Writing about Harold Joe Waldum brought several “memoirs” surfacing to our collective consciousness. Remembering Jr. Williams, was one brought out by my sister Linda. Hearing from Ruanna and Chirp brought back many memories. This memoir is from the woman that was my best friend from the time we were 4 years old until we graduated high school. Inseparable was what were back then. We’ve kept in sporadic touch over the past 50 years. I received this writing from her recently. I loved it so much that I asked her permission to broadcast it here.
Murder on the Plains
Obscure as western Kansas is, 4 brutal murders catapulted it to the front pages of every major newspaper in 1959. The Herb Clutter family of 4 in Holcomb, Kansas was brutally murdered by two ex convicts, and thus begins the story, “In Cold Blood,” by Truman Capote. The family living at home consisted of Herb, his wife, Bonnie, and their 14 and 15 year old children, Nancy and Kenyon. The two older daughters were grown and away from home.
I was a 10 years old and lived with my family in Lakin, Kansas, about 17 miles west of Holcomb on Highway 50. We passed through Holcomb on our way to Garden City, a town of 11, 000. Our town had a population of 1500 and so we shopped and entertained ourselves in the “big city.” We also played Holcomb in sports. Holcomb was a very small town, and the school had consolidated with several country schools. People know each other in western Kansas due to its sparse population, and our lives are intertwined through business, church, school, and activities. I did not personally know the Clutters, but my Dad knew Mr. Clutter and my husband played basketball and went to church with Bobby Rupp, Nancy Clutter’s boyfriend, and the last person to see the family alive, and thus the prime suspect, initially.
The community was paralyzed with shock, fear, and suspicion. Who had done this terrible crime? We did not even lock our doors in these communities. How would the milkman deliver your milk should you not be at home? There was now a run on locks for doors and lights for yards.
The news traveled East and made the New York Times. It caught the eye of one author, Truman Capote, who traveled from his home in New York to investigate and 6 years later, published the book that brought him fame and fortune. His good friend, Harper Lee, accompanied him. She was waiting the publication of her book, To Kill A Mockingbird.
Holcomb and Garden City locals had never seen the likes of Truman Capote, and did not welcome his presence. He, likewise , had never seen the likes of western Kansans. The story goes that Harper Lee, being raised in the South was the ice breaker for him.
My best friend, Carol and I were always up to something. We had read every Nancy Drew book in the library and now we were ready to solve the big crime! We lived less than a mile from the Arkansas River, an easy ride on our bicycles, and even though our parents forbade us to go to the river alone, that had never stopped us.
One day after school we road our bikes to the river, parked them, and started snooping around. Bingo! There was the evidence, right in plain sight under the bridge. Broken egg shells and other remnants of a meal and a camp sight proved beyond a doubt in our 10 year old minds, that the murderers had been here!
We jumped on our bikes and headed to town intent on telling the local sheriff of our find. We rode to the court house and marched right in asking to speak to the sheriff. We had important clues for him! Remember this is a small town where everyone knows everyone. We were ushered into his office where he listened intently to our breathless story. He kept a straight and serious face as he thanked us for our fine detective work and assured us he would check it out. We left feeling pretty full of ourselves. By the way, we never did tell our parents about this, but I have a feeling the sheriff did that for us.
On a more serious side, Perry Smith and Dick Hickock were captured and the trial was held in Garden City, Kansas. The motive for the murder had been money. While in jail, another inmate told them the Clutters were wealthy farmers who lived in a secluded place. All of this was true, but Herb Clutter never had cash. The joke at the barber shop was that once haircuts went up to $1.50, Herb wrote a check to pay. His motto being a cancelled check is your best record for the IRS. The judge who presided over the trial was the uncle of another close childhood friend of mine. I remember her family being worried about the safety of their family during the trial. The killers were convicted and hung from the gallows in Kansas. I believe this is the last time Kansas used hanging as punishment for the death penalty.
My family and I read the book when it was published and finally did see the movie. It had a chilling and lasting effect on my life. In fact, in thinking and writing about this, I have nearly scared myself to death once again.