Part I of a three-part series exploring the Clutter murders’ ties to our area
Corbin H. Crable
Folks in Edgerton could always tell how much trouble young Dick Hickock was in by counting the number of horses on his father’s property.
The teen had only lived in Edgerton a few months and was already stirring up
trouble everywhere he went – petty thefts, mostly. Since it was a small town and the Hickock family didn’t want any trouble from the locals – Walt and his wife both were well-liked and respected in the community – the elder Hickock had to make a difficult decision. Walt would give one of his many horses to residents affected by Dick’s troublemaking and stealing, an act of penance done mostly to keep neighbors from pressing charges against his son and keep the youth out of jail.
A rise to notoriety
But despite Edgerton’s attempts to look the other way when Dick Hickock committed small crimes, the rest of the country would eventually come to know him as one of the men at the center of the most well-known murder in Kansas history.
Kansans know the story well – Hickock and accomplice Perry Smith, who had met at Lansing Correctional Facility, received a tip in the fall of 1959 that a family in western Kansas harbored a safe in their home containing several thousand dollars. Excited about the prospect of leaving behind their troubled pasts and wanting to begin life anew in Mexico, the pair made the trek out to Holcomb, Kan., on Nov. 14, 1959, to the home of Herb Clutter; his wife, Bonnie; and their teenaged children, Nancy and Kenyon.
Hickock and Smith discovered after breaking into the Clutter home that, of course, their tipoff from cellmate Floyd Wells had been mere hearsay. Not wanting to leave a trace of any witnesses, the men killed each family member one by one.
Years later, Smith took credit for cutting Herb Clutter’s throat and insisted that Hickock killed the other three; Dick Hickock, for his part, maintained that Smith slaughtered the entire family himself.
Regardless of who was to blame for the brutal killings, officers from the Kansas Bureau of Investigation, acting on a tip from Wells, arrested the pair in Las Vegas roughly six weeks after the murders.
Smith and Hickock were brought back to Kansas on New Year’s Eve, 1959, and the two rang in the new decade behind prison bars.
It was there that, thanks to author Truman Capote, Hickock would undergo the transformation from small-town thief to one of the most notorious characters in the true crime genre.
One boy’s beginnings
Richard “Dick” Hickock was born to hard-working, god-fearing parents on June 6, 1931, in Kansas City, Kan. – but, like so many teenagers – soon fell into the wrong crowd.
The Hickock family had moved from Kansas City to Olathe during his early teen years with the hopes that Dick would “clean up” and get his act together.
But even the lures of teenage mischief in Olathe became too much for Dick and, after a string of small thefts, the family packed up and moved to Edgerton in 1945, shortly before the end of World War II.
Edgerton resident Ray Braun, then in his early 20s, said he still remembers the first time he laid eyes on Hickock.
The boy was at a pool hall downtown and school hadn’t started yet. Braun recalled being at the pool hall and being approached by the high school’s football coach.
The two saw the clean-cut, wiry boy and athletics immediately came to mind.
“He saw the kids and asked, ‘Who’s that new kid? I wonder if he plays football,’” Braun said.
The coach had correctly assumed that Hickock – a popular athlete at Olathe High School – was involved in sports, but he did not yet know what so many would later learn. In addition to being athletic, Hickock was a charming, smart con man.
Johnson County Sheriff George Able deputized Braun shortly after Hickock moved to town – and it wasn’t long before Braun was receiving calls about the youth.
“The high school (principal) called me up and said she had Dick and a janitor in her office,” Braun recalled. “She said someone had stolen her pocketbook.”
Braun questioned the boy about the situation. Initially, Hickock insisted he was not involved in the theft – but eventually, it was discovered that Hickock had hidden the principal’s pocketbook in the school’s boiler room.
Braun asked the administrator if she wished to press charges against Hickock, but she declined.
“She said, ‘He’s a new boy around here, and we don’t want to start off that way,’” he said. “And that’s how it was.”
“You knew he was a con man”
As the months passed and more thefts were reported throughout town, everyone had one thought on their minds: Dick Hickock has to be behind this.
Braun, who said Hickock “robbed everything in town,” said everyone knew if crime was on the rise, Dick Hickock likely had something to do with it. But it was a rare citizen who pressed charges against the boy, mostly out of respect for his parents, who were well-liked around Edgerton.
“He was the most polite boy to his mother,” Braun said. “His mother never drove, and he’d drive her into town, to the grocery store, and (he) always opened the car door for her.”
Still, despite Hickock’s affinity for his mother, Edgerton residents knew the boy was no good.
“He was friendly and happy,” Braun said, “but you knew he was a con man.”
Braun, who sold gun ammunition at the filling station he owned in town, said Hickock would stop by often – but not for idle chit-chat.
“He’d come in and buy a box of shells, go across the street and shoot ‘em off,” Braun said. “I’d hear a ‘rat-a-tat-a-tat.’”
Soon, stealing pocketbooks and other items ceased to be enough to quench Hickock’s thirst for trouble. Braun said he specifically remembers Hickock being blamed for robbing the town’s drug store. Braun received a phone call one night to come to the drug store, where there was evidence of a breakin. The door had been kicked in and the store ransacked.
“If Hickock did this,” Braun recalled the owner telling him, “I want him hanged.”
Instead, Braun said, residents turned the other cheek in order to spare his mother the stress of seeing her son go to jail.
“I think he considered me a friend,” Braun said. “That’s the way he was. He had a lot of gumption.”
But Braun soon learned that Hickock wasn’t above stealing from his own friends – in fact, Braun said, he still recalls Hickock stealing the March of Dimes donation jar from his own filling station.
One Edgerton resident finally decided he’d had enough. According to Braun, Dwight Sawhill, who made a habit of giving the Hickock family fresh milk from his cows, noticed Dick usually would stop by his house, visit with his kids and leave a short time later. Sawhill had the suspicion that Hickock would leave just a bit richer than when he came by, too, because small amounts of money would go missing from his drawers. When confronted about the thefts, Hickock would simply shrug and say, “I didn’t do nothin.’”
One day, Braun said, Sawhill left a $5 bill in a drawer in his house to see whether Hickock would take it. Sawhill called Braun after Hickock left that day.
“He said he looked at the drawer and (the money) was gone,” Braun said. “He told me, ‘Dick stole my bait.’”
Eventually, Hickock’s father had to resort to making peace with local residents who had been wronged by his son. In exchange for their forgiveness, Mr. Hickock would give his horses to those from whom his son had stolen.
Unfortunately, the act wasn’t enough to keep young Dick Hickock from continuing down his path to ruin. And that path would take a life-altering turn quite soon.
An uncertain future faced Dick Hickock when he graduated from high school in 1949. Although he had been a successful athlete and intelligent pupil in his high school days, Hickock was academically unfocused and did not apply himself to his studies, opting instead to let his charm and charisma carry him through life up to that point.
His family couldn’t afford to send Hickock to college, where he dreamed of continuing his athletic career, and so instead, Hickock went to work as a mechanic in Gardner. Ever the concerned parent, his father worked with him at the same garage and one day sent Hickock on an errand.
He was sent to get car parts in Olathe on a rainy day in 1950. Hickock jumped into his car and drove down Old 56 Highway, when he saw a school bus driving toward him. As the bus passed, Hickock lost control of his car and crashed it into a muddy ditch.
Gardner resident Harold Rankin happened to be driving by shortly after Hickock’s crash. Rankin rushed to Hickock’s side to assist him.
As he and another motorist tried to help Hickock out of the ditch, “he kicked like a wild man,” Rankin said. “We grabbed him and put him up on dry ground.”
Rankin met Hickock’s parents at the hospital.
“His dad said, ‘I never should have put him in that car,’” Rankin recalled. “His folks blamed themselves.”
Rankin also said some believe the accident may have affected Hickock psychologically, pushing a man with a criminal background to become able to carry out more devious acts.
Whatever the effect on Hickock’s psyche, the physical damage was evident. The accident left the young man disfigured, with a dislocated jaw and slightly lopsided face.
Nevertheless, in a short-lived attempt at normalcy, Hickock later married and fathered three sons; he would have an extramarital affair, divorce his first wife and then marry his mistress. That second marriage, too, led to a divorce.
Still, Hickock’s past thefts and criminal mischief remained with him in a string of bad check use. One bad check charge would finally land him in jail, where he would strike up a relationship with Perry Smith, the man with whom he would execute the most heinous murder in Kansas history.
Already well-known around Edgerton, Hickock’s name would soon be recognizable in households across the country. His life of crime had only just begun.