On this day in history, in 1959, Richard “Dick” Hickock  & Perry Smith were convicted of murdering all four members of the Clutter family on their ranch in Kansas. It became the basis for a new book by Truman Capote that his publisher correctly said would “change how writers write.” The book also coined a new genre, and forced Americans to see complicated causes of criminal activity:desperation, poverty, mentally illness, etc, and for that, Capote became the most popular writer of the 1960s.

Who Were Dick Hickock & Perry Smith?

Hickock was known for being a smart, athletic student, prior to a car accident that left him with head injuries and facial disfigurement. In Capote’s words, his face was “halved like an apple and then put together a fraction off center.” His parents could not afford a college education for him, so he worked as an ambulance driver and mechanic, turned petty criminal to make ends meet.

Smith’s parents worked on the rodeo circuit. They performed as a duo named Tex & Flo, before breaking up on account of what history calls “his mother’s drinking and philandering.” He was placed in an orphanage at the age of six, where nuns abused him on account of his bedwetting. His life of crime started at age 8, and he spent time in several institutions.

What Went Wrong?

Hickock met Smith in prison. Smith got out first, and Hickock’s new cellmate, Floyd Wells, had been a farmhand. Wells babbled on about The Clutter family he worked for, and Hickock falsely came to assume there was a cash-stocked safe on the Clutter’s farm.

Upon his release from prison, Hickock got in touch with Smith, and the two hatched a plan to steal the Clutter’s safe. But when Hickock and Smith broke into the family farm, there was no such safe. Things escalated, and each member of the family was tied up in different rooms, and murdered in cold blood.

The four  senseless murders shocked the community, polarizing them as to who would have done such a thing to such a likeable family. Capote’s novel asked why. Not just why they killed the family, but how two men end up in that scenario.

How Were They Caught?

The crime might have gone unsolved were it not for Hickock’s former cellmate, Floyd Wells. Hickock told him about his plan while the two were still cellmates, but Wells assumed it was a fantasy, until he saw the slaying in the news and went to the police, either for the $1000 reward, or to do the right thing.

Smith & Hickock were both executed in April of 1965. The case became famous for the questions it raised about criminal insanity as it pertained to Smith; while Hickock is written into history as a schemer with a mean streak, Smith is painted as more of a mentally troubled individual.

Under “The M’Naghten Test,” a defendant is ruled to be sane if s/he has sufficient mental capacity to know and understand what s/he is doing at the time s/he commits a crime, that it is wrong, and that it violates the victim’s rights. There are people who feel the The M’Naghten Test was not properly applied to Smith.

How Did Authors Truman Capote & Harper Lee Get Involved?

Capote and Lee, best known for the respective books Breakfast at Tiffany’s & To Kill a Mockingbird, were friends. Lee was assisting Capote on a story for The New Yorker about the impact of the heinous murder on the small, quiet town, because Capote’s demeanour threw some people off, so he knew he’d collect more stories with Harper by his side.

Through this assignment, Capote started talking directly to the murderers, tacking flack from many for seeming to befriend the murderers. The book, In Cold Blood, was initially run as a 4-part series in The New Yorker.

Capote Immediately Revolutionized Non-Fiction with In Cold Blood

In Cold Blood was the culmination of eight thousand pages of notes on interviews with the residents of Holcomb, Kansas, and his talks with Hickock and Smith. The book was 6 years in the making, revolutionized the genre, and depending on your source, it’s the 2nd bestselling true crime book ever. (Helter Skelter, about the Manson murders, is the 1st).

No one knows for sure how many liberties Capote took with the story, and for this reason it’s often cited as the first “non-fiction novel” that blends the best of fiction & non-fiction books; it captures a true story, but with eloquent prose, poetic detail, and a novel’s complex means of narration.

It had plot and mystery, alongside big questions and elegant language. It would, as his publisher hoped, “change how writers write,” by getting down to the “The Big Why.” As a review in The Independent wrote, “Careful prose binds the reader to his unfolding story. Put simply, the book was conceived of journalism and born of a novelist.”

There is a Movie About Capote and the Writing of the Book …

There’s been a few adaptations of In Cold Blood, the book, but the story of how the book came together is famously told in 2005’s Capote, starring Phillip Seymour Hoffman as Capote. He won an Oscar for the role. The film itself was nominated for four other Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Supporting Actress (Katherine Keener played Harper Lee).