This Day In History: August 25

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Truman Capote, the author of the pioneering true-crime novel In Cold Blood, dies at age 59 in Los Angeles.

In Cold Blood told the story of the 1959 murder of the Clutter family in Holcomb, Kansas. Richard Hickock and Perry Smith, two parolees from the Kansas State Penitentiary, decided to rob Herbert Clutter, a successful farmer, after hearing a rumor that he kept a cash-filled safe in his home. The two men arrived at the Clutter farmhouse on November 15, 1959. After discovering there was no safe, they slit Herbert Clutter’s throat and shot him in the head. Perry Smith then shot Clutter’s wife Bonnie and his two teenage children, Nancy and Kenyon. Hickock and Smith were captured by police over a month later in Las Vegas. At trial, they pleaded temporary insanity but were convicted and sentenced to death. Both men died by hanging on April 14, 1965, at the Kansas State Penitentiary in Lansing.

After reading an article about the Clutter murders, Truman Capote became interested in the case and traveled to Kansas with his childhood friend Harper Lee, who later wrote To Kill a Mockingbird. Capote, a flamboyant figure who first achieved literary fame at age 23 with his novel Other Voices, Other Rooms and also wrote the 1958 novella “Breakfast at Tiffany’s,” painstakingly researched the case, with assistance from Lee. Capote conducted a series of prison interviews with the killers that enabled him to get deep into their heads and describe events and conversations as if he had been present.

In Cold Blood was originally serialized in The New Yorker and then published in book form in 1965. Referred to by Capote as a “non-fiction novel,” it became an international bestseller. Capote’s celebrity soared, but he later battled drug and alcohol addictions. He died of liver disease in Los Angeles at the home of Joanne Carson, the second wife of talk-show host Johnny Carson.

In 1967, a film version of In Cold Blood was released, starring Robert Blake as Perry Smith. In 2005, a movie titled Capote told the story of the author’s investigation of the Clutter murders and his fascination with the crime.