On March 5, 1910, in Independence, Missouri, Dr. Bennett Clark Hyde was indicted by a grand jury for the murder of Col. Thomas H. Swope; the murder of Col. Swope's nephew, Chrisman Swope; a count of manslaughter in the death of Col. Moss Hunton; and the poisonings of eight other people at Swope's mansion on 406 South Pleasant Street.
Col. Swope, who'd made his fortune buying up real estate in what would become downtown Kansas City, donated what is now Swope Park to its citizens. His ornate tomb is there now, but his body underwent much poking and prodding by forensic examiners before he was finally laid to rest. By removing and slicing up Swope's brain, experts at the time concluded that he had not died of a stroke, as his attending doctor, Hyde, had claimed, but of strychnine poisoning.
Hyde's trial began almost exactly a hundred years ago and had the attention of seemingly every area resident at the time.
A book on the Swope murders, Deaths on Pleasant Street, by former Kansas City Star reporter Giles Fowler, was published last year by the Truman State University Press.
Dr. Hyde had married Col. Swope's niece, Frances Swope, despite the dislike that Frances' mother, Maggie Swope, had for the man who became her son-in-law. When he attended the deaths of Col. Swope, Swope's cousin and his nephew Chrisman, as well as the near-death of his niece Margaret Swope, he raised the suspicions of the family's nurses in the home.
Then a rare typhoid outbreak sickened several members of the Swope household. Hyde was found to be growing typhoid bacteria cultures in his lab, as well as having very recently purchased a large amount of cyanide -- "to kill some dogs," he said. The motive for killing Col. Swope, according to prosecuting attorney James A. Reed, was because Hyde had recently learned of the Colonel's plans to alter his will in order to give less to his heirs and more to charitable causes. Hyde, as the husband of Frances, stood to lose some of the inheritance if Col. Swope had his way.
Fowler's book uses historical data as source material, as well as the often-breathless accounts of reporters working for what was then a highly competitive field for newspapers, which included the Kansas City Times, Kansas City Post, Kansas City Journal, and the Star.
The accounts of the horrors that befell the Swope family and the subsequent autopsies, court hearings and appeals are all fascinating. Just as interesting is the portrait Fowler paints of Kansas City as it was 100 years ago, facing unprecidented expansion, growing wealth and boundless opportunity.
Which makes this nonfiction story read a little bit like fantasy, too.
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