Perry Edward Smith
|Perry Edward Smith|
Kansas State Penitentiary - March, 1960
October 27, 1928|
Huntington, Elko County, Nevada
|Died||April 14, 1965
|Occupation||Criminal, seaman, soldier|
|Death by hanging|
|Parents||Florence Julia Buckskin and "Tex" John Smith|
Perry Edward Smith (October 27, 1928 – April 14, 1965) was one of two ex-convicts convicted of murdering four members of the Clutter family in Holcomb, Kansas, United States on November 15, 1959, a crime made infamous by Truman Capote in his 1966 non-fiction novel In Cold Blood. Along with Richard Hickock, Smith took part in the home invasion of the Clutter family farmhouse.
Family and early life
Perry Edward Smith was born in Huntington, Nevada, a now-abandoned community in Elko County. His parents, Florence Julia "Flo" Buckskin and John "Tex" Smith, were rodeo performers. Smith was of mixed Dutch and Cherokee ancestry (from his father's and mother's side, respectively). The family moved to Juneau, Alaska, in 1929, where the elder Smith distilled bootleg whisky for a living. Smith's father abused his wife and four children, and in 1935 his wife left him, taking the children with her to San Francisco. Smith and his siblings were raised initially with their alcoholic mother. After Smith's mother died when he was thirteen, he and his siblings were placed in a Catholic orphanage, where nuns allegedly  abused him physically and emotionally for his lifelong problem of chronic bed wetting. He was also placed in a Salvation Army orphanage, where one of the caretakers allegedly  tried to drown him. In his adolescence, Smith reunited and lived an itinerant existence with his father. He also spent time in different juvenile detention homes after joining a street gang and becoming involved in petty crime. Perry's father, Tex, moved to Cold Springs, Nevada, circa 1964-1967 where he lived to the age of 92 before committing suicide, distraught over poor health.
Military service and life in Washington
At age 16, Smith joined the United States Merchant Marine. He joined the army in 1948, where he served in the Korean War. During his stint in the army, Smith spent weeks at a time in the stockade for public carousing and fighting with Korean civilians and other soldiers. In spite of his record, in 1952, Smith received an honorable discharge and was last stationed at Fort Lewis in Washington. He stayed with an Army friend for a time in the Tacoma area, where he was employed as a car painter. With one of his first pay checks, Smith bought a motor bike. While riding, he lost control of the bike due to adverse weather conditions. Smith nearly died in the accident and spent six months in a Bellingham hospital. Because of the severe injuries to both legs, Smith's legs were permanently disabled and he suffered chronic leg pains for the rest of his life. To help control the pain, he was known to consume a copious amount of aspirin.
The murders and life on death row
Perry Smith and Richard Hickock first met in the Kansas State Prison, at Lansing, Kansas, resuming their acquaintance after Hickock's release in November 1959. Hickock and Smith later testified that they had gotten the idea to rob the Clutters after Hickock was told by former cellmate Floyd Wells, who had worked as a farmhand for the Clutters, that there was a safe in the family's house containing $10,000. When they invaded the house, however, they discovered that there was no such safe.
Smith admitted to cutting the throat of the father, Herbert Clutter, as well as shooting both Herbert and Kenyon Clutter in the head with a shotgun at close range. The trial record shows a dispute as to which of the two shot the women, Bonnie and Nancy Clutter. Alvin Dewey, chief investigator of the Clutter family murders, testified at the trial that Hickock insisted in his confession that Smith performed all the killings; Smith, however, first claimed Hickock killed the women but later claimed to have shot them himself. Although Smith's revised confession coincided with Hickock's initial statement, Smith refused to testify in court, as did Hickock, leading to a lack of an official record detailing who killed the women, aside from Kansas Bureau of Investigation (KBI) Special Agent Dewey's testimony outlining Hickock's confession, along with Smith's confession and the latter's subsequent revision.
While Smith had only a grade-school education, he maintained a strong interest in art, literature and music. He read extensively, and during his time on death row, wrote poems and painted pictures for other inmates from photos of their family members.
Relationship with Truman Capote
During research for his novel In Cold Blood, Truman Capote extensively interviewed Smith and eventually befriended him. There have long been rumors and conjecture as to the exact nature of their relationship. While Capote never wrote anything to suggest that there was anything more than a platonic friendship, some accounts have suggested perhaps a stronger association had developed.
Smith and Hickock were executed by hanging on April 14, 1965. After hanging for twenty minutes, Hickock died at 12:41 am, with Smith following, at 1:19 am. Warden Greg Seamon presided over the execution in Lansing.
The bodies of the killers were exhumed December 18, 2012 from Mount Muncie Cemetery in Lansing, as authorities hoped to solve a 53-year-old cold case using DNA. The pair were questioned about the December 19, 1959 shooting murder in Osprey, Florida of Cliff and Christine Walker and their two young children, as they had spent time in Florida after the Clutter murders. A polygraph administered at the time of their arrest in the Clutter case cleared them of the murder, but by modern polygraph standards, their test results are no longer considered valid. On December 19, 2012, officials in Kansas exhumed the bodies of Smith and Hickock and retrieved bone fragments to compare their DNA to semen found in the pants of Christine Walker. In August 2013, the Sarasota County Sheriff's office announced they were unable to find a match between the DNA of Perry Smith or Richard Hickock with the samples in the Walker family murder. Only partial DNA could be retrieved, possibly due to degradations of the DNA samples over the decades or contamination in storage, making the outcome one of uncertainty (neither proving nor disproving the involvement of Smith and Hickock). Consequently, investigators have stated that Smith and Hickock still remain the most viable suspects.
Smith was portrayed in the 1967 film version of In Cold Blood by Robert Blake, who bore an uncanny resemblance to Smith; by Eric Roberts in the 1996 TV miniseries adaptation; by Clifton Collins, Jr. in 2005's Capote; and, by Daniel Craig in 2006's Infamous.
- Anatomy of a Murder, Time Magazine, December 22, 1967
- Capote, Truman. In Cold Blood. New York: Random House, 1965.
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- Van Olson, Cora. "‘In Cold Blood’ Killers Suspected in Cold Case of Florida Family Massacre". Crime Library. Retrieved 5 May 2013.
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- "'In Cold Blood' killers' bodies exhumed in second murder investigation". NBC News. 19 December 2012. Retrieved 5 May 2013.
- Sanderson, Bill (December 20, 2012). "‘In Cold Blood’ killers' bodies exhumed to check for link in 1959 Florida slaying". New York Post. Retrieved 5 May 2013.
- Koehn, Donna (13 August 2013). "No DNA link between Walker murders, 'In Cold Blood' killers". Herald Tribune. Retrieved 30 September 2013.
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- In Cold Blood Revisited: A Look Back at an American Crime Keglovits, Sally J. Federal Probation68.1 (Jun 2004): 39-42.