Since its publication in 1966, Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood has faced its fair share of contested facts and alleged fabrications. Now, news of a possible competing manuscript penned by one of In Cold Blood‘s subjects has added another layer to the story of one of America’s most brutal and terrifying murders.
In 1959, two ex-cons, Dick Hickock and Perry Smith, entered the home of prominent Kansas farmer Herb Clutter and murdered him, his wife and two of his children with a shotgun in the middle of the night. Capote, who was well-known for semi-autobiographical short stories and novels including Breakfast at Tiffany’s, became so fascinated by the news of the quadruple homicide that he promptly flew to Holcomb, Kansas. He’d soon spend years traveling back and forth to the small town to interact with the people as well as the killers themselves. His collective reporting went on to become the 1966 masterpiece In Cold Blood, a genre-defining work of narrative nonfiction.
But it seems there might have been more to the story than we thought. According to a recent investigation by the Wall Street Journal, Hickock – who along with Smith was hanged in 1965 – attempted to tell his version of the murders. Reportedly titled The High Road to Hell, the resurfaced 1962 “lost manuscript” somehow managed to escape the grasp of both scholars and reporters – until now.
The WSJ‘s report sheds light on possible omissions from Capote’s famed book, including a game-changing suggestion that the slayings – long thought to be the result of crime spree across the heartland – may have been contracted out. It also suggests that Capote knew about the manuscript and actively tried to suppress its publication. Here, what we’ve learned about this newest installment to In Cold Blood’s legacy.
Where did the manuscript come from?
According to the WSJ, Dick Hickock wrote 200 handwritten pages of The High Road to Hell from his death row cell. With the help of late Kansas City journalist Mack Nations, he tried to get a deal with Random House – but the publishing house had already signed a deal with Capote for his forthcoming book In Cold Blood, so they turned Hickock and Nations down.
But luckily, someone held onto a copy. In 1962, two years after Hickock’s conviction, Nations was reportedly compelled by the prison officials to give a copy of the manuscript to a Robert Hoffman, a lawyer from the Kansas Attorney General’s office who worked on the Clutter case. A copy had been given to the Hoffman’s son, Kurt, who, according the report, “agreed to let the Journal review the manuscript.”
Did Capote know about the other book?
The investigation by the Wall Street Journal suggests that Nations and Hickock actually finished their manuscript before Capote had completed In Cold Blood, and that the New York author allegedly interfered with its publication. Capote was well aware of In Cold Blood‘s literary potential, so the fact that he was determined to break the story first should come as no surprise.
In Capote’s version of events, the hero of the story was Alvin Dewey, a hard-nosed Kansas cop, friend of the Clutter family and lead investigator when the case first broke in 1959. However, he might have played a role in this newest story, too. According to the Wall Street Journal, it was Dewey who first told Capote that Hickock and Nations were writing a book. Shirley Wise, a reporter for the Wichita Eagle and Mack Nations’ girlfriend at the time, recalled to the WSJ that Nations told her Capote wanted to buy the manuscript from him. “As I recall, the letter said Random House already had Capote under contract,” she said. Nations and Hickock were never able to secure a publisher. Hickock was hanged in April 1965, and Nations was killed in a car accident three years later.
Why has this been kept a secret?
The Wall Street Journal‘s investigation into the lost manuscript includes allegations of curruption by Kansas authorities in an attempt to suppress Hickock and Nations’ book from every being published. According to a statement by Michael Nations, a Houston probation officer and son of the late Mack Nations, “Capote was telling the story that Kansas authorities wanted told, and Mack Nations was telling a story that they wanted to silence.” (The Journal reached out for comment from the Kansas Bureau of Investigation and attorney general’s office, but they “declined to respond to questions about the Hickock manuscript.”)
However, as the WSJ notes, there is evidence in correspondence previously published in a collection called Too Brief to Treat: The Letters of Truman Capote. In one letter, Capote mentions his scuffle with Nations in a note to the founder of Random House, where he refers to Nations as the newspaper b*****d who has caused me so much trouble.”
Michael Nations has recently been documenting his father’s alleged tribulations with Capote and the Kansas police in a seven-part series via Youtube, “Footprints Found Inside In Cold Blood.” “I would like to leave a record while I’m still alive of what I found out about this entire account and I hope that it will be of benefit,” Nations states in Part One, before launching into a discussion of the efforts he claims were made to keep his father’s book from getting published or, as he says, “even talked about.”
How does Hickock’s description of the murders change what we already know
In Cold Blood describes the plan for the invasion that led to the murders as being hatched by Hickock, who during a previous stint in prison learned from cellmate Floyd Wells – a former employee of the Clutters – that the family kept a safe in the home that contained $10,000. According to the Wall Street Journal, Wells testified during the trial that once Hickock learned of the safe, he “became obsessed.”
The most notable difference between that story and the one presented by Hickock and Nations (as reprinted in excerpts by the WSJ) is that Hickock suggests he and Smith may have been sent out on a contract killing. “We were running short on time,” the excerpt reads. “It was almost two o’clock and our meeting with Roberts was about an hour away. We didn’t want to miss that. Five thousand bucks is a lot of dough.”
However, there is no evidence to support the hit – not once was it brought up in the lengthy court proceedings and neither killer was thought to have received their cut of the pay. In fact, the “hit” is merely hinted at in The High Road to Hell. “Roberts” has never been verified, and barely exists aside from Hickock’s comment.
Until further verification, it’s safest to assume Capote wasn’t lying about what actually happened that night, though it is more than likely that he did indeed put efforts in motion to suppress or at least delay the publication of Hickock and Nations’ alternative account. From all that is known about Capote and his desire for credit, why wouldn’t he have?