An Astrological Perspective
Originally published in “Astrology Quarterly”, Winter 2008
A wealthy wheat farmer, his wife and their two young children were found shot to death today in their home. They had been killed by shotgun blasts at close range after being bound and gagged. The father, 48-year-old Herbert W. Clutter, was found in the basement with his son, Kenyon, 15. His wife Ennis, 45, and a daughter, Nancy, 16, were in their beds. There were no signs of a struggle and nothing had been stolen. The telephone lines had been cut. ” This is apparently the case of a psychopathic killer,” Sheriff Earl Robinson said.
The above article was found by author Truman Capote shortly after this terrible crime was committed. It sparked an obsessive investigation by Capote that would last for several years and would end a few months after the perpetrators, Perry Smith and Richard Hickock, were hanged for their crime. To help him investigate the murders, Capote brought his good friend and childhood companion, Harper Lee, along to the scene of the incident. The outcome of their investigations would be a serialization of the interviews conducted and would be published by Capote as a series of short stories entitled: In Cold Blood: A true Account of a Multiple Murder and its Consequences. Thus, this terrible crime brought together three unusual partnerships; one of the perpetrators, one of the investigators and perhaps the most intriguing of all, that of Capote and one of murderers. Each partnership fulfilled very different purposes. What astrological factors are in the chart of a cold blooded killer and to what extent do these factors play out in the synastry of partners in crime? Why would Capote, an established writer of fiction (Breakfast at Tiffany’s came out in 1958) before the murders become so fascinated with these killers? And why would Lee, by all accounts a kind, gentle soul, go along with Capote on his ghoulish mission?
Unlike Smith and Hickock, Capote and Lee grew up together. They had started out as they meant to go on: as avid readers and writers and as joint buccaneers in the odyssey of life. They were as different as they were similar: she came from a stable background, he was plagued by a broken home led by an abandoned teenaged mother; she was satisfied to relax in the background; he had to be the centre of attention wherever he went. Yet the pair were crucial to each other’s careers.
When he was four, Capote had been sent to live with relatives in Monroeville Alabama where he met the young Lee. His parents recently divorced, he was an odd, unhappy, lonely child who taught himself to read and write before he started school. In her book, To Kill a Mockingbird, Lee immortalized Capote as one of the characters in that novel. His first words were: “I’m Charles Baker Harris,” he said, “I can read. . .You got anything that needs readin’ I can do it!”
Capote’s eccentricity is implicit with both Mars and the ascendant being in Aquarius. Traditionally, we look to the 11th house to gain an idea of what kind of friend a person is. The cusp of Capote’s 11th house (by equal house) is Sagittarius with its ruler, Jupiter, in it. Capote was well known for his parties and his ability to entertain the masses with his wild (and often fabricated stories). This placement of Jupiter makes it easy to understand his need to bring his friends on his wild adventures. However, we can also see Capote’s disillusionment in relationships with his Venus conjunct Neptune in the 7th in Leo. With Leo in the 7th, his need to hold court and receive attention from the people with whom he has a relationship is evident. If we bear in mind that the 7th house is also the house of open enemies we can tragically see that this combination of disillusionment and need to show off would lead him to have serious difficulties in knowing who his friends were.
By contrast, Lee is noted for her reclusive lifestyle. She was the youngest child of a lawyer and housewife. Her humanitarian outlook on life is best reflected in her book, To Kill a Mockingbird, the story of racial prejudice in the American South in the 1930’s. The story is told from a child’s perspective as she watches her lawyer father fight for justice in the case of a black man accused of raping a white woman. Astrologically, it makes sense that Lee had Jupiter conjunct Mars in Aquarius in the 4th. The idealism and tragedy of the story is demonstrated in a T Square consisting of the Mars/Jupiter conjunction opposite to Neptune in the 11th, both square to a Saturn/Moon conjunction in Scorpio in the first. Perhaps this T-square also explains her need to be reclusive. Lee had Uranus conjunct Venus in the 5th, helping to explain her relationship with an oddball such as Capote and this is further boosted by their Mars being within a few degrees of each other, his Venus on her Neptune (crucially, as we shall see, both have a Mars/Neptune opposition) and both having a Saturn/Moon conjunction in Scorpio. These two understood each other so perhaps it’s not too surprising they would be lifelong friends. Lee had Leo on the cusp of the 11th with its ruler, the Sun, in the 7th. For her, friendships were more than mere acquaintances: they were the mirror of her own sense of identity, deepening the mystery of why Lee would agree when Capote said, “Let’s go to Kansas to investigate these murders.” However, it was Lee, with the charm of her Libra ascendant, that opened the doors for Capote’s investigation in Kansas. Capote was simply too odd, too openly homosexual and too eccentric to work his way into the good books of the witnesses and authorities on the case. Though Capote only credited her for her “secretarial work,” without Lee, “In Cold Blood” would not exist.
Of his investigation, Capote would reflect: “. . .the community was completely nonplussed, and it was this total mystery of how it could have been, and what happened. And I don’t know what it was. I think it was that I knew nothing about Kansas or that part of the country or anything. And I thought, “Well, that will be a fresh perspective for me.” Of course, his explanation is very unsatisfactory! To really understand what happened, we need astrology.
In the months leading up to the murders, Neptune was passing over Capote’s Saturn/Moon conjunction, Uranus was passing over his Neptune/Venus conjunction and Venus was passing over his natal Sun on the night. Viewed astrologically, we can see that this gruesome tale fascinated him. More to the point, these configurations are more like what we would expect when someone falls in love suddenly and true enough, Capote would eventually be accused of having a homosexual relationship with one of the murderers (an accusation that continues to this day). However, it is his progressions that are interesting. Progressed Mercury is conjunct Mars on the night of the murders and his P. Moon is conjunct his own N. Mars in Aquarius. Quite simply, Capote was astrologically tuned into the violence of the event and we are not surprised to learn that he held the view: “journalism, reportage, could be forced to yield a serious new art form.”
Lee too was similarly tuned in. Transit Jupiter was passing over her N. Mars in Aquarius and, significantly, the Full Moon that night fell opposite to her Moon/Saturn conjunction in Scorpio. Additionally, the Sun was also conjunct Mars, both highlighting and stimulating the repressed nature of her intense emotions. She had spent her whole life being a good girl, had just finished what would become one of the best moral tales in American literature and so perhaps this event would be her one visit to “the dark side.” Interestingly, the Sun of the murders is exactly on her P. ascendant. Added to this is her P. Moon’s approach to an opposition of Uranus. No wonder this nice lady would act a bit out of character.
Like Lee and Capote, Perry Smith and Richard Hickock had very different upbringings but yet shared similar characteristics. Smith, as would be expected of someone with Uranus on the IC, had an usual upbringing. His mother was a full blooded Cherokee and his father was of Irish stock and they met as Rodeo performers. However, as they grew older their show went into decline and the family moved to Alaska where his Smith’s father learned the fine art of bootlegging whiskey. Here is where the unpleasantness of Uranus on the IC really kicks in: Smith’s father and mother began drinking heavily and eventually the mother took the four children and left her husband. However, she was an alcoholic by this time, unable to cope and the young Smith ended upin institution after institution (two of the other children eventually committed suicide). Smith was essentially a handsome, intelligent young man and would find good work as a car painter. He was of small, powerful build and it is usually noted that he had incongruously very small, delicate feet. With one of his first pay checks, he bought a motorbike, a fairly bad idea for someone with the Sun in opposition to Jupiter and Saturn conjunct the ascendant. Whilst racing, Smith crashed into a car and was nearly killed. He was left with severely crippled legs and was addicted to aspirin to cope with the chronic pain. Smith’s tendency to attract violent contacts can perhaps be seen in his Sun in Scorpio in the 11th, in trine to its ruler, Mars in the 7th house and its co-ruler, Pluto in 8th. With Venus in the 12th, it is not surprising that Smith would end up in prison where, with Hickock, he would form the most significant relationship of his life.
Hickock was raised in a strict, religious home with parents noted for the stability they provided for their children. However, a T-square involving a Jupiter/Pluto conjunction in the 4th opposite to Saturn in the 10th, both square to Uranus in the 1st suggests the rebel in Hickock. Smith’s Moon was at the apex of this T square, suggesting an emotional outlet for this frustrating configuration. There is no doubt that these two men comforted each other, not sexually but in a way that satisfied Hickock’s need for stability in friendships, astrologically seen as Capricorn in the 11th ruled by a dignified Saturn just outside the 11th house. Individually, these men were petty crooks; together they were cold blooded killers.
Whilst in jail, Smith and Hickock had heard that the Clutter family kept a safe with $10,000 in cash in a safe at their home. When paroled, they made their way to the Clutter home, gagged and bound all four members of the family and when they found out there was no money, cut the throat of the man of the house then shot him and the others in the head with a 12 gauge shotgun. On the night of murders, Hickock’s P. Moon was opposite to Pluto, signifying a period of abject horror. Smith’s P. Sun was conjunct his N Venus in the 12th and P. Mercury, natally in the 11th, was transited by the Sun.
Two days after the funeral of the Clutter family, Lee and Capote made their way to Kansas. Though obsessed by the crime, Capote was especially fascinated by Smith. As has been pointed out, the progressions were such that we might expect to see in the chart of someone who had fallen in love suddenly. If we examine the synastry, we can see, along with other significations, such as Smith’s Sun on Capote’s Moon in the intense sign of Scorpio. For Capote, this conjunction occurred in the 9th house; for him the relationship was more a philosophical adventure, a notion that supports the common thinking that Capote had merely used and then disposed of Smith’s friendship when it no longer served his purposes. But for Smith, the conjunction took place in the 11th house, opposite his own N. Jupiter. Did Smith hope that Truman could use his influence to free him, a friend, from the consequences of his crime? If so, then he was mislead. According to accounts, Capote kept him in the dark about the true nature of his intentions (publishing a book) and even lied to Smith about the title (Capote had insisted up to the date of Smith’s execution that he was not going to entitle his book “In Cold Blood”). We may never know the answer to that question simply by using the information Capote had published. However, by using the simplest of astrology, we can see that this relationship is one based on optimism, good faith and never knowing when to say “enough.” Not only did Capote’s Moon fall opposite to Smith’s Jupiter, Capote’s own Jupiter was conjunct Smith’s ascendant. Smith never tired of talking to Capote and Capote, in return, took over 6,000 pages of notes. By contrast, Hickock had Mars in Aquarius conjunct Capote’s Moon–hardly a cozy arrangement.
One final signification worth noting is present in Capote’s and Smith’s charts: Smith’s Mars was square Capote’s Sun. Solar Fire describes this as “a relationship that begins with a fanfare and ends with a bang.” Hickock would go to the gallows insisting that Smith had been the one to pull the trigger in each of the murders. Smith, in his confession, stated that Hickock had murdered the two women but refused to sign the confession because he wanted Hickock‘s mother be to be spared of the agony of knowing her son was a murderer. For Smith, it was a friendship that was truly his undoing. They were both hanged on 14 April, 1965. Capote was reputed to be present at the executions, though this is heavily disputed by other witnesses who said Capote “fell apart” when Smith was brought in to be hanged.
In September of that year, Capote began publishing In Cold Blood, a series of eye witness accounts and observations Capote made about the killers and interviews. In Cold Blood created a new genre in literature, a hazy blur of fact and fiction that would become known as “non-fiction novel.”
Why was In Cold Blood so successful? There are many people who refuse to use the Sibley chart as the chart of the USA. However, I have found that it works extremely well when considering why a particular book, movie, actor, actress or event has found its way into to the collective American psyche. Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner and “one hit” wonders such as Harper Lee, J.D. Salinger and Margaret Mitchell all have strong contacts to the Sibley chart. It’s a similar case for Capote: he had his Mercury conjunct the Neptune of the US (it remains a scandalous work of art, according to some critics), his Jupiter on the ascendant of the US (it was a publishing phenomenon), Mars on the Moon of the US (the violence against a family) and his Pluto on the Sun of the US (a famous investigation). Capote claimed to have a 94% memory recall of his interviews and therefore did not take notes as he interviewed, preferring to write down what had happened later. Tom Wolfe, a prolific American writer, wrote in his essay Pornoviolence: “The book (In Cold Blood) is neither a who-done-it nor a will-they-be-caught, since the answers to both questions are known from the outset … Instead, the book’s suspense is based largely on a totally new idea in detective stories: the promise of gory details, and the withholding of them until the end.”
Of his own work, Capote said: “I think I’ve written one masterpiece in my career and that’s In Cold Blood. It is a masterpiece and I don’t care what anyone says.”
As uncomfortable reading it is, with its sympathetic treatment of cold blooded killers and the continuing disturbance it causes to the survivors of the Clutter Family tragedy, it is nonetheless regarded as an American classic. Those who enjoy a sense of poetic justice may be interested to know that Capote never really wrote again: “ … he was no longer able to summon the energy to perform that magic act (i.e., using his imagination to manufacture his happiness). Nostalgia descended into sorrow, and to those who knew him well he seemed to be in perpetual mourning, overwhelmed by a sense of loss that was no less keen because he could not say precisely what it was that had been taken from him.”
However, it is the astrology of the relationships between the main characters that makes the story the most compelling.