A telephone ringing during a church service might not be surprising today, as people sometimes forget to turn off their cell phones.

A telephone ringing during services at Grace Methodist Church in Winfield on the morning of Nov. 15, 1959, was more than unusual. It was the announcement of a tragedy that touched all of Kansas, but particularly Southwestern College and Garden City.

A few hours earlier, two men had broken into the Clutter home, near Holcomb, ransacked the place and murdered four members of the Clutter family, the parents, their 16-year old daughter and 15 year-old son.  

Last week of the 60th anniversary of that tragic event, memorized in the controversial book, "In Cold Blood" by Truman Capote.

Less known is that the Clutters had two older daughters who had already left home. One, Beverly, was a student at Southwestern College.

Carl Martin, former Southwestern College president, was then a student at Southwestern. He was at the church that morning His parents were also there, in town because it was Homecoming Weekend. 

An usher, J.C. Witter, answered the phone, then went into the church and tapped Martin’s father on the shoulder and asked him and his wife to go with him. The Winfield police had called the church looking for Beverly. 

Witter asked Martin’s parents to break the news of the family’s deaths to Beverly, who was also at the service with her boyfriend, Vere English.

“You have to understand,” Carl said, “My parents were close friends of the Clutters.”

The families had a shared history that went back years. The Martins and the the Clutters, along with other families, having settled in the same area in the late 1800s.

The Martins drove Beverly and Vere to Garden City that day. Someone had given Beverly a sedative before she left, and she was sick during the entire trip.

Though Carl knew them, he stayed at the college.

Don Viets was the pastor at Grace at the time and made sure the appropriate care was available for those trying to cope with the “utter shock” of the experience. 

“In the current world,” Martin said, “there is so much violence it is most of the news.” When the Clutters were killed, that event was “distinctive, a rarity.”

Carl, who was student body president, attended the funeral along with two other students from the college. 

 

‘In Cold Blood’

Martin, interviewed this week about the anniversary of that event, has never read the famous book that details the crime and events before and after, nor has he seen the movie and he doesn’t expect to. He called it exploitive.

Martin said Capote made “assumptions” about Kansas that were untrue and made a lot of money from the book. 

Capote “delved into” the life of Garden City and Holcomb, but he interpreted what he found in terms of his East Coast world. 

“It took decades for the communities of Garden City and Holcomb to heal,” Martin said. To have an outsider come and use the tragedy for his own ends only added to the tragedy.

“This is a small community in 1950s Kansas,” Martin said, and they were not prepared to cope with outside attention they received on top of the tragedy itself.

Martin realizes he has a unique perspective on the events because of his family ties and because he was at Southwestern at the time.

What surprises him is that many people with whom he’s spoken have never heard of the Clutters or “In Cold Blood.”

He said that lack of knowledge is disturbing because the events were about an assault on community that he sees continuing today in many ways. Rebuilding community should be everyone’s concern, he said.

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