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Mystery with local connection captures headlines in 1959
Out of the Morgue
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This photo appears courtesy of on the website, where the report “In Cold Blood: Revisiting the chilling Clutter family murders 58 years later” can be found. The family was found 60 years ago this week.

Each week we’ll take a step back into the history of Great Bend through the eyes of reporters past. We’ll reacquaint you with what went into creating the Great Bend of today, and do our best to update you on what “the rest of the story” turned out to be. 

The November 16, 1959 Great Bend Daily Tribune included a report from the Associated Press out of Garden City, “Four Members of Garden City Family Slain; Murderer, Motive are Sought.” 

“In a farm home far off the beaten path of this vast wheat area four members of a respected, well-to-do family were murdered over the weekend. 

Herbert Clutter, 48, his wife, Bonnie, 45, their daughter, Nancy Mae, 16 and son Kenyon, 15, were bound hand and foot and gagged. All were shot in the head. Clutter’s throat was slashed. 

The victims were slain by a shotgun. Neither the gun nor the weapon with which clutter’s throat was cut have been found.

Nothing in the house was in disarray. No valuables appeared to be missing. Money which Nancy had placed in an envelope for church lay on her bedroom dresser beside a diamond ring.”

The report provided some details about the family, and stated that Mrs. Jim Thurman of Great Bend is a niece of Clutter. Her family had just received an invitation to visit the Clutters for Thanksgiving dinner. The Clutters had Pawnee County connections. Herbert Clutter’s surviving family for the most part lived in Larned, and Bonnie Clutter was born in Rozel, though her surviving family had moved out of state to California, Illinois and Kansas City. 

Throughout the week, reports detailed the bewilderment and sadness felt by the Holcomb community and the friends and family members of the Clutter family and efforts by law enforcement to track down leads.  

A funeral for the entire family together was held Wednesday, Nov. 18, and the burial was in Valley View cemetery in Garden City.  

Authorities tracked down every lead, but were coming up short by the end of the week. 

That Saturday, it was reported that family members who attended the Clutter’s funeral Wednesday stayed over to attend the wedding of Miss Beverly Clutter, one of the surviving daughters, to her fiance Vern Edward English of Newton. They had planned to be married around Christmastime, “but moved the date up because of the many relatives here from distant points in the country.” 

Eventually, the KBI caught wind of a story a prisoner at the Kansas State Penitentiary was telling about Richard Hickock and Perry Smith. He claimed the two had planned to rob the Clutters while they were serving time. Agents interviewed Hickock’s parents, and at that time found the shotgun. The two killers were found in Las Vegas and brought back to Kansas. Both were found guilty and sentenced to death. 

In 1962, Truman Capote interviewed the killers for his bestseller, “In Cold 

The Nov.. 24, 2017, edition of Tribune includes a report about a presentation KBI scientist Lisa Burdett presented to the Ellinwood Rotary Club the week before. Burdett is a local forensics scientist who works with DNA. Nearly 50 years after Smith and Hickock were buried, she was called upon to help determine if the two had been responsible for an unsolved murder in Florida that had occurred around the time of the Clutter murders. She was able to get partial DNA samples from the exhumed bones of Hickock and Smith, and full sample from Hickock’s son who agreed to be tested. From these, she was able to compare them to the evidence from the Florida murder.

“She was able to determine that the donor of the stains (at the Florida murder scene) was not consistent with Smith, Hickock, and the son of Hickock. She was also able to determine that Hickock and his son were indeed biologically related.”  

Burdett also said the Sarasota, Fla. Sheriff’s Office still has not ruled Hickock and Smith out as culprits of the Walker murders. 

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The caption for this Nov. 14, 1959 photo: “Wistful Losers -- Two young Wichita East High debaters look on as two young Moundridge high debaters receive the first place trophy in Great Bend High School’s fifth annual invitational tournament concluded here Saturday. Forrest Nelson, GBHS debate coach, makes the presentation to (left to right) Danielle Goering and Janet Wedel. The young men, Keith Williamson and John Morehouse, won second among the 58 teams competing.
Debate winners

Also this week in Great Bend, the Nov. 14 Tribune reported a team of two Moundridge girls won first-place at Great Bend High School’s fifth annual invitational tournament. By today’s standards, the headline “Girls Out-talk Boys in GBHS Tournament” is patronizing at best, illustrating the kind of gender-bias routine in the 1950s and 1960s. Today, the report on Janet Wedel and Danielle Goering’s performance, going undefeated in five rounds of preliminary debates and winning of the semi-finals and final arguments would not be considered amazing due to their gender. 

58 two-student teams competed, representing 25 Kansas high schools. The question, “Resolved: That the federal government should substantially increase regulation of labor unions.” The Moundridge team held the negative argument, against the Wichita team of Keith Williamson and John Morehouse. 

This year, the KSHSAA Debate topic of the year is Arms Sales. 

“Resolved: The United States federal government should substantially reduce Direct Commercial Sales and/or Foreign Military Sales of arms from the United States.” We look forward to reading and reporting how our local high school forensics and debate teams progress in their season each week. 

Kennedy Dinner

The presidential race was beginning to heat up in 1959. Then, presidential candidates made a point of stopping in Kansas to meet and greet voters, and by the end of the week, Democrats in Barton County would have the opportunity to meet a future president in person. 

“Barton County Democrats can secure tickets to a party fund-raising dinner, with Sen. John Kennedy of Massachusetts as the headliner, by contacting Miss Christine Beakey of Great Bend or Mrs. Grant Lane of Hoisington. 

‘Miss Beakey said Saturday she and Mrs. Lane have a number of tickets, ($10 for men, $5 for women) to the Sixth District affair set for Hays on Nov. 20.”

Imagine! A fundraising dinner with $10 and $5 tickets! What a different world this was 60 years ago. 

Barack Obama visited Kansas during the 2008 campaign, traveling to ElDorado, Kan., where he received an endorsement from Gov. Kathleen Sebelius. President Donald Trump has visited Kansas too, most recently in October, 2018, in support of gubernatorial candidate Kris Kobach. So it’s not unusual for presidents or future presidents to stop here. But the cost of having dinner with them has gone through the roof. In 2012, Obama fundraiser dinner tickets started in the thousands of dollars range. Trump tickets in 2016 ran in the tens of thousands of dollars. However, tickets to Trump’s “Make America Great” rallies and the numerous Obama rallies were free for the asking. 

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A monument to Walter Washington Williams is located in Gettysburg National Military Park in Pennsylvania. He was recognized by the U.S. government as the last surviving Confederate veteran, and died at the age of 117 years old on December 19, 1959.
Just for fun
Last Rebel turns 117

On Nov. 14, the Tribune carried an Associated Press report about the 117th birthday of Walter Washington Williams, who was reportedly the oldest living Rebel soldier from the Civil War. Williams received well-wishes from Mrs. Dwight D. Eisenhower who celebrated her birthday on the same day. A big family party was planned for the weekend. Williams passed away in December, 1959, and a monument to the man stands at Gettysburg National Military Park in Pennsylvania.