The human conundrum

Ed Smith
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I have one of those common names. I share it with many others. At one point, Motor Vehicle Registration statistics listed 29 of us with driver’s licences in Newfoundland and Labrador alone.

The reason I don’t get more mail than I do is that much of it goes in error to those other Ed Smiths who don’t bother to forward it on to me. Envy and jealousy are a terrible thing.

A fear I have is that someone else out there bears the full moniker Edward Alexander Dorman Smith. Why the concern? You already know what happened to Capt. Edward Smith of the Titanic.

Well, in addition to that, Dorman, one of my father’s best friends, was drowned in a river. My father, Alexander, came within an inch of of losing his life on his schooner, which burned and sank.

So far, I’ve escaped the watery grave. But can you imagine what horrors could be in store for someone else running around with that same name and no excuse for it? On second thought, he may be gone already, poor fellow.

Then there’s one Perry Edward Smith. Smith and a younger accomplice, Dick Hickock, broke into a farmhouse in Kansas one night in 1959 having heard that the Clutter family had a safe with $10,000 in it. There was no safe and no money. So they murdered Clutter, his wife, the son and their teen-aged daughter. Nice boys.

Writer Truman Capote was at that time an internationally known celebrity and the darling of New York society. The diminutive (barely five feet tall) Capote dressed flamboyantly and had an outrageous lifestyle, making no secret of his homosexuality.

He immediately became interested in the Kansas murders and set out to write a psychological novel based on the tragedy.

The story of the writing of “In Cold Blood” is gripping. The novel took six years to complete and made Capote rich. Many of his friends believed it also led to his death from alcohol and drug abuse.

Harper Lee had been one of his friends from childhood. She was already famous, having won a Pulitzer prize for “To kill a Mockingbird.” Her devotion to Capote was such that she went with him as notetaker on an extended trip to the Kansas town where the family was killed.

After some time, the townsfolk talked to them openly about the victims and the crime. Through his friendship with the local sheriff, Capote was also able to visit the two men in prison and interviewed them extensively.

The younger man told Capote that they entered the farmhouse and immediately tied up the four members of the family.

The husband and son were taken to the basement while the women were left in their beds upstairs. Hickock said that he wanted to rape the daughter, but Smith stopped him, something the younger man couldn’t understand since they were about to murder her, anyway.

Hickock also said that when they went down to the basement, Smith placed a pillow under the son’s head as he lay bound and gagged on a couch. He also laid the husband on a mattress on the floor because he said the floor was cold. Then Smith cut the husband’s throat and shot both father and son to death where they lay. The two then went upstairs and killed the wife and daughter. .

What fascinated Capote was the puzzling combination in Smith of what seemed to be at one moment human tenderness and in the next fiendish cruelty. It’s what grabbed my attention, as well, after reading past the fact that this murderer had my name.

Stephen King wrote a novel, “The Dark Side,” showing both evil and moral behaviour in the one person, but gave no explanation for that contradiction. John Steinbeck, in “East of Eden,” had one twin who was “good” and the other “bad,” but in the book, the latter was the product of how he was treated by his father.

Capote, too, delved into the family backgrounds of the murderers, especially that of Smith, who was the greatest enigma for him. Smith’s family background was likewise sad and dark and in some ways mirrored Capote’s own.

When Capote first began interviewing Smith, he sent him a bundle of Playboy magazines for his “entertainment.” Smith returned them saying he preferred more tasteful literature. Shortly before their executions, Capote told Smith that he wasn’t a bad man, but a good man who had done a terrible thing.

We’re often told to condemn the sin and not the sinner, which would seem to be an enlightened viewpoint that Capote shared.

During their time together over six years, Smith and Capote drew close to each other. After their sentencing, two years went by before the executions were carried out, a time which Capote confessed was intense agony for him. He could not finish “In Cold Blood” until they had been executed.

Interestingly, Capote told Smith that the title of his book referred not to the murder of the Kansas family but to the court’s passing of the death sentence. That, he said, was what was in cold blood.

One of the people interviewed in that Kansas town remarked to Capote that when a bad wind takes hold of a good man, it carries him away like a leaf far from where he once was. I have yet to read “In Cold Blood,” but I will soon because I want to know more of what Capote said about this basic contradiction in human character.

Anyway, Harper Lee had the most tragic footnote to this whole sad story.

“On the scaffold that day,” she wrote, “three men died.”

What did Truman Capote learn from and/or about Perry Edward Smith that drove him to the drink and drugs that ultimately killed him? Was it a close encounter with the human conundrum?

Or something else much deeper that he couldn’t face?

Ed Smith is an author who lives in Springdale. His email address is

Organizations: New York society, Pulitzer

Geographic location: Kansas, Newfoundland and Labrador, Eden Springdale

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