In Cold Blood Subject Wrote His Own Just-Discovered Book, Which Truman Capote Kept Secret

In Depth

Richard Hickock, one of the two Kansas murderers whose trial and life was chronicled in Truman Capote’s genre-shifting In Cold Blood, also wrote his own book with a Kansas journalist; it was never published and though Capote knew about it, he never once mentioned it in his notes.

Hickock and Perry Smith were notoriously tried and convicted of brutally murdering the Clutter family in 1959—Herbert, Bonnie, and children Nancy and Kenyon—over a safe full of $10,000 that Hickock believed Herbert Clutter, a successful farmer, kept in his home. (There was no safe.) Capote chronicled the trial, and Hickock and Smith, for In Cold Blood, but at the same time Hickock was working on his own, just-discovered book, from the point of view of the killer. It’s even more grisly than In Cold Blood; Hickock describes, for instance, that he “shined a flashlight on each victim’s head while Smith pulled the trigger,” according to a fascinating new piece in the Wall Street Journal. (Both Hickock and Smith received the death penalty for their crimes, and were hanged in 1965.)

Even Capote scholars didn’t know about Hickock’s manuscript; the WSJ chronicles its journey, beginning as handwritten pages mailed to the journalist Mack Nations who compiled it into book form and tried to get it published before it ultimately vanished. Within that story are Capote’s numerous attempts to obtain or purchase the manuscript, entitled High Road to Hell and, eventually, to keep it from being published, which the WSJ piece assumes was related to his desire to keep out the competition. The manuscript’s very existence is shocking enough, but consider the fact that in it Hickock suggests that he and co-conspirator Perry Smith were in fact hired by someone else to murder the Clutters:

In his manuscript, however, Hickock suggested that someone named Roberts paid them to kill one or more of the Clutters. Describing the moment he and Smith parked in the Clutter drive, Hickock wrote, “I was going to kill a person. Maybe more than one. Could I do it? Maybe I’ll back out. But I can’t back out, I’ve taken the money. I’ve spent some of it. Besides, I thought, I know too much.”
Two handwritten pages later, with the Clutters now held hostage, Hickock described a sense of urgency mounting as he and his partner searched the house. “We were running short on time,” Hickock wrote. “It was almost two o’clock and our meeting with Roberts was about an hour away. We didn’t want to miss that. Five thousand bucks is a lot of dough.”

Granted, this was Hickock’s version of the story from Death Row and quite unlikely to be true—particularly considering that it was never brought up in court, and that it never came up in Capote’s book. It’s also not too surprising that Capote might want to keep Hickock’s manuscript off shelves, whether or not he felt territorial about the topic. (In 1962, Nations sent Hickock’s manuscript to Random House, but it already had a contract with Capote and so rejected it; In Cold Blood was published four years later, in 1966.)

Still, one feels for Mack Nations, who would never reach the level of acclaim of Capote. Shortly after Nations tried to solicit his book with Hickock, Topeka prosecutors brought charges of tax evasion against him, a move that Nations’s son now believes was motivated by authorities trying to suppress High Road to Hell; he was acquitted, but by trial’s end both his career and his finances were in ruin. Capote, whose offers to purchase Hickock’s novel were rejected by Nations, rejoiced:

When Mr. Capote learned, via the KBI, of the indictment against Mr. Nations, he expressed delight. “Remember Mack Nations, the newspaper bastard who has caused me so much trouble?” he wrote in a March 1962 letter to Random House founder Bennett Cerf. “Well, he has been arrested for income tax evasion!”

The manuscript also reveals another aspect of Capote’s efforts to realize In Cold Blood—turns out he spent less time on death row talking to Hickock and Smith than you may have realized:

Over the following months, Hickock sat on death row writing about 200 pages by hand, putting his initials in the top corner of some pages. Whether he saw himself as competing with Mr. Capote isn’t known. At that point, Hickock hadn’t seen Mr. Capote in more than a year, not since the author had traveled to western Kansas for the Clutter-murders trial. In the film “Capote,” the author is portrayed as a constant visitor to death row. In fact, an execution date and almost two years passed without Mr. Capote paying any visits to the eastern Kansas prison where Smith and Hickock awaited the gallows, documents at the Kansas Historical Society show.

(NOTE: If that is actually noted in In Cold Blood, please do not come at me with pedantry, I have not read this book since probably 1998.)

There are several takeaways from this revelation, but the one most emblematic of the Clutter murders’ legacy, and that of In Cold Blood, is that secrets will always emerge—even if it takes 55 years.

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