The Story That Started The True Crime Genre

In the trailer for Cold Blooded: The Clutter Family Murders, SundanceTV’s two-part documentary special airing this weekend, an announcer says, “Discover the murders that made true crime an American obsession.” While usually that kind of pronouncement might come off as a cheesy marketing ploy, in the case of the Clutter murders, it’s actually true. The senseless, horrific murder of an entire family in Holcomb, Kansas, occurred in the year 1959 — and we’re still talking about this crime today because of Truman Capote’s book, In Cold Blood.
Along with the rest of the nation, Capote read about the Clutter murders in the newspaper. Intrigued, the author traveled to Kansas to begin research on what he sought to be the first nonfiction novel. He ingratiated himself into the small community, interviewed the murderers, compiled 8,000 of pages of notes, and ended up writing the first true crime book in publishing history.
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The SundanceTV special, airing November 18 and 19, is set to add to the legend by featuring archival footage of the Clutter family, as well as first-ever interviews from their relatives. Here’s what you need to know before watching.
Pictured: Herb and Bonnie Clutter, far left, at their daughter Eveanna's wedding
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The brutal murders occurred in the early morning of November 15, 1959.

Herb Clutter was a well-respected farmer who lived with his wife, Bonnie, and two youngest children, Nancy (16), and Kenyon (15), in a two-story house surrounded by seven acres of farmland. The two other Clutter daughters — Beverly and Eveanna — were not home that evening.

The morning after the murder, two of Nancy’s classmates walked into the house, and discovered what had happened. The New York Times ran an article about the quadruple murder on November 16, which read, “A wealthy wheat farmer, his wife and their two young children were found shot to death today in their home. They had been killed by shotgun blasts at close range after being bound and gagged. The father, 48-year-old Herbert W. Clutter, was found in the basement with his son, Kenyon, 15. His wife Bonnie, 45, and a daughter, Nancy, 16, were in their beds. There were no signs of a struggle, and nothing had been stolen. The telephone lines had been cut.”

This article was enough for Truman Capote, who was made famous by the book Breakfast at Tiffany’s, to book a flight to Kansas. No one knew what had happened.

Pictured: Nancy Clutter
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What happened?

Six weeks after the murder, two ex-cons, Richard “Dick” Hickock and Perry Smith, were arrested. They confessed to the crime, and were sentenced to execution.

Here's what happened. While serving time at the Kansas State Penitentiary, Hickock and Smith had heard from a cellmate, who had been a farmhand for the Clutters, that Herb Clutter kept a safe in his house containing thousands of dollars.

Hickock and Smith drove 400 miles to the Clutter farm, and invaded with the intention of robbery. They woke up all four members of the Clutter family and demanded they turn over the safe. But there was no safe. In fact, there was only $50 cash in the house. From there, the home invasion turned grisly. Seeking to leave no witnesses, Smith slit Herb’s throat. The three other family members were then shot.
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Photo by John Downing/Express/Getty Images)
Where does Truman Capote come into this?

After hearing of the Clutter murders in 1959, Capote and his friend Harper Lee, author of To Kill a Mockingbird, traveled to Kansas to research an article for the New Yorker. Instead, he spent years flying between Kansas and her home, compiled 8,000 pages of notes, and wrote a 350-page book.

In Cold Blood was published in 1966, and called a “masterpiece” by the Times. “Put simply, the book was conceived of journalism and born of a novelist,” wrote Kate Colquhoun of The Independent, indicating that Capote achieved his goal of writing the first “nonfiction novel.”

Capote never finished another novel.
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How accurate was In Cold Blood?

There’s debate as to how much of Capote’s book is true. For an 1966 Esquire article, journalist Philip K. Tompkins followed Capote’s trail in Kansas, and interviewed many of his sources. Tompkins found discrepancies between what the sources told him, and what appeared in the book.

At the article’s conclusion, Tompkins wrote, “Capote has, in short, achieved a work of art. He has told exceedingly well a tale of high terror in his own way. But, despite the brilliance of his self-publicizing efforts, he has made both a tactical and a moral error that will hurt him in the short run. By insisting that ‘every word’ of his book is true he has made himself vulnerable to those readers who are prepared to examine seriously such a sweeping claim.”

Still, the lead investigator of the Clutter case, Alan Dewey, said that most of the book was accurate, save for some misquotes and dramatic flourishes.
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You can watch Capote for more.

The 2005 film Capote focuses on Capote’s time investigating the murders and writing In Cold Blood. The film pays special attention to the relationship which forms between Capote and Smith during his visits to the prison. Despite knowing what Smith did, Capote develops feelings of attachment to the prisoner.

Philip Seymour Hoffman won an Academy Award for his portrayal of Capote.
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What makes the In Cold Blood: The Clutter Family Murders special different from other movies?

The tragic Clutter family murders have been brought to the screen before. In 1967, a film adaptation of In Cold Blood depicted the murders in full. Capote (2005) and Infamous (2006) both focused on Capote’s perspective.

Until now, no definitive true crime documentary has ever been made about the murders. The Sundance documentary will air never-before-seen archival footage of the Clutter family, and feature first-ever interviews with their living relatives.
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