Nov. 15, 1959, was the night of one of the most horrendous crimes in the annals of American history, one which helped make the description “in cold blood” a solid part of American lexicon.
An Enid man was one of the first people on the scene the following day in Holcomb, Kansas, when the bodies of the Clutter family were found in their home.
Larry Hendricks, 79, was an English teacher at Holcomb High School. He and his wife Shirley and three of their four children recently had moved there from Garden City, Kan. Hendricks was a teacher and bus driver for the small rural school and sponsored school plays. Nancy Clutter was a play cast member, and Kenyon Clutter was one of his English students.
The murder was commemorated by a best-selling book by Truman Capote titled “In Cold Blood,” which became an icon for true crime novels. Hendricks has a signed copy of the book, which contains an interview Capote did with him.
“We did Tom Sawyer that year, and Nancy played his girlfriend (Becky),” Hendricks said.
The play was held on a Friday night, and after the play, the cast and crew gathered in the Clutter family basement for an after-play party. The following night, the family was killed by two men who broke into the house seeking money they believed Clutter kept in his safe.
The killers, Richard “Dick” Hickock and Perry Smith, would be arrested some six weeks after the murders, and Capote ultimately spent six years working on the book. The book became the greatest crime seller at the time.
Hendricks and his family were living in an apartment in a building owned by the Holcomb school system, because the house they were to live in was not yet ready for occupancy. A family downstairs from the Hendricks had a daughter who was a close friend of Nancy Clutter, and along with another girl, they went to church together every Sunday.
Hendricks’ downstairs neighbor, Clarence Ewalt, had asked him to go to the Clutter home because his daughter had gone by there and seen a body. He already had called the sheriff’s department. The Clutter home was right outside town, and Hendricks and Ewalt arrived before the sheriff’s department.
“I knew something was wrong when we turned into their driveway,” Hendricks said.
The family had a dog, which greeted every car that came into the driveway and escorted it to the house. The dog was sitting by the driveway, obviously upset. The dog followed Hendricks and Ewalt to the house, then left.
They entered the house by the driveway door and did not see anyone on the ground floor. Hendricks noticed the front curtain was sagging, and the cords that went to the curtain were missing.
At the top of the stairs, they found Nancy in her nightgown with her hands and feet tied by the curtain cords. She had been shot by a shotgun, and blood spatters were on her bedroom wall.
The sheriff’s deputies had arrived by that time, and they accompanied the deputy as he searched the house. Mrs. Clutter was down the hallway in her bedroom, lying on her side with her eyes open, tied with the curtain cord. Tape had been placed over her mouth, but the shotgun blast had loosened one end of it.
“I thought, ‘Where are the rest? Where’s Kenyon and his dad?’” Hendricks said.
The only place they had not looked was the basement, and they started down. On the stairs, they found bloody footprints and a bloody handprint on the railing.
In the basement, the same room where the after-play party was held two nights before, they found Kenyon, tied in a stooping position with cords tied to his arm and ankles. He also was shot in the head.
In the furnace room, Herb Clutter was lying on a mattress with his hands tied, dead from a shotgun blast.
“Clarence and I were in shock; we could hardly talk,” Hendricks said.
After 53 years, Hendricks still becomes emotional when recalling the scene. The deputy had called the sheriffs department, and the Kansas Highway Patrol rushed to the scene.
“No shotgun shells were found, and they had no clue who the people were,” Hendricks said. “The town of Holcomb was in shock.”
During that period, no one visited anyone else in Holcomb. If approaching a house at night, after knocking on the door, the visitor stepped back to the edge of the porch and waited. If the visitor was unknown, they would face a gun barrel. The town was armed, he said.
“Everyone wondered who did, and if they were coming back,” he said.
The incident made such an impression on Hendricks that, at age 79, he still has a conceal and carry permit, and is a gun owner.
The funeral was held at Holcomb High School, and the students requested their teachers sit with them in special sections. Empty seats were left throughout the student section, and Hendricks took one of those seats. He was sitting between two high-school girls, one of them his student. During the funeral, the girls put their arms around his shoulders and he held their hands.
“They had put out boxes of napkins, and we used them,” he said.
He still remembers the four caskets in the front of the school auditorium. The pastor did not give a sermon, but spoke a prayer of grief about four people being murdered.
Most of the students and teachers did not go to the cemetery.
The incident caused Hendricks to leave Holcomb, a town he liked and planned to stay in. He moved his family to Alaska.
Five years after their capture, the killers were hanged for their crimes. Hendricks believes it is a good thing they were.
“I have always believed in capital punishment for violent killings,” he said.
Capote later contacted him, asking for an interview about his experience, and came to Alaska to see him.
He said Capote spent an afternoon and early evening talking to him and did not take notes, nor did he record the interview.
“When he put it in the book, it was word-for-word. Truman Capote sure had a good memory,” Hendricks said.
Hendricks recalled where Kenyon Clutter sat — four rows from the wall and four seats from the front in his class. No one else sat in that chair for the remainder of the year.
There wasn’t much school after the murder. The students and teachers were in an emotional state and no one could learn, he said.
Hendricks said Herb Clutter would sometimes come to the bus barn and talk to the bus drivers as they put their buses away.
The Friday before the play, he kidded Hendricks about the play being ready for the public.
Two weeks later, Clutter was dead.