Every few weeks, out-of-towners come to Finney County to ask about a day many in the area would like to forget, at least in part.
Sixty years separated from the tragedy, Garden City and Holcomb are still known as the site of a terrible crime: the senseless murder of a Holcomb couple and two of their children – Herb, Bonnie, Nancy and Kenyon – that was featured in Truman Capote’s “In Cold Blood.”
Just within the past five years, Finney County residents have been interviewed for news specials or articles surrounding the case. In 2017, filmmakers came to town to produce “Cold Blooded,” a documentary series on the crime and those left behind.
People ask about the Clutter case for a variety of reasons, said Finney County Court Administrator Kurtis Jacobs, playing the role of reporter, filmmaker, academic and fan of Capote’s work. Jacobs, Finney County Historical Society Executive Director Steve Quakenbush and former Garden City Police Department historian Mike Radke said each of them hear a dozen or two inquiries about the Clutters each year, asking about the house, the graves and the case.
And sometimes, the onslaught of questions about a horrific event can pile on, Quakenbush said.
“It’s almost to the point where when you answer the phone, you roll your eyes and think ‘Oh, another Clutter case question.’ Sometimes we wish that would go away,” he said. “But on the other hand, that’s one of the reasons we decided we should focus on those crimes in the exhibits.”
Two years ago, in response to the interest, the Finney County Historical Museum opened an exhibit on local crime, dedicated not just to law enforcement officers that brought justice to the Clutters, but also to the infamous Fleagle Gang. The exhibit has correlated with a 4,000-person jump in annual attendance, Quakenbush said.
Amid ongoing renovations at the courthouse, Jacobs said there has been an effort to maintain elements of the landmark’s original aesthetic, in part because of its ties to the famous case. Upstairs, portions of the large courtroom that housed the case proceedings has intentionally been maintained. The judge’s bench and jury chairs are the same, the rows of pews painstakingly refurbished from the wood of the originals.
The work is partially in response to continued interest in the case, but more so an act of preserving history, Jacobs said.
“We are the keeper of the record...” Jacobs said. “And we acknowledge that some of the cases and the Clutter case is perhaps the most tragic example, touched the community in a way that it’s more than the papers that are in the file. It creates a lasting impression on the people that experienced it at the time and people that experience it vicariously later.
In Holcomb, the attitude is more subdued, said Holcomb City Administrator Robin Lujan. At the center of the town sits the Clutter Memorial at Clutter Park, a large plaque detailing the lives of the victims. Bob Rupp, Nancy Clutter’s boyfriend at the time of her death, still maintains the marker to the victims, Lujan said.
Nationally, the Clutters are best known for their deaths. But, even decades removed, locals remember them for their lives, Radke said. The text on the memorial reminds visitors that the children, along with their surviving sisters, Eveanna and Beverly, went to Holcomb schools. The family had picnics and loved the local library. They were involved with 4-H and the local Methodist church and a long list of other community organizations.
In general, locals don’t discuss the case often and don’t want the town to be known for a brutal crime, Lujan said.
People in the area, especially those of the generation that lived through the murders, hold on to good and bad memories surrounding the Clutters and their deaths, said Lujan, who also gets regular calls about the case. Holcomb residents want to hold onto those memories, to remember and honor the victims, she said. As for the bad memories, they’re ready to move on.
As the years pass, the crime becomes more history than memory. Many of those who lived through it have moved away or passed on. And for those who do remember, the moment feels far away.
Mervin and Betty Robinson were moving into their first home together in Garden City when they heard of the murders in 1959. Mervin’s father, Finney County Sheriff Earl Robinson, had been the first officer on the scene of the crime, the first to find the family. They had been his friends, Mervin Robinson said, and the crime left a lasting effect on him. Locals were shocked and scared, the couple said. Before the murders, no one in town locked their doors. Afterward, that didn’t happen anymore.
For the most part, the trauma of the tragedy has passed, Betty Robinson said, at least for her and Mervin. Time heals, she said. She said what remains is a community drawn closer together, and that history is worth keeping.
“I think it is important because you are not only remembering the bad but you’re remembering the good part of it. How people supported each other and took care of each other and looked out for each other. That can be remembered too,” Betty said.
Many agree that there are good sides of the case to memorialize — the memory of the victims, the success of local and state law enforcement who brought the murderers to justice, the support of a close-knit community.
And ideally, visitors will come to know, too.