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Hidden Museum Treasures: 'In Cold Blood'

The public has a strange attraction for artifacts of infamous crimes. One popular exhibit at the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Mich., is the car President Kennedy was riding in when he was assassinated. And the top hat worn by President Lincoln the night he was assassinated went on display at the Smithsonian Museum in Washington, D.C., a century after he was killed.

As part of an occasional series from All Things Considered -- the Hidden Treasures Radio Project -- Harriet Baskas visits Kansas, where a museum is debating whether to display objects relating to the crime that inspired Truman Capote's book In Cold Blood.

On a November night in 1959, Holcomb wheat farmer Herb Clutter, his wife and two teenage children were bound and gagged, then shot in the head.

Convicted and sentenced to death for the crime in 1960, Richard Hickock and Perry Edward Smith were hanged at the Lansing State Penitentiary in April 1965. Their low granite headstones sit side by side in section 34 at the nearby Mount Muncie Cemetery. Visitors to the site won't see the original stones, however.

In 1980 the markers -- paid for by Truman Capote -- were stolen, and quickly replaced.

Twenty years later, the Kansas Bureau of Investigation recovered the stolen tombstones. But the question became: what to do with them? No one had clear ownership rights, so a judge ruled that the markers either be returned to the graves or handed over to the Kansas Museum of History for safekeeping.

At first, the museum in Topeka put the markers on display, but soon removed them out of respect for community members still mourning the Clutter family.

Now the museum is currently organizing a crime and punishment exhibition. Curators plan to show the gallows used to hang Hickock and Smith. Baskas says the people she interviewed think, in this case, the objects are appropriate. Retired KBI agent Tom Williams says a crime and punishment exhibition might encourage people to think about the death penalty in Kansas -- and decide for themselves what's right and what's wrong.

This story is part of the Hidden Treasures Radio Project series, funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the National Endowment for the Arts and the Cultural Development Authority of King County, Wash.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.