Courts & Crime

Was it murder? After 100 years, Kansas City still isn't sure

A century has passed, and people still wonder how the deaths went down in that Independence mansion.

Was the home of the Swopes, where the old bachelor benefactor of Swope Park resided with relatives, in fact the scene of the cruelest and most cunning of killings?

Or was the accused doctor, Bennett Clark Hyde — who had married into the family and admittedly "fooled around" with poisons — just made to look evil by the media, his mother-in-law and her money?

"Dr. Hyde. How perfect is that?" said Giles Fowler, author of a just-released book about the deaths and illnesses that began to strike an entire household 100 years ago this week.

Way before 24-hour news cycles, Internet blogs and Court TV, Kansas City witnessed its own O.J.-style feeding frenzy over the tragedies at the Swope mansion.

"Hyde Killed 3 Men, Indictments Charge," The New York Times headlined to a nation that, by March 1910, knew the name well.

The story and its characters continue to captivate.

In the old courthouse on Independence Square, a few blocks northeast of the recreational field and parking area where the mansion once stood, scholars and amateur sleuths even now show up to pore through material given to and gathered by the Jackson County Historical Society:

Magazine and newspaper clippings. Five thousand pages of trial transcripts on microfilm. Pencil sketches of the 26-room floor plan for the house where Thomas Hunton Swope, famed Kansas City real-estate speculator, spent his final years with an extended family he didn’t much like.

Society archivist David Jackson plops on the counter a white stack of photocopies nearly 2 inches thick, chronicling the saga day by day — cut-and-paste research done 20 years ago by former Independence city manager Bill Bullard.

Bullard died this year at 79 before he could find a publisher for his own book about the Swope-Hyde case. His widow, Donna, recalled trips with Bill to a local cemetery where some of the main players rested.

"We agreed that if he ever got published, we'd buy flowers" for the graves, Donna Bullard said.

Instead, Fowler's "Deaths on Pleasant Street" got the nod to become the first published work to explore the saga in full. The author from Ames, Iowa, fulfilled his own nearly 50-year interest in the case.

Fowler learned about the story as a young reporter for The Kansas City Star in 1960, when the mansion came down and a newsroom colleague wrote about its eerie past.

"That whole Gothic scene of gaslights and carriages and mansions . . ." said Fowler. "Here was a murder case of finesse . . . of poetry."

And poison.

No question, Hyde had become a prolific buyer of cyanide of potassium at Brecklein's Drug Store. From his personal lab he grew typhoid cultures in test tubes. And if he wasn’t technically the Swope family doctor, he did hold sway as an in-law who had a piece of the will.

Hyde could not deny any of this. He'd stammer on the witness stand about how or when he used that cyanide.

How, exactly, did several occupants of the Swope mansion come down with typhoid fever when authorities could find no source of the lethal bacteria on the premises?

Back when the 20th century was only a decade old, a breathless local press dubbed it "Crime of the Century."

Yet mystery remains even after three sensational trials: Was there a crime?


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