In Cold Blood

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In Cold Blood: A True Account of a Multiple Murder and Its Consequences
In Cold Blood-Truman Capote.jpg
AuthorTruman Capote
Original titleIn Cold Blood
Cover artistS. Neil Fujita
CountryUnited States
PublisherRandom House
Publication date
January 17, 1966 (see Publication section for more information)
Media typePrint (hardback and paperback), e-book, audio-CD
Pages343 (paperback edition)
ISBN0-679-74558-0 (paperback edition)
364.1/523/0978144 20
LC ClassHV6533.K3 C3 1994

In Cold Blood is a non-fiction novel[1] by American author Truman Capote, first published in 1966; it details the 1959 murders of four members of the Herbert Clutter family in the small farming community of Holcomb, Kansas.

When Capote learned of the quadruple murder, before the killers were captured, he decided to travel to Kansas and write about the crime. He was accompanied by his childhood friend and fellow author Harper Lee, and together they interviewed local residents and investigators assigned to the case and took thousands of pages of notes. The killers, Richard "Dick" Hickock and Perry Smith, were arrested six weeks after the murders and later executed by the state of Kansas. Capote ultimately spent six years working on the book. When finally published, In Cold Blood was an instant success, and today is the second-biggest-selling true crime book in publishing history, behind Vincent Bugliosi's 1974 book Helter Skelter about the Charles Manson murders.[2]

Some critics consider Capote's work the original non-fiction novel, though other writers had already explored the genre, such as Rodolfo Walsh in Operación Masacre (1957). In Cold Blood has been lauded for its eloquent prose, extensive detail, and simultaneous triple narrative, which describes the lives of the murderers, the victims, and other members of the rural community in alternating sequences. The psychologies and backgrounds of Hickock and Smith are given special attention, as well as the complex relationship that existed between them during and after the murders. In Cold Blood is regarded by critics as a pioneering work in the true crime genre, though Capote was disappointed that the book failed to win the Pulitzer Prize.[3] Parts of the book, including important details, differ from the real events.[4]


The Clutter home in 2009

Herb Clutter was a prosperous farmer in western Kansas. He employed as many as 18 farmhands, who admired and respected him for his fair treatment and good wages. Two elder daughters, Eveanna and Beverly, had moved out and started their adult lives; Nancy, 16, and Kenyon, 15, were in high school. Clutter's wife Bonnie had reportedly been incapacitated by clinical depression and physical ailments since the births of her children, although this was later disputed.

Two ex-convicts recently paroled from the Kansas State Penitentiary, Richard Eugene "Dick" Hickock and Perry Edward Smith, committed the robbery and murders in the early morning hours of November 15, 1959. A former cellmate of Hickock's, Floyd Wells, had worked for Herb Clutter and told Hickock that Clutter kept large amounts of cash in a safe. Hickock soon hatched the idea to steal the safe and start a new life in Mexico. According to Capote, Hickock described his plan as "a cinch, the perfect score." Hickock later contacted Smith, another former cellmate, about committing the robbery with him.[5] In fact, Herb Clutter had no safe and did all his business by check.

After driving more than four hundred miles across the state of Kansas on the evening of November 14, Hickock and Smith arrived in Holcomb, located the Clutter home, and entered through an unlocked door while the family slept. Upon rousing the Clutters and discovering there was no safe, they bound and gagged the family and continued to search for money, but found little else of value in the house. Still determined to leave no witnesses, the pair briefly debated what to do; Smith, notoriously unstable and prone to violent acts in fits of rage, slit Herb Clutter's throat and then shot him in the head. Capote writes that Smith recounted later, "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."[6] Kenyon, Nancy, and then Mrs. Clutter were also murdered, each by a single shotgun blast to the head. Hickock and Smith left the crime scene with a small portable radio, a pair of binoculars, and less than fifty dollars in cash.

Smith later claimed in his oral confession that Hickock murdered the two women. When asked to sign his confession, however, Smith refused. According to Capote, he wanted to accept responsibility for all four killings because, he said, he was "sorry for Dick's mother." Smith added, "She's a real sweet person."[7] Hickock always maintained that Smith committed all four killings.

Investigation and trial[edit]

On the basis of a tip from Wells, who contacted the prison warden after hearing of the murders, Hickock and Smith were identified as suspects and arrested in Las Vegas on December 30, 1959. Both men eventually confessed after interrogations by detectives of the Kansas Bureau of Investigation. They were brought back to Kansas, where they were tried together at the Finney County courthouse in Garden City, Kansas, from March 22 to 29, 1960. They both pleaded temporary insanity at the trial, but local GPs evaluated the accused and pronounced them sane.

Hickock and Smith are also suspected of involvement in the Walker family murders, a notion which is mentioned in the book, though this connection has not been proven.

A defense motion that Smith and Hickock undergo comprehensive psychological testing was denied; instead three local general practitioners were appointed to examine them to determine whether they were sane at the time of the crime.[8] After only a short interview the doctors determined the defendants were not insane and were capable of being tried under M'Naghten rules. Defense lawyers sought the opinion of an experienced psychiatrist from the state’s local mental hospital, who diagnosed definite signs of mental illness in Smith and felt that previous injuries to Hickock’s head could have affected his behavior.[9] This opinion was not admitted in the trial, however, because under Kansas law the psychiatrist could only opine on the defendant's sanity at the time of the crime.[9]

The jury deliberated for only 45 minutes before finding both Hickock and Smith guilty of murder. Their conviction carried a mandatory death sentence at the time.

On appeal Smith and Hickock contested the determinations that they were sane, and asserted that media coverage of the crime and trial had biased the jury,[10] and that they had received inadequate assistance from their attorneys. Aspects of these appeals were submitted three times to the United States Supreme Court, which refused to hear the case.[11]

After five years on death row at the Kansas State Penitentiary, Smith and Hickock were executed by hanging on April 14, 1965. Hickock was executed first and was pronounced dead at 12:41 a.m. after hanging for nearly 20 minutes. Smith followed shortly after and was pronounced dead at 1:19 a.m.[12]

Coverage and public discussion[edit]

During the first few months of the trial and after, the case of Richard Hickock and Perry Smith went unnoticed by most Americans. It was not until months before their execution that they became “two of the most famous murderers in history.”[13] Even TIME magazine published a story about the murders in the year 1960.[14] Truman Capote wrote and published a book titled In Cold Blood that detailed the crime and trial. The murders and subsequent trial brought lasting effects to the small Kansas town. The author became so famous and related to trials that he was called to help the Senate in an examination of the court case.[15]

The trial brought into light a discussion about the death penalty and mental illness to the nation.[13] Capote expressed that after completing the book and interviewing Hickock and Smith, he was against the death penalty.[15] This trial has also been cited as an example of “the limitations of the M’Naghten Test."[13] The M’Naghten rules are used to determine if a criminal was insane at the time of their crime and therefore incapable of being tried fairly. Authors such as Karl Menninger strongly criticized the M’Naghten test, calling it absurd. Many “lawyers, judges, and psychiatrists” have sought to “get around” the M’Naghten rules.[16] In Intention - Law and Society, James Marshall further criticizes the M’Naghten rules, calling into question the psychological principles upon which the rules are based. He stated that “the M’Naghten rules... are founded on an erroneous hypothesis that behavior is based exclusively on intellectual activity and capacity.”[17]

Due to the brutality and severity of the crimes, the trial was covered all over the nation, even getting some coverage internationally. In 2009, the Huffington Post asked citizens about the effects of the trial and their opinions on the book and subsequent movie and television series about the events. Many people said that they began to lose their trust in others. They stated that, “doors were locked. Strangers eyed with suspicion.” Many still felt greatly affected, and felt that Capote had in a way taken advantage of their “great tragedy."[18] An article in the New York Times states that in the small Kansas community of Holcomb “neighborliness evaporated. The natural order seemed suspended. Chaos poised to rush in.”[19]

Capote's research[edit]

Capote became interested in the murders after reading about them in The New York Times.[20] He brought his childhood friend Nelle Harper Lee (who would later win the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction for her novel To Kill a Mockingbird) to help gain the confidence of the locals in Kansas. Capote did copious research for the book, ultimately compiling 8,000 pages of notes.[21] Capote's research also included letters from Smith's Army buddy, Don Cullivan, who was present during the trial.[22] After the criminals were found, tried, and convicted, Capote conducted personal interviews with both Smith and Hickock. Smith especially fascinated Capote; in the book he is portrayed as the more sensitive of the two killers. The book was not completed until after Smith and Hickock were executed.

An alternate explanation for Capote's interest holds that The New Yorker presented the Clutter story to him as one of two choices for a story, the other being to follow a Manhattan cleaning woman on her rounds. Capote supposedly chose the Clutter story, believing it would be the easier assignment.[23] Capote later did write a piece about following a cleaning woman, which he entitled "A Day's Work" and included in his book Music for Chameleons.


In Cold Blood brought Capote much praise from the literary community. Yet despite the book's billing as a factual account, critics have questioned its veracity, arguing that Capote changed facts to suit the story, added scenes that had never taken place, and manufactured dialogue.[4][24] Writing in Esquire in 1966, Phillip K. Tompkins noted factual discrepancies after he traveled to Kansas and talked to some of the same people interviewed by Capote. In a telephone interview with Tompkins, Josephine Meier, the wife of Finney County Undersheriff Wendle Meier, denied that she heard Smith cry and that she held his hand as described by Capote. In Cold Blood indicates that Meier and Smith became close, yet she told Tompkins she spent little time with Smith and did not talk much with him. Tompkins concluded:

Capote has, in short, achieved a work of art. He has told exceedingly well a tale of high terror in his own way. But, despite the brilliance of his self-publicizing efforts, he has made both a tactical and a moral error that will hurt him in the short run. By insisting that 'every word' of his book is true he has made himself vulnerable to those readers who are prepared to examine seriously such a sweeping claim.

True crime writer Jack Olsen also commented on the alleged fabrications:

I recognized it as a work of art, but I know fakery when I see it, […] Capote completely fabricated quotes and whole scenes... The book made something like $6 million in 1960s money, and nobody wanted to discuss anything wrong with a moneymaker like that in the publishing business.

His criticisms were quoted in Esquire, to which Capote replied, "Jack Olsen is just jealous."[25]

That was true, of course, […] I was jealous—all that money? I'd been assigned the Clutter case by Harper & Row until we found out that Capote and his cousin [sic], Harper Lee, had been already on the case in Dodge City for six months. […] That book did two things. It made true crime an interesting, successful, commercial genre, but it also began the process of tearing it down. I blew the whistle in my own weak way. I'd only published a couple of books at that time—but since it was such a superbly written book, nobody wanted to hear about it.[25]

The prosecutor in the case, Duane West, claims that the story lacks veracity because Capote failed to get the true hero right. West claims that Richard Rohlader, who took the photo showing that two culprits were involved, was the one deserving of the greatest praise. Without that picture, West believes, the crime might not have been solved. West had been a friend of Capote's for a while during the writing of the book, and for a time thereafter, including being Capote's guest in NYC for Hello Dolly, meeting Carol Channing after the show. Their relationship soured when Capote's publisher attempted to get a non-compete agreement signed from West to preclude his writing his own book about the murders.

Alvin Dewey, the lead investigator portrayed in In Cold Blood, later said that the last scene, in which he visits the Clutters' graves, was Capote's invention, while other Kansas residents whom Capote interviewed have claimed they or their relatives were mischaracterized or misquoted.[26] Dewey said that the rest of the book was factually accurate. Further evidence indicates that the book is not as "immaculately factual" as Capote had always claimed it to be. The book depicts Dewey as being the brilliant investigator who cracks the Clutter murder case, but files recovered from the Kansas Bureau of Investigation show that when Floyd Wells came forward naming Richard Hickock and Perry Smith as likely suspects, Dewey did not immediately act on the information, as the book portrays him doing, because Dewey still held to his belief that the murders were committed by locals who "had a grudge against Herb Clutter".[4]

After prevailing in a lawsuit instigated by the State of Kansas in 2012, Ronald Nye, son of the late former Kansas Bureau of Investigation Director Harold R. Nye, collaborated with author Gary McAvoy in disclosing parts of his father’s personal investigative notebooks challenging the veracity of “In Cold Blood.” Their book, "And Every Word is True," [27] lays out previously unknown facts of the investigation suggesting that Herbert Clutter’s death may have been a murder-for-hire plot, assertions supporting Alvin Dewey’s belief, and which were later corroborated by letters written by one of the killers, Richard Hickock, while awaiting execution on Death Row.


In Cold Blood was first published as a four-part serial in The New Yorker, beginning with the September 25, 1965 issue. The piece was an immediate sensation, particularly in Kansas, where the usual number of New Yorker copies sold out immediately. In Cold Blood was first published in book form by Random House on January 17, 1966.[28][29] The book, however, was copyrighted in 1965, and this date appears on the title page of most printings of the book and even in some library indices as the original publication date. The Library of Congress lists 1966 as the publication date and 1965 as the copyright date.[30]

The cover, which was designed by S. Neil Fujita, shows a hatpin with what appeared originally as a red drop of blood at its top end. After Capote first saw the design, he requested that the drop be made a deeper shade of red to represent the passage of time since the incident. A black border was added to the ominous image.[31]

Reviews and impact[edit]

Writing for The New York Times, Conrad Knickerbocker gave praise to Capote's talent for detail throughout the novel and declared the book a "masterpiece" — an "agonizing, terrible, possessed, proof that the times, so surfeited with disasters, are still capable of tragedy".[32]

In a controversial review of the novel published in 1966 for The New Republic, Stanley Kauffmann, criticising Capote's writing style throughout the novel, states that he "demonstrates on almost every page that he is the most outrageously overrated stylist of our time" and later asserts that "the depth in this book is no deeper than its mine-shaft of factual detail; its height is rarely higher than that of good journalism and often falls below it."[33]

Tom Wolfe wrote in his essay "Pornoviolence": "The book is neither a who-done-it nor a will-they-be-caught, since the answers to both questions are known from the outset... Instead, the book's suspense is based largely on a totally new idea in detective stories: the promise of gory details, and the withholding of them until the end."[34]

In The Independent's Book of a Lifetime series, reviewer Kate Colquhoun asserts that "the book – for which he made a reputed 8000 pages of research notes – is plotted and structured with taut writerly flair. Its characters pulse with recognisable life; its places are palpable. Careful prose binds the reader to his unfolding story. Put simply, the book was conceived of journalism and born of a novelist."[35]



The 2016 novel In Colder Blood, by J. T. Hunter, discussed Hickock and Smith's possible involvement in the Walker family murders.


Three film adaptations based upon the book have been produced. The first focuses on the details of the book, whereas the later two explore Capote's fascination with researching the novel. The first adaptation was the 1967 film of the same name by Richard Brooks, who directed and adapted the screenplay. It starred Robert Blake as Perry Smith and Scott Wilson as Richard Hickock. John Forsythe played the investigator (Alvin Dewey), from the Kansas Bureau of Investigation, who apprehended the killers.[36][37] The film, shot in black and white,[36] was nominated for four Academy Awards: Best Director, Best Original Score, Best Cinematography, and Best Adapted Screenplay.[37][38]

The second and third film adaptations tell the story of Capote's experiences in writing the story and his subsequent fascination with the murders. Capote (2005) starred Philip Seymour Hoffman, who won the Academy Award for Best Actor for his portrayal of Truman Capote, Clifton Collins, Jr. as Perry Smith, and Catherine Keener as Harper Lee.[39] The film was critically acclaimed,[40] and was nominated for five Academy Awards: Best Picture, Best Actor (Hoffman), Best Supporting Actress (Keener), Best Director (Bennett Miller), and Best Adapted Screenplay (Dan Futterman).[41]

A year later the 2006 film Infamous, starring Toby Jones as Capote, Daniel Craig as Smith, and Sandra Bullock as Lee, was released to favorable reviews.[42]


The Alt-J song In Cold Blood's title is based on the book.[43]

The British band Bastille's song Four Walls (The Ballad of Perry Smith) is based on the book.


The book was adapted into a two-part 1996 television miniseries starring Anthony Edwards, Eric Roberts, and Sam Neill,[44] portraying, respectively, Dick Hickock, Perry Smith, and Alvin Dewey.[45]

Graphic novel[edit]

Oni Press published a graphic novel, Capote in Kansas, by Ande Parks and Chris Samnee, in 2005.[46]

See also[edit]


General references[edit]

  • Clarke, Gerald (1988). Capote, A Biography (1st ed.). New York: Simon and Schuster. ISBN 978-0-241-12549-6.
  • Davis, Deborah (2006). Party of the Century: The Fabulous Story of Truman Capote and His Black and White Ball (1st ed.). Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons. ISBN 978-0-470-09821-9.
  • McAvoy, Gary (2019). And Every Word Is True (1st ed.). Seattle, WA: Literati Editions. ISBN 978-0-9908376-0-2.

Inline citations[edit]

  1. ^ Plimpton, George (January 16, 1966). "The Story Behind a Nonfiction Novel". The New York Times.
  2. ^ Ferri, Jessica (December 28, 2016). "Capote's Masterpiece 'In Cold Blood' Still Vivid at 50". The Daily Beast. Retrieved November 13, 2017.
  3. ^ Thomson, Rupert (August 6, 2011). "The Story of a Town". The Guardian. p. 16.
  4. ^ a b c Helliker, Kevin (February 8, 2013). "Capote Classic 'In Cold Blood' Tainted by Long-Lost Files". The Wall Street Journal. Retrieved February 12, 2013.
  5. ^ In Cold Blood, p. 44.
  6. ^ In Cold Blood, p. 244.
  7. ^ In Cold Blood, p. 255.
  8. ^ "State v. Hickock & Smith". Justia Law. Retrieved December 1, 2018.
  9. ^ a b Knappman(1), Christianson(2), Olson(3), Edward W.(1), Stephen(2), Lisa(3). Great American Trials.CS1 maint: Multiple names: authors list (link)
  10. ^ State v. Hickock & Smith, 363, 1961, p. 541, retrieved November 30, 2018
  11. ^ Capote, Truman. In Cold Blood.
  12. ^ "Gallows, Kansas State Penitentiary, Lansing, Kansas". Retrieved October 8, 2014.
  13. ^ a b c "Richard Hickock and Perry Smith Trial: 1960 - Trial Leaves Questions Over Sanity, Appeals Fail To Overturn Conviction, Suggestions For Further Reading". Retrieved November 30, 2018.
  14. ^ "KANSAS: The Killers". Time. January 18, 1960. ISSN 0040-781X. Retrieved November 30, 2018.
  15. ^ a b Knappman(1), Christianson(2), Olson(3), Edward W.(1), Stephen(2), Lisa(3). Great American Trials.CS1 maint: Multiple names: authors list (link)
  16. ^ Menninger, Karl A. The Crime of Punishment.
  17. ^ Marshall, James. Intention in Law and Society.
  18. ^ Kanalley, Craig (March 18, 2010). "Clutter Murders "In Cold Blood" Leave Lasting Impact In Kansas". Huffington Post. Retrieved November 30, 2018.
  19. ^ "One Night on a Kansas Farm". Retrieved November 30, 2018.
  20. ^ Standen, Amy (January 22, 2002). "In Cold Blood". Archived from the original on March 12, 2008. Retrieved June 21, 2007.
  21. ^ "In Cold Blood: Analysis". Spark notes. Retrieved March 16, 2008.
  22. ^ Myrick, Steve (September 24, 2015). "Fifty years later Cold blood still fresh". Martha's Vineyard Gazette.
  23. ^ Davis, pp. 60–1.
  24. ^ Mass, Mark. "Capote's Legacy: The Challenge of Creativity and Credibility in Literary Journalism". Listserv Archives. MSU. Archived from the original on September 11, 2009. Retrieved June 20, 2015.
  25. ^ a b Hood, Michael. "True Crime Doesn't Pay: A Conversation with Jack Olsen". Point No Point. Jack Olsen. Archived from the original on June 3, 2010. Retrieved March 8, 2010.
  26. ^ Van Jensen (April 3, 2005). "Writing history: Capote's novel has lasting effect on journalism". Lawrence, Kansas Journal World.
  27. ^ Gary, McAvoy (2019). And Every Word is True. Seattle: Literati. ISBN 0990837602.
  28. ^ "Books Today". The New York Times: 35. January 17, 1966.
  29. ^ Clarke, Gerald (1988) Capote: A Biography. Simon and Schuster. pp. 362–363.
  30. ^ LCCN 65011257. In Cold Blood listing with the Library of Congress.
  31. ^ Grimes, William (October 27, 2010). "S. Neil Fujita, Innovative Graphic Designer, Dies at 89". The New York Times. Retrieved October 27, 2010.
  32. ^ Knickerbocker, Conrad (January 16, 1966). "One Night on a Kansas Farm". The New York Times. Arthur Ochs Sulzberger, Jr. Retrieved March 2, 2016.
  33. ^ Kauffmann, Stanley (January 22, 1966). "Capote in Kansas". The New Republic. Hamilton Fish. Retrieved March 3, 2016.
  34. ^ Wolfe, Tom: "Mauve Gloves & Madmen, Clutter & Vine", pp. 163–64. Picador, 1990.
  35. ^ Colquhoun, Kate (May 12, 2011). "Book Of A Lifetime: In Cold Blood, By Truman Capote". The Independent. Independent Print Limited. Retrieved March 3, 2016.
  36. ^ a b Patterson, John (September 7, 2015). "In Cold Blood: why isn’t the movie of Capote’s bestseller a masterpiece?". The Guardian.
  37. ^ a b Stafford, Jeff (January 8, 2018). "In Cold Blood". Turner Classic Movies.
  38. ^ "The 40th Academy Awards". Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. 2015. Retrieved November 18, 2017.
  39. ^ Metcalf, Stephen (April 26, 2006). "The Great American Drama Queen". Slate.
  40. ^ "Capote (2005)". Rotten Tomatoes. Retrieved November 18, 2017.
  41. ^ "The 78th Academy Awards". Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. 2006. Retrieved November 18, 2017.
  42. ^ "Infamous (2006)". Rotten Tomatoes. Retrieved November 18, 2017.
  43. ^ "alt-J's 'Relaxer,' Track By Track". Retrieved November 8, 2018.
  44. ^ Robinson, Joanna (April 14, 2015). "Why a New In Cold Blood TV Show Misses the Point of the True-Crime Craze". Vanity Fair.
  45. ^ "In Cold Blood (1996)". Rotten Tomatoes. Retrieved November 18, 2017.
  46. ^ Goldstein, Hilary (August 3, 2005). "Capote in Kansas Review: The path taken to write In Cold Blood." IGN.

External links[edit]