When four members of the Herbert Clutter family were brutally murdered in Holcomb in 1959, an outlandish writer from New York, who was ascending the ranks of literary fame, descended upon southwest Kansas to chronicle in his own distinct way an unspeakable occurrence that at the time had virtually no explanation.
His name was Truman Capote, and his masterwork based on the tragedy, a “nonfiction novel” titled “In Cold Blood,” served as the capstone of his career and made him synonymous with the true crime genre.
But Capote’s novelistic approach to journalism left a sour taste in the mouth of many members of the local community. Locals felt that Capote took extensive liberties in his work and portrayed members of the Clutter family, especially Mrs. Bonnie Clutter, in a way that was less than kind.
The book’s publication and subsequent movie release by the same name sparked a rising tide of obsessive onlookers who have flocked to Finney County for more than half a century to produce their own takes on an incident that has indelibly colored the history of the community for decades. After all, four innocents were viciously murdered, and the killers — who were searching for thousands of dollars rumored to be kept on the household premises — only came away with binoculars, a radio and $50.
But the most recent edition of the tragedy’s retelling, a two-part docuseries by Oscar-nominated filmmaker Joe Berlinger called “Cold Blooded: The Clutter Family Murders,” had a palliative effect on at least three community members who were conscripted into its production and who wouldn’t fully comprehend the artistic direction of the piece until it aired in two showings on Nov. 18 and 19.
Finney County Sheriff Kevin Bascue, a local native who has served in his capacity since 1997, said the crew made as many as three trips to Finney County over the course of a year to create a documentary that has received a surprisingly positive response.
“It was a fairly big production,” Bascue said. “It’s not the first time that we’ve had different crews out here doing documentaries, but I would say this certainly was the largest crew.”
Bascue said the previous Finney County sheriff, Grover Craig, passed him the role of case historian to serve as local law enforcement’s liaison to researchers and crime enthusiasts interested in the Clutter murders, a role he maintained for his part in the documentary.
Throughout his childhood, Bascue said, nobody really talked about the murders, and he was too young to comprehend the significance of the trial of the killers, Perry Smith and Dick Hickock. Bascue, who was born in 1961, said he really developed his familiarity with the case when he joined the sheriff’s office. He added that he had no idea what the documentary would really be about, but after viewing it he concluded that the filmmakers did “a very good job.”
“There was information, video, pictures, interviews with people that I had never heard before, didn’t know existed, and so it was a very informative documentary for me as well,” Bascue said. “I thought that this documentary helped show people around the country who watched it more about the Clutter family themselves, other than just the case and the book, that they were good people and that they were a well respected family and a member of this community.”
Beth Tedrow, another lifelong resident of Finney County, said she was happy the documentary gave more focus to the identities of the Clutter family, their friends and loved ones, and the communities of Holcomb and Garden City.
A friend of the Clutters, Tedrow was just getting her teaching career started at Garden City High School when the murders happened and the coverage that followed embroiled Finney County in a state of uncertainty and distrust that for many still lingers. For Tedrow, the darkness that fell over Finney County in the wake of that tragedy is not something she ever wanted to perpetuate.
“I did not ever personally talk to Truman Capote and I did not want to,” Tedrow said. “I believe in promoting our community for good things…”
She said that while Capote’s book shined a light on Finney County, his portrayal of the family left her less than pleased.
“I very definitely felt that his portrayal of the family members was very inaccurate,” she said. “I think his portrayal of Mrs. Clutter very definitely was way off base. The whole family were outstanding community members, and that was the biggest part of the book that I thought was really, really not good.”
Capote painted Mrs. Clutter as an invalid blighted by mental illness and withdrawn from public life. By contrast, Berlinger’s documentary, Tedrow says, “was very professional.”
“I really felt that they tried to get a true feeling for the community.” Tedrow said, adding that the Clutters were “so actively involved in the community, even the children.”
“I just really felt that they weren’t here to do a sensationalized picture,” she added. “I’m not sure the community has ever totally healed from the incident. The people at that time, there was so much distrust after that. Pretty much everybody knew everybody… After that happened, I think everybody was so afraid. They distrusted. Who did this? Why did they do it? The uncertainty. I think it brought the real world more to us, the cruelties. I think we have survived.”
Steve Quakenbush, director of the Finney County Historical Society, was just a baby when Perry and Hickock were jailed in the local courthouse prior to their trial. He said he could see the courthouse from his home, which was located just 50 yards away. Even as someone who has never known a version of Finney County without the violent stain of the happening in 1959, he personally has never grasped the abiding appeal.
“People who are natives of Holcomb or Garden City or elsewhere in Finney County, we still have trouble understanding why there’s such an obsessive interest in the case,” Quakenbush said. “I think our perspective is different than everyone everywhere else in the country and around the world, because it happened here.”
Quakenbush said the museum receives routine visits and calls from people all over the country who are writing books, producing television programs or films, or who are simply curious about the Clutter case. Of those projects, Quakenbush said most are “a bit shallow.”
“They tend to be a bit sensationalistic,” he said. “They tend to be overly commercial, and they don’t seem to have much interest in the community or the Clutter family.”
Quakenbush said the Berlinger documentary filmmakers gave him an entirely different impression, noting that they spent a good deal of time in the community researching and conducting interviews. “They struck us as very thorough, very dedicated and interested in doing a production that was accurate and portrayed the case in the way it should be portrayed,” he said.
When asked what he thinks captures the public’s imagination about the Clutter murders so much, Quankenbush said, “I think that’s a mystery.”
“Even today, if strangers came into your house at night and brutally murdered your entire family, even in today’s jaded age that would be extremely shocking,” he said. “But, my gosh, that was 1959. That was a long time ago. So why has this case kept the public’s attention for so long? Probably because Truman Capote’s book was widely acclaimed at the time it was published. Whether people here like it or not, it’s still seen as a literary landmark, and because of that that’s probably what has kept interest in the case alive.”
Though Quakenbush said a few people have called inquiring about the case since the new documentary aired a week ago, he hopes the obsession over the Clutter murders will come to an end in the wake of Berlinger’s newest comprehensive portrayal.
“There probably will be future books and documentaries and television productions, but I would like to think that since the one that aired on Sundance was pretty thorough and pretty well done that that will be the last one,” Quakenbush said. “We can always hope I guess.”
Contact Mark Minton at firstname.lastname@example.org