Saturday, January 12, 2008

Wednesday, January 6, 1960

"Until one morning in mid-November of 1959, few Americans--in fact, few Kansans--had ever heard of Holcomb."

On January 6, 1960, Richard Hickok and Perry Smith were returned from Nevada to Finney County in Western Kansas, in order to stand trial for the murders of the Clutter family in mid-November, 1959: the parents, Herb and Bonnie, and two of their younger children still living with them, Nancy and Kenyon. The return of Hickok and Smith to the place of the murders was depicted in the film Capote (2005), with future In Cold Blood author Truman Capote (wonderfully played by Philip Seymour Hoffman), by then having traveled to Kansas and researching the case, witnessing the event.

Six months earlier, on June 25, 1959, Charles Starkweather was executed by electric chair by the State of Nebraska. I had turned five years old a couple of days earlier. I don't remember anything about Starkweather's execution, although it happened just up the highway. I have a vague memory of staying overnight with my grandparents during his murder spree which, in January 1960, would have happened a couple of years earlier. The reason I remember the historic moment at all was because at bedtime my grandmother asked my grandfather if he'd locked the doors--the first time in my life I remember anyone ordering the doors of the house to be locked. Later--perhaps the next day, I don't recall--I asked my mother why granny and grandad had locked the doors, and she explained it to me: a killer was on the loose, he could show up anywhere. At the time, we lived about forty miles from Lincoln, where Charles Starkweather's murder spree had begun. Whether the doors of our house continued to be locked after Starkweather was arrested I do not know.

Over two decades later, in 1986, I was living in Lincoln, Nebraska, where I'd been living since 1979. My wife and I locked the doors at night. Was that habit instilled in us by the likes of Charles Starkweather, Richard Hickok and Perry Smith? Or by family habits with which we'd grown up? I do not know. One hot day that summer, my next door neighbor asked me if I'd like to see Charles Starkweather's grave, and I said yes. A good friend of his was a gravedigger at Wyuka Cemetery, located on the north side of Lincoln's O Street between 33rd and 48th Streets, and recently he had shown my neighbor the grave site. On the arranged day, we drove to the cemetery, between five and ten minutes from my home. You have to know where his grave is in order to find it, as the small rectangular stone, inscribed only with the name Starkweather, rests flat on the ground in the shade of a large tree (at least at the time), just a few steps from the road.

On the day we visited--and this is a true story--we discovered that someone had left a small bouquet of flowers on top of the gravestone. Serendipitously, it must have been around the 25th of June--that day, or one or two on either side. Seeing those flowers on the gravestone instantaneously connected me to my past and invoked all the memories associated with Charles Starkweather, not only those when I was a small boy, but those from years later, in 1976, when his putative accomplice at the time of killings, Carol Fugate, was, controversially, released from the Nebraska State Prison in Lincoln.

Despite the historic proximity of the murders, and despite the fact that both cases featured the Midwestern outlaw couple (as in "Bonnie and Clyde"), the crucial difference between the two murder cases is, of course, Truman Capote: Starkweather never had the literary equivalent of Capote, while Hickok and Perry did. The style of writing known as "New Journalism" grew out of In Cold Blood, while in contrast, because his story had no prestigious literary antecedent, Starkweather's story, devoid of the compelling, if not sympathetic psychological portrait created by Capote, became, in its filmic incarnations, more "sensational," the killer more incoherent, more of a "bad seed" rather than portrayed as a consequence of his environment.

1 comment:

Duane said...

Caril Ann Fugate wasn't released from The Nebraska State Penitentiary in Lincoln. She was never housed there, since it has always been a men's prison. She seved 18 years in the women's prison in York, Nebraska. Oh, and my birthday is June 25th. Lincoln should be a fun trip on my birthday. I'll be sure to drop by Wyuka and say hi to Charlie ;-)