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In Cold Blood Perry Smith Essay

Perry Smith

Character Analysis

When we meet Perry Smith, he's a thief on parole from the Kansas State Penitentiary, an idealist who dreams of being magically delivered from his troubled life, a man who lies about killing a man just to impress. He's had an abusive childhood with an alcoholic mother who choked on her own vomit, a father who wouldn't send him to school and dragged him around the country in a makeshift trailer. Two of his siblings committed suicide and his remaining sister is afraid of him. His only lasting relationships, apart from a friendship with an Indian logger, have been with fellow convicts, and it's one of these relationships that ultimately gets him involved in a brutal murder and a trip to the gallows. His childhood traumas have left him with some childlike behaviors—he still wets the bed and sucks his thumb when he cries in his sleep.

Perry's a complicated guy, full of contradictions and quick changes. He's Capote's most complex character, and we close the book wondering how we could feel sympathy for this guy. But we do.

Here's how Capote does it.

It's a Hard-Knock Life

We learn about Perry from a lot of sources: his own reminiscences, letters from his father to the Parole Board (totally objective, we're sure), and reports from his sister, the detectives and the author. Perry attributes the sorry state of his life to a childhood filled with constant violence and neglect. Up until he was five, his parents were traveling rodeo performers. The family led a pretty marginal existence, always on the move and often living in a broken-down trailer on "mush and Hershey Kisses and condensed milk" (2.171).

But he was a pretty happy kid until his father started brutally beating his mother, who took to drinking and promiscuity. Perry saw and heard his mother "entertaining" a series of men. She eventually dragged her kids to San Francisco, where Perry was constantly getting into trouble. He blames it on having "no rule or discipline, or anyone to show me right from wrong" (4.54). He ended up in a series of orphanages and Salvation Army homes, where he was beaten for wetting the bed and tortured by the overseers.

There was this one nurse, she used to call me "nigger" and say there wasn't any difference between niggers and Indians. Oh Jesus, was she an Evil Bastard! Incarnate. What she used to do, she'd fill a tub with ice cold water, put me in it, and hold me under until I was blue. (2.172)

His father retrieved him and they lived together for awhile, always moving on so that Perry never had a chance to go to school.

"I finished the third grade," Perry recalled, "which was the finish." (2.175)

By the time Perry's old enough to leave home and make a life of his own, the psychological damage has been done. He joins the Merchant Marine and then the Army, where he earns a Bronze Star but never gets promoted. His plans to run the hunting lodge with his father fall through, and for the next four years up until the time of the murders, he leads a vagabond life, working odd jobs, going hungry and ending up in prison on larceny and jailbreak charges.

Can Things Get Any Worse?

Oh, yeah.

To add insult to injury, or in this case, to add injury to insult, Perry gets into a motorcycle accident after his Army discharge. It leaves him with crippled legs and constant pain. He's got a bizarre appearance:

Sitting, he had seemed a more normal-sized man, a powerful man, with the shoulders, the arms, the thick, crouching torso of a weight-lifter […] but some sections of him were not in proportion to others. His tiny feet, encased in short black boots […] would have neatly fitted into a delicate lady's dancing slippers; when he stood up, he was no taller than a twelve-year-old child, and suddenly looked, standing on stunted legs that seemed grotesquely inadequate to the grown-up bulk they supported, not like a well-built truck driver but like a retired jockey, overblown and muscle-bound. (1.19)

Perry blames the accident on a rainy road, but his father guesses it was Perry's need for speed that did him in.


Perry doesn't get any.

A huge part of Perry's personality is his view of himself as an intelligent, sensitive, creative person who was thwarted by life and who's filled with unrecognized talent and smarts. He's consumed with resentment about it. He sees himself as an extraordinary guy, who could have been somebody if given the chance. He coulda been a contender.

Perry always craved an education. When he joined the army, the recruiter had to fake his test results to get him in.

From this time on I started to realize the importance of an education. This only added to the hatred and bitterness I felt for others. I began to get into fights. (4.56)

In an emotional outburst with his sister, she recalls him saying,

"You think I like myself? Oh, the man I could have been! But that bastard never gave me a chance. He wouldn't let me go to school. O.K. O.K. I was a bad kid. But the time came I begged to go to school. I happen to have a brilliant mind. In case you don't know. A brilliant mind and talent plus. But no education, because he didn't want me to learn anything, only how to tote and carry for him. Dumb. Ignorant. That's the way he wanted me to be. But you, Bobo, you went to school. You and Jimmy and Fern. Every damn one of you got an education. Everybody but me. And I hate you, all of you—Dad and everybody. (3.132)

Even on Death Row, he welcomed the chance to write about himself for the court psychiatrist, who he saw as a fellow intellectual:

There's much I haven't said that may interest you. I have always felt a remarkable exhilaration being among people with a purpose and a sense of dedication to carry out that purpose. (4.60)

And seconds before the noose is tied around his neck, he says,

Maybe I had something to contribute—something. (4.312)

Throughout the book, we learn that Perry does, in fact, have talents. His outdoor skills are many—he can skin a bear, build a cabin, hunt and trap. He gets his GED in prison; his elegant handwriting impresses Agent Nye; he draws a portrait of Jesus for Rev. Post and spends his time in prison painting pictures of the inmates' kids. Capote wants us to think hard about what would have happened if life had happened differently for Perry.


Aside from a few mentions of one-night stands, Perry doesn't seem to have much interest in sex. In fact, Dick thinks he's a prude. He can't stand Dick's dirty jokes and is disgusted by Dick's chasing after women. When Dick's having sex in the same room with a woman he picked up in Mexico, he thought it was a "nuisance" (2.219), not a turn-on.

Perry's self-consciousness about his mangled legs probably keeps him from pursuing women.
On the beach in Florida,

Dick wore bathing trunks, but Perry, as in Acapulco, refused to expose his injured legs—he feared the sight might "offend" other beach-goers—and therefore sat fully clothed, even wearing socks and shoes. (3.100)

Perry's especially repulsed by Dick's interest in young girls.

[…] he had "no respect for people who can't control themselves sexually," especially when the lack of control involved what he called "pervertiness"—"bothering kids,"queer stuff, rape. And he thought he made his views obvious to Dick; indeed, hadn't they almost had a fistfight when quite recently he had prevented Dick from raping a terrified young girl? (3.208)

We're left with an impression of Perry as almost asexual. It's hard to square the image of him as a bed-wetting, thumb-sucking childlike character with a grown-up sexual person.

Will the Real Perry Smith Please Stand Up?

This book is an account of four unimaginably brutal murders. And Perry Smith committed them all. This is a guy who slit the throat of an innocent man, and then methodically shot him and the rest of his terrorized family. After the murders, he was about to bash in the head of a guy who picked him up hitchhiking, and when the unsuspecting driver talked about his five kids, just thought, "Five kids—well, too bad" (3.71)

But Capote doesn't make it easy for us to hate the guy. Like we said, he's portrayed as someone full of contradictions. In the parole board letter, his father writes:

Happy disposition—yes and no, very serious if mistreated he never forgets. (2.172)

If he sees that the Boss appreciates his work he will go out of his way for him. Tell him in a pleasant way how you want it done. He is very touchie […]. How well I know that Perry is goodhearted if you treat him rite. (2.175-77)

"Touchie." Okaaay.

Perry's sister sure doesn't buy the sensitive, gentle line about Perry:

He can seem so warmhearted and sympathetic. Gentle. He cries so easily. Sometimes music sets him off, and when he was a little boy he used to cry because he thought the sunset was so beautiful. Or the moon. Oh, he can fool you. He can make you feel so sorry for him—. (2.124)

On the other hand, when he stayed with Joe James, the Indian logger who took him in after his motorcycle accident, he became a teacher and mentor to Joe's kids:

They were pretty good to me, Joe and his family. I was on crutches, I was pretty helpless. So to give me something to do, I tried to make myself useful. I started what became a sort of school. The pupils were Joe's kids, along with some of their friends, and we held classes in the parlor. I was teaching harmonica and guitar. Drawing. And penmanship. Everybody always remarks what beautiful penmanship I have. (2.177)

Joe testifies about those days at Perry's trial:

Perry was a likable kid, well liked around the neighborhood. He never done one thing out of the way to my knowledge. (4.161)

In fact, there's something about Perry that gets to people. Mrs. Meier, the Undersheriff's wife who befriended Perry in jail, had this to say about him:

[…] I decided—well, he wasn't the worst man I ever saw. That night, after I'd gone to bed, I said as much to my husband. But Wendle snorted. Wendle was one of the first on the scene after the crime was discovered. He said he wished I'd been out at the Clutter place when they found the bodies. Then I could have judged for myself how gentle Mr. Smith was. (4.5)

And how's this for a death row tearjerker scene with Mrs. Meier, just after Perry hears the verdict:

I turned on the radio. Not to hear him. But I could. Crying like a child. He'd never broke down before, showed any sign of it. Well, I went to him. […] He reached out his hand. He wanted me to hold his hand, and I did, I held his hand, and all he said was "I'm embraced by shame." (4.196)

We'll give you a minute here to pull yourselves together.

Apart from what other people say about him, the reader can't help but noticing (you noticed, right?) that Perry actually does a couple of honorable things. He tries to get Dick to buy black stockings to cover their faces during the robbery so that they don't have to kill anybody. He stops Dick from raping Nancy Clutter and seducing the young girl in Florida. He admits he shot all four people so that Dick's parents won't have to go to their graves thinking their son's a killer. And then there's that pillow under Kenyon Clutter's head…

Move Over, Bruce Banner

One thing that Perry's father and sister tell us is that he's always had a violent temper. Treat him well and he's a good guy, but "treat him mean and you get a buzz saw" (2.167). His sister recalls the time when Perry shoved her against the wall and threatened to "throw you in the river" (3.131). Willie-Jay warned Perry about controlling his "dangerous antisocial instincts" (2.207).

Perry knows this about himself, too:

Dad snatched a biscuit out of my hand, and said I ate too much, what a selfish, greedy bastard I was, and why didn't I get out, he don't want me there no more. He carried on like that till I couldn't stand it. My hands got hold of his throat. My hands, but I couldn't control them. They wanted to choke him to death. (2.178)

Is this easily triggered, poorly controlled rage what kills Herb Clutter?

I told him [Herb] it wasn't long till morning, and how in the morning somebody would find them, and that all of it, me and Dick and all, would seem like something they dreamed. I wasn't kidding him. I didn't want to harm the man. I thought he was a very nice gentleman. Soft-spoken. I thought so right up to the moment I cut his throat. (3.286)

Complicated? We'd say that's understating it a bit. So which is it—a heartless, psychotic murderer or a lost soul who never had a chance? We report. You decide.

Perry Smith Timeline

In Cold Blood Essay

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The Relationship Changes of Dick Hickock and Perry Smith Throughout In Cold Blood the friendship of Dick Hickock and Perry Smith changes quite often. Even though the two may believe that they need each other and that they are similar in each and every way, they each put their own personal profit above one another whether it is for small change, sex, or even as far as death. The two may be very close to each other, but their self-serving personalities get the best of them every time.

In In Cold Blood, Truman Capote evaluates the moral decline of Hickock and Smith’s relationship through their delinquent acts that eventually lead them to an astonishing murder. (The Clutter Family Killings TruTv. com 1) Although the two got along at first their backgrounds were different in many ways, Hickock grew up with a well established family on a farm close to Kansas City. Although he was popular, athletic, and maintained a steady average his parents were unable to get him into a college on account of their financial situation even with the multiple scholarships offered to him for his athleticism.

That same year Hickock was in a serious car crash that left him with a bit of a lopsided face. (Richard Hickock and Perry Smith Biography Biography. com 1) Smith on the other hand had troubles starting from an early age. His parents were barely able to scrape up a livings worth of money working in the rodeo as Tex and Flo. Smith’s parents eventually broke up and got divorced, mostly because of his mother’s drinking and sexual affairs. Smith moved with his mother and three siblings to San Francisco where his mother eventually put him into an orphanage where he was brutally abused by nuns for his constant bed wetting.

Smith’s constant misbehaving soon got him into his first bit of trouble after getting caught stealing for the first time at the age of 8. Smith later traveled to Nevada and Alaska to be with his father once more. (Richard Hickock and Perry Smith Biography Biography. com 1) The duo first met up in the Kansas State Penitentiary after Smith was recaptured from escaping out of the Phillipsburg jail while Hickock was being arrested for theft. For a period of time the two were even cell mates. But actually the most important cell mate to Hickock was Floyd Wells. Wells told Hickock of a safe in the home of the Clutters and how Mr.

Clutter would hand out multiple ten thousand dollar checks at the end of each week to his employers. This got Hickock excited and started him on a frantic question asking episode about the home as well as the thinking process toward killing and robbing the entire Clutter household. When Hickock was finally released from jail he met up with his old cell mate, Smith, who seemed to understand and comprehend Hickock’s way of thinking. When the two reunited they were able to stay in Hickock’s home town of Kansas City where Smith would stay in a near by hotel while Hickock slept in his own room at his parents home.

The two devised a secret plan on how and where to escape to after the robbery and murder of the Clutter family. The main plan was to run off to Mexico where they could not be arrested for a crime committed in the United States, they would stay in Mexico, partially retire with the money they stole from the Clutters and become part-time clam divers. At this time the team of Hickock and Smith were very close, they trusted each other and understand how each other viewed the world and its surroundings. Soon they traveled to the home of Mr. and Mrs. Clutter and their two kids: Nancy and Kenyon located in Holcomb.

They executed the murder in a terrible fashion compared to their flawless plan. (Dick Hickock, Perry Smith Killed ‘In Cold Blood’ 50 Years Ago NYDailyNews. com 1) First off there was no safe, the stories Wells told about the safe and the big money for his small part-time employees was nothing more than a hoax. Second, they still murdered the family and only got away with pocket change compared to the thousands they were supposed to find, no more than fifty dollars. Something worse and even possibly considered more terrible than the murder almost happened as Smith described here by saying, “I was worried about that myself.

I suspected Dick was plotting something, something I wouldn’t stand for” (287). What Smith is speaking of is Hickock’s disturbing fantasies of young children, such as the one he had for Nancy Clutter, the fragile teenage daughter. Smith later perplexed the idea of Hickock’s main goal being the young girl, not the safe. This almost-rape event tore up a big chunk of Hickock’s relationship with Smith. Even though the two were starting to feel a grudge between them, they still went on with the Mexico plan after leaving the Clutter’s house that night.

Without telling a soul, even close family members of the two murders, they left for Mexico. They spent multiple weeks their but later learned that this was not the life for them, they were not clam fisherman, they needed more excitement in their lives. This led them to Las Vegas where they would spend their last few dollars on fancy casinos and cheap women. After just a few weeks of this the two were stopped by a passing police officer searching for a stolen car. Hickock and Smith were now suspects with possible charges of murder and other small petty crimes to go along with it.

As Hickock and Smith begun to be questioned they started to feel the pressure, thinking and wondering about what the other might say. Capote learned of this in an interview he had with Smith, Capote wrote, “He’d give an arm, a leg to talk to Dick for just five minutes” (269). The first one to crack under the pressure would be Hickock, he spilled out everything on the table telling every officer of how Smith was the one who shot each and every Clutter as Capote stated here, “He [Hickock] lifted his head, and slowly straightened up in the chair, like a fighter staggering to his feet. “It was Perry. I couldn’t stop him.

He killed them all” (272). Smith’s story was quite different at first, he stated that he had been the one to kill Mr. Clutter and Kenyon, but it was Hickock that killed the two females. Later after the initial court case had ended, Smith confessed to killing all 4 of the Clutters and thought about killing Hickock as Smith said here, “So Dick was afraid of me? That’s amusing. I’m very amused. What he don’t know is, I almost did shoot him” (276). Many follow up trials came and went but nothing more happened than the two being convicted of murder and placed on death row located in the Kansas State Penitentiary.

Here is where the final act of a so called break-up appeared. After numerous attempts to get a jail sentence instead of death by hanging and countless years of waiting, the time had come for the hanging. (Execution of the Day: A Year in the Life of Death Eotd. WordPress. com 1) As the duo step forth Smith had one more thing to say to Hickock as heard by a witness of the hanging, “But Smith says why not do it alphabetically. Guess ‘cause S comes after H. Ha” (403). And this did happen, Hickock was hung first and just under thirty minutes later his accomplice Smith was hung.

The two maybe never did get along with each other 100% but they were all each other had. They were both severely messed up individuals longing for a companion. Each other was just the only option available considering each situation they got themselves into. No matter if they were actually true friends or just stuck together because of personal needs the two had multiple changes in their relationship, from helpful beginnings in their first shared jail cell to making sure the other lived longer than his former partner in crime.

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Work Cited “14 April 1965 – Richard Hickock and Perry Smith” Eotd. WordPress. Web. 10 March 2010. Capote, Truman. In Cold Blood. New York: Random House, Inc, 1992. Print. Geringer, Joseph. “The Clutter Family Killings: Cold Blood. ” TruTv. Web. 8 March 2010. Krajicek, David J. “Dick Hickock, Perry Smith Killed ‘In Cold Blood’ 50 Years Ago. ” NYDailyNews. 15 Nov. 2009. Web. 8 March 2010. “Richard Hickock and Perry Smith Biography. ” Biography. A&E Television Networks. Web. 5 March 2010.

Author: Brandon Johnson

in In Cold Blood

In Cold Blood Essay

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