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About the cover

  D e s e r t   E x p o s u r e   November 2009

The Rest of the Story

Fifty years after the murders Truman Capote wrote about as In Cold Blood, a Silver City woman remembers her slain family members — and what the famous author missed.

By Diana Selsor Edwards



Editor's note: The murders of the Clutter family, 50 years ago this month, garnered nationwide headlines and caught the interest of author Truman Capote. With his friend Harper Lee, who would go on to write To Kill a Mockingbird, Capote traveled to Kansas and researched what would become In Cold Blood. First published in serialized form in The New Yorker in 1965, the book is often described as the first "nonfiction novel." It was adapted into a movie in 1967 that earned four Academy Award nominations. The making of the book was dramatized in the 2005 film Capote, which was nominated for Best Picture and for which Philip Seymour Hoffman won an Oscar.

The killers, Perry Smith and Dick Hickock, were executed by hanging on April 14, 1965.

 


"It is time we had a family reunion long enough to really get acquainted again. This is our invitation to each of you to be one family in our home for two days minimum and longer if possible. Activities will include gabbing, games of all kinds, hunting, horse back riding, after dinner naps, looking at family pictures or films, eating, watching TV football games".

Grandchildren of James A. and Mary Fine Clutter photographed by Cliff's Studio, Larned, Kan., at the
50th anniversary celebration in 1952.

Third row from front (L to R): Gary, Eveanna, Janet, Beverly.
Front row (L to R): Jan Clutter, Kenton, Mike,
Nancy and author Diana (Selsor).

This was our 1959 Clutter Family Reunion invitation from Uncle Herbert, Aunt Bonnie and children. We had not had a Thanksgiving reunion since Grandma Clutter died in 1953. I was 16 and needed that secure nest of extended family. But the family reunion that November proved very different than planned.

As Time magazine reported in its Nov. 30, 1959, issue: "The showplace farm of Herbert Clutter, set in the peaceful, prosperous, picture-book country west of Garden City, Kansas (pop. 11,000), seemed the nation's least likely setting for cold-blooded, methodical murder. And the Clutter family seemed the nation's least likely victims. Herb Clutter, 48, a well-heeled wheat-grower, was just about the most prominent man in the region. He was chairman of the Kansas Conference of Farm Organizations and Cooperatives, a former member of the federal Farm Credit Board, a civic leader who headed the building committee that got Garden City's new Methodist Church translated from hope into brick. His wife Bonnie was active in the Methodist Women's Society of Christian Service. The Clutters' well-behaved, teen-age children, Kenyon and Nancy, were popular, straight-A students at the local high school. Both were scheduled to receive 4-H awards at last week's Finney County 4-H Achievement Banquet. They never collected their prizes."

I found the Time article and the unanswered invitation — along with other family letters, newspapers and magazines about the murders — in a battered suitcase in the attic, after my mother died in 1998.



Uncle Herbert and Aunt Bonnie were touchstones of security for me. Where my parents were unpredictable and often absent, Herbert and Bonnie were predictable and present. My mother, Elaine, was beautiful and talented. She played the piano by ear, and fantasized about playing professionally someday. But she met my father before she finished high school, and by age 20 was burdened with three children. Herbert was the brother who always looked out for her, who provided a home and security for our family when my father was "out running around," as my mother would say.

My father was also good-looking and talented, another dreamer and unrealized artist. When they first married, he painted Idaho mountain scenes from his brief stint in the Civilian Conservation Corps, selling the oil paintings to supplement his earnings as a rural milkman.

Uncle Herbert earned a college education and became a respected farmer and agricultural expert. He was a caring husband to Bonnie and a fond father to Eveanna, Beverly, Nancy and Kenyon. He and Bonnie designed and built a beautiful modern home, where they'd lived since Nancy and I were six.

Nancy and I were crib mates, born a month apart. Since we needed to feel superior to someone, we tried to ignore Kenyon — a year younger — just as Beverly and Eveanna ignored us.

When I was nine, my family moved to Florida, against my mother's wishes. My father loved deep-sea fishing and hated Kansas winters. A "rolling stone," as rekatives called him, he bought an airplane, joined the Flying Farmers, and flew to Mexico on fishing trips. Everyone else raised wheat and cattle and stayed home.

Our second Christmas in Florida, in 1953, Herbert's, as we called their family, drove down to visit. Our new cinderblock house near Brooksville was finished and we had room for visitors. They had never been to the South. We took them to see flamingoes and alligators and a man who could milk rattlesnakes. I was eager to show Nancy the town library where I had a library card and planned to read every book, systematically.

Other summers and holidays in the 1950s, we drove to Kansas and made the rounds of family. Frequently, I got to stay with Herbert's on my own.

The summer of 1959, we were growing up. Eveanna had already graduated from college and married a veterinarian; they lived in Illinois with their new baby. Beverly was completing her college nursing program and planning her wedding. That summer, Nancy and I spied on Beverly and her fianc ,Vere, kissing; we were nosy girls and wanted to know everything about growing up.

For a 4H project that year, Nancy had redecorated the basement rec room, creating a space for her, Kenyon and their friends to hang out, play music and dance. On the new couch she'd selected, we still giggled and whispered secrets. Nancy and I also plotted how to get Uncle Herbert to let her drive me the two hours to Grandpa Clutter's in Larned. At 16 and licensed for all of five months, we were eager to try out our independence. When we got up our courage to ask, he said no. I liked knowing that he cared and wanted us to be safe, but we both recognized the freedom I had that Nancy did not.

That summer, Kenyon was engaging and impossible to ignore. He was smart, funny and ordinarily quiet-spoken. He liked working with his hands and usually had some carpentry or other project going. For the first time, I was curious about what he thought and what he wanted to do when he grew up.

He and I played intense games of ping-pong. We made up excuses to chase each other around the table and up and down the stairs, laughing and teasing. He had become tall and very good-looking. I was reluctant to return to Palatka, Florida, where we now lived.



The night they were killed, I was at a weekend beach party with girlfriends.

When I came home Sunday afternoon to an empty house, my parents were still out fishing. They had gone to St. Augustine, where my father kept his boat. My sister, Janet, was in Sarasota at the Ringling School of Art; my brother, Gary, was in the Army in Korea. A neighbor boy brought over a handwritten note the police had given them to deliver because we weren't home: "Four members of the Clutter family killed in Holcomb, Kansas." There was a local number to call.

I was brought to my knees. This can't be possible. I had no voice to make a phone call. It might have been an hour; it might have been 30 minutes. I was outside of time. When I could, I telephoned my boyfriend John for help. He came over and made the call. It was true. The bodies of Uncle Herbert, Aunt Bonnie, Nancy and Kenyon had been found that morning when Nancy's friends arrived to go to church with them. When no one answered, they opened the unlocked door to check.

I had no way to contact my parents and let them know. Nor did I want to be the one to tell my mother. When I was young, she cried a lot, and was taken several times for electric-shock treatment at the Menninger Clinic in Topeka. Would this trigger another breakdown? Would the "nerve pills" she carried in her purse be enough?

John stayed while we waited for my parents. I don't remember what my mother did when I told her, only that she sent home the neighbor woman who brought coffee. "We don't drink coffee."

We packed my father's blue-and-silver Impala and, early Monday morning, started the journey home.

By then, the family tragedy had become a national event. In each city where we stopped for gas, the newspapers headlined the "savage" murders: the Jacksonville Florida Times-Union, "Farm Family of 4 Murdered in Home; The Montgomery Advertiser, "Bound, Gagged Bodies of 4 in Family Found." In Kansas, The Hutchinson News' headlines spanned the front page, with photographs not only of the family when alive, but of officials bringing out the bodies. Teddy, the family dog, sat by the door.

I was embarrassed that my father would point to the newspaper photos and say proudly to the filling-station clerk, "That's my wife's brother."



The funeral was Wednesday, Nov. 18. The First Methodist Church in Garden City, Kansas, overflowed with people, standing in the aisles and outside. We were escorted through the front side doors. At best, it would have been difficult for me to walk; I was shaky and ungrounded. But I was also wearing my new brown suit and first pair of high heels — bought for the Homecoming football game. If I stumbled, my mother would be ashamed.



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