The Origins of Evil, Part III: The Movie
Author’s note: This is the third and final installment of a series exploring the Clutter murders’ ties to our area. Part III of the series will appear in separate chapters on our website over the course of the next few days.
Corbin H. Crable
For the people of Holcomb, the wounds of the Clutter family murders were still as fresh in 1967 as they were on the day when Nancy Clutter’s best friend ran screaming from the family’s farmhouse after discovering four dead bodies.
Not that it mattered to Hollywood, the residents of Holcomb and nearby Garden City would scoff. A film director, Richard Brooks, had marched into town, just like Truman Capote had years earlier, and reopened those wounds for the entire nation to see. In Capote’s case, it was a book that did the damage – and what damage it was. When it finally hit bookstores in January 1966, townspeople decried “In Cold Blood” as not only being wildly inaccurate, but sensationalistic as well. Many Holcombites who recall Capote’s time in town – and the few who remember the Clutters — still express anger over what they view as an exploitation of a good, respected family.
If that wasn’t bad enough, now the book was being adapted for the big screen. And with Brooks came a legion of actors, film crews and other spectators. It was an economic boom for the town, sure, but it meant having to dig up memories that a lot of people would have rather forgotten.
Only a little more than a year after Capote’s book brought the Clutter family murders to life, Brooks’ film “In Cold Blood” resurrected them on celluloid – and forever cemented one of the most heinous crimes in history in the American public’s collective mind.
The face of a murderer
A year before film crews descended on Kansas, however, Truman Capote’s book arrived in bookstores nationwide.
The book, widely considered Capote’s masterpiece, originally ran as a four-part series in The New Yorker in the fall of 1965. Readers everywhere, got to read it for themselves when the book came out in January 1966. Critics of the book argued that not only was the work wildly inaccurate, but that Capote, because of an attraction to Perry Smith, painted Smith in a sympathetic and favorable light while demonizing his partner in crime, Dick Hickock.
Still, those who followed the case were ready to read the book that took Capote years to write. Edgerton resident Ray Braun, who was mayor of Edgerton at the time, said that in early January of that year, he saw an announcement in The Kansas City Star that “In Cold Blood” was going to go on sale at bookstores throughout the Kansas City area. He made sure to get up early on the day the books came out, went to a bookstore in Kansas City and asked for a copy. The books hadn’t even been taken out of their boxes yet.
“I think I bought the first one,” Braun said.
One person who expressed an immediate disdain for the book was Eunice Hickock, mother of Dick Hickock. Eunice Hickock had always felt some amount of animosity toward Braun, who, as a sheriff’s deputy years earlier, had advocated for swift prosecution against Hickock for crimes while he lived in town.
“‘I hope that Ray Braun’s happy,’” Eunice had told one of Braun’s friends.
Braun took the book home and read it in one night. But despite the praise from several reviews, Braun said he thought Capote didn’t accurately present many of the facts surrounding the case and its background – specifically, Dick Hickock’s upbringing.
“I thought Capote did a poor job,” said Braun, who added that he thought Capote should have tried talking to people who knew Hickock and accomplice Perry Smith before they became notorious for the Clutter family murders.
Capote’s book did, however, paint a striking physical portrait of Hickock in the present:
“The tattooed face of a cat, blue and grinning, covered his right hand; on one shoulder a blue rose blossomed. More markings, self-designed and self-executed, ornamented his arms and torso: the head of a dragon with a human skull between its open jaws; bosomy nudes; a gremlin brandishing a pitchfork; the word “PEACE” accompanied by a cross radiating, in the form of crude strokes, rays of holy light; and two sentimental concoctions – one a bouquet of flowers dedicated to MOTHER-DAD, the other a heart that celebrated the romance of DICK and CAROL, the girl whom he had married when he was nineteen, and from whom he had separated six years later in order to “do the right thing” by another young lady, the mother of his youngest child.”
Capote also dedicated an entire paragraph to describing Hickock’s instantly recognizable face, horribly mangled in a car accident in 1950:
“But neither Dick’s physique nor the inky gallery adorning it made as remarkable impression as his face, which seemed composed of mismatching parts. It was as though his head had been halved like an apple, then put together a fraction off center. Something of the kind happened; the imperfectly aligned features were the outcome of a car collision in 1950 – an accident that left his long-jawed and narrow face tilted, the left side rather lower than the right, with the results that the lips were slightly aslant, the nose askew, and his eyes not only situated at uneven levels but of uneven size, the left eye being truly serpentine, with a venomous, sickly-blue squint that, although it was involuntarily acquired, seemed nevertheless to warn of bitter sediment at the bottom of his nature.”
(To be continued)