November is when journalists descend on the little town of Holcomb to tell its crime story over and over.
That’s what the visibly shaken Wilma Kidwell told me on a mid-November afternoon in 1972.
As a 19-year-old budding journalist, I was ready to ask Kidwell, Holcomb's music teacher, some questions regarding the Clutter murder. After all, her daughter, Susan, had been Nancy Clutter’s best friend. It was Susan, along with Nancy Ewalt, who discovered Nancy’s body that Sunday morning on Nov. 15, 1959.
It’s hard to believe when my college roommate invited me to Holcomb for Thanksgiving, Herb, Bonnie, Nancy and Kenyon had only been dead 13 years.
Now, 58 years have passed since the Clutters' bodies were discovered murdered in cold blood.
Naively, back then, I thought I was the only person obsessed with the horrific crime. But it’s a story that never dies.
The anniversary has been on Ralph Voss’ mind. He had been thinking of the date when I called him in Birmingham, Alabama, on Tuesday. The Kansas native and English professor is the author of “Truman Capote and the Legacy of 'In Cold Blood.' ”
He first started writing the book in his mind back in 1959 when he was a high school junior in Plainville, Kansas, “scared crapless,” learning of the murders.
“Suddenly my girlfriend wouldn’t park with me. It was a scary time. It was so awful and unimaginable. Nobody breathed easy until they were caught, but we never breathed easier again.
“One of the points of my book is there is a constant interest in what would have been an obscure murder case from long ago,” said Voss. “It’s nothing like shooting people in a church.”
But Capote’s book, “In Cold Blood,” has been refueled by movies about Capote writing the book, Voss said.
“It’s the culture at large, “ Voss said, speaking from his home. “True crime is really popular, it’s proliferated on the bookshelves in Barnes and Noble and by TV shows like "Dateline." People watch this stuff .”
This anniversary SundanceTV will air a four-hour documentary “Cold Blooded: The Clutter Family Murders,” in two parts Saturday and Sunday. The documentary draws from firsthand accounts of relatives, family friends and people in town.
“According to the hyp,“ said Voss, “they have interviewed a descendent of the Clutter family and Paul Dewey, the son of Al Dewey, a KBI agent.
“Apparently at the time Harper Lee and Truman Capote advised him not to talk to the media,” Voss said. “Way back in the day, one of the ways he (Capote) wormed his way into the family (Dewey) was that young Paul wanted to be a writer.”
Voss, also the author of “The Life of William Inge,” said Truman Capote was “a gifted writer but as a human, he was a turd.”
He never gave Harper Lee the full credit she deserved. People would have slammed doors in his face if it wasn’t for Lee.
People were dazzled by Lee, who had won a Pulitzer Prize for “To Kill a Mockingbird,” and Capote was known for "Breakfast at Tiffany’s."
“People were humming 'Moon River,' ” Voss said.
Meanwhile, since it was published in 1965, Capote’s book remains in print.
“It has bred this cottage industry of fictionalizing knock-off stories related to the Clutter case,” Voss said.
Just released is a young adult book “No Saints in Kansas,“ by Amy Brashear. She was a newcomer to Garden City in 1991 at the age of 9.
“The first person at church mentioned her husband was a relative of Bobby Rupp, one of the original suspects,” Brashear said. “ I began to wonder how Holcomb might feel to a newcomer, like me at the time of the murders.”
Brashear said the woman at church that day, “made me fall in love with a phrase that stuck with me when I read 'In Cold Blood,' for the first time - 'Out there.' It showed me the truth about how lonely home can feel - anyplace where the fence posts are all the same height, where the wind always blows the same way - in the wake of a tragedy.”
As for Voss, he plans to watch the documentary but will record it for later, not wanting to miss his football game.
“They’ll be rehashing the same information. It still is a sensational crime and a terrific story about law and police procedure. The killers were captured within about six weeks. That was astonishing,” Voss said. “That’s because they left a living witness - Floyd Wells.”
Wells had made up lies about a safe in the Clutter home and told Richard Hickock about it while they were both in prison.
When Wells heard about the Clutter murders on the radio, he knew who committed the crime. Wells told authorities and received the $1,000 reward The Hutchinson News awarded for information that would lead to the arrest of the killers.
Though it has been 58 years since the tragedy, and other horrific crimes have rocked our world, Voss says the story continues to resonate deeply in popular culture.
“'In Cold Blood’s' ongoing relevance stems," Voss said, "from its unmatched role as a touchstone for enduring issues of truth, exploitation, victimization and the power of the narrative."