The Clutter family murders is one of the bloodiest murders in Kansas history. Herb Clutter, his wife Bonnie, and their teenage children Nancy and Kenyon were murdered in their rural house on November 15, 1959, not far from the sleepy farming village of Holcomb, Kansas.
Perry Smith and Richard Hickock, two ex-offenders, were convicted of the killings and given the death penalty. On April 14, 1965, the state of Kansas carried out the executions of Smith and Hickock. Truman Capote described the murders in his nonfiction book In Cold Blood (1966).
The Horrifying Story of the Clutter Family Murders
In western Kansas, Herbert “Herb” Clutter was a successful farmer. Evanna and Beverly, his two older children, had left home and begun their adult lives. Kenyon, age 15, and Nancy, age 16, his two youngest children, were in high school.
Although this was later refuted, Bonnie Clutter was said to have been physically ill and suffering from clinical depression since her children’s birth. Kenyon and Nancy Clutter both went to Holcomb High School.
Perry Smith and Richard “Dick” Hickock were two ex-offenders who had just received parole from the Kansas State Penitentiary. Herb Clutter’s old farmhand Floyd Wells had served as Hickock’s cellmate. Wells informed Hickock that Clutter stored substantial sums of money in a safe.
On the other hand, Clutter had no safety and performed all his business by check. After chatting with Wells, Hickock quickly devised the plan to break into the safe and begin a new life in Mexico. Later, Hickock got in touch with Smith, a different former cellmate, to discuss carrying out the robbery with him.
According to Truman Capote, who wrote the non-fiction book In Cold Blood about the killings of the Clutter family, Hickock referred to his scheme as “a cinch, the perfect score.”
How Did the Clutter Family Die?
Hickock and Smith carried out their plan on the evening of November 14, 1959, driving more than 400 miles (640 km) across the state of Kansas in search of the Clutter home. The Clutter family was sleeping when the couple arrived in Holcomb early on November 15; they found the house and entered through an unlocked door.
The Clutters were roused, and they brought Herb to his first-floor office after shoving Bonnie, Nancy, and Kenyon into a restroom on the second level of the house. The other three family members were removed from the bathroom after a search during which they realized there was no safe.
Bonnie was placed in a bed in a second-floor room with her hands bound in front of her and her mouth gagged. Unbelievably, Nancy’s hands were tied behind her, and she was not gagged after being smuggled into bed.
Kenyon and Herb were then led to the basement, where Kenyon was first bound and gagged, and then the rope was fastened to a steam pipe above the furnace room. The murderers decided against it and cut him loose before moving him to the adjacent playroom.
A white pillow was tucked behind his head while he was bound, gagged, and lying in an awkward position on the little couch. This was probably done to make him more comfortable.
Herb was finally restrained, his mouth was gagged, and he was forced onto a mattress box resting on the furnace room’s concrete floor. While Hickock went back upstairs to continue looking for the safe, Smith remained in the furnace room.
Shortly after, Hickock returned to the basement, frustrated and irate at not having discovered a safe. They briefly discussed their options after agreeing to leave no witnesses.
Once they discovered no money in the house, the murderers could have left the area, hoping that no one would ever catch them for breaking and entering.
They choose to kill their victims instead. The murderers turned their rage at their foolishness on the family after having their hopes of obtaining plunder entirely crushed.
Finally, Smith, who was occasionally unstable and prone to rage attacks, shot Herb Clutter in the head after slitting his throat. Later, Smith recalled, “I was reluctant to hurt the man. He struck me as being a charming man. Gently spoken. Up until the point when I slit his throat, I believed it.”
Hickock later admitted to hearing a “gurgling noise” as Smith slit Mr. Cutter’s throat before shooting him in the head during questioning by the police. Hickock reportedly told investigators, “He cut the crap out of him.”
Smith was visited by his Army friend Don Cullivan while he was imprisoned. A vivid account of Mr. Clutter’s final seconds was given to Cullivan: “he said, as I pressed the trigger, there was a flash of blue light. I could see the split in his head.”
Smith and Hickock returned to the playroom shortly after Herb died, and Smith shot Kenyon there. The couple entered Nancy’s room before moving to the second floor and shooting her to death. Last but not least, a shot to the side of the skull killed Bonnie Clutter.
The idea that everyone scheduled to die will be in one location makes it seem easier to keep a slaughter orderly. Herb Clutter was instead fatally shot in the cellar. Upstairs in her bedroom, his wife was murdered.
In her bedroom, his 16-year-old daughter Nancy was killed. His son Kenyon, 15, was restrained to a piece of furniture and shot dead.
Each of them died. Alone.
Although Herb’s throat was also slit, all four victims were murdered by a single shotgun blow to the head, and the killers were able to gather every expended shell. Later, when reliving the events of that night, Smith asserted that he had stopped Hickock from raping Nancy.
After killing all four family members, Hickock and Smith fled the scene with a Zenith portable radio owned by Kenyon Clutter, a pair of Herb Clutter’s binoculars, and less than $50 in cash (about $480 in 2022).
Paul Irsik, a family friend, would later say, “most farmers could certainly write you a check for whatever they wanted.” But the men wanted to carry hard cash and make a dash for it.
In a later oral confession, Smith asserted that Hickock had killed Nancy and Bonnie. Smith was invited to sign his confession, but he declined.
In Cold Blood, Truman Capote claims that Smith wished to take full blame for all four murders because he felt “terrible for Dick’s mother. She’s a kind lady,” Smith had mentioned.
The Victims of the Clutter Family
Herbert William “Herb” Clutter, 48, was born on May 24, 1911, and died on November 15, 1959.
Herb’s wife, Bonnie Mae Fox Clutter, was 45 years old when she passed away on November 15, 1959.
Herb and Bonnie Clutter’s 16-year-old daughter Nancy Mae Clutter was born on January 2, 1943, and passed away on November 15, 1959. She was the youngest of the three daughters and the third oldest of the four Clutter children.
As a junior at Holcomb High School and a clarinet player in the band, Nancy earned a perfect “A” grade record. She was attractive, friendly, and attended church frequently. She also participated in 4-H.
Younger girls frequently asked Nancy for assistance with household tasks like cooking and baking or with their music lessons. Nancy enjoyed horseback riding, baking, needlework, music, and sewing.
The youngest of the four kids and Herb and Bonnie’s sole son, Kenyon Neal Clutter (August 28, 1944 – November 15, 1959), was a sophomore in high school at 15.
Kenyon was a quiet, bespectacled, and bashful little boy who liked hunting, woodworking and working on an old pickup truck that his father had let him buy even though he wasn’t old enough to have a license. Like Nancy, he was involved in the neighborhood 4-H group.
The First Methodist Church in Garden City, Kansas, the county seat of Finney County, seven miles east of Holcomb, was packed with mourners for the funeral of the Clutter family, numbering around 1,000 in total.
Most of those people also attended the burial, which took place in Valley View Cemetery on Garden City’s northern border. The parents’ graves lie in the middle and are identified by two headstones. Just to the left are Nancy’s grave and her single gravestone, and just to the right is Kenyon’s.
Who found the Clutter family dead?
Along with Assistant Chief Rich Rohleder, Garden City Police Department Chief Mitchell Geisler arrived. They were the first on the scene and found the bloodiest murder the community had ever witnessed.
In the basement, Mr. Clutter was sprawled on a blood-stained mattress. His mouth was taped shut, a shotgun explosion undid his head, and the inside of his throat was cut open.
The head of a 15-year-old boy named Kenyon was lounging atop his shoulders in the next room while he was chained and fastened to a piece of furniture with a shotgun.
Nancy, 16, and Mrs. Clutter were upstairs in different rooms. In addition to being bound and gagged, Mrs. Clutter died from a shotgun blast to the head.
Nancy received the same fate as the rest of the family—death by a shotgun blast to the face—despite being chained and not gagged, making it highly likely that she freely pled for her life.
The Murderers Who Killed the Clutters in Cold Blood
Abuse plagued Perry Smith’s life regularly. Smith, the son of a violent father, was sent away with his siblings to a location that was intended to be safer. His mother was an alcoholic who died after choking on her vomit, leaving her kids in the custody of a Catholic orphanage.
Smith claims that he and his siblings ended up in a different home for kids run by the Salvation Army to flee the torture they were subjected to at the orphanage.
Unfortunately, Smith claimed that the harassment persisted and described an instance where a superior tried to drown him. Two of his siblings committed suicide at a young age after leaving the Salvation Army’s care.
The remaining sibling made herself unavailable simply by relocating and breaking touch with the young Smith. It’s thought that Smith’s trauma limited his capacity to experience typical emotions and behave responsibly for the rest of his life.
Smith afterward enlisted in the Army and participated in the Korean War. He was a troublemaker who enjoyed picking fights, and in 1952 he was honorably discharged from the military.
His propensity for violence and incapacity to control his anger issues were brought up in court. He would receive a 5- to 12-year prison term in four years for breaking and entering. During this time, he met Richard Hickock, who would become his crime-fighting companion.
Richard Hickock was raised in impoverishment. Despite being a gifted and well-liked high school athlete, his inability to pay for college prevented him from pursuing a more professional career.
Instead, he trained as a mechanic, married, and fathered one child with his mistress and three with his wife. In the end, he was left divorced.
Hickock was once a handsome man, but an automobile accident in 1950 severely disfigured his face, leaving him resentful and insecure. He started engaging in minor crimes like check fraud and petty theft. His connection with Perry Smith began while he was incarcerated for five years due to his corrupt behavior.
The Clutter Family Killers are Caught
Six weeks after the murders, on December 30, Kansas Bureau of Investigation agents worked diligently to apprehend Smith and Hickock in Las Vegas, Nevada. Their trial occurred at Garden City’s Finney County Courthouse after their extradition back to Kansas.
Smith and Hickock were given the death penalty after being found guilty on four charges of first-degree murder.
After spending five years on death row, the couple met their deaths on the morning of April 14, 1965. Charles McAtee, the head of the Kansas state prison system, had seen Richard Hickock bid his ex-wife farewell hours earlier.
She had come to express her condolences and apologize for a curt letter she had written a few weeks before.
The dying man asked that she say farewell to his children, and when she left, McAtee realized that Hickock could see the enormity of the suffering he’d inflicted on so many people.
As quoted by McAtee, Hickock said:
“Mr. McAtee, after what I did to that wife and my kids, I should’ve had my neck broken long ago before we pulled that caper out in Kansas.”
About Perry Smith, McAtee said, “Perry Smith was a brilliant man with a lot to contribute; he had much depth.
“Talking to Perry, hearing him recite these passages from Thoreau’s “On Man and Nature,” reading his poem, or viewing his paintings would have made it obvious that Perry possessed an intrinsic aptitude or ability as well as a depth of spirit that he never really had the chance to explore.”
They were both executed in the Kansas State Prison in Lansing, north of Kansas City, on April 14, 1965. Smith was killed immediately after Hickock and was declared dead at 1:19 in the morning. Hickock was put to death first at 12:41 in the morning.
The Holcomb City Council planted a memorial to the murdered Clutters on the park’s grounds in 2009. The memorial discusses the family’s lives rather than their untimely deaths. Giving more attention to how someone died than to how they lived honestly is frowned upon by many.
The Clutters are regarded as a treasure in their archives for a town whose population still makes it a mere blot on the American map (fewer than 2,000 people live there), and they’d love to keep it that way.
RIP the Clutter Family.
Next, read about the Truly Horrifying Story of Jonathan Lovette, the Man Whom Aliens Mutilated. If you’re more into true crime, perhaps the Mysterious Deaths of Kris Kremers and Lisanne Froon would interest you!
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