In Colder Blood: Book Review

Back in June, I posted a review of Cold Blooded, a three-episode video series from SundanceTV that re-examines the 1959 Clutter family murders. That crime inspired Truman Capote to write In Cold Blood, a book he termed a “non-fiction novel.” This week, I review In Colder Blood, a book that posits that the Clutter murderers also killed a family in Osprey, Florida.

The Backstory

One week before Christmas, December 19, 1959, Cliff and Christine Walker took their two children shopping for a new car. Actually, they looked for a new used car since their budget couldn’t cover a brand-new vehicle. But their family was growing, and they needed something larger than the Plymouth they currently drove as their family car. Cliff drove a Jeep for his job as a ranch hand on the Palmer Ranch. They lived on the ranch as well in a small house provided by the ranch owner.

An undated photo of the Walker family (In Colder Blood)
An undated photo of the Walker family.

Cliff, 25 and Christine, 24, test-drove a 1956 Chevrolet Bel Air at one used car lot and another car at a different lot. Their next stop was Johnny’s Hardware for lunch. Lunch consisted of hot dogs and sodas, with candy and cookies for the kids. The couple and their children then went to Don McLeod’s house. McLeod was also a Palmer Ranch hand and lived on the property, although at the opposite end in Sarasota. McLeod and Cliff were close friends as well as coworkers. They left the women and children at the McLeod house while they went hunting.

When the men returned, they took Cliff’s Jeep to the barn to load some sacks of feed. Christine drove the Plymouth to the barn and unloaded Jimmy, 3, and Debbie, 1. The children wanted to ride home in Daddy’s Jeep instead of the Plymouth.

Little Jimmy Walker, age 3 at the time of the murders (In Colder Blood)
Little Jimmy Walker, age 3 at the time of the murders

The Crime

Although they had a brief hunting trip the day before, Cliff and Don McLeod planned to hunt wild hogs that plagued the Palmer Ranch. At about 5:30 on the morning of December 20, McLeod stopped at the Walker house. Unable to raise anyone, and concerned that something was amiss, McLeod broke in through the back door.

Once inside the kitchen, McLeod discovered the body of Christine Walker lying flat on her back, her face battered and bloody. She was obviously dead. Beyond her, he could see Cliff’s body and that of little Jimmy curled up beside him. Later investigation would determine that Debbie had been shot through the head and that Christine had been raped as well.

McLeod backed out of the house and jumped in Cliff’s Jeep. His own truck had a horse trailer attached, which would have slowed him down. He then sped toward a nearby IGA grocery where he knew there was a payphone. In an era before ubiquitous mobile phones, a landline payphone was his only option. Borrowing a dime from a woman opening a restaurant, he called the Sarasota Police Department at about 5:45 a.m.

The Book

In Colder Blood is by lawyer turned writer J.T. Hunter. It relates all the facts of the case in rich detail. The portrait of young family simply living their lives slain with no obvious motive is heart-wrenching. But the real meat of the book is the renewed 2007 investigation into the cold case by Kimberly McGrath.

When Don McLeod discovered the bodies of the Walker family on December 20, 1959, it had only been five weeks since the brutal Clutter murders in Kansas. By then, authorities knew that Richard Hickock and Perry Smith had killed the Clutters. They also knew that the pair’s flight had taken them to Florida. Although considered potential suspects, there was no direct evidence that they killed the Walkers.

Photo of Richard Eugene Hickock (L) and Perry Edward Smith (R) (In Colder Blood)
Richard Eugene Hickock (L) and Perry Edward Smith (R)

McGrath took a fresh look at Hickock and Smith as suspects in the Walker case. The pair had stolen a Chevy Bel Air, like the one that the Walkers had test-driven. Maybe their paths crossed, and the couple agreed to swap cars.

McGrath identified 29 points of similarity between the two cases. As a result, in 2012, authorities exhumed the bodies of Smith and Hickock from Mount Muncie Cemetery. She hoped that DNA comparison would either confirm the pair’s involvement or rule them out as suspects.

Nine months later, the Sarasota County Sheriff’s office announced that it was unable to find a DNA match. Nor were they able to rule out Hickock and Smith. After nearly fifty years, the DNA was too degraded to be definitive.

My Take on the Book

In Colder Blood is a quick read (120 pages in the print edition). I found it engaging, well-written, and an enjoyable true crime read. While the Hickock-Smith hypothesis is plausible, I did not find it convincing. McGrath’s list of 29 points are mostly coincidences. While they are believable enough in themselves, there is not much real evidence to back them up. However, that does not reflect on Hunter’s book. He presents the theory in an intriguing fashion.

In Colder Blood is a book I can highly recommend.

A Word of Caution

The book contains crime scene photos that may disturb some readers. If you fall into this category, you’ll want to skip the photos.

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Mary Blandy, Arsenic Poisoner

This week, I’m reaching way back to 1751 for a murder by arsenic poisoning. This is a classic English case of the use of “inheritance powder.” Unfortunately for her, the poisoner, Mary Blandy, didn’t get away with it.

Setting the Scene

Mary Blandy was a young woman living at home with her father, Francis Blandy, an attorney in Henley-on-Thames. Mary was 26 in 1746, which in those days would have put her well into spinsterhood. However, that year, she met Captain William Henry Cranstoun, a Scottish military officer. The two planned to marry in 1751.

Mary Blandy, Arsenic Poisoner
Mary Blandy, Arsenic Poisoner (Public Domain)

There was just one problem. Cranstoun already had a wife and child in Scotland, having married Anne Murray the year before he met Mary.

Francis Blandy approved of his daughter’s proposed marriage—that is, until he learned about the wife in Scotland. Consequently, he forbade Mary to see Cranstoun. Cranstoun, for his part, claimed that his marriage to Murray was invalid. He even made several trips to Scotland to have his marriage annulled. But Anne was having none of it and Cranstoun was unable to obtain the annulment.

Poisoning Francis Blandy

Francis Blandy died on August 14, 1751 as a result of what authorities determined was arsenic poisoning. Servants had noticed a white powder in the bottom of a pan Mary had used to prepare her father’s food and saved a sample of it. So, naturally, Mary Blandy came under suspicion. But did she intend to murder her father?

Mary claimed that Cranstoun had sent her a “love potion” that she was to put into Francis’s food to make him approve the of her relationship with Cranstoun. Mary put the “potion” in Francis’s food. Of course, the “potion” turned out to be arsenic.

Mary Blandy on Trial

Mary went on trial at Oxford on March 3, 1752. Her trial was notable for being the first murder trial to include scientific evidence. Her father’s physician, Anthony Addington, testified that the powder given to Francis Blandy was arsenic. Addington proved the powder was arsenic by heating it and detecting arsine gas, which has the odor of garlic. (A more precise test for arsenic was decades in the future.)

Bottle of Arsenic
Vintage arsenic poison bottle on antique shelf

Mary presented the love potion story in her defense, but other facts brought out during the trial contradicted her. Not surprisingly, the jury convicted her.

Mary Blandy was hanged outside Oxford Castle Prison on April 6, 1752. Her last words were purportedly, “Do not hang me too high, for the sake of decency.”

Cranstoun fled to France and thereby escaped prosecution, but he died soon after on December 2, 1752.

How Guilty Was Mary?

Mary admitted feeding the “love potion” to her father, so there is little question of her technical guilt. But was she morally guilty? Was she simply a lovesick woman who believed her lover’s story of a “love potion?” Or were she and he more interested in the £10,000 dowry the elder Blandy had promised? The debate continued for several years. At the time, few people accepted her story on the witness stand, as most believed she was lying. Nineteenth century reexaminations of her case were more sympathetic to the “poor, lovesick girl” view.

Mary Blanchard had a reputation as a well-educated young woman, so I find it difficult to believe she could swallow the “love potion” story. I think it is more likely that she knew what she was doing. Mary may or may not have poisoned her father for love, but I believe Cranstoun’s motivation was the £10,000. However, more than two and a half centuries after the fact, determining the exact truth presents a challenge.

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The Texas Tower Sniper: Book Review

The Texas Tower Sniper by Ryan Green

Last week, I told you about Charles Whitman. This former marine shot and killed fourteen people from the clock tower of the University of Texas’s main building. While researching that post, I discovered a book by British true crime author Ryan Green. This week, I review Green’s book, which he also titles The Texas Tower Sniper.

The Shootings

To briefly recap, Charles Whitman rode an elevator to the top of the University of Texas’s clock tower on August 1, 1966. He then took a footlocker of guns, ammunition, and food to the observation deck and began randomly shooting people below. By the time police finally shot and killed him, Whitman’s rampage had left fourteen people dead and many others wounded. Moreover, he had killed his mother and his wife the night before.

America was shocked. Although random mass shootings have sadly become almost commonplace, this one was the first.

The Book

Ryan Green is a true crime author who lives in Herefordshire, England. The Texas Tower Sniper is his latest book. It is a quick read. The Kindle edition weighs in at about 90 pages, depending on your font size, so it is easily digested in an evening.

Green begins with Whitman’s youth, recounting his allegedly abusive childhood, which he escaped by joining the Marine Corps. In the Marines, his exemplary conduct earned him a spot in a program that sent him to college as part of an officer training program. Poor grades forced Whitman out of the program, however, and he had to return to regular duty at Camp Lejeune in North Carolina. He was a reluctant Marine this time and his behavior was objectionable instead of exemplary.

The Texas Tower Sniper follows Whitman from disgruntled Marine to angry husband to struggling college student. By now, we know the story ends with Whitman on the tower with a rifle in his hands.

My Take on the Book

Green writes the book from Whitman’s perspective, as if he can see inside the young man’s mind. It makes for interesting reading and, I’m sure it’s based on solid research, but the technique jars the historian in me a bit.

Green is at his best in the final chapter. When an autopsy discovered a pecan-sized (some writers say walnut-sized) tumor in Whitman’s brain, some offered that as an explanation for his deadly behavior. Green lays out the case for an organic cause for the shootings and then proceeds methodically to demolish it. Whitman wasn’t out of control, he was, in fact, very tightly controlled. In the end, he concludes that Whitman had constructed an image of his perfect life. That image was really a lie that was coming apart at the seams. Unable to deal with image versus reality, he snapped.


As long as you bear in mind that what purports to be Whitman’s thoughts are mostly Green’s conclusions, I do recommend The Texas Tower Sniper. It is an easy to follow account of Whitman’s life and the tower killings. Enjoy!

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The Texas Tower Sniper

In previous blogs, I discussed the San Ysidro McDonald’s massacre and the Killeen Luby’s massacre.  The murders by the Texas Tower Sniper predates both these. Like them, was the deadliest mass shooting at the time but it was also America’s first random mass shooting in a public place.

The Shootings

Charles Whitman was an engineering student and former Marine. On Monday, August 1, 1966, he took weapons, ammunition, and food to the main building of the University of Texas at Austin. He used a dolly to haul a footlocker and a duffel back filled with weapons, ammunition, and food to the observation level at the top of the building’s clock tower. After killing the receptionist and two tourists (and injuring two others), Whitman positioned himself on the observation deck. At 11:48 a.m., he opened fire on people walking around the campus and a section of nearby Guadalupe Street.

The University of Texas at Austin Tower, Austin, Texas.
The University of Texas at Austin Tower, Austin, Texas (© 1980 Larry D. Moore. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0)

For the next 93 minutes, rifle fire from the 231-foot high observation deck wreaked devastation on people below. Some people decided the gunshots were the sounds of a nail gun from a nearby construction site. Others thought the shots and falling people were part of bizarre anti-war protest (it was 1960s). Still others thought it was a theater group or psychology experiment. Soon, however, they realized what was happening and took cover as best they could.

The Police Respond

Four minutes after the first shot, a history professor placed the first call to police. Officer Billy Speed was one of the first to arrive. Despite taking cover behind a decorative concrete baluster, Whitman managed to shoot him; he died in the hospital.

Approaching the tower was difficult and dangerous. Officer Houston McCoy, along with a small group of police began to work their way toward the tower through underground maintenance tunnels. Meanwhile, both police and civilians began shooting back at the tower. Also, a police sniper approached in a small airplane, but Whitman’s rifle fire drove the plane back. It remained in the area, though, circling at a discrete distance. The airplane, coupled with the return fire from below, did not stop the shooting. But they did limit the Whitman’s ability to select targets freely.

As the shooting continued, officers Ramiro Martinez, McCoy, and Jerry Day, along with civilian Allen Crum, made their way to the 27th floor of the tower. The four then climbed the switchback stairs to the observation level. Martinez and McCoy rounded a corner and confronted the sniper. Martinez fired his service revolver at Whitman but missed. McCoy next hit Whitman with two shotgun blasts of .00 buckshot. Martinez then flung his empty pistol to the ground, grabbed McCoy’s shotgun, and shot Whitman once more at point-blank range. Fifteen people were dead, including the Texas Tower sniper himself.

The Sniper

Charles Joseph Whitman was an Eagle Scout and former Marine, married, and studying architectural engineering at the University of Texas.  He held several different jobs to support himself and his wife (she also worked).  Although outwardly appearing normal, he grappled with violent impulses and consulted several doctors, including a psychiatrist.  He documented his feelings and struggles in a journal he began keeping during his stint in the Marine Corps.  He even told friends that on two occasions he hit his wife, an act that left him disgusted with himself.

Charles Joseph Whitman, the Texas Tower Sniper.
Charles Joseph Whitman (Public Domain)

Investigators soon discovered that the night before he ascended the tower, Whitman had murdered his mother and his wife. He had stabbed them both through the heart as they slept.

An autopsy performed after Whitman’s death revealed he had a pecan-sized brain tumor. Neither the pathologist who performed the autopsy nor a commission formed by Texas governor John Connally were able to find concrete evidence that the tumor caused Whitman to commit the killings.

Charles Whitman
Charles Whitman


The University of Texas closed the tower observation deck after the shootings. It reopened two years later with the bullet damage repaired. But it closed again in 1975 after four suicides and remained closed for more than two decades. After installing several security measures, the University reopened the observation deck again in 1999 but only for guided tours by appointment.

South door to the observation deck of the University of Texas Tower
South door to the observation deck of the University of Texas Tower

In 2006, the City of Austin dedicated a memorial garden dedicated to the dead and otherwise affected victims. In 2016, on the fiftieth anniversary of the shootings, a memorial stone was added, and the tower clock was stopped for 24 hours.

Memorial to those killed by the Texas Tower sniper in Austin, Texas on August 1, 1966.
Memorial to those killed at the University of Texas Tower shooting in Austin, Texas on August 1, 1966. (© 2019 Larry D. Moore. Licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0)

Journalist William Helmer was a graduate student and an eyewitness and wrote about the Texas Tower sniper for Texas Monthly in 1986, twenty years after the event.

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