Perry Smith, The Man Who Inspired History’s Most Famous True Crime Book After Murdering An Entire Family

Published April 5, 2023
Updated April 6, 2023

In the chilling story that inspired Truman Capote's In Cold Blood, Perry Smith and his accomplice Richard Hickock murdered the Clutter family inside their home in Holcomb, Kansas in November 1959.

Perry Smith

Twitter/Morbid PodcastPerry Smith murdered the Clutter family of Holcomb, Kansas in 1959.

On Nov. 15, 1959, Perry Smith and his accomplice Richard “Dick” Hickock broke into the Holcomb, Kansas home of a farmer named Herbert Clutter. They intended to steal money that they believed Clutter kept in a safe — but when they couldn’t find it, they murdered the entire family instead.

The exact events of the night are still in dispute to this day, but Smith was likely the one who shot all four members of the Clutter family. He and Hickock then fled the scene, and Smith was arrested in Las Vegas six weeks later. Both men were found guilty of murder and sentenced to death.

Before his execution, however, Perry Smith formed an unexpected friendship with none other than author Truman Capote. The writer traveled to Kansas to write a story about the murders for The New Yorker, and he ultimately transformed his extensive interviews with Smith and Hickock into the book In Cold Blood.

This is the true story of Perry Smith, one of the criminals behind history’s most revered true crime novel.

The Turbulent Childhood Of Perry Smith And The Beginnings Of His Life Of Crime

Perry Edward Smith was born in Nevada on Oct. 27, 1928, the son of two rodeo performers. His father was abusive, and his mother was an alcoholic. She left her husband and took Smith and his siblings to San Francisco when Smith was seven years old, per Nevada State Archivist Guy Rocha, but she reportedly died from choking on her own vomit shortly after he turned 13.

At that point, Smith was sent to a Catholic orphanage, where the nuns abused him for wetting the bed. By 16, the teen had joined the United States Merchant Marine and later served in World War II and the Korean War.

He started his life of crime in 1955, according to Murderpedia. Then, he stole office equipment from a Kansas business, escaped through a jail window after he was caught and arrested, and stole a car. He was sentenced to at least five years at the Kansas State Penitentiary — which is where he met Richard Hickock.

Richard Hickock

Wikimedia CommonsPerry Smith’s accomplice in the Clutter family murders, Richard “Dick” Hickock.

The two men became friends while imprisoned together, but Smith was released first, and Hickock was assigned a new cellmate named Floyd Wells.

Wells had previously worked on Herbert Clutter’s farm, and he told Hickock that Clutter ran such a large enterprise that he sometimes paid up to $10,000 a week in business expenses. He also mentioned that there was a safe in Clutter’s home office.

Hickock put two and two together and came to the conclusion that Clutter kept $10,000 in cash in the safe. The assumption would turn out to be incorrect, but as soon as he was out of prison, Hickock enlisted the help of his old friend Perry Smith to break into the Clutter home and find the money.

The Night Of The Clutter Family Murders

On the night of Nov. 14, 1959, Perry Smith and Richard Hickock gathered a shotgun, a flashlight, a fishing knife, and some gloves and drove to Herbert Clutter’s farm. Shortly after midnight, they entered the house through an unlocked door, woke Clutter, and asked him where the safe was.

Clutter denied having a safe. In reality, he paid his business expenses with checks and rarely kept cash in the house. Smith and Hickock didn’t believe him, however, and they tied up Clutter, his wife, and his two children in different rooms of the house and proceeded to search for the money.

The Clutter Family

TwitterHerbert, Bonnie, Kenyon, and Nancy Clutter just a few years before their deaths at the hands of Perry Smith and Richard Hickock.

After coming up with less than $50, Smith and Hickock decided to murder the family. Smith cut Herbert Clutter’s throat before shooting him in the head. He then shot his son, Kenyon, in the face.

It’s not clear who shot the farmer’s wife, Bonnie, and daughter, Nancy. Smith originally claimed that Hickock had shot the women, but he later confessed that he killed them himself.

The men then fled the scene. Investigators were initially baffled by the case and had no idea who could have killed the family or for what reason. However, according to the JRank Law Library, Hickock’s old cellmate Wells came forward when he heard about the murders and informed the police about the criminals’ plans.

Perry Smith And Richard Hickock After Sentencing

Facebook/Life in the Past FramePerry Smith and Richard Hickock share a laugh after being sentenced to death.

Smith was arrested in Las Vegas six weeks later on Dec. 30. He was brought back to Kansas, where none other than Truman Capote had just arrived to interview residents for a story on the gruesome killings. Capote was permitted to speak with Smith and Hickock — and In Cold Blood was born.

Perry Smith’s Relationship With Truman Capote And His Contribution To ‘In Cold Blood’

Capote hadn’t planned on writing one of the world’s most famous crime novels when he arrived in Kansas in January 1960. He and his research assistant, Harper Lee (who published To Kill a Mockingbird later that year), were simply researching a piece for The New Yorker. They hoped to interview residents about the impact of the murders on the rural community, but when Smith and Hickock were caught and arrested, Capote’s plans changed.

He developed a sort of friendship with the men, particularly Smith. Capote and Smith regularly exchanged letters about all kinds of things, even if they weren’t directly related to the case, according to The American Reader.

The non-fiction book In Cold Blood covered the Clutter murders and the ensuing trial, with much of the information coming from Smith himself. He held nothing back from Capote, at one point saying, “I thought Mr. Clutter was a very nice gentleman. I thought so right up to the moment I cut his throat.”

Perry Smith With Truman Capote

Richard Avedon/Smithsonian National Museum of American HistoryPerry Smith speaking with Truman Capote in 1960.

Capote remained in contact with Perry Smith until the bitter end, and he even attended his execution in April 1965. He reportedly cried after the hanging.

Though Smith lived only 36 years, his life and crimes were eternalized in Capote’s novel. When In Cold Blood was published in January 1966, it was an instant success. It remains the second-best-selling true crime book in history, behind only Helter Skelter, Vincent Bugliosi’s 1974 novel about the Charles Manson murders.

And though it was Truman Capote’s skilled writing that made the book such a success, none of it would have been possible without Perry Smith, the cold-blooded killer who shot an entire family in pursuit of $10,000.

After reading about Perry Smith and the murder of the Clutter family, discover the story of another infamous Kansas murderer, Dennis Rader, a.k.a. the BTK Killer. Then, learn about Joe Bonanno, the Mafia boss who wrote a tell-all book about his life of crime.

Neil Patmore
A true crime specialist, Neil Patmore served as a police officer in the UK for nine years, and a private investigator for three years before becoming a writer.
Amber Morgan
Amber Morgan is an Editorial Fellow for All That's Interesting. She graduated from the University of Florida with a degree in political science, history, and Russian. Previously, she worked as a content creator for America House Kyiv, a Ukrainian organization focused on inspiring and engaging youth through cultural exchanges.
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Patmore, Neil. "Perry Smith, The Man Who Inspired History’s Most Famous True Crime Book After Murdering An Entire Family.", April 5, 2023, Accessed May 19, 2024.