Hanging of ‘In Cold Blood’ killers marks 50th anniversary
Topeka Authorities gathered in the musty, bleakly lit warehouse that housed the gallows at Lansing State Penitentiary to execute convicted murderers Dick Hickock and Perry Smith during the early morning hours of April 14, 1965.
Prison officials decided to hold a coin toss and hang the winner first, Jerry Collins, a corrections officer at the time, said in a 1996 interview with The Topeka Capital-Journal.
Collins recalled that Hickock won the toss and said: "Well, I'll be damned. That's the first thing I've ever won in my life."
Tuesday marks the 50th anniversary of the executions of Hickock and Smith, whose murders of the Herb Clutter family were the subject of Truman Capote's celebrated 1966 true crime novel, "In Cold Blood," The Topeka Capital-Journal reported.
Hickock, 33, and Smith, 36, were the next-to-last people to die on the Lansing gallows, which were used for the final time in June 1965 to hang convicted murderers James Latham and George York.
Today, those gallows — now dismantled — are kept in storage at the Kansas State Historical Museum in Topeka.
The gallows were transferred to the Kansas State Historical Society after the state stopped using them, said Bobbi Athon, public information officer for the museum.
They were disassembled for storage because of their size, Athon added.
"There is still a great sensitivity to the case for Kansans, so we have no immediate plans to display them," she said.
Hickock and Smith were executed for the 1959 murders of 48-year-old Herbert Clutter and his wife, Bonnie Clutter, 45; their daughter, Nancy Clutter, 16; and their son, Kenyon Clutter, 15.
The Clutters lived near Holcomb, a quiet community of less than 300 people about seven miles west of Garden City in Finney County. Herb Clutter was a well-to-do wheat farmer.
Hickock and Smith had met in the penitentiary at Lansing, where they were cellmates. Smith was serving time for breaking and entering while Hickock was behind bars for fraud and writing bad checks.
After Smith was paroled, Hickock became cellmates with Floyd Wells, a convicted thief who had once worked for Clutter. Wells told Hickock that Clutter kept a safe in his office at his home. Hickock told Wells he planned to rob and murder the Clutters.
After Hickock was paroled to live with his parents at Olathe, he and Smith made the roughly 400-mile drive to the Clutter home, arriving during the early morning hours of Nov. 15, 1959.
They entered through an unlocked door. Finding little money, they tied up and gagged the Clutter family, then killed them with shotgun blasts to the head at short range.
Hickock and Smith fled to Mexico after the robbery, which authorities said netted them less than $50 cash, a pair of binoculars and a portable radio. They returned in December 1959 to the United States.
Capote — already a celebrated novelist — read about the unsolved murders in the New York Times. He traveled to Garden City and began to research the case accompanied by his childhood friend, Harper Lee, whose novel "To Kill a Mockingbird" would win the 1961 Pulitzer Prize for fiction.
Meanwhile, Wells had told the Kansas Bureau of Investigation about Hickock's plan to rob and murder the Clutters.
Hickock and Smith were arrested in Las Vegas on Dec. 30, 1959, and Smith confessed to the killings while being driven back to Kansas.
Smith initially told investigators he and Hickock shot two family members each, then changed his story to say he personally shot all four.
A Finney County jury in March 1960 deliberated 40 minutes before finding Hickock and Smith both guilty of four counts of murder. The men were sentenced to hang, and spent more than five years on death row as their court-appointed attorneys pursued appeals.
Authorities allowed visits to Hickock and Smith from Capote, who produced a best-selling and critically acclaimed book that's considered among the most important works of American literature.
On the final evening of their lives, Hickock and Smith ordered a last meal of spiced shrimp as a main dish with ice cream and strawberry shortcake for dessert, the Topeka Daily Capital reported.
Later, Hickock's arms were strapped tightly to his torso as he entered the warehouse among a small group of men. He joked around with the others before walking the 13 steps to the top of the gallows.
The Daily Capital quoted Hickock as saying: "I don't have any hard feelings. You're sending me to a better place."
The trap sprung under Hickock at 12:19 a.m. The attending physician pronounced him dead 22 minutes later.
Smith went next. The Daily Capital reported he said: "I think it's a hell of a thing that a life has to be taken in this manner. I think capital punishment is legally and morally wrong."
Smith was hanged at 1:07 a.m. and pronounced dead 12 minutes later.
The men were buried side by side at Mount Muncie Cemetery in Lansing. Capote paid for small headstones to be placed on their graves.
The bodies were exhumed in December 2012 to carry out DNA testing to try to determine whether Hickock and Smith committed the unsolved December 1959 killings of Cliff Walker, 25, and his wife, Christine Walker, 24, along with their two small children. Each was shot at their home in Osprey, Fla., south of Sarasota. The youngest child also was drowned.
Hickock and Smith had initially taken a lie detector test, which investigators concluded cleared them of the Walker killings, but a polygraph expert in 1987 declared that such tests were worthless in the 1960s.
Christine Walker also had been raped, so Florida investigators sought to compare a DNA profile from (filtered word) on her clothing to the DNA profiles taken from the remains of Hickock and Smith. But authorities subsequently said the DNA testing proved inconclusive as to whether they were involved.