectic itinerary.

Nancy Clutter (Garden City Telegram)
Nancy Clutter
(Garden City Telegram)

On Friday evening, November 13, Nancy had participated in Holcomb School's Fall play. This year's offering was Tom Sawyer, in which she had played a leading role as Becky Thatcher. Teachers regarded the Clutter girl as one of the brightest. She was often asked to represent the school in scholastic meets; she had won several blue ribbons through 4-H, to which her and Kenyon both belonged since age six; and she was a talented pianist and clarinetist who performed in occasional variety shows for civic clubs.

"Nancy was a pretty girl, lean and boyishly agile," pens Capote, "and the prettiest things about her were her short-bobbed, shining chestnut hair and her soap-polished complexion, still faintly freckled and rose-brown from last summer's sun. But, it was her eyes, wide apart, darkly translucent...that made her immediately likable."

Saturday was Mrs. Helm's day off and this morning Nancy was put on kitchen duty. Early afternoon, she tutored little Jolene Katz, whose parents lived down the road, on a pleasant domestic chore. Because Nancy had recently won a baking contest at the State Fair, Mrs. Katz asked Nancy if she wouldn't mind showing Jolene a thing or two about the art of pie making. Always willing to help, Nancy found the time to do so.

While the aroma of yeast and fresh cherries drifted through other parts of the Clutter house, the downstairs work den reeked of a less palatable smell, varnish. Kenyon was putting the finishing touches to a hope chest he had built all by himself as a wedding present for older sister Beverly. Good with his hands, he had cut, sanded, glued and nailed together this beautiful mahogany piece and, as his brush swiped over the woodwork, he was glad to have his prize completed in time for Thanksgiving when he planned to give it to her.

Kenyon's "crewcut hair was hemp colored, and he was six feet tall and lanky, though hefty enough to have once rescued a pair of full-grown sheep by carrying them two miles through a blizzard," says Capote. The boy's favorite pastime was hunting, and he sometimes earned money at it, bringing in as many as a half-hundred rabbits to a processing factory that sent the animals to mink growers. When not tending to his expected household chores, or studying for an upcoming exam, he and his friend Bob Jones worked on an old Model T Ford his parents let him buy from money that he earned.

That same afternoon, Mr. Clutter served as guest speaker at the monthly meeting of the 4-H Club that met in Garden City. "As an educated man successful in his profession, as an eminent Republican and church leader, Mr. Clutter was entitled to rank among the local patricians (but) he had never sought to associate with the reigning coterie...he had no use for card games, golf, cocktails, or buffet suppers served at ten," Capote tells us. His purpose at 4-H that day was to help plan the upcoming Achievements Banquet.

Kenyon Clutter (Garden City Telegram)
Kenyon Clutter
(Garden City Telegram)

As the day wore on, Nancy and Kenyon partnered on some yard work expected to be done before Herbert's arrival home. Autumn was in the air and the yard teased of a pumpkin pie breeze and wet hay. Tempted by the carefree aura of the perfect Indian Summer afternoon, they found time to frolic with their pet collie Teddy and visit with Babe, their favorite calf. Tracing the sudden smell of burning leaves, they encountered Alfred Stoecklein, rake in hand. He was their father's sole resident employee who lived with his wife and three children in a caretaker's abode a hundred yards from the main house. The trio exchanged pleasantries and high wishes for the holiday.

Sunset came early as it does in November, and the Clutters sat down to dinner, except for Bonnie who decided to sleep through it, not feeling her best this day. About 7 p.m., Nancy's boyfriend Bobby Rupp stopped by to see if the girl would like to drive to McKinney Lake to enjoy the beautiful full moon. Herb Clutter, who didn't approve of teenage rendezvous by moonlight, forbade it; instead, he invited Bobby in to watch TV with the rest of the family in the main sitting room. The boyfriend accepted.

According to Rupp less than forty-eight hours later, "We sat around like any other night - Nancy and I on the couch and Mr. Clutter in his chair, that stuffed rocker. He wasn't watching television so much as he was reading a book...(Kenyon) didn't want to watch TV, he wanted to practice his horn, and when Nancy wouldn't let him, I remember Mr. Clutter told him why didn't he go down to the basement, the recreation room, where nobody could hear him. But, he didn't want to do that...After the sports ended, that was 10:30, and I got up to go. Nancy walked me out. We talked a while and made a date to go to the movies Sunday night...Then she ran back in the house and I drove away. It was as clear as day - the moon was so bright - and cold and kind of windy; a lot of tumbleweed blowing about. But that's all I saw. Only now when I think back, I think somebody must have been hiding there. Maybe down among the trees."

Nancy was the last family member to retire that evening. In her upstairs bedroom, she put her girlish self through a midnight ritual of beauty cleansing and creaming, then laying out the clothes she intended to wear to church the next morning: They included a red velveteen dress, which she had made. "It was," explains Truman Capote, "the dress in which she was buried."

Outside, a black 1949 Chevrolet rolled up quietly into the shadows of the Clutter house.

* * * * *

Many hours later, another automobile, that belonging to the Ewalts, followed the banks of the Arkansas River and the white rail fence of River Valley Farm, the Clutter property. It passed through the avenue of fruit trees - peach, pear, cherry and apple - whose branches momentarily shaded the windshield from the bright morning sun. At the wheel was Clarence Ewalt who, as every Sunday, was dropping his daughter off at the Clutters so that she could go along with them to church services. She and the Clutter girl - both named Nancy - were the best of friends.

As customary, at 9 a.m., Nancy Ewalt rang the Clutter doorbell. She waited. No answer. She rang again. And once more. This was strange because one of the family usually answered the door promptly. Mr. Clutter was known, in fact, for his punctuality. Nancy Ewalt could see that the garage door was open with both of the Clutter sedans parked within, so she knew they hadn't left without her. She turned round toward her father and shrugged at the unexpectancy; in turn, he motioned with his hand to try the side door. Perhaps Mr. Clutter was working in his private office - perhaps on the phone there - and didn't hear her ringing.

Good idea! The teenager scurried to where she knew his office was and rapped several times at that door. When she did, the door opened ajar. Calling in with at first a shy hello, she pursued that with a more brazen, Nancy, you awake? Placing one foot inside the warm, familiar den - she'd been there many times - she hallooed this time, but again no response. Not even a footstep could be heard from the silent echo of the adjoining rooms. This wasn't like the family to oversleep - not the industrious Clutters.

Mr. Ewalt decided that he and his daughter drive on some to the Kidwell house, down the road. Susan Kidwell was a mutual girlfriend and might know what's going on. There, Susan telephoned the Clutters. No one answered. Yes, indeed, how unlike the Clutters.

Ewalt decided that maybe the two girls might return to River Valley Farm and try once more to rouse the obviously oversleeping brood. After a staccato of knocks failed to awaken anyone, the girls, feeling less intimidated as a pair, entered the house through the kitchen, which they knew was usually open to visitors night and day.

Susan Kidwell recalls, "We saw right away that the Clutters hadn't eaten breakfast; there were no dishes, nothing on the stove. Then I noticed something funny: Nancy's purse. It was lying on the floor, sort of open. We passed on through the dining room (then) started up the stairs. The sound of our footsteps frightened me more than anything, they were so loud and everything else was so silent. Nancy's door was open. The curtains hadn't been drawn, and the room was full of sunlight. I don't remember screaming. Nancy Ewalt says I did - screamed and screamed. I only remember Nancy's teddy bear staring at me. And Nancy. And running..."


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