Tag Archives: Truman Capote

In Cold Blood Murders Can’t be Linked to Florida Murders

You might recall that several months ago, the remains of Perry Smith and Richard Hickock, the two men executed for the murders of the Clutter family in Holcomb, Kansas, were exhumed in order to obtain DNA samples in hopes of solving a similar case involving the murder of a family in Florida.

On Tuesday, authorities announced that the DNA samples could not be linked to the Florida crime. This is sad news for the family and friends of the Walkers, who continue to be denied closure on a very cold case.

The tests did not clear the men who murdered the Clutter family in Holcomb, Kan., from committing a crime just as grisly while on the lam in the Sunshine State.

But investigators, working with evidence too old and degraded, could not positively match the pair’s DNA samples to Christine Walker, who was slain with her husband and two children about a month after the Kansas killings.

Reflecting on this from a Kansas history and literature standpoint, I can’t help but wonder how much the narrative would have changed had the DNA tests proven to be a match. Part of In Cold Blood‘s eeriness is the idea that the Clutter family murders happened because these two damaged men, neither of whom likely would have committed such a horrible crime alone, came together to commit this horrible act and spent the rest of their lives trying to run from it. Truman Capote’s novel also haunts us because it reminds us that if it can happen in Kansas, it can happen anywhere. To have connected them to yet another, similar crime would have not only solved a cold case, but also completely changed the narrative in both literature and history.

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Dying to read about Kansas murders?

Shadow on the Hill: The True Story of a 1925 Kansas Murder is weeks away from being available to read. In the meanwhile, here are some famous (and not so famous) Kansas murders worth reading about.

The Bloody Benders – Labette County, Kansas – 1870-1873

Saga of the Bloody BendersThe Benders appeared to be an average family of homesteaders who ran a store and restaurant in Labette County, just a few miles away from where the town of Cherryvale would be platted. While many families would purchase goods and pass through without any trouble, the lone traveler might not be so lucky. The Benders killed at least nine people, including two young children, stole their belongings and then buried them in the garden. It was not until nearby counties began to wonder about the number of people gone missing that they made the connection to the Benders, who escaped and were never apprehended. Books about the Bloody Benders include Robert Adleman’s The Bloody Benders, and Rick Geary’s graphic novel, The Saga of the Bloody Benders. The basic story can be found at the Murder by Gaslight blog and at Legends of America. There is also a movie in the making.

The Walkup Murder – Emporia, Kansas – 1885

AdventuressWhile in New Orleans for the World’s Fair in December 1884, James Reeves Walkup fell for a 16-year-old girl named Minnie Wallace. Just a few months later, he would die of arsenic poisoning. The courtroom was packed for Minnie Walkup’s trial, but the all-male jury just couldn’t bear the idea of sending a teenaged girl to the gallows. Minnie moved on to at least two other wealthy husbands, both of whom died very shortly after marrying. Virginia McConnell documented Minnie Wallace’s life in The Adventuress: Murder, Blackmail, and Confidence Games in the Gilded Age. You can read the basics in The Vamp of New Orleans.

Ax Murders – Ellsworth, Kansas – 1911, Paola, Kansas – 1912

Rollin and Anna Hudson of Paola.

Murder victims Anna and Rollin Hudson of Paola.

A series of ax murders happened in the Midwest during the 1910s, and two of the families hit were in Kansas. Other attacks happened in Missouri, Colorado, Illinois, and it is believed that the famous murders in Villisca, Iowa, may also be connected. Although Lee Moore was convicted of the murders in Missouri, the other cases remain unsolved. The Ax Murderer Who Got Away is available online through the Smithsonian Magazine web site. Actual articles from the time period are available through the Miami County Historical Museum, Millers Paranormal Research, and the Villisca Ax Murder House website.

The Clutter Family – Holcomb, Kansas – 1959

In Cold BloodHands down, this the most famous Kansas murder story of the Twentieth Century. Hearing rumors of a safe full of money, Richard Hickock and Perry Smith carefully planned an attack on the Clutter family. Unbeknownst to them, there was no safe full of money, and they brutally murdered a respected small-town family for about $50. The story of the murder, trial, and execution of Hickock and Smith was captured in Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, a piece of literature that would shape the way we write about murder and think about Kansas. It was also made into a movie that was shot in Kansas. In recent years, movies about the writing of the book have come out. I recommend watching Capote, which really delves into the psychological impact the book had on its author and the people he portrayed.

The New Orleans Sniper – New Orleans, Louisiana – 1972 and 1973

Terrible ThunderAlthough the events took place in Louisiana, the man involved–Mark Essex–was from Emporia. After dropping out of Kansas State Teachers College (now Emporia State University), he joined the Navy and went AWOL. He then became involved with Black radicals in California and would later join the New York Black Panthers. On December 31, 1972, and January 7, 1973, he would became involved in a spree killing that would kill nine people and injure thirteen others. Essex was fatally wounded by police officers shooting from a helicopter. Peter Hernon wrote about Mark Essex in A Terrible Thunder: The Story of the New Orleans Sniper. Read the basics online at the Crime Library.

David Harmon Murder – Olathe, Kansas – 1982

Cold Blooded BusinessIn 1982, David Harmon was bludgeoned to death while sleeping. Although his wife Melinda and friend Mark were immediately suspected, justice did not find them until two decades later. Marek Fuchs wrote the book A Cold-Blooded Business: Adultery, Murder, and a Killer’s Path from the Bible Belt to the Boardroom  in 2009.

The Bird Murders – Emporia, Kansas – 1983

Murder OrdainedAsking someone what they were doing in Emporia when they heard about the deaths of Sandy Bird or Marty Anderson is kind of like asking other people where they were during the Challenger space shuttle disaster. Murders aren’t unheard of in Emporia, but the deaths of Sandy Bird and Marty Anderson shook and divided the town, and to this day, people still feel very strongly about whether Rev. Tom Bird and his secretary, Lorna Anderson, were both involved in the deaths of their respective spouses.  This particular case caught the attention of newspapers and news stations all over the country. While there is no definitive book on the subject, you can find many articles about the subject online. The story was also made into a movie called Murder Ordained, starring John Goodman, Kathy Bates, and Keith Carradine. A few examples of articles include this one in the L. A. Times, 20 years later. If you’re in Emporia, visit the public library and ask about the binders of newspaper clippings from around the country.

BTK Murders – Wichita, Kansas – 1974-1991

Nightmare in WichitaMany books have already been written about Dennis Rader, the BTK strangler who terrorized Wichita for nearly two decades. An average family man who installed security systems for a living, Rader was a Cub Scout leader and church goer. He was also responsible for the torture and deaths of at least ten people. Books include Nightmare in Wichita: The Hunt for the BTK Strangler by Robert Beattie; Inside the Mind of BTK: The True Story Behind the Thirty-Year Hunt for the Notorious Wichita Serial Killer by John Douglas and Johnny Dodd; and Bind, Torture, Kill: The Inside Story of BTK, the Serial Killer Next Door by Roy Wenzl, Tim Potter, Hurst Laviana, and L. Kelly. Read the basic story online at the Crime Library.

Deborah Green and the Farrar Family Murders – Prairie Village, Kansas – 1995

Bitter HarvestDeborah Green was a smart physician whose personal life was out of control. After her husband, Mark Farrar, filed for divorce, she made numerous attempts to poison him to death and finally resorted to setting her own home on fire, killing two of her three children. She would eventually plead no contest to two counts of murder, two counts of attempted murder, and one count of arson. The famous true crime writer Ann Rule told the story in Bitter Harvest: A Woman’s Fury, a Mother’s Sacrifice. Read the basic story online here.

Bobbi Jo Stinnett Murder – Skidmore, Missouri – 2004

Murder in the HeartlandMelvern, Kansas woman Lisa Montgomery desperately wanted a baby of her own. When she met pregnant Bobbi Jo Stinnett online through a forum for dog breeders, she concocted a plan to drive to Skidmore, Missouri, kill Bobbi Jo Stinnett, and steal her unborn child. This tragic story changed the way law enforcement handles Amber Alerts and made many a little more cautious about how they interact with others online. M. William Phelps chronicled the story in the book Murder in the Heartland. Read the basics online at the Crime Library.

Not long ago, I blogged about watching the movie In Cold Blood. What amazes me about this blog post is that if it is true that Perry Smith and Richard Hickock really did make it to Florida and killed a family, the story we know–and Truman Capote’s book, which is now part of the American and Kansan canon–will turn into a completely different set of truths. Mind blowing.

KOFO Local News

LANSING — The bodies of the two killers who were executed in the case detailed by Truman Capote’s book “In Cold Blood’ were being exhumed today in connection with another cold case. The Kansas Bureau of Investigation said its agents obtained a search warrant today to exhume the bodies of Perry Smith and Richard Hickock and collect tissue samples for DNA testing. They were convicted and executed for the murders of Herb, Bonnie, Nancy and Kenyon Clutter in western Kansas. The Sarasota County, Fla., Sheriff’s Department has wanted DNA from Smith and Hickock to see if it matches tissue samples kept from a quadruple homicide of a Florida family shortly after the murders of the Clutter family. Smith and Hickock are buried in a private cemetery in Leavenworth County near the Lansing prison. The exhumation was conducted by members of the KBI’s crime scene response team.
Tuesday, Dec. 18, 1…

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Sunday Snapshot: In Cold Blood in Emporia

Thirty minutes before the show, movie goers are in the lobby, swapping stories about their memories and knowledge of the Clutter family and the movie.

Even though I’m a native Kansan, my first glimpse of Emporia–a city I would call home for a dozen years–was on the big screen while on my exodus to California. I still remember sitting with a few hundred other Trojans in Norris Cinema Theatre during USC’s famous Cinema 190 class, watching In Cold Blood. We were supposed to be watching it for the brilliant cuts and montage scenes. But I was mesmerized by this new window into my home state.

Dick Hickock (played by Scott Wilson) and Perry Smith (played by Robert Blake) as they drive down Commercial Street in Emporia. You can see the marquee of the Fox Theatre (now the Emporia Granada Theatre) just over Dick’s shoulder. (Still photo courtesy of Bryan T. Williams.)

I moved to Emporia in 2000, more than 40 years after Dick Hickock and Perry Smith brutally murdered four members of the Clutter family in their Holcomb home. The murder happened long before I was born. But the scene where Hickock and Smith drive through Emporia stayed with me because it was an important part of Hickock and Smith’s journey.

Emporia was where Hickock and Smith bought the rope they would use to tie up their victims before shooting them.

In a handful of real-time minutes and even fewer cinema minutes, Emporia became part of the history of the Clutter family.

Perry Smith (played by Robert Blake) measures out the rope.

It is a strange thing to see your home through the eyes of an outsider. Truman Capote‘s poetic descriptions of Kansas and its people would go on to influence how generations of Americans–and generations of Kansans–would perceive our state. But the movie is something different altogether. If you can take your eyes off the stars of the film, you begin to realize that the movie is a time capsule of 1960s Kansas: old buildings, old cars, and younger versions of today’s older people. Behind Robert Blake and Scott Wilson pretending to be murderers are real images of our real state.

Movie goers head out into the sultry September night. The theatre is on Commercial Street, the same street traveled by Hickock and Smith and Wilson and Blake.

When we reached the scene where KBI agent Alvin Dewey and other law enforcement officials lead Hickock and Smith into the Finney County Courthouse, there is some excitement coming from a few rows behind us. “That’s me!” a woman exclaims. “There on the lawn! I was fifteen and was standing on the lawn when they filmed this part! That’s me!”

And this is the real reason why Kansans are fascinated with this story. It’s not just about a famous murder. It’s a reflection of ourselves, our history, and our state. It’s about trying to understand us.

Special thanks to Bryan T. Williams for providing art and to the Emporia Granada Theatre for bringing In Cold Blood back to the big screen for a night.