Dr. Hyde and Mr. Swope

Thomas Swope
Thomas Swope
Swope Park
Swope Park

In one of the most notorious trials in Kansas City's history, a jury found Doctor Bennett Clark Hyde guilty of murdering Kansas City real estate developer and philanthropist "Colonel" Thomas H. Swope on May 16, 1910. Despite strong evidence linking Hyde to the crime, this verdict would be overturned by a higher court in a few months time, leaving the city to ponder whether Hyde had committed the murder.

Born in Kentucky in 1827, the Yale-educated Thomas Swope speculated in mining and real estate in New York and St. Louis before moving to Kansas City at the age of 30. Once there, Swope entered into the real estate business and eventually owned more land than anyone else in the city. One of his most notable real estate ventures, known as "Swope's Addition," was located at 10th Street and Grand Avenue.

Swope is best remembered today not for his real estate activities, but for his gift of Swope Park to Kansas City. The park's expansive 1,334 acres, located adjacent to the Blue River, provided a space where eventually the city's residents could enjoy picnics, a night at Starlight Theater, trips to the Swope Park Zoo (now the Kansas City Zoo), and golfing. When the park opened in 1896, nearly 18,000 people arrived to celebrate.

Nearly a hundred years ago, however, mention of the name "Swope" would instantly summon conversations about a string of mysterious deaths in the Swope family. On October 3, 1909, just two days after the unexpected death of the executor of Swope's will, Thomas Swope himself died of an apparent "cerebral hemorrhage." Two months later, typhoid fever took the life of Swope's nephew.

Dr. Bennett Clark Hyde, the Swope family's physician, came under suspicion for the mysterious deaths. Dr. Hyde was the respected, but widely resented, president of the Jackson County Medical Society. He also had married Thomas Swope's niece some time before the deaths. As a confirmed bachelor, Swope had no children of his own, a fact which placed Dr. Hyde in line for a share of the inheritance of Swope's fortune of $3.5 million. Prosecuting attorney James A. Reed therefore had little trouble establishing a motive.

Evidence against Dr. Hyde also seemed abundant. Investigators revealed that Hyde had purchased cyanide capsules just days before Swope's death. Surviving witnesses in the family likewise testified that Hyde had given Swope a pill just before his sudden death. Hyde had also purchased typhoid samples shortly before the outbreak of that disease in the Swope mansion. Consistent with the growing conspiracy theory, the Hyde family had avoided infection even though most of the Swope family fell ill. A jury accordingly convicted Dr. Hyde for murder on May 16, 1910.

As in modern times, however, a legal defense team supported by extensive financial resources could hold a great deal of sway in court. Dr. Hyde's wife, Francis Hyde, paid for an appeals process that resulted in the overturning of the first trial's verdict by the Missouri Supreme Court. A mistrial ensued, and the jury failed to convict Hyde in a third trial. The evidence against Hyde seemed conclusive on the surface, but ultimately the courts ruled that it was merely circumstantial evidence that did not prove his guilt.

After seven years of court battles, Bennett Clark Hyde was legally cleared of suspicion in the murders. Public suspicion proved harder to subdue. The trials had ruined Hyde's career, and he eventually divorced Francis Hyde. In 1934, Dr. Hyde died without ever confessing to the crimes, leaving the people of Kansas City to wonder what really happened in the Swope mansion in 1909.

 

Read full biographical sketches and building profiles of the related to Thomas Swope, prepared for the Missouri Valley Special Collections, The Kansas City Public Library:

 

View images relating to Thomas Swope that are in the Missouri Valley Special Collections:

 

Check out the following journal articles about the trial of Dr. Bennett Clark Hyde:

 

Continue researching Thomas Swope and his death using archival material held by the Missouri Valley Special Collections:

 

References:

Susan Jezak Ford, Biography of Thomas H. Swope (1827-1909), land developer and philanthropist.

Henry C. Haskell and Richard B. Fowler, City of the Future: A Narrative History of Kansas City, 1850-1950 (Kansas City, MO: F. Glenn, 1950), 96.

Nancy J. Hulston, Biography of James Alexander Reed (1861-1944), attorney and politician.

Kansas City Parks and Recreation Department, Brochure of Swope Park.

Rick Montgomery & Shirl Kasper, Kansas City: An American Story (Kansas City, MO: Kansas City Star Books, 1999), 185.

About the Author

Dr. Jason Roe is a digital history specialist and editor for the Library’s digitization and encyclopedia website project, Civil War on the Western Border: The Missouri-Kansas Conflict, 1854-1865. He earned a doctorate in American history from the University of Kansas in May 2012 and is the author of the Library’s popular “This Week in Kansas City History” column. For assistance with general local history questions, please contact the Missouri Valley Special Collections.
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Comments:

Wonderful resource

What a great compilation of information about this case. One new resource would be Giles Fowler's book Deaths on Pleasant Street.
Fowler is a former Kansas City Star reporter who wrote a full length book on the cases which was published by Truman State University Press.
This case will be reenacted Sat., June 12th at the Truman Memorial Building in Independence and will feature local attorneys and judges playing the parts.
This event is sponsored by the Jackson County Historical Society. More information at Jackson County Historical Society or (816) 461-1897.

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