Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

The Clutter Family Killings: Cold Blood


"The natural man has only two primal passions, to get and beget."  — William Osler

Writer J.J. Maloney, has drawn, through his research and knowledge of the criminal mind, some impressive conclusions about the killings in Holcomb, Kansas, on November 1959, and the two killers themselves. Not all of them agree with Capote's version.

Maloney spent 6-1/2 years in reform schools and prison for murder and armed robbery, but, according to his online biography, he "educated himself and became an artist, poet and book reviewer for the Kansas City Star." He was paroled in 1972, already a recognized journalist.

He is the author of four books and has edited an alternative paper out of Kansas City, The New Times. Of the countless journalism and writing awards he has received, among these are the American Bar Association Silver Gavel; the Herbert Bayard Swopes Award; the American Newspaper Publishers Association for Best Investigative Story; the Sigma Delta Chi Award, Society of Professional Journalists and Orange County Press Club; and the Thorpe Menn Award. As well, he has been nominated for five Pulitzer Prizes.

"The publication of In Cold Blood in 1966 launched Truman Capote firmly into the top rank of American writers," writes Maloney. "It was - and is - widely heralded as a masterpiece - not only a masterpiece of writing, but as a brilliant insight into the criminal mind.

"After publication of the book, Capote told George Plimpton, in an interview for the New York Times, published in January, 1966, that he had been watching for an event that would allow him to write a 'non-fiction' novel - in his definition, a factual book using the literary skills of an accomplished novelist. The murder of the Herbert Clutter family in Holcomb, Kansas, on November 15, 1959, caught Capote's eye.

"The New York Times said in Capote's obituary in 1984, '...the book that perhaps edified his claim to literary fame was In Cold Blood, his detailed, painstakingly researched and chilling account of the 1959 slaying of a Kansas farm family and the capture, trial and execution of the two killers."

Truman Capote, author of In Cold Blood (Garden City Telegram)
Truman Capote, author of
In Cold Blood
(Garden City Telegram)

But, Maloney raises some questions about Capote's (as he puts it) "basic honesty in writing the book" - that is, Capote's assumptions and interpretations of certain episodes related in the subject work (which has become, since its publication, the bottom-line reference account of the event).

Among his several contentions put forth in an article entitled, "In Cold Blood: A Dishonest Book," is Hickock and Smith's motive for the murders.

Following are excerpts from a letter that Maloney wrote in 1968 to Dr. Karl Menninger, author of The Crime of Punishment, while reviewing the latter's book for the Kansas City Star:

"...It seems that no one has surmised what I believe to be the true reason that Perry Smith killed those four people. Everyone seems willing to attribute it to the arcane workings of the criminal mind.

"Capote glossed over the motivation of this crime by depicting Smith as being in what one might call, for lack of a better definition, a moment of schizophrenic disassociation...

"In order to place the crime in proper perspective, we have to conjecture on the nature of Smith and Hickock's relationship - which I believe was the result of a prison homosexual relationship...

"If my conjecturing is correct, then I feel confident that Hickock and Smith had been sexually involved in prison - further, that in any such relationship that Smith would have taken the feminine role, and psychologically leaned on Hickock because of Hickock's facade of rough-hewn masculinity.

"After leaving prison, Smith and Hickock probably discontinued the physical aspect of their relationship, but the psychological relationship remained intact...
"When Smith and Hickock arrived at the Clutter home I don't believe that either of them really expected a mass murder to take place. Smith, I believe, took for granted that Hickock would find some face-saving reason not to kill the Clutters, and Hickock, of course, took it for granted that Smith wouldn't or couldn't do anything so supposedly masculine as cold-bloodedly blow someone's brains out with a shotgun...

"Then, Smith caught Hickock trying to make love to Nancy Clutter. He must have been furious! Here, beneath his very eyes, the man he had surrendered himself to so totally was spurning him in favor of Nancy Clutter...
"At this point, Smith was irked, jealous, and he wanted to humiliate Hickock. So he pressed Hickock on the issue of killing the Clutters. Hickock couldn't do it and, confronted in this manner, was prevented from saving face. As Shakespeare said, 'Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned.'

Peaceful lives taken by violence (Garden City Telegram)
Peaceful lives taken by violence
(Garden City Telegram)

"Smith, in his confusion, jealousy, anger, disappointment - and spite - reactively and instinctively thrust that hunting knife into Herbert Clutter's throat (Smith may also simultaneously have been displacing his anger onto the victim, thereby symbolically killing his feckless paramour).

"The other three murders were then both defensive - and, perhaps and probably unrecognized by Smith, an excuse to go upstairs and kill Nancy Clutter - an act which would be doubly traumatic to Hickock...

"But Smith could not completely escape the affection he felt for Hickock, and he relented toward the end, to the extent of admitting that he had personally killed all four of the Clutters."


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