Over a half century ago, Special Agent Harold R. Nye of the Kansas Bureau of Investigation (KBI)—who would later become that agency’s third director—was thrust into an investigation to help solve what would eventually become an iconic tale of true crime in America: the brutal slayings of a Kansas wheat farmer, Herbert Clutter, and his wife and two children in November 1959.
A little more than fifty years later—as a dealer of rare historical letters, photographs, manuscripts, and books—I was contacted by Harold Nye’s son, Ronald, in March 2012, who revealed who his father was and what materials he had to offer for sale. As an ardent collector of distinctive autograph memorabilia since the 1980s, with a particular appetite for literary manuscripts and signed first editions, I felt privileged to be handling the sale of the rarest books and letters by Truman Capote—presentation copies personally given by the author to one of the principal investigators, during the time history was being made.
The books, first editions of both In Cold Blood[i]and Capote’s earlier work Selected Writings,[ii]were each warmly inscribed by Truman to Harold Nye and his wife Joyce. That alone would generate solid interest in the sale, but this particular copy of In Cold Bloodwas also signed by twelve other people, including KBI Director Logan Sanford and three principal investigators in the case, among them Special Agent Alvin Dewey (who fared remarkably well in the story), and the director, actors, and crew of the eponymous 1967 movie, which used the Clutter house and other area locations to produce on film a chillingly authentic portrayal of what appeared on the page. As of this writing, only three such books signed by all principal figures are known to exist.
But the two personal letters Truman had written to Agent Nye were the most tantalizing of the lot. Both were sent in 1962 from his villa in Spain, on the Costa Brava overlooking the Mediterranean, where he spent three springs and summers writing much of his book. In one letter, neatly composed on thin pages the color of wheat, Capote laments having to suffer yet another delay in finishing his book, with the Kansas Supreme Court having issued a stay of execution for the killers. For the frustrated author, this meant he would not yet have an ending—one way or another—for his book, and he was to endure another three years before realizing that goal, with the hanging of Richard Hickock and Perry Smith in April 1965. For a collector, this is the most vivid form of autograph correspondence: handwritten documents richly infused with intimate historical association and solid provenance.
The second letter, also in Capote’s cramped, childlike scrawl but this one on 3-holed, blue-lined composition paper, teasingly informs Nye how often he appears in the book, and that “…my editor said: ‘Aren’t you making this Mr. Nye just a little too clever?’”
Along with the two signed books, these letters were to form the centerpiece of the auction. The rest of the material, though interesting on its own, held little tangible value to serious collectors. But it did contribute historical relevance and an in-person, chronicled authority to the auction as a whole, so we chose to offer all materials to the winning bidder—and only one bidder, since Ron Nye felt the material should stay together for historical continuity.
Sensing the gravity of the task ahead, like an eager historian I began educating myself more deeply in Capote’s legacy. As I paged through Harold Nye's investigative notebooks and copies of actual case reports he had written—not yet digging deep, just skimming the material—I was reminded of key passages in Capote's masterwork—but they were hazy, since my first and last reading of it was the year it was published, in 1966. So, I reread the book with new vigor. This time, every word seemed to have fresh perspective, since I was privy to actual handwritten notes describing Nye’s interviews, his discovery of clues and gathering of evidence, his random thoughts, and a hastily penned transcript gleaned while extracting a confession from one of the killers—all of which made the experience as visceral as being on the scene in 1959.
I watched the indelible 1967 film In Cold Blood, as well as the 1996 TV production of the same name, followed by 2005’s film Capoteand 2006’s Infamous. I absorbed Ralph Voss's skillful examination of Capote’s book,[iii]Gerald Clarke's rich biography,[iv]George Plimpton's interviews with Capote’s “friends, enemies, acquaintances and detractors,”[v]Charles Shields’ portrait of Harper Lee,[vi]and anything else I could find that brought objective viewpoints to the table—along with many not so objective.
As prepared as one could be, then, I began assembling the material for an online catalog exhibiting the auction. After much consideration, Ron and I decided to exclude the crime scene photos, most of which were simply too gruesome to release “into the wild.” We realized well before the auction went live that we would have no control over how they might be used in the future. Not wishing that burden on our shoulders, we removed the photos from the auction, and instead voluntarily sent them to the KBI for archival disposition.
To our surprise and dismay, a few days later we were served with a cease and desist letter from the Kansas attorney general at the instigation of the KBI, claiming among other things that Harold Nye’s personal journals were state property and were possessed of “highly confidential information.” On the face of it this was a farcical claim at best, since they had never seen the notebooks, not to mention that it had been well over fifty years since the case was closed and those charged with the crime had been executed, as the Court itself would ultimately point out. Our position, obviously, couldn’t have been more at odds with Kansas’s reckoning, and believing we were on the right side of the law, we took on their challenge. After a grueling legal battle, lasting years, it’s clear now that Kansas thought Ron and I would just roll over and be done with it. That was their first mistake.
Over the time we prepared our defense—all the while baffled as to why Kansas was so vigorously mounting an expensive, and unusually high-level campaign of suppression and intimidation—a new thesis emerged that seemed at odds with the State’s declared rationale. And the deeper we looked, the clearer that proposition became. To our thinking—not to mention the views of independent lawyers, journalists, forensic criminologists, and others who in some way touched our case—it looked more and more as if Kansas had something to hide. At the very least there was something more to this story, and I intended to find out what it was.
And therein lies their second mistake and the irony of this cautionary tale: Had the State of Kansas simply avoided such heavy-handed tactics as pressing the lawsuit against us, and publicly tarnishing Harold Nye’s good name, we might never have discovered the sensational “new” details of the Clutter case that time and opportunity revealed as our own investigation deepened. Had they not interfered in our legitimate business—to provide for the Nye family’s medical needs by selling the books, letters, and notes that rightfully belonged to his father—the KBI would not now be suffering under the weight of any potentially embarrassing disclosures being made here.
Throughout his life Truman Capote maintained that his book was “immaculately factual,” as he told George Plimpton in a January 1966 interview.[vii]Shortly after In Cold Blood first appeared in print—in September 1965, when the story was serialized in four consecutive issues of The New Yorker magazine—critics, pundits, and others assessing the work were already taking Capote to task for inaccuracies found in his account, or as one reviewer put it, “reaching for pathos rather than realism.”[viii]Not least among these was Harold Nye, who not only lived it, but whose prominent role in the book ultimately ensured a firsthand evaluation of the known facts.
But for as much as Capote added to or reshaped the brilliant telling of his story, in analyzing Harold Nye’s notebooks I found that much had been omitted from In Cold Blood, and in many cases there were surprisingly crucial details that, at the time, might have appeared in the eyes of many to be of little value. It was only when other documents came into my possession that we were able to connect the dots, alluding to something very different than was passed on to readers of In Cold Blood.
In a striking coincidence, within a matter of weeks another new client—a grandson of Garden City Undersheriff Wendle Meier, one of the central characters in the story—consigned to me the Death Row diaries, family photos and correspondence, poetry, and a whole passel of riveting memorabilia given to Wendle Meier and his wife, Josephine, by one of the killers, Perry Edward Smith, on his way to the gallows. To be clear, I have no interest dealing in the so-called “murderabilia” market. But this was becoming more of a literary mystery the likes of which few people in my position could resist.
By this point any writer would feel grateful to have such an abundance of material to work with. But later, as a result of the media coverage our case had sparked, synchronicity struck again. I came into possession of copies of handwritten letters by Smith’s partner in crime, Richard Eugene Hickock, which had originally been sent to Wichita Eagle reporter Starling Mack Nations. Hickock had contracted with Nations to write his “life story” while he was on Death Row. To the chagrin of both Hickock and Nations, however, no publisher showed interest in the book, titled High Road to Hell. But it’s clear from Hickock’s remarkable memory and his command of precise details, which both Capote and case investigators marveled over, that he did have compelling things to say.
As of this writing neither the Smith diaries nor the Hickock letters have been published, and only a handful of people have seen Hickock’s letters to Mack Nations. But at least one thing is clear from putting all this material together—it appears there was a good deal more to the foundations of Capote’s story than was originally told. And if there were any doubt as to whether Ron Nye and I would just give in to the bullying tactics of a comparatively well-funded state government—saving ourselves a lot of time and money fighting a senseless battle—the new evidence coming at us from all directions made it unambiguously clear that we were on to something. And we had to believe Kansas suspected it, too.
Presented here, then, are several new hypotheses—undoubtedly bound for controversy, while nonetheless supported by facts—including one in particular that would surely have given authorities in Kansas every reason to fight as hard as they did to keep this material from being published: that Herbert Clutter may have been the victim of a murder-for-hire.
Despite an abundance of leads pointing in this darker direction, it appears that the original KBI investigation either overlooked or concealed such a fundamental possibility, one that no responsible law enforcement agency would ever rule out, given the circumstances. Indeed, this was and remained for some time the strongest opinion of coordinating investigator Alvin Dewey, and he personally knew Herb Clutter very well.
Yet despite new information becoming known to authorities years later, even before the killers had been executed, the Kansas attorney general at the time appears to have adopted a stance of letting sleeping dogs lie, without further investigation. But why? As is often the case with powerful institutions, could a keen drive for self-preservation have overshadowed a full accountability of justice?
Now, nearly six decades later, and with the passing away of nearly every involved character since 1959, it’s unlikely any final determination can be made, short of a “Deep Throat”[ix]insider emerging from the shadows of time. But much of what you find here will present compelling new arguments, and I leave it to readers to draw their own conclusions.
[i]Truman Capote. In Cold Blood: A True Account of a Multiple Murder and Its Consequences. (New York: Random House, 1966).
[ii]Truman Capote. Selected Writings of Truman Capote. (New York: Random House, 1963).
[iii]Ralph F. Voss, Truman Capote and the Legacy of "In Cold Blood,”(Tuscaloosa: University Alabama Press, 2011).
[iv]Gerald Clarke, Capote: A Biography, (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1988).
[v]George Plimpton. Truman Capote: In Which Various Friends, Enemies, Acquaintances, and Detractors Recall His Turbulent Career. (New York: Nan A. Talese, Doubleday, 1997).
[vi]Charles J. Shields. Mockingbird: A Portrait of Harper Lee.(New York: Henry Holt, 2006).
[vii]George Plimpton. "The Story Behind a Nonfiction Novel." The New York Times, January 16, 1966.
[viii]Jack De Bellis. "Vision and Revisions: Truman Capote's In Cold Blood,” DISCovering Authors. Detroit: Gale, 2003. Student Resources in Context. Web. Accessed May 11, 2015.
[ix]”Deep Throat” was the pseudonym given to the confidential informant (later revealed to be FBI Associate Director Mark Felt) who provided information in 1972 to Washington Postreporter Bob Woodward. Deep Throat provided key details about the involvement of U.S. President Richard Nixon's administration in what came to be known as the Watergate scandal.