In Colder Blood

I really liked Andy. He was a nut — not a real nut, like they keep hollering; but, you know, just goofy. He was always talking about breaking out of here and making his living as a hired gun. He liked to imagine himself roaming around Chicago or Los Angeles with a machine gun in a violin case. Cooling guys. Said he’d charge a thousand bucks per stiff.Richard Hickock, from In Cold Blood

lowell mugIn Cold Blood, the “nonfiction novel” by Truman Capote of the murder by Perry Smith and Dick Hickock of the Clutter family on their farm near Holcomb, Kansas, is a classic. Using a novelistic technique, it was one of the first examples of the New Journalism in which the writer inserts himself into the story, later emulated by authors such as Norman Mailer, Tom Wolfe and Hunter S. Thompson. It simultaneously made Capote famous and destroyed his career. He never wrote another book, descending into a narrowing funnel of promiscuity, alcohol and drug abuse until his premature demise.

The description of the brutal slaying of the Clutter family in their remote Kansas farmhouse was a catalogue of inconsequent terror. It brought to the fore the idea of Kansas, a flat, featureless farmland where nothing ever happened as a place where evil could suddenly erupt in horrific, unexpected forms.

In the years that followed, there was much discussion of the motives of Smith and Hickock, the consensus being that they were rootless drifters from dysfunctional homes who never really knew why they committed the murders. Capote became close to the two murderers, spending time with them in death row at the Kansas State Penitentiary and witnessing their hangings. Almost unnoticed in the account was another murderer who shared death row with them: Lowell Lee Andrews (above). Capote had made brief mention of his crime in the book, but there the matter was left.

But the story is worth telling.

Described as the nicest boy in town, 18-year-old Lowell Lee Andrews lived with his parents and sister, Jenny Marie, in the tiny town of Wolcott, Kansas. Over six foot tall, Andrews weighed 260 pounds. The family was well regarded. His father was a prosperous farmer who owned land worth $200,000. His parents were regular congregants at the Grandview Baptist Church, presided over by the Dickensian minister, Virto Dameron. A zoology major at the University of Kansas in Lawrence, Andrews was a model student who played bassoon in the college band. Although he tended to keep to himself, acquaintances at the university remembered him as exceptionally “gentle and sweet-natured”.

Highly intelligent, Andrews consumed books by writers such as Dostoyevsky and developed a most non-irenic fantasy: killing his parents to get an inheritance — $1850 in savings and the 240-acre farm —  so that he could lead a gangster life in Chicago. He envisaged himself as a Mafia hitman dressed in smart gear, driving a slick car. Surging with this exhilarating conceit, there was little left to do but put his plan into practice. He brooded for some time on the option of poisoning, then opted for a more drastic solution.

lowell Lee Andrews IOn November 28, 1958, the Thanksgiving holiday weekend,  Andrews was upstairs in his room at around 7pm, reading the last chapter of The Brothers Karamazov (what else?). Aiming to be stylish for the family dismemberment, he shaved, put on his best suit and loaded a semi-automatic rifle and a Luger revolver. Going down to the parlour where the family was watching television in the darkened room, without further ado he shot his mother four times, his sister three times and his father 17 times. He then disturbed the contents to make it look as if the house had been robbed, before driving forty miles to Lawrence. Here he threw his weapons into the river, went to the campus house where he stayed, saw a Pat Boone movie (another indictable offence?) and drove home, where his first action was to feed his Pekinese dog. These actions were clearly intended to provide an alibi which, as it turned out, was not required.

Andrews finally called the police to report a robbery. They found him petting the dog and telling them to look in the parlour. Asked what he wanted done with the bodies, he insouciantly responded, “I don’t care what you do with them.” Having been taken to jail, at 3am the Reverend Dameron, an evangelist on a mission, persuaded him to make a statement. Andrews said that  he “didn’t feel anything about it. The time came, and I was doing what I had to do. That’s all there was to it.” He added, “I am not sorry and I am not glad. I have no feeling.” No emotion was evident when he took police divers (above) to the spot where he disposed of the murder weapons.

Remote as Kansas was, it was the leading centre of psychiatry in the US thanks to the famed Menninger Clinic in Topeka, the state capital. Founder William Menninger based it on the Mayo Clinic as a centre of psychiatric excellence. Aided by his two sons, it became a leading training unit; people came from overseas to study there. The Menningers were the public face of US psychiatry in the Fifties, combining psychoanalysis with American positivism. According to this view, there was only a fine line separating most people from criminals; what was needed was treatment, not punishment.

Andrews pleaded innocent by reason of insanity, which meant his defence needed to prove he was insane in terms of the M’Naghten Rule. If that happened, Andrews would be sentenced to confinement in the State Hospital for the Criminally Insane. The alternative case was to prove he was eligible for the Durham Rule, which holds that an accused is not criminally responsible if his unlawful act is the product of mental disease or mental defect. He could hardly have pleaded intellectual difficulties in view of his high intelligence.

Although the murder spree was brief and horribly brutal, they were hardly impulsive and clearly premeditated. Bizarre as the idea was that he could get away with it, Andrews knew exactly what he wanted from the slayings. This may be a guide to his motives. He read Dostoyevsky, whose books focussed on crime and morality, notably Rashkolnikov, who had the Nietschzean view that a superior individual – an Übermensch – could murder someone he considered morally defective for the higher good without retribution – the same heinous logic used by Leopold and Loeb in 1929. Andrews combined these ideas with his juvenile fantasies of being a Mafia hitman.

Andrews went to the Menninger Clinic for assessment. He spent hours with Dr Joseph Satten, a forensic psychiatrist with an interest in sudden murders committed with scant motive by perpetrators who appeared sane before and after the crime. Andrews was extensively tested. It can be assumed he had EEGs and the projective testing fashionable at the time, notably the Rorschach inkblot test. He frustratingly refused to play the game. He expressed no regret or remorse, was unconcerned about his likely fate and, despite repeated encouragement, refused to voice any psychotic thoughts. All tests came back as normal.

For his psychiatrist, the results were frustrating. Satten, who had also examined Smith and Hickock, was at a loss. “Andrews felt no emotions whatsoever. He considered himself the only important, only significant person in the world. And in his own seclusive world it seemed to him just as right to kill his mother as to kill an animal or a fly.” He understood the nature of his acts, and that they were prohibited, and that he was subject to punishment. His motive was irrational: he hoped to inherit the family farm.

If Andrews was found to be sane, judicial execution was a given, leaving Satten with a last desperate option: simple schizophrenia. This category was devised by Eugen Bleuler, the man who gave us schizophrenia (as an alternative to the charmless term dementia praecox). It referred to a state of disorganisation and poor social function without the characteristic psychotic symptoms that distinguished the condition. It was schizophrenia without the symptoms of schizophrenia – a martini without the gin, if you like.

Simple schizophrenia was, from the start, an unhappy taxon with questionable clinical criteria. It could be applied to anyone in a run-down state and was used all too frequently on tramps, vagrants and other social misfits as a form of social control. Whatever ideas he held, Andrews did not show any signs of personality deterioration. What he had done was mad, even if psychosis could not be demonstrated. But, if Andrews did not have simple schizophrenia, what could explain the cold-blooded murder – overkill, if we are to go by the number of bullets – of his parents and sister? Many would say that to enact such a brutal slaying was simply mad. Yes, but by what standard? The legal and psychiatric definitions of insanity overlap – but little more – and have even less in common with the public conception of madness.

Criminology studies of such family murders – parricide – show that they are extremely rare. The majority of cases are committed by young males who are psychotic or suffered extreme abuse at the hands of their parents. An exception to this pattern would be the louche and self-indulgent Menendez brothers who may have been operating on the same juvenile fantasies as Andrews. Abuse was no explanation for Andrews’ behaviour. The family was intensely middle-class and the filler a formerly model teenager. His motive was reportedly material, not revenge.

Several other conditions need to be considered. The currently fashionable diagnosis of autism would certainly find some enthusiasts, but there is a problem with that line of thought: Andrews had excellent social skills and mixed easily with others. No one described him as having the remote, emotionally restricted and obsessional manner of such patients.

Was Andrews simply an intelligent psychopath, devoid of any conscience or remorse, who hatched a plan to dispose of his parents simply to get their assets? This can be neither ignored or dismissed; there is simply too little evidence. Prior to the murders, Andrews had shown that he was a model citizen with no inclination to break rules or exploit others.

The most remote, but intriguing, possibility is an organic explanation. Andrews was massively obese, something more noteworthy then than it would be today. Is it possible that this arose from a hypothalamic disturbance? The hypothalamus regulates basic functions, notably appetite and sleep, and some hypothalamic tumours can lead to severe obesity. Occasionally these tumours are associated with psychotic disorders and, more rarely, homicidal impulses.

Andrews’ defence failed. The judge, not without reason, was unimpressed with the Durham defence. The Reverend Dameron, relishing his moment in the sun, left no doubt that Andrews had known what he was doing and did not regret his actions. He was duly found guilty and sentenced to hang. An appeal failed.

On death row, Andrews was unruffled. His life, he said to Perry and Hickock, was not worth a shit and he did not care whether they executed him. He would read Robert Frost, Emily Dickenson, Ogden Nash and Walt Whitman when he was not making a scrap book of pictures of food cut from magazines – possibly an indication of his obsession with eating, a hypothalamic feature. He maintained his intellectual superiority by correcting the grammar of his fellow inmates.

On 30 November, 1962, Andrews ate a final meal of fried chicken and gave Hickock a stanza from Gray’s Elegy: “The paths of glory lead but to the grave.” On the gallows, he declined to offer any last words or regret and was observed to wearing a slight smile. A reporter said he appeared “outwardly remorseless and disinterested.”

Lowell Lee Andrews was one of the last people executed by the State of Kansas. If you support the death penalty, justice was served. Had his life been spared, he would have spent an indefinite period in jail. If there is one certainty, it is that Andrews would never have explained the killings – if, indeed, he had any conception of what inspired his actions in any case. Perhaps he should have added these lines to his farewell stanza:

Forbade to wade through slaughter to a throne,
And shut the gates of mercy on mankind

Robert M. Kaplan is writing more on Lowell Lee Andrews in his latest book




One thought on “In Colder Blood

  • dsh2@bigpond.com says:

    Whilst this article advises parental abuse was not an issue, the fact that Andrews shot his father 17 times, his mother 4 times and sister 3 times, is surely worthy of more consideration. Is it possible that Andrews father did abuse him and that would be something he would not want to admit happened especially as, in those days, he would not be believed and, possibly and sadly, somehow believed he himself was to blame?

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