This is a story that has always fascinated me and has some bearing on the project.
Welcome back. The date was April 14, 1965 and northwest of Kansas City in a warehouse on the grounds of Lansing State Prison justice was delivered for the brutal murders of Herbert Clutter, his wife, son and daughter in Holcombe, Kansas. There was no real reason for the murders, only forty dollars was missing and the Clutters were well liked and respected members of their tight knit community. The convicted murderers Richard Hickock and Perry Smith had been through a long much publicized process appeal stretching over four years and at their own deaths by hanging there were only a dozen or so officials in attendance including the hangman, a few prison guards, a preacher, a doctor and the prosecuting DA. The killers had also invited two other people to be witnesses.
One was author Truman Capote who had been working closely with the two men on the book that would become the bestselling In Cold Blood and had developed such a close personal relationship with Smith that observers said he wept when the trapdoor swung open under his friend.
Smith and Hickock had also invited Harper Lee but she declined to attend. Lee was no relation to either man nor was she kin to the victims. Instead she was a lifelong friend of Capote’s who was about to become famous in her own right for her novel To Kill A Mockingbird which she had completed before Truman contacted her about his project. He had contracted with the New Yorker magazine to write an article about the Clutter murders and wanted Harper to travel to Kansas with him and help with the research. She conducted interviews with local residents, edited his writing and was present when Hickock and Smith were brought back from Las Vegas where they had been captured. Harper also came back to Kansas with Truman after the trial started and was with him during several of the interviews he conducted with the killers in jail.
After the two were found guilty and sentenced to hand, Harper gave Truman all her notes about the murdered Clutter family and written interviews with Hickock and Smith, local law enforcement and members of the community. In Cold Blood was published in 1966, a year after the hangings. The book became a best seller and some say created the genre of true crime writing. Several movies have been made based on the book and Capote’s experiences writing it. As for Hickock and Smith, they lived together, killed together and now 47 years later and forever they lie side by side in the prisoner section of Mount Muncie Cemetery.
Harper Lee is best known as the writer of To Kill a Mockingbird which was published in 1960 and won a Pulitzer Prize. Yet despite the acclaim she received for her novel she never published another book although she was appointed to the National Council on the Arts by then President Lyndon Johnson. Today at 86 she lives in New York City and has little to say about her work with Truman Capote on In Cold Blood. Capote himself died in 1984 from liver cancer which most would say was caused by years of alcohol and drug abuse.
As for Lansing Prison, it is the same as it was when Abraham Lincoln commissioned the first building and now houses close to three thousand of the country’s most hardened criminals.
This is the story of Harper Lee which I hope you found as interesting as I did. In my experience as a writer I have found that there are many Harper Lees out there behind some of the most successful writers.
Till next time I’ll see ya down the road….