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A pair of murder cases that in the pre-Internet era captivated America, but which these days seem nearly as archaic as silent films, briefly returned to something like national prominence recently.
Which is to say they prompted Facebook posts and tweets.
The explanation is simple enough for why the 1969 murders orchestrated by Charles Manson in Los Angeles, and the killing a decade earlier of four members of the Clutter family in Holcomb, Kansas, have generated a modest amount of publicity.
Manson, who for several years after his arrest in 1969 was probably the most infamous criminal in the U.S., died on Nov. 19 at age 83.
And in the two preceding days, the SundanceTV cable network premiered a four-hour documentary about the Clutter murders.
If that family name isn’t familiar, then the best-known book written about the case probably is.
That’s Truman Capote’s “In Cold Blood.” It was published in 1966, the year after the two murderers, Richard Hickock and Perry Smith, were hanged at the Kansas State Penitentiary.
Capote’s book, which he coined a “non-fiction novel,” is widely considered the inspiration for the modern true crime genre, a category that continues to weigh down shelves in bookstores and libraries.
Capote melded the narrative style of a novel with straightforward journalism in a way that was, if not unique, then revolutionary for a subject until then largely confined to lurid detective magazines.
Capote’s influence on the definitive book on Manson — “Helter Skelter,” published in 1974 and co-authored by Vincent Bugliosi, who prosecuted Manson and his disciples — is obvious to even a casual reader.
I’ve been a true crime aficionado since I was a teenager, so I was pretty well-acquainted with both the Manson and the Clutter cases.
I was slightly surprised at how muted the reaction to Manson’s death seemed to me. He was vastly more infamous than Hickock and Smith — indeed, the name Manson was all but synonymous with “crazed killer” for much of the last 30 years of the 20th century. His TV “interviews” — more spectacle than substance — remain fixtures of lowbrow crime documentaries.
A couple of commentators speculated that Manson’s death was upstaged by the biggest story of the autumn — the ongoing deluge of sexual abuse and harassment allegations against celebrity men.
That sounds plausible, to be sure.
But the lack of publicity also suggests that a common complaint — that killers receive too much attention — doesn’t necessarily reflect the reality, which is that after many decades, society’s memories of any event, including murders, will inevitably dim.
I read essays from several pundits who posited a different theory about the rather mundane response to Manson’s demise — that Americans have become desensitized to mass killings by Las Vegas and Columbine and Orlando and many other catastrophes with death tolls greater than either the Manson or the Clutter cases.
Manson and his “Family” were involved for certain in the murders of nine people: Sharon Tate, Jay Sebring, Voytek Frykowski, Abigail Folger, Steven Parent, Rosemary LaBianca, Leno LaBianca, Gary Hinman and Donald “Shorty” Shea. Tate’s unborn son — she was 8ﬁ months pregnant — also died.
Hickock and Smith were convicted of killing Herbert Clutter, his wife, Bonnie, and two of their children, Nancy and Kenyon.
I suppose there’s some validity to this morbid notion that we rate the significance of a murder spree in a purely mathematical way, as though we were keeping score of a football game.
But it seems to me that the Manson and Clutter stories have defied the dulling effects of time more than most crimes have done, despite the comparatively small numbers of victims.
Manson’s death wasn’t the top story of the day, but neither was it relegated to the back pages. And the Clutter case was compelling enough that Academy Award nominee Joe Berlinger agreed to direct the SundanceTV documentary, “Cold Blooded.”
I believe these two events have retained much of their relevance because they still have the power to frighten people in a way that’s different from how we feel about mass shootings in public places.
I’m not talking about the random and senseless nature that’s common to both categories.
The difference, it seems to me, is that both the Manson and Clutter murders forced people to confront the idea that they weren’t necessarily safe even inside their homes — that strangers would enter their homes in the dead of night and murder wantonly.
Then, too, the motivations of the killers in both cases were themselves scary.
This is most notable with the Manson Family, whose members believed, with the mindless zealotry common to cults, Manson’s prediction that a war between blacks and whites would devastate the world but also elevate Manson to a sort of king-like status after the war.
It’s hardly surprising that Americans were horrified by the reality that Manson’s control was so complete that young people, most of them women and none older than 23, would stab, club and shoot strangers to death.
The reason Hickock and Smith went to the Clutter home was by contrast quite conventional — they thought the family had a safe that contained $10,000 in cash.
Yet even after the pair figured out that there was no safe, and no cash, they still killed all four members of the family, simply for fear of leaving witnesses.
I think it’s beyond dispute that the Clutter murders wouldn’t be as well-known had Capote not written a book about the case.
Yet it also seems to me that the aspects of the case that so intrigued Capote — in particular the apparent senselessness of an act that decimated a family that seemed as unlikely to be murdered as any family could be — continue to command a sort of dread-laced fascination.
Whatever the reasons, I think it’s likely that both the Manson and the Clutter murders will still occupy prominent places in the pantheon of America’s worst crimes far into the future.
Fear, as always, has an attraction that many of us are helpless to resist.
Jayson Jacoby is editor
of the Baker City Herald.