Growing Up in the Shadow of ‘In Cold Blood’

The Clutters were our neighbors, and my family’s friends

My dad was a junior in high school in the fall of 1959. Early on Sunday, November 16 of that year, my grandparents took the train to Kansas City. Most farmers in western Kansas did their banking in Kansas City and had to go there in person for their business; my grandparents had an appointment on Monday. It took several hours to get to Kansas City, which meant that my grandparents were several hours from home when my dad and his siblings heard the news that would profoundly change their small town. The previous night, someone had brutally murdered a family they knew. The daughter, Nancy, was my dad’s friend. He was also friends with Nancy’s best friend Susan, who discovered the crime scene when she went to pick up Nancy for church. Susan would be my dad’s prom date later that year.

My dad and his siblings told their parents the news when they called from Kansas City and though my grandparents wanted to come home at once, there was no way they would get back that night. No one knew why someone had killed this well-loved farm family. The idea that the killer or killers was still on the loose terrified everyone in the area. And so my dad and his siblings locked the doors that were never locked and booby-trapped the house.

My great-uncle Bunk–my mom’s uncle–had been the hired man for the murdered farmer. Police would later question him (as they would Nancy’s boyfriend and practically anyone with a connection to the family). My great aunt Rita–Bunk’s wife and my grandmother’s sister–called my grandmother in hysterics with the news. That’s how my mom and her family learned the news and then they locked all the doors in the same house I grew up in, just 30 miles north of the crime scene.

The story that framed my childhood

The murders were, of course, the basis for ‘In Cold Blood.’ Most people think of it as a classic work of literature. To people who lived in southwest Kansas at the time, it was an event as pivotal as the day JFK was assassinated. Everyone remembers where they were when they heard of the Clutter murders, and they all remember how terrified they were that night and for the days and weeks to follow.

In Cold Blood
Top: The Clutter house. Bottom: My childhood home.

I grew up hearing stories about these horrific murders and about how they shaped my dad’s life. He didn’t tell me the gory details. I wouldn’t know those until I was in my early 20s and worked up the nerve to read about it. But he told me how it impacted him: how terrified and distraught the news made everyone; how from that day forward, he always looked for another way out of a room when he entered one; how the murderers left rope on my grandfather’s farmland; how Susan was nervous months later when my dad took her home from prom and there was a strange car parked at her mom’s boarding house.

I knew that he and his friends would hang out with Nancy sometimes when dragging Main. And that a lot of the boys had a crush on her but that she was only interested in Bobby Rupp. I also knew that people liked Herb Clutter but his wife wasn’t as social and stayed in bed a lot. My dad’s descriptions of her reminded me of his own mom, who also spent much of her time in bed not feeling well–likely suffering from depression. The Clutters had the biggest funeral my dad had ever seen, and that even the large chapel at the Methodist Church plus the smaller chapel wasn’t big enough to hold all the mourners. My dad was among the crowd that gathered outside the courthouse when the authorities arrested Hickock and Smith and brought them to Garden City.

Hearing these stories as a child, I picked up an underlying message: that it was a horrific event that happened to a family just like ours. Their house was just 30 miles away and was a two-story brick farmhouse that looked so much like ours, I assume the same person built or designed it. We lived in a safe farm community with very little crime. But so had my dad, and two men murdered a family he knew on a farm and in a house like ours.

When I was a kid I had an escape plan in case anyone broke into our house and tried to murder us. My room was upstairs and my window was near the TV antenna. I was sure that if I opened the window, I could reach the antenna, climb down the metal scaffolding that held it up, and break into a basement window where I could get to my dad’s hunting rifles. Though I wasn’t a great shot, I’d passed the hunter’s safety course with a 97 percent, so I could handle it if the time came.

If I couldn’t make it out of the room in time, I could climb up and fit in the top shelf in my closet and hide behind my sleeping bag. If I could be quiet they’d never find me. But I preferred the option where I got out and could save my family rather than hiding while they were all killed.

Truman Capote stayed here

In Cold Blood

It wasn’t just my dad who told me about the Clutters and the ensuing publicity around it. My grandmother told me that they used to see Truman Capote at the country club, but my grandfather thought he was arrogant and didn’t like his high-pitched voice. My grandparents were close friends with Al and Marie Dewey. Al was the KBI agent who closed the case and he and Marie became very close to Truman Capote, and were among the Garden City and Holcomb contingent invited to the famous Black and White Ball. My parents’ friend Carole was one of the many local artists who made masks for the Kansas guests.

Between my freshman and sophomore year of college I worked as a cocktail waitress at the Grain Bin, which was a private supper club (the only kind allowed to serve alcohol; membership consisted of a cheap cover charge). My boss was Van Salyer, a former classmate of my dad’s. Van owned the Grain Bin and the Wheatlands motel next door. Occasionally I would need to go to the front desk of the hotel and admire the Richard Avedon photo of Truman Capote next to the front desk. I’ve always assumed it was a gift from Truman Capote, who stayed at Wheatlands when he was in town.

For years the Wheatland advertised itself as having a topless swimming pool: that is, a pool with a wall around it and no top. It seems that “Truman Capote stayed here” would have been a better marketing message, but I’m sure that Van, like most who knew the Clutters, wouldn’t have dreamed of capitalizing on the tragedy that profoundly impacted the community, even decades later.

I finally worked up the courage to read the book when I was out of college. By this point in my life, I was used to the dismissive attitudes towards Kansas–it was one of the big square states, flat as a pancake, flyover country. I was both proud of and embarrassed by being a Kansas farm girl. I was afraid the book would be condescending. But the last sentence in the first paragraph of the book hooked me: “The land is flat, and the views are awesomely extensive; horses, herds of cattle, a white cluster of grain elevators rising as gracefully as Greek temples are visible long before a traveler reaches them.”

I’m awestruck every time I think of grain elevators like Greek temples. The plains and the endless horizon soothe me, and here was someone else–someone I thought was an outsider–who understood the beauty of the area. When I read that sentence, I feel homesick. I hadn’t expected this book about these horrible murders to capture Capote’s love and appreciation for the land and people of southwest Kansas. It made me proud to be from Kansas, and it broke my heart to read exactly what had happened to the Clutters, especially Nancy.

A Kansas farm girl like Nancy Clutter

The description of Nancy helping younger 4-Hers and the list of her accomplishments resonated with me: “Where she found the time, and still managed to ‘practically run that big house’ and be a straight-A student, the president of her class, a leader in the 4-H program and the Young Methodists League, a skilled rider, an excellent musician (piano, clarinet), an annual winner at the county fair (pastry, preserves, needlework, flower arrangement)–how a girl not yet seventeen could haul such a wagonload, and do so without “brag,” with, rather, merely a radiant jauntiness, was an enigma the community pondered, and solved by saying, “She’s got character. Gets it from her old man.”

Unlike Nancy, I wasn’t popular in high school. I had mostly A’s but not straight A’s. I ran for Vice President of my class and lost. But I was a leader in my 4-H club, I won a lot of trophies at horse shows and music competitions, and I collected a lot of blue and purple ribbons at the county fair for baking, sewing and photography. At 17, I’d aspired to be someone like her. And I, too, got my character from my old man. Herb Clutter was a good honest man by all accounts, just like my dad.

I called my dad after I read the book and asked him if Nancy was really as wonderful as the book made her out to be. She was, he said. Everyone loved her. He said Truman Capote didn’t get everything right, but he described Nancy perfectly.

Though my dad read the book after it came out, he never could bring himself to watch the movie. It was shot in the Clutters’ house, on their land, and they even used Nancy’s horse in the movie.

Then, around 1995, my dad was in Canada for work and stumbled upon filming of a movie. He saw a bunch of old cars with Finney County, Kansas plates so he stopped to see what was going on. Someone on the crew told him it was a remake of ‘In Cold Blood.’ My dad asked if he could take a few photos of the set. He explained that he grew up in Garden City, that he had been friends with Nancy Clutter and that Al and Marie Dewey were close friends of my grandparents. They immediately took him to meet the director.

He talked to the director about the Clutters and the Deweys, corrected one of the actor’s pronunciation of Olathe, and spent a few hours on set. When the movie was on TV in 1996, my dad turned it on but still refused to watch the entire movie. He checked in every now and then until he recognized the scenes they’d been filming while he was on set. Once those were over, he turned the TV off.

I’ve never seen either of the movies myself and I don’t think I can bring myself to watch them. The Clutters were the ghosts of my childhood, the terrifying tales told around a campfire. It’s the most frightening story I know.

My dad, back in the 50s.

I did watch the movie ‘Capote’ when it came out. I was living in Austin at the time and afterwards had lunch with my mom’s cousin Dana. Her dad was my great-uncle Bunk–Herb Clutter’s hired man. Dana was full of complaints about the movie: the house didn’t look anything like the Clutters’ house; the landscape didn’t look anything like western Kansas; they changed the names of all the locals, making it difficult to follow the story. (The name changes drove me crazy too.) But most of all, it annoyed her that no one ever mentioned that the safe was in their house.

This shocked me. I’d never heard this, and to this day, I’ve never seen anything public about it. But as anyone familiar with ‘In Cold Blood’ knows, Hickock and Smith murdered the Clutters because they heard a jailhouse rumor that Herb Clutter had a safe full of money in his basement. They tortured him before they murdered him, trying to get him to give up the safe.

In farm country, it’s not uncommon for a farmer to move into a nicer bigger house in town once he’s more successful and have his hired man run the farm from the farmhouse. That’s how we ended up in the house I grew up in. My dad started farming for my grandmother, and we moved into the house on the farm. And before that, my grandparents lived in the house when my great-grandparents moved into a new house in town.

Uncle Bunk and Aunt Rita and their kids–including Dana–moved into the Clutters’ original farmhouse when the Clutters moved into their newer home. And the Clutters left behind a safe in the basement. As Hickock and Smith tortured Herb Clutter, he told them there was no safe, all the while knowing he’d left one at the old house.

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Heather Crist Paley

Heather Crist Paley is currently writing a book about her father titled “Last of the West Kansas Cowboys.” She stole the title from her brother Trevor Crist, who wrote a song of the same name and performs it with his band, Maple Run. Heather is a former Kansas farm girl who lives in Los Angeles with her husband Andy and their twin boys, Jackson and Charlie.

8 thoughts on “Growing Up in the Shadow of ‘In Cold Blood’

  • December 1, 2020 at 2:39 pm
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    Great article Heather! I miss the awesomely extensive views and the Greek temples as well!

    Reply
  • December 1, 2020 at 3:55 pm
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    Lovely remembrance of your community. Though I was a transplant from Colorado, I fell in love with the people of Finney County, and have written about it,too. Thank you.

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  • December 1, 2020 at 4:59 pm
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    incredibly well written – read the book years ago – but JUST saw the movie a few weeks ago (it was randomly on one night) – thought of you and your family while i was watching – this article captures the while Kansas ‘mood’ and the spirit of the farm families so perfectly

    Reply
  • December 1, 2020 at 5:31 pm
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    Nice article. There is also a Capote novel written about the murders in Ensign Ks. Which had interesting plot and how things played out. I am sorry I can not recall the book.

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  • December 2, 2020 at 12:48 pm
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    Heather,

    It’s been awhile since I have seen you roaming the halls of SCHS. I am very proud of you and your accomplishments even though you didn’t win the election. Just remember some very prominent people did not succeed at their first try at being elected. The important thing is that they didn’t give up. Good job with the article about the Clutters. Growing up in Scott City I remember the event very well. It was terrible in many ways. Please know that I do value knowing you and your parents and do hold them in high esteem. I always valued your mother’s help and assistance when we worked together in the High School office. Keep on doing what you do.

    Your former H.S. Principal

    Reply
  • December 5, 2020 at 8:48 pm
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    Well written article, Heather! I remember this horrific incident, as if it was just a few years ago, instead of 60+! My dad would never see the movie, because of the memory of that night and how scared everyone was! The next day he tried to find locks, for our home in Scott City, but none could be had! Still a scarey story!!

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  • December 7, 2020 at 2:05 am
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    I grew up in Garden City. My grandpa was friends with Mr. Clutter as well as my aunt went to school with Nancy. You have brought justice to this story and a piece of history for all of us, young and old, that grew up in SW Kansas for which we will all remember as long as we live and pass onto our own children.

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  • December 9, 2020 at 10:47 pm
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    I grew up 10 miles west of Holcomb, Ks. I remember my dad frantically digging thru a pile of skeleton keys so he could lock the back door of our house after the news of the Clutter murders.

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