The silent rattlesnakes of Truman Capote, and the hoax behind Hand-Carved Coffins

Late last week, I took a few days off from work and went to Chicago with the family. We visited friends, ate really good brisket, poked our heads into the small and dark apartment of Henry Darger, invested way too much time studying the habits of the longnose walking batfish, and spent Linette’s birthday seeing Hamilton, which, as it turns out, was every bit as terrific, inspirational and thought-provoking as we’d been led to believe. And, now, I’m finding it difficult to get back into the groove of writing. I know there are things I should probably mention, like the fact that Trump’s Department of Homeland Security just disbanded a group of intelligence analysts whose job it had been to track white nationalist organizations and other domestic terrorism threats, but I just can’t seem to find the motivation. Instead, I’m just sitting here right now, aimlessly jumping from rabbit hole to rabbit hole, looking for anything that might distract me for even a few minutes, so that I don’t get sucked back into the hell of political Twitter.

Right now, I’m watching 1975 footage of author Truman Capote telling Johnny Carson about a bizarre series of murders that began with a couple being done-in by a half-dozen rattlesnakes that had been injected with amphetamines. [“Could this have been where the record label Amphetamine Reptile got its name?”, I wonder.] Capote tells Carson in detail about how the rattles of the snakes had been cut away, making them completely silent, and how they’d been hidden inside the car of the victims, and how the killer then went on to kill other residents of his small midwestern town in various, equally-disturbing ways… When asked if this might be a case that Capote would consider writing about, the author told Carson that he’d already said everything he’d had to say about murder in his book In Cold Blood… Here’s their painfully slow, but very interesting exchange.

[It’s difficult to image that Capote, talking as slowly as he does, would ever be booked as a guest on a television talk show in the modern era. I mean, he probably wouldn’t be booked anyway, as authors and public intellectuals are no longer given the kind of mass media attention that they were several decades ago, but, putting that aside, there’s no way that any talk show guest in today’s environment would be given eight minutes to tell a single anecdote, regardless of how interesting the underlying elements might be. Americans just don’t have the same attention spans that they once did. Our brains have been completely rewired… We have become the rattlesnakes on speed.]

For what it’s worth, the story that Capote shared on the Tonight Show wasn’t true. And he did eventually write it. It appears among a number of other essays in his long-awaited 1980 followup to In Cold Blood, Music for Chameleons… a book which the Atlantic recently called Capote’s best and most personal work.

The story behind the story is a fascinating one. It involves Capote, a hard-drinking author with a legendary fondness for cocaine, deep in depression a decade after the success of In Cold Blood, creating this literary work, which he called a “non-fiction account of an American crime,” from bits and pieces of stories that he’d essentially stolen from Al Dewey, the Kansas detective who is credited with bringing Richard “Dick” Hickock and Perry Smith, the killers at the center of the murder case detailed in In Cold Blood, to justice… Dewey, who had been looking for a book deal about the cases that he’d worked prior to the murders of the Clutter family in the small town of Holcomb, Kansas, apparently shared the stories with Capote, who then pulled them together into a composite, adding dramatic flourishes, and placing himself at the center of the action… Here’s short excerpt from a 1992 piece in the London Sunday Times Magazine about Capote’s hoax.

…Joe Fox was astounded. On his desk, this late autumn day in 1979, was a manuscript bearing the name of Truman Capote. Two months before, Capote had promised Fox a “surprise,” but Fox had been unimpressed: as Capote’s long-suffering editor at the New York publishing company, Random House, he had grown weary of his endless promises. Now Capote had delivered a manuscript to rank with his masterpiece, In Cold Blood.

Published 13 years before, Capote’s true-life account of the murder of a ranching family in Kansas had brought him literary acclaim, with status and royalties to march. Yet Capote had written nothing to match it since. He had supposedly been working on a novel, Answered Prayers, but for more than a decade Fox had watched deadlines come and go with nothing from Capote but a series of excuses.

The gossip-mongers of the literary world were proclaiming that Capote was burnt out, his sources of inspiration dissipated by alcohol and cocaine. Now Capote had confounded them all by delivering a sequel to In Cold Blood. He called it Hand-Carved Coffins, adding the potent subtitle: “A non-fiction account of an American crime.”

Fox started reading with mixed feelings, since it was not the long-awaited novel; but soon found it utterly absorbing. Like In Cold Blood its subject-matter was murder in the American Midwest. In 1970 a group of farmers had wanted to divert a river to irrigate their land but were opposed by a powerful rancher named Robert Quinn, through whose property the river flowed. A committee of townsfolk voted against the rancher by 8-1.

Over the next five years the committee members were murdered in a series of elaborate and gruesome executions. The first two victims were a lawyer and his wife. Climbing into their car one morning, they were attacked by nine huge rattlesnakes which had been placed inside overnight. The snakes had been injected with amphetamines to make them more aggressive and the victims’ heads had swollen and turned green, Capote wrote, “like Halloween pumpkins”. Victims three and four, a farming couple, were killed in an equally calculating manner. They were living in the basement of their ranch-house while the upper part was being rebuilt. The killer had sealed the entrance with concrete blocks and then set the basement alight, creating an inferno from which there was no escape.

Although the remaining committee members were now on their guard, the executions continued remorselessly. The fifth member, a rancher who drove an open-topped Jeep, was decapitated by a wire stretched at head-height across the road. The sixth, the town coroner, was poisoned; the seventh, a widowed teacher, drowned in a puzzling swimming accident. The eighth, the local postmaster, fled to Hawaii, while the ninth, who alone had voted for the rancher, was spared.

In a further macabre touch, most victims had been sent a miniature wooden coffin containing a photograph of themselves. What made Capote’s account all the more compelling was that the murders remained unsolved. Capote had become closely involved in the investigation, headed by a detective named Jake Pepper. Both regarded the wealthy rancher, Quinn, as the principal suspect but after spending almost nine years on the case Pepper failed to secure any solid evidence against him, eventually retiring in 1979.

Capote met Quinn on several occasions and once played him at chess. He too had to leave the matter unresolved, ending Hand-Carved Coffins by describing an enigmatic meeting with Quinn beside the river which had sparked the original dispute.

By the time he had finished reading, Fox had concluded that Hand-Carved Coffins was a tour de force. It also served as the perfect riposte to Capote’s critics, demonstrating that his years in the literary wilderness had been spent working on a new masterpiece…

While Al Dewey did apparently share a story with Capote about a rattlesnake that, after having had its rattle sheared off, was used as an instrument of death, there were no hand-carved coffins, and the author never played chess with the serial murderer. But Capote maintained until his death in 1984 that it was all true, and that he’d provided verification to 20th Century Fox, which, at that time, was developing a film version of Hand-Carved Coffins. He hadn’t, though, and the film project would eventually die. And, over time, it came to light that the whole thing had been a hoax on Capote’s part… an attempt on the part of an increasingly desperate alcoholic author to recapture the magic of In Cold Blood over a decade later, without anywhere near the same investment of time or attention to detail. [While Capote’s six years of meticulous work on In Cold Blood has been well documented, there’s no evidence of any real research having been done on Hand-Carved Coffins. The Sunday Times piece noted above goes into a lot more detail on this this, for those who are interested.]

It’s making me sad, reading about Capote’s decline, the addictions, the hair transplants, the cosmetic surgery, and all the rest of it… but it’s also kind of beautiful that, toward the end, he was able to pull off this incredibly ambitious last act by taking everything that he had at his disposal and using it create this piece of fiction posing as a legitimate follow-up to In Cold Blood. It reminds me of something that Orson Welles might have done.

update: An interesting addition from the comment section. This comes from Jean Henry.

“I spent some time in Greece when I was 17/18 in the company of a rich NY son of society, also on the lam. He was homesick and would tell amazing stories of Rose Styron drunk, sneaking into Studio 54 at 12, harassing Richard Nixon by making paper airplanes of his resignation speech and throwing them over a garden wall into his courtyard, etc. But his best stories were about Capote who, at the end of his life, would show up on Thanksgiving night, uninvited, declare himself lonely and friendless and then proceed to make up stories all night long.”

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52 Comments

  1. iRobert
    Posted April 3, 2019 at 5:04 am | Permalink

    It seem sort of odd that Capote couldn’t find another real murder case to write about, or didn’t try. That would seem almost a natural thing to do after the success of “In Cold Blood.”

  2. Anonymous
    Posted April 3, 2019 at 6:22 am | Permalink

    Donald Trump claims that the noise of windmills causes cancer.

    https://twitter.com/walldo/status/1113258492368904192?s=21

  3. Anonymous
    Posted April 3, 2019 at 6:24 am | Permalink

    He also says that his father, Fred Trump, was born in Germany when he was born in New York.

    https://twitter.com/twittermoments/status/1113191327443968005?s=21

  4. Anonymous
    Posted April 3, 2019 at 6:28 am | Permalink

    “My father is German, was German. Born in a very wonderful place in Germany.” -Donald Trump

  5. Anonymous
    Posted April 3, 2019 at 6:31 am | Permalink

    Jeanine Pirro says on Fox News that an example must be made of “the traitorous treasonous group that accused Donald Trump”.

    https://twitter.com/jasonscampbell/status/1112160568482414592?s=21

  6. Anonymous
    Posted April 3, 2019 at 6:34 am | Permalink

    If you refuse to do your job, writing about Truman Capote instead of things that really matter, I have no choice but to commandeer this aircraft.

  7. iRobert
    Posted April 3, 2019 at 6:54 am | Permalink

    Sorry Anonymous, Jean beat you to it.

  8. Posted April 3, 2019 at 7:13 am | Permalink

    I saw this article yesterday and thought you would find it interesting too.

    Who Ran The SLA?
    https://aadl.org/node/200649

  9. Hyborian Warlord
    Posted April 3, 2019 at 7:50 am | Permalink

    What’s going on at the SPLC? Are you going to keep it on your organizations list? A racist, sex-abusing, money-hoarding phony civil rights charity with hundreds of millions in the Bahamas? Nice

  10. Jean Henry
    Posted April 3, 2019 at 8:22 am | Permalink

    HW–The SPLC recently fired its founder, Morris Dees, and it’s director stepped down. No word in why but it came after an internal examination of gender and racial bias within the organization. We don’t know more. My guess is this is a me-too thing, having spent much time around successful, older, liberal do-gooder men.

    As for the offshore account for the endowment. That’s common practice. While non-profits in the US are tax exempt, they are not tax exempt from investment income generated when buying on margin– aka most hedge funds etc. So many hold assets offshore. The SPLC has a notoriously large endowment. They are also the best at what they do. (The two may be related.)

    UM and most universities with sizeable endowments also invest in private equity and hedge funds offshore.

    It’s gross but not illegal.

  11. Jean Henry
    Posted April 3, 2019 at 8:34 am | Permalink

    Mark– I love this. I like that he is making up the story on the spot and presenting it as real. It feels very Andy Kauffman (who also would not be allowed on talk shows today). I think the whole Joaquin Phoenix thing on Letterman was the last of these moments. That was also brilliant. Shia LeBoeuf tried but failed b/c his ‘performance’ was just about him.

    I spent some time in Greece when I was 17/18 in the company of a rich NY son of society, also on the lam. He was homesick and would tell amazing stories of Rose Styron drunk, sneaking into Studio 54 at 12, harassing Richard Nixon by making paper airplanes of his resignation speech and throwing them over a garden wall into his courtyard, etc. But his best stories were about Capote who, at the end of his life, would show up on Thanksgiving night, uninvited, declare himself lonely and friendless and then proceed to make up stories all night long.

    I believe my friend was telling the truth. I visited him a few times in NYC later. His account skewed close what I witnessed. And a drunk Rose Styron hung up on me once while trying to reach him. I believe she called me a trollop.

  12. Jean Henry
    Posted April 3, 2019 at 8:37 am | Permalink

    I will admit some disappointment as I was sure the amphetamine-fueled reptiles would pique HW’s interest,

  13. Hyborian Warlord
    Posted April 3, 2019 at 8:44 am | Permalink

    “Best at what they do”

    Scamming people for money

  14. Hyborian Warlord
    Posted April 3, 2019 at 8:47 am | Permalink

    “Shia LeBoeuf tried but failed b/c his ‘performance’ was just about him.”

    Shia got obliterated by 4channers. Did you ever see how they located his installation in the middle of nowhere? Fucked him RIGHT up. “He will not divide us!” Correct message, wrong subtext.

  15. Jean Henry
    Posted April 3, 2019 at 8:55 am | Permalink

    Scamming people for money is only part of what the SPLC does, HW. You may not appreciate their work, but many do. And so they give. There has been no accusation that they don’t pursue their mission and well. They are simply very well endowed. (I just like writing that;-)

  16. Jean Henry
    Posted April 3, 2019 at 8:55 am | Permalink

    “Truman made lying an art form—a minor art form.”– Gore Vidal

  17. Hyborian Warlord
    Posted April 3, 2019 at 9:01 am | Permalink

    How was it about him anyway? Are we talking about the same thing? His project was a streaming cam where everyone was encouraged to stand there any time of day or night and repeatedly moo like cows “HE WILL NOT DIVIDE US!!!” 4channers started going to it and making fun of it so he moved it to a place so remote he thought they would never find it. I think they finally drove him over the edge when they located it and destroyed it.

  18. Hyborian Warlord
    Posted April 3, 2019 at 9:03 am | Permalink

    “Scamming people for money is only part of what the SPLC does, HW. You may not appreciate their work, but many do. ”

    Damnit, Jean!!! You made me spill my covfefe!

  19. Eel
    Posted April 3, 2019 at 9:07 am | Permalink

    If Mark had written about Adrenochrome-fueled Reptilians, instead of amphetamine-fueled reptiles, I think HW would have responded.

  20. Jean Henry
    Posted April 3, 2019 at 9:08 am | Permalink

    No that wasn’t the LeBoeuf to which I referred. I had never heard of that one, HW.

  21. Jean Henry
    Posted April 3, 2019 at 9:14 am | Permalink

    *LeBoeuf incident.
    There have been many.

    If you are rich and crazy you can call acting out ‘performance,’ but if it doesn’t resonate with anyone,.it’s not art.

  22. Hyborian Warlord
    Posted April 3, 2019 at 9:24 am | Permalink

    Amphetamine Reptile was a good label. Too bad about the bankruptcy leading to a corporate takeover by Dr. Sphincter that saw it transformed into a cog in the military industrial complex.

  23. Hyborian Warlord
    Posted April 3, 2019 at 9:28 am | Permalink

    Yeah, that was about the only thing I ever heard about Shia so whatever you are talking about is obscure to me. Do you mean when he seemed to be breaking down and they asked him about getting kicked out of bars and things? That was during the he will not divide us period.

  24. Jean Henry
    Posted April 3, 2019 at 10:17 am | Permalink

    https://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/film/10936223/Shia-LaBeouf-where-did-it-all-go-wrong.html

  25. Hyborian Warlord
    Posted April 3, 2019 at 10:59 am | Permalink

    An attention whore I never heard of for a long time; ironic.

  26. Hyborian Warlord
    Posted April 3, 2019 at 11:28 am | Permalink

    The brilliance of the 4chan autists who located Shia’s flag is astonishing.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SzuJ3luJgBM

  27. Hyborian Warlord
    Posted April 3, 2019 at 11:41 am | Permalink

    Nice lil anti-Q video for you from the same channel. Only thing is I don’t think Q ever mentioned 5G. There you go though. That’s how all the anti-Q people do it it seems.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UsgEinmVUlg

  28. Jean Henry
    Posted April 3, 2019 at 11:59 am | Permalink

    HW– We’re just going to have to agree to disagree on what constitutes ‘brilliance.’

  29. Hyborian Warlord
    Posted April 3, 2019 at 1:20 pm | Permalink

    Using the stars and triangulation of flight patterns to find the HWNDU flag not brilliant? Mkay.

  30. Jean Henry
    Posted April 3, 2019 at 1:35 pm | Permalink

    Exerting great effort (not rocket science, just effort) to tear down a UNITY flag in the middle of nowhere is not brilliant. No. It’s incredibly stupid. They no doubt drew a lot of attention to something that would otherwise be ignored. It also makes them look like bullies. Under-occupied bullies. Kind of the definition of your average 4 chan-er anyway.

  31. Hyborian Warlord
    Posted April 3, 2019 at 1:51 pm | Permalink

    The statement is true and not a point of contention. It’s the subtext: “he wants to divide us.” Shia was one of the most divisive ones around. Where has he been? Is HWNDU still going somewhere? I haven’t heard from him in a while. About as long ago as when the autists found the flag.

  32. Hyborian Warlord
    Posted April 3, 2019 at 1:56 pm | Permalink

    I’d say Shia is the bully. Screaming directly into someone’s ear canal as loud as possible? That could cause permanent hearing loss. Screaming that mantra, too: “HWNDU!!!” The irony level is out of control.

  33. Hyborian Warlord
    Posted April 3, 2019 at 1:58 pm | Permalink

    Hahahaha! Oh shit!

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JPjyLEekSiw

  34. Jean Henry
    Posted April 3, 2019 at 2:30 pm | Permalink

    Shia v 4channers. Who cares? Scraping the bottom of humanity. You are trying to pick a fight about something no one cares about, trying to find the better of the worst. Just stop.

  35. Kim
    Posted April 3, 2019 at 3:03 pm | Permalink

    In the video, it’s clear that Capote is bullshitting when he’s adding up the dead bodies and talking about the numbers of detectives assigned to the case. You can tell he’s making it up.

  36. Hyborian Warlord
    Posted April 3, 2019 at 3:06 pm | Permalink

    How am I picking a fight? All along you have mistaken me simply talking about something for attacking you.

  37. Jean Henry
    Posted April 3, 2019 at 3:39 pm | Permalink

    No I don;t see it as an attack, HW. Just incredibly boring. It seemed you are trying to engage me in defense of Mr LeBoeuf. But had you bothered reading my first comment, you would know I feel no need.

  38. Hyborian Warlord
    Posted April 3, 2019 at 4:09 pm | Permalink

    I think ignorance is boring and you wear it on your sleeve.

  39. Jean Henry
    Posted April 3, 2019 at 5:02 pm | Permalink

    Hmmm.. I thought you weren’t attacking me?

  40. Posted April 3, 2019 at 7:58 pm | Permalink

    Not exactly the comment thread that I was expecting, given that the post was about the origins of a Truman Capote novella, but I loved your story, Jean. Thanks for sharing it. I’m going to move it up to the front page.

  41. Hyborian Warlord
    Posted April 3, 2019 at 8:44 pm | Permalink

    You have proclaimed to choose to be ignorant before so how could that be an attack?

  42. Jean Henry
    Posted April 3, 2019 at 9:15 pm | Permalink

    I was frustrated with doing my books today and so decided to play in the muck. Sorry Mark.

  43. iRobert
    Posted April 4, 2019 at 5:48 am | Permalink

    Was Capote’s mental illness ever diagnosed?

  44. Jean Henry
    Posted April 4, 2019 at 8:28 am | Permalink

    iRobert– Why do you imagine anyone would have access to Capote’s health records? Why does it matter?

  45. iRobert
    Posted April 4, 2019 at 12:51 pm | Permalink

    Jean,

    I just figured Mark would have read about it somewhere, if Capote’s health records had ever been written about somewhere. I certainly wouldn’t have. I haven’t paid much attention to Capote or the details of his life.

    I think it would matter in that mental illness is something that we should have some compassion about, rather than simply mocking and making light of it.

    Capote’s behavior was very odd, and he seems to be lying pathologically. I’m not convinced his mind wasn’t in a deteriorated and deteriorating state. That’s why I mentioned that it seemed odd that he wouldn’t have found another real-life criminal case to write about and simply develop on his earlier success.

  46. iRobert
    Posted April 4, 2019 at 1:08 pm | Permalink

    Mind you, I’m not criticizing Mark (or you) about this. I make light of and mock mentally ill people all the time. I’m just asking Mark if he has read anything about Capote’s mental health, because I’d guess that he was in a state of mental detention.

  47. iRobert
    Posted April 4, 2019 at 1:11 pm | Permalink

    That last word was supposed to be “deterioration” again. I’m back on my phone, with this autocorrect that falls short.

  48. Anonymous
    Posted April 4, 2019 at 1:32 pm | Permalink

    I hope that he gets the help he needs. Too many people suffer from mental illness. The road to healing is a long one.

  49. iRobert
    Posted April 4, 2019 at 3:24 pm | Permalink

    Do you mean Mark, Anonymous? I’d agree.

  50. iRobert
    Posted April 4, 2019 at 3:50 pm | Permalink

    I mean, Mark’s weird. But I wouldn’t go as far as to caragotize him as mentally ill.

  51. iRobert
    Posted April 4, 2019 at 5:17 pm | Permalink

    I wouldn’t categorize or caragotize Mark as nuts. It’s interesting that autocorrect treats caragotize as a legitimate word.

    Anyway, has anyone here read In Cold Blood?

  52. iRobert
    Posted April 8, 2019 at 6:33 am | Permalink

    Has anyone here read anything written by Capote? Can we get a review? What were your impressions?

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